Across the roof of the world

Riding the soaring Pamir Highway reveals a hauntingly beautiful yet fractious region whose peoples are both fiercely independent and hospitable to a fault

Story by: Stephen Fabes

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The residents of Sary-Tash in southwest Kyrgyzstan must be used to a certain dreamy distraction among their guests. The town is little more than a petrol station and run of simple homes about a junction, but behind it, preceded by a wide grassy plain, rises a creamy band of snow-splodged mountains that span the horizon. For many travellers this is their first entrancing glimpse of the Pamir range, or as they are styled in Wakhi, an Iranian tongue spoken by those holed up in the valleys of the western Pamirs: ‘The Roof Of The World’.

The sobriquet’s an old one, but it’s grandiose enough to have been dreamed up by some ambitious tourist board. It also implies a challenge that the masochists of the cycling world find hard to resist. Every summer (winter is thoroughly out-of-bounds) the Pamirs attract an international brigade of two-wheeled hill junkies rattling roughly two thousand kilometres between Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and the city of Osh in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan – a journey of around five weeks. Some come just to bag these mountain passes, others come on longer ventures, spinning the width of Eurasia perhaps, tracing the fabled Silk Road whose former glories are hinted at by the ruined castles, caravanserais and ancient mosques en route.

For me this is part of a longer journey still, a six-year ride across six continents and for months as I crossed China and Kazakhstan I’ve paused in the road to hear the stories of cyclists fresh from the Pamirs: these peaks have a towering reputation to go with their stature. That’s down to their rugged, bare aesthetics, the heartfelt hospitality of the Pamiri and Kyrgyz people, and the cultural quirks of this messy historical intersection where merchants, armies, pilgrims, nomads, spies and raiding clans have forged paths for centuries.

The children of Sary-Tash form a giggling snake behind my wheels as I pedal past, a ragtag bunch with wet coughs and perennial grins, calling ‘bye bye!’ as a welcome because they like the sound of the words more than they care about their meaning.

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Soon I am cruising through Kyrgyz immigration towards the stripe of peaks expanding into the sky, admiring the workmanship of the zealous Soviet engineers who completed the Pamir Highway in the 1930s as the road climbs up a valley and makes an audacious reach for the sky in a series of chillingly angled switchbacks. The Pamir Highway is the only road that fully traverses the region and its ambitious title derives from its altitude rather than its volume of traffic.

The between-countries no-mans land is around 20km across and glows with wet colour: yellow-green grass thin enough in patches to reveal blood-red knuckles of rock.  As I pause to drink in the view something dashes through my peripheral vision. Then another, a russet-coloured shooting star. Squinting, I focus on the foreground and find them: marmots. Now that I’m tuned in I see the fur-bags everywhere, and for the next hour’s climbing they are my only companions, taking flight as I crank up to them, or freezing on their hindlegs, paws out front, letting little squeaks of warning fly on the cold breeze.

As I attack the final switchback, an enormous horned sheep, the argali or Marco Polo sheep, rises into my eyeline. This one is a statue, the real deal is scarce to the point of endangerment. The name stems from the explorer’s accounts of these creatures from the 13th-century when they grazed these wilds in numbers. Whether the Venetian truly made it here is contested by historians – certainly he was close – though his descriptions of ‘wide plains covered by grass and trees’ doesn’t fit with what I can see before me now: a new landscape of dove-grey rock, mostly bereft of vegetation, and beautiful, but in a stark, belligerent way. Polo described how locals viewed the plateau as a sanatorium, the pure air able, allegedly, to cure fever. ‘When in those parts I had been ill for about year’, he writes, ‘but on visiting the plateau . . . I recovered at once’. Good for you Polo, I think, as I cycle upwards, everything aching unhealthily, spluttering and wheezing as I go. The air may be pure, but there’s a lot less of it, and it’s a desperate battle to over four thousand metres above sea level and one of the loftiest international border crossings on Earth.

Just beyond the pass, looms Tajik immigration. Unfortunately extracting cash by illegitimate means is something of an artform with officials on this far-flung frontier. Today’s scam is elaborate: I’m ordered to buy a ‘disinfection certificate’ complete with an official-looking stamp and documentation. Patience, insistence and the judicious kindling of sympathy will usually win out. It takes a while, but I enter Tajikistan with my budget intact.

