Man sieht nur, was man weiss (Goethe)
Aug 11 - Frank and I are alone again. Our friends from Belgium have departed for Bishkek and it leaves me with a bit of homesickness. We’re on the road for 1 month now, and I realize how spoiled my life in general is, and that I miss it. Family, friends, good health (with some hiccups), financial security, fun things to do, and Frank, of course, are my happiness. I realize that all these good things in my life make me also lethargic, scared to move out of my comfort zone. Being on the road in Central Asia has definitely moved me out of this zone, and I try to prove Goethe’s saying at the beginning of my story wrong - we only see, what we know. I want to see.
On the first day going to Sary Tash, we bike through the food supply of Kyrgystan. The first 50 km are full of fruit and vegetable fields. It is very hot and we try to leave very early in the morning to avoid the peak of the heat and we rest during lunch time. Finding a quiet spot for a short nap or a camping spot becomes almost impossible, kids spot us from far away and they must have a communication system to inform all kids in the next village that we’re on our way. One night, Frank had to chase them away, to discover an hour later they were hanging around our tents and bikes when we wanted to fall asleep.
We stay one night in a guesthouse in Gulcha, a little town, with a busy bazaar and an active community. People stay their whole life where they are born, and young women & men come back to their home town once they have completed their degree.
And we’re again surprised by the kindness of everyone. While we’re waiting in front of a guesthouse for the owner, a young woman helps us to find the phone number and calls her. Five minutes later, the owner shows up. After Gulcha, the environment changes dramatically and becomes more mountainous and desert like. The mountains have different shades of yellow brown and orange. When the sun goes down, it looks like they are on fire.We keep our routine to leave early in the morning and try to get close to the next pass. You might think the biking is getting easier since we started but it doesn’t seem to be that way. Although, I think I get more resistant to the effort, and the changing beautiful landscape helps me to overcome the fatigue. On the road, we meet again fellow travellers, Thomas and Judith from Switzerland, and chat a bit. It feels like meeting old friends on the road, even though we met only once before.
After the pass, we arrive in Sary Tash, where we stay one night in a very bad guesthouse, most likely the worst so far. The old owner talks me into staying, my bad. Next day we move to Muras guesthouse, where Ainura und Gulzat, two sisters, run the business. It is a great place with a real shower & toilet, and great food. Gulzat is the chef of the place, and Ainura runs the business and is cleaning everything multiple times a day. Sheets are clean, and blankets are aired in the sun.
The same evening, I catch a very bad stomach bug that leaves me completely dehydrated. My stomach can’t keep anything down, and I’m in agony the entire night. Next day, Ainura drives us to the hospital for an IV and to bring my 40 C fever down. Thanks to the good care of Frank, who was a bit scared to see me that sick, Vera and Teresa, my preferred Doctors, and both sisters, I am feeling better after 48 hours. We stay another 2 days to recover and start the way to the boarder of Tajikistan. One thing that should be noted, we had nice paved road from Osh to Sary Tash. Being remote on dirt roads is really nice, but a good paved road feels really good to our butts.
Before moving forward to Tajikistan, there are a few things that marked me in Kyrgystan:
Kyrgyz people love their family time. Tea, bread and Kaymak (creamy dairy product similar to butter) are shared almost every two hours in the day. Apparently, eating and drinking small quantities helps with altitude sickness. When they prepare their table, bread is abundant everywhere on the table, candies, sugar. A table has to look full.
A lot of Kyrgyz people have golden teeth. White ceramic teeth replacement must be difficult to find or more expensive.
Farmers and herders rarely have a tractor. Somehow, old Audi 100's (25-30 years old) do the trick.
Osh is a more beautiful city than Bishkek. There are more flowers, laughing children in the streets and parks, and even though the city is old everything is very clean and buildings nicely painted.
The Mal Bazaar (Animal-bazaar for sheep, goat, horses, cows and steers) is fascinating. Dusty, smelly and loud. It is a lot of fun to observe the negotiations between the herder and the buyer with the final handshake and money exchange.
Most important business in Kyrgyzstan? Organizing weddings or washing cars.
Women love to dress up and like vibrant colours. Men wear blue suits at weddings.
The Lenin Square in Osh is still blocked for traffic since the revolution in 2010. Chinese do and pay for street markings on the Lenin Square for an upcoming event. What do they want in return?
