The Pamir Highway – Day 4 – Khorog to Dushanbe
I had a relaxing night in Khorog and woke early to a good free breakfast at my wonderful guesthouse, Lalmo Homestay. I considered staying another day because the leafy, sleepy town had a traditional music festival on. However, I could hear it in the distance from my homestay and, nothing against Tajik traditional music, but I thought the best place to listen was as far away as possible.
Back on the road north of Khorog I was back on the surfaced M41 Pamir Highway, and the road was good for a while up to a town called Rushan, sporting the usual Russian style ‘welcome arch’.
The road then turned west, still following the Panj River and Afghan border, and cut rather impressively into towering walls of solid rock.
All of a sudden, when descending a hill, my front brake lever went rock hard and my front brakes seized on. It had happened once before in Bishkek but I assumed it was because I’d left the bike standing for a week while I was waiting for my new clutch to arrive. I pulled over by the side of the road, took the caliper and brake pads off and pushed back the pistons. I spayed the pistons with a bit of WD40 to dislodge any dirt that had more than likely caused the seizure.
Before I set off, I noticed the plastic oil container I was carrying my spare fuel in had developed a small hole in the bottom and was leaking, so I chucked it. Fuel stops looked far more regular from here on, so I was sure I wouldn’t need it anyway.
Several other sizeable rivers flow into the Panj along its route, and at one of these crossings I came up against a long line of lorries waiting to cross a bridge while some kind of repairs were underway. They had made camp and had been there for days, I guessed. Luckily the workmen let me ride across or else I could have been there for days as well.
It was a really hot day and I stopped frequently to apply more sun-cream to my face; it had got burnt a couple of days ago and my lips were still peeling.
I passed a picnic shelter (one of the only ones I’d seen) and used the rare opportunity to escape the relentless sun and stop for lunch by the river. A nice family in a car pulled up for a chat and asked me if I needed anything. They were from the capital Dushanbe. I was also headed there, but wasn’t sure if I would make it in one day (being 600km away from Khorog on roads of varying quality).
The valley here was narrow, and the Panj River cascaded down rapids violently; I thought it would be a great place to come white-water rafting, although in places I thought it may be even too violent for that.
As the valley was narrow, I could clearly see the traditional Afghan squat, rectangular, mud houses across the river/border, and their occasional beautifully farmed terraces covering the steep Afghan mountainsides.
Shortly after lunch my right pannier decided to fall off. A dip in the road had caught me out and I took off as I jumped it, leaving the pannier behind on the road when I landed with a bump.
The pannier frame I’d had welded on in Almaty had snapped, so I pulled it off and hoped the pannier would remain on with only the 2 metal clasps holding it at the top (luckily they hadn’t broken off). I would have to take it easy.
I’m not too sure why, but this section of the Pamir was really dragging; it was probably something to do with my pannier falling off and brakes seizing. I also expected the road to be surfaced all the way, but I was surprised to find frequent long stretches of rough, gravelly and occasionally sandy road again. After a while it became quite tedious and I couldn’t wait to get back on the black stuff and make some ground up.
Even the kids were now annoying me; instead of waving, as the kids back east did, for some reason they all wanted to make contact with ‘High Fives’. Whenever I approached them, they would run out into the road, dangerously close, holding out their hands to try and make contact. This was extremely dangerous, as they could have easily slipped on the gravel and went into me, or hit my pannier, and I ended up taking a wide berth to avoid them as much as possible. Whoever started that stupid craze?
I thought I might stay in Kalai-Khumb, a town 240km up from Khorog, but when I arrived there 6 hours after setting off (after what seemed like forever) and didn’t spot anything I thought worth staying for, I decided to push on to Dushanbe. Yes, it was another 340km, but I hoped the road would quickly improve and I could make up some time. It was also a bit cooler riding in the evening, so I didn’t mind.
From Kalai-Khumb there are two possible routes taking you to Dushanbe; a northern route and a slightly longer southern route. I decided to take the southern route, as although slightly longer, it was the main route favoured by most traffic and hence more likely populated by fuel stations (I would need one). The roads were also supposedly better on the southern route, and I had had enough of rubbish roads for the time being.
As it turned out, the road did improve just west of Kalai-Khumb, and I was delighted to open up the Tiger (for the first time in 4 days) and have fun on an immaculate new road, still twisting alongside the river.
