Journey to the Pamirs

A moss covered lake near the highest pass, Alai mountains

A moss-covered lake near the highest pass, Alai mountains

Deep valleys and long canyons on the road to the Pamirs

Deep valleys and long canyons on the road to the Pamirs

The polluted city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan offers a brief respite from the hardships of the road. A local three course meal costs as little as $2 and roadside food vendors sell a plethora of fresh comca and dumplings. A culture that would be Chinese had Buddhism been the major religion spends the day working long hours in office buildings and industrial manufacturing plants and evenings in fancy restaurants that line the main strip. A 30% discount on all produce can be found in the morning at the local bazaar where vendors compete for business selling local fruits and vegetables, and arguing over small variations in price. The zealous traveler is quickly reminded of the beautiful countryside when one looks to the south, where snow-covered peaks have an orange glow in the evening sunset.

Looking back after 60 km of climbing

Looking back after 60 km of climbing

After reading countless tales of Marco Polo and other earlier explorers crossing the vast mountain range separating Tajikistan from Kyrgyzstan, I was excited to for the journey to the Pamir Mountains. It is said that Marco Polo crossed the range during winter time, but after my brief trip to the region I find that very hard to believe. Unfortunately I was unable to receive a Tajikistan visa, as well as GBAO permit which is officially required for travel within the Pamir’s. But from several accounts from various tourists and cycle enthusiasts I heard that there are relatively few check points when traveling through the mountains on the Krygyzstani side of the border. With no rush to get to China, I stocked up on supplies at the bazaar, checked out of my cheap guest house and pedaled south.

Looking down from the highest pass 3,600 meters

Looking down from the highest pass 3,600 meters

Departing from Osh, the two lane road climbed through the Alai Mountains. The small road was often filled with trucks carrying coal from one of the largest coal mines in Kyrgyzstan located in the valley between the Alai and Pamir mountains. When there were no trucks there were herds of sheep and cows moving from village to grazing, and children in uniform walking to a from school. Everyone seems to know the word “Bye” and when cycling through each village I was greeted with waves and “Bye”….”Bye”….”Bye”. The road followed the river, and the first two nights I camped at its side. I watched the landscape change as I slowly climbed above 10,000 feet, trees vanished and hills became barren. The wind also took on a shape edge that seemed to cut through even the thickest clothing. On the third day I awoke to the smell of burning brakes and instantly knew that there was a steep climb ahead of me.

Summit 3,615 meters

Summit 3,615 meters

Slowly I pedaled from 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) to 3,600 (12,000 feet) climbing the tallest pass in the Alai range. Snow and bits of hail greeted me at the top. There is no break from breathing when cycling at this altitude. By this I mean when I stopped breathing to swallow I would get out of breath. At the summit however the air was so cold that it almost felt like taking a drag off of a cigarette, in that you could feel its contact with the phylum in your lungs.

First glance of the Pamirs

First glance of the Pamirs

I descended the pass to the large valley between the two ranges, and quickly realized that I was in an environment of extremes. The valley floor never dropped below 3,000 meters, and has the strongest winds in the country. It is not uncommon for the wind chill to bring evening summer temperatures to 0 C, and in the winter the average temperature is -35C! I soon realized that I was ill-equipped to handle these extremes especially as the effect of the elevation slowly permeated my body.

Morning sun on the mountains

Morning sun on the mountains

I had to remind myself that days before departing for the Pamir’s I had spent a full month pedaling through the arid deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, during which my diet consisted of mainly melons, bread and a few tomatoes as heat seldom brings the felling of hunger. On many occasions I pedaled all day without more than a few bites of bread. My body took on a new form, that of a desert nomad handling a daily average of 120 km and temperatures of +45 C.

Valley floor facing south towards Tajikistan

Valley floor facing south towards Tajikistan

Within hours of descending to the valley floor my head began to ache and my limbs felt like they were underwater. However I denied the invitation to stay at a warm guest house and instead loaded up on bread, salted meat, and vodka at the small of village of Sary Tash. I searched for more clothes or even a pair of shoes but could not find more than a pair of wax dipped work gloves that are so bright they seem to glow in the dark.

