I can see Afghanistan from my tent

Bulunkul to Khorog via the Wakhan Valley

DSC_0795

Heading towards the pass that would take us into the Wakhan valley

We turned southwards now, away from the Pamir Highway itself and into the Wakhan corridor. The river that cuts through this narrow, dramatic valley forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and is home to the Pamiri people, who are both different from the Kyrgyz nomads of the Eastern Pamir’s and the lowland Tajik’s. To many cyclists, this detour is considered a must. We were no exception.

DSC_0794

Lake, part way up the pass

DSC_0793

Stunning but it kept going up and up!

But first we had to get there. Other cyclists had told us the ride in was tough. I am never one to fully believe what I am told until I experience it. However, I can certainly say it was challenging! Not only were we ascending a 4000m plus pass, the road also alternated between horrible loose rocks and thick sand. I was often pushing (and swearing), and it took us most of the day to do 30km.

DSC_0797

Beautiful cycling, near the top

DSC_0799

The moody weather starts in the afternoon

DSC_0801

Dwarfed by the landscape

DSC_0804

The following morning we woke to our first really cloudy day since entering Tajikistan. This moody, unseasonal weather would follow us almost all the way to Khorog, unfortunately often obscuring the mighty Hindu Kush mountain range that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. A short cycle from our camp found us at a checkpoint and at the opening of a large river valley. Across the river lay Afghanistan, seemingly peaceful and unassuming. In fact, this part of Afghanistan is peaceful. In Khorog the Afghan embassy issues tourist visas (for $100 USD) and you can organise a tour to the Afghan Wakhan. While we did not go into Afghanistan itself, we were often camped closer to the Afghan settlements across the river, than to Tajik ones. We waved and called out ‘hellos’, watched the donkey traffic and observed how life on the Afghan side looked very similar to the Tajik side. The only real difference was that thanks to the Aga Khan foundation (the Aga Khan is the leader of Ismaili Islam), the Tajik Wakhan had electricity and a road. Well, a kind of road. Oh and also, the Afghan donkeys are a lot louder.

DSC_0808

Sheep and goats on the other side of the pass

DSC_0816

Our tents form a line for wind protection

DSC_0817

Double checking our route. That’s Afghanistan in front of us

DSC_0819

The stark beautiful valley as we head down into the Wakhan

That first day we bumped and looped our way down into the Wakhan (sadly it wasn’t always actually down). The road was rough, and poor Neil had a few issues with his front rack. Towards the evening the weather really began to come in, a fierce wind blew and the occasional bouts of rain accompanied. We had wanted to camp, but up here on the exposed road there was very little shelter. Even when the first small settlement was reached, no choice camp spots revealed themselves. After a quick group discussion and a look at the blackening sky it was decided we would push on the Langar, the first larger village of the Wakhan. Luckily, from where we were it was downhill and we reached the first houses of Langar just as it was growing dark. While we were cycling through, looking for signs for homestays, a couple in an apricot orchard called Astrid over. After handing her a huge bag of apricots, they also invited us all in for the night.

DSC_0824

Looking out towards Afghanistan

DSC_0825

Heading down

DSC_0826

It’s dry and exposed up here

DSC_0838

Afghan camels

DSC_0856

The weather starts to come in during the afternoon

DSC_0851

The peaks are obscured

DSC_0854

It gets colder

DSC_0853

Snack stop

And what a beautiful home it was. The husband had built it himself and it was in the traditional Pamiri style. Epic thick walls, white washed exterior with blue door and window frames. The interior, while open plan, had little raised sections, carpets hung on the walls and a pointed skylight (Tajik dome as he called it) let natural light in. The whole place was incredibly warm and welcoming. Pamiri houses (like Kyrgyz ones) always seem to have piles of blankets, and it was these that the couple made into amazingly comfortable beds for us in the front two rooms. We were then treated to a huge dinner, eating till we thought we might explode and using a mixture of bad Russian and charades to communicate.

