|Reiseberichte||Photos||Länder & Routen|
Fahrt über das Dach der Welt und Himmelsgebirge
8.05.2004 aus Bishkek, Kirgisien - 14'345km
When I picked up again my passport after the visa extension and the permit for eastern Tajikistan (the Gorno-Badakhshan) were put in, I felt a really strong urge to start cycling towards the high Pamir. I spent the last evening at Albert & Nathalie’s home (the French couple working in Dushanbe). We had a lot of fun, as some others were joining as well. Fernand was giving its best at telling us about his latest adventures (what kind of? I won’t tell you ;) ). I also got the latest info about the route towards Khorog. The next morning, I got up early to enjoy the ‘last’ shower and pack up my stuff. The weather was very nice - warm & sunny. I headed southwards towards Kulyab, the much safer route not only bypassing the most dangerous part of Tajikistan, but also a still closed mountain pass (the Khaburabot at 3280m).
I expected some easy cycling, but already on the first day I made some 1600m of vertical climb, two passes just right one after each other. The police checkpoints got more and more of a hassle as I was getting away from painless Dushanbe: at the first one no problems, at the second I just had to have a chat and giving out some autographs ;), then it got more and more time-consuming. The officers seemed to be massively disturbed at the sight of a foreigner cycling around with a lot of baggage - Afghanistan is pretty close… but mostly the minds got calmed down by the fact that I was European and actually had a valid visa ;)
Getting through checkpoints…
Before Kulyab, the ‘we-have-to-accompain-you-to-the-police-headquarters-for-registration’ hassles started. A young officer somehow insisted on bringing me in person to the police station for registration. I tried to put him off this idea - it almost worked but in the end, I had to walk with him for almost an hour to the right place (Tajikistan should provide bicycles to their police… it would make things much quicker ;) ). In the city, he was hiding is machine gun under his leather jacket, he somehow didn’t feel at ease with it. At the police station, they had no problem with me cycling around, they were rather annoyed that I had to go through these hassles - thank you, but it came a bit late.
After Kulyab a long uphill followed, I really didn’t expect another 1500m climb. The pass looked pretty small at a distance, but it was quite different in the end - I was very exhausted at the top. Soon afterwards a military checkpoint - no problems, smiling faces all around. I could even stock up with bread and take some pictures of the soldiers. I felt very relieved and continued cycling. The road made a small turn and just afterwards another checkpoint, not even 100m after the first one… it was the police this time. I was quite optimistic and tried to explain that I just got registered. But I got simply told that the other one would ‘just’ be from army. The boss (you recognize these guys easily, because they’re the only ones not bothering to wear their uniform) started getting really nasty. He had a lot of interest in my money… I tried to deflect these questions by telling that I would be a ‘poor student’ and how I would just manage to buy enough to eat. At one point, he would have almost started searching my bags to look for my money. I was horrified at that thought, as there would be a lot ‘missing’ after the search. I somehow managed to keep his brain busy by asking questions about the route, showing him my map (always something of interest) and stuff like that. The checkpoint was really a bad one, no driver managed to pass without the obligatory bribe - even NGO jeeps could not get past without. The money got handed over like always in Central Asia… a firm and (at first sight) friendly handshake, but the drivers simply hand over money this way. Also a poor young boy on his donkey who just wanted to ride down to Kulyab to sell some firewood got stopped. I was luckier, the chief somehow abandoned his determination to get a bribe and even wanted to hand me out his gun - he apparently gained a lot of confidence in me ;). I didn’t touch it. I had no intention to play around with these things. The end of the hassles was another accompainment to the headquarters with a young policeman. It would have been another 4km walk… I managed to convince the policeman to take a car and await me at the right place, so that I could cycle. It was getting already dark and thick fog was climbing up the valleys, when I got finally ‘released’. I needed to buy food for the next days as a very lonely stretch of road would follow.
