Scenic route through Kyrgyzstan, Song Kul Lake

I thought that once I’d ridden the Pamir Highway other hills roll beneath my tyres without complaint.


We needed to get to from Osh to Bishkek in 12 days, at the latest, in order to make it to China before our visa expired. We could take the shorter easier main road or the longer harder scenic route over the mountains.

We decided to take the scenic route because we are very silly human beings.

In our defence we were also (mis)informed that the road would be mostly asphalt.


We leave Osh after a couple of days off the bikes, with shiny new tyres, a brand new bike computer and restocked panniers.

It is just the two of us again and we are happy to be on the road. We’re back to our old pace, stopping less frequently, trying to rack up the miles. The new tyres feel heavy and sluggish on the asphalt. I miss my old tyres already.

We’ve calculated we need to do 65km/day to make our deadline at the Chinese border but assume that we’ll be able to smash that now that it’s just us again.

The first two days go well.

Day three – the asphalt runs out. We consult the map, ah, ok. There’s a big climb, but the asphalt should reappear tomorrow.

The climb is 50km, and I find the first 30 or so very hard work. My legs are hurting. The bike is heavy. My spirits low. The climb is slow and steady. It’s not until we hit the switchbacks that I begin to enjoy myself at all.

The loose surface makes the climb really hard work, and most worryingly my knees begin to complain. The hairpins are regularly banked with loose gravel making the turns fraught and frustrating.

The climb takes so long we are forced to camp a few kilometres before the top, perched below a massive pylon but with  an astounding view. The mountain facing us gets swallowed up by a dark cloud as the sun sets and the temperature plummets.

Over the next week we climb a plus 1000m pass most days. We total something like 8800m of climbing over 560km.

And there’s still no asphalt.

It’s autumn in Kyrgyzstan. The leaves are turning yellow and littering the ground. The mountainsides, which in my imagination were luscious green, are golden.
The apples are ripe. The rosehips glow red. There are still flowers in some of the verges, but more seed heads and large ochre leaves.
The mountains in the distance get a fresh dusting of snow overnight.

Autumnal colours as we ride the scenic route from Osh to Bishkek, via a few mountains, many switchbacks, a lot of washboard. We were naively expecting more asphalt.

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I suffer pretty badly for the first three big climbs. When it’s not my knees when we’re climbing uphill, it’s my hips juddering downhill, or my bum after hour after hour grinding uphill, or my wrists vibrating as i hang on over the over washboard. At the end of one really difficult day, the washboard drives me mad and I’m so tired I take a tumble and get tangled in the bike. Nothing seriously damaged but a twisted ankle and a bashed shoulder to add to the compendium of aches I’m acquiring.
Oddly things improve after that for me.

I’ve been fishing for reassurance that the weakness I’ve experienced in the last few days is in my head, and I haven’t got it. Everyone has their off days, Jamie says, which isn’t quite what I wanted to hear. I remind myself not to rely on external validation. I validate myself instead.

Things reverse and Jamie has a really hard time for a few days, feeling weary and underpowered – though most people would be happy with the power in Jamie’s underpowered. I sympathise as much as I can, but part of me feels relieved that the tables turn some days.

We acknowledge, as we both come down with streaming colds, that it’s possible, even probable that we are a little worn out and a bit run down. That perhaps, in retrospect, this particular route with a deadline was a bit ambitious all things consided…

The climbs are taking 5 or 6 hours and we’re struggling to get the miles in each day.
We go to bed knowing there’s another big climb on the horizon. Or it will be once we’ve got over the hill that’s blocking our view of the horizon.
We try getting up early but the tent is soggy most mornings and the sun is slow to appear over the hills.

Did I mention there’s no asphalt?

But during all this I discover that I love switchbacks. I love how they weave back and forth and round and round a hill. Looking up and seeing the next turn and the next and the next and way up there the pass that we’ll cross at some point. I’ll never get up there, I think. Then from the top I look down and see the path we’ve come unravelling down the mountainside, swooshing in and out of view and trailing out the bottom along the valley floor and down to the plain beyond.

Then you get to go down the other side… There’s always a point looking down where my mind whispers an expletive and a little fear sparks. I’m sure it’s a good thing.
The thrill of the descents, the heightened concentration and focus when the road surface is bad, trusting the bike and my reflexes to keep us upright, always practising the cornering, split decision on which line to take, keeping an eye out for traffic and rocks and sand and another on the view unfolding before you.
I remember a time, not so long ago when I could only descend thinking “shit shit shit shit” all the way down the hill. Having to force my muscles to relax even a little. There’s still moments that feel like that, but they are pretty rare. They usually come out as a “whoa” instead, as I get some air over an unexpected rock, or a particularly vicious section of washboard rattles my brain so hard I can’t focus.

The climbs we have foreseen. We knew the numbers, the distances, the altitude and overconfidently assumed we’d manage them.

What we hadn’t foreseen was that the road would remain determinedly unasphalted. We would have loose gravel, sand and bone shaking, teeth rattling, interminable washboard.

I finally make peace with that.

We are going to grind slowly to Bishkek, hopefully in time to get to China.

It’s a relief. How much time and energy do we spend being angry that things are not like we thought they would be?

I think the worst is gravel on the flat. There’s something about a perfectly flat stretch of road which taunts you if you can’t get any speed up.

Sometimes we veer off on to some single track at the side of the road. It’s fun, weaving between trees, dodging tussocks of grass.

One time however, having got sick of the washboard I leave the road for a path in the dirt. I think Jamie, up ahead, saw me leave the road and when I come across some Modial tyre marks I assume they are his. I start following them.

