Into the Pamirs

Kyrgyzstan + Tajikistan | Osh - Sary Tash - Karakul - Murghab | 15th to 26th October '15  | 15,146km

Neither of us are saying it, but we’re both thinking it - there’s a wolf in the tent. 

The Kyrgyz border guard was less interested in passport checking and much keener on telling us that the Pamirs were riddled with wolves, ‘much bigger than European ones’. We both tried to give appeasing nods, as though we were familiar with the European variety, and pointed determinedly at the dog bashing/bike propping stick Luke was now carrying. He was not impressed. Back in the tent, rigid with the irrational dread that noises you can’t see the origin of induces, we’re recalling the sizable paw prints we’d seen in the snow earlier that day. Mummified in every item of clothing we have we’re feeling particularly vulnerable and given our tent boasts the world's smallest awning, a quick calculation suggests we have approximately 30cm between our very cold heads and whatever is snuffling around out there. Self defense wise, our dog bashing stick is regrettably deployed on bike propping duty. If we were able to sneak past the intruder, who has now realized the food bag is veggie, really pissing him off, we might be able to acquire the dog bashing stick, switch it to wolf bashing mode, and fend him off, dressed like the Michelin man.

The laughable scene snaps us out of our half asleep state. Back in reality we realize firstly, how numb our toes have gone, and secondly that the wind has picked up - the rustling in the awning is much more likely to be the Morrison's bag we left out, catching the breeze. Still silent and unwilling to get out and actually check, but 95% sure that a wolf isn’t about to invade our personal space, we sinche up our sleeping bags even tighter try to get back to a more dreamless sleep. The next morning we’re passed by a Anglo American couple in a snazzy 4x4 who say is was -20° in Sary Tash last night, several hundred meters lower than where we’d pitching our tent, between the Kyrgyz and Tajik borders. We had been escorted for a good 15mins into no mans lands by an enormous anti wolf guard dog, the more likely owner of the footprints we’d seen no we come to think about it. As the 4x4 grinds up the switchbacks ahead of us, Luke gets a flat tyre. Bollocks. Tyre removal with hands that cold was not an option, so we push the last km up to the Tajik border post. ‘Not my problem’, was the first guards response. Mercifully, a second guard allowed us inside and talked loudly at us whilst we fixed the puncture, mainly on the topic of wolves.

Osh was hot. Men ate kebabs, played chess and drank chai. Young ‘uns kept the aging soviet amusement park in business and women seemed to do everything else. Unable to bare any more forewarning on how cold/windy/remote/rough the next few weeks would be we filled all available space with fresh things and then squashed them all by cramming in extra Snickers. Likely to be two of the last cyclists to do so this season, we finally began our assault on the Pamir Highway. Referred to as the roof of the world, the road was built by the Soviets to link up the most remote parts of their empire.

We made it an emphatic 32km before noticing we were being chased by some ominous clouds and were ushered inside by a man aggressively selling apples. His grand daughters restyled Flora’s hair, Luke was given apple peeling lessons and overnight, the pressure dropped. Having sweated out of Osh we woke up to a thick mist and the first snow of the season - we were going nowhere and weren’t arguing. 24hrs later we did leave, full winter riding spec donned and apples spilling from our pockets. After two days climbing up through the valley, practicing our inability to layer correctly, we were offered a yurt to sleep in. There was a bit of a family do on and three sheep had been slaughtered to celebrate, the entrails of which we would spend the night extremely close to. We learnt that once boiled, sheep ear can be generously sliced and forced upon new guests, and is best washed down with vodka. Up some significant switchbacks to the double headed 3615m Taldyk pass, we battled into a headwind before flying down into Sary Tash. We spent Flo’s birthday snowed into a spectacularly be-carpeted room along with another British cyclist called Dave. Together a dash to the local store was braved, for wine we could have used as toilet cleaner and a Morrison's bag full of chocolate. We inched out of town the following morning towards a wall of white and into the most camera battery draining scenery of the tour. We passed through Kyrgyz border control and entered no mans land under the escort of an enormous anti-wolf guard dog.

Arriving at Karakul in the dark we opted to try out a homestay. Our first full riding at high altitude and getting very well aquatinted with a Pamiri headwind meant the tri-carb dinner of bread with potato and noodle soup was just the ticket. In the flickering light of the one working bulb we double checked we still had all our toes and readied ourselves for an assault on Akbaital. At 4655m the following afternoon we were feeling smug at having made it along some of the most heinous corrugations known to man and up to the highest point of the tour with no pushing. The smugness was tempering quickly however as developing headaches and an increasingly overwhelming cold was taking over. As many cyclists have done before us, we knocked on the door of the only known (only existing), abandoned looking building a few hundred metres down the other side and, after a pause that felt much longer than it was, were ushered in. Flo curled up close to the stove and Luke read Black Beauty. Snapped a picture by the summit sign the next morning, all downhill to Penners from here, technically.

