The Pamir Highway

The Pamirs, the world crude, without almost people who have touched or transformed it, a world in these altitudes to hard and extreme where the human being can´t endure. The Pamir mountain range, one of the highest on the world, you could say it is a meeting point of several mountain ranges an like Tibet is known as “the roof of the world”.

The road that runs and we ventured to cross these lands “Pamir Higway” was built by the Soviet army 80 years ago to facilitate the transportation of soldiers and goods to this inhospitable region of the planet.
Dared and determinated we starting this journie throught the heights that 4 years ago when we came this way but opposite direction we coudn´t cycle because we hadn´t the winter staff.
We where not alone, we had travel-mates Javier (bicicleting) and Natalia. The four had decided to team up together and face this tricky adventure: “crossing the Pamir in early november.”

We departured from Sari-Tas south towards the huge majestic withe peaks, seemed to be waiting for us quietly, watching us as we struggled against the wind that seemed unwilling to let us change the countrie. But this was the aclimatating and approaching day. The next day we would cross the 4.230m high pass after many hours climing up the steep road, where the Tajik border is located.
These altitudes impose human limitations, the most important is the lack of oxigen due to the presion of the air, that one suffer until the body gets the right aclimatation. So it was that on the first ascent we sufered a lot.
Your body is able to keep on, the legs still have power and the quadriceps haven´t started to complain yet, but your breathing says you are going to suffer a heart attack. Even is scary to listen to oneself, it is as somebody was breathing into your ear. You stop not because you are tired, but for fear that the lungs explote. It is amazing how long after stopping you need to recover your normal breathing rythm and…. you start but after few seconds it happens again.
We often had to dismount and push the bike for a few meters to recover the tired muscles and mounting again recover the arms that where trembling of pushing.

If something amazed us was the variety of landscapes of these lands, each day seemed to be cycling in a diferent part of the world, no monotony or boredom, imposible not to stop each few minutes to take a photo or comment with the others the amazing beauty of the nature around us.
After descending for the first pass, the plain continued and the ice on the road started to appear which was to me a new and exciting experience. At first I was very affraid of sliping or falling to the floor, always keeping in mind the words of Aitor, Naty and Javi:
-“As it was sand, do not turn the handlebars, always straight and above all do not break.”
With arms and neck rigid and shrunked by stress I got into each ice sheet clossing the eyes even sometimes completely terrified at the danger of going into unkown hazard. After few kms i started to relax, therefore been more capable. It was again a new lesson which remainded me that is living the experience the way we learn. The dare to experience is what makes us enjoy been alive, to keep progressing withouth fear what makes us grow and learn .
One of the hihglights of the Pamir was when after a slide hill and once on the top appeared in front of our eyes the “Karakul Lake” ( which was created by a colision of a meteroite more than 10 million years ago). Here comes perfectly that saying of: “a picture is worthier than a million of words” .

Also here we found one of the few habitated areas throughout Pamir, a small town with a couple of shops to buy the basics, a well to get watter and a new friend who invited us to have yoghourt, tea and small balls of fry dough.
With the warm feets, clean face, the stomach and the panniers full happilly we kept cycling the beautifull road.
We reached 4.655m high the next day. We knew that “Akbaytal Pass” was waiting for us, therefore we where mentally ready. Finally on pedaling these heavy bikes what matters most is not the physical strength but mental that it helps you to get up on the bicycle again when you are exhausted, which pushes you to continue when the physical body can´t anymore and what makes you to reach the most extreme and exhausting heights.
Each one in our pace went climbing the road on the bicycle, sometimes on foot, watching the others bellow or above giving all the energy, sharing the feat…helped to continue, go on and regain strength, encouragement and… up again.
The asfalt had disappeared at the begining of the day, complicating the situation, but at the same time we already had spent few days above 4.000m and we could notice we were well aclimatated. We reached the top of the highest pass of the Pamir late in the afternoon.
We were lucky and a couple of kilometers after se summit we found some houses that the nomads use in spring which were open and clean. We stopped and we celebrated the moment with pasta, chapatis, chocolate….

Beautiful yes, but also tough at times, we are very limitated in these extreme lands: the cold limits, the winter also. There are much less hours of sunlight, therefore less hours to pedal; many hours in the tent literally waiting for the day light to come to allow us to get out of the sleeping bags. Suddenly we are so busy, many things to do: the simple fact of getting watter is complicated when the springs and rivers are completelly frozen. You have to take snow and melt it in the pot, slowly, because a lot is needed to fill a liter bottle.