It is refreshing to see that youth is like everywhere in the world, their heads down and focused on their cellphones, on their horses and donkeys, and even when moving the cattle to the field in the morning.
There are still 1300 Kyrgyz nomads living in Afghanistan with no Identity and abandoned by the Afghan and Kyrgyz government. If you are interested, watch the short movie for more info: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ48kW3yMbU
In short, we loved Kyrgystan.
Aug 22 - we leave Sary Tash for Tajikistan. For the first time, we’re bothered by quite aggressive children on donkeys asking for candies and chocolate. When we say we don’t have any, they try to take items of our bikes, like water bottles. Frank has to yell a bit before they let us go. Crossing the Kyrgyz boarder is very quick and we’re in no man’s land for 20 km. We meet Kyrgyz soldiers on foot and in cars along the road. Apparently, the Kyrgyz government increased military presence along the boarder since the attack in Tajikistan. We’re now biking at much higher altitude, and the next pass we climb is ‘Kyzyl Art Pass’ 4280 m. Strong head wind, air is getting rare and we are very slow. It takes us longer to cross the Tajik boarder than the Kyrgyz boarder, first checkpoint it takes about 45 minutes before it is our turn to show our Passport and VBAO visa (special Visa allowing us to be in the boarder areas of Tajikistan). The next checkpoint is 50 m further down the road, we have to wait another 1H30 just to show our papers again. Some cash hidden in the Passport would most likely speed up the process. While waiting, we chat with a Polish person who organizes motorbike trips in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He is now also operating in BC, so we might reconnect next year. When we tell him we want to camp right after the Tajik boarder, he tells it is impossible because it is too windy and there is no water. He gives us three litres of water and recommends for us to push to Karakul.
Once we’re in the valley, we understand what he meant. I put on my long pants, gloves and warm jacket to feel slightly comfortable. Luckily, we have tailwind and we fly on the paved road. The area has a very unfriendly climate, but the views are stunning. It is a moon-like landscape with the Chinese boarder on our left. There are hundreds of kilometres of uninterrupted barbed wired fences in wide open areas with the mountains behind. Even though, there is no conflict between both countries now, you can imagine how it was while Tajikistan was still part of the Soviet Union. Eventually, we decide to camp 20 km before Karakul which we can see in the far distance. Prior, I am so tired tears are running down my cheeks (remember, it is the first day back on my bike after my gastrointestinal issue). Frank can see I’m tired but we can not stop because there is no shelter from the wind. It is almost like in Alaska, just less cold. The wind is blowing so hard, that I have to lay on the tent so Frank can pitch the pegs. We are both freezing and take refuge very quickly in the tent. We are so tired that we decide just to have some leftover Samsy (little pockets of mutton, onions in dough, baked in a tandoori) from Ainura’s mother and some dried food for dinner before falling asleep with the wind howling around us. Next morning, it is like the wind storm never existed, and we have a nice breakfast in the warmth of the sun. Karakul - Karakul, Qarokul is a 25 km diameter lake within a 52 km impact crater, located in the Tajik National Park in the Pamir Mountains - is glittering in different blues from afar. There is one village at the lake also called Karakul. There are already many differences between the Kyrgyz and Tajik villages to be observed, even though the population is also Kyrgyz. Roofs are flat, and houses are white, mostly with blue doors. Children are a bit more shy and they are not waiting for you on the road. People in general are kind and more reserved. After a bottle of Fanta, some bread and cheese in Karakul, we hit the road again to bike along the lake. We’re pretty much alone on the road with maybe some Chinese in the far observing us from the other side of the barbed wire. We bike another 20 km of paved road and we decide to camp before we hit the dirt road a bit further down the next morning.
The area we bike now is even more bare than before. Almost nobody lives here, except a few nomads every 10 km. Headwinds are already blowing which doesn’t make the climb to Ak Baitat Pass (4753 m) easier. Surprisingly, we can almost bike the last 4 km of the pass. Are my legs getting stronger, at last?!
And then 70 km downhill to Murghab on a paved road. Heaven!
