Pamir Highway Part 1: Dushanbe to Khorog

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.

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Camping across the river from Afghanistan.

I have been slowly riding deeper and deeper into rural Tajikistan, through the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region or GBAO (If you are coming through, you will need a separate, easy to obtain permit attached to your e-visa.). Large stretches of riding have taken place just over the river from Afghanistan. Dushanbe to Khorog has large passes, bad roads, and more than a few frustrating days. But it is a stunningly beautiful and rugged place. It is still the low tourist season here, and for long stretches I basically had the road (and my wild campsites) to myself. I am aware of some cyclists a few days in front of me, and in Facebook contact with another a few days behind.  On one long, 12+ hour day going over a pass, I saw a grand total of three cars. If something breaks, or other things go wrong, I’m a long way away from anything. This remoteness could even be felt in Dushanbe, the capital of the country.

In Dushanbe, I was waiting for a pair of new tires to arrive from the States. This was my second attempt at getting these tires delivered to me, and I was growing frustrated with how long they were taking. A day into my stay in Dushanbe, almost two weeks from the ship date, the tracking details finally updated and the package arrived… in Luxembourg. Not even in Tajikistan yet, where upon arrival it would probably still face a few days of customs inspections. Not good. The tires were important, because I was about to head deep into the Pamirs and I just didn’t want to spend my time on the plateau breaking down every day and worrying constantly about whether or not I’d make it through without hitching. I’d already spent a month doing that across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. I knew the pain of waking up for a day of riding, in the middle of hundreds of miles of nothing, with a flat tire. I was eager to get rid of this particular vulnerability before it drove me crazy.

The thing about Central Asia is, the more you try to follow whatever ‘rules’ exist, the more frustrated and mystified you will be. That’s the key to the ferry across the Caspian, where the solution to getting a spot on the boat isn’t to religiously check schedules and call strange Azeri phone numbers to see when the next ship will go. You basically need to just show up and maybe wait for a few days in the parking lot. Central Asia in a nutshell: Don’t look for order where there is none. One night, the owner of the hostel I was staying at in Dushanbe brought up the possibility that his friend in Moscow might be able to find the tires, and just send them with a courier on a daily passenger flight to Dushanbe. In the end, it was that simple. A random guy who runs a ‘shipping’ business carrying on things from Moscow to Dushanbe. 26 hours later, for a very reasonable cost (much less than the official shipping I had paid) I had my tires, new tubes, and a new lesson about how things get done in Tajikistan. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

And the tires, after more than a month of waiting, are a dream to ride. I’m on 26×2.35in Schwalbe Big Apples, and they are built to carry weight. They have hefty sidewalls, and as an added benefit, roll significantly better than the Maxxis trekking tires I was running.

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New tires!

Sometimes I am confronted with choices in how much vulnerability I’d like to be exposed to. Out of Dushanbe, I had a decision to make. There are two ways to get to Khorog, the next ‘large’ city in my path. The first option is to go south, through Kulob. It’s about 600km and has more traffic. The second option is a northern, shorter by 100km, road that goes over the seasonally-open Sagardisht pass at an elevation of 3250m. The northern route was of extremely questionable quality, and the internet told me it was usually not cleared of snow until late April or even May. My hostel owner, who after orchestrating my tire shipment from Moscow I would probably trust with my life, said I should be fine on the bike provided it didn’t rain a lot before I went up.

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Chekov’s Gun: Don’t mention rain unless it’s gonna rain.

Well, I came here to take the M41 from Dushanbe, and the pass was on that road, so that’s what I was going to do. I headed for the pass, warnings about the road condition and weather be damned. I was on new tires, full of confidence, and looking for adventure. Alas, one day out from Dushanbe, the region was hit with a massive rainstorm. I went to sleep listening dejectedly to the downpour and watching slugs start to climb the outside walls of my tent. I still had two days to go to this pass of undetermined condition, but I distinctly remember sitting there in the downpour wondering if I’d made the wrong choice.

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A campsite named ‘Consternation’

The next day was sunny, but I came across two Portuguese motorcyclists on huge BMWs who had been defeated by the mud, and were heading back to Dushanbe. They said that my smaller bike might be fine, and that maybe in a day or two it would dry out. They did, however, caution me that I might need to carry the bike on my shoulder and portage gear. And that became, in my mind, the image of what I was expecting to encounter. I steeled myself for the worst. I’ve ended up on roads before where I had to disassemble the bike 20+ times and portage my stuff just to make it 20km. I was ready for such a trial. In fact, I sort of relished it, because it would be the first of such an ordeal on this trip. I again chose vulnerability, and continued towards the pass.

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A sunnier morning, heading towards the pass.
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2018 is the year of tourism in Tajikistan. Maybe the reason why the checkpoints, on the whole were less bribe-y than in years past.
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The good infrastructure, including pavement and good bridges, runs out at the turnoff into the entrance to the GBAO at Tavildara. 

