On Two Wheels: Pamir Highway

We left Sary Tash, the last town in Kyrgyzstan, and headed towards the great white wall of mountains looming before us. Meeting many cyclists coming the opposite way with wind-blasted hair, peeling skin and perpetual smiles, we wondered just what was in store for our, then clean, bodies.

After a night spent in no man’s land (with probably the greatest Milky Way display I’ve ever seen) we found ourselves in the midst of the majestic mountains that had sat patiently on the horizon for a few days prior.

5216d793-af93-4a65-9b16-7e191aca042d.jpg

We decided to take the M41 the whole way to Khorog and the road was of fair quality, save a few gravelly passes. An old friend from countries past (@thomasthebelgian) caught up with us in his van and we’d frequently meet to camp together. He was kind enough to lighten our loads over some of the highest passes bringing great relief to our sore knees. It was a great feeling to rock up to camp to find Thomas waiting with cold beer and pancakes – I can’t thank you enough!

If you are thinking of a trip to Central Asia, I must convince you visit Tajikistan and travel this road (one of only a handful in the country). Be it by motorbike, bicycle, van, hitchhiking – all are possible. You will have to regularly pick your jaw up from the floor after every turn as you gape in awe of the ever-changing, ever-beautiful Pamir mountains.

On Two Wheels: Osh to Sary Tash

The road to the Tajik boarder was a slow and steady climb. Ascending a total of 3,900m in three days this was by far the tallest climb I have done. But the road was good, steady and offered beautiful views. We made some friends including four other cyclists and a dog that stayed with us for a couple of days – covering a total of 140kms – finally leaving us as we approached the boarder. We have since heard that she is alive and well, and following some other cyclists that we met while crossing the boarder the opposite way into Kyrgyzstan.

On Two Wheels: Kyrgyzstan

We took the once-a-day 6am train from Bishkek to Balykchy to fast track out of the city. The train costs just 1$ to go nearly 200km making it by far the cheapest / longest train ride I have taken so far. With beautiful views of the mountains either side, and easy to bring your bike on-board,  I highly recommend this scenic detour.

FF0C25AD-E23E-4574-B44B-5C5FD0B3A54C.JPG

I was very surprised how tough our chosen route turned out to be. Perhaps because of the constant headwind or the quality of the road, I really had to battle all day just to get 40km's in. The climbs were extremely steep in some places – our comrade Charlie ended up pushing up the entire 3,000m pass from Kok-Djar.

Making it as far as Kazarman we threw in the towel due to our bowels, and an assortment of other ailments including haemorrhoids and knee issues. We hitched a ride from, Kazarman to Osh and got to enjoy some of the scenery without crying. Kyrgyzstan has definitely been one of my hardest stints to-date but oh boy did the country make up for it in its majesty. Next stop; Tajikistan!

The Song Köl Hotel

We arrived at Song Köl, a large alpine lake sitting comfortably at 3,000m, tired and beaten by three days of hail-fueled thunderstorms. There was no question about it; we were getting a yurt (a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads). It being that there are no buildings of any kind throughout the 270 km² plateau, many families make business by renting out their yurts as hotels. In all honesty, one of the reasons we were paying for accommodation was to escape from people for a while, and – driven by hunger – we approached a nice-looking yurt quite a bit of a way from the shore of the great expanse of still, fresh water. As it turned out this was not a hotel, but just a family pitching-up for the summer and enjoying the green pastures of Song Köl. When I asked "Hotel?" the man looked surprised, but then quickly gestured to follow him.

He showed in inside the yurt. It was moderately messy with kids toys peppered about the floor, looking like the den of some happy young nomad. Suitably happy with the tent, and unsuitably versed in the the Kyrgys language, I made the hand signal of money "how much?" At first the man said "No mone..." – his brain seemed to stop the words coming out and one could see the cogs turning – he quickly changed his mind and plucked a price out of thin air; 1000 SOM it was! That's just 333.33333333...(forever) each. Initially, I was a little put-off by the mans sudden change of mind, and his ability to multiply recurring decimals, but the thought of being able to just lie down in solitude swayed me. By the time we dumped all of our bags the price now seemed to have risen to an even 500 SOM each, great news for my OCD, and it now included dinner, great news for my belly. 

Just as we had finally laid-down, the call for dinner came. Entering the dining house – one of three smaller tents at the camp – the whole family was sat down with their plates loaded, looking eagerly toward us. I'm not usually such a Scrooge, but at the time I just didn't want to talk to anyone. The sound of cutlery and crockery, with the occasional slurp, prevailed at the dinner table for around five minutes when, after discovering the mother of the family spoke some English, the conversation exploded.

As the evening progressed, It seemed like we were part of the family; laughing, drinking kumis (fermented horse milk – definitely an acquired taste), playing with the kids; one of whom was intent on sinking his new front teeth into anything. We sang songs and after the next hailstorm had passed, spent the evening running around outside with the two German Shepard guard dogs. Being a part of this beautiful family shifted my consciousness from longing for solitude to being like the fun uncle of the bunch.

The morning came and it was time to press-on, after the matter of settling payment. There is something different about transactional processes, and this experience felt too genuine to be just a transaction. It's not that I don't want to support local businesses In other countries but, after staying in many Couchsurfing and spontaneous home-stays, there is something magical about being invited into somebody's life with no money involved. Not that it made this experience any less wonderful but there is something extra-special about non-transactional exchanges. Often is the case that each party is just as curious as the other to meet a fellow human from the other side of the world and touch upon their culture, custom and personality.  

5Y2A3722.jpg
5Y2A3717.jpg