I feel pleased that I’ve recognised the tread. I look closer. They are going the wrong way,  it’s not Jamie.
I find my way back to the road, through the spikey scrub, and have a brief panic when I can’t see him. The light is fading fast.
I find him, obviously, and am careful about following tyre marks after that.

Throughout the ride we pass herd after herd of beautiful, powerful horses. A dozen or more in each herd.

Sometimes they gallop down the hill towards us, we think to check us out. They stand nodding to eachother as we pass, we’re not sure what it means but we like to think that they think we’re ok.

We see two herds meeting in the distance, frolicking with joy, their gladness so obvious.

We don’t tire of watching them roaming the land, there are no fences up there, they go where they please. They must be herded from time to time, most are bred for milk and meat, but we rarely see it.

One day however we are starting up the big climb to the Song Kul lake when a truck passes, with a dismantled yurt poking out the top. It’s followed soon by a Audi with the whole extended family crammed in. Next comes a boy on horseback with a donkey, the advance guard for a huge wave of sheep and goats. Another wave of sheep, goats, cows and horses, and then the dogs. The nomads are coming down from Song Kul. Winter is coming.

Instagram post by Maria * Sep 22, 2018 at 6:13am UTC

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The lake is set in a wide open plain, which is the summer grazing for the herds of many Kyrgyz nomads. Not all have left by the time we get up there. There are still many yurts dotting the landscape, and a few yurt villages offering accomodation to the visitors. At 3000+m it is often very cold – 200 days of snow a year.

We decide to camp, perhaps foolishly, and are very cold. We wake to feel, before hearing, horses thundering towards us, the frozen ground vibrating below us. They pass us and continue on to the lake.

The stunning high altitude (3016m) Song Kol lake. This is the summer pasture for the flocks of many Kyrgyz nomads. Most have – wisely – headed down the mountains already.

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After Song Kul we head mostly downhill – with quite a bit of up – until we at last hit the main road and  the asphalt we expected several hundred kilometres ago.

It’s downhill all the way to Kochkor.

We spin the shifter to the highest gear and cruise downhill for 50km in to kochkor. The tyres that felt sluggish when they last saw tarmac now feel light as air.

We decide to forego cycling the last 200km of asphalt and get a lift to Bishkek. We now have a week to get in to China before our visa expires, and have been hearing worrying rumours that the borders may be shut for a holiday.

Once in Bishkek we plan to get some transport across to Almaty in Kazakhstan. From there find our way through the bizarre border-shopping-complex of Khorgos.

But immediately, we need to rest.

Scenic route through Kyrgyzstan? Check.

We made it.

Pamir Highway, part 3 – Murghab to Osh

Murghab to Osh

9 days, 415km

We were seven, then six, eight, six again, then ten.

But to begin with we were seven cycling out from the steampunk town of Murghab. Sophie, Oli, Ruth, Dosh, Stephan, Jamie and I.

We make a social bunch. Cooking dinner together, eating lunch. Sharing pots and pans, spices and ingredients. Washing up together. We build fires to cook on, and sit around a little longer in evenings before the plummeting temperature drives us in to our tents.

Getting going in the morning takes a long time. I’m out the tent earlier than most, but usually spot Oli wandering about hunting for fuel. The others tend to emerge once the sun has hit the tent, and/or they’ve judged the kettle has been on long enough to chance a cup of tea. Rounds of tea and coffee are made as breakfast is cooked up.  Then another cuppa before we go.

We ride at our own paces, often Jamie and I will be out front, sometimes joined by Oli. We practice some slip-streaming into the afternoon headwinds. Other times we chat to the others as we ride, the slower paces making for more contemplative conversations.

Unable to resist, Jamie and I suggest tweaks to our friend’s setups, seat heights, packing systems, riding positions. They take it in good humour, encouraging us on by taking our advice. I try to restrain myself for fear of being presumptuous and annoying. What do I know anyway? Anything I know I’ve picked up through proximity and absorption from Jamie.

One morning we wake to find our water filter has frozen overnight. It’s been below freezing for a few nights and we just didn’t think to keep it inside the tent. It’s likely broken, though we can’t know for sure. It’s a bit of a disaster, though for now our friends generously help us out.

We ride up the biggest pass so far, probably the highest of the trip – 4655m. The last 5km of the 30km climb are rough road and the final few hairpins very steep. The air is thin. The wind is brutal.
We (I) have a little dance at the top. I suspect the altitude and the exertion has made me giddy, or maybe I’m just happy.

I’m certainly happy. These mountains have shifted something in me, I feel strong. I don’t doubt myself.
I can cycle up mountains.

We head to the village of Karikol, next to the high altitude crater lake of the same name.

As we draw close I turn and ask, how long since we left Murghab?

There’s a large army barracks on the edge of town, clearly abandoned, windows broken. The other buildings we can see look bleak, unfinished, abandoned.

Has anyone read the news? Did the apocalypse come while we were away? Are we in a movie now?

Six cyclists in the wilderness. Can they fend for themselves in the zombie apocalypse…?

We spot some people waving. They don’t look like zombies, I think it’s ok.

We spend the next day by the lake. We find a grassy spot and lie out in the sun, snoozing, reading, munching and snoozing again. The lake is turquoise blue, and framed by snow capped mountains. We watch and admire the different hues that both take on as the light and weather change through the day.

Some of the different moods of the beautiful, high altitude lake of Karakul, Tajikistan

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David and Esther, a friendly American/Australian couple cycling east, happen upon us as we’re faffing the next morning.

