Guapo Greg and the Four Seasons ft. Bonita Brittany

The Vitals

Dates: September 12 – 29, 2018

Location: Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Distance: ~1067 km cycled

Partners: Brittany

Activities: Cycle touring/bikepacking

Resources: bikepacking.com amongst various blogs

Photos by Brittany

Downloadable GPS tracks and interactive maps for each day are at the bottom of the post.

A note on Apricots

The featured photo I used is of dried apricots – a ubiquitous product in the area. We knew the pits rattled when we ate them but it took a few weeks to learn you can break open the pit and eat the kernel as well. It looks and tastes like an almond, which are produced from a tree in the same genus Prunus. The dried flesh is a laxative and the kernel has the opposite effect so it was suggested to eat them together. Uzbekistan is the largest annual producer of apricots.

The Trip

Like a good milking cow, Brittany and I are now firing on all cylinders. We left Osh in 30 C weather on September 12 heading towards Tajikistan and the Pamir mountain range. The first three days were 180 km of bonus distance on pavement with two mountain passes to the town of Sary Tash, the start of the Bartang Valley route as described on bikepacking.com.

A paved serpentine descent brought speed tears to our eyes

We practically flew on the first day, covering 85 km and 1500 m of elevation while surmounting the first pass (about 2300 m, Osh is about 900 m). We bought a watermelon before camp expecting to share it with a group of 7 cyclists we had met earlier in the day and with whom we had made a plan to camp together. They must have been too slow on the climb so the local kids were the benefactor of most of the melon and some joyrides on our bikes.

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The following day marked a change in the weather. Rain had started overnight and continued throughout the day. Reports from cyclists coming the other direction told us that an early snowstorm was currently battering the upcoming pass before Sary Tash (3615 m) as well as Kyzylart (4282 m) which is the first pass in the Pamirs and forms the border with Tajikistan.

We reached the lower pass the next day and gritted our teeth up the ugly switchbacks cut out of the scree and rubble that are nothing like the picturesque switchbacks that reach the south side of Song Kul. We reached the snow line and, between the wind and grey sky, we had on most of our clothing and our mitts. Near the top, a heavily laden truck slowly passed us as the driver threw us a bottle of Fanta. That was a nice touch.

Hitting the snow line for the first time

From the top, we were able to descend with barely a pedal stroke to the town of Sary Tash – the last “real” town in Kyrgyzstan before the border.  There was no electricity when we arrived but it was suggested unconvincingly, “maybe it will be back at 5pm.” It eventually turned on and we were able to shower (electric pump) in a building whose eaves were being used to string up a sheep for butchery.

Weather likes this makes things feel more remote

It was cold in Sary Tash with the Pamirs coming into view for the first time with their fresh coat of snow. Certainly these mountains are the real deal – tall, barren, windy.

Looking towards the Pamirs from Sary Tash

We didn’t believe we had a 100 km day in our legs, so we set out in the morning to cross Kyrgyz border control something like 20 km before the true border and then camp in no-man’s land. We rode on the dead straight and relatively flat roads across the plains south of Sary Tash and reached the barbed wire of the border control at the foot of the mountains. We crossed into the border zone and sought a place to make camp with a reasonable amount of snow and at least some protection from the wind. Our site selection was excellent as a storm blew in when we went to bed, depositing another 5 cm of graupel on the tent and surrounding landscape but not causing us too much worry.

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We had met 7 different cyclists coming down the pass and all reported terrible muddy roads ahead and all had experienced the full force of the snowstorm. The subzero night took the edge off the mud but we still had to push our bikes up the last switchbacks as the thick red mud packed our tires. We had lunch at the top, taking in the smooth white coating in brilliant sunshine before dropping down to the Tajik border control post just below.

Our names, passport numbers, and visa numbers were written by hand into a ledger book (twice, actually) before we were granted entry into Tajikistan. From border control, we once again flew over land with the reappearance of a paved road, a tailwind, and a few hundred meters of descent to the town of Karkul next to a lake of the same name.

The feeling we got upon first glimpsing the lake is indescribable. Between the bright sun, blue sky, and fresh snow, the deep blue of the lake was set off and can truly claim to be the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to convey in a photograph the immensity of the lake.

Lake Karakul coming into view. Huge, azure, awe-inspiring.

We could continue to enjoy the view as we rode about 25 km next to it before reaching town and a homestay for the night. We also got our first experience with a mini-market in the Pamir. Up here they don’t advertise their existence, you have to ask. Once you ask, someone will usually take you there personally and show you to the ordinary door of an ordinary house. Inside will be a small room with some dusty shelves of limited provisions (always pasta and biscuits, never bread or vegetables) and usually some clothing and shoes. If you want bread or vegetables it’s better to ask at the homestays.