My luck would hold. The pass dried out, and my crossing (albeit still unquestionably the hardest day of this trip so far) can really only be summed up as ‘it could have been worse.’ Two sunny days had dried out the mud, for the most part, and the pass was almost rideable except for a long stretch at the top. That stretch was still impacted by snowmelt, and had turned into a mess of unrideable mud. For those 10-12km, mud caked everything. A layer a centimeter thick on my tires and on the soles of my shoes. Mud all over my pants. Slipping around everywhere. Frustrated yelling. The works. But in the end, it really could have been worse. I could see the dried, leftover tracks of the motorcycles, struggling to make it up and then eventually disappearing when they gave up. Also two smaller bicycle tracks that had made it through! My confidence grew. I was tailing someone!

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Sometimes the road up the pass was less of a road and more of a river.
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I wasn’t the only one who had struggled with the road.
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Skipping ahead to further up at the top. Nasty mud.

 

After the Sagardisht pass, there was a long, stunning descent to Kalai Khum, along the Afghan border. I found a nice homestay for the night and some Americans to talk to. After a 12+ hour knock-down-drag-out fight with the pass, I had a beer with some Plov, and took in my first views of Afghanistan. For the next 250km, I’d be riding along the border to Khorog. Along this stretch, the scenery grew more and more intense. Walls of rock towered above the road, and every campsite was spectacular. Just over the Panj River, in Afghanistan, women would wave as they washed elaborate rugs in the river outside their mud huts. Kids played soccer on gravel fields and would stop their games to yell greetings my way. Men on ancient motorbikes flew along a tiny gravel road cut out of the cliff by men wielding jackhammers atop small wooden ladders.

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I swear I’m not going crazy, the bike was falling over and the timer on the camera went off.
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Sometimes the road was just cut out of the cliffside.
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More of the descent towards Afghanistan.

The last three days and 240km to Khorog were a bit of a grind. The scenery was spectacular, and I spent the days waving to Afghan women and children just over the river. Amazing to think that just a 50m river separated me from severe kidnapping danger. Although the road followed the Panj River, the canyon was so deep and close to the river that the road tended to go up and down a lot. If I had to guess, I’d say that each 50km would accumulate between 500-600m of rolling climbing. To make matters worse, the state of the road was pretty poor. Nothing as bad as the top of the Sagardisht pass, but enough to make even flat ground tough going. Potholes, large gravel, sand, broken pavement, etc. Some good pavement around towns, but as I’ve noted, large towns were rare. Qalai-Kum was a ‘large’ town, Rushan was a little smaller. Khorog is a legitimate city of 30-40,000 people. The day over the pass had been quite a slog, and I gave myself little time to recover before hitting the road hard. What was I going to do, take my foot off the gas for a day? Maybe throw a 30km day in just for kicks and hang out in the sun for an afternoon next to a nice creek? Nope. Curse this restlessness.

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The road to Khorog, along the Panj River. To the other side is Afghanistan.

Dushanbe to Khorog took me six days. I reached Khorog on May 1, the date when I had originally thought I’d to enter Tajikistan. To make matters better, the Pamir Lodge in Khorog, where I stayed, had a protected loft in which I found two solid posts for my hammock. Done with the first half (mileage-wise) of the Pamir Highway, I had earned my rest, and I spent two relaxing days in town. If you come through, make sure to visit the Indian restaurant in the village, Delhi Darbar. It has a well-deserved, sort of legendary reputation.

Some vulnerability you can’t control. And here’s that part of the post where I drop into giving practical advice to others coming through alone, especially in a season with so few cyclists. Biking alone here is very safe, but I just want to underscore the need for vigilance. Further, I don’t want to sugarcoat things and pretend like this region isn’t in the center of like five separate ethnic conflicts and countless ‘bad dudes’.

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These are not the bad dudes I’m talking about. I have determined that yes, I do ride faster than a flock of sheep. But not by much.

You don’t really realize just how far you are out here until something breaks, or otherwise goes wrong. This is especially true in the leadup to the Sagardisht pass. Tavildara has shops, but outside of that there is little else along that stretch other than miniscule farming communities. The what-if’s abound. What if I read the weather wrong and really got stuck? Would I go 200km back to Dushanbe and ride the other route? My water filter broke somewhere along the road. Water got into the electronics, and it shorted. I’m now on my (admittedly large) supply of iodine tablets if I can’t find bottled water. But what if I didn’t have iodine tablets, or (sort of true) don’t like the taste of iodine in general? That’s an annoying problem. It ties you to the hope that each settlement has some sort of bottled water, when the locals just drink from the stream. That mountain water tends to be of high quality, but do you really trust it? After all, it’s still Tajikistan. There are herds of sheep pooping everywhere, and cholera is a minor concern.