Our last night in Tajikistan is spent huddling round a fire next to the border fence to China, which we’ve been following for a while now. The next morning the stream has frozen solid.

There’s a not insubstantial climb to get out of Tajikistan, which only seems fitting. A few flakes of snow flutter down as we wait at the top.

The border is a bit weird. There’s a volleyball court. There’s a lot of Marco Polo sheep horns decorating the building, the signposts and piled in the corner. The border guards act strangely. As we leave Tajikistan a couple of guards come out with their rifles and take aim at a squeaking marmot on the hill above us. They don’t shoot, we’re glad, we’ve become very fond of the huge orange marmots.

Between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan there’s an amazing 20km stretch of no-man’s land. Green and rolling hills, not unlike Scotland, but at several thousand metres altitude.

We enter Kyrgyzstan without incident, and we roll – mostly downhill – towards Sary Tash. The valley widens out and suddenly there are yurts spotting the landscape and horses galloping across the plains.

We stop to watch a herd, with the magnificent backdrop of snow capped mountains, merging with the clouds above.

Hello Kyrgyzstan.

The road merges with another going to Sary Tash, and it has traffic on it. It’s an unpleasant and jarring shock.

We part with David and Esther on the outskirts of town planning to ride in different directions, but we swap details and hope that we might catch them somewhere on the road.

Leaving Sary Tash there’s a decent climb almost straight off the bat. We all make our way up at our own speeds, winding our way up the switches and rest at the top waiting to regroup.

Our six becomes ten when we’re surprised by more English cyclists.

Adam and Tim aka Total Bike Forever are a pair of musicians cycling east making music as they go. I understand their panniers are packed with synths, and they collaborate with local musicians on the way.

Jade and Jim are cycling fanatics (and that’s coming from the partner of Jamie Smith) who decided to cycle to China. When they missed the opportunity to get their Chinese visa they decided to keep going anyway. Jim is another cycle mechanic, but keeps it quieter than our Jamie.

With the new people there’s a change in dynamic again.

The four of them cycle pretty fast, and when Jim sprints past me going up the next hill I feel my nerves jangling, my place in the heirarchy loosening, my competitive streak sharpening.

They make me doubt myself.

Having only so recently felt so proud of how strong we are/I am I now need to power up to keep up with them. It seems vitally important that I keep up.

I catch all this going on in my mind, and wonder at it all. When did I become this person? When did feeling good about what I can do become reliant on what the people around me can (or can’t) do? I’m not sure I like this me.

I find I’m emotionally vulnerable too now the dynamic has changed. Like in the schoolyard I worry that we’re not as popular as the new interesting kids.
Sigh. Does nothing ever change?

But, the new interesting kids are in fact interesting, and good fun. The following evenings are long, sitting round the campfire or drinking beer on the pavement, listening to music and sharing stories and general silliness.

But more people mean breakfasts and pack up are drawn out even further than before.

On the penultimate day Jamie’s tyres start to make worrying signs that they’ve had enough. He’s developed an extreme wobble, especially at speed. The tyre is very worn and has begun to bulge in more and more places. We’ve been riding these same semi-slick tyres for 10000km and we’re frankly surprised they’ve got us this far. We have new tyres waiting in Osh.

There’s one last big climb before Osh, and a prolonged breakfast make us late in tackling it. Completely unexpectedly it is really hot as we climb. Expecting a headwind, I hadn’t even thought to worry about the heat. So we sweat our way up the 20km climb, pausing briefly midway for some shade while Oli is coerced on to a donkey by some kids.

I’ve been nursing a bad mood for 18km of the climb, knowing I should let it go but not quite able to. I’m listening to some tunes a friend gave us before we left when a song plays that I’ve never heard before.
It lifts my spirits.

Something in the lyrics touches the root of my bad mood – looking outside of myself for validation, comparing myself to others and being too concerned by what others think of me.

I’d forgotten my mantra:
Don’t take yourself seriously.

Inner man – Dub ReVolutioN! meets Ras Bruno

now available to buy at First single release from Dub RevoluTioN!


After the climb, and a stop for lunch, Jamie and I belt towards Osh in a couple of hours, and like that – with little fanfare – the Pamir Highway is compete.

It has been epic. It has been so hard but the riding had just been amazing. Always changing, never the same for long.
It’s shown me how strong I can be in the right conditions, but always willing to give me the occasional slap when I get ahead of myself. It’s given me faith in myself and what we can do.
The riding, the temperature, the altitude have taken their toll on our bodies and bikes. We all look a little ravished. I’m weary, but happy.

We all go out for dinner later to celebrate, gorging on beer and meat like savages. Francois comes too.

We spend a couple of days in Osh, recuperating, planning, drinking coffee, eating cakes, drinking beer and just being together before Jamie and I make the first breakaway, setting out on our own – across the mountains – towards Bishkek.

I’ll miss the group, I know. Riding together, especially in these remote and trying landscapes, forges a strong bond.

But Jamie and I can feel the restlessness fluttering and we need to remember, or discover, what it is like to ride just the two of us again. It won’t be the same as before, we are not the same as before. Tajikistan, the Pamirs and our friends have left their marks.

Pamir Highway, part 2 – Khorog to Murghab

There are three routes from Khorog. The main Pamir Highway, the M41, goes east through the mountains and is mostly paved. The Wakhan corridor runs south then along the border with Afghanistan and is mostly not. The Shakdara valley cuts between the two. They all converge a little before the village of Alichur. (210km, 225km, 345km respectively)

Francois has gone ahead on the lesser known Shakdara route sending messages back with tempting words like ‘paradise’ and ‘good roads’. Sophie,  Ruth and Oli are convinced by his words and decide to follow.

