The Pamir Highway – From Dushanbe to Kala-i Khum

For the first time on our journey we started riding with somebody else. They were Lina and Stephen, a lovely German couple we met in Uzbekistan and, later again, in Dushanbe. It was the 4th of September, exactly 4 months into our trip and what a better way to celebrate the date other than starting the Pamir highway.

We stocked up on food, and all sorts of munchies. We checked our bikes and bought some spares. We got rid of extra stuff we didn’t really need by sending them to Osh with some guys doing the Mongol rally. We had a fun “last” night in civilisation, at least for a while, by having dinner out with some guys at the hostel. At the end of which we also enjoyed a round of shots of vodka at the super convenient price of 20p each. Happy Central Asian days!

We got on the road, the M41, and merrily cycled for about 70km, having the first taste of a good 1000m climb.

Late in the afternoon, we asked a farmer if we could use his apple orchard to pitch the tent for night. Lena, slowed down by stomach issues, and Stephan joined us about an hour later. The sun quickly disappeared behind the hills and all of a sudden it was pitch black.
The day after we woke up with the first morning light. We slowly had breakfast and packed up our tents while 3 farmers shamelessly sat right in front of us staring at every movement we made. If I was back in London I would have lost it, but since hitting Central Asia this has become a routine quite difficult to get accustomed to. The concepts of discretion and privacy don’t belong here.

On the road we also met two other German cyclists, Birk and Lukas, who united to our group. The six of us kept cycling together, all at different speeds and having breaks whenever we felt like. It was good, all sticking to our own routines but not losing each other as we would all catch up again on the road during the day.
We officially waved goodbye to the tarmac to see the dusty cloud being lift by our own wheels behind us, while slowly making our way through terribly unkept mountain roads. The ride was definitely tougher than the day before, and it would increasingly be so until reaching Kalaikhum.

The extreme conditions we were cycling at got the most of Lena and Stephan who would gradually fall more and more behind the group. Before leaving Dushanbe, Lena and I spoke at length about our almost inexistent strength in climbing, but only when we both found ourself in front of the first climb i realised how much fitter i was than I thought. I felt terribly sorry for Lena, as if I lied to her. And when she pointed out that I wasn’t slow at all, I even tried to justify myself saying something like “oh i just feel really good with my legs today, that’s all”.

Nevertheless, I would indeed be lying if i didn’t say that the fact that I was positively making my way on the M41 boosted my confidence. I had been dreading the Pamir Highway since before leaving London. A week before we started it, I even had an hysterical go at Ross moaning that I wasn’t ready and fit for it. And then, there i was: not exactly smashing the female records of mountain climbing, but indeed doing it with willpower and strength I didn’t know to have.

Late that day, Stan joined our group too, although it would not last very long. In fact on the morning of the day after, things started getting heavier.
Less than 2km from the camp spot Ross got a puncture and we spent about an hour to find and fix the hole. Lukas lost his sunglasses and snapped his chain twice. Stan left us all behind. And Lena and Stephan were just too tired and sick to carry on with us and decided to stop in Talvidara to rest a day or two.

We got quite tired too and did not make it to our planned target, Kalaykhusay, so we ended up camping with Birk and Lukas 13km from it. Lastly, while i was pitching the tent, I hear Ross panicking after realising that his precious camera unrepairbly smashed in two pieces. Just in time for the most stunning part of the whole journey – you can imagine the frustration. We went to sleep with a sorrow mood, trying not to let it affect us too much foreseeing the couple of hard days ahead.

So the morning after we waited for the sun to come out, had our porridge, broke camp and the four of us headed towards Kalaykhusay and the start of the ascent. After 30.5 km and having climbed for over a thousand metres we decided to find somewhere to pitch our tents and leave the remaining 10km of length and 900m of altitude gain for the day after. There was absolutely no reason to overdo ourselves: we were already tired and we knew that an equally exhausting descent was awaiting us on the other side of the mountain pass. That night, after dinner and a chat with Birk and Lukas, we all retired to our tents by 6:30pm. It was getting cold and tiredness didn’t help, but we were certainly in high spirits foreseeing the achievement of the first Tajik Pass.
By midday the day after, we made it to the top of Saghirdasht Pass at 3200m of altitude. We had a celebratory pic and some nibbles before we started a pretty challenging descent of 33km into Kalaikum, focusing much more on the road itself than on the scenery.

Halfway down, however, we decided to stop to admire the stunning and dramatic views of canyons and unkept roads winding on the side of steep cliffs and taking your breath away.

“Where did you take me..?” I asked in awe. “Somewhere pretty special” Ross said..

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