Although the road was generally good, there was a horribly, sticky, red clay section under construction which cut through a mountain up towards Kulob.
By sunset I had arrived at Nurek Reservoir, the (disputed) tallest dam in the world at 310m high. There are nine hydroelectric turbines in the dam which meets an incredible 98% of the nation’s electricity needs (as quoted on a Tajik website).
Lost in Dushanbe
I eventually rolled into Dushanbe hot, tired and completely lost after almost 12 hours on the road (600km on a wide variety of roads – some good, some very bad). The local SIM card I had been given by kind travellers in Bishkek was not working (properly out of credit) and I had done no previous research on cheap places to stay.
Dying for a beer and a bed, I rode into the centre of town, hoping something would turn up. And it did, as it happens, as things usually do if you ride around for long enough.
I passed a flash looking restaurant and saw a couple of motorbikes parked outside (a Suzuki Boulevard and a customised Honda Shadow), so I thought I’d park next to them, as three’s always better than two.
As soon as I rolled up (after driving up a couple of curbs and down a pedestrian path to get there) the owners of the two bikes had walked outside to meet me and welcomed me with open arms. Indeed, I had hoped this would be the case, as usually wherever I’ve been in the world, bikers always treat other bikers as though they’re part of an extended family.
The Honda rider, Gafur, and his mate immediately led me to their table and ordered me a large beer; they could tell from my face, and head to toe covering of mud and dust, that I needed one desperately. And, boy, did it taste good!
I never found out what either of them did, as their English (and my Russian/Tajik) was limited, but it didn’t matter because it was a perfect night. My beer glass was never empty, and food magically appeared in front of me at various intervals; neither food nor beer touched the sides at any time.
Over the course of the evening, I used the restaurant’s wifi to find what appeared to be the only cheap accommodation in Dushanbe. It was a hostel called ‘Yeti’ and Gafur kindly offered to take me there. As I didn’t want to put him out, I told him I’d be fine, but he insisted, and so at around midnight, a Triumph Tiger and a Honda Shadow were out cruising Dushanbe’s leafy streets looking for an elusive hostel. OK, I’d had a couple of beers, but I knew I was OK to ride (not condonable, I know); Gafur, on the other hand, was all over the show and I’m surprised he didn’t get pulled over. Perhaps he was the Dushanbe Godfather? I had a feeling he was certainly a man of influence, judging by the number of people who approached him to say ‘hi’ over the course of the evening.
In any case, Gafur got us there (by calling the hostel in the end), and I once again thanked my lucky stars I was part of the biker fraternity.
The Yeti Hostel
The Yeti Hostel was a clean & tidy place on the 6th floor of a drab, grey tower block, in what looked like a part of town you shouldn’t wonder back to after dark. In actual fact, it was perfectly safe, as me and an American backpacker I went for a few beers with the next night (Nathan) made it back alive in the early hours the next day. Yes, if ever you find yourself at a loose end in Dushanbe, I can heartily recommend the Irish Pub and ‘Peoples’ nightclub.
Anyway, before the all-day drinking shenanigans began, Nathan and I had found the Turkmenistan Embassy early in the morning and handed in our applications (after a little excitement trying to find a colour photocopier). I’d read you could apply in one city and collect the visa at the border a week later, and the nice Mr Turkmenistan Consul confirmed this, so I crossed my fingers that it would work. My rough plan was to enter Turkmenistan at Dashoguz (from Khiva) and ride down to the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi to catch the ferry cross to Azerbaijan.
The Embassy was in the north of town, and afterwards Nathan and I walked a couple of miles south into the centre. Nathan wanted to go to a museum he’d read about, and I wanted a beer, as for some reason it seemed like a Saturday (it was Monday, but isn’t every day a Saturday when you’re riding a motorbike around The World?)
Fortunately we passed a pub first (which happened to be an Irish Pub), before the museum. It was one of those days when a lunchtime pint turned into another one, and another one, and before we knew it, it was almost midnight.
During the course if the evening we met many colourful characters including a flamboyant Brit teacher, a group of European NGOs, local Kyrgyzs and a love-struck Turk; expat pubs are always good for a laugh.
On an aside, if you want one, I suddenly realised today that almost all backpackers I’ve met in the past few months have been sporting raggedy beards; it must be the new backpacker fashion, and I’m pleased to say I’m glad I’m miles behind, as usual (mainly because I can’t grow a decent one).
