Pedaling from the Black Forest to the Yellow Sea
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Category — Tajikistan

Day 191 (Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan): Karakul - noman’s land (two passes, snow … and still happy)

daily distance: 70 km
total distance: 11,403km
riding time: 5-6h

Gloomy skies greeted me early in the morning. There was no great sunrise to be seen. And then the snow came. My hosts had said that there wouldn’t be any snow. So much for local experience with the weather.

After some time it seemed good enough to go. It was cold, but it seemed that things would be improving … and they did. The weather cleared up for some time and revealed the stunning scenery around me.

At a cemetery not far from Karakul I put in my first stop. For some reason I find the cemeteries here quite moving. They are not polished at all and exposed to the elements here at 4000m - they have a special mystery I think. See for yourself (granted, few cemeteries can compete when it comes to remoteness and scenery).

Then the road climbed up to the first pass and what I had thought before already came true. I felt like !@#$. Despite good food and plenty of sleep the previous night I seemed to have no energy. This was also supposed to be an easy pass, but for me it certainly wasn’t.

I could have yelled were it not for the thin air. Save your breath, you need every single one. The thought of flagging down the next car was tempting. But alas, there weren’t any. There were two all day, one each way. My hunch is that the the Ak-Baytal pass was not open and the through-traffic therefore non-existent.

Eventually I was up at this rather uninspiring pass and headed for the downhill. Fingers freezing (at least the feet were warm in the seal skins) I got into a mess. Temperatures dropped precipitously (-5C plus wind chill) and snow began to fall. Fun stuff. The downhill was like flying into a bank of fog. I am sure the scenery is stunning, but on the first plateau I had no vision whatsoever. Hence no pictures.

Then the scene became ghastly. See for yourself.

It was here that my spirits actually got a boost. Believe it or not. I found the area strangely mysterious, ominous and forbidding. But at the same time intensely beautiful. The snow had crept to the road, but never covered it and so riding itself was not a problem.

It did become one once the asphalt stopped and the washboard began. It lasted for 9km.

But the fun never stops and I couldn’t resist heading into the big neighbor of the country I was in. What? you say! Well, there was an open gate and apparently no one around. And so I couldn’t resist.

Just after snapping these, Jan appeared from a slight bump in the road. A French cyclist (make that two cars and one cyclist then for the day) on his way home we chatted for a while, exchanging information on the situation ahead.

My work was in plain sight and with the weather improving things turned to be amazing. What had been lying under fog, clouds and snowfall was now in full view - including brooding clouds on one side and blue skies on the other. Where I was heading.

The Tajik border guards weren’t fun. I had to show my passport not once, not twice, but three times. I had enough. The guys in the last container were the worst. Where are you going? Well, the road goes to Kyrgyzstan, right? And then where? Brazil, rolling my eyes. The guy didn’t like that answer and it was unnecessary. I had to unpack and was only let go after a while.

Hence the good mood.

September 30, 2008   1 Comment

Day 190 (Tajikistan): nowhereland - Karakul (on top of things … all that biking has to offer in one day)

daily distance: 74 km
total distance: 11,323km
riding time: 6h

Today was the day. Going up the Aik-Baital Pass. I have to admit that I was apprehensive, I had never been this high on a bike. But on the other hand, it was only just over 12km to the top from where I had slept, so it should be doable. I had come all the way after all … the things you tell yourself in these situations.

The night had been good. No problems whatsoever with the low temperatures (all I can say is that at 7am it was -8C outside the tent), my sleeping bag held up nicely. I didn’t need any add-ons (such as the silk liner I have for this purpose and for sleeping in warmer temperatures, but those times are over I guess) and the wind had been a factor early on in the night, but died down soon enough.

The morning was glorious though cold. And the birds were singing. No idea what keeps them up here at this altitude.

I took it easy, figuring that I needed to warm up in the sun. The altitude wasn’t much of a factor at first and so I had a go at the pass. Here it is. Looks easy, but the hard part is around the corner.

