Category Archives: Pamir



The tour group woke at 4am, and left at 5 am.  As I was  sharing a room with their Kirgiz guide, I was privy to all the early morning departure rituals, and stayed up to update the blog and work out what fotos to upload (whenever that becomes possible – I am 4 days behind on fotos now).

As breakfast was included in my homestay fees (which were quite a lot I thought for a shared freezing room with no heating (about 10 EUR) I ate heartily in the seperate dining yurt.

I went outside to do a check of the bike.  In the sunshine it was warm, in the shade it was freezing.  Sary Tash was still at 3100m and contrasts at altitude are always so much greater than at more normal levels.  Balancing light and shade in photographs is very difficult due to the extreme contrasts, similarly temperature can feel boiling in the sun and freezing in the shade.  Ice was all over the bike, so I pushed it into the sun to thaw out while I looked it over.

A couple of things concerned me.  My clutch cable adjuster had rotated since I last checked it (probably a week ago) and a number of strands of my clutch cable had snapped.  I was running on no-more than 50% of the strands.  The front brake pads had worn rapidly with the dirt and the mountain roads and I cant have more than a millimetre left.  I have spares of both with me, but the bike is going on for a proper service and to get assorted works done to it in Almaty, where the Kazakh bikers I met passing thru Tashkent have sorted out new parts (one of them was a bike parts dealer) from Germany and a good mechanic to play with the bike.

So with front brake and clutch near the limit, and the key passes on the alternate roads in Kyrgyzstan (Kirgizia to me) still closed anyway due to recent heavy snows, I decided to nurse the bike thru Kirgizia and take mainly major roads to Almaty.

Before I began making progress, I took a side road out of Sary Tash to get closer to Mt Lenin, rising dramatically from the 3000m plain to over 7000m.  As I returned to Sary Tash to refuel and head north, I saw them … Germans.  You  cant miss them.  Big guys on big bikes with big luggage.  The three germans guys had also overnighted in Sary Tash, at a different guest house.  The place isnt that large so not sure how we missed each other.  they didnt speak a lot of english and my normally reasonable german failed me as every time I tried to say something it came out in Russian.  I think you can operate only I one secondary language at a time.  I advised them on road conditions and fuel availability ahead.  I still had about 10 bux worth of Tajik somoni and suggested they buy it off me or swap it for Kirgiz som.  It was a reasonable thing for foreign bikers to do near a border, but the deal fell thru when one of the Germans insisted the Tajik som was 5.5 to the dollar when I know its 4.5 all over the country.  They thought they were getting ripped off by a sly foreigner and I said OK, whatever boys, good luck, you can change money in Murgab and I made my way to the fuel station and topped up with US dollars.  Again my fuel economy was 3.5 litres / 100km (80mpg uk language – 70mpg US gallons) . This engine just loves the altitude.

I had dressed for the cold.  Not only was it around freezing when I left but the road north first rose up to a pass at 3600m before descending towards Osh.  The road down from the pass was covered in fine dust and I pitied my poor chain and the whole bike was engulfed in a cloud of fine dust the whole way down to 2800 metres and the first village.  In the sun here I soon begain to overheat and began unzipping the clothes.  By 2000 metres I had to stop and remove my fleece.  I stopped in the town of Gulcho to find the bazaar.  The Kirgiz guide from last night had advised me this might be a place to change my Tajik somoni.  I found two currency channge offices but they wouldnt change somoni.  I needed Kirgiz som anyway so changed some Russian rubles … about 40 bux worth.  I was only likely to be in the country another 48 hours, and fuel at least was dirt cheap.

I continued on to the outskirts of Osh.  By now it was about 1pm and I was feeling peckish.  I had been told by the guide that the road from Sary Tash to Osh was 5-6 hours.  The germans said 4 hours.  I had made it in 3.5, with 30 minutes faffing around changing money in Gulcho.  So much for nursing the bike.  I saw a guy doing shashlik by the side of the road and I stopped  to indulge.  Just 2 sticks and I was back on the road.  I had failed to score any shashlik in Tajikistan and was happy to be back in a turkic country where shashlik is the norm.

By now I was below 1000 metres and it was hot.  I took off two more layers, leaving just the t-shirt and riding jacket.

I was concerned about the brakes and suspension … Since southern Tajikistan there had been a lot of dirt roads and mud and the bike was caked in it.  I could hardly even see where the fork socks ended and the upper forks began.  The front brakes were just a ball of solidified mud.  This wasnt good for either the suspension or the brakes and I decided now that I was back in the land of water to give the bike a wash.  I found a jet wash place, borrowed the tool for 5 minutes and went to town on my bike and luggage (and helmet).

I continued around the Uzbek part of Kirgizia (Osh – Jalalabad region) and soon after Jalalabad I stopped three times.  First for fuel, then for a top up shashlik and finally I decided that since my jacket was as filthy as the bike was, to give it a jet wash too.  It was now well over 30 degrees and below 700 metres.  I had descended over 4000 metres in about 30 hours, from Ak-Baital pass to near Jalalabad.  The locals stared on shaking their heads as this crazy foreign guy blasted his jacket with 100 psi water … I then turned the hose on myself, blasting  riding trousers below the knee and my boots. I rode off wearing the sopping wet jacket.  It was an ideal way to keep cool in the 30 + degree heat.

By 6pm I had reached Kara-Kol on the eerily green Naryn river, complete with countless dams, and decided to make it around the Toktogul reservoir and stop for the night in Toktogul town, on the north side of the lake.

Toktogul was a run down old town, drawn out along the highway, with more than its fair share of alcoholics by first appearances.  I found a place to stay with secure parking for about 5 bux and headed across the road for some food.  I chatted for a hour or so with the lady who ran the cafe.  Most of Toktogul is geared up for the traffic between Osh and Bishkek.  Its about halfway between the two and most of the restaurant business is from passing traffic.  I was still only at about 950 metres and the night was warm.  It made a nice change from the freezing nights in Tajikistan.

