The Pamir Highway

A solo ride across the barren heart of Central Asia

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Photos and words by Daniel Weststeyn

Daniel Weststeyn is a self-described “regular bloke” from the Netherlands. A regular bloke who loves cycling, running, climbing, the outdoors, and adventure. For his 30th birthday he wanted to do something memorable; to usher in a new decade with a journey that he’d remember for the rest of his life. This is the story of that journey.

Preface

Not another living soul for days. Just the rustling wind, a dusty track and sunrays beating down through the thin air at nearly 4,000m. Left and right parallel tracks have formed in the sandy grass, worn away by 4x4s as even their suspended rides found the main path too rough.

But the road quality is the least of my worries: I just passed the lake where I had planned to replenish my water supplies only to find it’s filled with salt water, which my filter can’t take. Not great news as I only have about one bottle left after cycling all day yesterday, cooking dinner, and making breakfast.

Looking at my maps there are no streams coming up any time soon, and the next lake en route appears to be salt as well. With the power of the sun in this high-altitude dustbowl sucking the sweat right out of me, I’m in a bit of a pickle … I can either play it safe and cycle back uphill for half a day where I can find fresh water, or take a gamble and try to reach the main road where I might be able to stop a Chinese truck for a bottle.

It shouldn’t be too far to the junction anymore, but the track is the smoothest loose sand, making cycling more like pedalo.

Having lost too many days already through illness I decide not to waste any more by going back, and opt for the way forward. Angry at my own rookie lack of anticipation I kick it up a notch and ration my food intake to save my body the fluids needed for digestion.

But with midday approaching the heat is getting pretty intense and inescapable in the shadeless landscape. I’m now almost out of water and not making as much progress as I should. This could prove a costly mistake …

Memorable milestone

Upon turning 30 I was thinking of ways to make this milestone memorable. To do something out of the ordinary, on my own, and make a few cool memories to look back on when trapped in the typical commitments of this new era, such as mortgages and children. What better way to celebrate life than to go on an adventure?

Via some friends I heard of this legendary cycling route through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (see map above). I’m not a ‘real cyclist’ — you know, one that is obsessed with wattages, artisanal Italian lycra and the most aerodynamic valve cap design. But I’ll gladly get on two wheels if it involves a fair amount of adventure and physical challenge.

So I packed my steel stallion and flew to Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe to cycle a 1,500km stretch of the ancient Silk Route better known as the Pamir Highway. Although the word ‘highway’ insinuates a certain degree of modern engineering and maintenance, a large part of it seems untouched since the time Marco Polo passed through.

But I guess it’s that extreme ruggedness and remoteness that attracts endurance adventurers — and fools like me — to these parts. And boy, am I in for a treat.

What follows is a collection of my favourite photos from the trip, with captions helping to tell the story.