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The country is outlined on a sign near the immigration building. It is perhaps the oddest-shaped country in the world, a wildly roving border of jagged tongues and bite marks, more an accidental splat than a definite shape. The legacy is Stalin’s. As he mapped out the borders that would become the future frontiers of the Central Asian ‘Stans, he created pockets of minorities. Some suggest this was to discourage unity, for the Soviets were afraid of an Islamic uprising and the congealing of a common Turkic identity. I might be in Tajikistan, but the people I’ll meet for the next couple of weeks will mostly remain Kyrgyz by culture and ethnicity.

Up on the plateau, the dusky red ridges of Kyrgyzstan at my back, I’m flung forward in flourishes by a gusting tailwind. The road is what I’d been warned of: ‘a little bit of everything,’ meaning asphalt, potholes, dust, sand, rocks and cheap tar that melts if you stand still too long, a fact I discover after chatting to a passing motorcyclist. We both turn to leave and draw ropes of black goo after us from the soles of our shoes, laughing as we scrape it off and escape. Things get worse when I hit some so-called ‘washboard’ road: imagine instead back-to-back speedbumps. As I shudder along, past the shoulders of the Pamirs, now grey-gold in the dying light, I spot two bike tracks in the dust. Dismounting and crouching I examine the direction of tread, feeling like a safari guide. They’re going my way.

It’s a boon of summer in these mountains that chancing upon and even teaming up with other riders is a given, and soon enough, near Karakol, I find an Australian and a Frenchman, Nick and Romain, who invite me down to the lake for a swim. Lake Karakol is lightly rippled, grey-blue and salty, and with its backdrop of snowy mountains looks like swimming in it will invite a world of shock and pain. Of course this is precisely why Nick and Romain are keen, and I can’t let them suffer alone. We shriek like captured birds in the shallows, our skin paling to frigid porcelain, before Romain gets targeted, in what will become a familiar scene, by the majority of the world’s mosquito population. ‘They love him’ says Nick, as we watch Romain slapping at himself, dirtying the air with the worst words in the French lexicon. ‘He must taste like Camembert’.

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There’s a smattering of homestays along the Pamir Highway, homes padded with innumerable rugs, the hospitality warm and honest. Fresh from their own freezing swim in the lake, the kindly couple we find in Karakol quickly fire up a stove to warm water for our baths.

The town resides at about four thousand metres above sea level, and I wake the next day to an altitude headache, a telltale ripple in my vision with each heartbeat, a post-tequila sense of doom. So we set out slowly, climbing through striking mountains, tinted like steel, and stopping just before the steepest climb with a Kyrgyz woman who fills us with cream, curds and tea in her claustrophobic homestead by the road. There’s a TV in the corner showing the American medical soap ‘Days of Our Lives’. At breath-robbing altitude, deep in the remote heart of Eurasia, the woman’s daughter avidly absorbs the tragedies and triumphs of American doctors portrayed in Russian subtitles. Reminders of the Silk Road may point to the antiquity of our connections, but this is proof of more contemporary, evolving ones.

We climb to one of the loftiest passes on the Pamir Highway, a lung-cruncher of 4,655m, the mineral rich rocks about us aflame with the colours of autumn. An eagle lazily roves the blue sky far above. The summit is a round of high fives, and a quick lie down before we whiz downwards into a desert-scape and starlit dusk.

It’s early the next day that we spot Murghab, the less-than-beating heart of the eastern Pamiri region, and one of only two towns in the high Pamirs. ‘We’ll get the Big Macs in first and then hit some clubs later’ offers Nick.

It turns out the Pamir Hotel is the place to be in Murghab, and alongside a Japanese tour group and the expected assortment of bikers, motorbikers and hitchhikers, are a bunch of balding, bearded and exclusively male geologists who lean over strange, varicoloured maps lacking roads, vegetation or any other conventional features and chat excitedly of ‘checking out that Jurassic section’. I stock up on supplies from the bazaar, a jostling alley between old shipping containers-turned-shops, as my plan is to say farewell to Nick and Romain and detour alone to a more remote landscape about Lake Zorkul.

To get there I ride over a dreary plain, screwy tendrils of black cloud dispensing a cold rain and I am relieved to stop at dusk. I camp on the bank of a river but the weather is unremitting. Wind shudders and rain prickles my tent all night.

More encouragingly, the next day begins blue-lit and still. The din of rain and wind is replaced by the occasional trill of passing bees. In between, a silence hums.

The village of Tokthamish has a real outpost feel: a desolate ensemble of mud brick and half-plastered homes strewn across the desert; an EU-funded school, a couple of water pumps and a lumbering donkey figuring in the main street. I don’t hang about. Shaimak is next, and the last village for days, it cowers at the end of the valley under Attash, a hump-backed snow-dashed mountain that rises out of the heat shimmer – the weather, like the roads, can do anything up here, sometimes all at once.