The cold has been so intense that ” hurted”, but having ridden this winter in Europe taught me. I suffered chilbains and other penalties that this time I have avoided by simply adopting customs that Aitor dictated me day by day.
Javier having the termometer was informing us of the temperatures that sometimes is better not to know, because you feel even colder. We can say that the coldest night was -28ºC . Naty and me were preparing breakfast with -16ºC saying: “This morning seems to be fresh”.
You became wild, slowly, slowly and you don´t even notice but when you come into contact with people….you see it.

More and more changing beauty, and good road which let us relax and enjoy the landscape while descending heigh towards Murgab. We had face wind for some kms almost withouth a curve and to make it more funny we cycled in line, one behind another to don´t be fighting against the wind. At midday we arrived to Murgab and there we went straight to the bazar and for the first and the last time in the whole road we were able to find and by some fruit and vegetables.

We slept in one very simple home with a humble family. In that rest day we couldn´t have shower and not were able to was the clothes but to sleep without feeling any cold and to wake up knowing we have not to cycle was a great feeling.
In all this area, there isn´t gas and in winter there is electricity only at night but very few hours, the power is so low that the lamps almost don´t give any light. The live is very basic but there are not poor, the food is expensive (even the flour that makes the bread a luxury item) and what they have is what the animals yaks, cows and sheeps provide. It was a surprise to discover that the yaks only give 700ml of milk a day.
In winter they drink tea mixed with salt and fat which give them a lot of calories to stand the hard live they have. You must be very tough to live in this area.

We left Murgab and also Naty and Javi, they decided to turn left to see “Whakan valley” while us curious to see the “grand finale” decided to travel the Pamir to the end. Just before going down the valley we still had two more passes. We already were relaxed thinking almost all was done but after the first pass, the asfalt disappeared again and earth-sand-stone track started making to cycle very difficult. An icy headwind began to blow and the sky started to get so dark, but although we were hungry we didn´t stop to eat.
We knew that at 4.200m is better not to suffer a snow storm, it is better to go away as soon as possible and so we did.

Totally weat of sweating we keept on up hill struggling with the freezing wind which was steeling  our heat, the weather was getting worse and we were losing heat and power. We hadn´t anything to eat since the morning and it was 15:00h. The struggle, the cold and the up hill were making us weaker and weaker. It was then that I started feeling dizzy and decided to stop for lunch, guarded by a small elevation next to the road that was the only option in that area. We had to start cooking and preparing everything but my body didn´t react, only wanted to sleep, lie down and sleep…. I put all the clothes trying to recover the heat but I had the cold inside me, I could not manage to warm up while Aitor, prepared the food and ventured to find running watter somewhere form the totally frozen river. Suddenly I felt some heat source close to me (I believe it was the only one in many kms around us) the pressure cooker was blowing a thing stream of vapor upwards and, almost seated on it I started to recover.
Just after finished the lunch I jumped on the bicycle and before I got cold again I started to cycle, while Aitor stayed there packing everything. He catched me arriving to the top of the pass and together cycled the last port and scaping from the storm, starting to descent totally recovered.

There ended “the world of the heights” and began the descent into inhabited areas.
Rescued form my diary a phrase that explain the feeling (shared with Aitor) when we started descending: “Having travelled the land between the mountains of The Pamirs, I fell in love again with the world, with The Life, with the inmensity that surround us. I have felt the conexion with the earth stronger than long time ago I didn´t.
I feel sorry to leave The Pamirs back to the world. Part of me would be happy to become one of those snow leopards that roam this lands and stay forever….”

The road until Khorog was a gift at every turn, a surprise at every curve of the winding road accompanied by the river in all the way, surrounded on either side by the huge snowed peaks. There, we met The Pamiries, the people who since ever, inhabited this valleis, known for its hospitality and good treatment to the travelers.
Always attentive in each village, we got invited to have dinner, tea, to sleep…. It was enough an eye contact with one of them to recieve an invitation.

Meeting our friend Dilma in Khorog , who spoke perfect english not only made the life easier (and cheaper) but made us understand much of the situation in the area. We understood how the goberment is represing this people, their customs and traditions and we felt in love with what we were leavign behind.


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