DSC_0867

Our wonderful Pamiri hosts

DSC_0865

The outside of their home

DSC_0863

Inside their home

DSC_0860

Sharing a meal

It rained during the night and we were incredibly thankful for the hospitality we received. Bidding farewell to our lovely hosts we pedaled out into the Wakhan. Now we were really in the valley. The Hindu Kush, although their peaks obscured, towered above us from the other side of the river. Poplars lined the road, as did carefully crafted low brick walls and the occasional Ismaili shrine with ram horns marking the entrance. We were no longer in high altitude desert, green had come back into the landscape and farm animals moseyed about, kids shouted as we passed and men tried to push start ancient Ladas. After the solitude of the eastern Pamirs, it was a very different experience.

DSC_0872

The Wakhan Valley

DSC_0873

An Ismaili Shrine

DSC_0874

A Mosque, opposite the shrine

DSC_0877

A Pamiri home

DSC_0978

Edge of a village

Our first task of the day was to find chocolate. We visited about 5 poorly stocked magazins and managed to scrape together a few snacks (it was about here that Astrid’s date obsession began, thanks to Jeff). All of us remarked on how much money the locals could be making off cyclists, if they stocked a few choice products like cheese and chocolate. Most of the tourists in the Wakhan are cyclists, and cyclists are HUNGRY almost all the time. Provide cheese and they will come.

DSC_0876

Searching for chocolate, a typical Wakhan shop

DSC_0869

Cute donkey 1

DSC_0870

Cute donkey 2

DSC_0879

A rare section of paved road

DSC_0881

View across the valley

DSC_0885

Moody clouds over Afghanistan

DSC_0888

Can you see the corrugations?

DSC_0891

Lunch by a natural spring

Anyway, aside from obsessing about food we bounced along the Wakhan, trying to remember at what point Remi and Rebecca had told us the road improved. Was it 30 or 40km after Langar? Of course, being Tajikistan, we ran into a few cyclists coming the opposite way and they assured us the road did eventually improve in about 30 or 40km.. Poor Neil, he was starting to have serious issues with his racks. While his bike is pretty much indestructible, his racks were not and after weeks of rough roads they had seemingly had enough. It was about this time that Jeff, being knowledgable about most things, especially bikes, began to be referred to by us as ‘McGyver’ as he was able to fix anything with a piece of wire. Soon McGyver became simply McG.

DSC_0893

Back into the elements

DSC_0894

You can almost see the Hindu Kush…

DSC_0895

A slight view of the snow caps..

DSC_0897

Beautiful cycling through the sheltered valley

DSC_0843

McG, protected from the wind and sun

So after more than a few McGyver stops we reached the turn off to Bibi Fatima. At the top of this 7km climb lay some castle ruins and hot springs, which Astrid and I had managed to convince the guys was worth seeing, not the mention the amazing view we would have if the weather cleared. We began the climb and it was epic. The gradient was insane, and being the Wakhan the surface was terrible. Poor Neil was already beginning to feel a little unwell, then his chain snapped only about 4km in. While he and McG were McGyvering it back into place in the fading light, Astrid and I hiked further up to see if we could find a homestay. We were in luck. The four of us gathered up our bikes and pedalled the 600m to warmth and shelter just as it began to rain.

DSC_0898

Wheat fields and wind

DSC_0901

Buddhist caves in the distance

DSC_0902

Another beautiful Pamiri home

DSC_0910

Pretty happy about cycling the Wakhan

DSC_0911

Moody clouds over the Hindu Kush

DSC_0912

The fairy has a fall climbing up to Bibi Fatima

DSC_0913

View from part way up

DSC_0914

looking cute

Again we were in a thick walled, warm Pamiri house, full of blankets and carpets. After an awesome feast we decided to embrace the sleepover vibe and watch a movie. Yep, being total dorks, we decided to watch a cycle touring film.

