Category Archives: Epic

DSC_8758

Crossing the Uzkek-Kazah desert, 2000 of kilometers of nothingness.

I had dreaded the Uzbek desert crossing. In the end what can sound less appealing to a cyclist than the monotony of a straight road through the middle of the nothingness, with the almost the same scenery from sunrise until sunset, day in and day out. It is the unknown around the corner that turns my wheels, except that in the case the next corner is just a slight angle variation in the road direction and I’m pretty sure what I will find after it: another stretch of bushy and barren desert.

And then there’s the wind, the constant side wind which has been blowing continuously for the past 5 days from the same direction. I think that there are few things more demoralizing than going to sleep after a hard day of fighting the wind knowing that tomorrow you will have to start over again.

But surprisingly as the days went by I have to admit that the desert became more and more enjoyable and somehow I found a certain tranquility of the monotony of each passing day. Usually when touring you have your mind set on the next destination on the map, the next mountain pass, the next city where you can take a rest but now only the Caspian Sea which the end of desert and it’s more than 1000 kilometers away. It’s impossible to plan anything when such distances are involved and quickly you forget about the destination and you settle in what seems like an endless daily routine.

But then there’s the light and the incredible clear and blue skies of the desert, accompanied by a million stars during the night. Slightly changing but constantly beautiful, coloring each sunset and sunrise in a different way.

And then there’s the peace and the silence which you find either on the bike while cycling or each evening at the chosen camping spot. While on the bike moments when you are completely present alternate with moments when your mind drifts off to an imaginary place following it’s own internal monologue.

Days fly by and your only worry becomes to carry enough food and water to get you to the next small village. The daily agenda consists of 120 kilometers of nothing, followed by a small village and another 140 kilometers of empty desert. Each evening’s goal becomes knowing that I put in a good effort for that day which I usually quantify as time spent in the saddle. Kilometers are completely irrelevant when you factor in the wind and the road quality.

Time seems to lose any kind of meaning. How many days has it been since the last real shower and the last night spent in a bed? Certainly more than a week… How many days until the well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea? No idea but probably also around one week. Probably this is the best test to see if I will ever get bored of myself.

And yet the days go by and finally after almost 1600 kilometers in Uzbekistan I finally cross the border into Kazakhstan, changing countries but unfortunately not the scenery. The welcome sign into Kazakhstan consists of 80 kilometers which could be easily classified as one of the worst roads I’ve ever cycled on.

Three days and 400 kilometers later I finally see the shimmering water of the Caspian sea in the distance. It’s hard to explain in words how you feel when realize that finally the desert is over and that shortly you will sink your dusty self in the cold and clear waters of the Caspian sea. I honestly cannot think of a better way of ending a desert crossing.

Looking back I have to admit that I really enjoyed what I had dreaded at first and that I had grown fond of the desert, of the feeling of being completely disconnected, of losing track of days and of time and of the monotonous peace and serenity of the desert. I would clearly rate it as one of the most interesting bits of the road back to Europe.

And now for some practical considerations.

1. Visas and costs.

It seems that all the people I met along the way were Englishmen and they were all cycling eastwards (or the wrong way as I used to say when I met them) and probably the only reason you would chose this route through Central Asia is that you can’t get a visa for Iran (which seems to difficult if not impossible for people from the UK and the USA). The visas for Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan while not cheap are at least obtainable, and you also avoid the Turkmenistan 5 days fixed entry/exit madness.

2. Road quality.

The tarmac isn’t as bad as I expected and there are construction work still going on both in Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan so it will get even better the following years. In September 2015 there were plenty of newly opened bits where tragic wasn’t allowed yet but where you could ride your bycicle, perfect conditions. Also the bit between Beyneu and Aktau (once dubbed the worst road in the world) has been repaired. Just take care to choose the northern alternative and not the main road after Shetpe. There are some broken bits along the way though and the 80 kilometers between the border and Beyneu are absolutely horrible.

3. Supplies and distances.

Probably the most challenging bit is between Nukus and the border where for 400 kilometers you only have 3 settlements. And there is literally NOTHING in between (except camels) so depending on the speed you need to plan and have enough food and water for 140 kilometers / 120 kilometers (the greatest distances in between settlements). At the same time if you run out of food or water you probably can wave for help at one of the occasional trucks, the drivers are usually more than helpful. Also depending on the temperature you really need to carry a lot of water, I had temperatures around 30 degrees and I was still drinking around 7-8 liters per day. And Uzbek melons rock.

