Osh (Kyrgyzstan) – ‘Planning’ for The Pamir Highway
Having arrived in Osh (the start of The Pamir Highway) late the previous evening, I had a lie in and a great breakfast at my traveller’s guesthouse; one of the good, cheap hostels well known in budget traveller circles. In most cities there is usually at least one cheap hostel known as a meeting place for ‘overland’ travellers on motorbikes, bicycles and in cars. These are good to find if you want to get information on road conditions and things to see a head, and also to meet ‘instant’ friends with a similar mindset. You can find them on traveller websites such as ‘Horizons Unlimited’ and ‘Advrider’ as well as ‘Hostel World’, ‘Booking.com’, ‘Trip Advisor’, ‘Wikitravel’ and ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebooks, among others. ‘Biy Ordo’ in Osh is such a place, and when I arrived there were 5 other motorcyclists (the most I’d seen together since Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia) and several cyclists already there planning their next stage.
Travellers circles are relatively small, especially in his part of the world, and you will find yourself regularly bumping into the same people ‘on the circuit’, or at least meeting people who know other people you have met along the way. It kind of makes the whole gig like a big, friendly extended family. For example, 2 other travellers at Biy Ordo were also at Sakura Guesthouse with me in Bishkek. It’s good unless you’re trying to get away from someone 😉
Osh is a pretty nice city and a good place to relax for a couple of days before embarking on the renowned Pamir Highway, which starts in Osh and finishes in Dusanbe, Tajikistan (or vice versa) – more about this later.
There is a motorcycle garage in Osh called Muztoo (dot com) owned by Swiss guy Patrick, but he was closed for the day, so I decided to try and fix my broken pannier (that I’d smashed on an erratic rock) myself. I bashed out the squashed, thin, tin shell, and half a gallon of superglue and a roll of duct tape later, it was as good as it was ever going to be with glue and tape, and I thought it would do to get me to somewhere else, wherever that may be. As long as I didn’t drop it, it would be OK (which I wasn’t planning to do).
With the rest of the day free, I decided to explore the city and walk down to Osh’s famous Bazaar (street market), one of the largest in Central Asia. It was about 5km away and other travellers from the hostel were jumping on the bus to get there; however, I hate catching buses and would much rather a long walk, or ride myself. A good thing in Central Asia is taxis are very cheap and it only costs a couple of quid to get home from almost anywhere in the city.
For one of the biggest bazaars in Central Asia, it didn’t seem that big. It was a market made out of shipping-containers, selling almost anything you could want (or not want), from underwear to distributer caps. There was even a Kyrgyz Bingo Hall, jammed-packed with locals hoping for the big win. On the market fringes were cheap food stands with bread & pasties cooking in traditional vertical clay ovens.
I have become used to seeing merchandise bearing the Union Jack flag in almost all Asian countries I have visited (on T-shirts, jeans, bags, and even cars and buses). It feels good to see my country’s flag paraded around the world in such a positive manner, but I often wonder if everyone actually knows what it is (not many do).
I walked briskly though part of the bazaar (not being a market kind of guy), and then headed up to Osh’s prominent central landmark – a large, rocky crag called ‘Sulaiman-Too’, a sacred mountain in the centre of the city, and UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the way I walked through a couple of parks, but Osh is not as green, clean or organised as Bishkek.
I’m always very disappointed when I see people dropping litter, something common across much of Asia (except Japan, but nowhere as much as Indonesia), and even on this beautiful mountain I saw young kids dropping empty pop bottles on the floor. Is this the fault of the children, parents or society? I think all three.
There were steps all the way up to the top of Sulaiman-Too, and the view from the top was well worth the easy climb.
Having walked back down the hill, I was hungry, and it happened to be lunchtime, so I found a nice looking restaurant by the river and enjoyed a 3 course lunch of soup, kebab and fruit. One of the things I love about traveling in Central Asia is that you can almost walk into any restaurant and not worry about the price, as they’re all pretty cheap. They brought me large, round traditional loaf of bread; when eating bread in Central Asia you must remember not to deface it, place it upside down, or throw it away, because it is considered a sacred food. Just like real ale in England.
As it was such a nice day, cool and overcast with frequent refreshing rain sprinklings, I decided to walk back to the hostel as well. I was stuffed after my big lunch, so I wondered back slowly, taking in the sights. I walked through a park which had a kid’s funfair in it; kid’s parks are obviously different in Kyrgyzstan, as this one had an aeroplane for them to play in!
