The first day of snow since Greece, the first day of rain since Uzbekistan, the first day alone since Azerbaijan. A lot can change in a day.
After some warm milk from the cow outside I hit the “road”. Dolér told me of a friend I could stay with in the last village before the high plateau, at 4000m altitude. “You’ll find him. His name is Achiol. He lives in the third house on the left.” That’s probably the official address.
Everything was dreary. Dark clouds grew overhead and it became severely windy and cold. It wasn’t a good time to be heading alone into the mountains.
The gloomy weather led me to stick around a while at the little village of Rukhch (I have no idea how to pronounce that) and a helpful man took me into his home, fed me and I ended up staying the night. The day was pretty stormy, also the first in a long time.
I’d never been in a storm in the mountains before. I thought it would be something spectacular, but it was just like a really windy day in Scotland. Very glad to be inside though.
My host didn’t have much in the way of food. Just buckwheat (gretchka, he called it) and a couple of carrots. It’s true that the food gets more basic the higher up you go. Soon there will be no vegetables at all. I’ve never been more acutely aware of where my food comes from (a few feet away) and what is available (nothing). Stark contrast to popping to Morrisons and coming out with food from all over the world.
The storm had left the already shoddy road in a bit of a mess.
It’s getting higher now, over 3000m, and the altitude is starting to take effect on the oxygen levels. It didn’t cause me many problems, but the progress was slow. I felt tired cycling only 40km in a day.
After another small pass, I reached the village of Khudara, the last village in the Bartang valley at around 3000m (9340ft). Here you can see the tiny village contrasted with the huge mountain behind it, towering over 5000m (16400ft) high.
Sure enough, when I got to the third house on the left, there was Achiol. He made me dinner and breakfast and let me stay in one of the new houses that had been built following the earthquake a couple of years ago. The government built all these new earthquake-proof houses for free but everyone is so stubborn they just live in their old ones.
The following day things began to get pretty remote. No people live this high up. There are some shrubs and grass confined to the river and perhaps a few Marco Polo sheep. The most challenging section of the valley is here. Just as you reach the end of the wide, rocky valley, you come to a sharp corner taking you up to the plateau, a pass called Kok Jar, which I think means “broken glass” (no idea why it’s called that). It was undoubtedly the toughest climb I’ve done in my life. As the oxygen levels deteriorated, it became impossible to cycle with the incline, and I spent most of the time pushing/dragging my bike. I couldn’t even make it to the top of the pass in a couple of hours and I had to make camp at one of the bends next to the road at around 3700m (12140ft). Fortunately, it didn’t really matter where I camped because there was nobody around for miles (except maybe Nick and Antoine, who I later discovered were perhaps only a few kilometres behind me).
Sleeping at this altitude was a bit weird, as it was the first time I did so. My dreams became really vivid, and occasionally I would wake myself up in the middle of the night by taking a deep breath from lack of oxygen. During the day I was also getting some mild hallucinations, like mistaking a rock for an apple, or another for an army man. I was getting screen-burn too, like looking at something circular and then looking away and still seeing the circle. And I had a headache for a day. But all these things soon faded the longer I spent up there.
The following day I finally made it to the desolate plateau at over 4000m (13100ft). It’s one of the highest plateaus in the world. Though I’ve yet to ride on a plateau that is actually flat. The scenery was quite spectacular…
The more I cycled, the more alien the landscapes became. After two days I finally made it back to some (brief) tarmac on the main Pamir Highway, where I could see a few cars each day. But it would still be two more days before I got back to something called civilisation. In the meantime I stayed in a yurt (the only place I could find) and cycled over the highest point on the Pamir Highway at 4,655m (15272ft). It’s the second highest international highway in the world, so it felt good to know that from here it would be mainly downhill. The temperatures, even in September, were pretty cold at night, ranging from about -5°C to -10°C. I stayed warm by wearing plenty of socks and sleeping with all my clothes and big jacket. Even though it was so cold, there was really nothing to confirm it visually, because in the Pamir mountains there is rarely precipitation before October/November. This means there is very little snow, if at all.
After two weeks without a shower, I finally made it to a town called Murghab, where I could rest and resupply for the next leg…to China.
Until next time, cheerio 😀