Camping spot here the base of the Pamirs

Camping spot here the base of the Pamirs

Half wondering if I would find myself back in the village again by evening I followed the Pamir highway and slowly inched my way to the Tajikistan border. My first thought was to attempt to sneak my way into Tajikistan but when I got closer to border I noticed that there were barbed wire fences and heavily armed patrol guards. “Maybe they will have drinking water and by asking them they will see how cool I am and will then be obliged to let me enter visa free” I thought. I approached the border and when the patrol man walked up to me I asked “Do you have any drinking water”. He didn’t seem to understand so I asked my second question “I just want to spend one night camping in Tajikistan, do you think you can let me through visa free?” The second question seemed to get through the robust skull of the camouflaged individual, and he laughed. Back to plan “A” I thought so I grabbed my empty water bottle and shook it upside down. The guard then opened the gate and invited me to dinner with the rest of the unit stationed at the post.

Blonde tall grass on the foothills

Blonde tall grass on the foothills

The guard told me to go into the station and wait in the dining room, not sure which door lead to the kitchen I opened door after door and interrupted some sort of interrogation which almost got me kicked out of the station! Lucky for me my new friend appeared just in time. Soon after I was sitting at a table with 6 armed patrol guards who quickly started to act like normal Central Asians, after the bottle of vodka was passed around. Bread was broken for everyone at the table, and we ate a large chunk of cold lamb fat with chai and bowls of vodka. The guards were ecstatic when they heard that I was from America and quickly asked questions in broken English mixed with Russian about Mike Tyson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and O.J Simpson. After close to an hour of festivities I noticed the sun falling low in the sky and decided it was time to bid my acquaintances farewell. “We have nos, then you leave” a large Russian looking man said to me. “OK”, I said as he pulled out a large bottle from the refrigerator. I had tried “nos” on several occasions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but Kyrgyzstani nos is an entirely different beast. I was poured a small handful of green pellets the same size and shape of sprinkles. I put the handful of sprinkles under my tongue, one of the fastest methods of delivering a drug to the system. “Holy shit…this stuff is strong” I thought, either the nos was especially strong or the combination of alcohol, nos and elevation had just gone to my head. I felt like I was completely drunk and about to vomit so I jumped on Gaby and pedaled away so that I could be alone in my discomfort.

Water from the spring

Water from the spring

I pedaled back in the direction I had come and passed a small spring unnoticed on my arrival. The cold, clear water had a sobering effect on my mind and I decided to camp nearby. The drilling in my head continued but the sound of water kept me calm.

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I am not sure exactly how cold it got that night, but I awoke the next morning with completely frozen water bottles and icicles all over the inside of my tent. However the cold sensation could not distract me from the morning sun gracing the snow-capped mountains. Tall, blonde grass swayed in the wind, clear passed over timeless rocks and the Pamir’s overpowering presence had a magnifying effect on my heart. I was completely surrounded by snow-capped peaks all over 4,500 meters. I spent the next 3 days camped near the spring deep within the Pamir’s. Each day I would walk over the smooth rocks in the valley and climb small peaks only to realize that the beauty was unchanged. The evenings were just as soulful as the daylight hours, for when the sun went down the galaxies appeared. The evening sky was split in two by the white Milky Way glob. The evening begins with the fall of Scorpio in the south and the rise of Orion in the north. Freezing and wearing all my clothes I would delay putting on the tent fly, completely enthralled by the Kyrgyzstani night sky.

