Crossing Tajikistan: The Pamir Highway

Is this road closed? Lynn studies the map on her phone. No, this must be the border crossing. A simple fence is placed over the road and a group of men is standing in front of it. When we approach them, they point us to a small white building. Inside is a friendly man. He asks us, Ootkuda? (Where are you from?) I answer Holland. On which the man rattles all players of the Dutch national team of the year ’88. I laugh and raise my thumb. The man quickly stamps our passport. The end of our tour in Uzbekistan. One kilometer further, on the Tajik side, two soldiers have to check our bags. They are curious and when I tell them what we are doing and how many kilometers we have cycled, they look at me with great disbelief. Without looking into our bags, they send us to the passport control. There are about ten people waiting. When we join the queue, one of the men of the baggage control walks in, and tells the others that we have to go first. A little awkward but we thank everyone and quickly put our passport with visa on the desk. The man puts a few stamps on our papers: Welcome to Tajikistan.

In the meantime it became dusk and camping close to the border is usually not a good idea. We cycle a few kilometers further, untill nightfall. We set up our tent just out of site of the road, behind a cornfield. That night Lynn doesn’t feel well. Fortunately, twelve kilometers down the road is a city where we can stay in a hotel. Lynn sleeps all day while I hang around in the courtyard, together with Wilson. Wilson is waiting for his Uzbek visa. He is just 18 years old and flew from the United States to Kyrgyzstan, and bought a big off-road motorbike that he can not lift himself with his petite body. The motorbike is not registered to his name, he has no driver’s license nor experience driving a motorbike. All that on the Pamir Highway, a difficult ride on bad roads at high altitude. I admire his bravery 😉 After almost 24 hours of sleep Lynn feels a lot better and we are ready to leave.

The road goes slowly uphill, past many small villages. When the children see us coming from a distance, they run towards us for a high five. Or they quickly get their little bike and cycle with us for a while. The adults are also enthusiastic when we come along and wave and honk. They all yell Ootkuda! I think most of them have no idea what we are talking about when we answer their question. After one mountain pass and a 70 kilometer downhill we arrive in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Let’s start preparing for the reason we’ve come here: the Pamir Highway.

Kids running, between Darband and Tavildara

After the Anzob tunnel, on the way to Dushanbe

Dushanbe is a modern city with perfectly paved roads, gleaming buildings and statues of the great leader. The parks have many fountains that are colored in the evening with different light effects. Everything is well maintained by many women in the street that wear yellow vests. A greater contrast with the rest of the country is not imaginable. It is ridiculous to see how much money is invested here, while the rest of the country is living in decline and poverty.

The courtyard of the hostel where we stay is full of motorbikes and bicycles. In the evening two four wheel drives arrive as well. Most are preparing for the Pamir Highway, or are waiting for replacement parts to repair their bike or vehicle. We ask the travelers who’ve come from the other side about their experiences. In the evening we sit down with a beer, everyone tells about their (world) travel experiences. It seems like making long journeys is the most normal thing in the world.

 The Pamir Highway, from Dushanbe to Osh

After Dushanbe, the road gradually gets worse, but the views get better. The second night we get worried messages, and we hear about the accident, which later turns out to be an attack. Four cyclist have been killed. We are shocked. Even though we did not know the cyclists, we feel very connected to other cyclists. The community among cyclists is great, we stay in contact with many cyclists via a Whatsapp group. Together we decide to tie a piece of fabric to our bicycle, out of solidarity. We even doubt whether we should continue. Is it safe? Can we still enjoy cycling? Eventually we decide to continue, because we do not want to be led by fear. We also believe that it is an incident. It can and could have happened somewhere else. The next day we cycle through a small village, where we have a lunch break. Two children are curiously looking at us and later come back with a large bread and fried dough balls. We are immediately reminded of the fact that 99.9% of people in the world are good people.

 The memorial placed at the location of the attack

In the descent my rear tire got a flat. I turn my bike upside down and take out the rear wheel. It appears that my inner tube has been torn around the valve. Hey, that also happened to me in Uzbekistan. I thought it happened because of the heat, but that’s not the case right now. Maybe it’s bad luck? Unfortunately, it happens again in the same descent. In no time I have no inner tubes left. On the map I see a crossing with another road, we walk to the crossing and decide to wait for a lift. More than an hour later, the first car comes along. We tie the bike to the roof and Lynn decides to go along. I cycle on her bike the last ten kilometers to the village. When I arrive, Lynn is sitting in front of the supermarket. She’s fed up with it, but I try to give her some courage. So we sit together on the sidewalk to discuss all options. Back to Dushanbe to buy new inner tubes, or would an inner tube be for sale in the next city? More importantly, how do we solve the problem of the tearing valves? A group of four French cyclists arrive to the scene.. They ask what’s going on and I explain the problem. One guy turns out to be a bicycle mechanic. And to make it even better, they have a tube for us! We look at the rim and they also see no problem. Probably it happened because of too low pressure, causing the tire to slide over the rim. We pump the tire as hard as possible and the tube keeps up for 250 more kilometers on a bad road. Fortunately, we find new inner tubes in the next city, Khorog. We search the internet for solutions. We even have contact with the bicycle mechanic in the Netherlands. Out of despair we have rubbed the inner tube with talcum powder and we have glued the outer tire to the rim. And it works!

On the way from Khalai Khumb to Khorog we cycle through a huge gorge with big rock walls, over a bad and narrow road. Occasionally we are overtaken by a truck or a jeep with some tourists. I admire those truck drivers who drive on such bad roads everyday. On the other side of the river we see Afghanistan. We can wave to the other side, to the people that live in the small villages. Very special, and a bit like we expected Afghanistan. Houses made out of clay, sometimes a man with a donkey or a man on a moped with his wife on the back, wearing a burqa.

The Panj river, the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan

Looking towards Afghanistan

From Khorog we slowly cycle up to 4,000 meters, to the plateau where the real Pamir mountains start. It’s a beautiful lunar landscape, each mountain has a different color. Every five minutes we could stop to take a picture. We find the first village along the way very special. There is nothing here, no agriculture, a large part of the year there is snow and it’s icy cold. What are these people doing here all year? We ask for a Magasin (a shop). A woman leads us enthusiastically to a door with a lock on it, behind the door is her little shop. Then it’s time to search, to find out if there’s something useful for us. What always is a good idea to take are the snickers and cola. The food is the biggest challenge for us in Tajikistan, because if you eat with the locals or at a restaurant, then you know one thing for sure, then you will get sick at least once. All travelers we have spoken to have been ill in Tajikistan. We therefore decide to cook everything ourselves. When we pass by a village we try to get food for 4 to 5 days. Oatmeal with nuts in the morning, pasta with lots of onion and garlic for dinner, in between we eat cookies, snickers, whatever we can find. Occasionally we find some stale bread…

The village Alichur

The last days on the Pamir Highway are, in our opinion, the most beautiful. After the highest pass of our lives, 4,655 meters, the Karakul lake and the border of Kyrgyzstan, it was mostly one big descent to Osh. In Kyrgyzstan, we saw green grass again, lots of cattle and yurts. The pictures say enough!

Our highest pass so far

A though descent over ”washboard”

The road along Karakul lake

The descent to Kyrgyzstan

Cattle and yurts

Nomads in Kyrgyzstan

On the way we met Tristan and his girlfriend. He made a very nice video about the Pamir and the reason why so many people cycle here. We’ve met several cyclists in this video 😉 Worth a look, to get an idea of our bike ride through this beautiful country!

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