We woke to rain and delayed our departure till the weather had somewhat cleared. By now poor Neil had a full blown case of what would become the infamous and way too familiar ‘Tajik belly.’ It was decided we would cycle the remaining km’s to the top and then have a rest day. Once at the top we found ourselves a hotel to call home, met some other cycle tourists and all had lunch together. After lunch Astrid and I went and had a very relaxing bath in the hot springs and were taught by all the local women how to check how many children we would have (the springs are supposed to enhance fertility). Apparently Astrid and I are supposed to have 6 kids each (!). While we were relaxing, sadly, McG and Neil were not. Having decided to fix one thing on Neil’s bike, they inadvertently opened a can of worms and spent the better part of the day working on the racks.

DSC_0915

View off the Wakhan from near the top

DSC_0920

12th Century ruins, high above the valley floor

DSC_0918

A bit more fort action

DSC_0932

Looks like it may clear..

DSC_0934

No, more weather comes in from Afghanistan

We rolled down the hill the next morning with Neil’s racks firmly McGyver’ed into place. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Neil’s stomach. The weather kept teasing us, it looked like it was clearing but then another front of inclement weather would come rolling in. We were however, afforded some beautiful views of the Hindu Kush between the clouds that day and felt like we hadn’t all together missed out. After not many kilometres we called it a day and crawled into the undergrowth, having found a very sheltered camp thanks to McG.

DSC_0936

I decided it was a choice moment to drain and replace my Rohloff oil while the others enjoy the view

DSC_0937

Heading back down

DSC_0941

Our lunch spot, sheltered from the ever present wind

DSC_0948

Cultivated fields

By now we were running low on food, well not really food, just snacks. We reached Ishkashim, the main Wakhan town before Khorog with grand expectations. This seems to happen with Neil and I a lot. We start imagining all the food we might find (snickers perhaps, maybe cheese?) and are inevitably disappointed. Instead we had yet another bowl of soup with cabbage and meat and rolled out of town with a few wilting carrots, some weird Russian chocolate and a bottle of vodka. That night we found another prime camp spot, McG built a fire and we all enjoyed a bottle of vodka together. Ah, life on the road.

DSC_0944

The Hindu Kush reveal their beauty

DSC_0951

Epic snow caps of awesome

 

DSC_0976

Astro and the Samon out in front looking cool

DSC_0962

Tarmac!

Our last full day before Khorog and we could see that we would soon be in the regional capital. The road for one had improved a lot, and we soon began seeing well stocked Magazins as well as finding a restaurant that had actual salad on the menu. The four of us rejoiced at being able to eat something other than soup. We spent the rest of the afternoon out cycling a storm (finally, a tailwind) and made camp on a beach, right next to the river.

DSC_0954

The kids love to be photographed! We got so many requests.

DSC_0955

The river must be immense in the spring with the snow melt..

DSC_0957

Afghan settlement

DSC_0961

Gah! Clouds.

Let me now describe a typical evening. It goes something like this. The front cyclists (usually Astrid and McG) will stop and wait while Neil and then I catch up at a spot that could have some good camping. Two or three of us will then scout around, looking at things like shelter, access to water and how hidden we are. A discussion will ensue about the merits of each spot, or perhaps pushing on. Sometimes this can take a while. A spot will then be decided and we will haul our bikes over (usually our spots have difficult access). Teabitch (aka Neil) will then get ‘Betty’ (my front, ‘kitchen’ panier) and will start making tea for all of us. After initial hesitation, McG succumbed to tea as well. We will then set up our tents, put water up to filter and dig food out from various parts of our panniers. Once the tea is ready we generally sloth around chatting and drinking tea until someone has the initiative to start chopping vegetables. Dinner is prepared and eaten together and is generally followed by a second cup of tea.

DSC_0960

Breakfast in one of our great camp spots

DSC_0967

Afghan waterfall

DSC_0965

More cute village kids

Our camp on our last night was however neither hidden, nor sheltered, as the land was becoming more heavily cultivated and the valley narrow. Just as dinner was ready the storm front caught up with us. So the four of us somehow managed to squeeze into our tent until the front passed. Then we climbed out, built a fire and had a few beers (thank you well stocked magazins). This would be our last night all together in the Wakhan. It had been truly great sharing this experience with McG and Neil (who wouldn’t be leaving for a while yet).

