“Time is the coin of life. Only you can determine how it will be spent.”
Khorog – Murghab – Osh via North Road (728km – 11 days)
As we arrived in Khorog, before we could even find some accommodation a fellow cycle tourer we’d met in Dushanbe told us not to eat any of the food from restaurants since everyone was getting ill. Quite the auspicious start.
Now there was no way we were going to follow that sort of advice. He was suggesting we just cook some pasta and sauce on our stoves. Which I personally wasn’t ‘too’ keen to repeat for an 11th night in a row. So we dutifully ignored the advice and smashed an Indian meal.
Next morning I wake up. Have breakfast. Feel ill soon after. Things come out from both ends. Feel horrendous. Unfortunately I’d run out of water and food – and my roommates had gone out – so I decided to brave a walk to the corner shop. I walked the 50m there. Picked up some items. Immediately start to feel very, very hot. Dropped the items on the counter. Walked out. By now my vision was slowly blurring into nothingness. I couldn’t really use my legs anymore. About 30m from the guesthouse I simply hung off a door handle for dear life. At the moment in time I simply couldn’t decide whether to throw up, have a diarrhoea attack in the public street or simply pass out. All wanted to happen at the exact same moment.
Thank God – the hostel owner ran over – held me up and started laughing thinking I was absolutely steaming drunk at 3pm (he had already garnered how much of an absolute LAD I am). I corrected his assumptions by saying – ill. Very… ill. He carried me back to my room and I collapsed on my bed. Thankfully the corporeal movements had not materialised so my dignity was still left somewhat in tact.
The next day one of my roommates, Holly, also got ill with the same problem. Her boyfriend Conrad must have been ‘quite’ bored by this point. He had to spend 4 days in this random town in the middle of the Himalayas. Nothing to do and his only companions were dead to the world. The fifth day since we arrived we finally, very tentatively crept our way out of town – not feeling at peak condition as we started out ascent from around 2000m up to a maximum of 4,650m over the next few days.
The second night out of Khorog we had an early finish because it was the last hotel for miles around and it also sported a famous hot baths.
We rested up and when asking reception when their restaurant would start serving lunch, some Tajik people at reception told us to come with them. We looked to the receptionist for some sort of guidance and they intimated to go with the people. Right – well guess that’s decided then…
We jumped into their Toyota Landcruiser as they drove us a few kilometres down the road to a small town. The whole local population were outside playing and chatting. We were led into a house. Still no idea what was happening. Told to sit down at a low table – where there is never any leg room or space to actually squeeze a fully grown westerner into. So with knees over knees we were brought out some of the famed cow hoof broth. Now – I am actually sort of a vegetarian (travelling this area will do that to some people). But before I could get my excuses in Holly leapt forward and claimed, in a bare-faced fib – that she is a vegetarian. Now – with only two of us left to consume this sort of forced me and Conrad to try and tackle the hairy knuckle.
Other guests started piling in. We still couldn’t work out who’s house this was. Who these people were. Who the other guests were. But as we spoke with the single english speaker out of our hosts – this was a religious festival and we were dining in a local restaurant. Without giving us a chance to protest the eldest of our hosts subtly paid for all of our meals and so we left to return to the guesthouse.
As we got back, I asked our benevolent hosts about the baths. I had heard that you needed to be naked to use them and it turned out this was true. I said I would try them out as soon as we get back and one of our hosts quipped that they will join me.
Or so i thought they were joking. Just as I was stripping naked in the changing rooms, so our three Tajik benefactors stroll in. It’s now too late for me to abort mission. I am obviously stripping down to use the baths – and hell, I just told them that was exactly what I was about to do. No escape Mr Cadence Bro. Onwards to Moscow…
We all stripped and wandered over to the bath. This was heat that I have never experienced before. I dipped a foot in and instantly felt it scolding. So as these hardened Tajik farmers dived into the cauldron I was left sitting on the edge, wincing, with my toes in the water and meat and two veg most certainly out. It was almost like I was just presenting my full form to them. Very quickly things got awkward so I made my apologies, admitted to being unable to handle the heat and made a quick getaway.
The nighttime also had a few surprises up its sleeve at our Soviet solarium, since we each individually found out that we were locked inside the hotel, with the only toilet being an outhouse in the garden. My two roommates, being magnanimous souls, both jumped out of the bedroom window to get to the outhouse. Mr Cadence Bro didn’t want to risk waking up his roommates though so instead I went to the male hot bath area, and urinated in the cold shower that you take beforehand. I mean – I aimed for the plug hole and everything, so basically just as virtuous an option. And at least I wasn’t tempted by the stagnant hot bath…
We left the next morning and this was the start of four 4,000m peaks over the next three days. When the Tour de France goes above 2,000m they start talking about how much this affects their performance. At these heights – any effort beyond very easy is met with deep heavy breathing and you simply have to wait to catch your breath back.
The first 4,000m peak was called the Koitesek Pass and it took us until lunchtime to reach the top. However the peak was not followed by a descent but instead a 20km plateau where the loneliest farmers in the world seem to dwell. At these heights the scenery is start and barren. The animals and plant life is limited and any winds cause you to chill to your core.
A few days later we took on the famous Ak-Baital pass which is the highest on the pamir highway at 4,565m. There had been a steady ascent all morning in the freezing winds. However the climb only really gets going in the last 3 kms when it cranks up to 8% plus slopes. Annoyingly as you reach the foot of this climb – here is the only sign commemorating your achievement. So everyone has to smile and pose for their ‘i’ve reached the highest point’ Instagram post photo. Knowing full well that actually the climb is still in front of me…
We weren’t aware of the gradients and at these altitudes I’d estimated them to be about twice as steep as they turned out to be. That’s a sign of how hard the effort is to turn the pedals. Half of our group were forced to walk up a large part of this final section but obviously I refused to let any part of the pamir highway defeat me and so crawled my way up, taking breaks every 200m or so. Although only 3km it was probably the most exhausting climb of my life.
We descended in the late afternoon and found some shelter that night in an old caravanserai which the old traders used to sleep in when moving up and down the Silk Road to trade their goods.
This section of the route was truly barren and other-worldly. We would see multi coloured lakes, and skulls of the famous Marco Polo sheep littered across the barren, dystopian landscape. I’d honestly never seen anything like it.
Our final night before crossing the border over to Kazakhstan and to the safe haven of Osh we bumped into a crazy French man called Florian who was walking around the Pamirs – and was at that point barefooted. Because – you know – it’s easier that way. He directed us to the caravanserai he was staying in and we set up our tents in separate rooms. As we made dinner he joined us and started telling us about his travels. He had spent all his adult life walking through various areas of the world and working when absolutely necessary. In order to reduce his carrying weight he makes all his own lightweight equipment and he doesn’t carry a stove. The only food he takes with him are nuts, dried fruit and biscuits.
Feeling guilty while smashing a full plate of pasta and sauce I offered him half of my plate and he happily accepted. As much as we think we struggle on the bikes – at least you can carry a lot of weight and have a load of luxuries with you to make the experience more comfortable. This guy was proper bare bones. I didn’t know whether to think of him as impressive or foolhardy – but he was certainly putting a big middle finger up to the norm and doing his own thing.
Which I suppose we all were in our own ways. We’d all ended up on those Himalayan dunes either in search of something or simply to get away from what we had been doing – and so in our freewheeling subset, living outside social norms and anything we had known up to that point, we steadily made our way towards the Kyrgyzstan border.
You can watch an English language video made by some of the people I was travelling through Tajikistan with below. Thanks Holly and Conrad!