– – –


One thing that was apparent from the warmer weather, was there was clearly a cost to not having had a shower since Dushanbe 6 days ago.  Sure I had washed my face and head almost daily, and I had managed a quick cold rinse at my homestay in the Wakhan valley, but I was  starting to get a little sticky.
The tough part about dressing was to make sure I was only slightly cold at the 3000 – 4000+ metre passes, but that still meant I was cooking in my clothes at low altitude.  The upper body was manageable – layers relatively easy to remove, but pants were a different issue.  I was riding with the fleecy lined goretex liners for the extra warmth, but my legs cooked at low altitude.  If I removed them, I would have had icy legs at altitude.  I noticed my legs were now very sticky, and the goretex liner had quite a whiff to it.

That was added to already long list of things to sort out in Almaty.
(1) oil change – Motul 300V
(2) clean air filter
(3) sort out funny noise
(4) sort out dodgy bolts on luggage rack
(5) replace clutch cable
(6) replace brake disk and pads
(7) replace tyres
(8) weld brackets for tool tube
(9) weld new brackets for drink bottles
(10) adjust headset bearings
(11) sort out wiring issue for GPS (intermittent power)
(12) sort out loose tail assembly
(13) wash helmet liner
(14) wash almost all of my clothes
(15) investigate chinese visa and crossing

After a lazy morning, I left Toktogul about 10am, topped up with fuel (what ever happened to my bright idea of topping up in the evenings?) and yes I am still getting about 80mpg (3.5l / 100km).  I was wondering about this fuel economy and how much better it is here than earlier in the trip.  Perhaps the engine just needed 15000 km to properly get run in and bedded down.  Maybe its the lower air resistance at altitude (like aeroplanes).  Who knows, but whatever the reason, its all good stuff!

The road begain climing immediately on leaving Toktogul, but it was the most relaxed gentle climb you can imagine.  Over about 65 km, the road climbs from about 900m to almost 3200m at the Ala-Bel Pass.  Its all gentle sweeping bends – noting steep, nothing sharp.  In fact you can ride the whole road at 100 km/h such is the quality of the road surface.  I think I will add that stretch to the favorite roads.  A sportsbike would have been better for it than the X-Challenge, but I still had plenty of fun there – and the best part of all (for my clutch cable) was I didnt have to change out of fourth gear the whole way up.

It struck me last night during my conversation with Gulya the cafe lady how different all the central Asians were.  The contrast in peoples between the western looking farsi people of Tajikistan and the very mongolic Kirgiz.  The Kirgiz are probably the most oriental looking of all the central Asians and the Tajiks by far  the least.

The Kirgiz originated in central Siberia, right above the Altai region, next door to the Tuvans (Uriankhai).  Not surprisingly, they share a very similar yurt based nomadic culture with the Tuvans and Mongols.  This became very apparent on entering the central plateau in Kirgizia once I had crossed the Ala-Bel pass.

The quick road from here to Issyk Kul (Kul meaning lake) would have been to drop down the mountains to Bishkek, then back up again to Issyk Kul, but I wanted to stay at altitude and travel through the mountains and the plateau.  There are a couple of dirt roads across the plateau and I took the only one without a pass above 3000 metres (the old pass issue is a problem here in KG).  I wanted to stop for lunch in a town called Chayek, but couldnt find any appealing food options there, so set about fotographing locals before pushing on.

Eventually I had a late lunch and refuel at Kochkor, not far from Issyk Kul.  The Kirgiz guide back in Sary Tash had told me about all the hotels lining both the north and south shores of the lake, and apparently the north shore is more developed with a lot of modern new hotels for vacationing Kazakhs, while the southern shore is more authentic still with plenty of places to stay.  So I took the south road … and probably regretted it.

I was determind to get a place with a normal working warm shower.  The sticky legs bugged me.  But all the hotel type places I passed we both (a) soviet vintage and run down and (b) closed anyway.  Only one I saw was open and I saw two backpackers returning to it. That was enough to make me drive on in search of a backpacker free hotel.  I drove on, and on, and on … I was almost at the end of the lake when I saw a sign to a hotel 16 km down a dirt road.  I thought ‘what the hell, lets try it’ and down the dirt road I went.  At the end of it I reached the ‘Marco Polo hotel’ which was still a soviet style sanatorium complex, but had at least one modernised building.  It was a total rip off at $50 a night for a room with no dinner or breakfast, but it had a modern bathroom with warm shower.  Thats gold in these regions folks.  It being now almost dark outside and me being tired and in need of a warm shower I relented and took the deal.

– – –


My last day in Kirgizia featured nothing in particular I wanted to see or do, save a quick visit to Sharin Canyon in Kazakhstan.  The rest of it was just about covering the 400 km to Almaty and getting across the border.

I couldnt wait to get out of the bizarre Marco Polo Hotel so packed my bags, saddled up and got out of Dodge before any of the locals realised what was up.

First stop was the town of Karakol, where I should have gone for a hotel.  I changed my remaining Kirgiz cash for USD, but kept just enough for a bowl of manti for breakfast and some fuel.  Kirgizia has the cheapest fuel so far so might as well top up there.  It has bowsers too, a nice change from the more ‘raw’ bucket, glass jar and funnel approach in Tajikistan.  As this tank would get me all the way to Almaty, it also gave me a change to calculate my entire fuel consumption in the mountains of Tajikistan and Kirgizia … basically my entire route from Tashkent to Almaty, save 100km or so on either end.  26.0 km/l, 3.8 l/100km, 73.5 mpg (uk), 62.3 mpg (us) …  really amazing stuff considering it was mainly low gear useage, hard accelleration etc.  My tank range for that stretch was 575 km … but there was fuel more regularly than I had feared.  I think a 300 km tank range is all you need in the Pamir, and in Kirgizia fuel is everywhere.