Plunging down into the Pyanj gorge…
The downhill was breathtaking! - and just the beginning of an amazing ride!!! The road plunged down towards the Pyanj river - the border with Afghanistan. I couldn’t see much due to the fog, but I was very excited anyway. The road was heavily eroded. Rockfall and washouts made a real mess. I camped on a small natural balcony, right in the middle of a very steep mountain slope. The view down to the ground of the valley was really scary. At night, heavy rainfall started. During the whole night I could hear countless small rockfalls crashing on the road, just a couple of meters away From time to time the faint thunder of some really massive rockfalls could be heard. The most amazing thing was that truck drivers were still making their way during the night - bloody dangerous… The rain stopped before sunset and I could hardly believe what I saw when I got out of my tent. The landscape was some of the most beautiful, I’ve ever seen. Deep down in the valley, green grass was contrasting with a silverly shining river. Higher up, rough snow-covered peaks were reflecting the first sun rays. The view also opened up towards the Pyanj river gorge and its backdrop, the mighty peaks of the Afghan Hindukush. Back on my bicycle, I made the remaining downhill. The rainy night covered the road not only with small rocks but also some sort of mud that was at times over 20cm deep and really nasty to cross, as water was constantly flowing into it. I reached the bottom of the Pyanj gorge. Afghanistan was not further away than a stone-throw and my route would follow the border for almost 400km. On the other side, people lived a very harsh life. No road was leading towards that region. The only way to move around on the Afghan side of the gorge was to use a small footpath, at times passing through very dangerous sections, where there was just vertical rock.
I knew that the gorge was also one of the most heavily used paths to get opium out of Afghanistan. But it’s almost impossible to control the border, despite some really serious military presence. So, the first thought, when I saw a huge column of trucks and jeeps on a otherwise very lonely road, was that it would be a military checkpoint. I was wrong. A mud avalanche covered the road up to 2m. It was impossible to cross straight through, as you would simply drown in the wet mud. As I had a chat with a Lebanese (who was responsible for a Turkish construction team improving the road), I learned that a convoy consisting of the Vice Prime Minister of Tajikistan and the Afghan Ambassador was stuck as well. He even pointed me out the guys (‘look, it’s the one eating a Snickers’). The delegation apparently tried to negiotate with a local Afghan warlord, who was ‘unhappy’ with the road construction on the Tajik (!) side. The warlord had decided to cross the river with some friends armed with Kalachnikovs to make an ‘official complaint’ ;). I got a bit worried by the presence of these people on the Tajik side, but I was assured that they would not bother to go after tourists. I decided to have a try to cross the mud avalanche a bit further down. Carrying the bicycle was really tough, as there was really a mess, but I made it finally without getting stuck. Almost everybody waiting came to watch my undertaking… they couldn’t really grasp why I would cycle in the first place - getting completely covered with mud while trying to cross got no understanding at all. But at least they were convinced in the end that a bicycle had some advantages. The others had to wait for hours until a bulldozer would arrive to clean up the road.
An adventureous ride…
A wild river crossing followed. I had no sandals, so walking on the stoney riverbed was a bit painful (and cold). I almost got swept away on the final part - but a military officer help me to drag the bicycle out of the stream. I really loved that day! Not only was the landscape breathtaking, but the gravel road made it even more exciting. The road went through very narrow sections of the gorge. The view on the other side of the gorge gave a small insight into the harsh life of the Afghans. Although Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in Asia, it suddenly looked rich compared to Afghanistan. In the mean time, the road seemed to be cleared from the mud avalanche, as the delegation was overtaking me with their jeeps. The last suddenly stopped in front of me and all the passengers were jumping out. Two were carrying a video camera to film my cycling ;) I recognized the Afghan ambassador… but he didn’t seem to be very talkative, instead another Afghan representative engaged in a very nice chat. I promised to come to Afghanistan as well by bicycle… sometime in the future, when it will be safe enough ;(
Then, I soon reached the first road construction camp of the Turkish team. An engineer, I had met just before, told me that I should have a rest and eat something there. Even without telling about the encounter, I got invited right away by the very friendly people at the gate. A very filling dish was prepared and we had a nice chat - just the right thing in the middle of the afternoon, when you feel a little bit hungry from cycling ;). After the camp, a damaged bulldozer was parked on the side of the road. Nothing surprising, but then I cycled some meters further and I saw that the hillside of the road was completely sealed off. Signs were put up to warn of mines. Apparently the bulldozer was trying to move around some soil, before it got blown up by a hidden mine – one of the remains of the bloody civil war in Tajikistan some years ago. I got a bit worried for wild camping in the gorge…