DSC_0979

Our last camp before Khorog

DSC_0980

Camp fire on the ‘beach’

We woke to brilliant sunshine but the Hindu Kush were now too far to our east to see. After a slow pack up we hit the road and reached Khorog by lunchtime. Here we navigated our way to the Pamir Lodge where we immediately met more cycle tourists. For a couple of dollars we threw our tents up on the balcony and began the tasks of washing ourselves and our filthy clothes. Arriving somewhere after a hard stretch of cycling is always a little bittersweet. I will miss the tranquility and beauty of the high mountains and the Wakhan, as well as the friendship and camaraderie of our little group of four. At the same time, I am excited about having now cycled through such amazing scenery and for all the adventures that lie ahead.

DSC_0983

Perfect weather as we head into Khorog

DSC_0984

Khorog

DSC_0985

More Khorog and importantly Indian food!!

That evening we celebrated our epic Pamir highway/Wakhan Valley cycle with way too much beer and vodka.

DSC_0986

Made it! Beers of celebration

DSC_0987

Neil tries a new hair style..

DSC_0991

And riding the Samon on a beer run..

DSC_0995

Cheers

Till next time

Jude

Into the Pamirs.

Osh -> Sary-Tash -> Tajikistan border -> Murghab -> Alichur -> Lake Bulunkul.

Quintessential Pamirs.

The lady didn’t blink an eye when I asked for 6 kilograms of oats. She just piled them into two large shopping bags and we were left to wander the rest of the Osh bazaar to buy the last necessities for our time in the Pamirs. We had been warned that food was scarce in this high altitude dessert and being hungry cyclists we didn’t want to be caught out. Our bikes were significantly heavier but being well fed is worth the extra weight. Our plan was to hitch a ride back to Sary-Tash and from there our estimated 28 day journey along the second highest highway in the world would begin.

Our fantastic companions on the way to Sary Tash (plus the drunk local on the right).

Our fantastic companions on the way to Sary Tash (plus the drunk local on the right).

Relaxing in the warmth our homestay.

Camping was abandoned for the warmth of our homestay.

The sound of rain pounding on the tent woke us early and mud soon covered everything. Not dissuaded by this abnormal weather, we were ready by mid morning to hit the road and try the luck of the thumb. I spent the first ride sleeping in the back of a pick-up surrounded by milk pails, while Jude and Neil fretted in the front as the farmer continually fell asleep and hit himself to remain awake. The second ride was a little more favourable, despite Neil’s truck catching on fire and smoking out the cabin, Jude being proposed to again and again by our driver, and the weather getting colder and colder the higher we climbed.

A white wonderland.

A white wonderland.

The way to the toilet.

The way to the toilet.

Cattle in snow.

Cattle in snow.

Sary-Tash was hidden by cloud and a cold sleet began to fall on our arrival. Our idea of camping was quickly abandoned when we were offered a room and full board for the equivalent of $4 each. A heater as old as the ancient house was supplied to us and we were glad of its warmth as the sleet turned to snow overnight. A white wonderland captivated us in the morning and I walked around in awe at the transformation that a bit of frozen water can bring to an already stunning landscape. Dark clouds closed in and with heavy hearts we chose to spend another day in Sary-Tash. Cycling the Pamirs has been a long-term dream, and being held back when we were so close was irksome. The disappointment and cold were driven away by our attendance at the local banyan (sauna and washing house) with the ladies of the house. Tomorrow we resolved, would be the day of our departure.

Sheltering from the snow during lunch.

Sheltering from the snow during lunch.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan behind.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan behind.

Excited selfie.

Excited selfie.

No mans land.

No mans land.

Finding shelter from the wind and snow.

Finding shelter from the wind and snow.

Yes it was freezing!!!!

Yes it was freezing!!!!