4. People.

My experiences in Uzbekistan were a bit mixed regarding the people, which is probably due to a real presence of a police state. And even though I had some genuine examples of hospitality something still felt strange. From the overly sanitized like Samarkand and Khiva, to the police checks every 100 kilometers to the monuments portraying Uzbekistan and it’s president in positive light something just didn’t fit in. And perhaps in comparison with other Stans when talking with the people they seemed to have a good opinion about the president and government which also seemed somehow strange. Other than that I had no problems with the police except for the 2 hours spent at the border crossing between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where the customs officials were simply assholes (it seems that almost everyone passing through this border crossing had the same experience).

5. Money.

Be prepared to carry bags of money, or “Sum” – the local currency. With the biggest note having the equivalent value of 2 euro and with plenty of smaller notes worth as little as 0.05 euros be prepared to have a special place to store all the cash. A plastic bag worked fine for me though. As a side note cash machines exist only in the big cities (Samarkand and Bukhara should have one but they could be out of service). Also it’s worth asking around to find out which is the black marked rate, as the difference between the official rate and the black market rate can be as high as 30-40%. A good place to change money at the black market rate is the local bazaar, just as for the money changers corner.

6. Temperatures and the best time to cross Uzbekistan.

I spent most of September crossing Uzbekistan and the temperatures were almost perfect for cycling (between 25 and 35 degrees, but mostly around 30) but I heard horror stories from cyclists which crossed Uzbekistan in July and August and which had to deal with constant 40 degree temperatures. Weirdly enough while you are cycling and the wind is blowing around you temperatures above 35 degrees are tolerable, but the moment you stop sweet covers you instantly. There were many moments where I was thinking if how much extra water I need to drink each stop just to make up for the water lost through sweat in the same time span.

The bright future of the Tadjick people, on a mural before the border with Tadjikistan.

The bright future of the Tadjick people, on a mural before the border with Tadjikistan.

A tipical roadside meal in Uzbekistan (for about 2 dollars). Enjoying sheep meet really helps in Central Asia.

A tipical roadside meal in Uzbekistan (for about 2 dollars). Enjoying sheep meet really helps in Central Asia.

Igor from Ucraine, travelling with less than 2 dollars per day.

Igor from Ucraine, travelling with less than 2 dollars per day.

Hot air, hot asfalt and no shade in the Uzbek desert. Stoping is not an option as without the wind you're instantly covered in sweat.

Hot air, hot asfalt and no shade in the Uzbek desert. Stoping is not an option as without the wind you're instantly covered in sweat.

The standing minaret from Bukhara. One of the oldest in Central Asia.

The standing minaret from Bukhara. One of the oldest in Central Asia.

Hiting the 12.000 kilometer mark somewhere in the middle of the desert.

Hiting the 12.000 kilometer mark somewhere in the middle of the desert.

Up, up, and away! On a new stretch of road between Bukhara and Khiva.

Up, up, and away! On a new stretch of road between Bukhara and Khiva.

Uzbek road workers, as friendly as ever.

Uzbek road workers, as friendly as ever.

Desert skies.

Desert skies.

Geometrical patters in Khiva, the last surviving khanate of the Mongol Empire.

Geometrical patters in Khiva, the last surviving khanate of the Mongol Empire.

DSC_8511.jpg

DSC_8554.jpg

Uzbek melons make the perfect roadside snack.

Uzbek melons make the perfect roadside snack.

Coffe brewing in the middle of the road. Also on a newly constructed stretch of road.

Coffe brewing in the middle of the road. Also on a newly constructed stretch of road.

It seems that the only people on this road are people from Great Britain or from the US, for whom the Iran visa is still unfortunately nearly impossible.

It seems that the only people on this road are people from Great Britain or from the US, for whom the Iran visa is still unfortunately nearly impossible.

The cyclists tan after 2 weeks in the desert. And the cyclist's legs after a couple of months on the road.

The cyclists tan after 2 weeks in the desert. And the cyclist's legs after a couple of months on the road.

Desert glamping.

Desert glamping.

Dancing in the middle of road in the middle of nowhere, what better way to celebrate a birthday.

Dancing in the middle of road in the middle of nowhere, what better way to celebrate a birthday.