I passed the steepest section of the gorge, just where the Turks were trying to build a road through almost vertical rock. I had to push the bicycle for some stretches, as there was a lot of loose gravel lying on the road. The view vertically down from the narrow road, at times over 100m, was quite a bit nauseating. When I reached the end of the section under construction, three strange looking men, partly in army dress jumped on the road and started shouting at me. ‘Shit, here I go’ was my first thought and I tried to figure out who was carrying a Kalashnikov or something like that. A serious threat image was building up in my head. Then I slowly realised that the guys were part of the road construction team. They were shouting at me because they were just about to blow up some explosives to enlarge the road. On the other side I was told that I could go through, just like some ‘important’ jeeps, but the trucks were stuck for hours. But somehow nobody thought that a cyclist would be much slower than the jeeps. Soon after my passage, I heard a huge explosion behind me shaking the whole gorge. I found a nice campspot well hidden below the road. I saw a lot of traces from cowherds at that place, so I felt quite safe from mines. But getting down to the river to fill up my waterbag was rather stressful. As this looks exactly like the behaviour of drug traffickants picking up their ‘goods’… But there was no army watchtower in sight and I tried to be as quick as possible. It was only later that I was told by expats of the horrible stories of locals (and even one Japanese tourist) getting shot by Russian border guards for showing ‘suspicious behaviour’ close to the river.
An amazingly hospitable people…
The road continously improved towards Kalaikhum, one of the rare towns in the Pyanj gorge. The military has some serious presence with footpatrols on the road and fortified watchpoints. Once some Afghans were shouting from the other side from the river, maybe they tried to warn me of the soldiers that were hidden above the road. But the encounters with the army was almost always very friendly and the soldiers were happy to have a chat. Also the checkpoints were without hassles, one Russian officer was questioning me for quite some time, as he wanted to find out whether I had been in Afghanistan and whether I had taken pictures (no, of course not ! ;) ). After Kalaikhum, the valley got more and more populated and the road became continuously paved. Most of the checkpoints were no more in use. I was again and again overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people. Almost everyone was waving with their hands, asking whether I would need something or inviting me for a Chay. Even in the middle of nowhere, there was a an old couple asking me to stop and I was immediately offered with bread they were about to sell in the nearby village. I never experienced this kind of spontaneous kindness. The Badakshani are really incredible!
My guardian angel kept busy…
At one evening, I had some trouble finding a spot to put up my tent, as it was quite steep everywhere. I passed an army watchpoint, set up on the top of a huge rock - it looked like a small fortress in the medieval age. Just afterwards, there was finally some flat places where I stopped for wild camping. I realised that the soldiers certainly had seen me, but as they had also seen that I’m cycling, I didn’t fear much suspicion from their part. After nightfall I suddenly heard voices close to my tent and a torch lightening up one side of my tent. I immediately said ‘Asalaam aleikum’ and told them that I would be a tourist (and therefore unlikely to be a drug smuggler). In some sort of a reflex, I put my empty hands forward to show that I would not be armed. With much relieve, I had a nice chat with the three border guards. They put their machine guns aside and sat down at the entrance of my tent. In the end, I even exchanged my email-address with one the soldiers - a more than surreal experience ;). I offered some biscuits, but they politely refused, instead they were very eager to take some pictures with me. They said that they would come back the next morning ;). At about 2.30 AM, I suddenly woke up. There was a massive thunder filling the narrow gorge. I also felt something shaking, but as I was halfway asleep, I was quite slow to realise what was going. It actually was an earthquake, that made me feel that the ground was moving and at the same time tons of loose rocks were made crashing down into the gorge. The thunder produced by all these combined rockfalls were really scary. I got a bit panicked, as I tried to remember how much distance was between my tent and the steep slope of the gorge where all these rocks could be coming down. But luckily nothing happened. It took me a little bit of time to sleep in again… after that adrenaline push.
