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Posted on 07 December 2016
in Stories

Cycling the Pamir Highway

In 2016, Jonathan cycled from Europe to China on a Brompton, this is his story. (For more pictures as well as stories from his journey, you can visit his blog on gonewiththeroad.com)

With its long stretch of about 3500 meters above sea level the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan is one of the highest main roads in the world. Being constructed during the Soviet era in the 1930's, it aimed to reach remote places in the Pamir Mountains while at the same time connecting Western China and Tajikistan as a trade route. Nowadays, however, the highway is largely neglected by trucks and cars as they seek to avoid the cracks and sloops of old asphalt as well as rough gravel sections. Cyclists however, who yearn for little traffic now come here to visit one of the most beautiful landscapes. Yet they soon notice, that is an acid test for both the material of the bikes and the courage of its drivers. The Pamir Highway is a good place to meet plenty of long distance cyclists, all sharing the same ignorance about the current winners of the Tour de France or the European football championship due to the lack of mobile network services in the Pamir mountains. The food here is based on what is sold in small village shops: biscuits, as well as carrots and potatoes, often served as a basic soup. In the lower river valleys, there are apricot trees which help the travelers to stock up with energy and add some variation to their diet.

On my journey from Europe to China in 2016 - following the ancient Silk Road on my Brompton - the Pamir Highway was of course on my agenda. Having cycled already more than 6000 km, I wanted to accomplish this famous road on my folding bike, not knowing how tough these 14 days would turn out to be.

Starting in Dushanbe 900 meters above sea level, the road quickly became mountainous, and I found myself cycling along stunning river valleys, constantly ascending to the first summit at 3250 meters. Although I rode slowly, I was out of breath quickly. The climb to the pass was a nasty and steep gravel road. I soon noticed the altitude; the breathing frequency was no longer adjusted to the physical effort. After this first pass, the Pamir highway followed the Panj river along the Afghan border of Tajikistan, offering views that would again leave me out of breath, but this time not due to exhaustion, but sheer amazement.

With its 25,000 inhabitants, Khorogh is the largest city in the region, located roughly in the middle of the Pamir Highway - and the only city with a real supermarket. This is the place where cyclists take a rest and meet in the Pamir Lodge. After Khorogh you continue up to the Pamir Plateau. Those who have passed this stretch first are rewarded with the view of the first snow-capped mountains of the Pamirs appearing on the horizon. On the plateau I found widely stretched valleys, often dry and sometimes juicy green. Here you have to be attentive to find the few water springs - mostly small streams - which are fed by the snowfields. They carry enough water to quench the thirst of those who pass by: besides the cyclists these are mainly the marmots, the anxious rulers of the plateau. All my attempts to show them my reverence failed, and whenever I approached, they crawled, loudly whistling, back into their caves.

In Murghab I checked in at the Pamir Hotel - the only hotel in the capital of the Pamir plateau, and a place where traditional food is served. Judging from the size of the meals, the owners must know that all cyclists who arrive here are generally starving. After Murghab, the Ak-Baital Pass awaits, the roof of the Pamir Highway, summiting at 4655 meters. The road again is in bad condition, washboard tracks, and at times you have to push rather than ride. But the summit rewards you with incredible views; here is also where I found one of the most beautiful campgrounds of my entire journey just in the valley below. The next day, I arrived at the Karakul Lake. Here I met other cyclists, and we tackled the last ascents together, washboard roads and all.

Controls on the Tajik border were completely untypical for Central Asia, as after a few minutes I had a stamp in my passport, without pocket checks or camera control, or any other unnecessary annoyance. The Kyrgyz border post followed another 25 km later, after passing a farm where we bought several liters of yak yoghurt. The descent to Kyrgyzstan is beautiful, but the breathtaking views back to the Tajik mountains may easily fill your mind with a melancholic desire. The Peak Lenin is over 7100 meters high, and the neighboring massif is tremendous. In Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan I celebrated with my fellow riders with a couple of beers. We were all incredibly happy that we had managed the most difficult 1200 km of our trip so far.