I passed a chicken rotisserie stand and, even though I was still stuffed, decided to buy one for dinner. I also bought a few other ingredients and later that night cooked a delicious chicken paprika casserole with rice for me and 2 other guests; it was good to have a ‘touch of home’ (and it was the best one they’d ever tasted, of course).
Osh had been a pleasant stay, so I decided to spend one more day there and actually try and do some planning for the Pamir Highway. I was glad I did, because I suppose it did need a little bit of planning.
Looking at a map of Tajikistan (that I’d downloaded from the web), there didn’t appear to be many roads. This was good for me because it meant I didn’t really need a map (ironic I needed a map to find that out).
I was heading southeast from Osh to the Tajikistan border south of a village called Sary-Tash, into the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, home of the Pamir Mountains and the highway that runs through them.
The Pamir Highway
The Pamir Highway runs from Osh (in Kyrgyzstan) to Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) and was built by the Russians between 1931 and 1934 in order to transfer military personnel, goods and supplies throughout their empire as they were assimilating Central Asia.
I had seen it written that ‘travelling through the Pamir Mountains is the trip of a lifetime’; nothing like building up one’s expectations! The road twists and turns alongside the Chinese and Afghanistan borders, up high mountain passes and along river valleys overlooked by the towering 7,000m high snow-capped Hindu Kush mountain range (which separates Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Even before the Russians carved out the road, the route of the Pamir Highway had been used for over two thousand years to transport silk, paper, other goods and even slaves from the far-east (China) to Europe (one of the routes of the ancient ‘Silk Highway’).
As well as ‘the trip of a lifetime’, I’d also heard stories, mostly from cyclists, calling it ‘The Road from Hell’, and one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of their trip. I researched websites which also warned not to underestimate the remoteness and vast distances involved. I even read about a couple traveling the highway on Triumph Tiger, before they got knocked off a cliff by a passing truck (luckily they survived, but the bike didn’t).
I imagined on a bicycle all the above was true, but on a ‘devil-road slayer’ like The Tiger, it surely couldn’t be that bad (minus the killer trucks), particularly after surviving western Mongolia. Could it?
The nice thing about travelling to such a remote and inaccessible part of the world, is there aren’t many other tourists, and it is often described as ‘virgin tourist territory’. However, The Pamirs are quickly becoming more popular. There has been a very successful development programme in the eastern Pamirs for some time, and now many (previously very poor) local families offer ‘homestays’ where travellers can buy a bed for the night, including breakfast and dinner, for around 12 US dollars.
Since the breakdown of the old Soviet Union and Central Asia’s independence, not much maintenance has been done to the road, if at all in places, and it is frequently devoured by flash floods, landslides and day-to-day weathering, making it even more ‘interesting riding’.
The Pamir Highway – Day 1 – Osh to the Tajik/Kyrgyz Border and on to Lake Karakul
As it appeared that the availability of fuel along the highway was a bit like playing Russian Roulette, I thought it best to take an extra 10 litres of fuel with me to increase my range to over 400 km.
I tried to get a 10 litre fuel container on my way out of Osh, but everyone looked at me blankly as though I was asking for the moon.
“Do you have The Moon please?”
Instead I saw people filling up various plastic containers, such as water bottles and pop bottles. I went slightly better and used a 5 litre plastic oil canister some kind moon-catcher gave me, which I strapped to the back with my bungees.
By the time I was ready to go it was 11am – nothing like an early start! The road was good and rose quickly up to 2,500m, and it just as quickly went from roasting hot to pretty cold. Then I passed the first summit and switched the engine off for the steep 10km decent down the other side (to conserve fuel) to a small town called Gulcha, 80km from Osh. Here I was surprised to find 5 petrol stations altogether, so I took the opportunity to top myself back up to 19 litres. I also put on another layer in anticipation of the next high mountain pass.
17km down the road I found another fuel station at a village called Sogondu, so I put the 1 litre I’d used getting there back in. It was about 420km from Osh to Murghab, so it was going to be tight on the fuel I had.
Another 22km passed and I put in another 1 litre at Sopu-Korgan village; perhaps fuel wasn’t going to be such a problem.
There was yet another gas station 17km further down the road, but I didn’t stop because there was now only 288km to Murghab, which was doable on one tank.