Murghab is the capital of Murghob District in the Pamir Mountains of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan. With a population of 4,000, Murghab is about the only significant town the eastern half of Gorno-Badakhshan. The little town is without electricity since the Russians left in 1991. Inhabitants who are a bit more wealthy have small solar panels on their roof, but the population is in general poor. While we bike through downtown, we discover that administration buildings are being renovated and painted, and wonder why.
We stay in a nice guesthouse called Sarykul Lodge. The owner, Nurzat speaks English and welcomes us with a nice cup of tea and light lunch. I guess we think people are nice and welcoming when they serve us drinks and food as we are always hungry. Nurzat explains us that Rhamon, President of Tajikistan, will visit Murghab to inaugurate a small new power plant around September 5 that will provide electricity to the whole town. Everyone seems to be very happy to have power in their homes.
With Nurzat’s help, we book her brother Kanat, a tourist guide, for two days and drive to Zorkul. It is a lake in the Pamir Mountains that runs along the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It extends east to west for about 25 km. On the way to Zorkul, we drive off-road through wild and remote areas. He doesn’t speak a lot of English but he masters driving his old Russian SUV through rivers and mountains.
On the way out to Zorkul, we visited his wife’s family, ate Marco Polo liver and fresh bread. Delicious. At Zorkul, we slept in a nomad yurte and next day we returned to Murghab. The more time I spend with people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the closer I feel and the more I want to help. Nurzat’s son f.eg. had to go the hospital because he was in terrible pain. It turns out that his front teeth are rotten and the dentist is unable to pull them out. The only treatment are painkillers. Many young children in both countries have rotten teeth at a very young age. I am not sure if it is due to the lack of calcium or too many candies.
What I liked about Tajikistan:
Tajik people. A little bit more reserved than in Kyrgyzstan, but same strong hospitality.
Wide open spaces and some solitude.
Marco Polo liver. It almost tastes like chocolate.
Being invited to a wedding without knowing anybody. We were just passing by, and the father of the bride invited us to share food and tea with the party.
After our two day excursion, Kanat drove us from Murghab to Kulma Pass to cross the boarder to China. Crossing the Tajik boarder was easy, but once arrived on the Chinese side, we had to unpack all our bags, all our belongings got screened three times, us included. And Frank’s phone got hacked by the Chinese boarder agents. China is definitely a different world, and I promise never to complain again about US boarder control. We even have to put our bikes in a Tajik truck to drive through a 20 km highly secured area before being checked for the third time. However, the Muztgagh Ata mountain view makes up for all the bad feelings I can have about Chinese boarder control. It is the second highest of the mountains which form the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. It is sometimes regarded as being part of the Kunlun Shan, although physically it is more closely connected to the Pamirs.
The road connecting Kashgar to Pakistan is in a wonderful smooth pavement. For security, or better said oppression, reasons there are cameras everywhere. Military and police are omnipresent. When we want to pitch our tent, we are interrupted within 10 minutes and have to bike another 15 km with a military pick-up truck following us to make sure we don’t stop before. The rule is to report to a police office and they then force you to go to a guesthouse. Obviously, we didn’t do that. There is surveillance everywhere on the road to Kashgar and they are cameras every 100 m, and cameras point even into small dirt roads.
For more information about what is going on in Xinjiang Province , read the following article: https://www.businessinsider.com/xianjiang-province-china-police-state-surveillance-2018-7
Frank doesn’t recognize Kashi (Kashgar) anymore. Almost all the adobe houses have been destroyed and rebuilt new. It now looks like a Disneyland Chinese Tourist attraction. The Uyghur population has to carry an ID card, and depending on their status, they can enter an area or not. As Westerners, we never had to show our ID or bags. It must be terrible for them to be considered as a second class citizen. Even the malbazaar (animal bazaar) feels sad compared to Osh’s bazaar. There is no ‘joie de vivre’ in Kashgar and we decide to move on and fly to Lanzhou.
So even though I try to see, I might not be able to understand the political situation in Xinjiang with my spoiled white nose mentality. For now, the well established mentality to pay bribes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seems so much more acceptable to me than the police state in Xinjiang.
A few more short notes before I go:
as you can read, I did not get rid of my diarrhea.
