One Week with Bill Weir in Asia
American Bill Weir has become a bit of an expert on Asia over the past few years.
He’s pedalled over 40,000km on the continent over the course of 2 long trips, going from the humid climes of Thailand and India to the cool mountain tops of Tibet. Now he shares with us a week of touring in the small Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This is expedition cycling at its best, over rough roads, through stunning landscapes and up the challenging Pamir Highway.
Bill’s diary from August, 2008 follows below and don’t forget to check out his longer journal of the whole trip, Asia Again.
Day 1 – From Sary Tash to just below the Kizil-Art Ashuu pass in Kyrgyzstan
The day of my ride into the Pamirs dawned sunny and pleasant. “Bessie Too the Bicycle” received a cleaning and oiling, and my clothes a wash before I pushed off at 11 a.m. A gentle downhill of about 4km brought me to a bridge over the Kizil-Suu River, where I met Swiss cyclists Margrit and Pius Jörger. It’s rare to meet a retired couple making a world tour on bicycles, and they didn’t come the easy way. Their route from Europe had included a bit of Africa and way-off-the-beaten-track Yemen. In Tajikistan, they had ridden a challenging route via the Wakan Valley and Khargush Pass as well as the Pamir Highway. Now they were taking a well deserved rest in the warm sun before heading into Sary Tash. Before we parted, they gave me a very helpful copy of a cyclist log of the Pamir Highway and photocopies of a map of the Pamirs (Markus Hauser).
Across the river, I began a very gentle ascent beside the wide gravel plain of a tributary river, helped along by a strong tailwind. In previous years the Kyrgyz border post had been so inconspicuous that some cyclists missed it altogether, which wasn’t a problem as the post didn’t have a stamp! Now a proper border post at Bo Dobo (26km from Sary Tash) stamped me out on the last day of my Kyrgyz visa. Bumpy asphalt lasted another 8km as I continued up the valley. Not much roadside water here, and one stream that I stopped at turned out to be salty. I passed lots of motorcyclists today–a pair of Belgians headed into the Pamirs and a group of six Polish riders coming out.
Cycling became more difficult where the asphalt ran out and the road turned up a side valley for the stiff climb to the pass. I camped just 4km before the pass, picking a rare level spot on slightly soggy grass, then set up my tent in the cold wind. Lots of water here! As I dined on dried figs, chocolate, and biscuits, the setting sun added colors to the upturned mountains all around.
Day 2 – Over the Kizil-Art Ashuu to Kara Kul in Tajikistan
I couldn’t complain about another mostly sunny day with tailwinds. Cyclists often meet with fierce weather in the Pamirs–snow and high winds can strike at any time of year. As it turned out, the timing of my visit to the region worked out almost perfectly, avoiding the mid-summer mosquitoes and storms reported by other travelers, then providing a bit of autumn color.
Sunrise saw me still in Kyrgyzstan, stamped out and with an expired visa. Luckily the authorities didn’t come looking for me! Frost covered my tent, so I waited for the sun to come up and provide welcome warmth. The climb from my campsite to Kizil-Art Pass took less than an hour, then I hiked up the hillside for a better view. Next I rode downhill 1.5km to the Tajikistan border post, where formalities took most of an hour because the passport and visa details had to be entered into three different books. At last I was free to go, and continued dropping into a wide, arid valley. Hardly any plants grew in the rocky ground, quite a contrast to the lush meadows on the Kyrgyz side of the border. Surrounding mountains had the surreal brilliance that I had experienced in Tibet’s thin, dry air.
I met a pair of motorcyclists from Australia, then I was all alone for the next four hours. At first the road had horrible washboards and loose gravel, forcing even the motorcyclists to ride at a crawl. As I wondered whether or not I would be able to reach Kara-Kul Lake and the adjacent village today, antique asphalt appeared and made the climb up 4,232m Uy Bulak Pass much easier. Just beyond the pass I caught my first sight of vast Kara-Kul Lake, up to 25km across and 230 meters deep. Barren islands poked out from the center, while grasslands and snowy peaks ringed the shore. A fast descent, then a level ride soon took me to Karakul village on the lake’s eastern shore. At first glance it’s an ugly place of mudbrick dwellings and rubble-filled streets. I asked for a “chaikana” (cafe) and was led to a house for a filling meal of meat-and-potato soup, meat-and-potato noodle dish, and tea. I considered riding farther, but stayed instead and was glad that I did. I walked around the village, then explored the grassy lakeshore where small waves came crashing in. I asked if there was a banya, not expecting one, and was pleasantly surprised to find I could take a hot bath. I cleaned up and slept warm that night.