Soon after Karakol I came across the most bizarre stretch of highway. Road kill littered the highway, but it wasnt livestock, it was birds.  The road was covered in dead crows for about 5 km.  As I rode through this macabre scene, crows continued to sit on the road, their time numbered by when the next vehicle came along to mow them down.  What made those stupid crows sit on that stretch of road?  I saw them flying in and landing on the road, waiting for their destiny (the bumper grille of an Audi 100) to meet them.  Very very strange.

Speaking of strange and Audi 100s … Kirgizia has two types of cars.  The usual soviet vintage boxy lada or zhiguli for the hoi polloi, and for the upper middle class, there is the 20 year old Audi 100.  At least every second car on the road is an Audi 100.  its like a national obsession.  I guess the critical mass now is that every mechanic in Kirgizia knows how to fix an Audi 100, so either join the club and get one, or you learn to fix your own car.  There were stretches of road where I passed no fewer than 10 Audi 100s in a row!  All late 80s, early 90s vintage.  Every Audi 100 ever made will end up in Kyrgyzstan at some time in its life.

Enough of the wacky crows and their killers, and on to the Kazakh border.  Why would a country spend money building good roads that dont go to your own towns but to the borders?  Populism dictates that roads to borders dont win votes or popularity contests, and so it was with the road to the Kazakh border.  It hadnt been maintained in a very long time and I punished my suspension more than I needed to.

The border itself was amazingly rapid … only 4 posts to pass through this time, one customs and one passport control on each side.  And I reckon all 4 posts were done within 40 minutes and I was soon on my way in Kazakhstan.

I reached Sharin Canyon, where I was invited for lunch by a Polish tourist passing thru there.  He had organised a nice shashlk barbeque down by the river.  I told him I needed to find the track down into the canyon then I would probably come back and join him after that.

I spent over half an hour searching for  some kind of track down, and eventually settled on an dry riverbed canyon.  It wasnt the side canyon that the Motosyberia chaps had gooned around in – theirs was rocky, mine was sandy – but it was a good bit of fun anyway.

By the time I got out I figured the polish shashlik would be long gone so just headed towards Almaty, stopping for shashlik of my own  at the town of Bayseyit.  It was a  welcoming scene for the weary, hungry  biker – imagine a pretty warm afternoon riding across the wide Kazakh plains when suddenly the road ahead is lined with shady trees, and under those trees are dozens of shashlik vendors on both sides of the road and stalls selling cold drinks and ice-creams.  The only thing that could have improved it would have been babes in bikinis offering shoulder massages for bikers.  (my shoulders were beginning to hurt for the first time since leaving London) but that wasnt going to happen.  I indulged with a couple of shashliks and an ice-cream, and felt a better man for it.

From shashlik central to Almaty was now just 100 km and I set off in time to meet some guys I had known thru work, who planned to meet me on the outskirts of town at 4:30pm.  As it happens I was 15 minutes late. Traffic !!

But the guys took me in and promised to look after me for the next few days.  I will need all the help I can get because there is a lot to get done in Almaty.

The High Pamir


Breakfast at my ‘homestay’ in Vamg was at 7:30am, delivered with a smile – anything I wanted. My hosts daughter had washed my smelly socks and boxers last night and had made sure they were dry by 8am. This Tajik ‘homestay’ system really rocks !!

I stayed in my hosts majestic living room, with the 5 pillars as is traditional for the Ismailis, updating the previous days blog. I had no internet or phone connection but I should be able to get beeline reception somewhere along my route today so will be able to email the blog to Jon, pics to be added later.

I left my host and headed down the road to Vrang, 5km away, where I could top up with fuel. This time it was a plastic bucket and funnel job. I had done 195 km since my last top up in Khorog, and I figured I would probably take 8 or 9 litres … so I ordered 7, and would see visually how much room I had left in the tank once that was done. Incredibly, that 7 litres overfilled the tank and about a quarter of a litre of go-go juice spilled over the sand. The bike has been incredible on fuel since we hit the tricky roads and the altitude. The last 655 km since Kulab has seen me use just 25.5 litres … less than 3.9 litres/100km (73 mpg) … while climbing pretty much the whole time.

I continued along the Panj river to Langar, the last town for about 150 km. Here the valley split in two and the road and the Afghan border followed the Pamir river, while the Panj was renamed the Wakhan river and continued into Afghanistan.  Almost immediately after Langar (2900m) the road began to climb sharply up to aroung 3500 metres. From here to the military base and checkpoint at Khargush, the road would be mainly 3400 – 3700 metres up. It was about 65 km from Langar to the checkpoint and the only company I had on that road were the countless shepherds moving sheep, goats and cattle uphill. All going the same way, driving the beasts along the road. I stopped almost as many times for them as for my foto stops.

About 5 km from Khargush, the road began climbing again and by the time I got to the deserted checkpoint at Khargush, I was at 4000 metres. I wondered around the checkpoint making lots of noise and trying to find signs of life.  It was now seriously cold.  Even in Langar, I had been overheating. But once I had climbed to 3500 metres, and the Pamir plateau, the temperature dropped rapidly. Some soldiers came trotting up the hill from the Army base 300 yards from the checkpoint, carrying a book. Good, this would be the registration book. They took down my details as they had in every other checkpoint, and opened the barbed wire encrusted gate.

I had hoped to continue following the Pamir river eastwards from here, and get into the far south east corner of Tajikistan, but Yusuf yesterday had told me it was a closed military road, confirmed by the soldiers at the checkpoint. Instead I followed the gravel road north, to the Khargush Pass. (editors note … I since heard from a guide in Murgab that its not as closed as it once was, and permission, if got thru the right contacts, was definately feasible)

From the checkpoint, the road immediately climbed higher and in quick time I was above 4300 metres. From here it was a relative flat road for the next 5 miles to the pass itself .. very flat for a pass … very gradual. So flat I didnt notice it until I was heading downhill. 4350 metres my map says.