I don’t take the picture if I have to get off my bike. It is too tiring. Frank, however, can be found on many photographs, standing, kneeling or laying on the ground. Search for Waldo :)
We saw many cars participating in the Mongul rally. 400 vehicles start in Prague and drive 10,000 km all the way to Mongolia without support in small cars. Young people from all over Europe participate and try to collect 1000 Euro for a good cause of their choice. Just before Karakul, we also met a Belgian team with 4 young people squeezed in a small car, looking tired but having fun.
In Kashgar, we saw people walking around in orange safety vests and wooden sticks. You will find out why in the above article.
The declination of the roads are precisely indicated.
As soon as we leave Xinjiang province for Gansu District, people are lovely even though we don’t understand a word.
I love my bike mechanic!
Fred, Jean Phil and Matthieu, our Belgian friends left us. It was pure chance we were able to meet with them in Osh as they were ending their cycle Tajikistan trip. It was a real Belgian couple of days. Sharing stories from the road, making fun of our weight loss and of course talking about the terrorist attack that happened a few days before on their itinerary. The attack has shocked all the cycletouring community - 4 cyclists randomly targeted, among them a couple who had been on the road already for 4 years. That episode has to be added to the 2 Germans cyclists killed and robbed only few weeks earlier in Mexico. Quickly claimed by Daesh, the Tajik attack, is more a concern for us at the moment. Cyclists are easy prey. Slow, wild camping most of the time, there is not much chance of a quick escape.
The M41, also known as the Pamir Hwy, links Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Recently open to foreigners, the road quickly became a must for many cycle tourists and motorcyclists looking for adventure and remote Himalaya valleys. A challenging itinerary with many passes above 4000m and unpaved roads.
Rumors of another possible attack is spreading out quickly. Cyclists are perfect targets. We are like pearls on a string...a roughly 1000km unique string through deep valleys in a mineral environment with no real exit.
The general feeling expressed by cyclists met on our way in Kyrgyzstan is positive. Most of the inhabitants are Ismai’li, it was a unique tragic incident. A message sent to Rahmon, the Tajik president, shaking the country with new laws and rules. Obviously not appreciated by some of the inhabitants. The attack occurred in his hometown. Point has been made. Period.
We are leaving Osh with the sun on our face. South instead of West as initially thought. Compromise found and done between us. Team decision. It will be the western side of Tajikistan. Anyway, we were less keen to cycle along the Uzbekistan border as initially planned. Still 34c in Osh and the itinerary to Dushanbe would have been in that heat for few more days. A couple of cyclists met were not too enthusiast by that road cycled either.
By heading straight to Murghab, we may miss the Wakhan corridor but still discover a very nice section of the Pamir. The original idea to cross the Kulma pass that gives access to still China remains, though. The pass has been open to foreigner since September 2017, linking the Pamir with the Karakoram. When I was cycling the Karakoram on the way to Pakistan 25 years ago I promised myself to come back for the Pamir one day, when the pass would be accessible.
200km of mountains from Osh to Sary Tash, last village before the Tajik border but also an unbelievable lookout to the entire Pamir massif and the Lenin peak, a 7100m summit. We easily managed the heavy traffic out of Osh. Never had any real problem with Kyrgyz drivers. Trucks and cars show respect to the cyclists. Slowly but surely we climbed the first “pass leaving the 1000m elevation of Osh to the 2450m of the Chyrchyk Pass. The road crossed fields and ends up in a green alpine environment. We are surprised to discover many yurts at the pass, places to eat and to re-hydrate. A very
enjoyable 20km of downhill brought us back to a much lower elevation in Gulcha. From green landscapes we are back to dry and hot mineral scenery. Gulcha is the gateway to a fantastic Alay region. We may have missed the info but it seems that the area deserves much more attention and probably requires, by itself, a lot of time to be explored. It has been a real “coup de cœur”. Arriving around noon, we thought we could find some food for a lunch. We’ve finally spent the night in a guesthouse and wandered in that little town full of life with a nice bazar. We knew the next pass would be more of a challenge. Known to be a “ double head” pass we left Gulcha right before sunrise. Beating the heat for few hours. A light headwind forced us to stay steady, saving the energy for later.
The 3615m Taldyk Pass could have been a piece of cake with the strong tailwind that finally showed up around noon when the deep valley heats up and creates that airflow from hot to cold. Captivated by so many varieties in the scenery and all the little villages we went through we multiplied the stops for rest or for pictures. As usual, snacking or camping in a village or too close to it brings a lot of attention. Especially from the kids. From curiosity at first, to source a of entertainment. To be honest, it is fun for us too....for a while.
