The word “extreme” has been over-used in association with outdoor sports till it has become hackneyed. The Brits (who else?) poke fun at this with their Extreme Ironing website! You can even get adventurous and order Extreme Pizza!
Here, we do not mean “extreme” in terms of cycling acrobatics (as in BMX or MTB); but in terms of elevation, weather, and remoteness, we think the term is warranted.
2009/06/06–07: Taxi 180 km to Sary-Tash and day to acclimatize.
We took a ride in a 4WD to hop over a significant climb on road that was under construction, and were glad we did. The tales of construction crews being shot at were unnerving, too. It also helped us to make better use of our Tajik visa window, which was opening. We saw our first yaks at the top of one pass, and the 4WD got a ripped tire.
2009/06/08: First Tajik Camp 69 km
From Sary-Tash, we crossed a high plain and began the climb into the Pamirs. The Kyrgyz border procedures went smoothly, with more than one person for each process helping to keep things on the straight and narrow. All was very jolly and they even wanted to admire the fact that we still had all our teeth at our advanced ages – not a given in Central Asia.
We worked our way up to the 4,280 m (14,042 ft) pass which is the actual border, marked by a statue of a Marco Polo sheep. This involved pushing the bikes slowly up through snow and mud, and the red mud got everywhere, freezing to our spokes, feet, and panniers. I felt quite ill, and Chris left his bike to return and push mine a few times. I could only walk slowly.
The Tajik border facility was 1.5 km downhill past the summit, and as we worked through the first two of the three stops we got colder and colder in the blowing snow. The lads at the third stop, drug control, invited us into their bunker for mugs of tea near their coal heater. Lovely! It was 5:00 p.m. , and they informed us we weren’t allowed to camp for the next 20 km, we assumed for drug control reasons. This meant we had to push on till late with me feeling weak and ill. We camped beside the bank of what would have been a stream across the tundra, had there been water. All our water bottles froze that night. We were at 4,200 m, not far from the second summit of a double pass.
The climate had changed as we crossed into Tajikistan. The Sary Tash area was dry but this was dryer. Imagine a landscape that is both alpine tundra and desert at once, with jagged ridges rising sharply above broad valleys. There is little but rock and snow; only a few small brush plants grow. Sleek golden marmots scamper, but are difficult to photograph. There are herds of yaks: shaggy beasts standing morosely in the sleet.
2009/06/09: Second Tajik Camp 61 km
In the morning we broke camp slowly and cycled up the pass, where we met Peter, a Swedish cyclist. He had been cycling with Jean-Denis, a Canadian, but JD was in Kara-Kul nursing the flu, and waiting for his Kyrgyz visa to begin. When we reached Kara-Kul, we stopped for lunch at one of the two homestays, dropping by the second to talk to Jean-Denis. We pressed on towards Ak-Baital Pass to be closer to it, trying to break up the next tough day. Both Peter and JD had told us of a welcoming farm about 25 km before the pass that would offer food and shelter, but time had slipped, so we camped in a hollow before reaching the farm, tired of always pressing on until dark.
2009/06/10: Kyrgyz Yak Farm 13 km
In the morning, we woke to 10 cm of wet snow covering our bikes and 3-season tent. We melted snow for breakfast tea, but were damp and cold as we returned to the road and turned towards the pass.
It was 13 km to the farm, where a woman, clutching her shawl, walked toward the road beckoning us inside where we were handed bowls of of hot milk. When we were offered seconds we said da – yes, so they said said chas – just a minute. Someone was sent to milk another yak.
We watched the weather and dried our sodden tarp and tent between sleet showers. We ended up taking the kind extended family up on their offer of a night’s stay, and there was roast mutton with wild onions and fresh bread for supper. After supper, a contingent of family left for Karakul, with the visiting son-in-law (we think) who was a vet. The vet spoke some English and had explained that he worked with sheep, goats, horses, cows, and yak – but NOT camels. It was through him that we offered payment and were refused. We have learned to deal with this, because money offered “for the children” cannot easily be refused here, and we had seen the vet tuck somoni notes into one of the toddlers’ clothes, so we did the same as we left the next morning. The older women saw us do this, and they didn’t object.
2009/06/11: Murghab over Ak-Baital Pass (4,655m) 102 km
After 15 km of dreadful washboard gravel, we started up Ak-Baital slowly on slightly better unpaved road. We had both taken a few rounds of altitude drugs, and I was feeling a bit better than I had the previous day.
A vehicle passed us less than once per hour. The descent was steep at first on broken pavement, then a bit smoother. It became a glorious fast ride through a wild and empty landscape – with a tailwind!
We made it to Murghab, as well as riding to a higher elevation than either of us had ever been to on feet or on wheels – 4,655 m or 15,272 feet. This was a good thing, because with our 60 day visas we were required to register “within 72 hours” of entering the country. The fine for not doing so would have been $300 USD each, and we’d almost resigned ourselves to that outcome. Our first stop after the META (Murghab Eco-Tourism Association) office was the police station. We had just enough somoni, and were relieved to have the necessary paper in hand in the nick of time.
We moved into the Erali homestay, along with Andrea, the Austrian cyclist we’d met at the META office. It’s run by a lovely Kyrgyz family, and I had a hot bucket shower after supper. A cistern of watern is heated by a yak dung fire. You pour some in the bucket and add cold with a dipper from another cistern till it’s just the right temperature, then pour it over yourself with the dipper. The small washing room is set up with drains and wooden floorboards, and an outer room has clothing hooks, a bench, and a door insulated with felt so that you can wash in a warm steamy room even when it howls outside, which it does and did – even in June. We’ve heard this is the coldest and wettest summer in the Pamirs in 25 years. Lucky us.