15 minutes later and I reached the Pamir highway … the M41 … asphalt. A black ribbon of reasonable asphalt across the Pamir plateau. I was now at 3800 metres. From here is was a comfortable ride through ethereal landscapes, 130 km to Murgab, the only town of any substance on the Pamir plateau. One mile down the new asphalt road I stopped to take some fotos at the same spot as a tour group. It was only the second vehicle I had seen all day. Mostly British with an American in there too. These were the first westerners I had chatted with since leaving Jon and Marcin in Romania months ago. They were headed to Murgab as well and I agreed to meet them for dinner in Murgab.

I had plenty of time on my hands so I spent the afternoon shooting still and video clips on the Pamir plateau, but all the mounting and dismounting the bike was having an effect. I did notice feeling either tired or light headed when filming up near 4150 metres in the afternoon. I was glad Murgab was a few hundred metres lower, at 3650 metres and made my way down … stopping to take photos regularly. As with the rest of Tajikistan so far, every scene has been a postcard, and my camera has been working overtime. All my batteries were running low – camera, video etc and I would need to recharge everything in Murgab tonight.

I pulled into dusty, windswept Murgab and went searching for petrol. I had realised after this morning that it was making more sense to buy fuel in the evening so I could just pack the bike up and go in the mornings. I eventually found fuel, and tried to estimate my requirement to the Kirgiz guy selling fuel from his backyard. 285 km? should be about 11 – 12 litres. I bought 10. Again I overestimated. The last half litre ended up in the dirt again. I had used only 9.5 litres to do 285 km through the mountains, mostly uphill, mostly on dirt roads. It continues to amaze me.

I found a homestay run by a Kirgiz woman called Apal (Murgab is mostly a Kirgiz town) and unloaded the bike. I had phone reception here and sat in my room uploading the last blog post to Jon, and checking the loads of emails since I last had functional gprs reception in Khorog. There were a couple of disconcerting emails about the Kirgiz border with Uzbekistan being closed due to some troubles, but hopefully that wont affect me.

Darkness fell and Murgab was black. There was no power in the town. The town has a hydro electric plant but apparently its very old and hasnt kept up with the towns growth. IN any case it didnt work at all tonight.  This would make it hard to recharge my assorted batteries.

– – –


I left my homestay in Murgab with a full stomach and full tanks of fuel and went straight to the police station to register. Apparently it isn’t necessary any more but I was advised by Surat, the head of the tour company guiding the tour group I met yesterday that it would be prudent to visit them and get their OK on that. Having done that, I headed north, towards to Ak-Baital pass … the highest point in the trip at 4655 metres … at least for several months.

I had woken up much as I went to bed the previous night, with a headache and feeling less than 100% alert. It was the altitude. Heading to Ak-Baital meant climbing up 1000 metres from Murgab. This would be a test for the constitution. I needed to get back to a lower altitude and the only way I could do that was to continue North – about 100 km from Ak-Baital was another pass, the Kyzyl-Art pass (4280m) which was also the border with Kirgizia, and after that I could drop over 1000 metres to the first town in Kirgizia, Sary Tash.

I still felt that if it was possible, I would leave the road at Ak-Baital and try and climb higher up on the bike, off piste, despite my dizziness and throbbing headache. When I reached the pass, I realised that unlike every other pass I had crossed in the Pamir, the Ak-Baital was surrounded everywhere by steepness. There was no safe way I was going to score any more altitude metres and I headed on down. My GPS altitude reading was 4664m. The dizziness and the cold hit new heights in the last few hundred metres to the pass and I was very glad to be descending.

This was the highest I had ridden since Bolivia in 2005. (I made an error in an earlier post about Col de l’Iseran being the highest I had ridden before .. how could I forget Bolivia?) In Bolivia I was riding above 3600m all of the time, and above 4000m most of the time. I suspect I got up to about 4500m plus at some of the passes there, but with no GPS, I cant be sure exactly how high I was.

15 minutes beyond Ak-Baital and I saw two cars I recognised. It was the tour group from yesterday. We crossed paths a few times over the next hour with either me or them stopping for fotos, before they pulled in for lunch at Karakol. I had eaten a huge breakfast precisely so I didnt need lunch and left them by the lake.

I had got about 15 km North from the town of Karakol when the strangest thing happened. I saw a BMW type bike with a sidecar appraching from the other direction. It would have been easy to shake it off as a local on a BMW sidecar clone but something made me think twice … the bike had a headlight on. It must be a westerner. We both pulled over with huge smiles and introduced outselves. Vincent was French and had been on the road since September last year. I am the first westerner on a bike he has seen this year. Apart from colleagues Jon and Safran, Vincent was the first westerner on a bike I had seen since the Germans in Montenegro over 7 weeks ago. A guy travelling solo in Tajikistan with a sidecar – thats one for Erik Bok!!. We chatted, and discussed maps and routes when you wouldnt believe it, there in the middle of nowhere Tajikistan, a third bike (with headlight on) approaches from the north with a huge grin. Guy was from Belgium and he too hadnt seen another westerner on a bike for 2 months. None of us had seen anyone for months, and then in a remote location, we meet two others within 20 minutes ! Here’s one for Chris Scott … Guy was on a 20 year old Tenere! (The 138 kg model with a big 29 litre tank)

They both warned me about the border pass ahead … apparently its a bit muddy. Vincent with the sidecar said it was particularly tough on his set up. I advised them on routes further into Tajikistan. Vincent and his sidecar were trying to get to Pakistan, but didnt want to pay up $2000 for the Chinese tour guide system, so he has decided to go thru Tajikistan to Afghanistan and from there to Pakistan. Hope he makes it … will make a great film (he is filming his trip as well).