Snow had fallen again during the night, but the low hanging clouds remained only on the higher mountains. The sun peaked her rays through to us and we knew it was time to go. We had a last coffee at our favourite little restaurant and were slightly delayed by making the acquaintance of many other cycle tourists. They had just come from the Pamirs the night before and were eager to share their experiences and to ask if we knew a place to get some good food. This question would be asked of us time and again by cyclists coming from the opposite direction and we were glad that we had packed all the extra food. The Tajikistan border was a days cycle away and we set off across the valley that we had first entered Kyrgyzstan along.

Delicious tea, bread and homemade Jam is far superior to my Russian language skills.

Delicious tea, bread and homemade Jam is far superior to my Russian language skills.

Looking back at the warm cosy house.

Looking back at the warm cosy house.

Having a rest on the switchbacks.

Having a rest on the switchbacks.

Reaching the top of our first 4000 plus metre pass.

Reaching the top of our first 4000 plus metre pass.

The border!! Country number 10...

The border!! Country number 10…

It was a steady ride, marked by the occasional drunken shepherd on his horse and one lying in the middle of the road. As we approached the far side of the valley, the storm clouds were blown eastward and the view of the road and surrounding 6000m peaks opened before us. It was time to climb. The ascent was gradual and as we ate lunch snow began to sporadically fall again. We crossed the Kyrgyzstan border without incident and returned to climbing through no-mans land. The Tajikistan border was still quite far away, on the other side of our first pass of 4336m, not a distance or height we would be able to reach that day. We collected water from the river we had been following and sought shelter from the constant wind behind the remnants of an old mud brick house. The snow set in as we cooked dinner and I must admit going for a pee that night was one of the coldest experiences ever.

Glacial rivers and snow capped peaks will be our constant companions.

Glacial rivers and snow capped peaks will be our constant companions.

High altitude desert of fun.

High altitude desert of fun.

The change is immediate.

The change is immediate.

Riding the rough roads.

Riding the rough roads.

Collecting water from the freezing cold lakes, lucky we have a filter.

Collecting water from the freezing cold lakes, lucky we have a filter.

"Neutral" territory between China and Tajikistan, despite it being officially Tajikistan.

“Neutral” territory between China and Tajikistan, despite it being officially Tajikistan.

Ten centimetres of snow covered our tents and the landscape when we woke. We estimated that it had been approximately -8 to -10 degrees overnight and the frigid temperatures continued that morning. Our fingers and feet froze no matter what we did and getting ready that morning took us almost 3 hours. The sun provided welcome relief and we were eventually on the road warming ourselves by the energy required for cycling. At the base of some crazy looking switchbacks we came across a house where the family entertained us with tea, bread and homemade apricot jam, and I entertained them with my faltering Russian language skills. I had no idea that people were allowed to reside in no-mans land, but their house was comfortable and warm and it was a pleasure to rest there for a while.

Salt lakes and marshes are can be found throughout the region.

Salt lakes and marshes are can be found throughout the region.

Windswept landscape.

Windswept landscape.

Red marmots.

Red marmots.

Alpine hares.

Alpine hares.

12 cyclists and 4 cars seen that day, a great ratio.

12 cyclists and 4 cars seen that day, a great ratio.

The top of the switchbacks marked the top of the pass and the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan border. I was breathless but excited to have made it, being country number ten on our journey and the gateway to the Pamirs. We snapped the mandatory photographs and were super excited to have made it to the top of the first 4000 plus metre pass. Tajikistan’s border post was a kilometer down the other side and could easily have been mistaken for a couple of derelict buildings of insignificance. Friendly guards completed the mandatory paperwork (no computers here) and we were soon on our way to explore the wonders that awaited us. The difference between the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan landscapes was immediate. The lush green of the Kyrgyz plains, was replaced by the barren beauty of a high altitude desert. Blue glacial rivers cut through the brownish red rocky valleys, backed by the ever-present snow capped peaks.

Cycling down to the lake.

Cycling down to the lake.

Yes it's really that blue.

Yes it’s really that blue.

Sand and lake.

Sand and lake.

The lake used to be this high at some stage.

The lake used to be this high at some stage.

Collecting the grasses that grow in the marshes.

Collecting the grasses that grow in the marshes.