Sometimes surrounded by 15 kids staring at you. Commenting the big fat tires, begging to have some kind of souvenirs from the bike....insisting to have that red carabiners that has its purpose with our gear on the bike. After a while they lose their interest for about everything, us included. Yet, they stick around. Our camp spot becomes their playground. So we watch them playing, running around our bikes, our tent, ....we wait, .....we watch. We know that soon we will take the stove out and start cooking we will be that magnet again and go back to scratch. So we hold on with the fragile hope that eventually they will go. It is getting late, we are hungry. Are the parents not concerned their kids have been gone for sooooooo long?
Yes! ...Here they are.
Hi! ... we are from Canada
You have nice beautiful kids. We trust it is time for them to go back home and have dinner, right ?!
Ah, ok, first they want to know who we are, how much the bikes cost, if we are married, how many kids we have - please Sylvia, do not take your iPad to show the pictures of the kids and grand kids, please ....don’t ....NO!
She did it !
When they have answers to most of their questions they - the parents- leave back home. Satisfied and happy to know that their kids can stay playing around our camp spot safely...we are nice polite Canadians.
Maybe the darkness after the sunset will be our last chance.
It is .... sometimes.
The real climb to the double head pass can not be missed. We switched from our soft 3% grade to a good 10%. We switched from spinning the legs type of effort to a hike the bike on that bloody uphill. Why are we complaining? We have been through this more than once and this time the road is paved the wind is helping. Well 10% is ok for a while but here it seems endless. The road switchbacks can be seen far above our heads. Sylvia starts to count in German (you must have read the previous story to understand ), I can hear her drop from 25 double steps down to 20....a quick look at my gps Garmin watch, another 6km to the pass, another 300m of elevation gain. Sounds totally doable. We have done much harder. There is a kind of exercise happening in your brain. You try to figure out what 6km is like back home. Ok, it is like 15 laps on the track. Well, when I am on the track, it is at sea level, I am not pushing a heavily loaded bike and I try to avoid being there at the warmest time of the day. Does not help.
We were not over our surprises. Soon we dropped to the other side, a
I quick look over my shoulder, Sylvia is still there not far behind, moving.... stopping....bending over her handlebar to get a short rest...sometimes only for few seconds then back in motion. Leading in a switchback I can discreetly observe her as she progresses to the turn. Checking and counting her step #’s. Huh! I need to double check that. I counted only 15 double steps. Yup, confirmed. I need to find something quickly to avoid trouble. Not that she ever complained in the past. Really, she always shows a positive attitude even when it was really tough. I guess her past long distance race experiences helps.
Another 5km, I need to find some kind of reward or mental support/ distraction/ diversion other than naively claim “almost there”. She has a problem with the word “ almost”.
In a cloud of dark smoke a little pickup truck overtook Sylvia and slowed down at my level. No clue what the passenger says but it sounds like he asks if we want a ride..... to the top. I can not see Sylvia hidden by the road switchback but this could be “my” reward.
When she showed up she can see me loading the bike on the pick up truck. Will she be endlessly appeciative to understand that I dropped my body in the middle of the road to stop the truck? Not sure of her reaction, quickly I know it will be fine. From 15 double steps she went to a full “jog the bike” pace and joined us out of breath with a big smile on her face. I am such a good guy.
Sary Tash and survive
A quick snack at the pass and we have only few km downhill to Sary Tash. Once again unbelievable scenery. So different from the other side. We can see the village, the huge wide valley and the white peaks of the Pamir. Really intimidating barriers of some 7000m summits. We ended up in a nice, very nice, guesthouse. Muras guesthouse is owned by a family from Osh. Our thoughts were to have a rest day before heading to Tajikistan and some very high passes to cross. A sitting toilet and real hot shower.... real luxuries for us after many days of cold river water and squats.
Wandering in the village, a very picturesque place, clouds are almost all gone. The Pamir mountains are majestic.
We rarely stay in a guesthouse. If we do it is to break the camp routine, wash our clothes, hopefully have a WiFi. It is also an opportunity to meet other cyclists/motor-bikers - both very present in what seems to be a trendy loop now. We trade between us the local currency, everyone emptying pockets to get rid of their last notes or coins to exchange them with those traveling to the opposite direction.