The road twisted up the next mountain pass to 3,500m, and the Tiger was loving the good road and tight corners. On the way back down the other side I again I coasted for another 10km – every little helps! It was so steep, it was just as quick coasting down as motoring down anyway, and I got the added bonus of enjoying the peace and quiet without the engine noise.
64km later (180km from Osh) I reached the ‘end of the world’ village called Sary-Tash at over 3,000m (10,000ft). I put on yet another layer as it was getting colder still. I also broke open my winter gloves.
It must have been my lucky day as the fuel tanker had visited the only gas station in the small town that morning, so I topped myself up to a full tank, even though I didn’t really need it.
I bumped into Andy (the guy on the Suzuki V-Strom 650 I’d met in Osh) as I was fuelling. He’d left a day before me but had stayed the night in Sary-Tash as it was belting down with rain when he arrived. As the weather was still a bit wet, he was planning to cross the border tomorrow. I, however, was keen to cross the border ASAP, and I could see blue skies on the horizon. It was late afternoon but I thought I still had plenty of time.
It didn’t take long to get to the border on an OK road, and I whizzed through the tiny Kyrgyz checkpoint in record time; 10 minutes. It only required a passport stamp as they don’t require any paperwork for the bike (easy, therefore, if you’re into bike smuggling).
I then set off on a 20km ride through ‘no-man’s land’ on a horribly muddy, red clay road, not helped by the recent heavy rain – Andy had been wise to wait. At one point it zigzagged up what looked like a spoil heap and I was sure the whole thing would collapse sooner or later. There was also a small stream crossing in case anyone thought it was too easy. I suppose being a ‘no-man’s land’, no one wants to spend money on it!
Just before the check point there was a ‘Welcome to Tajikistan’ sign in English, so I took a picture, as you do. Then it started to snow.
The guards at the Tajik border were friendly enough, but soon I was knee deep in handwritten paperwork; it appeared I required half a dozen forms to enter Tajikistan. Eventually I got through immigration and customs, 20 USD lighter, and just when I was about to leave I was stopped by someone claiming to be ‘Disinfectant Control’. I was positive it was a scam, but nobody (at customs) backed me up, so I went along with it and asked how much.
“’20 USD” he said.
I gave him my last 500 Kyrgyz note (8 USD) and said that was all I had. He didn’t look happy, but took it and wrote me out a long form to take away, with the obligatory stamp. Then his mate made up another ‘compulsory form’ I needed and demanded another 20 USD. I then pretended to lose my temper and handed him the rest of my Kyrgyz small chance (3 USD) and said that was it. He took it, proving it was scam, but I didn’t really mind as long as I got through quickly without further hassle.
On the Tajikistan side it was lovely – breathtaking in fact. As I descended into the next valley it stopped snowing and the sun came out, throwing beautiful rays of light onto the snow-capped Pamir Mountains.
Everywhere I looked the scenery was stunning! The colours in the cliffs were especially striking: reds, oranges and yellows, and I couldn’t resist stopping to take photos every few minutes.
The road follows a long barbed wire fence marking a ‘neutral zone’ agreed between Tajikistan and China, although it had fallen down in quite a few places. It is said nobody lives on this remote 230km stretch between Sary-Tash and Murghab, and I hardy saw any signs of life at all.
I wanted to try and get to Lake Karakul, 130km before Murghab, to camp for the night. One of the local guys I met at the border told me it was 2 hour’s drive. I got there in 30 minutes! I was surprised to find the road pretty good and paved all the way.
Just before I arrived, I stopped to chat to 2 Swiss cyclists traveling the other way who were trying to find somewhere sheltered to camp for the night; it was now 6pm and extremely windy. I was lucky, being on a motorbike, and was able to ride round to the sheltered side of the lake in no time. Since the bike’s makeover in Almaty, and new clutch and radiator cap in Bishkek, she had been running perfectly; I loved the old Tiger and wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world.
Just after 6pm I rode through the small village of Karakul and jumped off the sealed road onto the sandy lake shore to pick my camping spot. I got close enough to the water, 40 yards, but closer than that the ground was marshy.
I watched the sun set behind the mountains in the middle of the lake (that were sheltering me from the wind) and then put up my ‘Japanese Special’ tent. There were a few mozzies about, but a dose of DEET sorted them out.
I cooked a delicious camp meal, as usual, and watched the moon slowly set behind the mountains. It was one of those nights when the stars were so clear, it put me back in my place thinking of the shear enormity and incomprehensibility of it all. I’m sure also I saw a flying saucer, but I’ll leave that story for my next book 😉