As I reach a small crossroad on the Pamir highway, 20 kilometers after leaving Karakul, I once again take out the map trying to consider my options. On one hand I can follow the “official” Pamir highway towards Murghab or I can take the small road which branches off in front of me towards the Bartang valley and Rushan. On one side the safety of the know road and the beaten track on the other the promise of adventure and of the unknown.
But somehow I know that the decision was taken long ago, back in Bishkek when I heard for the first time about another alternative crossing the Pamir mountains. And then came the stream of news, first in Osh, a story of an italian and a german ciclist which managed to get through, a story of lost paniers during river crossings and of really rough roads. Then the info about heavy rain in the Pamir which caused landslides, blocking the official Pamir highway and also the road on the Bartang valley. And finally was followed by reports from locals in Karakul from which I understood that the water could be hip high but that the road is still closed for cars after the landslides but that it should be passable with a bicycle.
Probably the most important ingredient of a good adventure is uncertainty, the feeling of being unsure of what you will find ahead and how you will manage to get through on the other side. And the dirt road disappearing on the distance on the Pamir plateau had plenty of it.
And so the adventure began, with a first river crossing just 20 kilometers after staring from the crossroad, a river crossing where fortunately the water wasn’t too high but which reminded me how much I hate these things. If the water is high enough you usually end up crossing the river 5 times, two panniers each crossing and the bike the last time.
I don’t think there are many places so remote as the Pamirs, places which are at the same time wild but still reachable with a bike. For example during the first 3 days the only persons I met were a couple of German backpackers, turning back after they discovered that they didn’t have enough supplies to reach the village of Goudara. Basically it’s a 150 kilometers stretch with almost no human presence so it’s incredibly easy to disconnect and to feel In the middle of nowhere.
And the road, while incredibly beautiful is in a horrible condition, especially after you leave the Pamir plateau. Sandy bits combined with big and unstable rocks plus the occasional with corrugation make for a nightmarish ride at times and the kilometers go by extremely slowly. I only managed to average around 50 kilometers a day for the 7 days spent on the Bartang before finding once again tarmac near Rushan and each of the days included pretty long hours in the saddle.
Cycling the Pamir from the north seems completely reversed in comparison with riding in from Dushanbe. Basically in less than a day you go from a relatively civilized Sary-Tash to the barren Pamir plateau only to slowly return to civilization after several days in the wilderness. The change is quick, brutal and delightful and you come to appreciate the gradual return back to the comforts of civilization.
With the small note that in 2015 due to the landslides all the villages from the upper part of the valley were closed off for almost one and half months which basically meant that there nothing to buy from the small village shops. And as hospitable as the people are you soon discover that a diet of tea, bread and butter isn’t the best fuel while on the road. The craving for sweets and chocolate grew stronger with every day which went by, only to be disappointed once again at the next village shop. The salvation came close to Rushan in the form of a cheap wannabe chocolate which tasted better than any chocolate I had before.
And now for some practical considerations:
1. Road quality.
Simply put, it’s hart to imagine that it can get any worse than this. It’s not all bad though, for example the part from the Pamir plateau is actually in pressingly good condition (by Pamir dirt road standards). On the other hand the dencent (or ascent depending from where you come) to the Bartang valley and especially the bit around the Goudara village is in incredibly bad condition. Basically I ended up pushing my bike quite a lot, sometimes even when going down. Basically without wide enough tires you end up all over the place when you try to keep your balance on the dust and sand layer.
2. People and language.
Tadjik people are probably second in my opinion on the hospitality chart after the iranians. That being said on the plateau it’s kind of difficult to find any one to be hospitable but single shepherd I met along the way and his family were incredibly welcoming. Also when crossing the villages it seems that almost everyone wants to invite you for tea or to stay, especially if you can speak some Russian in order to hold a simple conversation. This is clearly one of the things which I really appreciate about the stans, for better or worse the Russian influence can still be felt and for the traveler it means that if you invest the time to learn the basics it’s going to work in several countries along the way. Come to think of it worked really well from Kyrgystan to Georgia.
3. Supplies and preparation.
From either direction you start it’s important to carry quite a bit of supplies. For example when starting from Karakul you should have at least three to four days of supplies depending on how fast you are. But be warned don’t expect to find anything fancy either in Karakul or at the village shops on the Bartang valley. If you don’t want to carry things from Sary-Tash you will probably have to settle on ginger bread (actually good), canned condensed milk, bread and cheap waffles with the occasional canned fish.
