On the day we left Murghab we set a target of about 55km, starting a slow ascent towards Akbaital Pass, the highest in the Pamir, and leave the remaining 20km for the day after. The pass itself was nowhere as tough as I had expected. There was indeed some bike pushing involved, but that was only for the last 3km of the climb. The weather was better than expected, the company was great, moods were high and a nice cup of tea, bread and butter at a local’s house had warmed us up before the toughest and final 3km of the pass.
When we reached the top, we were all overjoyed, as if we had just climbed Everest, but the best part came when we turned our heads and saw Stephan proposing to Lena. The vodka wasn’t exactly flowing but we all celebrated with a shot of what was left in our bottle, and after a few photos we started our descent.
The ride to Karakul, the day after, was a very leisurely one as the tale winds pushed us along. We stayed at Mexmonxona Guest House, had nice food and steaming hot showers. In the morning, we set our sights for Sary Tash, but halfway through the weather turned for the worse. We were already lagging because of poor road conditions with strong headwinds, and a snow storm hanging on us simply made it impossible to continue, especially considering that we still had to go over Kizil Art Pass. At 2pm, completely defeated, we set up our tent having very little water and not a soul around. Although we were disappointed for not reaching our target once again, the shelter provided by our tent gave us a much needed break from the icy wind mercilessly blowing against us.
The morning after the weather looked more promising and we made our way to the Tajik border. We were quite emotional thinking that we had just crossed Tajikistan and made it through the challenges thrown at us, but we were also aware that the Pamir Highway wasn’t quite over yet.
After 20km downhill in no-man land and a smooth transit through the Kyrgyz border we were in Sary-Tash. Our first guest house of choice turned out to be exactly the opposite of what we were looking for: cold and unfriendly. We also got overcharged for the groceries and undercharged for the money exchange by a 10 year old kid running the shop next door. We decided to backtrack and stopped by the Hotel Muras, where 2 lovely ladies gave us all the care we needed and put our cold bodies back together.
Leaving Sary-Tash behind felt good and the anxiety of getting to Osh started kicking in. Only 3 more passes and 180km were between us and our rehab into civilisation. And pizza, of course.
I was as determined as ever on reaching Osh in 48 hours and my determination payed off- even though when we finally reached town we were completely wrecked by a 1200m climb and a 120km ride. In fact, we could barely walk.
We landed at Tes House, got off our bikes and hugged each other, completely oblivious to/uncaring of the interrogative looks people were giving us. Somebody passed by and said: “Long journey?”. “A very long journey” we both answered, with an exhausted but happy smile.
Now that I am comfortably sitting in a nice garden in Osh, I can’t help but recalling so vividly the times back in London, looking at Youtube videos about cycling the Pamir Highway, all in preparation for our trip. I am the sort of person that likes to know how hard something is going to be, as I want to be mentally prepared for any challenge lying ahead (life struggles, hey!).
I would sit on the sofa, with my hand half covering my mouth, watching the inner and outer fights of many cyclists before us, men and women being broken down by strong winds, the cold, hard climbs, stomach bugs, or, simply, low spirits. I suppose in a way it was a bit like watching videos of women giving birth (yes, i do look at a range of weird things), as I clearly recall the feeling of horror and respect I would feel towards these strangers, knowing that my turn would come, too.
In all honesty, right until the second last pass, I didn’t know if I would make it through until the end. Other than being physically draining, the real demons were in my head. Far more often that I would have preferred, I was conscious of the fact that the Pamir Highway was never my first choice and that the ONLY reason of me being there was simply because Ross wanted to be there so badly. Trying to find a reason to carry on even in the toughest moments. On the roughest grounds and in harsh weather. As tempting as it was to surrender to a “lift” from friendly locals, grabbing the metal railing of their slow vans passing by, however, I still wanted to own it all.
A lot of people say the M41 will show your eyes things they would never expect to see. Breathtaking scenery, beautiful isolated communities, hundreds of kilometres of pure desolation and wilderness. And I can only agree with it and emphasise, like many other hundreds of people before me, that this road is magical. But I think the Pamir Highway is also much more than that. Call it a life lesson, reality check, or introspective insight. No matter what, at the end of every mountain pass you will know a bit more about yourself, and you can’t hide from it. Let your muscles scream, your hands and feet freeze, your lungs beg for oxygen. And let your tears go down… But don’t stop riding/pushing the bike.
And once you have done it, every single centimetre of it, take a deep breath, give a nostalgic sigh and let yet another whispered “wow” come out of your mouth. The person next to you will know exactly what’s that about.