I had to press on tho and tackle the border. It was 2pm and you just never know how long borders will take, so I left the boys and pressed to the muddy border pass. 30 odd minutes later and I was at the Tajik border post. It was a few hundred yards before the pass itself. The process went smoothly … just went through the same steps with 3 different services. First the police checkpoint. Kill the engine, dismount, take documents into small hut. Answer a million questions. Finally the man writes down all my details into his log book and shakes my hand telling me I can go. Next is the customs shoebox. Kill the engine, dismount, take docs into shoebox room. Answer questions, smile and laugh at officials jokes, hope he hurries up and just writes down the details and eventually we are done, and I move on to the immigration booth (cylindrical tin drum) where the official takes out a log book, then decides its the wrong one, takes another, looks at every single visa and stamp in my passport (as do the police and customs guys mind you) then asks to see my vehicle papers (there is total overlap in the questions of all three services – why does an immigration guy want to ask about the bike’s papers … can he not assume that the customs guy has done that as part of his job?

Anyway it all went pretty quickly. I reckon 25 minutes and I was thru the Tajik post. As I packed up to leave, I saw the tour group’s 4WD minibus pull up at the police post, 60 yards away and gave them a wave. I stopped 20 yards past the Tajik checkpoint to talk to the new waiting minibus for the tour group, to tell the waiting Kirgiz guide that his clients are on the way thru the border now. (the group changed drivers, guide and vehicle at the border)

The Kirgiz post was not just over the pass, it was over the pass and down in the valley 25 km away! Getting up the last few hundred metres from the Tajik post to the pass was what Guy and Vincent were taking about. It was red mud city. It was a no-mans land, and no-one maintains roads in no-mans land. Steep slippery wet red mud. The name of the pass was the Kyzyl-Art Pass and I know Kyzyl means Red. I am guessing but ‘Art’ must mean earth or mud … because the intensity of the red colour was quite striking.  The slippery mud was worse on the other side.  Muddy hairpin bends at 4000 metres … mmm fun ! No wonder Vincent on the sidecar rig hated it.

When I reached the Kirgiz checkpoint 25 minutes later (and 750 metres lower), I realised I didnt have my documents on me! My passport, vehicle papers etc … I had them at the Tajik checkpoint. I searched my tankbag and pockets in vain, and it suddenly hit me that this could be a showstopper.

I asked the Kirgiz border guards to excuse me while I returned to search for my documents. On the way I passed a car load of Kirgiz who had a flat tyre in no-mans land and no way to fix it. They asked me if I had a spare patch of rubber. I took one look at the huge rip in their tube and shook my head. The best I had was a push bike repair kit with a couple of patches big enough to patch nail holes, not huge rips. I continued up the mountain. Perhaps I had left the papers at the last checkpoint – with the immigration guy – and perhaps he had given them to the tour group to carry down. I would probably pass them on the way up. In the meantime, my eyes were scanning the red earth muddy road bed for anything unnatural. Everything artificial stands out when you stare hard enough. Even at reasonable riding speeds I was suddenly seeing cigarette butts and small plastic wrappers. That was encouraging. Then I saw the tour group. I stopped and asked them if they had seen my papers, but got only blank looks back.

This was bad … it meant the docs were probably not at the Tajik post .. at the very least the Tajiks would have told them to tell me they had my docs and I should return for them. The docs must be somewhere on the road. I decided to continue up the mountain at full speed, and do a slow speed retracement once I got to the Tajik post. I powered thru the red mud and reached the pass with no sign of the papers. A few hundred yards away around the next bend would be the Tajik post.

Then suddenly I saw something at the side of the road … it was the clear plastic sandwich bag that held all my docs. It had fallen on a dry patch and was barely even dirty. I was barely more than 100 yards from the Tajik post. In my haste to leave (there is never a good reasoon to hang around or to take your time at a border post once you have been given the all clear) I must have put the docs on my tank bag while I mounted the bike or put on my helmet or whatever. And forrgotton to pack them inside the tank bag. As I rode off from the post they had fallen off the tank bag.

I was relieved as hell to have found them. It was the second time for document dramas this trip. I returned to the Kirgiz post and the boys there were relieved I had found the docs. They had been wondering what to do with me if I didnt find them. I would have been a passportless man on a motorcycle in no mans land … neither in Tajikistan nor Kirgizstan. Mutual relief ensured I was given a hasty passage thru the Kirgiz border. Both border posts had taken a mere 20 odd minutes each.  It could have been my fastest border corssing in central asia to date, but instead was a 2 hour stressful ordeal!

Kirgizia was now country number 27 and should be the last new country for me for some months. My plan had been to try and get towards Osh for the night, but the delays and the need to chill out meant I would only go to the next town, Sary Tash. The tour group had been going there and their guide had given me the name of the place they would stay when I chatted to him just after the Tajik Post 2 hours earlier and suggested I join them. At the time I pooh-poohed the idea but circumstances had changed and I decided to head into Sary Tash and find Mirbek’s homestay.

Sary Tash lies in an incredible setting. The two massive east-west ranges I had to cross on the road to Dushanbe extend here and Sary Tash lies in between them. The border pass with Tajikistan was the southern range and Sary Tash lies at the foot of the northern one. In between the two is a plain about 3200 metres up. Like the road to Dushanbe, the mountains are a solid wall … a real range rather than individual peaks and valleys. Again I looked at the range from a distance and thought ‘how the hell do you get across that?’ It was a solid wall for as far as I could see west towards Dushanbe and East towards China. Then I turned around and behind me was an equally impenetrable wall, and I had just crossed that one.

Sary Tash itself reminded me a bit of Murgab, only a little smaller and a lot greener. Here the ground was grasslands while at Murgab it had been dusty, barren, bleak and unforgiving. Animals grazed here. I found Mirbek’s guesthouse and the tour group. The Kirgiz guide arranged an extra room for me and I joined the group for tea. Dinner was on the way in less than an hour and I took the chance to wash my face and hair for the first time in two days. The rest of me will have to wait till I find a shower somewhere.

