We had been anticipating the Pamir Highway for such a long time. When we were getting tired of the lack of camping and craving some personal space in Iran, I was wishing ourselves forward a few thousand kms to Tajikistan. But then suddenly we were here. Less than ten days after leaving Iran, we had sped through Turkmenistan (on the train) and Uzbekistan (in the crazy heat) and were entering our third ‘Stan. Suddenly, even though we had been looking forward to it we needed some mental preparation and adjustment before entery our 22bd country.
As soon as we crossed the border the mountains began to appear, the wind morphed into a beautiful tailwind and the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees from a stifling 45° to a much more reasonable 40°. The high-fives from every small child we passed began almost immediately and everything started to look a little bit greener.
The grins on our faces were huge and we’d only been in the country for an afternoon. We shared our glee with Tom and Sabine who had left Samarkand earlier than us, but with which we caught up with to camp in an orchard in the evening.
We babbled together, all happy to be back camping, happy to see mountains and happy for the mountains to come. We shared our camp with a few dogs and an overexcited donkey, but in our high spirits the more were the merrier.
After the flat lands of Uzbekistan, over the next few days our legs would be reminded how to pedal up mountains. We would be pretty much be doing nothing but cycling up for two days before plummeting back down to the same elevation we that started at to reach Dushanbe. Thankfully there were apricots a plenty to power us up the hills – drying on rooftops, hanging from trees and being passed to us by the handful by the ever smiling Tajik women.
As if we didn’t think we would have enough gravel road passes to conquer in Tajikistan, we decided to add another into the mix and took a diversion to Iskanderkul. A beautiful glacial lake a short 30km off the main road and 1500m up…
Alas, somehow the lake wasn’t quite as spectacular as any of us had expected. We had each been recommended to visit from people that had visited in the winter months. At that time of year the water is a crystal clear blue, however when we arrived it was a cloudy murky brown. And flooded. And full of mosquitoes.
Our evening was an harassed affair, feeling extra sticky after the anticipation of an eventually non-existant swim and preoccupied with us swotting away mosquitoes that showed no repulsion from our bug repellent and continued to try to eat us as we tried to cook our tea.
Nevertheless, even if we didn’t get the lakeside campspot we had dreamed of (because the beach was flooded), the ride up had been beautiful in itself. The rock formations reminded us of Cappodocia and the extra day cycling delayed our arrival to Dushanbe postponed us from having to contemplate the extra long to-do list we had to complete before starting the Pamir.
Some how rest-days always turn into do-days as we struggle to fix whatever gear has most recently broken itself, find supplies to keep us going until our next stop in relative civilization, write a blog post or three to get our increasingly behind blog up do date, remove the most recent layer of mud and grime from our bikes to try and diminish the latest squeaks and creaks and finally try and get a little bit of rest. Quite often our rest days finish with us feeling that we need another day off.
Before we could begin marking things off the list however, we had to get ourselves through the cosily named “Tunnel of Death”. This 5km beauty, constructed by the Chinese, had recently been renovated and was apparently now safe for cyclists to pedal through… But not many cyclists I know would choose to cycle through 5km of unlit, unventilated, potholey nastiness full of coal trucks adding more noxious dust to the already delightful concoction of fumes. Thankfully the coal trucks are quite aware of the unpleasant nature of this tunnel and we didn’t have to wait long for a driver willing to chuck the four bikes in the back (on top of a pile of coal) and for us to clamber in the cabin through our ride through death.
Even in the cabin the ride was scary. Cars racing in the opposite direction would emerge from the gloom with barely any notice as a front wheel would dip into a pothole deep enough to swallow a cyclist. Despite the windows being wound up, the thick polluted air crept slowly inside. It seemed to go on forever and the feeling of elation and relief swept over all of us as we saw daylight breaking through the smog at the end of the tunnel.
Bikes returned safely to the ground, after finding a tap to decarbonate ourselves, we descended slowly in the diminishing light, stopping at every corner to admire the view that was evolving beneath us. Even though the views were spectacular, we couldn’t help but wonder where we were going to end up camping on this steep sided mountain road or how far into the night we might have to cycle before we found a flat patch of ground for our tents.
Unfortunately the “Tunnel of death” had smaller siblings, none quite as nasty as their big brother but quite unpleasant to cycle through nevertheless. Thankfully most had a small path wide enough for a bicycle or a shepherd and some sheep but bypassing these tubes of darkness. As we took a side-track around one of the many tunnels stretching down the mountain side, we decided that the patch of ground was quite big enough for two tents and the view across the valley more than satisfactory and so pitched the tents right there. Right beside a tunnel. Coal trucks on one side, and us on the other. A bizarrely excellent nights sleep followed!
The next morning, only the continuing strings of tunnels, some oddly placed beehives and a hairdryer like headwind seperated us from Dushanbe, a shower and our looming to-do list.