Jamie and Dosh have their hearts set on the Wakhan corridor, and where Jamie goes I go.

The Wakhan is a longer route, but as we’re a little faster than the others we hope that we might meet up somewhere on the road.

Khorog to Murghab

445km, 9 days

Dosh, Jamie and I set off slowly, I’m not fully recovered from my stomach bug but I feel ready and obliged to leave after a couple of days off.

I haven’t eaten much for a few days. When I do eat I need to lie down for a while. I’m pretty empty now I guess.

I’m surprised my legs are still managing ok though. I’m getting up the hills, I don’t seem to be trailing behind. I’m glad when things settle down (to some extent) a few days later.

We’ve agreed to take things slowly, Dosh has had altitude sickness before, and – unrelatedly – a collapsed lung. We are all ultra-aware of symptoms. I’ve never been this high, and don’t really know what to expect. I’m quietly relieved to be led by Dosh, knowing that Jamie and I can be a bit gung-ho left to our own devices.

The first few days we’re climbing slowly towards Iskashim. We are disappointed to discover that the Afghan-Tajik market has been closed down. They used to run a market on no-mans land that, by giving up your passport to a guard on entering, you could go and wander around.

It gets colder as we climb. We are prepared for it to only get colder from here.

We arrive in Iskashim and attempt to stock up on food for what could be more than seven days. There isn’t much to be found I  terms of supplies further on,  so we are told. It’s hard to find anything particularly inspirational to cook but we do our best.

Dosh and I carry most of the food and the bikes feel incredibly heavy as we climb out of town. I’ve rearranged my bags in order to accommodate the extra food, and the bike feels strange.

As a trio we fall in to an easy pattern. Dosh is very easy to travel with.

We all cycle at our own pace usually, regrouping around meals or as an excuse to have a rest at the top of a hill. We consult eachother on what’s coming up, where to stock up on food and water – but are happy to let Dosh take the lead on what he thinks is possible.

Although theoretically we can camp anywhere finding a spot to camp isn’t always a breeze. The wind howls and there’s not a lot of shelter. Water appears, apparently from nowhere. We assume some glacial melt somewhere out of sight. Once evening Jamie has to do some emergency landscaping, digging a channel to divert the water away from the tent.

Generally we cook and eat together. I tend to start cooking on the evening while Jamie puts up the tent so it seems sensible to include Dosh in that too. Once the tents are set up Dosh will come and set up his wee stool next to me, fire up his stove and help out. We make a good team, and it’s more than twice as easy with two people, two pots and two stoves.  Highlights included fried paprika potatoes with squash curry and egg fried noodles with vegetable stir fry.

Our daily distances plummet again. Partly purposeful, trying to keep effort reasonably low too counteract the difficult environment. The days seem much shorter too, night draws in quickly, and the cold doesn’t encourage us out of the tent in the morning as early as the heat did.

A few days in we take half a day off to visit the Bibi Fatima spring. The spring is high up on the mountain, high above the local fortress. We, thankfully, decide to leave the bikes at a homestay and take a taxi up to the spring.

It is a crazy, crazy climb that has me holding tight to the door handles. We meet a car coming down and our driver pulls the car up on to the verge, we’re tilting wildly and we all unconsciously lean over to try and counter balance, then he manoeuvres back down.

The view back down the valley is extraordinary. A patchwork of fields at the foot of huge mountains, and nestled behind that glacier covered peaks.

Women and men are seperated going in to the spring. I stood around shyly with a dozen Tajik women waiting to go in. Once inside they encompass me in their midst without being overbearing. I feel surprisingly comfortable there amongst these naked women, who seemed neither proud nor ashamed of their bodies. Women in the UK just don’t get naked together and on the rare occasion that we do there is so much judgement against ourselves and others. Or maybe that’s just me…

It feels good. The spring is fed in to a cavern nestled between the building we’d come through and the mountain wall. The water refreshingly hot, perfect for weary cyclist muscles.

In the spring itself there is a little cave through which a couple of the women clamber. It takes a lot of flexibility to climb in. Apparently it’s some kind of fertility cave, if you dive and collect a certain type of stone from inside you’ll get pregnant (who knew?!?). They explain to me – through mime – and look hopefully at me but they don’t force the issue.
I’ll admit I’m curious, but by the time I’m ready to investigate the women are leaving and I really don’t want to get stuck. Well, abstinance is safer I guess.

Outside, Jamie, Dosh and I have a few beers which may be unwise. The steps to the spring already have me feeling a little breathless, the altitude is going to start kicking in more and the signs of altitude sickness are similar to a hangover so I hear…

Predictably the following morning I have a little headache. Beer or altitude?

We’re heading to Langar, 40km away. The road is gravel most of the way. It’s tough, and sometimes disheartening. We can’t ride together, you need room to pick out a path and be ready to change direction suddenly.

The bumping is not helping my head.

It’s Sunday today.  People are out harvesting the wheat, it seems like a family affair. We hear drumming as we pass through the villages.

Jamie tears off ahead for a while which irritates me for a bit. Show off.
But I put some music on and keep my head down and we get through it.

It’s amusing that we’re now pleased that we’ve ridden 10km. 20km. The air is certainly thinner up here and by the end of the day my lungs ache. (2875m altitude)

The following morning  starts with a bit of bike faff and a trip to the shop to replenish our food stocks, and sweets, to last us four days or so. We then tackle the first steep and tricky climb. Hairpins leading out of the town and up 250m or so. Kids run out and offer to push. I decline, but both Jamie and Dosh partake. I’m sorry after seeing them overtake me laughing. The kids are rewarded with a handful of sweets for their effort. I reward myself with a sweet and some short-lived moral superiority.