The tour group was headed for China early the next morning (5am departure) and so we all ate an early dinner. I had missed lunch so feasted on the manti provided by the hosts before discussing routes thru Kirgizia with the guide. He seemed to know exactly which roads would be open at this time and unfortunately some of the more interesting passes I had planned were not yet open.  He did recommend a morning detour tho to check out Mt Lenin … the second highest mountain in the former USSR at over 7000 metres. The Sibirsky Extreme Project could hardly bypass a chance to see Lenin Peak now, could it?

Along the Afghan Border


I woke up early and had breakfast at 8 o clock.  I wanted to be on the road early but there were 3 things I had to do before I left Dushanbe. (1) get GPRS working on my new Tajik sim card (2) get some petrol and (3) change some cash into Tajik somoni.

The first took about an hour, trying to call the phone provider and searching the internet – but we got there.  The second and third I could do in the centre of town.

By 10:15 I was all done and on the road.  I had two possible routes planned and I didnt know which to take.  Both involved heading 25km east of Dushanbe.  Both would meet up at Kalaikhum, on the Panj River that makes the Afghan border.

Perhaps out of laziness, I got to the turnoff point and went straight ahead, on the main road to Kalaikum.  It was  the route most travellers take, and it was a fair bit shorter than the other route.  As it happens I got only 15 km down the road when the police told me the road was closed ahead.  I could have stopped and chatted to find out why, and for how long, but as I had the other route planned, to the south via Kulab, hitting the Panj River 150 km earlier, Idecided just to turn around and take the alternate route.

This alternate route had been recommended to me by a Dutch guy, Pieter from Amsterdam,  If I hadnt been in such a hurry to get to Khorog, I would have taken it automatically.  I had a couple of reasons to press on.  The 18 days off the bike had meant I would already be late getting to Siberia and I wanted to minimise my lateness, and secondly, I had only been given 5 full days in Tajikistan from the customs guy when I entered.  Sure I could faff about in Dushanbe to get an extension, but that in itself would cost me a day..

As it happens I was now going the scenic route anyway. The road was an interesting steady climb and descent to Dangara, but the next 100 or so km to Kulab was down in the lowlands, all from 400 – 600 m in altitude and hot and to be honest, pretty boring.  My initial plan was to lunch in Kulab and then head over the last range to the Panj River.  The heat made me change plan.  I would head to Shurabad up in the hills for lunch where it would be cooler.

The road immediately began to get interesting as soon as I left Kulab – climbing from around 600 metres to a pass up at 2000 metres 20 km away.  It was just a huge open climb, a lot of fun and I stopped to take a foto at the top, looking all the way back to Kulab.  That done it was a short ride to Shurabad and lunch, only the bike wouldnt start.  Nothing.  No lights, no anything.  It was 1:45 pm.  I checked the power, and the battery was still alive.  I assumed it was a blown fuse and took off the seat and examined all the fuses … they were all fine.  I checked all visible wiring.  It was now 2:30pm.  I came to the conclusion that something was amiss with my ignition switch… what to do.?

I made an executive decision to head back to Kulab, one of the largest towns in Tajikistan … it was pretty much all downhill … I could glide the 20 km …  And I did, tho it took me 30 minutes with a few short paddling sessions in the middle.  I found a service station of sorts and spoke to the guys … saying I needed an “electrical master”.  A few phone calls were made and the sparky came 10 minutes later.  I explained to him what I thought was the problem and while I was still justifying my logic to him in Russian, he had bypassed the ignition switch with a test wire and got the bike to fire up.  So I was right for a change.

On the glide down the hill I though about what to do if it was indeed the ignition switch.  I figured I had a spare switch on my ‘dashboard’ which could double as an ignition switch, tho I would have to add a second hidden switch on the same circuit for when I left the bike, like in the evenings.  All the way down that huge hill I was thinking of where to hide that second secret switch.

I counted on the idea that ignition switches were untamperable, and to open one up was to break it.  This time I was wrong.  My Tajik sparky had opened up the ignition switch and had found the problem … a soldered connection had come unsoldered. Easy to fix if you have a soldering iron … My Tajik sparky was fast, and smart, but he had no soldering iron.  He had to disappear for 10 minutes to borrow one from a friend.

While he was away I had been chatting to the assorted lads and hangers on at the mechanics shop and the lads insisted on washing the bike.  Out of the kitchen (like many workshops in the former soviet union, a workshop if often a cafe as well – like Lyosha’s back in Beyneu) comes a loud 20 year old Tajik girl suggesting I take her on my bike back to England.  She suggested she was a good cook.  One of the lads suggested she was good at something else that I didnt catch as it was in Tajik, but it was not hard to guess the jist of the comment.  I politely declined, stating the Sibirsky Extreme Project’s completion was incompatible with riding back to England with a mad Tajik cook in tow.

The sparky returned with the ignition switch all soldered up.  5 minutes later all was fixed, the sparky was 20 Tajik somoni richer (about 3.50 EUR) and I was repacking the bike.  I had feared a day or so out of action when the bike died on the top of that pass, but I was back on the road 2 hours and 45 minutes after the bike died.  1 hour of that was my attempts to fix and then diagnose the problem and 30 more minutes was me gliding back to Kulab.  The ride back up the big hill was twice as fast and exactly 3 hours after I broke down I was riding back past the same spot.  It was now almost 5 pm and I still wanted to try and make it to Kalaikhum.  Lunch now was obviously not necessary.

After Shurabad, it became clear that my hopes of further quick progress would be dashed by an old, often unpaved road that led to the Panj River and the Afghan border.  The road may have been poor, but in the finest Tajik traditions, it was through spectacular mountains.  The area between Dungara and Kulab had been totally flat plains.  It was good to be back in the mountains and interesting scenery again.  It was about 6pm when I finally reached the Panj valley and the road turned north to head upstream on the river.