On the next morning, I saw that the road was filled with more rocks than usual. Without much thought, I passed a section filled with almost half a meter of fist-sized stones. I had to push my bicycle. Just a minute after I passed, I heard a rumble high above the vertical rim going up about 200m. Then small rocks started flying down right on the road, some landed at the roadside where there had been already a pile of rocks, but there were also a couple that got deflected and smashed down exactly where I passed some moments ago, others fell into the river… My guardian angel was kept busy in the Pyanj gorge… I felt rather lucky!
Relaxing in Khorog before a long climb…
The 240km between Kalaikhum and Khorog, the regional centre, passed quickly. The road steadily climbed up, reaching 2000m. Sarah and Arnaud, a British-French couple, invited me back in Dushanbe to stay at their home. It was a really nice encounter and we were chatting a lot about travelling, also about their trip to the Vakhan Corridor, a very remote part of neighbouring Afghanistan - amazing! Both were working for the MSDSP (Mountain Societies Development Support Program), a huge NGO that is part of the Aga Khan Foundation. I spent a day relaxing in Khorog & enjoying the company. I also had to order new tyres in Switzerland. The old ones were now torn open at several spots and, therefore, punctures had become more and more frequent… I started using my spare tyre for the rear wheel, the one under much more stress. Also, my brackets were making some problems.
Khorog is set already in an amazing landscape of snow-capped peaks and deep valleys, but the road ahead was even more breathtaking. On the next 150km the Pamir Highway climbed steadily up. I had to choose well the altitudes to camp at, in order to reduce the risk of altitude sickness. The valley leading up, was continuously covered with snow already at about 2700m. But the climate got drier and drier towards the East, so actually the snow limit was constantly moving up. Nevertheless the nights were quite chilling. The people living along the valley were really amazing. In Vankala, a village at 3000m, two girls invited me to have a Chay at their family’s home. They were very excited and they almost regretted their courage, as the traditional society didn’t foresee at all this kind of contact. During the last months, I was never approached by women for a spontaneous invitation - let alone unmarried girls. At their family’s home, their parents were more than confused but made sure that I got treated in the best way. After some nice chat and a lot of smiling, we separated ;). During the whole day, I tried to buy some bread. I knew that there are no shops on the wild 300km stretch between Khorog and Murgab. I bought a lot of Russian biscuits and rice back in Khorog, but I counted on finding bread along the way up the first 4000m pass. I never saw somebody selling bread so I started asking for it. But the people were so kind, that they always offered it for free and made it really impossible to pay money for it. So, I decided to ask only for a small loaf at a time but repeat this during the whole day… ;) Not very nice, I know, but I needed quite some quantity to make my way towards Murgab. In the evening, I had really a lot of bread… ;) The second night was at 3450m, the heartbeat started to get faster.
Cycling on ‘the Roof of the World’…
On the next day, I tried to make my way up to the first high pass, the mighty Koy-Tezek at 4277m. I felt very exhausted, as I still almost completely lacked acclimatisation. But, I steadily cycled up. It was getting really cold and there was more and more snow on the road. Finally, I had to push my bicycle for over two hours. The one-way road was covered with over half a meter of snow, on the sides there was more than a meter additionally piled up, making it look rather like a bob channel. But the trucks compressed the snow nicely, so at least I didn’t get stuck while pushing, but cycling was impossible. When I finally reached the flat top, a stiff wind was blowing snow crystals across the plain. I quickly took some pictures and continued pushing. Almost magically, the pass is blocking off almost all precipitation. And on the short and gentle downhill, the snow disappeared almost completely. I think I never saw such a sharp transition.
I entered a very dry, high-altitude landscape making up most of the Gorno-Badakhshan. A seemingly endless series of curiously shaped hills, small salt lakes and a dusty road straight across gave an overwhelming impression. Just like the snow disappeared quickly, an awesome deep blue sky appeared. It was very cold. When I filled up my water bag at one of the rare melt water streams, I got a clear impression of the temperature. Seconds after I took the water bag out of the stream, the water running down the outside turning into a thick crust of ice… Towards the evening, I reached the Tagarkak pass, a rather small one at 4170m. I felt really tired and the bumpy gravel road didn’t make it easier. The view opened up towards a big lake, still liquid due to the high salt concentration. I was overwhelmed at the sight. I cycled down and camped at 3850m. I hoped this would still be low enough that my body would not run into altitude problems. I rarely felt so exhausted in my life like on that evening. Very slowly, I put up my tent and started cooking a huge pot of rice. I had a little bit of headache, but it didn’t seem to get worse. The night was not as cold as I thought… a clear sign that the weather got worse. The blue sky was gone and clouds were hanging low on the mountains. But there was no snow - thanks to the dry climate. Cycling got much easier, as it was mostly flat. I saw the first yaks, grazing on the wide plains.