The road continues to be a bastard. Loose rocks, sand and gravel up steep hills.

I’m swearing a lot. There’s a moment, as I climb a bend and see Jamie disappearing round another bend way in the distance, I think something unworthy and mean, my bike hits the gravel and grinds to a stop – again – it keels over with the extra weight – again.
I roar.
My meanness transforms to rage momentarily and I really want to throw the bike over the edge.
I remember instantly another hill, another country, long ago, where I felt the same rage, the same temptation. I remember too that I got up that hill. So I remount, I find a spot where I can get some traction again and I pedal on.

I remind myself, don’t climb hills and think mean thoughts.

We stop to filter water which takes longer than it should. It’s midday and we haven’t covered 10km yet.

But soon the road gets less steep and at the surface mostly better.

The mountains in Afghanistan get more and more spectacular. We’re now seeing the famous and dramatic Hindu Kush mountains. Glaciers peek out from almost every crevice, snow capped peaks. The landscape mostly plantless, except for small pockets fed by the glacier melt. Sometimes cultivated, the vibrant colours jumping out across the valley.
The changing light through the day was fascinating, the sharp peaks and gullies catching the light or thrown in to shadow.

We realise that we’re not going to make 40km today, and pull off on a flat spot with a stream nearby.

The view is wonderful but it’s cold. All the warm clothes come out, the thermals, downies, hats are pulled on quickly. (Altitude 3560m)

The next morning the first 10km are a relative breeze. Some fast(ish) downhill and some smooth(ish) road. We stop for a snack and a spot of washing after an hour of riding.

The river is now much narrower, and turquoise instead of brown. It looks like an easy spot to nip over to Afghanistan if you wanted to.

Setting off again the road gets sandier, steeper, harder. The next 15km are a struggle and one sandy hill has me almost in tears of frustration.

We see camels at the river.

The lunch spot we’ve been aiming for is blissful. Lush grass, babbling river. We have a good lunch and relax a bit before filling up to capacity with water. This is the last water spot for the day, apparently.

Jamie insists on carrying the extra.

Dosh goes ahead, assuming we’ll catch him quickly. But a couple of kilometres in my gears stop working. I stop and discover the shifter box has come off and, disaster, the screw has fallen out. It must have rattled free.  I start searching in the sandy road, following my tracks back. Jamie rides, I walk. We don’t find it, unsurprisingly.

We use electrical tape to reattach it.

The last 15km are hard. We’re weary already and the road is thick with sand, interspersed with washboards. There’s a couple of steep loose climbs that have us pushing the bikes. Jamie’s struggling with the extra weight of water, but won’t let me carry any.

A few more kilometres of sand and we finally see Dosh. It’s a windy plain but he’s found a decent sized rock that we’ll be able to cook behind.

I attempt and fail to make fish cakes. I’d been wondering what to do with the powdered mashed potato we’d accidentally bought instead of semolina (we discovered our mistake while eating sweet mashed potato for breakfast) and had got a bit set on the idea. Points for trying I guess. The result is tasty, just a mess.

Note to self: cooking experiments are best attempted out of the wind, at lower altitude.

Did you know that water boils at a lower temperature at altitude, which means it takes ages to cook anything?

It’s even colder than last night, so we head to bed as soon as we can. (Altitude: 3800m)

The big Khargush pass looms the following morning.

We start the climb. It’s 15km or so and only 450m which isn’t much considering. But we’re already at 3800m and it gets harder the higher we go.

The sky is an unbelievable deep blue.

The pass is taking us inland, looking back towards Afghanistan we bid it goodbye. The mountains, snows peaked , are magnificent in the distance. It’s possible we’re even seeing Pakistan beyond.

We continue up. At the top of the Khargush pass (4306m) is a green lake, quite stunning. As the clouds roll over the water turns navy blue, turquoise, green. The surrounding mountains look dramatic and eery in the changing light.

We take the obligatory selfie but the wind is fierce so we carry on, looking for a spot to shelter for lunch. The top section of the descent is fun, it’s envigorating to get some speed after so much crawling, but we have to hold back a bit – the road surface changes suddenly, rocks appear out of nowhere, sand banks ready to cause a skid if not a tumble.

We spy a green area among all the barren rock. It’s full of donkeys. We decide to take shelter there for lunch. We find a spot out of the wind and entertain ourselves watching a dozen donkeys, one tiny newborn, go about their business. They come and check us out, clearly suspicious of Jamie’s laden bicycle.

“Tsk. Coming over here, taking our jobs…”

There’s also marmots, big ones, marmotting about. They squeak the alarm call as we pass, diving down their holes for shelter. They’re soon back again.

While we’re eating lunch two young boys in balaclavas turn up, jump on a donkey each and start herding them away.

After lunch we tackle the rest of the descent. There is a lot of sand and a lot of washboard. There are a few fun sections, a couple of hairy fast turns, but mostly it’s hard, bouncy work.

There are more lakes, with a halo of white around their shore. Salt.

I’ve got a furious headache, aggravated by every bounce of the washboard. It starts to make me feel queasy. I suspect delayed effects of the altitude. Eventually I have to stop and take some painkillers.

We finally meet the main m41, the official pamir highway.

It’s smooth asphalt. It feels soft in comparison.

We whizz a few kilometres just for the fun, then turn back to find a campspot. Dosh is a way behind and we don’t want to go too far, not knowing how long he’ll be.