Improvised karakapak sheep herding

Improvised karakapak sheep herding

The road can't get much worse than this. The 80 kilometer bit between the border and Beyneu were horrific.

The road can't get much worse than this. The 80 kilometer bit between the border and Beyneu were horrific.

Somewhere at the end of this railroad, 500 kilometers away was the Caspian sea.

Somewhere at the end of this railroad, 500 kilometers away was the Caspian sea.

A good book, coffee and some proteins make the perfect lunch break for the dusty cyclist.

A good book, coffee and some proteins make the perfect lunch break for the dusty cyclist.

Roadside smelly companions (somehow you can sense the smell of cammels from a great distance)

Roadside smelly companions (somehow you can sense the smell of cammels from a great distance)

Desert glamping take 2, this tame with a scenery which seems taken from Mars.

Desert glamping take 2, this tame with a scenery which seems taken from Mars.

The end of the journey, and an incredibly well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea.

The end of the journey, and an incredibly well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea.

The end.

The end.

DSC_7207

The Bartang valley, the adventure of crossing the wild Pamir.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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 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 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 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

DSC_4735

Tadjikistan, Dushanbe to Khorog, the first part of the Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway, with it’s lure of the wild and the remote probably has a special place in the mind of any traveller crossing Asia. And even if you know that you’re going to have to endure bad roads, incredibly high passes and endless kilometres of barren terrain you are drawn like a moth to a flame. In few other places I’ve felt so disconnected from the world as on the “roof of the word”, camping at over 4000 meters, hundreds of kilo meters from the nearest place which could be called civilized.

But that’s the subject of a future post and in order to get to Pamir you first have to reach Khorog, the last town before the high plateau of the mountains. As soon as you leave Dushanbe you have to decide between the two possible routes of reaching Khorog, the northern route, with tougher roads and a 3300 meter pass and which is also closed during the winter, and the southern route, longer by 200 kilometers but which is better maintained and which is also used by all the cars.

In my mind it wasn’t hard to chose between the two variants, the only problem being that it was early May and near Dushanbe nobody knew exactly whether the road had been cleared of snow. The police men trying to guide me towards the southern route surely seem pretty sure that it was closed, but after avoiding some and after explaining to others that I had all the needed equipment I was finally heading towards the small village of Saferdoron, pitched up at 2600 meters at the end of a long mountain valley, the last village before the first high pass of my route.

The quality of the roads in Tadjkistan is more or less horrible and the mountains seem to work hard to slowly break down what ever humans try to build in this harsh environment. The Pamir Highway probably was completely covered with tarmac 50 years ago when it was built by the Russians as a road with military significance, but right now most of the part between Dushanbe and Khorog is just an earth / gravel road which sometimes completely disappears at river crossings. All in all it was the kind of terrain where depending on the elevation I was more that satisfied with cycling 60 kilometers a day.

Time, and life seem to flow differently in the villages around Tavildara, and I’m always surprised to see how many children are always in the streets. I honestly can’t imagine a better playground than the large valley surrounded by the snow capped peaks of the mountains. The hospitality is also incredible and when I ask for water in one of the remote houses from the village of Saferdoron I get instantly invited to spend the night with the family, sleeping in closed balcony overlooking the mountains and meeting all the family members. I’m not sure if I was the first cyclist comming this way this year as the road had been just recently opened.

In some ways this is one of the advantages of crossings the Pamir’s in spring as you have the place mostly to yourself, a sharp contrast with the number of cyclist from the summer months. On the other hand you do have to endure lower temperatures and the ocasional snow storm but if you plan the days reasonably it’s generally not an issue.

The 2000 meter descent from the pass down to the Panj River is at the same time spectacular and tough and it takes the better half of a day during which I see absolutely no cars. Fortunately in Kalaikhum I rejoin the main road and I officially enter GBAO, the Gorno Badakhstan Autonomous Oblast, find asfalt once again and relatively well supplied stores.

From here I would follow the Panj river towards Khorog for the next four days, always overlooking Afghanistan which is in some places a stone throw away. Some of the villages, with no road access and perched on the foothills of 5000 meter giants seem to be completely frozen in time, and by comparison the Tadjik side looks ages ahead. One of the surprises which I encounter along the way is a series of serious landslides in one of the nights after a torrential downpour which caused the road to be blocked in several places, completely stopping traffic along the Panj river.