As always these are friendly moments with people from all around the world sharing the same passion.
Sylvia has been dealing, almost from day one, with some stomach issue.
We followed the rules but hard to not sometimes eat and drink in a nomad yurt. Altitude, drought climate, and the effort force us to drink a lot...and often. The rivers, creeks, streams are not always running. Many are dry this time of the year. Local rain storms turn the clear rivers into muddy brown sources of water and damaging our water filter. As soon as we find some water to filter we try to stock up at least 4liters each. Still, that does not cover the needs.
We lose weight - food is not the best thing we find in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan- probably around 8kgs each since the beginning and we are always on the edge of being dehydrated.
Literally, within few minutes Sylvia shifted from upbeat to really, really sick.
All night she will have deep spasms and vomit every 20 minutes. No fluid can stay in the stomach. She is vomiting on a totally empty stomach. In the morning she has 40c fever. Not a good place to deal with this.
Lucky us, Ainura and her sister who own the guesthouse were a good support. They helped us by feeding Sylvia with appropriate food and introduced us to the local nurse/doctor. The clinic is a regular building not much different than any other house in the village.
After a face time with Belgium and Sylvia’s sister-in-law and niece, both in the medical field, it has been decided to find the possibility of an IV. Easy to decide...not that easy to find in this remote area.
The nurse we meet says it is ok to make one from scratch. Many needles, thinner and thinner will be needed as she could not find a good vein. Dehydrated and at 3200m, the veins are not very easy to find and to reach.
A shot in the butt to calm the abdomen spasms and only 250ml from the 500ml will be injected. We stopped the bloody mess then. Returning to the guesthouse, I will force Sylvia to drink one sip of electrolyte every 15-20’ for 36 hours.
3 days later we hit the gravel roads to the Tajik border, still a little bit weak but in the mood to move. We will do an easy first day bike to monitor her and assess how well she is.
90km and 2 passes above 4000m
The first 25km are on a sort of pavement. Crossing the wide bottom flat valley. We left early as usual. Light breeze, great light, the mountains get closer. We discover slowly the narrow valley given access between these colossal mountains. Gravel replaced asphalt and we reach the Kyrgyz border. Quick formalities done we are now in a 20km stretch of nomansland. Few army patrols met reminded us the fragile politic situation of such places. A little short of breath and obviously not in a great condition, Sylvia is moving well. The beauty of the place keeps us distracted and entertained. Then become the first pass reality. We did it slowly but in a good
time. We keep in mind that another one follows just after ....the highest one, 4650m, is planned to be done in 2 days, so we did not put any pressure and expectation on our aims.
A little drop and we reach the Tajik border. Not as fast and smooth than the Kyrgyz. A group of motocyclistes from Poland passed us on the climb. We caught them up and get stuck with them. They need to register one by one their motorcycles. We will waste over 2h there but made new friends. The leaders and guides for the groups are from Poland and Australia. They have been organizing trips in the regions for years , they know every little corner of it.
Big black clouds are coming up....wind is picking up, temperatures is dropping...not good signs at 4000m.
The owner of the adventure company tells us - no chance to bivy beyond the pass as we planned, no water either between the 2 passes.
All formalities done we shake hands, even hug each other, if I remember well and they took off leaving us with another 3liters of their water supply.
We flew downhill, tricky as the gravel road is full of gravel traps. First sights of the Chinese advance security barbed wire fence that marks the entire border in Tajikistan. An amazing work done for an illusion of security. But I guess the point has to be made.
Very unwelcoming area, blowing wind, clouds of dust, landscape looks like those pictures of planet Mars. Fantastic but really not a place to pitch a tent.
We will half circumnavigate the lake by its East side, and end our day in So momentum and wind helping we decided to cross over the next pass. Did it. Getting dark and now really cold. Noless wind on the other side. Still tailwind. We can barely hear talking to each other. So we keep moving. Headlamps ready in case it is getting too dark. We can vaguely see Karakul lake...maybe another 20km to the village. It was supposed to be an easy first day after Sylvia’s stomach problems. We ended up in a gravel ravine on the edge of the now paved road, covered by with dust, shivering, trying to pitch a tent willing to play with the wind instead of helping us to build up our shelter for the night.