He’s not long, though he’s also been suffering from an altitude headache.

It’s cold again though so we crawl of to bed by 8.

I loved today, it was just glorious.

Sleep: 3800m

Some more spectacular moments from the Wakhan valley. The road follows the border with Afghanistan, then up and over the Kargush pass at 4300m before rejoining the Pamir Highway proper. Not a bit of asphalt in sight – sand, gravel and washboards #whoneedsasphaltanyway

34 Likes, 7 Comments – Maria (@mariamazyoung) on Instagram: “Some more spectacular moments from the Wakhan valley. The road follows the border with Afghanistan,…”

The following morning we’re joined by a French cycle tourist called Stephan. He’s doing the Dushanbe to Osh section then flying home, he’s in a bit of a hurry but happy to ride with us for a coupe of days.

The asphalt is glorious. Barely able to contain ourselves we sprint the 20km to Alichur. The final descent is thrilling and we enter the town grinning.

We’d toyed with the idea of stopping in Alichur over night, but change our minds once we see the town. There’s not much to occupy us and Murghab is not too far away. We (second-) breakfast, hunt down a shop, use the bin (we’re carrying about a kilo bye rubbish by now), restock on biscuits and sweets, fill up on water from the village pump and head out of town. There is a little mobile signal for the first time in a while, and we try to work out where Sophie, Ruth and Oli might be. The messages we get from are outdated and a bit garbled. We decide they must be a way ahead of us by now.

The valley is wide and soon we have a marvellous tailwind propelling us forward. The kilometres are speeding by. Jamie and I are enjoying our slick tyres again, which for days have been giving us grief in the deep sand.

We see yurt villages in the distance.

By the time we stop for lunch we’ve done more kilometres than we’ve done in any day of the last week or so. The wind continues to pick up and we find a hole in the ground to shelter. Two beautiful dogs join us for lunch.

We’re not sure how far we expect to get today, aware that we could, at a push,  make it all the way to Murghab. We keep saying, let’s see where we are in an hour…

It’s not all easy, the altitude makes any slight climb hard work. Because all our recent climbs have been so slow they haven’t had us so out of breath. These climbs, attempted at speed, have me panting all the way.

It’s also cold. Any short stop requires more layers.

We go over another +4000m pass barely noticing the moment: the gentle incline, the asphalt and the tailwind make it almost easy.

As always the scenery is stunning. The mountains are not so high here – relatively – but each peak changes in colour and texture. Some look like they’re growing, some look like huge pieces of burr walnut, some like giant mounds of pink sawdust.

15km away from Murghab we pass a gorgeous campspot. We’ve all been thinking about a hot shower and beer so are torn. We decide by tossing a coin, beer it is. There are a couple of steep climbs and then an incredible descent with views across the green and blue river plain to Murghab.

We roll in to the Pamir Hotel just before the towns electricity is turned on for the night.  We’ve cycled 129km.

We get a message from our friends that they stayed in Alichur for the night.

We stay in Murghab for a day and try to make a bit of a recovery. The Wakhan has taken its toll on us physically.

Murghab is a strange place. It seems to be a place for passing through, which is what I assume it mainly is – a town to stock up on the way somewhere else. We settle on the word “post-apocalyptic” to describe it.

The electricity is on from 7.30pm to 11pm. The bazaar is a line of beaten up shipping containers, mostly windowless, mostly bare. There are vegetables though, which we buy up greedily.
There is one shipping container which provides us with a few surprising goods, a new USB C phone cable, electrical tape, moisturiser… Thanks Francois for that tip off.
Otherwise the town feels pretty hard.
Piles of scrap metal in the middle of the roads.
We make a detour to the tourist information. We find it finally, a door painted “Tour-ist Info-rma-tion”. It’s locked.

The nicest spot we discover is behind the bazaar, an icecream shop. We sit out eating icecream, ignoring the sound of the generator, before heading back to the hotel.

The guys arrive from Alichur in the evening, and we have a great time catching up with them over dinner and a beer. We convince them to ride on with us in the morning.

The crew is reunited (with a replacement French man).

Cycling the Wakhan corridor with our new friend Dosh. The roads are hard but the views spectacular.

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Pamir Highway, Part 1 – Dushanbe to Khorog


The Pamir highway, aka the M41, is the second highest transcontinental highway in the world. The road was constructed partly in the 19th century (during the Great Game), and partly in 1930s by the Soviet Union.

File:Pamir Highway Route.jpg – Wikipedia

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Construction and maintenance levels vary substantially along the highway. The road is heavily damaged in most of its length by erosion, earthquakes, landslides, and avalanches.

It runs from Dushanbe, in Tajikistan, south through the mountains along the Panj river, the border with Afghanistan. At Khorog the main road runs east while the alternate route continues along the border through the Wakhan valley. They join near the village of Alichur, and continue across the border to Osh in Kyrgyzstan.

The road is falling apart, the mountains remote. Much of the road is over 3000m and the passes climb to 4655m, the peaks themselves tower over 6000m.

One of the classic high altitude bicycle rides, the Pamir Highway is on many cycle tourist’s bucket list.


I’ve been afraid of the Pamir Highway since before we set off on this journey.

It was on the itinerary from the beginning. Jamie knew he wanted to do it and I knew it better not think too much about it.

However it’s been there in background every time I’ve struggled up a hill. “If this is hard how are you going to cope in the Pamirs?”

Like everything on this trip, I hoped I’d be ready for it when the time came.

Dushanbe to Khorog

(500km, 8 days)

There are two options to cycle from Dushanbe. To summarise: the southern route is a better road surface but busier, the northern harder and more scenic.