And so after doing some carry bike across the bits affected by landslides I have once again the road entirely to myself, an experience which will repeat itself several times as I head into the Pamirs.

And now for some practical considerations regarding Tadjikistan:

1. Road Quality.

As I’ve said before the road quality in Tadjikistan can be appalling most standards but this also depends on the route choice. The Northern route until Khorog has worse road quality but at the same time is more spectacular. The Southern route is also 200 kilometres longer so the tougher roads do make up a little bit for a shorter distance. That being said you do have from time to time places where you find perfect or almost perfect tarmac but also places where your bike suffers the shocks of corrugated roads.

2. Visas and the president.

I got my visa from Istanbul and in comparison with other places it was relatively straightforward and pretty cheap at 75 dollars for one month. The tricky part is trying to estimate how much time it takes you to get there as the visa has a fixed entry date, and planning such things 2 months ahead can be a bit hazardous. Also one important note is that it’s necessary to get the GBAO permit in order to be allowed in the Pamirs, otherwise you are restricted to the south-eastern part of Tadjikistan.

As almost all the Stans the transition towards democracy didn’t go well but it seems that in Tadjikistan almost everywhere go you a poster of the president isn’t too far away. Whether you see him photoshoped in various situations, ranging from wheat checking to romantic flower fields he soon becomes a familiar face. The personality cult at it’s finest.

3. Food.

Food was one of my biggest concerns in Tadjikistan, and while riding through small villages there aren’t too many things to chose from if you manage to find a shop which si actually open. During summer you might find vegetables and fruit from locals but in Spring the fresh food was completely non-existant. One of the things which I did enjoy and which did fuel quite a few cycling days was the canned condensed milk with bread, which I find tasty even now. At the same time I buy some vitamins in Dushanbe in order to compensate for the lack of fresh food.

If you are lucky enough to find road-side stalls the food is good and cheap, laghman being the dish which I ate the most. The bread is also incredibly good.

4. People and the Russian language.

One thing which I find is impressive about the Tadjik people is that even in the smallest villages people speak a second language, in this case usually Russian. Knowing at least a few words and phrases does get you a long way but don’t worry, if you cycle through the Stan’s and if you are open enough to learning new languages some things will come naturally. You will learn to anwer the basic questions, to ask for directions and to have a really basic conversation.

The people are also incredibly friendly and they did remind me of the hospitality of the iranians sometimes, but at the same time as tourism is increasing in region I really wonder if this will continue or if the perception towards foreigners will change with time.

5. The mountains.

The Pamirs are breathtaking. Period.

 

Presedintele, aratand fermecator intre maci.

The President, looking as charming as ever.

Masa de pranz, cu lagman, un fel de ciorba extrem de consistenta.

Lunch, a very consistent Lagman.

Unul din cele mai faine locuri de cort de pana acum.

Camping above the road and the river.

Mancarea minune pentru Pamir, lapte concentrat si paine. O conserva dinasta ajunge la 1300 de calorii. Iar daca nu esti atent iese o lipiciosala generalizata.

The wonder-food in the Pamirs, condensed milk and bread. One can has 1300 Kcalories, but if you’re not careful the situation can become a bit sticky.

Doi rataciti in Pamir.

Two loners in the Pamir.

Si urmatoare trecere, datorita podetului nu am aflat cat de mare era apa.

One of the road crossings in spring.

3 fete cucuiete.

The mountains are their playground.

Gasiti fotograful in poza.

Find the photographer.

When the going gets though.. Pamant proaspat, panta de 10% si bolovani clar nu sunt cea mai fericita combinatie.

When the going gets though..

Batranul familiei.

The oldest member of the family.

Odihna.

Odihna si urme de gloante.

Rest and bullet marks for the long civil war from the region.

Starea drumului.

The road conditions.

Sa fie munti!

Let there be mountains!

Tunel.

Tunel.

Ceai.

Tea.

Drumul isi cere pretul

Sacrifices to the road quality.

No road, no problem!.

No road, no problem!.

Oare inseamna libertate.

Peace!.

Din nou asfalt!

The joy of tarmac.!

Partea afgana.

Looking over the Afhan side.

Reflexie.

Reflexion.

Ceaiul de dimineata.

By the campfire..

4 ani din Franta pana aici.

Four years from France, on alternative transportation.