It will be a cold snack for dinner, as we warm up in our solid bombproof Hilleberg tent. The short day concluded with over 80km, 2 passes above 4200m. We are tired but well. At midnight the wind calmed down.
Closer to the sky
We stopped in karakul for a lunch, we left later than usual. Superb scenery, superb morning light. Glaciers, the salty Karakul lake created in a meteorite crater, sand dunes (yes, sand dunes at 3500m) and the peaceful village houses made with Adobe and with their white walls and blue doors. A taste of Greece, in Tajikistan. Another night in a dusty ravine and we hit the highlight of the Pamir circuit. The 4650m Ak-Baital Pass is the second highest road pass in the world - that is what they claim ....definitely the highest in the Pamir.
Again no words to describe the scenery, the ambiance, the loneliness. We have not seen anyone. All is just for us. We are pushing hard but feeling strong. Right before the real pass, a little plateau with a creek and a tiny stretch of grass along the creek. The rest is only minerals and rock. From faddish yellow to dark brown. So beautiful that we do not care too much about the washboard gravel road that makes any effort at that elevation a pain in the ....
Photos at the pass. We did it ...instant of joy and emotion. Sylvia has recovered miraculously very well. Big smile on her face.
Stressed on the breaks, the downhill is even more spectacular. We need to stay focused on the road surface, though. Full of loose gravel, sand or big holes. Tricky.
And the wind is back in our favor. We have a quick sorry feeling for those who have done the pass northbound.
45km before Murghab we found a paradise camp spot. All the needs, green thick grass (no dust), a creek (with clear water), and great surroundings. We keep the last 45km for tomorrow. It is all downhill anyway.
Murghab and the Sary Kol guesthouse
We avoid the classic Pamir lodge stop. Full of adventurers of all kinds. Rather we prefer a quiet family guesthouse at the end of the village. Nurzat and Kanak her brother are our host. Probably one of the best place we stayed with Muras lodge in Sary tash. Both extremely clean, with a good atmosphere and hosting by super friendly people. Nothing better than a family business. The Pamir lodge is running down and has no more to offer than our accommodation choice. There is no electricity anywhere in the village and water comes from the pumps and wells in the streets.
By chance we see a Swiss cyclist couple met already many times in different places.
We feel like almost family. Hugging each other like we have been known for years.
Only few days in Tajikistan and we feel in love already. We want more. Kyrgyzstan has been so green, so magic in many aspects, we thought we could not be more surprised anymore. Tajikistan is so different, that we feel we are really in another country. Dry, dusty, minerals...tortured.
Ainura from the Muras guesthouse in Sary Tash is working for an organization that painfully tries to bring back isolated Kyrgyz stuck with no more identity above 4500m in a little corner of the Pamir near the Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, China unstable border. Pushed there by the war, the fear, different circumstances, they have been forgotten by the world. They are dying there not able to go anywhere.
The story of these 1200 souls is really heartbreaking. No real hope for them.
We made a deal with Kanak. He and his old Russian jeep will take us for a couple of days off the grid in some secret places to be discovered. He knows the area, sometimes totally off road, the jeep took us through places that can not be described properly. We went to some wrecked places, left behind by the Russians. Trucks, buildings falling apart, even an old observatory on a summit of a mountain. The Russian jeep took us everywhere beyond imagination. Kanak not only knows very well that little corner squeezed between 4 countries disputing their borders he is also a very skilled off road driver with a great sense of humor. We stopped and visited some nomad friends, spent nights with them in their yurt camp in a magic area. From all the trips done biking, hitchiking, or backpacking in the world I have never seen so much diversity, so much beauty in these both countries.
Back in Murghab, we repacked everything and Kanak insisted to give some ride towards the Chinese border to ease our day.
Kulma pass 4300m. I dreamed about it many time since ‘95 when I was cycling with a friend the Karakoram on my bike trip from Siberia through Mongolia, China, Pakistan, India, Nepal.
As expected the view when you approach the pass is stunning. Slowly as you climb the pass you discover the summit of Muztagh Ataon the Chinese side. A colossal mountain covered by a huge glaciers at 7500m. It is so big, so close that it seems we can almost touch it. Impressive.