In Alichur, I could warm up a bit while drinking a Chay with some friendly Tajiks. Strong tailwind helped me getting quickly towards the very flat Nayzatsh pass (4185m). On the downhill, a MSDSP jeep overtook me. It was Sarah with her driver and a volunteer travelling to Murgab. They invited me to stay at their NGO guesthouse this evening. I abandoned the idea of camping once again before Murgab. But I arrived quite late in the town - I had to take so many pictures ;). The landscape became once again really amazing. The hillsides were coloured vividly as the sunset was approaching. Also, the police at the checkpoint some 15km before the town took quite some time. At first they wanted to collect a ‘shtraff’ (a.k.a. a bribe), later they simply insisted on accompanying me on foot (!) to the town, as they didn’t have a car, for ‘official registration’. In the end, I managed to get away without hassles, but it took quite a while. I told them that I would go and register myself… I didn’t.
Reaching Murgab – a town in the middle of nowhere…
It was already completely dark when I finally found the guesthouse in Murgab (3590m) - after a 129km-day. The welcome was very nice, I got a hot meal and we chatted for a long time. On the next day, I decided to relax and to walk up a small hill at 4100m to have a nice view. Unfortunately, it was snowing a little and I couldn’t see the Mustagh Ata, a 7500m peak some 80km away over the Chinese border. Murgab got developed under Soviet rule. Thanks to massive food supplies from places like Ukraine, a 6000-souls town developed literally in the middle of nowhere. Nowadays, people live a meager existence and strongly depend on food delivery from NGOs and the UN World Food Program. Ethnically, the majority are already Kyrgyz, although the border to Kyrgyzstan is still far away.
The weather was getting better, when I continued cycling a day later. The road started its long but very gentle climb towards the mighty Ak-Baytal pass (4655m) - the highest road pass in Central Asia. Again, after each turn of the road, the landscape was changing. The Tajik Pamir is a truly beautiful region!!! Towards the evening, I reached 4100m and I got the ‘4-seasons in one day’ weather. After a sunny and warm day, heavy snowfall and wind started as quickly as it stopped an hour later. The night was clear again, with the stars shining incredibly brightly on the backdrop of a deeply black sky. On the next day, I made the final climb towards the pass. The last section was steep, but the acclimatisation started helping. The weather was perfect, not a single cloud to be seen. Just as I was taking some pictures, I saw the first wolf in my life. The curious animal was taking a long look at my doing some 30m away, but then decided to leave.
Amazing views of the Pamir…
The road then dropped down with some sections of washboard. At a large, frozen lake, I stopped to ask for water. I got invited for a soup and had a chat with a Tajik border guard. Everybody was quite astonished by the sight of somebody on a bicycle, as there had been only a handful that passed through these places so far. Some truck drivers were just about to take every screw out of their Kamaz engine. Oily parts of the motor block were lying all around - another desperate attempt to get their decades-old truck running again. Towards the evening, I reached the edge of the Karakul lake. A huge water reservoir created by the impact of a meteor long time ago. The water was frozen to one huge block of ice, it would take another month for the lake water to melt. In the backdrop, the mighty peaks of the Tajik Pamir were towering in a magic light. Pik Lenin (7134m) was only one of the impressive sights. The seemingly endless plains around the Karakul lake combined with the ice-capped peaks made an unforgettable view. Despite the cold temperatures, I enjoyed the time very much. The last sunrays were lightening up the lunar landscape of black rocks and sand, as I was cycling the last kilometers before stopping to camp. Once the sun was gone, it got colder very quickly. Then, the only thing to do is to get into the warm sleeping bag while cooking dinner. During the trip so far, night-time temperatures dropped to about -15 Celsius, but never colder, so I could always sleep comfortably.
