By the time we reached Khorug, our bodies, brains and bikes were well in need of a rest. The new wheels had held up through the bumpy gravel roads and our digestive systems were mostly back to normal, but we were exhausted and one of my pannier bags had a rather sizeable 8 inch tear down one of its sides that would have to be fixed before we could continue.
Our bodies were craving fresh fruits and veggies of which there was a distinct lack over the first leg of the route, and we knew that this would not improve as we continued further into Tajikistan. We planned to spend our time in Khorug deliberating which route to take next and eating as much watermelon, peaches and tomatoes as our stomachs could… stomach.
Route wise there were two options we were considering: the Whakan Corridor or the main M41 route. But the concept of main road in Tajikistan should be taken with a pinch of salt. Less than 30% of the Tajik population live east of Khorug, the roads would be mostly unpaved and the further east we would go the fewer cars we would see.
Option #1 – the Whakan Corridor, would mean continung along the Panj river next to the border with Afghanistan – arguably more scenic than the M41, but would involve cycling on large sections of sand and washboard and sometimes sandy washboard. Option #2 – sticking to the main M41 route, we would climb to higher elevations sooner and although there would be no sand to cycle on there would be plenty of gravel and broken tarmac.
We stayed at the Pamir lodge, a hostel renowned amongst cyclists pedalling the Pamir… Although to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why or how it gets its fame. It was however great to be in a place with so many other cyclists – over the 3 nights we were there, 19 cyclists came and went some going East, others West, some doing a tour of the Pamir and some making bigger trips.
Our friends Mari and Eva aka the “Dutch girls” arrived a day after us, we finally met Thijs and Nienke of whom we had heard tale of Thijs’ dog biting incident in Azerbaijan and we met again Vitaly. He had been backpacking with his brother and when they heard about the Pamir highway had decided to buy bikes, strap their backpacks to the back of their new steads and give it a go. Alas, the north road had been too much for Vitaly’s brother and now Vitaly was doing at it alone.
After much discussion over camping stove dinners (as the kitchen was so nasty noone dared use it) we decided to stick to the main M41 route. We had become so frustrated with the road leading to Khorug that we could barely enjoy the views that we were surrounded by. We were so exhausted at the end of a day of cycling that we didn’t have the energy to enjoy our night of camping, we would just collapse into the tent and fall almost immediately to sleep. We figured that by taking the M41, the marginally better road would hopefully mean that we would be marginally less exhausted at the end of day and would be able to appreciate the landscapes and our campspots marginally more.
And so it was. Our legs had mostly recovered from the trauma we had imposed on them from our way through the North Road, we had an onwards route, a stellar cycling team with Mari and Eva, and panniers full of rice, lentils and snickers bars. What else could we possibly need?
We set off with the pure aim of taking it easy. Starting at the comfortable 2000m ish altitude in Khorug (higher than the whole of the UK and Ireland), we would spend the next 175km climbing up to above 4000m. Given that once we reached 3000m we would have to climb higher slowly, if we wanted to do our best to avoid altitude sickness and acclimatise properly. We would be restricted to cycling 30km days so as to only gain 3 or 400m of altitude per day. We were delighted. Plans were already being made for afternoons in hot springs, watercolor painting and tea drinking.
We soon fell into a comfortable routine with Mari and Eva, together we made an excellent cycling team. During the day we were kept endlessly entertained by the healthy marmot population, as they stood upright on their hind legs or ran away from with bottoms wiggling behind them. Joining the marmots, we’d often see giant yaks grazing the barren landscape. I really don’t know how they found enough plants to eat to keep themselves alive… Bigger (and somehow more ridiculous looking) than a cow, they are not the smallest of creatures.
With the scarce food supplies in the Pamir, we would often find ourselves dreaming of gourmet dinners to concoct on our camping stoves. Alas, most of the time we were disappointed when we came across the usually very empty magasin, but we definitely ate better than the average cyclist that pedals the Pamir highway subsisting mostly on a diet of instant noodles and stale biscuits. We had a stash of dried mushrooms that we had been carrying from Dushanbe and the Dutch girls introduced us to smetana, aka creme fraiche. With these and a stash of spices we had tent dinners of mushroom risotto and tasty lentil dahls, and we are probably the only cyclists to have successfully made mashed potato over 4000m. (The key is grating the potato to get it to cook before your fuel runs out, and adding a dollop of yak butter.)
Occasionally we would stop in a homestay for shelter from the brutal wind. Sometimes just for tea and (generally stale) bread, maybe with yogurt, butter and jam or just piles of cookies or candies. Other times we would ask to stay and be invited inside. A fire built for us from bricks of cow or yak poo (as they were above the tree line) and buckets of water warmed for us one-by-one so that we could have a wash and scrub off our most recently accumulated layer of dust.
As we continued to pedal above 3500m for days and days, we learnt that there were other symptoms of being at high altitude than the notorious altitude sickness. Whilst all of us managed to avoid the headaches and vomiting that comes with gaining elevation too quickly, we couldn’t avoid some of the other side affects.
Some unexpected internet access informed us that our excessive-high-volume, peeing was actually a result of our kidneys coping with the lowered oxygen levels and they were simply trying harder than ever to expell the carbon dioxide rich pee filling our bladders.
The second was a matter of gas. It even has a name : HAFE. Turns out the difference in air pressure above 3500m in comparison to below is significant enough that your body has trouble equalising your internal body pressure with the new lower external pressure. The trouble exhibits itself in the form of farts. That’s right kids, at high altitudes you fart more. Thankfully, it affected all for of us more or less equally, so we could do little more than laugh at our campfire orchestra.
(HAFE : high altitude flatulence effect.)
At last we reached Murghab, which felt like something of a landmark. The last big town in Tajikistan. It feels like you’ve pedalled the worst of the challenge, but in fact the hardest was to come. Ignorant to this, we enjoyed a day off stocking up at the bizarre bazaar made of shipping containers, trying yak’s milk ice-cream and having a shower. The fact that having a shower gets mentioned gives you an idea as to how many we might have had in the past weeks…