Tajikistan

The Pamir Highway #1

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.

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Osh: Good old MacBurger – strangely familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it…

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.

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Osh: Why don’t we have cheap airlines like this in the UK?

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.

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Osh: One of the largest bazaar’s in Central Asia

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.

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Osh: Park and Sulaiman-Too in the background

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.

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View of Osh from the top of Sulaiman-Too

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‘Back a bit!…’

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.

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If you like meat, you’ll like Krygyz cuisine

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!

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It’s not fair! Why can’t I have an aeroplane in my park?

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.

 

Tajikistan

 

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).

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The Pamirs

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.

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My extra 5 litre fuel container, compliant to all European Transport Safety Regulations, of course!

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.

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The Pamir Highway, on the way to Gulcha

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.

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Coasting down to Sary-Tash

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.

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Sary-Tash fuel station – I was lucky and just caught the weekly fuel delivery!

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!

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The horribly muddy ‘road’ passing through no man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Good job I hadn’t picked a wet day! (oops!)

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… and a river crossing, for a laugh!

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.

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Welcome to Tajikistan! (land of giving money to border guards for made up bits of paper)

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.

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The view on the Tajik side of the border was nothing less than stunning

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The straight road could have been built by The Romans

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.

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It was going to be a great journey, that was for sure 🙂

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The road was like a wobbly stand of Liquorice, but it didn’t matter

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.

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Bumpy bumpy down towards Lake Karakol

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.

Lake Karakul

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.

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Lake Karakol – this looks like a good spot!

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White salt deposits left by the retreating lake

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The lake shore – ready for a swim?

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OK – dinner time! I’m starving…

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 😉

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It was a beautiful evening – one of the best 🙂

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I thought I’d sign my work in case someone tried to sell it for millions 😉

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Do you prefer black…?

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… red … ?

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… or green and blue ?

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The Pamir Highway #2

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).

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Someone had ridden their motorbike right through my tent!

I went for a quick dip; it was really cold, but just what I needed to wake me up.

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Nothing wakes you up like a quick dip in a freezing lake

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’.

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Lake Karakol, Tajikistan – perfect camping

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.

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Approaching Ak-Baital Pass

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Over the pass the road turns to washboard, but its not too bad

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Ak-Baital Pass – 4,655m (15,200ft) – the highest on the Pamir Highway

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.

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Ak-Baital Pass

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Going down the other side

Murghab

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.

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Murghab appearing on the horizon out of the dusty desert

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).

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Tajik staple – pea soup and plov (rice and ‘meat’)

After lunch I filled up at the town ‘fuel station’; it was 232km since my last fill at Sary-Tash.

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Murghab fuel station

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.

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The busiest Tourist Information Office in the world…

Leaving Murghab the road continued along a pretty river valley – the first greenery I’d seen since Osh.

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The first greenery 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!).

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Alichur ‘Fuel Station’ – make sure you use your own filters!

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.

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These 3 wondered up to see what the strange man on the motorbike was doing

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.

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Fancy a swim?

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Err – no thanks!

Then, after another check-point, I met the Pamir River and finally swung west into the Wakhan Valley.

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The end of the Khargush Pass where the River Pamir welcomes you 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.

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Big Swede Gibson on his Yamaha Ténéré 750, and the sneaky sandy bit that almost skidded me off the road

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).

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Motoring towards Langar

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.

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Mr Yodgor’s wonderful Homestay

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.

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Many hands make light work!

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.

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Just the right size!

Then a few more wanted to join in the fun.  Before I knew it, I had all of them on – little tykes!

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I thought my new luggage system could work…

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Mr Yodgor and his ace kids

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.

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Seeing Josy and Solmaz off

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Sitting down for tea with the lads

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We had a vote and everyone decided I was the handsomest Englishman there today 🙂

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.

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Lush farmland at Langar

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.

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Apricots anyone? Tiny, but delicious!

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Almost as cool as me…

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.

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Panj River

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Anyone like riding in sand?

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Road to Ishkashim

At one point an impressive, huge delta of mud and water flowed into the Panj from the Afghan side.

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Afghan delta

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.

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Yes, it sure was a beautiful day 🙂

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!

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Trees – haven’t seen these for a while!

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And back to the sand…

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).

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Lush meadows of Ishkashim

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Just past Ishkashim

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.

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Garam Chashma hot spring

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Riding back down to the main road from Garam Chashma

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And stopping off for a swim – lovely!

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.

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“No you can’t do a wheelie”.

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Approaching Khorog

Khorog

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! 🙂

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Relaxing at Khorog

Categories: Tajikistan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Pamir Highway #3

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.

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Back on the road north of Khorog

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’.

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The typical Russian-style welcome sign at Rushan

The road then turned west, still following the Panj River and Afghan border, and cut rather impressively into towering walls of solid rock.

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The road still followed 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.

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Halfway down a hill my front brakes seized…

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.

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Traffic jam!

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.

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Bridge across to Afghanistan

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).

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Another hot day!

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.

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Traditional Afghan squat, rectangular, mud houses across the river

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.

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This time it was the right pannier that decided to fall off

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.

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At last – a perfect, new road to open up on!

Although the road was generally good, there was a horribly, sticky, red clay section under construction which cut through a mountain up towards Kulob.

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View of the valleys below headng up the Kulob embankment

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).

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I was pleased to see Nurek Reservoir as it meant I was almost at Dushanbe!

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.

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Mr Gafur and his Honda Shadow

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.

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A great first evening in Dushanbe, thanks to my new biker friends

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.

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Dushanbe Botanical Gardens provided a nice place for a kebab lunch (whilst getting attacked by the biggest wasps I’ve ever seen)

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Dushanbe is pretty green, with lots of water/fountains and a HUGE flag

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?)

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Dushanbe high street, looking for a pub or museum

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.

 

Anzob Tunnel

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.

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Great views up to the infamous Anzob Tunnel

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. 

Categories: Tajikistan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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