Having lunch with the military…
On the next day, I quickly reached the Karakul settlement. Basically, a big military barrack for the border guards. After bad experiences with checkpoints, I wasn’t sure what would await me. I stopped at the barricade and greeted nicely one of the soldiers. He was already broadly smiling and told me to come in their small hut. I asked whether I should bring my passport, but he told me that would not be necessary - I took the passport anyway, as I couldn’t believe what he said. Then, I stepped in and got greeted by a whole group of young soldiers who immediately made me sit down and… join them for lunch ;). They had a huge bowl of meat on their table. They actually only took a look at the passport out of curiosity, but as their fingers were very greasy from eating lunch, they didn’t want to touch it too much. Thanks ;).
Some meters further down, a group of officers greeted me, one of them was the border guard I met the day before. They mostly had to ‘secure’ the no-man’s-land towards the Chinese border (once the border between two superpowers). An electric fence, running over hundreds of kilometers, seals off the whole border region. For long stretches the fence went right along the road, a rather awkward view. The officers invited me to their army camp. Old, Soviet-style propaganda was still in place in the courtyard. I felt a bit tense, when I was lead into the commander’s office. Strategic maps indicating the military camps, the fence, etc. were hanging on the walls. During Soviet times, I would probably had to get executed after seeing these kind of stuff. But nowadays things are really relaxed. Most officers were wearing only half of their military dress, ‘Adidas’ sport suits seemed to be much more popular. One of the soldiers came in and got presented as ‘normal soldier, or not?’, then the officers broadly smiled at me when the soldier stood right next to the table and slowly dropped a bottle of vodka he covered up in his sleeve. Afterwards, we went to the officers’ apartment and a huge bowl of meat was prepared. The company was very nice and I enjoyed once again the incredible Tajik hospitality. The origin of the meat was rather depressing on the other hand… it was Marco Polo sheep. A highly endangered species with its habitat high up in the Pamirs. Nobody really knows how many individuals are left, but they’re rapidly declining. Hunting methods mostly include Kalashnikovs, previously borrowed from the Russians, these days the Tajik military is doing the job. The officers proudly pointed me to their machine guns lying behind the beds and the cartridges spread all around. With the machine guns often whole herds get massacred… Officially you need to buy a license for hunting (20’000 USD per individual), but locals don’t bother too much about this. As food is scarce and expensive, hunting meat for free seems all too attractive. The taste of the meat was very good, but… ;(
With a filled stomach, I left the officers and continued towards the Kyrgyz border, made up by the mighty Chong Alau range. I was so overwhelmed by the sight of the Karakul lake and its surrounding peaks, that I decided to spend another night with view on the lake. So, I camped early and walked up a small hill at 4470m making a great outlook point shortly before sunset. During the night, a snowstorm was raging and I got only little sleep. In the morning, I expected to find quite some snow… but actually most of it got blown away, just under the cover of my tent, snow and sand had been accumulating during the night.
A small pass separated the border region from the lake. Just after the top, a new checkpoint, this time from the police, was put in place. After the great experience from the last one, I had no particular bad thoughts when I was approaching. But it was everything but nice… After a ‘hello’, the hassles started. The two policemen tried to intimidate me threatening to unpack my whole baggage. Then they claimed that I would lack a stamp from my Murgab registration and I could pass under no circumstances. I kept telling that I would have gone to the police, but I didn’t get a stamp - a lie… but so was their claim that I would lack a stamp (I never got a stamp from the police anywhere in Central Asia). I remained stubborn that I would not turn around and cycle back to Murgab to get one… then the relatively obvious goal came into light: I got asked how much money I would have with me… So…, things could be ‘smoothed’ with money. No way that I would give cash to these bloodsuckers! It took then quite some time until I could finally pass… but in the end they cracked and offered me some Shir-chay (salted tea with salt, butter and a lot of milk added). I quickly drunk the rather disgusting brew and headed off. Checkpoints can really be heaven and hell, quickly following one another.
