Pamir Highway Part 2: Khorog to Murghab

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.

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Leaving Afghanistan, and it’s incredible views.

The M41 road was constructed in the 1930’s by the Soviets. As is tradition for extreme road engineering, the road was a way to demonstrate political control over a region while bringing the benefits of the modern world to a very primitive society. The various inhabitants of the Pamir Mountains, to that point were basically uncontacted tribes of nomads. The Soviets also labeled the area an ‘autonomous region’, which gave it some degree of independent political and cultural control over itself. There is a long history of the Soviets doing this with various regions around the USSR, and it’s an interesting topic to explore if you have time. When it came to places like the Pamir Mountains, so sparsely populated and out of the way, it just made sense at the time to grant a degree of autonomy to a region they couldn’t really understand rather than imposing their will by force.

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Late in the day.

Nowadays, the Gorno-Badakhshan region is in proximity to or directly affected by just an astounding number of pressing political, geographic, and cultural issues of our time. It is sort of amazing how precariously the region has clung to general stability and peace. In fact, where my last post talked so much about the vulnerability that I felt while cycling in this region, I could write a whole other post about the vulnerability of this region in general. Spillover conflict from Afghanistan. Creeping Chinese influence and muscle-flexing (the border is now ‘here’, we dare you to do something about it). Climate change’s effects on a society that lives off glacial runoff. Life here is harsh.

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Stunning campsites, little oxygen.

The political situation is volatile to say the least. The GBAO is surrounded on all sides by tense political situations. To the North, the Ferghana valley and its issues. To the South, Afghanistan. To the East, Xinjiang in China and its various ethnic conflicts with Turkic peoples. And to top it all off, a Tajik Government to the West that just a few years ago tried to militarily assert its control over Khorog, prompting an armed defense of the city by its civilians.

Despite all of this, the region, currently, is remarkably safe. Kids walk freely (albeit long distances) from home to school, laughing and playing in immaculately maintained suits and dresses. They show no hesitance to give me high-fives, greetings (‘Hellohowareyouuuuuu?’), and handshakes. I am only ever reminded of where exactly I am by the military checkpoints every 50km or so, and by the many heavily armed soldiers walking along the road. Who knows what the future holds for this place. Am I here during an island of relative stability before things just go to shit for one reason or another? This is the sort of heartbreaking question that occupied my mind as I was going through. The Pamiri culture just strikes me as precarious. The people are just so incredibly welcoming, even in the face of the meager existence that they somehow manage to scrape together out of this unforgiving landscape. If I took up every invitation for tea I receive each day, I’d never make it anywhere.

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“Would you like some tea?”
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Yak herding.

Anyways, I spent two well-deserved rest days in Khorog, eating a lot and reading in my hammock as the breeze blew through the poplars. I never had the chance to visit the restaurants ‘Khorog Fried Chicken’ or ‘Mac Dolands.’ I’ve seen the Golden Arches everywhere up here, but mostly upside down. This is because in the Cyrillic alphabet, the character Ш, pronounced ‘sha’, is used in a lot of names of foods. I’ve seen a lot of ‘shwarma’ and ‘shashlik’ spelled out in Cyrillic with the starting letter being the upside down McDonalds logo.

In Khorog, the M41 starts to climb to the Pamir Plateau. This plateau hovers around 4,000m in elevation, with passes topping out at 4,660m. When I planned this trip, I spent a long time considering whether or not to go from East to West or West to East. Among other things (like the choice between crossing Georgia or Mongolia in winter, prevailing wind directions in Uzbekistan, etc.) this climb was a big factor in ultimately starting in Tbilisi. One side of the climb to the plateau is shallow (Khorog to Alichur) and the other is steep (Osh to Murghab). Usually I prefer a quick climb and steady descent, but in this case the opposite is preferable. When you are gearing up to spend about a week at between 3500m and 4500m, it’s better to do it slowly, or you may suffer from altitude sickness.

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More stunning campsites.
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The first pass, in the snow.

It’s often said that you should avoid sleeping more than 5-600m above your last campsite if you’re traveling at a high elevation for multiple days at a time. The climb from Khorog to Alichur will allow you to do this, and still make good (~50-60km/day) distance. However, the first day from Khorog I felt great and went straight from 2000m to 3000m in a day. I didn’t quite have the debilitating headaches that a more serious case of altitude sickness would bring, but I still felt a little woozy and a little like a weight was sitting on my chest all night. The next day, 3000m to 3600m, and I felt a little better. Altitude sickness is not the end of the world. The most obvious cure is to descend, but just waiting it out is also an option. I am carrying prescription medication, Diamox, which would help. But the side effects of that medication are drowsiness and fatigue. So pick your poison. I chose to just manage my climbing each day and forego the meds.