Remote moss lake found while hiking the Pamirs

Remote moss lake found while hiking the Pamirs

It was on the third day that I noticed cumulus clouds and felt the wind picked up. Like a large white sheet, fresh snow was being blown off the top of the large peaks, making each peak look like it had a tail. The morning sun was covered in a thin layer of grey clouds, and I could feel a change taking place. I decided it was time to break camp and find a valley at lower elevation where I would be safe from a snow storm. I pedaled 50 km towards the east and took side roads that lead me to a gigantic coal mine. The mine was noticeable from miles away, in that it looked like a volcano of ash. Surrounding the mine was a workers camp made up of trailers, mud brick houses and broken beer and vodka bottle. Pedaling over inches of crushed coal I rode through the camp only to notice that it was empty. I continued on and followed a small river around the mine and into a canyon. The wind continued to get stronger, and my fingers and lips began to feel numb. I quickly needed to find a place to hide from the storm, as it was getting dark and colder. Finally I came upon a large rock that had an enclosure which would protect me from the wind and rain. Without much thought I quickly set up camp but not before the rain brought down a small avalanche of rocks from the top of the large rock. “Shit that was close” I thought, I could have been sleeping when that happened!! My tent and ground tarp were now soaked and I looked around for another place to camp. “What would Baba do” I thought? I am too tired to go on and there is no shelter here from the wind. I mustered all my remaining strength and picking up large rocks from the river bed built a temporary wall in front of and behind the tent. The rock wall had a noticeable effect on the wind. The sun fell and the wind slowly died down. I set up my tent a second time.

One of the many abandoned mud houses near the coal mine

One of the many abandoned mud houses near the coal mine

Packing up to leave valley where I built rock walls to protect from wind, large rocks are propping up Gaby

Packing up to leave valley where I built rock walls to protect from wind, large rocks are propping up Gaby

Soon after the wind picked up again and was so strong that my tent began to rip. It was pouring raining but I had no choice but to leave the tent and find more rocks to hold down the tent from the wind. After about 20 minutes of work I was wet, cold, hungry and I couldn’t even get my stove to start because of the wind. I searched my panniers and found a packet of soup mix, I mixed it with cold water and drank it with mushy, rain-soaked bread.

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Once again the open road

Once again the open road

The next day it was time to depart and head to a lower elevation. I climbed again the large 3,600 meter pass but quickly descended below 3,000 meters. Once again I saw trees, animals, and inhabited villages. The evening temperature was well above freezing and for the first time in 4 nights I slept well!

Lower elevation river campsite

Lower elevation river campsite

Departing through road valley roads

Departing through road valley roads

I am now back in Osh and am soon departing to explore the northern regions of the country. I have booked my flight to Japan and will be flying from Bishkek (the capital) to Sapporo on Oct 21st. There is plenty of remote mountainous territory here; I just hope I can get to it before the snow does. Tomorrow I head north to Jalalabad and continue on dirt mountainous roads to the remote lake of Song Kul. I will then cycle to the nature reserve around Issyk-Kul lake, visiting the historic city of Karakol and then on to Bishkek. My posts in Kyrgyzstan will be infrequent as there is no internet to be found outside the cities. I will touch base again as soon as possible.

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Tajikistan truck full of wheat heading for Osh

Tajikistan truck full of wheat heading for Osh

Ciao from Osh, Kyrgyzstan     -Julian

Good-Bye Uzbekistan

Pedaling and climbing through the Fergana valley. I was pushed by a strong tailwind, dust-covered the sky, trees and road, and I saw the sign “Qashqar 450 km.                                                      September 21 less than 300 miles from China

A work of art, and a gift from the baker fresh Uzbekistani naan

A work of art, and a gift from the baker fresh Uzbekistani naan

I have just crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, and am in many ways sad to leave the remote country of Uzbekistan. Hours ago I left a beautiful Uzbekistani woman behind, probably never to return or see her again. The last ten days have been full of challenges, and random encounters with spiritual individuals. My health has not been good as more than once now I have been sick from consumption (Vodka) and roadside food stands. It seems that on almost every opportunity imaginable (gas stations, super markets and restaurants) I am met by friendly locals who quickly pull out a bottle of local vodka and start filling rice bowls. No sipping,  and your only hope for survival is that there is plenty of bread on the table.

Dry, desolate mountains as I pedal down through the Fergana valley

Dry, desolate mountains as I pedal down through the Fergana valley

Uzbekistan, has by far the most abundant use of bicycles. Children, not yet tall enough to reach the seat or make it over the top tube, pedal with body slanted to one side, trying to keep up with me as I pass. Teenagers, and young adults pedal their girlfriends and wives on the rear rack home from school and to work, and older men transport propane tanks, and other various goods to and from their homes. Like all Muslim countries I have traveled to, there is a noticeable separation between the sexes. Restaurants, tea houses, roadside café’s are all only frequented by men, and very rarely do I see couples in public. Women out here work in the cotton fields, produce markets and pharmacies.

