Pamir Highway Part 3: Murghab to Osh, Kyrgyzstan

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.

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Snow in Murghab, and the overland truck of a couple who I met up with a few times along the highway. Best wishes!

I also just wasn’t feeling very good. I’d had a very restless night, waking up multiple times unable to pin down my location. Murghab, with no electricity, gets disorientingly dark at night. Most times, I just woke unable to catch my breath. One time I woke thinking I was in a slowly ascending, pitch dark elevator that for some reason I was convinced would leave me trapped with no escape. The next day, my stomach didn’t feel good. I wasn’t drinking enough water, and my metabolism was a mess. I was struggling through a carb-heavy, low-protein developing world diet. My body was just deteriorating. The whole thing was incredibly reminiscent of Eastern Cambodia, but with the added difficulty of being at 3600m elevation. I spent the day staring at the unlit light fixture in my room, trying to nap and catch my breath. Every movement out of bed was a chore.

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The light fixture, which will haunt me forever.

 

So the next morning I gave in. 6km into the 75km ride up the Ak-Baital Pass which would take me to 4,660m (over 15,000 feet), I felt lightheaded and was struggling to catch my breath. So I returned to town to find a ride. I had hit the road remarkably early even for me, just before 7am, and it was frigid. My hands were frozen, the mountain air that I managed to breathe felt like ice in my lungs. The manager of the hotel told me that all the shared taxis to Osh had left for the day, but that he’d be happy to book me a spot the next day. I slumped in the hotel lobby, defeated. It was over.

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I don’t have many pictures from these two days, so here’s one from when I was feeling better.
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Here’s another one, not from those two days. Both pictures strike me as really cocky in retrospect.

But then I started to feel better. The Benadryl wore off, and the caffeine from the two Clif bars I’d saved for months in my bags for this particular pass started to kick in. A Russian cyclist who had checked in the night before heading the opposite way down the highway stopped by and, if I’m honest, that was the final kick in the pants to get out and just do it. I told the manager of the hotel I was going to ride down the road a ways to see if I could find a hitch, but in the back of my mind I knew that was the point of no return. I was back on the road, feeling better, and struggled my way to a campsite 50km up the pass to 4000m elevation. I knew that this would still leave a nasty day the next day, but at least it would be manageable, and I wouldn’t have to admit defeat. As for hitching opportunities, there were none. I was passed by maybe two cars the whole ride. I was rolling, back from the dead.

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A second ‘Campsite Consternation’, where everything went to hell.

But alas, my ordeal wasn’t over. Usually I edit these posts to hell and sort of smooth out the ups and downs. Here, I leave the above passage, and the phrase “back from the dead” as a reminder to not to tempt fate. I wrote that line, turned off my tablet, and opened a can of beans hidden deep in the bottom of my bag. That was a mistake. Within 30 minutes I was having fishy burps and felt sick to my stomach. Another restless night ensued, as I grew sicker and sicker. All bodily functions, already impacted by days at elevation, went haywire. 4am and I finally accepted my fate. I left my tent and started vomiting. Arousing from a resting heart rate at elevation is already a dizzying task, but doing so in 15 degree night weather, as quickly as I needed in that moment almost had me on the ground. The highest point of the trip lay just 27km away, in that moment an impossible distance.

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Coming up the Ak-Baital Pass, closing in on 15,000 ft.
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I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite this bad. No sleep, sick, no oxygen, and a big pass to get over.

The sun rose. Here I was again. If a car passed, I was determined to hitch. I packed up slowly. Deflate sleeping pad. Rest. Pack sleeping bag. Rest. Pack backpack. Rest. Etcetera. By the time I got everything moved to the road and packed on the bike, I was exhausted. This day, no cars or trucks would come. The few trucks I’d had the company of for a few days into Murghab now head up over the Qolma Pass into China. So I crawled into the day, making maybe 8km an hour on flat ground. This was supposed to be a moment of triumph. Riding into Murghab, as I mentioned before I felt as though I was starting to kick ass. 4000m passes fell before me, and I was managing about 70+ km a day, even at this elevation. Every cyclist gets sick at least once in the Pamirs. That’s what you’ll read on the internet. It had finally happened to me, right before my biggest day.

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Where is this picture taken? How am I feeling at this moment? Is it from the Ak-Baital Pass? You’ll NEVER KNOW.
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Oh, more mountains. More loneliness.
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I don’t even remember where this one came from. Some plateau in the middle of nowhere.