Having had some time off the bike in Uzbekistan I’d hoped and assumed I’d have a little more time to work up to the hard terrain of Tajikistan. But after careful consideration (reading one article) there was no real choice, ready or not we’d be taking the beautiful but difficult northern road.

My consolation was an article comparing the two which claimed that the northern route would be harder than anything else on the M41.

Well, I suppose it would be good to find out early whether I’m up to it.

From our first few days riding out from Dushanbe.

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The cycle is slow, slow, slow.

We didn’t account for how slow it would be – we’d heard people suggesting 50-60km per day is good, but assumed that we’d manage more than that.


65km and we are exhausted, even when we aren’t doing a massive climb. The road undulates along the river valley, upstream so we’re always climbing a bit. The road surfaces deteriorate 100km after Dushanbe and the ‘good road’ doesn’t start again till 60km from Khorog. The rest is anything from deep sand, rocks, gravel, potted concrete with some broken asphalt thrown in for good measure. There’s a section, several kilometres long which is crafted from smooth, loose goose-egg sized stones fetched from the river bed. Completely agonising to cycle across, especially on our treadless skinny tyres. (More on this to come)

Despite this the ride is glorious. The pace allows me time to marvel at the towering mountains soaring above on both sides. The roadside is dotted again with wildflowers – I realise how much I missed them in the desert.

For the first few days riding on this terrain I’m surprised and pleased to find my legs are coping and my mood is joyful.

Even the big climb doesn’t deter me. After 4km of gentle warm up we start up the 30km climb.

Bee-eaters and hoopoes flit across the road, lining up on the electrical line for a rest and then off again as we pass. We catch sight of a woodpecker too, with his signature flash of red.

The road continues to wind up through little hamlets. One like an oasis, tree lined, beautifully kept gardens. Later little farming communities. They are collecting hay on the hillsides, some pastures stretching up along the crevices of the mountains, now polkadotted with hay bales.

The climb is long and slow. The road surface is a trial. We rest at 10km for a snack, 15km to do some pannier faffing, 20km for a breather and finally break for lunch after 22km. It’s too hot and we are hurting after 5.5 hours grinding bumpily up the road. We’re averaging about 7.5km/ hour. There’s no shade up here now though, above the tree line,  so we string up the blanket and snooze beside a burbling stream.

It is stunning, and I ache, and I’m happy. I’m planning a trip back on a mountain bike. Maybe for my 40th.

We climb the last 8km to the 3252m summit. By the last couple of turns my boundless joy is finding it’s bounds and I’m ready to stop climbing. It’s the highest pass so far, and it feels it.

Panoramic views across the landscape. We can see forever. We spot hints of single track that have Jamie salivating.

The wind blows at the top and we huddle in the bus shelter (we don’t know why there’s bus shelters dotted up the road, I’m certain there are no buses) to eat a celebratory biscuit. There is not a soul to be seen.

There are signs warning us that there are landmines though, reminding us that it’s not always been a peaceful place.

We don’t celebrate long, too cold. We start the descent. It’s steep and bouncy all the way down. Both hands and legs begin to cramp, standing up on the pedals and holding tight to the brakes. We stop often to allow the brakes to cool off and the hands to relax. At least we can get our aching bums off the saddle.

Some of the roads are vertigo inducing, high up a very steep mountain side. Each turn showing a different mountain face. We see more snowy peaks, and even some snow in a crevase below us.

We pass a couple of tiny habitations, semi permanent tents. Maybe just up here in the summer months, these roads are impassable late in the year. Children come out demanding chocolate and shouting at us angrily when we dont stop.

Lavender blooms at the side of the road, which surprises me.

Some crazy switchbacks launch us back down to the river where we decide to make camp rather than take on the last 10km to the town. We get a wash in the river – two days in a row – before dinner. Afterwards we lie out looking at the stars framed by the silhouettes of the epic mountains on every side.

The following day is harder, emotionally.

The last of the descent is rattely but fine. We meet a new river, clearly a glacier run off, that incredible luminous turquoise colour which is such a delight. It leads us the rest of the way in to the town of Kuali Khum.

We find the “well stocked” supermarket, and remember that all things are relative. The carefully planned meal list goes out the door and we stock up on things with no idea what they will become. A veg shop a few doors along makes me feel better about our haul.

We make our way out of town, my bike significantly heavier and feeling sluggish. I have to stop and check I don’t have a flat, but no, just heavy. The road returns to it’s undulations along the river, a different river now, this one torrential and grey with sediment.

I found myself strangely irritated that we are following this river upstream, having so recently come over the watershed. I’m also sorry we have this murky river instead of the luscious blue one.

I have to remind myself that this has happened before. I focus on coping with a big day, in this case yesterday’s climb, and then feel flat and emotional and struggle all through the next day instead.

I’m also feeling that we need to push on. Khorog is still 240km from Kuali Khum – which we’d usually do in two days. With this road surface who knows how long, but we’re keen to get to Khorog to regroup and then start on the ‘real’ pamir highway.

I pull off in the shade for a rest and acknowledge all these things to Jamie. He consoles me and feeds me and we get back on the road. The next few hours are a little easier.

I realise with a start that the landscape I’m looking at on the other side of the river is Afghanistan. I give it much more attention than I had been previously. Little hamlets with buildings skimmed or built out of clay or mud. Beautifully cultivated strips of land amongst them and sometimes high up on the cliff faces. Because they – like us – are hemmed in by enormous mountains. There’s a matching track on the Afghan side, more rugged looking. We spot people whizzing along on mopeds.
Afghanistan looks greener.