On the second day of my trip I run into a Swedish couple and an Englishman who’ve cycled all the way from Europe. It makes my 30-day adventure look like child’s play. Luckily they feel the Pamir Highway is the most beautiful stretch of their trip so far, so basically I’ve just skipped the boring stuff.
As I stop somewhere to put on my raincoat, a couple of kids run up to me and ask (read: scream demandingly) for a picture. The young brother is so excited he cannot stop jumping around and making funny faces, even after his older sister slaps him in the head. I leave them behind crying from laughter and in awe of their own image on an LCD screen.
Khaburabot Pass is the first real test of my climbing legs, ascending over 1,700 meters to a total of 3,253m whilst hauling 50kg of bicycle, luggage, and water. At times the path just consists of loose sand and rocks the size of an infant's head, making my tires lose traction completely. It’s like cycling up a slip ’n slide, in 35-degree heat, but it sure makes getting there all the sweeter.
After a tough day of climbing it’s nice to have an easy start. Although descending over bumpy gravel roads with a heavy load isn’t exactly relaxing, you don’t have to pedal and you still make good mileage. So that’s a win in my book.
Good morning Afghanistan! The sight of this infamous empire on the right side of the river will accompany me for the next 600 kilometres or so. It feels slightly surreal to be so close to this place you can literately throw a stone at it. There's quite a bit less black smoke and gunshots than the news would make you believe though ...
Slowly the broad Panj valley has transformed into a gorge where a narrow dirt road clings to the steep cliffs, defying the raging river at the bottom. There are some steep sections where the overloaded Chinese trucks have completely destroyed the road and you’re riding through ankle-deep loose sand. It gets the blood flowing when a string of trucks ploughs past you, full throttle, pushing you to centimetres from the powdery precipice. Just how I imagined Afghanistan would make me feel.
The closer we get to the mighty Pamirs, the more serious the mountains.
After a two-day rest in Khorog I’m back on the road. I'd ridden with a few others for a while and enjoyed it, but nothing beats the freedom of being on your own, stopping whenever you like and moving at your own pace. I’m now entering the illustrious Wakhan Corridor, junction of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. A dream come true!
My map hasn’t prepared me for a seemingly endless climb, with a deep gravel, washboard surface. When I finally reach the top, of what the topographer apparently doesn’t consider a highpoint of any sorts, I’m completely destroyed. I plump down on a rock beside the road and try to eat some sense back into me with a victory Snickers. It takes me half an hour to see the breathtaking view I have over the Panj river. The Wakhan lives up to its reputation on every level.
Sick. Using hands and feet I attempt to describe my condition to my host family, and in reply they pick some terrible tasting herbs from their garden. To no avail. Then they bring out the mother of all Soviet medicine: a large shot of vodka with what is at least a tablespoon of salt. I coin this cocktail ‘Scorching Seawater’. Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach definitely makes me feel better, but after the buzz dies out the heavy pains are back, even worse than before. I’m laying down in a foetal position, praying for it to stop. My condition keeps worsening despite the local kill-or-cure remedies, and I can hear my host family worriedly whispering outside my room about what to do with me. They don’t own a car or any other means of transport to get me to a doctor, so I’m basically stuck here. If reaching my limits ever had a heroic or aspiring ring to it, it sure as hell doesn’t now. Laying in this shabby room, thousands of kilometres from home, staring at a ceiling for days and not being able to eat or communicate, I just feel so incredibly alone. The uncertainty of what’s wrong and how I’m ever going to get out of this is killing me. Having all the time in the world to go over the worst-case scenarios isn’t helping either.
After a few really dark days I finally have some energy to cycle over to one of the few medical posts in the region. The Russian-speaking doctor there diagnoses ‘Gastrit’ and writes me a prescription. Completely exhausted I return to my guesthouse. The next day I muster all my courage, pack up and head out for a pharmacy and beyond. Despite feeling super weak from not eating for days I can’t describe how good it feels to be back on the road again, trading the dingy walls for some of the most beautiful views I can ever remember seeing.
The Wakhan valley is a bit of a dead-end street; the closer you get to the end, towards the Chinese border, the rougher and quieter is gets. All normal vehicles must return the way they came, and only 4X4s (and cyclists) can challenge the rocky path climbing out of the valley, winding through the mountains back to the Pamir Highway. This section back to the country’s main road doesn't have a single sign of civilisation for days. Just pure wilderness.
After a half-day-long battle, traversing tracks from left to right in search of a rideable surface, I make it to the foot of an 11km climb to Khargush pass at 4,344m. About 9 kilometres in I take a breather right before a steep section, when a local shepherd passes me by. I give him some candy and we talk/mime for a bit. He cannot believe I’m sleeping in a tent by my own without a fire – there are wolves in these parts apparently. I reckon they’ll have enough to eat in summer time – a herd of sheep for instance – before they’ll start shredding my tent and me to pieces.