Our road now undulated through valleys at approximately 4000m and the wind storms created dust towers taller than buildings. Finding shelter that night was a little difficult and the tents were tightly secured with guy-ropes and stones. This was the first night that I would experience the displeasure of altitude induced sleeplessness, my brain behaved like a crazy monkey and for two hours (from midnight until 2am) it ran riot. This phenomenon was to continue nightly until we again slept below 3800m, numerous days later.

Ghost town.

Ghost town.

Karakol mosque.

Karakol mosque.

The living is easy.

The living is easy.

If it wasn't for the mozzies I would have gone swimming.

If it wasn’t for the mozzies I would have gone swimming.

Heading away from Lake Karakol.

Heading away from Lake Karakol.

The wind continued in our favour and by mid morning we crested our second pass and were rewarded with views of the iridescent blue Lake Karakol. While waiting for the others I was offered a glimpse into rodent life with red marmots and white hares dashing about. I laughed at the antics of two marmots having a punch-on, as it reminded me of men in pubs. During our descent to the lake we came across many cyclists heading the other way – 12 in all and only 4 cars, a good ratio I believe. Karakol town was located on the far side of the lake and we cycled through sand beds that had once been the lake floor. The fence that had started from the border continued, and Jude let us know that the Chinese had built it (surprise, surprise). The area is now considered neutral territory despite officially being part of Tajikistan and entry is not permitted. I think the locals disagree as holes have been cut in the fence and many of the wooden poles have been removed for use as firewood. In 2011 China claimed 1% of Tajikistan’s land mass in that area as it’s own and I continue to be convinced that water will be the next commodity that wars will be fought over in this region due to climate change and the large amount of glacier fed rivers in the region.

Just cruising with wings of roadside brush.

Just cruising with wings of roadside brush.

The Chinese fence in the Tajikistan desert.

The Chinese fence in the Tajikistan desert.

Heading down into the valley.

Heading down into the valley.

Collecting water is a constant job.

Collecting water is a constant job.

Don't be fooled, it's freezing.

Don’t be fooled, it’s freezing.

A nice afternoon cycle.

A nice afternoon cycle.

Riding into Karakol felt like riding into a ghost town, I could almost hear the banjos playing in the background. We wound our way through the deserted streets and white washed buildings until we reached the lakeside. We spread our goodies on the salt-crusted earth between clumps of grass and as we ate, the mosquitos noticed our arrival and we were soon covered in bites. I had hoped to spend the night camped by the beautiful water but our intruders convinced me otherwise. After a fruitless search for a magazin to replenish our biscuit and chocolate supplies we hit the road again for a few more hours of riding. Exiting a narrow valley we came across a big river and found a derelict building nearby where we set up camp for the night. Neil had collected some dead bushes on the way and Jude collected some old dung so that we could have a campfire. After the initial smoke-out we settled by the fire and enjoyed our view of the stars and the Milky Way.

Collecting scrub and poo for the campfire.

Collecting scrub and poo for the campfire.

Sheltered from the elements.

Sheltered from the elements.

Tea and shoe fixing, all in a nights work.

Tea and shoe fixing, all in a nights work.

Great pastoral land.

Great pastoral land.

The caravanserai of old.

The caravanserai of old.

Yaks!!!

Yaks!!!

The valley we followed was good pastoral land for the area and as such we saw numerous yak herds as we cycled along the riverbank. The path we followed had been an old trade route and caravanserais from centuries past still dot the landscape. Except for the section of dirt road from the switchbacks to the top of the first pass, the road conditions thus far had been reasonable – until now. The corrugations and loose gravel began, bad enough to bring back memories of our time along the Savannah Way. A chance encounter with our friend Dave provided a respite for our shaken bodies and a chance to carb load before the next climb.

The crazy corrugated roads.

The crazy corrugated roads.

More corrugations.

More corrugations.

Looking towards our next challenge.

Looking towards our next challenge.

Having a break with our mate Dave.

Having a break with our mate Dave.

The start of the Ak-Baital Pass.

The start of the Ak-Baital Pass.