This quickly became some of the most amazing scenery I have ever ridden through. The Panj cut through a tremendously deep valley with equally tremendous vigor.  As far as I could see upstream, it was constant rapids, constant white water.  With the main road closed this route was now the only way to get from Dushanbe to the Badakhshan region, or which Khorog is the capital.  The track alongside the river was one of the most challenging I have ridden.  It was narrow, steep, often with oversize gravel and boulders, many water crossings etc etc.  It was a challenge and I really enjoyed it.  The only downside was that progress was painfully slow.  There was no way I could average 50-60 km/h on this road.  At one point I even came across a waterfall covering the track.  There was no way around it … it was cliff on one side and vertical drop on the other.  I couldnt really see what was on the other side of the fall, but plunged in anyway with visor down.  Every metre of this road was interesting and the scenery breathtaking.  This road had to make it only my recommended roads list!

As darkness descended I reverted to both headlights.  On the edge of darkness I passed a couple of soldiers patrolling the border and asked how far to Zigar (the first town on the road).  “25 km” was the answer.  At the speeds I was going, that would take almost an hour, especially with all the constant demands to stop for  fotos – imposed by the jaw dropping scenery.  At the speed trucks were going it would be 3 times that.  There were quite a few trucks doing the route too, but  they were crawling along in first gear the whole way at no more than 5 miles an hour.  the only other vehicles apart from me and the trucks were the occasional Landcruiser / Nissan Patrol, which were the buses of the Badakhshan region where I was heading.

At one narrow point I got stuck behind a truck with no way to pass.  As Ibegan to curse the truck, I realised his presence was a blessing.  In front of us was a deep water crossing.  I wanted to see how he made it across and work out how smooth the bottom was and how deep it was.  The truck inched across in low gear before struggling up the steep bank on the other side.  I could see two problems from the movement of the trucks wheels thru the water.  The bottom was rocky, and it was about 60-70 cm deep.  The depth should be ok for the bike, but I was going to have to get my feet wet.  The other problem was the bank on the other side.  It too was rocky, and steep, especially the bit where you emerge from the water.  The truck had moved on and I was alone in the world pondering this crossing.

Damn the torpedoes … engage first gear and lets go.  I was lucky, I was finding a smoother path across the bottom than the truck did and a few deep breaths later by front wheel was up on the far bank … and my boots were filled with freezing cold water.  Getting the back end out of the water was tough … the bank was rocky.  I tried pushing back a few times to get a foot or so of run up to the bank and on the third time I made it, back wheel spinning wildly all over the wet rocks but somehow finding enough traction at one point to launch me clear of the water and up onto dry land again.

I passed a gang of workers, working into the darkness, churning up the road into a surface really only designed for multi-wheel drive trucks with enormous ground clearance to pass.  I had no choice but to take on the piles of soft earth and gravel, conscious of the sheer cliff into the Panj on my right.

After one of the most exhilerating rides of my life I made it to the police checkpoint on the outskirts of Zigar, where everyone has to register.  The checkpoints in this region are not at all discriminatory.  Everyone has to get out and register their presence at each checkpoint.   There was no electricity here.  Even this police checkpoint was illuminated by a solitary candle on the desk of the chief.  All along the route by the Panj there had been no signs of life, other than the road itself and the occasional blacked out tiny village.  No power lines, no telephone wires … nothing apart from the amazing road to show man was present.

Just as I was leaving the checkpoint a truck driver stopped me for a chat.  He was going the same way and told me not to bother trying to stop in Zigar … there was no restaurants or places to stay, but he recommended a great place 15 km down the road.

15km !!! on these roads that was at least another half hour in the dark.  I reluctantly saddled up and prepared for more intense concentration.  To my  shock and surprise, on entering Zigar, I found alphalt road … not just asphalt road, but immaculate asphalt road.  It continued as I left Zigar … in fact it was like a proper road.  Wide, guard rails, reflectors.  My speed increased to 80 km/h, then 100 … I couldnt see anything but that which was illuminated by my twin xenon high beams, but that was more than enough road ahead to see the gradual curves into the distance.  It this kept up, my 15 km would pass in about 9 minutes.  Not being able to see the spectacular scenery had me wondering what was this  amazing piece of road.  How did they build a road to cruise so effortlessly through this rugged countryside?  Was it the Chinese at work again.

In no time I had reached the next village, Khostav, and found the recommended restaurant / guesthouse.  It was a truck parking lot out the front, clearly a truck drivers favorite.  I settled down on the only spare table and ordered a bowl of lagman soup, bread and a beer. The restaurant was abuzz with the chatter of Tajik truckdrivers and two landcruisers full of local bus passengers.  The only light bulb in the room flickered irritatingly and I understood why with the noise of a two stroke electricity generator howling away outside.

I got a few curious stares, but no-one interrupted my relaxation as I enjoyed every sip of the beer.  10 minutes later the truck driver I had met at thee Zigar police post walked in with his son – an apprentice truck driver I imagine – and joined me at my table.

I asked about the road.  Was it the Chinese?  No he said.  The Chinese roads are in the North of the country. This stretch was built by the Turks.  There is another road not far from here built by the Iranians.  It seems with Tajikistan being the poorest country in the former soviet union, everyone is trying to gain influence by donating roads and the like.  The Russians are currently building a 2 billion dollar hydro dam for the Tajiks which will generate all the power the country needs.  It makes sense when you are the most mountainous country on earth, to generate power by hydro methods – but the capital costs are pretty huge.  Thats where the Russians come in.  So Russia, China, Irana and Turkey … are vying for influence here.

We spoke about the road ahead.  He said this good road continued to Egar, halfway from Khostav to Kalaikhum, then fell back a bit, but still a load better than the road prior to Zigar.  The road from Kalaikhum (where the main road joins the Panj valley) to Khorog was better again.  Not as good as this good stretch, but nothing like the ‘adventure’ to Zigar.

The truck driver said he would leave at about 4am, and expect to get to Khorog about 3pm.  I was hoping to be a bit quicker than that, and in any case, would not be leaving at 4am.

Above the restaurant was a dorm room.  I settled into a bed for the night.  The meal had cost me about 2 EUR and an extra EUR for the bed.