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As stunning as everything is, I’m really far out here.

I’m a little beat up, too. A bungee cord snapped back one morning when assembling the bike and hit me hard in the face across my eye. For a split second, I worried that I’ve just messed up big time and would need to find some sort of medical help. Fortunately, I ended up with just a scrape on my cheek, but what if it wasn’t? One afternoon I stopped cycling and turned around in the saddle to get some food out of my bag. The bike tipped over, and suddenly I was on the ground, scrapes on my palms, thumb aching and making it painful to grip my handlebars. For an afternoon, I considered the possibility that it was fractured, checking to make sure I never lost full range of motion or swelled up. It did not, and is fine now. Small occurrences, but out here, the small things loom larger. Open wounds need care and attention. This is not a clean place.

There are Tajik police checkpoints (well, one) I’m avoiding going to alone on the advice of people on the internet. At the Khargush pass, solo cyclists have had their stuff stolen at gunpoint. It’s up in the Wakhan corridor, probably the most remote checkpoint possible to visit, but I’m not going there, and suggest you don’t go on a bike alone. Plenty of people go through on a car, but again, the vulnerability of being on a bike alone takes some vigilance. Dealing with the police in general is a sort of delicate thing that I’ve come to realize requires a particular demeanor. Upon entering the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region, one soldier with a shouldered AK spotted my dollars and clearly wanted some for himself. I just sort of slowly kept packing up my things and nonchalantly saying that I didn’t understand what he was asking. Sometimes knowing very little Russian helps. Eventually, he got frustrated and decided it wasn’t worth his effort. The only advice I can give is to balance playing dumb and seeming so incredibly well prepared for the interaction that it’s just not worth their time to continue to hassle you. Most other police and soldiers (because there are quite a few of those out and about) have been pleasant.

Outside of the police, interactions with people in rural communities require a heightened awareness as well. 99% of the time, this region has been incredibly kind and welcoming. However, that doesn’t mean that I’ve lowered my guard at all. I recognize that alone on a bike, in the middle of nowhere I am, again, exceedingly vulnerable. I’m usually tired. I can get frustrated with the state of the road or my fatigue. It’s been hot. I’m calmly sitting in the shade considering where I’ll get my next water. Frankly, if a group of unpredictable teenagers happens upon me in this situation (and they have), they’re entirely in control of the interaction. The sort of unpredictability of teenage boys is universal. They could literally beat me up and take my bike, like a horrific extension of every scrawny elementary school kid’s worst nightmare. Again, 99% of the time this isn’t a problem, but that doesn’t mean that I drop my guard before goodbyes are said without incident. People are friendly, until they’re not. I’m not really worried about the whole terrorist-kidnaps-American-kid trope, because that’s nonsense. Tajikistan is exceedingly safe for me. (If I were to ride on that other road across the river in Afghanistan, that certainly would be a different issue) However, what’s really sort of worrying are the people who realize that you’re alone in a place you shouldn’t be and decide to take advantage of that fact. One time in Baku, that’s how I lost some money.

And speaking of Afghanistan, my InReach emergency beacon went dark between Qalai-Khum and Khorog. I couldn’t get satellites, and I couldn’t send my location to my family. The web says that the Iridium Network, the network that the device runs on, won’t work in ‘Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.’ My proximity to this region was, if I had to guess, was the reason it cut out.

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Proximity is sort of an understatement. There it is, across the river.

Over days on the bike, your perception of safety and vulnerability can change very slowly, but still quite dramatically. It’s not like ‘suddenly I’m in a safe area, suddenly I’m in a vulnerable, out-of-the-way one’, it’s more like ‘over the last month, I’ve slowly ridden into a more vulnerable area, and I’m starting to notice the effects of that.’ This change can happen so slowly that you don’t really realize it’s happening until a particular situation arises. The scenery doesn’t change much. People still say ‘hello’ and smile from the side of the road, so why should you feel any more vulnerable or unsafe than you did a week ago? Suddenly one day you look up, and there’s an AK-toting Tajik Police officer asking for a bribe and your emergency beacon doesn’t work because the Taliban are five miles away.

Anyways, those are my thoughts on this stretch of the Pamir Highway. I found it all a bit exhilarating, but the undercurrent of vulnerability can wear on you. In the end, I’m probably making it out to be more of an issue than it is. I’ve truly enjoyed my time in Tajikistan, and I will undoubtedly be drawn back. The people are so phenomenally friendly, and there is so much more of this incredible country that I’d like to explore.

One thought on “Pamir Highway Part 1: Dushanbe to Khorog

  1. Just reading this leaves me breathless, and relieved that you made it thru to here. What’s going to confront you next? Dan G

    Like

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