Across the Roof of the World - cycling the Pamir Highway
26 August 2016
by Patrick Morgan
Where in the world is the Pamir Highway, and why would you want to go there on a bike?
If you are a pub quiz nerd with an interest in former Soviet republics, you already know. But for the rest of us, the Pamirs are a central Asian mountain range squished between the Hindu Kush, Tian Shan and Himalaya mountains. They are located in Tajikistan, on China’s western border.
The M41 Pamir Highway crosses the 3500m high Pamir plateau. Passes are over 4500m. The highway was built by Russian engineers in the 1930s, and used to be hard to get to due to its remoteness and tortuous visa requirements. But since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the highway has developed a reputation that attracts adventurous cycle tourists from all over. It has been on my wish list for a decade.
Puffy white clouds and blue skies
Why go there on a bicycle? The Pamirs combine superb mountain scenery, near empty roads, punishing heights, extreme weather and welcoming people. You will need to be in good shape, resilient, and well-equipped with reliable gear. You can test yourself on rough roads and altitudes that leave you breathless. Imagine riding a loaded bicycle up a steep hill, but inhaling only through a drinking straw.
Riding the flat bits is fine. But on the climbs, I pedal for 50 metres then stop to catch my breath in the thin air. I see a glint of colour by the road and swing my head just in time to see a marmot take cover behind a rock. I look up at the coming storm and push on for the 4600m summit.
Crossing Kyzyl Art, the last big pass from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan
Mid-summer is the preferred time to ride. It usually delivers stable weather with warm days, cool nights, puffy white clouds and if you are luck, tailwinds. But climate change means unpredictability. In 2015 I had hot days, unexpected snowmelt, floods, and landslides. A highway bridge at Murghab washed away, and, sadly, lives were lost.
After a couple of months of travel by bike, bus and jeep in Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, I made it to the start line. For me that was Khorog, a market town in southern Tajikistan, just a stone’s throw across the Panj river from Afghanistan. I kept a few stones handy in case I needed to ward off chasing dogs.
With a landslide blocking the main Pamir Highway, I took an alternative route along the Wakhan Corridor. This is a finger of border land set aside to separate the Russian and British empires 140 years ago, in order to reduce border tensions. The Wakhan is a narrow valley along the Panj river, dotted with villages, irrigated fields, shrines and crumbling old forts. If you were there in 330 BC you would have seen Alexander the Great and his army passing through on their way to invade India.
Inside a Pamiri house
After riding 50 bumpy kilometres from Khorog I was looking for a camp spot. The road was squeezed between the river and rocky cliffs, with little shelter for my tent. As darkness loomed, a girl leading a goat beckoned me to her family home. Built in Pamiri style, the central room had an octagonal skylight and five pillars, representing religious figures. The family was Muslim from the Ismaili sect. The Aga Khan is their spiritual leader. We didn't have much language in common, so I pulled out an album of family photos and pictures of New Zealand wildlife to get the conversation started. Their dad had served in the Russian army, and was now away in Moscow working in construction. The family had a garden and a few goats, and took in guests during summer.
Dinner was a thick vegetable soup, homemade bread, tea and cookies. The meal was cleared away, and duvets were put out for bedding. In the morning there's tea and eggs, and a flat loaf of bread for my lunch. Guests are expected to contribute around $15.
Daily riding distances on the Pamir Highway were between 50 and 100 km, with accommodation in farm houses, guest houses, simple hotels or wild camping. Shops stocked dusty packets of noodles, lollies, biscuits, soft drinks and a fine selection of vodka.
A highlight was staying in a yurt in the village of Alichur. Yurts are circular tents made from wooden frames covered with thick wool rugs and quilts. Put some dried yak dung in the oven and you’ll be cosy all night.
Summer is the high season for cycling in the Pamirs. I met Japanese, Dutch, French, and lots of Swiss riders. I teamed up for a couple of days with Guy, a nuclear power plant safety inspector from Belgium.
Apart from the riding, I was on a mission. Five years ago my buddy Reuben cycled from London to New Zealand. He hit a bad patch in the Pamirs. Weak from altitude and a rum tummy, he crawled into a remote farmhouse, where the family nursed him back to health. Short on cash, Reuben left what he had as a thank you. He asked me to find the farmers and top up the gift. For me this meant a 50 km detour over another breath-sapping pass.
Finding the house wasn't hard, as it was the only one for many miles. It was a whitewashed place, made of mud bricks, with a dung-fueled stove for cooking and heat. Cows grazed the summer pasture during the day, and were brought into the barn at night.
But the farmers who helped Reuben had moved on. I gathered what details I could – their names and the location of their village. It was miles out of my way and on bad roads. My mission ended there. So if you are heading up to the Pamirs and want to do Reuben a favour, get in touch.
And if you want to train for the high passes, take a drinking straw on your next ride.