Ak Baital Pass was our next challenge, the highest pass on the Pamir Highway at 4655m. It was tough going and I must admit that during the steeper sections I probably spent more time gasping for air than I did cycling. Snow capped peaks looked close enough to touch and they provided welcome distraction from the reality of pedaling a 40kg bike up a gravel road at altitude. Despite the lack of oxygen my inner lesbian had me belting out Melissa Etheridge at the top of my voice and I received a standing ovation from the Austrian motorcyclist who greeted me at the top of the pass. It was more likely for having made it rather than my singing abilities…

Flat is good at altitude.

Flat is good at altitude.

The flatter section of our big climb.

The flatter section of our big climb.

Jude continues to climb.

Jude continues to climb.

The top is further than it looks, especially breathless at altitude.

The top is further than it looks, especially breathless at altitude.

Looking back down from the pass.

Looking back down from the pass.

Neil takes a break at the summit.

Neil takes a break at the summit.

We made it!! Top of Ak-Baital Pass at 4655m.

We made it!! Top of Ak-Baital Pass at 4655m.

Now it was time to enjoy some chocolate, followed by some sweet downhill. As we freewheeled amongst orange, red and brown peaks, I dubbed the area ‘the multi-coloured pyramid valley’. Thinking that we would again be camping that night, Jude and I went for a wash in the river while the sun was still hot. An (un)fortunate German cycle tourist arrived just as we both jumped out and stated that we were the best scenery he had seen all day. Hmm. He also said that he believed the town of Murghab was only 40kilometres away and that he would be cycling there that evening. Inspired by the news, we took a vote and it was decided that we too would push on to Murghab. As the sun began to kiss the horizon, I saw a fox running along a hill and the length of the day unraveled. I was tired. 40km had turned into 55, and we had cycled almost 100kilometres that day including a 4655m pass. Luckily Erali guesthouse was a true home away from home, and after a massive vegetarian feast and many cups of tea, we fell into bed content with the world.

Coming down the mountain.

Coming down the mountain.

Cycling pyramid valley.

Cycling pyramid valley.

Multi-coloured pyramid valley.

Multi-coloured pyramid valley.

The river we were busted swimming naked in.

The river we were busted swimming naked in.

Good roads, great scenery, what more could you want?

Good roads, great scenery, what more could you want?

Reminded me a bit of home.

Reminded me a bit of home.

Looking hot.

Looking hot.

A welcome sight to a tired traveller.

A welcome sight to a tired traveller.

Erali sits at the top of a hill overlooking the town. In the early morning hours I watched the town come to life. People walked or cycled to work, fresh cow’s milk was collected and then boiled in huge pots, a goat was butchered by neighbours, and dogs roamed and scuffled in packs guarding their territory. After a lazy breakfast, supplies for the next leg of our journey were bought at the local bazaar and we eventually commenced cycling at midday. A climb took us out of the valley we were in and after a couple of hours we met up with a group of other cyclists heading in the same direction. Our group of three was now a party of six – our own bike touring gang. That evening we set up camp together in a dry riverbed and as dusk turned to darkness the galaxy opened before us in a spectacular show of stars.

Murghab town.

Murghab town.

The lovely owner of Erali Guesthouse.

The lovely owner of Erali Guesthouse.

Cycling through the back streets of Murghab.

Cycling through the back streets of Murghab.

Out of Murghab.

Out of Murghab.

Back to barren.

Back to barren.

The six meet and cycle.

The six meet and cycle.

New family home group.

New family home group.

What's for dinner?

What’s for dinner?

Under the Milky Way tonight.

Under the Milky Way tonight.

Cycling the next morning took us over a handful of undulations and into a wide valley that cradled the Alichur River. Men and women used scythes to hand cut the grasses that grow in the marshes. It is collected and dried to feed their livestock in the coming winter months when this area is numerous feet under snow. Reports had reached us that a fish lunch could be had somewhere in Alichur, so we searched out the local restaurants but no fish could be found. Instead we had the usual soup, tea and bread (we later found out that the fish is found about 10km earlier at the restaurant next to the sacred blue spring). Just outside of town we spotted a beautiful patch of grass next to the river and an afternoon of fun in the sun commenced. We all splashed about in the freezing water, Didier threw in his fishing line hoping to catch us some dinner, Jude & Jeff went to town and bought some beer to share and we spent a pleasant afternoon and evening relaxing.