With stiff headwind but under a fantastic blue sky, I made the final kilometers towards the Kyrgyz border. At the Tajik border post, a a glass of vodka (doesn’t go well with high-altitude cycling ;) ) and a short look at my passport made up the customs procedures. Some 20m after the border post, the anti-narcotics brigade was ‘checking’ the vehicles. A man in a ‘Adidas’ sport suit, sunglasses and a cigarette told me to come in. I got asked some questions relating my travel out of curiosity, in the end they asked: ‘Do you have narcotics with you?’ I told them that this would not be the case and I could leave… rather simple procedure ;) Other vehicles could simply pass, I somehow had the strong impression that if somebody would show up with opium, the procedures would be just as smooth as with me… The guys would probably simply ask to share some of the revenues.
Then, the last kilometer to the Kyzyl-Art pass (4280m) followed. I had to push, as there was quite some snow on the road. But at the same time, meltwater was heavily washing out the dirt road. I was about to exit not only Tajikistan, but also a dry, cold and simply literally breathtaking region…
A long downhill…
The downhill on the completely washed out road was not easy. The snow limit was descending just as I was cycling down. Precipitations seemed to be much more intense again. As I arrived at the Kyrgyz border post at 3400m, I was a bit worried. My visa would only start on April, 20, I was three days too early. I hated the idea of sitting around for three days. The young border guards were really friendly and I gained hope. They wanted to register my entry in their book. They noted down name, nationality and passport number. Then they came to the entry date, while they were looking at my visa… Instead of thinking of the actual date, they simply noted down ’20.4.2004’, as it was written in my Kyrgyz visa. Thanks! ;) Then, I had a short chat with the customs official - he was actually asleep and it required quite some efforts to get him up ;).
The broad Alau valley at about 3200m was thickly covered with snow - what a change to the Tajik side! As I gained distance from the Chong Alau range I had just crossed, the sheer dimensions of its peaks became visible. Especially Pik Lenin, now towering some 4000m above me, was amazing. A thin but very long cloud of snow blown off its summit. The wind had to be quite strong up there. I camped just after Sary-Tash. To the East, there was the Irkeshtam pass leading to China and the Talkamakan desert. But I had to continue North (to Bishkek), in order to get a Chinese visa, as I still had not managed to get one… On the following day, I cycled over the last 3000m passes and started a long downhill. The landscape got very green and it was quite warm. But on the other hand, the Tajik friendliness was gone. On two occasions children were throwing rocks, just seconds after they were greeting me. One hit my hand, the others missed luckily their target. I got very suspicious of the kids… I kept a suspicious eye on them until I was out of range. Also, the adults were no more so much open. A drunk old man was hassling me, a part from that not many people came forward. I reached Osh quite quickly and was happy to get a shower and eat some good food. I could stay (yet again) at a NGO guesthouse, thanks to Marielle, an expat working in Murgab, Tajikistan.
The ride to the Kyrgyz capital…
The way to Bishkek was quite a change from the dramatic Pamir. For long stretches, I cycled through rather densely populated areas. Some nice Kyrgyz invited me close to Jalal-Abad to join their dinner. They were actually worried for me… I had been chatting with some employees of the road restaurant, the cook was still holding his knife in his hand, as he had been cutting onions just before. From a distance, he could have looked like threatening me ;). One of the Kyrgyz inviting me, was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was First Secretary in the Protocol Department (the guys who need to know what kind of vodka brand is appropriate to be put on the table when for example the Kazakh Foreign Minister comes for a visit ;)). The Kyrgyz wanted me to stay at a hotel for the night and insisted on paying. Strange habits, otherwise I was always invited to their homes… ‘Unfortunately’ the hotel was too far away to be reached before sunset.
The route got more interesting after Tash-Komur. The road entered the big mountain range separating Osh from Bishkek, the capital in the North. But the frequent punctures due to my badly damaged front tyre were getting annoying. I was really looking forward to get new ones. I cut pieces out of an abandoned truck air chamber. They were surprisingly thick and protected the bicycle chamber from getting punctured where the tyre was torn open.