Did I make it? You’re damn right I did. I moved my TP and a change of clothes to my handlebar bag for immediate access. Walked when I needed to. By the time I got to the serious climb at about 7km from the top, I was starting to feel OK, even though all I had managed to eat that day was a Twix. I am often motivated by sort of vain things. The day before it was a quick, casual conversation with a Russian cyclist in Murghab and a “well if he can do it, so can I!”. Today it was the prospect of taking a picture in front of that “Ak Baital Pass” sign I had seen on so many other blogs.  Cheerful, tanned cyclists posing with thumbs up or arms spread wide in a moment of triumph. 15km into the day, holding back various bodily eruptions, the only thing keeping me going was the prospect of taking one of myself, slumped on the ground in despair. I got my picture, and some hard-won tears on the (awful road) descent.

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OK, so confession time. This isn’t actually the pass. There’s actually about 250m more climbing to do after this sign. It really just marks the start of the final climb. But we can say I’m done here for dramatic effect.
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Sick, gasping, but finished with Ak-Baital. I’m actually done here.
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Top!

Two days ride and two more passes at ~4250m to Sary Tash, over the Kyrgyz border. Past the large, magnificent Kara Kol Lake, and another miniscule town where I filled up on water and where I probably could have stayed at a variety of small, inviting homestays. A stunningly gorgeous descent on an awful road that really was about half road and half river. A Tajik border agent running around like a chicken with its head cut off yelling “money, money please.” Another border agent who mis-stamped the exit date on my Tajik stamp, and corrected it after I pointed it out… with a ball point pen. Upon checking my Kyrgyz entrance stamp, I now realize that it’s basically unreadable, so I should probably go get that checked out when I find a customs office. Ho hum. Gotta love Central Asia. Note for future cyclists, there’s about 20km of no-man’s land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Downhill if you’re coming my direction.

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No-man’s land between the Tajik and Kyrgyz border.
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The color of the ground quickly changed on the other side of the border.
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It takes a long time to descend from this altitude on that road. I was lucky. Had it rained, it would have been an absolute mess.

Two more big, rainy passes and associated rainy descents had me finally riding into Osh, 1300km from the start of the Pamir Highway in Dushanbe. Weather-wise, I was lucky. I got out of the mountains just before a week of rain (and probably snow up at elevation) set in. Even so, I was pretty destroyed by the entire ordeal, but happy to be in a place with enough oxygen so I didn’t feel lightheaded every time I stood up. Osh is a pleasant city with a good array of food, but not much to do. The mountain in the center of town is nice for a visit, and the bazaar is extensive and worth a wander if you’re not alone. Fortunately, I wasn’t, as two days into my stay my mom showed up on a whirlwind tour of Central Asia, promoting STEM education in Kyrgyz universities! She brought me some supplies, including Clif bars, new zippers for my tent, and most importantly some Goldfish snacks.

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After Sary-Tash, the road turns much better. Perfect tarmac from there to Osh, with nicely graded switchbacks when necessary.
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Finally somewhere that looks sort of normal. Yak farming and green!
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Well, green and red. Somewhat reminiscent of Morocco.
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Big fan of Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz roads so far.

In Osh I dug right back into the Nutella I had been carrying from Khorog, and to my stomach’s displeasure realized that it wasn’t, after all, the beans that had made me sick up on the plateau. It was the Nutella, which had somehow gone bad. So I promptly got sick again for a few days. But it wasn’t that bad, because I was in a nice little hotel, didn’t have to ride if I didn’t want, and I wasn’t at elevation. I waited out the stomach bug, and my own general exhaustion, for six days in Osh. Time well spent, and with emotional and physical needs satisfied, I finally headed off for Bishkek on the 20th of May, my three months anniversary of being on the road. Coincidentally, I am also halfway done, distance-wise, with the trip. Difficulty-wise, I am more than that.

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I am skin and bones. Down probably about 15-20lbs from the start of the trip. The bike touring diet.

From here I have a few different options, and we’ll see how I feel about them as I go. I’m still pretty drained, and not quite crazy about launching into another incredibly remote area of Central Asia without reliable access to food. I need to recharge if that’s what Mongolia will bring. So the plan now is to go through both Bishkek and Almaty before riding the steppe in Kazakhstan until I get bored and head to China. North of Almaty, there are a few potential entry points into China, but cycling in China is sort of a different beast than the rest of this trip. Xinjiang is a sensitive region, and to enter too far south is to invite getting hassled by the police. I’ll sort of make it up as I go from here. Time to put in some distance!

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Me n’ my Soviet steampunk goggles are heading back into the steppe!

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