It’s somewhat demoralizing to wake up at 3,600m and see nothing out your hotel window but a whiteout. Especially when there’s no heating, and the next time you’ll have electricity (but no heat, mind you) is 7:30pm that night. That was my first morning in Murghab, Tajikistan. Murghab is a sort of depressing town with a good (for the area) hotel and a few shops selling the standard unhealthy Pamir fare. Juice, carbohydrates, candy, bread, etc. The market in town is just a collection of numbered shipping containers with various goods. The main point here being not to expect much from Murghab in this season. At the Pamir Hotel, the generator runs from 7:30pm to 11pm, so it’s only during this time that you can take a hot shower and charge electronics. I spent a rest day in Murghab, partly because I woke up after the first night with a few inches of snow on the ground. It melted very quickly, but the sight out my window upon waking up had already pushed me decisively into rest day territory.
Alright, on to part two of the Pamir Highway. The Pamir Highway is the second highest international road (or whatever, I don’t know what the internet says, it’s the second highest something or other) in the world. The more famous Karakorum Highway, which can be reached easily from the Pamir, but is more politically sensitive, is higher.
Man, where to even start with writing about the Pamir Highway? I’m going to split this, oh, 1300km or so into three posts, because It deserves it. The first post will be the ‘low’ section of the road from Dushanbe to Khorog, the second the ‘high’ part of the road from Khorog to Murghab way out in the middle of nowhere in the Pamir Plateau, and third the final pass and descent to Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
I was struggling to find an umbrella narrative for the first section of the Pamir Highway. The experience of traveling in this region alone on a bike just demands more nuance than just saying ‘it was difficult, here’s why.’ One night lying comfortably alone in my tent, watching the sun set over Afghanistan, I finally hit on something that ties this whole stretch together. It’s vulnerability. Here, in this wild, wild place, a sort of constant undercurrent of vulnerability affects everything I do. It affects how I interact with others, how I manage the ups and downs of each day, and maintain my mental and physical wellbeing over time.
I get very restless if I spend even a day not cycling. I don’t know why, but that’s what happens. When I’m not traveling, I regularly skip gym days. I don’t stick to routines. I don’t set an alarm. But when I’m out on the road, suddenly everything is regimented, and anything outside of my careful routine strikes me as almost frivolous. I wake up at 6:30am sharp pretty much every day. I’m on the road by 8am at the latest. Cities sort of become obstacles, because they break my routine. Also, hostels and other places to stay are close to tourist sites and not necessarily good grocery stores at which to restock on food. If I could just camp outside grocery stores, that would be great, but those tend to be high-traffic places where people would (gasp!) stop by my tent and question why I’m biking across Uzbekistan alone. The answer is supposed to be ‘because I like it’, right? The conviction has been lacking behind those words in recent weeks. Over tea and kebabs in Aktau I said it with a smirk and an abundance of swagger. 100km outside Bukhara I screamed it through tears into a suffocating desert headwind. Fortunately, as I rode for the Tajik border, conditions were about to improve dramatically.
A lot of riding and writing in this post, with fewer pictures. The scenery has been dull and somewhat unchanging day-to-day. This post covers three separate sections of the last bit of time. First, back to Nukus. Then on to Uzbekistan’s second desert, Kyzyl Kum to Bukhara. Finally, the ride from Bukhara to Samarkand along one of Uzbekistan’s most populated Silk Road corridors.
As I rolled my way past Jasliq, a tiny town out here in the vast expanse of Qaraqolpakstan, a local man walked up to me and, in perfect English, said “Hello there! What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” We shared a hearty laugh. This is probably one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, Blazing Saddles. Newly-appointed Sheriff Bart has just ridden into the Western town of Rock Ridge, carrying Gucci-branded saddlebags, looking like a million bucks. But he’s obviously not welcome there, because he’s black, and the rest of the town is white. Gene Wilder’s character, recognizing that the Sheriff is out of his element, hits him with this line, which perfectly sums up the absurdity of the situation.
Baku is finally in my rear view mirror, and with it a week and a half of consternation, restlessness, and a gradual acceptance of my short- and long-term life fate. In the fall, I will be starting graduate study in Biostatistics at UCLA. Any new readers from there that might come across this poorly-written sequence of diatribes and petty grievances I call a ‘blog’, welcome. Thanks also to two particular individuals in Baku, Dan and Victoria, who helped me with accommodation and hospitality for what turned out to be more than a few days in Baku. I am in their debt for their willingness to put up with me for what turned out to be a longer-than-intended stay.