The Pamir Highway – Day 2 – Lake Karakul to Langar
Waking up in the morning camped on Lake Karakul, northeastern Pamirs, was just perfect: bright sunshine and no wind. The only sound I could hear was the water lapping gently upon the shore (and not the wind inside the tent, as some witty family member is bound to remark).
I went for a quick dip; it was really cold, but just what I needed to wake me up.
Karakul Lake was created by a meteor impact around 10 million years ago and sits in a basin at 3,914m surrounded by the snow-capped Pamir Mountains. The lake is salty, although after my swim my skin didn’t feel too salty. It freezes solid in the winter and stays frozen until May (no wonder it was cold!). I’d read that in 2 month’s time (Sep 14) they planned to hold a sailing regatta there, which would officially make it the highest ‘navigable lake’ in the world after Lake Titicaca on the Bolivia/Peru border.
I savoured the total peace and tranquility of the area (I was the only one around for miles) and took my time packing up the tent. I heated up the leftover Spag Bol I’d made for dinner the night before and then set off on my way towards the Ak-Baital Pass and Murghab, where I would hopefully find my next fuel stop, ‘inshallah’.
I was looking forward to the ride over the Ak-Baital (White Horse) Pass, the highest section of the Pamir Highway at 4,655m (15,200ft). It is supposed to be one of the easiest places to spot Marco Polo Sheep from the road; a rare, huge sheep with huge horns (and the National animal of Afghanistan) that some people pay 16,000 US dollars to hunt (I could travel for a year on that!). I didn’t see any, but I was mostly looking at the incredibly spectacular scenery instead; some of the best I’ve ever seen.
Many people attack the Pamir Highway west to east, as this allows more time to acclimatise due to a gradual increase in altitude, and reduce the potential for altitude sickness (which commonly occurs over 3,500m, or 11,500ft). I, however, was lucky and didn’t feel any effects. Never-the-less, seriously consider this if you’re planning to visit this area.
Once over the pass, it didn’t take long to get to Murghab; a dry, dusty town in the middle of nowhere. I waved at 2 policemen hiding in a speed trap as I rode in; they didn’t wave back.
I had no Tajik money (having come from the remote eastern border with Kyrgyzstan), so I found the local bank to change some dollars. It was shut.
“Hmm”, I thought.
The only other thing that looked half open was the town hotel, where a nice English-speaking manager told me ‘of course I’ll change money for you!’ Moments like that I could kiss people.
To celebrate I had lunch at the hotel as well; pea soup and traditional plov (rice and a few scraps of some indescript meat). I’d had a dose of ‘Tia Maria’ since leaving Bishkek and had been sinking Imodium like smarties, so I thought I’d lay off the salad for a change (likely culprit).
After lunch I filled up at the town ‘fuel station’; it was 232km since my last fill at Sary-Tash.
I thought about heading out towards Bulunkul where there were a couple of lakes I thought I could camp at, and so bought a pass for the National Park (as is required) at the Murghab Tourist Information Office for a couple of dollars.
Leaving Murghab the road continued along a pretty river valley – the first greenery I’d seen since Osh.
I wasn’t too sure where my next fuel would come from, but was sure some would turn up somewhere, as it usually did. I’d heard I could get some at Ishkashim, 300 odd km away, so I was sure I’d be OK. As it turned out, I found some at a small town called Alichur 105km further on, poured out of old barrels (obviously great quality!).
The road between Murghab and Alichur is pretty flat and not as scenic as the road before Murghab, so I was looking forward to the Khargush Pass & Wakhan Valley (that had been recommended to me) for a change of scenery.
I had seen dozens of cyclists along the Pamir so far, but no motorcyclists. There was a strong headwind all the way to Alichur, and I felt sorry for the ones biking that way.
I could sense a marked difference with the friendliness of the Pamir people; everyone I passed waved at me – it was nice. Young girls would even drop whatever they were carrying (usually water jugs) to wave. Every time I stopped, even though I thought no-one was around, I would soon be surrounded by interested looking locals who appeared to climb out of the trees.
Just past Alichur there was one of many routine police/army check-points; they have a long, porous border to patrol with Afghanistan, and an estimated 20% of Afghanistan’s opiate and heroin production seeps through daily.
I got to the National Park junction early: straight on for the lakes, or left for the Wakhan Valley. I decided to take the Wahkan Valley turn-off, eager to see if it lived up to all the hype I’d heard.
The Wakhan Valley
The Wakhan Valley turn-off is a rubble road just past Alichur which splits off from the main (surfaced) Pamir Highway (or M41) and heads south across the Khargush Pass and down into the Wakhan Valley (it was the last I’d see tarmac for 2 days). This part of the road follows the Tajik/Afgan border for over 200km to Ishkashim, before heading north to Khorog and rejoining the M41. From the rave reviews I’d had from other travellers, it sounded too good to miss.
The rubble road of the Khargush Pass passed a couple of small lakes which looked great from a distance, but the green and red water didn’t look too inviting for swimming as I got closer.
Then, after another check-point, I met the Pamir River and finally swung west into the Wakhan Valley.
Although the road was sand and gravel, I thought it was OK, until I became too complacent and almost slipped off the road on a deep, sandy corner. That’s when I bumped into (not literally, thankfully) a big Swede called Gibson on his Yamaha Ténéré 750 coming the other way. He told me fuel wasn’t a problem for the rest of the way, and so I relaxed.