Day 3 – To camp 21km southeast of Akbaital Pass
Sunrise beautifully lit up the mountains across the lake. Pavement continued for 37km southeast of Karakol through a series of mostly dry valleys. Although I had left Kyrgyzstan, I hadn’t left the Kyrgyz people as they have settled widely across eastern Tajikistan. I stopped at an attractive roadside Kyrgyz yurt for a filling lunch of noodles and meat along with bread, butter, and tea. Good times then came to an end with 15km of awful gravel and washboards, although afternoon tailwinds kicked in. The road improved slightly on the 7.5km climb up Akbaital Pass, the Pamir Highway’s loftiest at 4,655 meters. One would think this an extremely difficult place to live, but the marmots loved it–I spotted nine of the furry creatures at one of several colonies just before the pass. The day never did warm up, and I got chilled on the long paved descent from the pass. Although the road dropped into the broad Akbaital Valley, I didn’t come to any water until about 19km from the pass. I went a bit farther and camped at an idyllic grassy spot beside a stream. Many cyclists carry stoves, which are great when camping, but I only occasionally camped in the Pamirs and felt that the extra weight wasn’t worth it. My cold dinner that night consisted of canned sardines in tomato sauce, bread, chocolate, and dried apricots. Not until I retreated into my sleeping bag did I finally warm up.
Day 4 – To Murgab
After yesterday’s tough ride, I had it easy this beautiful morning. The paved road continued down the gentle grades of Akbaital Valley, then swung into Murgab. A bit of sleet welcomed me to the sprawling town before quickly dissipating. A large round building at the edge of Murghab housed META, the Murgab Ecotourism Association, a travel agency set up with the help of a French NGO to link travelers with local guides, drivers, and yurtstays. The manager gave directions to a homestay, then offered a guide to show me the “sights” of Murgab. On questioning, he dropped the price to $10 and admitted that the only sights were the bazaar and the OVIR (registration) office. I checked into the homestay “Erali” with its very pleasant glassed-in front room overlooking Murgab and the valley beyond. A travelers’ book contained many interesting stories by cyclists who have stayed here. Food was good here and surprisingly all vegetarian. As my ride today was less than four hours, I arrived in plenty of time for a leisurely lunch (bread fresh out the oven) at the homestay, then wandered down to the main part of town, marked by a bust of Lenin. Here I went into the OVIR office to register, which travelers must do within 72 hours of arrival. This silly bit of paperwork wasn’t free–I had to fork over $15 plus 25 somoni, about $23 total. Outside, I noticed a sign for a bank; here I changed $200 and my remaining 200 Kyrgyz som into Tajik somoni. Next I hit the bazaar, a miserable looking collection of beat-up trailers, shelters, and a few buildings, where I splurged on some green grapes, yogurt, and cake. I took a backroad past the Chinese truck terminal to the META office and asked about possible sidetrips in the area. An overnight trip and dayhike in the nearby Gumbezkol Valley seemed the best bet. It appeared that I was the only tourist in town today.
Day 5 – In Murgab
A rest day to relax and wash up.
Day 6 – Sidetrip to Gumbezkol Valley
Before cycling to Gumbezkol Valley, I swung by the bazaar to stock up on food. I retraced my way north 6km on the Pamir Highway, then bumped west 21km on a track along the broad and dry Pshart Valley, where colorful folded mountains contrasted with a deep blue sky. I stopped at a group of seven Kyrgyz yurts spread across meadows of the lower end of Gumbezkol Valley. A grandfather invited me inside his yurt, where I was offered very tasty bread, butter, yogurt, kurut paste (a salty yogurt concoction), and tea. This seemed to be the family’s entire diet, with a herd of yaks providing milk for the dairy products. In the afternoon I walked across the Pshart Valley, met a goat herder, and admired the mountain panoramas. I camped near the yurt, but a bad case of runs that night meant little sleep and lots of trips “out back.” Other travelers have had similar difficulties–lack of sanitation in serving food at the yurt camps can spell trouble.
Day 7 – A tough hike, then cycling back to Murgab
I felt better in the morning, and left the bicycle behind for a stroll up the Gumbezkol Valley. Yaks also went for a wander, moving high up the hillsides; they’re brought back to camp in the evenings and tied up, not always willingly. Meadows extended far up the valley, making it one of the lushest that I saw in the Pamirs. Flowers still bloomed, although autumn had already swept across the upper reaches. Marmots sang their shrill cries. Higher up the meadows ended and I had to scramble up a long scree slope to reach 4,731-meter Gumbezkol Pass. A gentle snowstorm passed through, surprisingly without any wind. Alpine plants at the top survived by rooting in any crevice that provided protection from the fierce storms that must rage here. A trail continued down the other side, but I thought the Gumbezkol Valley the prettiest, and also my bicycle lay at the bottom, so I returned to it and pedaled back to Murgab. A brief hailstorm entertained the kids when I got to the yurts. The ride to Murgab took only a bit over two hours thanks to the 400-meter drop in elevation.
Read more about Bill’s Adventures in this full journal of the whole trip, Asia Again. All pictures on this page are courtesy of Bill Weir.