After a long ride along several beautiful water reservoirs created by dams, the road started the climb up the first 3000m pass. Over 50km the road was climbing some tiring 2200m up. I made some 300m up in the evening and I spent almost the whole next day climbing up the remaining 1900m. The trucks were having lots of problems with their engine overheating. I solved this problem by cycling in T-shirt ;) At the top, snow covered the whole landscape and it got quite cold. Some funny Kyrgyz arrived with their car just when I reached the top. They wanted me to take a picture of them holding a bottle of vodka in their hands and posing next to the sign indicating the altitude of 3184m. They were somehow convinced that they would appear soon in a Swiss newspaper… I let them in their believe ;).
A gentle downhill brought me down to 2200m. The snow was gone again and I found a very nice camp spot on the lonely grass plains making up this part of the Tien Shan mountains. It started raining during the night and didn’t stop for the next 48h. I cycled up the second pass and the rain soon turned into snow. Completely wet from sweating, I reached the top at 3180m, where a tunnel was shortcutting the last part, still covered with lots of snow. The downhill was huge… dropping down to 750m, towards the plains close to Kazakhstan. The rain didn’t stop as I camped for a last time before Bishkek - always a difficult undertaking to get into a dry tent without making it completely wet due to the raingear and equipment. I succeeded almost ;).
The last dozens of kms to Bishkek were very easy. Back in Dushanbe, I got a surprise email from a young Swiss woman from the same region where I’m coming from. She had also been a scout leader, but we haven’t seen each other for a long time. Beatrice invited me to stay at her home in Bishkek. She wasn’t in town, when I arrived but she left me her keys… Wonderful! Thank you! I didn’t regret for a second to miss out the terribly run and expensive Soviet hotels in Bishkek.
Chinese problems & a great time with Beatrice…
My letter of invitation to get a Chinese visa was ready… but somehow they reduced my 90-days application to a 30-days one… Way too short to make it through Western Tibet! I was really frustrated, as Bishkek had been my last chance in Central Asia to get a visa for China. But there might be a way to extend my visa in Tibet… there’s one place where this could work and it’s exactly on my planned route… So, I decided to get the 30-days visa and have a try. Getting the visa was pretty difficult, as I soon found out. I arrived at the consulate two hours before closure and asked to be put on the waiting list… I waited for nothing, the consulate closed before I could get in. Most annoyingly this was just before the week-long holiday workers’ holiday (blame the Chinese communism for this… ;) ). I decided to have a short bicycle tour to the Lake Issyk-Kul. It was a nice ride, although I had still a lot of puncture (the parcel with the new tyres still had not arrived). But the blue lake was quite a beautiful sight. Back in Bishkek, there was again a lot of fun with Beatrice. No idea, how it goes, that not only the we managed to partly flood her kitchen due to a defunct sink, but as we wanted to hang up her wet carpet out of the window, it got blown off by a gust of wind. Basically, that wouldn’t be too much of a problem (just go downstairs and pick up the carpet…), if it would not be hanging some 5m above ground on a seemingly unreachable branch of a tree ;). So, you see, it doesn’t get boring here in Bishkek…
On the second attempt, I managed to get into the consulate, as I arrived half an hour before the opening time. But there were already quite some people who had come even earlier (!). After two and a half hours of waiting in the rain, I managed to get in, just half an a hour before closure. Once in, accepting my visa application was no problem. With the obligate letter of invitation, the consul (half-way asleep) already was about to sign my application before he had even opened my passport… ;) Now, I have to wait for another week to receive my passport back… the consul would be so busy, so it could not get done faster. I thinking now about some trekking in the mountains to kill another week.
Then, my plans are to go back by bus/truck to Sary-Tash and cycle from there over the Irkeshtam pass to Kashgar at the edge of the Taklamakan desert. From there, I will head towards the Kunlun Shan range (‘mountains of darkness’), separating the desert from the high-altitude plains of Western Tibet. After Kashgar, anything might happen (getting caught at a checkpoint, not being able to extend my visa, etc.), but my destination remains Kathmandu in Nepal, at the end of a long crossing of the Himalaya. My journey approaches its end, but there will hopefully still a lot of adventures ahead…
Thanks for reading & see you soon,