The ride towards the pass isn’t really bad at all. But then it’s all out war. It’s short, but it’s steep. Within only 2.5km you gain 250m. What this means is steepness. Don’t ask for an average percentage - U and P can figure that out maybe.

This is a view from the last climb.

Things took longer than usual owing to the altitude and I had to play the mindgame thing again. But the feeling on the top was nothing short of amazing. Here’s an impression.

Wait, no …

There was also an Iranian tourist group / camera crew on the top of the pass which had slightly annoyed me on the uphill. You want to be by yourself then and there (I do at least) and they kept shooting. I told them to stop, but they wouldn’t.

On the top they were really nice though. We had a short chat and they gave me some tea and then I was on my own again. The feeling though is hard to describe. It felt like the top of the world a bit. It’s the highest point on my trip (4655m - just over 15,000ft) and I felt elated (alright, the altitude got to me) and glad that I had been able to get here.

With a grin on my face I headed down against the increasingly cold wind. And beautiful valley.

Good at first, the road turned to …. well, nothingness. It was bad. Washboard for km on end. I have never seen anything like this. It got to the point where I chose the old road that runs parallel with the “new” one and was at least not worse. Sometimes I ditched the roads entirely and went cross-country. Whatever works I guess. Tough going for sure though.

The wind was playing its usual game, coming from the side mainly, but in the end blowing me straight into Karakul.

Not without stopping to take some shots of where I had been and the lake I was running alongside. Again, the area is absolutely stunning. At Karakul I decided to stay in some family’s homestay instead of camping. The wind was too fierce and the only places for good camping were … on the Chinese side of things. Karakul itself is depressing - but interesting as well.

Including the donkey wars that were going on in the squares and alleys …

There is not much there, the lakefront property is a dump - a shame given how beautiful it is.

September 29, 2008   1 Comment

Day 189 (Tajikistan): Murgab - nowhereland (snow in the Pamirs - then sun - then snow - and so on)

Note: There has been an earthquake in the South of Kyrgyzstan last night and you should not worry about me. I would have been in the town that has been completely destroyed, but I am hundreds of miles away at the moment.

daily distance: 63km
total distance: 11,323km
riding time: 5-6h

I had decided to make for a late start because I didn’t want to bike too far today. The Aik-Baital pass was coming up and it didn’t seem like a good idea to have a go at it in one day out of Murgab, though it would be possible I guess. But it is also the highest pass during the entire trip, so I decided to make it in two days.

Some last minute shopping and some money changing (incredibly difficult despite the heavy transborder trade with Kyrgyzstan, no one seemed to have any Kyrgyz money nor have an idea where to exchange it which seemed more than odd) was followed by a late start. I didn’t have a good night - another reason to take it easy.

I passed a very moving cemetery on the way out and then headed North.

The landscape was as gorgeous as it can be, though forbidding at the same time. This area does need a bit more preparation to ride in, but it is all doable. Also saw my first Yak herd running around.

Then, after turning the corner, things changed to be a bit nasty. Heavy headwinds ensued. And then sidewinds. It seemed that every valley wanted to show me that it could take part in the game called “Beat that Markus”. And the temperatures dropped considerably. It was cold - bitterly so and then, a few minutes later, when the sun was out again, things were back to normal. Whatever normal is here.

I slowly moved on with the weather deteriorating considerably. I passed what was supposed to be the second to last water place for a while, having decided to fill up here. Good choice as the last one was dried up. That would not have been fun.

It went further and further up - the Chinese border fence running parallel at less than 10m at times. Not sure exactly what the deal is here. And I am sure that these pictures aren’t really appreciated. But just as I was biking up a narrow part of the valley, a big bird circled overhead, crossing over from Tajikistan territory into Chinese territory. I thought that this guy really does its thing without borders.

Now, from the pictures here you would think that the weather was good for the rest of the day. Far from it. After inquiring about the next few kms at the lone passing car that day (”the next town is Karakul”; no kidding, not what I asked nor within reach as it was almost 100km from that place) things got bad. The wind turned up badly, it started snowing and the snow that was coming at me reminded me of those days in Turkmenistan where the sand was moving towards me like snakes. Only that it was 50C colder.

