10 Questions: Cycling The Pamir Highway
Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway is one of the world’s most famous routes for the adventurous bicycle tourist. Its stunning scenery is rewarding, and the challenging terrain can be a true test of your endurance.
Because of the high altitudes and extreme climate, most people tackle this route through Central Asia in the more temperate summer months, but a few brave souls show up on the edge of winter – as Christine McDonald did.
In this edition of 10 Questions, she shares her experiences of cycling the Pamir Highway in November.
1. The Pamir Highway is quite a challenging ride; how did you prepare for the trip?
The truth is that we didn’t! We flew into Kyrgyzstan hoping to get a Chinese visa there and ride across the Tibetan plateau, but because it was the year of the Olympics in Beijing, we weren’t able to get visas. At that point, we hadn’t even heard of the Pamir highway. I don’t remember where I read it, but somewhere it was written that “the Pamir Highway is like the Karakorum highway on steroids.” That was what made our minds up.
In terms of gear, we were well-prepared for rough roads and cold mountain weather since those were always part of the plan. We had heavy down sleeping bags, down coats, gore-tex jackets and mittens. Our bikes were rugged mountain bikes and we hauled Bob trailers instead of using panniers as these help take the stress off the back wheel of the bike and let you pile a pretty much unlimited load of stuff on top!
The bureaucracy was a bit of a hassle, especially trying to get a Tajik visa in Kyrgystan.
First, finding the Tajik embassy on a bike, using only sign language to ask directions, was an adventure in itself. Then, finding it actually open was a hassle and on our many trips there, we often waited for a long time before someone showed up to help us. And, finally, you need a letter of invitation from a tour operator in Tajikistan in order to get the visa. Getting this ended up being a bit of an exercise in trust as we had to wire money to a complete stranger and hope that he followed through with sending the letter to the embassy.
This whole process took us a week so I strongly recommend to anyone planning to travel in Tajikistan to get the visa before they arrive in the area!
2. Why did you decide to go in November? Wasn’t it quite cold?
My cycling partner and I both work as forest fire fighters in Canada during the summer and our season ends in September. That means that fall is the best time for us to go touring. It’s not ideal for trips in much of the northern hemisphere, but we’ve tried hard not to let it hold us back. It was very cold and we spent several days riding through snow. Our coldest night was -14°C.
3. What condition is the road in? Is it unpaved road the whole way?
We were actually very impressed by the quality of the Pamir highway. About 85% of it is paved. There are a lot of potholes, but these are easy to dodge on a bike and they keep traffic from going too fast. I should say, though, that if someone is reading this and trying to gauge how far they might ride in a day, other factors will affect your daily mileage, including the altitude (you’ve only got half the oxygen as at sea level to work with) and the wind, which can really rip across the open plateau. It had us seeking shelter in culverts under the road at times!
The road quality elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, however, is pretty rough. The road from Khorog towards Dushanbe (a national highway) is a very rough gravel track carved into the mountainside overlooking the Panj River into Afghanistan. You’re actually close enough to throw a rock into Afghanistan! It has frequent rock-falls. It is incredible to watch transport trucks try to pass one another on the narrow ledge and no way to squeeze a bike through as they do.
4. What about services en route? How often would you come across small towns or shops, and how much food and water did you carry on average?
The lack of services is one of the most challenging aspects of riding the Pamir highway and elsewhere in rural Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. We often had to carry 4 days worth of food with us. Water, fortunately, was fairly easy to find and as long we stopped to refill our bottles at every opportunity (including two litres for dinner and breakfast), we never ran out. We used a Steri-pen to treat water from lakes, creeks and community wells.
Every small village has a store, but they are often in someone’s home and do not have a sign so we always had to ask around to find them. In the small stores, we were able to get enough dry goods (lots of packaged cookies!) to get by. Families quite often sell fresh bread and cheese or butter as well. Local honey was easy to come by and delicious and we had it almost daily on our bread for lunch. Fruits and vegetables could only be found in larger centres at a market so we always bought and carried lots of these.
5. What was the most challenging part for you?
The cold! Especially after the bag that I kept my down coat, gore-tex jacket, toque and mittens in was stolen. I ended up restocking from the market in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and wore fuzzy pyjamas in place of down and a heavy military rubber coat in place of gore-tex. It did the trick, but made me appreciate our technical gear from home!
The cold created more challenges, too. In the mornings, our derailleur cables were often frozen so we were stuck in whatever cycling gear we had ended in the day before until things thawed out again. It was also hard to keep our water from freezing. We would sometimes keep it in our sleeping bags, but it felt like it sucked all the warmth out of the bag and resulted in a lousy sleep.
The other big challenge was the language barrier. Simple things like finding a place to stay, buying food and asking for directions were difficult. In one road-side restaurant, we tried to order a pot of green tea and ended up with a whole cooked chicken and a loaf of bread!
In a few situations, not being able to communicate led to some uncomfortable moments, like when a man with a gun who smelled like vodka showed up on his horse at our camping spot after dark.
6. And the most rewarding?
The views along the Pamir highway are absolutely incredible. I can’t do it justice with words, but the vastness and emptiness of it are amazing. Doing it late in the season and dealing with cold and snow was also rewarding in a way that I think many other cycle tourists would understand.
7. Did you find the people generally welcoming?
Interacting with the people of the Pamir was very special. We had many long sign-language conversations with people who stopped us along the road to give us an apple or invite us in for tea. We joked that if we accepted every invitation for tea in Tajikistan, we never would have made it anywhere!
8. Was there anything that you took but wouldn’t take again, or (vice versa) something you should have taken but didn’t?
I didn’t know that they existed at the time (and maybe they didn’t yet), but a SPOT GPS tracker would have saved both us and our families at home some stress. Contacting family members at home was very difficult. Internet was non-existent and phones were few and far between, and sometimes out of order when we did find them. A SPOT, which we’ll take on our next trip for sure, uses GPS technology to let you send pre-set messages home to let people know that things are ok.
As far as something I wouldn’t take next time, well…I didn’t need that tank top….
9. Is there any option to throw your bike on a bus, if something happens and you can’t or don’t want to cycle the whole way?
There were no buses travelling the Pamir highway in November (and not many buses in either country at all) but anyone with a vehicle can be hired to drive you where you need to go if you’re desperate. Unfortunately, these rides aren’t cheap. We got a ride in an ancient Russian Jeep (the driver had to go get the battery out of the house because it also powered their am radio) on the Pamir highway and paid about a dollar a kilometre.
Hitchhiking, on the other hand, costs very little or nothing if you have time to wait for trucks to pass. Keep in mind we only saw 3-5 vehicles per day on the Pamir highway, but more elsewhere in the country. We had to hitch into Dushanbe to catch our flight home and ended up being taken in by a convoy of Tajik truckers who wouldn’t accept anything from us and even bought us lunch.
10. One piece of advice for people who want to do this route?
Pack a good sense of adventure and some warm clothes, but do it!
Thanks to Christine for answering 10 Questions and sharing pictures of her bicycle tour along the Pamir Highway.