Number of wolf sightings: 0

Bishkek to Osh

Kyrgyzstan | Bishkek - Toktogul - Karakol - Ozgen - Osh | 6th to 13th October 2015 | 14,735km

Luke got yanked away into a security hut by a short serious man for taking a picture of big Kyrgyzs mural in an apparent 'no photo zone', emerging a few minutes later, photograph intact, having once again ticked off all the Manchester Utd strikers. We rode into the least spell-able country of the tour and shortly arrived into it's capital, Bishkek. At At House we squeezed our tent into the last available space and immediately felt comfortable in the cycle tourist friendly surroundings; Rolhoff hub manuals strewn across the workshop, faint whiffs of peanut butter and questions like ‘do you soak your lentils throughout the day?’ were bounced around. Rob and Beccy, and Nick had come from the Pamirs, so we asked that reports of temperature readings be kept positive and passed on our China experience to those embroiled in the Visa application process. Didier and Kayla were boxing up bikes to take advantage of a direct flight from Bishkek to Delhi, nice!

Day 327 - 93km (distance) 5h11 (riding time) 17.9kph (av. speed)

Tore ourselves away from At House and went in search of Bishkek’s Lenin Statue, one of the last still standing in Central Asia. Lingered around a Peroskie stand long enough to be given chai (tea) from the head deep fryer. Busy, bumpy 60km West out of the city until hanging a left onto the M41, our road for the foreseeable. Left the bikes in a ditch and scurried over a wooden bridge to camp by the river at the base of the first climb.

Day 328 - 62km 5h43 10.8kph

Passed a young Belgian cyclist, Tom, early on who didn’t sugar coat what we had ahead of us, ’shit loads of climbing’. Wound up into the mountains passing trucks and vans pulled over at regular intervals with flat tyres, smoking engines or oily puddles beneath them. Climbed for just under five hours until we eventually arrived at the tunnel which marked the top of Too Ashuu pass, 3180m up! Told we couldn’t cycle through ‘without proper masks’, so bundled into a truck carrying cardboard to a place in Tajikistan neither driver could locate on our map. Screamed down the other side in full winter gear past stalls selling bucket loads of hard cheese balls. Camped at 2300m just off the side of the road.

Day 329 - 94km 5h21 17.5kph

Straight windy road through quintessential plateau scenery, grasslands stretching out to snow caps on our left. Clearly signs of yurts being there recently, large round brown patches of earth with stone lined paths leading up to them. Only rickety old wagons were left behind as livestock and families move to lower ground for winter. Easier climb back up to the 3175m Ala-Bel pass and a dreamy decent into leafy autumnal valley. Sheep and horses being herded right up the middle of the road, honey for sale in any container available, campfire by the river.

Day 330 -  111km 5h38 19.6kph

Frost on the bikes in the morning. Reward for all the climbing was 40km of downhill into the lakeside town of Toktogul to stock up on oats, eggs, apples and Snickers (omnipresent central Asian chocolate bar) and entertain a group of sharply dressed school kids, one of which, rather sweetly, bequeathed Luke a pink dolphin for his bar bag. Undulating road doglegging around the lake, pitching the tent with just enough sunlight for a quick dip/shower. From a knowledge base compiled mainly from Snoop Dog videos, we think there was a lot of marijuana growing around the lake, but it was probably just Kyrgyz parsley.

Day 331 - 95km 5h47 16.4kph

It’s was either wedding/prom/election day as we were passed by several entourages of black Mercedes with young suit clad types waving from the windows. Took chai with a couple of blokes on a ping pong table and camped in a field behind a family home, who invited us and another cyclist in for grub!

Day 332 - 116km 6h05 19.1kph

Around 11am pulled up at a tea house for second breakfast and were accosted by a four chaps for chai (we now have a no chai refusal policy). The slightest, and friendliest of the four turned out to be non other than Kanybek Osmonaliyev - 1980 Moscow Olympics 54kg weight lifting gold medallist - we thought we recognised him! 10 minutes, 2 boiled eggs, half a bread and 4 vodka shots each later, we had a signature, a new felt hat and Luke walked into a pole. We lost the hat in the preceding half hour and slowed down considerably in the afternoon, skirting the Uzbek border.

Day 333 - 65km 4h24 14.7kph

Intentions of bashing all the way to Osh were tempered by a rainy morning, hills, and more bum bruising busy road. Called off the attempt in the afternoon and veered onto a smaller road in search of peace and quiet. Sauntered though some sleepy villages with similar donkey to person population ratios. An Uzbek guy, Abdul, invited us to sleep at his brother in law's father's uncle's sister's place, where we wiled away the afternoon with bread, jam, butter, honey and copious amounts of chai. Three cups of chai should be poured back into the put before drinking, Uzbek tradition dictates. The younger boys were interested in us and our stuff, but the youngest, very cute, daughter was having non of it and cried each time we made eye contact.

Day 334 - 58km 3h12 18.2kph

Cruised into Osh and made our way to a guest house we’d heard about for our first shower in a week. Short rest and final prep before the embarking on our attempt at the Pamir Highway, a high altitude road built by the Soviets. It’s known as the roof of the world, and tops out with the 4,655m Akbaital pass. We need to buy more Snickers.