I had seen a place to hunker down, not ideal but a decent one. For some reason I decided to move on and what a good choice it was. Things cleared up again after some time - and I spotted a place that would protect me from the wind and give me some sun in the early morning hours (hoping that the weather would stabilize). It was a bit higher than the road and just around 4250m. I didn’t want to go up any further anyway, figuring that the air was thin enough to spend the night there.

With the sun dropping I had a bit to eat (pasta, what else) - without any real problems concerning the altitude. I turned in, hoping that the sleeping bag would hold up as it should as the temperatures were going to be nippy.

September 28, 2008   No Comments

Day 188 (Tajikistan): rest day in Murgab (where do all these microvans go?)

It was a off day and I treated it as such. I did some shopping for the next days at the local bazaar, had a look around town and so forth.

After finishing Moby Dick before breakfast (I am getting up early these days), I am now reading Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene. We shall see how it turns out to be.

The one thing Andre (another traveler staying at the same place I do) and I were wondering was where the huge number of microvans were heading. I had seen them often before and it never made sense to me to transport toilet paper in these small vehicles. Some of them had “transit” written on them, i.e. Manufactured in China and before being handed over given a good beating on the Tajik roads in the Pamir. But it seems to make some sense that it would be interesting to take a closer look at those toilet paper rolls as I am sure not all of the stuff transported will turn out to be legit. There are just so many of them and my hunch is that by splitting things up the likelihood of some of the stuff getting through is increased.

Here are some pictures of me bumbling around town …

Other than that another early night due to lack of electricity. It is a rare and strange occurrence here. It works well at like 2am and you can charge batteries then even, but is basically non-existent for the rest of the day. With all its problems of course (keeping things refrigerated or easy cooking).

September 27, 2008   No Comments

Day 187 (Tajikistan): Ak-Balyk - Murgab (kidney problems?)

daily distance: 98km
total distance: 11,260km
riding time: 5-6h

It was only supposed to be a small pass. But it was cold all the time. And windy. It came from the back which made it much better, but it was bitterly cold. At least all those local predications proved to be untrue … “There will be tons of snow in the morning” and so on.

At least these guys weren’t cold …

And on we go, straight into the sun …

Landscape still all thumbs up. But again, it seemed that I wasn’t running at full steam. Or even half of it. I had pain around my left kidney area, something I had never had and couldn’t place. It bothered me practically all day long and started to abate only late at night. If kidney stone feels a bit like it, it’s not funny at all.

The road continues along the same plain (with much less yurts now) and then heads up Naizatash Pass. It isn’t a hard pass, it climbs rather slowly over a good number of km. But I had to fight to get over it. Others didn’t make it …


That done and out of the way though, the rest of the day was downhill to Murgab. One slight exception: what has been described as a small ridiculous climb. It was. Just before getting to Murgab, you cross one more hill, which is intense and steep, but after that it is all good for Murgab, which is coming up in the distance.

I was determined to take a break there for a day, being ahead of what could be a 10-day schedule for riding all the way to Kyrgyzstan. You may ask why I don’t do smaller chumps. I could, but there isn’t much there and so far things have turned out to be pretty well.

Murgab greats you with a checkpoint and another registration requirement. Then you’re out for a place to stay. Things are easy enough and some other travelers had told me about the house of Apal and the family is great. And Apal cooks great food. Really, she does - and lots of it. She must have seen the hungry biker coming - and what she cooked up would have been enough for two. It all went down though in addition to lots of other stuff that I had bought at the local and very uninspiring bazaar. But things are good and I will stay here for another night, no need to rush things.

A bit of a strange feeling though … it must have to do with not feeling 100% and the whole visa thing with Bishkek. Sometimes I have the urge to head back and out of here. But I am sure that once the Bishkek visit is behind me (hopefully successfully) and I am in China things will be OK again. The ride is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. I am catching myself thinking that this is the Pamir and I am riding here, have the privilege to do so … and that’s really what it is. It may be toughish at times, but it is always a privilege.

Even with no light up here due to lack of electricity …

September 26, 2008   1 Comment