(Preface, continued): With my water reserves all but gone and concern setting in, I suddenly spot a growing cloud of dust in the distance. I barricade the track with my bike and signal the vehicle to stop. It turns out to be a jeep with a Polish couple and a local driver who graciously share one of their water bottles with me. Saved. Now that I can eat again as well I have the extra power I need to make it to the M41 junction fast. Out of nothing, like a mirage, I look out over the most perfect road snaking through the moon-like landscape. Tarmac! It’s another 30km to the closest village, but back on the heavenly surface I’m flying, and before I know it I make it back to civilisation.
The route continues through beautiful canyons and past red rock peaks making me feel as if I'm cycling through the Mars rover’s photo roll.
I’ve made it to the second and last sizable town on the route, Murghab! At 3,650m it’s the highest town of the entire former Soviet union, but still I’ll have to cycle up over a kilometre to cross the daunting Ak Baital pass …
Camping at 4,300m, the mornings are freezing cold, so I take it easy. Toasty in my down jacket I wait for the sun to come over the mountains, warm me up, and dry the tent a bit before embarking on my quest to conquer ‘the roof of the world’.
Today’s a big day; headed over Ak Baital pass, the literal and figurative pinnacle of the trip!
For months I’ve been dreaming about this moment and finally on top I give an emotional roar – more of a shriek really – into the thin air. I made it!
4,655m above sea level. That’s about the height of Mont Blanc …on a bloody bicycle!
As good as most of the road was on the side I came up, it was so incredibly bad on the descent. Deep washboard from side-to-side and big potholes make for a rocky ride. With constantly engaged brakes, riding down goes almost as slow as cycling up – the road is relentless. Out of nothing, short patches of asphalt will appear, disappearing as suddenly as they came, driving me to desperation if it wasn’t for the extraterrestrial views.
At this altitude the weather is extremely unpredictable. Sunny weather constantly interchanges with blizzards coming down in thick white fog. There's also a constant, ferocious headwind.
The closer I get to the outlandishly azure lake of Karakul, the more powerful the headwinds become. It’s like cycling up a mountain for hours on end whilst being sandblasted. Very efficient, if you were due for a good cardio workout and facial scrub.
One of those days where you can’t believe how lucky you are to be alive and cycling the open road …
Waiting inside a small customs booth on the Kyrgyz border I’m literally swept of my feet by a wave of heavy nausea. I collapse in a corner of the booth, feeling like I’m about to pass out any second. Maybe half an hour later I’m able to get back on my feet, but I know I need to get somewhere warm and dry, quickly. There is no other option than to get biking again. The closest village, Sary Tash, is around 35km away. I’ve heard of a guesthouse there so I decide to go for it in one big push, putting all my focus on the road. Survival mode really. For the last 15 km I’m able to see the village in the distance – almost touch it – at the end of the straight asphalt line cutting through the Kyrgyz steppe. But the free-roaming headwind keeps it dangling in front of me for over an hour. With my last strength I make it to the homestay, drop my bike against the wall and hobble through the front door to crash on a bunch of pillows.
In no way am I physically ready to get back on the bike again after being terribly sick for three days, but I must hit the road to make my flight home. Some people I meet kindly offer me a ride for the remaining stretch, but I don’t think I would ever forgive myself for copping out this close to the finish line. I want to end this adventure the way I feel it should: by myself, on a bike, reaching my limits. Only 185 kilometres and two more mountain passes stand between me and holding my wife again. It’s basically a real-life version of the final level in Donkey Kong.
Although Kyrgyzstan is beautiful my full focus is on reaching Osh, so I hardly stop for pictures, chats and children’s high fives anymore. Closed off with my earbuds in I kick away the miles to my destination. Finally I roll into town under Osh’s giant victory arch, which seems fitting after the last three days. What a relief to have made it, on my own and in time for my flight!

The bike

My bike is a handbuilt steel Snel Savanne LXT 40 Special. It’s built up as follows:

– Chromo steel frame with Shimano XT/LX
– Exal ML 21 26” rims
– Shimano XT tandem 40-spoke high hub flanges
– Sapim strong spokes
– Magura HS33 brakes
– Ergon GP5 handle set
– Tubus Tara/Cargo rack
– Schwalbe Smart Sam Plus tires.

The gear

Crossing an area as rugged and remote as the Pamirs, especially solo, means bringing gear you can trust. Part of the challenge is to deal with the great variety of landscapes and altitudes: I started at 800m above sea level, in 40-degree heat. But the closer I got to ‘the pinnacle of the trip’, the 4,655m Ak Baital pass, the colder and less predictable the weather got.

That presented a dilemma: considering the road conditions and sheer number of meters I had to climb, I wanted to bring as little weight as possible. On the other hand I had to be prepared for the worst (snowstorms, heavy winds, little water, no food or electricity available for days, breakdowns, etc.).

Here you see the gear I brought on this trip. I was certainly over-packed, but ready for whatever mother nature threw at me. With a bit of comfort.

If you’d like to read the full story of Daniel’s adventure through Central Asia, check out his website. You can find more of his photography at Facebook and Instagram.