Polluted skies and large mountains of ash just outside of the capital Tashkent

Polluted skies and large mountains of ash just outside of the capital Tashkent

The eastern side of the large country was full farmland and plenty of open fields.  Each night I camped thinking I was alone only to be surrounded hours later by a herd of sheep or cows, followed by a friendly shepherd with a half empty bottle of vodka.   I will truly miss Uzbekistan. It has the most beautiful and hospitable people you could image, where it was not uncommon to have your groceries purchased by a stranger or have your panniers filled with fruit from a smiling farmer who refuses any money.

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I now prepare for the steep, cold mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Fall is in full swing here and two weeks ago the mountains were covered in a half a foot of snow. Once again my panniers will be filled to the brim as I pedal towards the Tajikistan border in hopes of viewing the legendary Pamir mountain range. China does not allow cyclists to pedal from the Kyrgyzstan border to Kashgar, so there is no point on entering China yet. I plan to spend 3-4 weeks cycling the remote regions then flying to Japan in mid-October. I will return again to Kashgar in the early spring of next year hopefully with a Pakistani visa, planning to pedal the Karakoram mountain range into the legendary Kashmir region.  -Julian

My forbidden shish kebab evening followed by stomach sickness was definitely a story to tell, for those of you who are sensitive to bodily functions such as diarrhea and vomiting you may want to skip the end of this post….. So pedaling through the small city of Ohangaron (About 350 km from the Kyrgyzstan border) I quickly befriended the local baker, who after teaching me how to make the local bread, told me about a super cheap hotel. I personally do not like hotels or guest houses, but in Uzbekistan every tourist must register at a hotel every 3 days, otherwise a fine of up to 8,000 USD can be applied! (This is another story as some hotels will often try to blackmail you if you do not have the correct amount of registration slips in your passport, I only registered a few times but was able to avoid trouble).  After a night around town, and eating several lamb kebabs at the roadside grill I found the mentioned hotel. It took me close to an hour to bargain the price down, and half way through my stomach started rumbling in an all too familiar way. At least I will be in a room with a toilet I thought and got a room for $3. After getting Gaby and all my panniers up to the second floor, I fell asleep.

Hours later I woke up with a fever, and terrible stomach pains. The whole hotel was dark, and it seemed that the power was out. I scrambled around trying to find my headlamp and my room key and while holding back the pain fumbled for several minutes on the 1920’s style hotel key, trying to unlock the door. After finally getting out of the room and fumbling again to lock the door, I searched the second floor for the toilet. No bathroom. The toilet was all the way down two flights of stairs and through a long corridor. Once there I learned that not only was the power out but so was the water!! The water must have been off for a while, maybe the hotel had no water as all the squatting toilets were filled with excrement. The sight of the bathroom, accompanied by the smell made me vomit and I decided I would have to be creative and make something work out in my room, as the bathroom was too far and too disgusting. Luckily, my room I had a small balcony, and earlier that evening I had purchased a large 5 liter bottle of water. I dispersed the water to a few bottles and made a make shift toilet by cutting off the top of the 5 liter plastic bottle. I used a few books and a piece of wood found under the bed to elevate my feet, and there it was a water bottle toilet.

All night I prayed that it wouldn’t fill up as I made countless trips to the balcony, my stomach was so painful. I had plenty of antibiotics in my panniers but I always try to avoid them and continue to do so in this situation. By early morning the fever and diarrhea were gone but now I had close to 3 liters of excrement in the bottle on the balcony. No matter how terrible the hotel was, I would never leave that for someone else to deal with. Disguising the bottle by putting it in a plastic bag I tip toed towards the bathroom but was met halfway by hotel staff who thought I was trying to steal “things” out of the room or hotel. I am not sure exactly what this lady was saying but she wanted to see what I had in the bag! “Can’t you smell it” I said and she looked inside, she made a stinky like face then walked away, I guess a 5 liter bottle half filled with diarrhea is nothing shocking in Uzbekistan.