In Shaimak, population 60, I quickly gain another twittering string of children, the older ones wearing traditional Kalpak hats, tall and white, advertising their Kyrgyz roots. Women stand in fenced-off meadows and make cheese, some of which I am given as a gift with an open smile. It means a lot in this village, where the shop stocks only out-of-date noodles and penny sweets, where there’s no power, a fog of mosquitoes in the summer dusks and savagely chilled winters.

After reaching the ring of peaks at the valley’s terminus, I cross the river, no longer the grubby snake of the lower valley but an appealing grey-blue gush bordered by banks of smooth pebbles spotted with tussocks. Rounding a fist of rock the colour of an old bruise, the land becomes spiked with a type of high-altitude grass and the earth is salt-stained, stretching away to the mountains until the white of salt laps into the white of perennial snow.

The meat of the next climb begins on a smooth trail cutting through a sandscape studded with low shrubs, but the last kilometres are grueling, steep and rocky ones. False summits sprout from each other like tumours, each more disastrous to my mettle. By dusk the track crests the hill and I win the vista of a nameless lake and its silvered tributaries where I set up camp. The following days I see no vehicles at all, the road ranges through baize-green valleys where even herders stay out of view and I grow used to that delectable way-in-over-my-head feeling. There is no one for miles.

A few yurts mark the entrance to Zorkul National Park where I am invited to stay with a family who refuse my pleas to pay, content to show off their hospitality. I enjoy spending the evening hours watching them lasso yaks to cut the wool of the adults and tag the young, a frenzied exercise of horn and leg grabbing. That night I’m given my own yurt bedecked with embroidered eagles and other raptors, and insulated with yak wool.

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Later the teenaged daughter sneaks into my yurt and shows me her phone ‘This is I!’ she whispers, showing me a selfie, but one in which she wears lipstick and jeans, and not the headscarf she has on now, and then snatches it away, suddenly embarrassed and skips out. It’s hopeful to see modern trends intermingling with traditions here rather than just uprooting them. The Pamirs were distant from the heart of the Soviet Union and the topography made the region hard to penetrate so change comes slowly. The tradition is for traditions to survive.

The next day the father of the family runs into my yurt crying ‘Marco Polo! On the hills!’ Knowing this is unlikely to be a reincarnation of the Venetian explorer, I run outside and, borrowing his binoculars, make out a few of the famous sheep grazing on the higher slopes. In Marco Polo’s time you wouldn’t need binoculars to spot them but today rich Americans on hunting trips can shoot oryx or Marco Polo sheep for around US$30,000 a pop. For the next few days, my road is littered with horns, skulls and vertebrae of sheep shot long ago. At a distance, and tipped on their sides, they resemble cobras rearing to strike.

Lake Zorkul is backdropped by Afghanistan’s Great Pamir range on one side, the peaks of the southern Alchur range on the other, and tapers to form the Panj river. That night I camp on the riverbank, gorging on pasta and sauce in my tent for the thousandth time, but the first in which the view is of Afghanistan, a mere twenty metres away across the clear waters of the upper Panj: an unpeopled place of grassy slopes and peeping snowy peaks.

Like the majority of bikers I opt to follow the Panj through the Wakhan valley instead of rejoining the Pamir Highway. Towards the close of the 19th-century, amid the colonial scuffling of The Great Game, the British and the Russians agreed to an Afghan frontier along this river. There can be few other borders so cruelly and arbitrarily divisive. While my side is alive with growling four-wheel drives stocked with gawking tourists, and scattered with homestays, grocery shops, even the odd ice cream parlour; the other is a donkey lane adjoining crumbling mud-shacks, the landscape arid and wild, often bare save for a few lolloping camels and whistling goat herds who in all likelihood speak the same language, practice the same religion and share the same ancestors as the tourist guides in plain sight on this bank. Central Asian republics benefitted from Soviet rule in a way that Afghanistan under British rule never did: universal education and healthcare for a start.

Being neighbourly to a country plagued by Islamic extremism and thirty years of conflict can’t be easy, I think, as I reach Khargush, a Tajik military base of strategic importance on the Afghan border, the source of patrols of boyish men in camouflage gear who wander to and fro, scouting Afghanistan with binoculars. I push on as hardy narrow-leaved shrubs reluctant to take root higher up the mountains, pepper the lower valley. The blue sky is hard, the river now mucky and thrashing, and snow begins to furnish the spines of rearing peaks across the valley: my first glint of the Hindu Kush.