Even so, on the downhill stretches I continued to switch the engine off. Now I was doing it because I liked it; it made a nice change to freewheel down a beautiful mountain with nothing but the sound of the wind in my flowing golden locks. Now I knew how the cyclists felt, although I had the best of both worlds, as I could motor up the hills 🙂
Note: Coasting downhill with the engine switched off can be dangerous, as you have no immediate engine power to get yourself out of trouble, should you need it (but it was a risk I took, and I went slowly).
The road followed the Pamir River southwest down a long hill until it met the Wakhan River at Langar. Here, the two rivers join to form the Panj River, which keeps running west along the Tajik/Afghan border. It was late afternoon so I decided to try and find a good spot to camp down by the river. Instead, I found myself wondering into a local ‘homestay’ owned by Mr Yodgor and his huge extended family. I was very pleased I did.
I had seen a couple of tents camped in Yodgor’s garden, so I asked him how much it was to camp.
“You’re too old to camp!” was his smart reply. “You can stay in my guest room and drink beer”.
Well, how could I argue against logic like that (especially for 8 quid, full board)?
Yodgor’s Homestay was the kind of place it was impossible to be anything other than extremely happy around. The hospitality showered by him and his family was completely natural and from the heart. The whole guest camp was a hive of activity, with Yodgor’s large family, friends, travellers, builders and loads of happy, playful kids running all around the place.
As ordered by Yodgar, I spent the rest of the afternoon & evening relaxing and drinking beer.
Later on, at dinner, I was joined by 2 cyclists; Josy from Germany and Solmaz from Iran. Both were great company; I always admire cyclists when I meet them, as I can imagine how tough and tiring it must be on the road all day/month/year (my bum goes numb on a cycle after 20 minutes!).
When Yodgor had run out of good (Russian) beer, we were forced to drink the local stuff, which may be cheap but tastes like it’s been filtered through old socks. It didn’t help that it was also warm, but never-the-less it was better than no beer (just), and a friendly local guide kept topping us up with free vodka chasers, which certainly helped.
The Pamir Highway – Day 3 – Langar to Khorugh
In the morning I was woken by the playful tunes of Yodgor’s 101 kids and thought I might as well get up and give the bike a good going over. Yodgor was building an extension and I watched as an army of men lifted huge wooden beams up over his wall and into place as roof supports.
As I was checking the bike over, Yodgor’s kids kept bringing me sweets, which I felt compelled to eat, even though I don’t like sweets. A couple of them wanted to sit on the Tiger, so I lifted them on.
Then a few more wanted to join in the fun. Before I knew it, I had all of them on – little tykes!
After a leisurely breakfast I saw Josy and Solmaz off, and I set off around 9.30am. Just before I went, I was invited by the builders and family to sit around the yard with them and have tea and snacks. It was nice to see everyone of all ages sitting down together and socialising.
It was another beautiful day, without a cloud on the sky, but a cool headwind and stunning views made the ride a pleasure. I ambled along and took time, stopping frequently for photos.
As I’d come to expect, every time I stopped, even though I thought no one was around, I would soon be surrounded by interested and very friendly locals. One young lad gave me a handful of delicious, small apricots his sister was carrying in a bucket. I have him a little something for them and let him have a pose on my bike.
The road ran along the valley floor for some distance after Langer, tightly hugging the Panj River through sandy, rocky terrain interspersed with occasional lush, green patches of irrigated fields.
At one point an impressive, huge delta of mud and water flowed into the Panj from the Afghan side.
I suddenly thought how lucky I was to be riding a bike (that works) through such beautiful scenery, and meeting such wonderful people on a gorgeous sunny day, without a care in the world. I thought I’d celebrate with a beer, but I didn’t have one to hand, so I put it on my ‘things to do list’ for that evening.
It was the kind of day when everything went right. Everybody waved at me as I rode past: men, women, kids – even the cows seemed to nod in acknowledgement as I dipped my helmet towards them. Many of the kids would even race out of their houses to try and wave at me in time. It was nice!
I passed through the market town of Ishkashim where, on Saturdays, they open the border with Afghanistan for a special bazaar so local traders can buy/sell/trade goods with each other. I saw a ‘fuel station’ (of sorts) and could have filled up, but strangely I still had plenty of juice left and knew I could easily make it to the next big town of Khorog (courtesy of my downhill free-wheels).
There is a famous hot spring at Garam Chashma just before Khorog, so I took the short detour off the main road and up a tributary river valley to have a look. When I arrived I had a good lunch, but the hot spring didn’t look too appealing to me. I wondered why anyone would want to jump into a small bath of questionable water quality and sit next to lots of other fat, sweaty blokes. Instead, I rode back down the hill for a few miles and stopped off to swim in the fresh mountain river running down it – a much better idea in my book. It was really hot, so the cold mountain water was just what I needed to cool down.
Back on the main road I passed yet another police check-point, shortly followed by an army check-point (not sure why they both needed one). As usual, they all wanted me to rev the b*llocks off my bike (or do it themselves) and ride away with a wheelie.
When I arrived at the guesthouse I’d found in Khorog, the Tiger had gone a record 368km on one tank (19 litres), and she still had another 70km (2 fuel bars) left showing on the fuel gauge. Usually I’m lucky to get 300km out of her; don’t underestimate the power of coasting down hills!
Khorugh is known for its beautiful poplar trees, and even the guesthouse I was staying in had plenty of them in the garden, along with a relaxing outdoor sun deck.
It had been a long day’s ride, but after a shower I settled down for dinner and a beer with the other interesting guests (German, French and Irish) and was instantly refreshed; it’s amazing what a shower, food and beer can do to a man. Cheers! 🙂