We stop in the shade of some trees by the side of the road , in the company of some inquisitive cows. A snooze and some food and a little talk to myself and my temperament is a little restored.

I remember this is meant to be hard, it’s a notoriously difficult route.

We carry on, both a little reluctantly i feel. Jamie doesn’t say so but I think he’s finding it hard today too.

We’ve seen a camping spot marked on the map which we decide to head for. It’s 17km away which should be fine… It is fine but they are hard kilometres again. The road is busier than the previous so we have to be more careful as we meander across the road trying to find the smoothest, easiest surfaces. The last couple of km are particularly tough. Steep sections, narrow sections, hairpins with sheer drops to the river on one side. Deep sand at times too, possibly the most terrifying as the bike takes on a mind of its own.

We make it finally, the first flat spot for 10km at least, otherwise I would have demanded that we stop earlier. My resilience has deteriorated again…

The campspot looks over at a little settlement on the Afghan side, a dozen houses clinging to the mountainside. It’s beautiful, especially as the darkness sweeps in and the lights twinkle on.

Weary and aching we set up camp and cook dinner, having to change track as I discover that all the tomatoes have turned to mush from all the bouncing, despite being cushioned in amongst my clothes. I haven’t investigated the state of my clothes yet.

I’m very happy to go to bed tonight and I’ll be having a word with myself about my attitude for tomorrow.

It seems to work, the following morning my mood is better but my energy low. By the end of the day I have a new litany of aches – lower back, hips, elbow…

We acknowledge that the road surfaces mean we have to reconsider what a reasonable daily distance is. We reckon about half our usual mileage is about right.

On the seventh day we meet a friendly Swiss cyclist while Jamie has his bum out. I’d suggested that Jamie not point his bare bum at Afghanistan, Sotheby might not like it, so he turns around just as the cyclist rides down the hill towards us. Luckily he finds it hilarious.

Shortly after we met another bunch of cyclists who tell us that our friends from Dushanbe are not too far ahead. We pick up our pace a little and find them around lunchtime snoozing by the river.

Sophie, Ruth, Oli, Dosh and Francois had joined forces around Kuali Khum, and had been making their way together since then. They generously encompass us in their midst and we ride together in various formations for some time to come…

Introducing Marmotley Crew…

Sophie has been doing a tour of central Asia after spending some time working in Russia. She speaks Russian, (German, French, English, Spanish too) which is a godsend. Incredibly kind and generous to a fault. Her panniers are always open – literally and metaphorically – by the time we reach Osh she had become everyone’s breakfast sponsor, doling out the dried fruit which she’s been carrying by the kilo since Dushanbe.

Francois is a French velopirate riding the world until he doesn’t. He rides with a box strapped to the back on his bike, crammed with stuff. It’s fascinating to cycle behind him to see what’s lodged on the back – seating, tent, hammock, beer, flags… He can move it fast when he wants, despite his rather French drinking and smoking habits. In Dushanbe he was the first to greet us in a huge group of cyclists and immediately invited us to join. With a mischevious twinkle in his eye he will make a gathering happen wherever he is .

Oli has a smile for everyone, and seems to make everyone smile. Another bringer-together of people he is an avid fire builder, collecting wood, coal and yak dung all day in order to build a blaze later on. Most people would become a liability with the extra bits and pieces hanging off the back of the bike, but Oli is seen soaring down mountains with “look mum no hands!” to check that the bike is balanced properly. He’s also known to come flying back down a hill towards you, brandishing a camera. He’s also a fine cook, undetered by growing numbers of people to cater for.

Ruth also weilds a camera, more subtly perhaps. She strikes up conversations with everyone, inspiring or encouraging them to share their stories and open themselves to her. She remembers the names of everyone they’ve stayed with and has a good word to say about everyone. I’ve never seen her without a smile. I’ve heard that she once gave a man on the tube a scowl.

Dosh – a Swedish-passport-holding-English-sounding-Pole – is the experienced bike tourer of the group. He’s touring central Asia now, but finished a two year world tour last year. He’s funny and quiet and kind, and sometimes seems amused by the rest of us. Without meaning to we all turn to him and ask where are we going? where are we going to eat? where’s the next water?

Riding with seven takes a lot of time.

A quick break will soon become a lengthy stop as people gather, chat, faff and then get going again.

On our second day riding together Jamie and I are out front as we hit about 20km. We decide we should wait to let the others catch up, being new to the group not wanting to get the pace wrong. We sit down, eat a biscuit or two. Dosh appears. We have a chat. Francois arrives next brandishing a paint can which he starts to fashion in to a stove. The others arrive soon after and settle down to have a break. It is probably an hour later before we set off again.

I leave Jamie chatting about bikes and take the opportunity to sprint on a beautiful stretch of good road. We realise it’s possible to untether a bit in a group. When it’s just the two of us we stay within eyesight, matching our paces, but in a bigger group we can stretch our legs – or dawdle – and enjoy a bit of solitary time. (More on this later)

We regroup and enjoy a sprint in to Khorog and find our way to the Pamir lodge, up an uncomfortably steep hill. We cook and eat curry together strung out on a bench like a sweaty, ratty version of the last supper.

Unrelatedly, I spend the next two days scurrying to the loos with a bad stomach, a common complaint from the cycling community in Tajikistan. As a result I can’t report much about the sights of Khorog.

Francois, his tajik visa running out and a lone pirate at heart, sets out a day earlier than the rest.

Everyone else tinkers with bikes, eats Indian food and debates routes before we finally gather ourselves together and set out on the next stage of the journey.