The valley opened up as we followed the Alichur River.

The valley opened up as we followed the Alichur River.

Men and women hand cut the grass with scythes.

Men and women hand cut the grass with scythes.

The blue spring where fish can be caught.

The blue spring where fish can be caught.

Collecting water from the local well.

Collecting water from the local well.

Splish splash...

Splish splash…

Camping site luxury, grass and all.

Camping site luxury, grass and all.

Lake Bulunkul had been suggested as a detour from the Pamir Highway and we were all keen to explore off the beaten track. Yet beaten track it was, a mixture of old 4WD paths that had us wishing for mountain bikes to explore with, as it was awesome! Sparse rocky terrain surrounded the undulating tracks, the occasional salt lake, ramshackle village and river valley added stunning diversity to the scenery. A geyser was marked on the map and it turned out to be a trickle of cold water coming out of a metal pipe in the ground. Cresting to a plateau our maps didn’t match what was in front of us so we headed straight into a gale that blew half of our group over with its strength. 3kms of windstorm and dust tested our endurance to the limit and we sought refuge at some deserted buildings not far in the distance.

Wishing we had mountain bikes to go off trail and explore.

Wishing we had mountain bikes to go off trail and explore.

Into nowhere.

Into nowhere.

Making sure we are going the right way.

Making sure we are going the right way.

Desolate villages, people actually live here.

Desolate villages, people actually live here.

4WD tracks of awesome.

4WD tracks of awesome.

Green and red breaks the rocky monotony.

Green and red breaks the rocky monotony.

Salt lakes of beauty.

Salt lakes of beauty.

Can you spot the cyclists?

Can you spot the cyclists?

Valentina dwarfed by the surrounds.

Valentina dwarfed by the surrounds.

When the dust and wind had settled we walked to the edge of the plateau and were rewarded with views of the glittering Lake Yssykul framed by the rugged mountains of the Tajikistan National Park. Following another track we meandered along the river that joined this larger lake to the smaller Lake Bulunkul. At the lake’s edge we watched as birds skirted and dived into the water hunting for the fish that would be theirs to eat. It was here that we waved goodbye to our new friends Valentina and Didier who were continuing their journey along the Pamir Highway and therefore stopping for the night at Bulunkul town. Thanks for the awesome days together guys and we hope to see you in Switzerland. Jeff decided to join us on our detour to the Wakhan Valley and our threesome became a foursome of fun as we headed south towards the river valley that divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A new road and a new chapter in our journey through the Pamirs, and one that Jude will share shortly.

Having a group rest.

Having a group rest.

It's like being on another planet sometimes.

It’s like being on another planet sometimes.

Cycle touring gang on the move.

Cycle touring gang on the move.

Exploring the not so exciting geyser.

Exploring the not so exciting geyser.

Neil filming the dust and windstorm that blew him and Jeff off their bikes in front of me.

Neil filming the dust and windstorm that blew him and Jeff off their bikes in front of me.

The green fairy finds shelter from the wind.

The green fairy finds shelter from the wind.

Prepared for the dust storm.

Prepared for the dust storm.

Until next time,
All my love, Astrid.

The river that joins Yssykul and Bulunkul Lakes.

The river that joins Yssykul and Bulunkul Lakes.

Cycling down off the plateau to Bulunkul.

Cycling down off the plateau to Bulunkul.

Jude and Neil walking to Lake Bulunkul to collect water for the night.

Jude and Neil walking to Lake Bulunkul to collect water for the night.

Neil, Jeff, Jude and I about to leave Lake Bulunkul for our adventure to the Wakhan Valley.

Neil, Jeff, Jude and I about to leave Lake Bulunkul for our adventure to the Wakhan Valley.