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Pamir views, on a good road.

The road from Khorog is in great condition, especially after the chaos that came before Khorog. Almost perfect tarmac for a long stretch. Sometimes that wasn’t the case. Around the tops of passes, the awful gravel mix would return. For the first few days, the elevation really hit hard. After 50-60km, no matter how quickly I would put in that distance, my legs would just feel like lead. The lack of oxygen really started to hit hard after about 3000m, each small hill harder than the last. No matter, because the less distance I put in each day, the more I got to set up camp in some of the most stunningly beautiful spots I’ve ever been.

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More of my campsites up here.

But then I kind of started kicking ass. The human body, when it’s working correctly, has an incredible capacity to adapt to extreme conditions. I made Murghab from Khorog in four days, suffering through multiple 4,000m passes, thousands of meters of climbing, and literally every type of weather imaginable. I’m sure when I’m back at a reasonable altitude, I’ll realize exactly what strength was being sapped by the elevation, but for this stretch, I actually started feeling pretty good. The road was good, the sights were fantastic, and I suddenly felt confident about my ability to push through to the end of this highway.

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Rugged scenery.

 

That being said, there’s nothing out here on this 300+ km stretch in terms of services. Khorog is your last stop for a lot of things like reliable protein, wifi, and even electricity. Alichur is a small town about halfway between Khorog and Murghab, but there’s not much there. The homes are basically mud huts. I usually prefer to camp, but it was really windy and cold one night, so I stopped in Alichur at a basic homestay. My room had a lightbulb (no outlets), a yak dung furnace, and some plants. I was happy with it. I even stepped out and ate dinner there, which is always a risk. This stop turned out to be a good decision, as the next morning the snow and wind had set in. I was elated to not have to pack up my tent in those conditions. Small victories.

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Alichur
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Alichur, but closer.

I generally had good weather throughout the ride, and even on the days I got snowed on it tended to not be too serious. In the case of the morning after Alichur, the wind was at my back, and so the snow couldn’t blow in my face. To make matters better, it was so dry up there that the flakes would snake along the road in front of me. It was actually kind of pretty! To make matters better, the tailwind was keeping my speed up and I was making great progress. It all made for a great day! Then I met three cyclists struggling to ride the opposite direction from me. It was just a few hours into the day and they were already exhausted, having confronted the same snow and wind I thought was so ‘pretty’, but as a headwind. Those poor souls.

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Snow snaking from behind me. Cue the arrival of three cyclists coming the other way.

The day was brutally cold, but only had one pass to get over at 4,200m, and then a long descent to Murghab. I put in a 100km day before finding a hotel in town and, again, some English speakers to keep me company. One pair of overlanders in a massive custom Mercedes camper truck. In the truck, they were making not much more distance than me in a day, and I had bumped into them a few times over the ride. Another hitchhiker who had been stuck at the Chinese border with 50 truckers for six days waiting for a ride. The truckers were stuck as well by some administrative difficulties in Dushanbe, so everyone was frustrated and stuck in the middle of nowhere. It sounded like a terrible experience that put my own wait with truckers at the edge of the Caspian to shame.

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Murghab, from afar.

Infrastructure is sparse out here, as I’ve mentioned. There are electricity lines in Murghab, but the town seems to be connected to the outside world with a single transmission line running on wooden poles. Tajikistan is a poor country, and sometimes you’ll see high-tension lines and a sign saying which country and contractor is responsible for their existence. Those disappeared after Khorog. I saw more than a few of these wooden posts down, presumably not on any sort of schedule for repair. I don’t know when the infrastructure, roads or power lines, were put in, but they obviously don’t get repaired often, if at all. Probably the only reason that things get repaired is if the trucks can’t make it through from China.

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Look at my bike, leaning on things!

I spend most of my day looking at a very small section of Google Maps to show me where I’m going. The scale is usually small, so I see small valleys around me and major turnoffs. But it’s only rarely that I zoom out and see the full view of where I am. I am very close to several interesting and sensitive places! I’m close to the turn off to the Karakoram Highway from China to Pakistan, for example. And Jammu-Kashmir, too. Afghanistan, as well! I’m so very far out here, but it’s amazingly beautiful, and I again can’t recommend the region high enough.  You don’t have to cycle it either. I’ve met plenty of hitchhikers and other overland travelers. I don’t really know what will happen to this region in the immediate or long-term future, but for now it’s just a crazy cool place to be, and I’ve really enjoyed my time here, as draining as it can sometimes be.

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