We had now been following the Bartang valley route for two days but had yet to enter the valley. In fact, we wouldn’t see it for another two days. First we had to ride 20 km south of Karakul and leave the pavement behind for the gritty Mars-like landscape of the Murghab Plateau, passing an ancient meteor crater and lunar calendar made of stones.

Which way to the valley?

Within hours of riding in the wide open with almost no wind, and therefore no sound other than the crunch of gravel, the Murghab Plateau quickly cemented itself as the most perfect place I’ve ever cycled. But there’s a reason the judges don’t award a perfect 10 to the first contestant…

We left the plateau via a series of steep switchbacks and witnessed the birth of a river as a dozen trickles twisting their way through the gravel deposits joined forces and set off to wend their way to a rendezvous with the Panj River, 200 km distant. We were in the upper valley, still devoid of any permanent human settlement but there began to be a few more herdsman here for summer grazing.

Late in the day looking for a camp

After a peaceful night by the river, we descended to the highest village in the valley: Khudara. We had tea at the store and learned a bit more about the valley including the earthquake which levelled much of the town two years earlier in December. After seeing how much of the road is carved out of scree slopes, I can only imagine how an earthquake would render assistance by road untenable for weeks.

After another long descent through kilometers of rubble, we reached my perfect 10 – a section of a few kilometers cut deep in a canyon with oases of trees and smooth road while descending at river grade. The riding was easy and gave us a chance to appreciate how rare the colour green is in these rugged mountains.

The section ended at a smiling family with their disabled car with two flat tires. We added a patch to the existing ones on one inner tube (these cars have inner tubes!) but couldn’t do much else for them. A few hours later we were sitting in our camp when the family walked by saying, “Nyet machina!” but still smiling, something you wouldn’t find me doing in the same situation.

Bridge half way to nowhere

The last three days in the valley had a similar feeling for me. The towns came more and more often (but still usually more than an hour apart) and were marked from afar by an explosion of green against the red, grey, and yellow rocks of the ever-changing geology of the mountains. As we arrived at the edge of each town, we would enter a tunnel of green formed by the trees. Water would flow across the road in small streams, the fugitive liquid having escaped the network of irrigation channels that support these tiny towns. The wind also picked up in the lower valley, always up the valley and always into our faces.

We stayed one night in a homestay in the village of Basid where we had the opportunity to explore the town a bit. Once you leave the road on foot, you find a complex system of paths that connect the many houses that don’t want or need access to the road at all. We were also now surrounded by fruit trees and small gardens with squash, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and flowers in springlike bloom kept simply for their beauty. 

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The last day was short, just 35 kilometers out to the much larger town of Rushon on the M41, also known as the Pamir highway. When we finally realized the mountains ahead were across the border in Afghanistan we had a sort of giddy feeling even though they look exactly the same as the mountains on the Tajik side. Afghanistan is just such a mystery to us, I guess.

Bridge to Afghanistan

In town we were able to eat an entire chicken, melon, beer, and salad. It was time to celebrate! We could now ride the paved Pamir Highway and make great time to Dushanbe. Alas, pavement is a mere memory for most of the route due to erosion and land slides and the wind funnelled up the valley brought us to our lowest gears. It continued to be a novelty to be riding next to Afghanistan for a few days. Interestingly, the Tajik side was often much drier than the Afghan side. One night we were desperate for water and a place to camp and as we crossed dry gully after dry gully, we could look across the river at lush villages and waterfalls on the other side.

We did start to meet more cyclists and even overlapped with a solo Japanese rider named Ko. Together we camped for two nights on either side of the last serious mountain pass on the “north” route to Dushanbe. The north route is the “true” M41 but the south route seemed to be more popular with the cyclists we were meeting. Despite being 100 km longer, the south route is flatter with better pavement. In our 60 km and 2000 m of climbing over the pass on the north route, our trio didn’t see a single other cyclist before popping out at the truck route to Kyrgyzstan about 150 km from Dushanbe. Things were changing though. The trees were starting to yellow and the swirling grey skies were a harbinger of colder weather.

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From this intersection, the pavement generally improved, the population densified, and fumes from trucks were piped directly into our lungs. It was a rude awakening after the quiet of the Pamirs and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Entering the city, the road becomes a three-lane separated highway, which I was dreading. Fortunately the amount of traffic didn’t really increase from the single lane road we were on before, so everyone just got more space. Slow vehicles like bikes and ancient Ladas shared the right lane while faster cars and trucks blew by on the left.

Now in Dushanbe we are enjoying internet access again and had our first meal without rice or pasta in weeks. In five days or so we will continue to ride to Uzbekistan where we expect to conclude our cycling trip in Central Asia.

Last nice campsite before traffic and pollution

GPS Tracks

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

Day 8

Day 9

Day 10

Day 11

Day 12

Day 13

Day 14

Day 15 (first half)

Days 15 (second half) – 18

Bad batteries either didn’t even start the Garmin or ran out within an hour. Maybe okay for TV remotes, but not for math and display screens.

greyn