Also water levels can vary quite a bit and there are two river crossings which can become a problem if it’s raining. The first one is relatively close to Karakul on the Pamir plateau while the second one is a bit along side the Bartang river, 25 kilometers before the Bartang village.
The entrance into Tadjikistan is mark by a 1300 meter climb. The scenery changes completely as you pass into one of the highest deserts in the road. And yes, Marco Polo sheep decorate almost all mountain passes in the region.
River crossings, the bane of ciclists and motorists alike. If the water is too high each river crossing actually means 6 river crossings, one for two panniers, one for the other two and a last one for the bike.
The 4000 meter high Karakol lake has been formed by a meteor 10 million years ago. The village bearing the same name is the last settlement for 150 kilometers.
Small sand-dunes across the Pamir plateau in the soft light of the sunset.
Kyrgyz boys helping out in finding one of the shops in Karakul. With no official shops some locals have a room where they keep supplies and where you can find some really basic food-stuff.
Straight roads on the M41 highway, with surpisingly good asfalt some times.
The entrance on the Bartang valley, the shortest and probably the hardest way of crossing the Pamirs. With 300 kilometers of bad roads ahead and and with days of complete solitude it's sometimes good to have a moment and think if you actually want to start into the small adventure.
One of the first river crossings, fortunately this time the water levels were not really high. After hearing stories of people lossing paniers in river crossing in earlier in the year I was quite relied when the locals generally said that water shouldn't be a problem.
The other way of crossing towards the Bartang, unfortunately low supplies and the need to carry to much water forced the two germans to turn back to Karakol.
Wild 6000 snow covered peaks rise up from the plateu, in a scenery which seems from another planet. The weather is incredibly unpredictable and you can go from sunshine to a severe storn in less than half an hour.
Chossing the right road can be sometimes difficult, especially on the plateu. Fortunately at this particular intersection it was pretty clear which was the main road.
The storm and rain over the distant peaks.
An ancient lunar calender lies at 3900 meters on the plateau. It makes you wonder of the times when it was built, and how much and at the same time how little the landscape and the people have changed since then.
With no cars seen for two days pitching the tent in the middle of the road isn't a problem. Enjoying the long shadows of the sunset.
After two days on the plateau it's time to descent to the Bartang valley, which I would follow for the next 5 days.
One of the landslides which caused quit a bit of mayhen in the Pamirs in 2015. Locals said that July was one of the hottest months they could remember, an issue which combined with unusually high rainfall caused a lot damage to the already battered roads.
Finally once again civilization after 3 days, the Goudara village.
Weat, the main crop in the region. All villages are linked to a water source and they are like small green islands in an otherwise rough and barren desert.
Cooking nan (bread) for the next week in the circular oven called tandor. The flat bread is just "glued" on the inner side of the oven and left to bake.
There is a clear delimitation betwen the people living on the plateau which are enthically kyrgyz and the people from the valles which are pamiris. Meeting once again indo-european features after quite a time.
The hospitality of the pamiris is legendary, especially in the remote villages from the area. Fresh bread, butter, tea and the seasonal apricots are quickly layed out in the shadow.
The village of Savdon, showing how little land is actually needed to supply almost all what is needed for the locals.
The dinner overlooking 7000 meter mountains.
The host for the night. Knowing a bit of russian can get you a long way in the Pamirs as almost everyone speaks some Russian. The host, veteran of the russian afghan war and currently a teacher in the Nisur village.
The cyclists tan, with probably one of the best possible backgrounds.
The village of Rusorv, perched at 3000 meters bellow the vertical 6000 meter Lapnazar peak.
One of the bits where the road has been washed out by the river. The upper villages from the Bartang valley have been sealed off from the world and supplies had to be flown in with helicopters from Khorog for almost one month from Khorog.
Riding on the along the Bartang river, as the valley gradually becomes wider and more tamed.
The dust and sand gather from the Bartang during the last evening spent in the valley, once again in a grassy camping spot.
Fresh apples an another invitation for tea. One of the thing which almost all locals want to find out how is life in your country, how much things cost and how can you afford to travel on a bicycle. With an medium wage of less than 100 dollars a month Tadjikistan is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia.
And finally the end of the Bartang valley, after 7 days of bad roads, a lot of bits when you feel in the middle of nowhere, a lot of adventure and an equal amount of hospitality. With only 3 tourits met in 7 days and none on bicycles it's clearly one of the most adventurous ways of crossing the Pamirs.