In the end I stayed for 3 nights in Dushanbe, the third night mainly to recover from the night out on the sauce on the second night. On the last night, Nathan and I had a junk food night and consumed a bucket of Tajik ‘Southern Fried Chicken’ and a large pizza; it’s nice to do that every once in a while.
We were both heading for Tashkent the next day, the capital of Uzbekistan, but Nathan was going via shared taxis as I (unfortunately) didn’t have any room to take him and his luggage on the Tiger.
The route north of Dushanbe towards the Tajik/Uzbek border takes you up twisty mountain roads with great views to the infamous Anzob Tunnel. I’d read and heard a lot about it – 5.5 miles of terrible road in the pitch darkness – but I thought it couldn’t be as bad as everyone made out.
In fact, it was worse; not because of the road condition, but because of the horrendous traffic jam I encountered when I went through.
About a third of the way in, the tunnel went down to one lane while road works were being completed in the other lane. As usual, a couple of idiots had tried to jump the queue and were now blocking the oncoming traffic. It was gridlock, pitch black and hell, and I was choking in the middle of it all.
The worst thing about the tunnel is the lack of ventilation, and there is reportedly only one fan in the middle of the tunnel doing very little to clear the horrendous traffic fumes. It was hard enough to see in the dark with my poor headlights (the backing plates had vibrated off at some point in Mongolia), but with the carbon monoxide smog, it was impossible in places. My bike’s problem of cutting out when it got too hot (not moving) was also getting worse, and it was a pain having to keep starting her up.
I was stuck behind a car and couldn’t get past because there was a huge cement block in the way. I tried to ask the driver to pull forward, but he wasn’t there! Goodness knows why you’d get out of your car in that poisonous atmosphere (maybe he had done a Reggie Perrin?). It was so noisy with traffic, car horns and people shouting, I could barely hear the Tigers engine running above it all.
I sat there, stuck in the gridlock for a few minutes, choking on the gases; apparently people have died before in the tunnel of carbon monoxide poisoning. Then I got fed up and tried to squeeze the bike through the gap between the car and the block. I only had millimeters to spare, and had to lean the bike away from the car a fraction to avoid denting it, but I just made it.
Then I entered an aggressive riding ‘self-survival mode’ and started weaving in-between the gridlocked traffic until I finally made it out the other side. It wasn’t fun, at all, and I almost got squashed up against the tunnel wall by cars and trucks several times. I didn’t find the poor road condition and water-filled potholes hard to deal with at all, but that was mostly down to the superb Tiger.
Having survived the Anzob Tunnel, there were several other shorter tunnels on the route north, but they were in perfect condition. I’m sure the Chinese builders will soon have the Anzob completed as well, although they seem to be taking their time. I’m amazed at how the workmen actually survive working in those conditions (it can’t be good for their life expectancy)!
Soon enough I was at the Tajik/Uzbek border, but you’ll have to wait for the next post to see what I got up to in Uzbekistan (here’s a clue – stacks of money, shite beer, shite fuel (if you can find it), very friendly people, amazing architecture, blood and guts on the road and a short undercover mission to a local hospital… not to be missed!)
Here’s my summary of the Pamir Highway (for people who like summaries, and others who don’t want to read all my waffle):
A remote, often spectacular, snow-capped mountainous region with gushing rivers and a couple of lakes (more spectacular for me towards the eastern end). The road is mostly decent and surfaced except for excursions into valleys, such as the Wakhan Valley route. Petrol (92 or 80 Octane ‘Benzene’) is regularly available if you ask around in small villages (I did not need to carry any extra, and my range is 300km). I did need to carry extra 5 litres of drinking water, as I did not have a water filter (bottled water & groceries are rare). The people are very friendly and hospitable. The Wakhan Valley was nice but not as spectacular as I’d heard (which probably increased my expectations); if you don’t like riding on gravel/sand/washboard, stay on the surfaced M41 instead. I completed the highway from Osh to Dushanbe in 4 days, 3 nights (I camped at Lake Karakol, homestay at Langar and guesthouse at Khorog), which was just right for me. The Tiger ate the rough roads for breakfast (on Heidenau K60 Scout tyres) and had no problems with the fuel or altitude.