Welcome to China
The process to cross the newly open border is...let’s say....very strict. The border has always been open to trucks exporting goods from China. But not to foreigners. Everything is new, security infrastructure at a level of a secret base. Cameras everywhere, army, police, multiple check points, building to go through. Empty our panniers, searching our cameras, iPads, devices, scrolling down all our photo libraries and folders.
When we thought it was over, it is starting again with other police or army guys. Then, we have been “asked” politely but firmly to load our bikes in the trailer of one of these trucks on their way back to China. Empty. China exports....doesn’t import. The truck driver has no choice but to accept to drop us at the bottom of the 14km downhill to ...the next check point.
A final full inspection and we are free to hit the Karakorum highway with its very smooth asphalt. Leaving Pakistan (Tajikistan?) and the Kunjerab pass behind us we are heading North for the first time in our trip. No need of face sunscreen today.
You enter in Xinjiang and you change your watch. Not to the official time zone, though. Even at 4000km from Beijing everything is at Beijing time. We feel a little bit of bearing when we realize we are still cycling while our watch shows 7:30pm and the sun is still high in the sky. It is dark until 7:30am but sunny till 10pm. Disturbing. Even our Garmin watches showing the time based on our gps position are lost. Strangely our Gps positions are not accurate anymore. Our tracker is not working properly. We are in a different world, in a different dimension.
Could have been confirmed by the unexpected sight of camels along the road at 4000m.
Maybe just the time to pitch the tent and recover from all the events of the day.
Fences everywhere, it was not like that the last time I was here. We understand. Sensitive area. Too many borders around. Sometimes many rows of fences. We finally find a breach. We sneak in and hide behind a sort of a gravel dam. No one around, perfect and discreet. We have not even finished pitching the last peg than an army jeep showed up.
Clearly, we are not welcome for the night here.
Repacking everything and being forced to move further for another 15km. The jeep will escort us 13km and disappears.
It is almost dark when we found a spot behind a sort of a tourist building made by a set of little booths. Based on the front doors they are stores selling food and tourist stuff.
The spot is definitely ugly but we need to sleep.
The next 2 days will be take us through canyons, deep gorges, surrounded by glaciers and very unstable terrain. Multiple landslide. The road has been greatly improved since 95.
It is pay back time for us now. All the tailwind we had in Tajik while heading South is now headwind as we are heading North. So strong that we have to push hard on the pedals on downhill 6% grade. Oooops sorry, the sign says 5.9%.
We really feeling we are leaving the mountains and heading to the desert and the flat part of Xinjiang.
The 245km from the border to Kashgar has been a smooth ride despite the headwind. We pushed to cover the last 120km in one stretch. We had no local money and been told by the police in a small town that we were not allowed to go in a bank before Kashgar to exchange
some currency. So unfortunately no reason to stop anywhere on the way. Too bad.
The entire 245km were also a good way to be educated to the local rules. Every km and when crossing some villages every 100m, an arch “straddles” the road with many cameras. A flash light confirms a picture has been taken of anything or anyone moving under the arch on the road. There must be plenty of us, more than 245, I hope they have at least one not blurry.
The Chinese are consistent. All Kashgar is under siege. Multiple check points, in the streets, for each hotel or store/mall entrance. Mainly for locals. The security is everywhere. An obsession. Tensions between the government, its interior politic, and the Uyghurs claiming their independence is sweating from everywhere. Everyone is suspicious but tourists are preserved from any check points. Their pictures taken everywhere and stored in, probably, gigantic computer hard drives seems to be enough. We stayed in one of those hotels allowed to take foreigners as clients. Kashgar is not the Kashgar I saw in the past. It is a huge big city now. High rises, traffic, not the desert sort of oasis from the past. Still touristically claims to be the capital of the Silk Road. All the old city made with mud brick houses is now 99% gone. A reproduction of some quarters is now a main tourist attraction and an opportunity for some Chinese entrepreneur from other provinces to run businesses. The Uyghurs are definitely now a minority, the famous Sunday animal market is sad compared with what it used to be and definitely not as animated as other Central Asia animal Markets.
Kashgar being a milepost in our trip, it is time to wrap up the first segment of our route and to work on part 2. All will start again soon we find a way to move more East since Tibet remains closed for us. Rumors say the Chinese government may be ready to open the autonomous Tibet region to foreigners next year....