The road climbs in fits from the river to scar the mountainside, gracefully swerving in and out of smaller, side-valleys where the voice of moving water quiets to a whisper. I hit only one traffic jam in the Wakhan corridor: a donkey carrying a huge cooking pot and a load of firewood trots into me, forcing me into the side of a bridge while his mortally embarrassed owner, a small boy, jabs at him with a stick and yells. At last I sink to Langar – the first village I’ve seen in five days. From above it’s a comforting rug of green, on the outskirts trees follow streams in verdant veins, and I descend through a blizzard of poplar fluff.

p1010607_20518938371_oThe homestay I find that night is glittering with all manner of decor, a garish reminder I am now amid an entirely new culture. These are the Pamiri people, who speak an Iranian dialect. The women wear colourful gowns, men more often top football tracksuits with traditional hats. From about 1000AD Turkic people spread out across Central Asia, and the Persian influence was, in most places, lost. Here though elements of Persian culture were retained because of the insulating height and remoteness of the mountains. Alongside the language, the music, dance and poetry come in the Persian tradition here.

As I continue west towards Khorog, the capital of the western Pamirs and a week by bike away from journey’s end at Dushanbe, violent gales wrack the region, and I have to stop early in a homestay. It’s here I learn that nearby, on the Pamir Highway, melting ice and high winds have caused a massive landslide which has wiped out several kilometres of road, destroyed 77 homes and spawned camps for displaced people high on a nearby mountainside. By chance no one was killed.

The disaster is a reminder of the intrinsic wildness of this place. A wildness that can preserve traditions, sequester wildlife, thwart invaders, entrance travellers and cave in the roof of the world. I’m glad to ponder, savour and be engulfed by it. This is the wonder of exploring at a pace this land and its peoples understand. AA

Practicalities

Anyone can cycle the Pamirs provided they have the right kit, good background fitness and a thirst for adventure. Even first-timers attempt the Pamirs but there are many easier introductions to cycle touring in places such as Malaysia, Northern Thailand and Japan to name just three.

When to go

In a word, summer, which means June to August. Even then expect extremes of weather as this is high-altitude terrain. Snow can feature on the passes at either end of the season. Late spring and early autumn are possible, but will require higher quality cold-weather gear.

How to get there

About two thirds of bikers travel the Pamirs west to east.

If travelling east: there are flights to Dushanbe from Moscow and Istanbul (if you connect, make sure you don’t need a transit visa for either Russia or Turkey). Then you can either ride (add an extra week) or take transport to Khorog and begin there. If you ride from Dushanbe then you have to choose between the northern (via Obigarm) and southern road (via Kulob). The northern is slightly longer, and tougher, but more scenic and comes highly recommended. At Khorog you can stick to the Pamir Highway, or do as most others do and ride down to the Wakhan corridor. Plan for Khorog to Osh in Kyrgyzstan to take around four weeks including rest days, though it can be done much quicker.

If you’d rather begin in Osh then fly or take a bus from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, or fly into Almaty in Kazakhstan and take a connecting bus. Almaty and Bishkek are international hubs.

You’re likely to need a visa for Tajikistan – get six weeks instead of four if you want to be safe. You will also need a permit to visit the Pamirs, called a GBOA, for the same period. Many nationalities can get a visa on arrival in Kyrgyzstan.

What to take

While there are plentiful homestays, especially in the Wakhan corridor, it’s best to be fully independent, especially if you are visiting the remote area around Zorkul (for which you need special permits which you can get in either Murghab or Khorog). That means a tent, stove and cooking utensils, tool kit etc. Try not to camp anywhere near the Afghan border which is a sensitive area.

The terrain can be tough on bicycles, so take spares and don’t expect bike shops. Ideally you’ll want two-inch tyres or similar if possible: a decent compromise so that you cope with poor roads but don’t lose too much speed on paved ones.

Between Sary-Tash and Langar there are very few opportunities to buy provisions, so stock up before you tackle this section.

You may find yourself riding in a t-shirt and shorts, or thermals and down jacket: be prepared for all conditions!

‘The Pamirs – a tourist map of Gorno-Badakhshan’ by Markus Hauser, should be available in Khorog and can be purchased online too.

Further afield

The best source of info on travel in Central Asia, including visas, is caravanistan.com, while the new Bradt guide is the best choice of guidebook for Tajikistan.

Khorog has a good tourist office.