– – –


I awoke early … about 5am, and decided to get up and get an early start.  Half the trucks had already left.  They work pretty hard these Tajiks.  Road crews in the middle of nowhere working well into the darkness.  Truck drivers leaving at 4 –  5 am to get to where they have to get to.  I had a cup of tea, a head shower of sorts under their fresh water waterfall, packed up the baggage and was on the road soon after 6am.  The road was exactly as the driver described.  Fantastic to Egar and then fell back a few notches, but still good for 60 km/h.

The Panj river was still amazing me.  I had joined it at 600m.  By the time I reached Kalaikhum, I was up at about 1200m.  The whole way it had been white water … rapids for over 150 km.  I topped up with fuel in Kalaikhum and realised I had been getting excellent fuel economy on these mountain roads, despite thrashing the bike.  I was getting 24-25 km/litre (4.0l/100km).  That was great news as the Pamir region is not known for its abundant fuel.  As was usually the case in Tajikistan (Dushanbe being the exception) fuel came in a tub … and I bought it by the jar, dipped into the tub of petrol. It still under half a eur per litre, even out here in the wilds of Badakhshan.  I asked about the grade of fuel.  It was a silly question.  In Badakhshan there is benzin and there is benzin.  76 octane, 80 octane, 92 octane are irrelevant concepts here.  Fuel is fuel.  Take it or leave it.

Badakhshan is the huge autonomous region in the south east of Tajikistan, of which Khorog is the capital and only major town.  The population here is mainly Ismaili, and follow the Aga Khan.  The region is 100% mountains.  There are no plains in Badakhshan, and you need a special endorsement on your visa to come here.  I got mine with the visa in London for 50 quid, but I have heard you can get them in Dushanbe in a day for 30 USD.  The Ismailis are now one of the most serene branches of Islam but that wasnt always the case.  Back in the day of Genghis and co, the branch of Islam that is now the Ismailis was known as the Assassins.  They had fortresses all over Persia and surrounding regions and always got what they wanted … until they picked a fight with Genghis.  Destroying the Assassins was one of his main priorities after having taken over the lands of the Shah of Khwarezm.

I also noticed there was mobile phone reception on my phone in Kalaikum and stopped to check emails.

Eventually, after refuelling, email checking and police checkpointing, I was back on the road.  As promised, the road onwards to Khorog was a cakewalk compared to the pre Zigar road.  I took advantage of my early start and the relaxing road to photograph locals.  I had been told by everyone from Mad Max to Kazakh business friends that Tajiks were the most attractive people of all the central asians, and I found it very hard to disagree with that.  There is a strong persian bloodline running thru the Tajiks and the language is very close to Farsi, the language of Iran.  Quite a few of the Tajiks even looked distinctly european to me.  There is two different attitudes to being photographed here, divided sharply by sex.  The men and boys leap and jump in front of me as soon as I pull out a camera, while the women and girls who were previously smiling and friendly suddenly get camera shy and photographing them is quite a challenge.  I have found out that if I plead a little, the smiles return and I am allowed to take the photos.

Next stop, 250 km and 5 hours down the road from Kalaikhum was Khorog.  I stoped here for lunch and a fuel top up.  Again, plesantly surprised that I needed less than 10 litres to top me up for the past 250 km. By Khorog I had now climbed to 2100 metres.  I had followed the Panj river all the way from 600 metres.  The white water had continued to about 75 km before Khorog, at 1900 metres.  The last 75 km was characterised by a much calmer Panj, and a wider river valley.  There were a few slower sections, including some cool overhangs above the road, but in general, the road was good for 70-80 km/h on a motorcycle the whole way.

After lunch I left the standard pamir highway which heads north east out of Khorog towards Murgab, and instead continued on south, to follow a lesser road  (and the Panj /  Afghan border) to Ishkashim and round to the east after that.  Safran had told me this was one of his favorite regions on the motosyberia trip 2 years ago so I was enthused as to what this would bring for my bike and my camera.

35km south of Khorog I was asked to stop by a young girl who wanted me to meet her father.  I was making good time so I decided to take her up on it.  The village was Khaskhorog and her father was Yusuf, a professional tour guide and fluent english speaker.  Yusuf showed me his lovely Ismaili house, explaining its traditional design and said he would like to start taking in guests as well, since the crisis had affected the amount of tourists that needed guiding.

A neighbour’s kid came in to see what was going on and to my surprise the 12 year girl was blonde – naturally. Yusuf joked that the locals called her a russian, but in fact she was pure Tajik.  Yusuf’s own daughter had honey green eyes … and it kinds reminded me a little of that legendary fotograph taken during the Soviet Afghan war of the Afghan village girl with the piecing green eyes staring straight into the camera lens.  Yusuf invited me to stay the night, but it was still only 4pm and I am ever conscious of my time limit in Tajikistan.

He is a lovely guy, and as a professional tour guide, knows everything worth seeing and how to get there in the whole Badakhshan province.  He is totally fluent in English and if you were coming to this area, you might want to stay at his place for the night – a traditional Badakhshan home, and get the full take on what to see, how to get there and have the culture of the local Ismailis explained.  He has a mobile phone and if anyone needs his contact details, let me know.  Ah yes, he also told me that I had the wrong sim card.  I picked up a ‘Beeline’ sim card and in the remote areas, ‘Indigo’ is the best brand … so theres a tip from Yusuf for anyone coming to Tajikistan … get an ‘Indigo’ sim card.

As I departed Khaskhorog, I thought to myself I must return to Tajikistan, with more time.  Safran said that he too would like to come back here.  Perhaps I can convince him to return in summer 2011 for a whole month and really tear this place apart … because its very quickly become one of my favorite countries in the whole world.  Like Switzerland, with really bad roads and about 5% of the price – and much higher mountains, steeper valleys, and people who wave at you as you ride down the main streets of the villages.  My left arm is about to fall off from all the waving so far in Tajikistan.

The road south was not as eventful or dramatic as I had anticipated.  Still every scene was a postcard, but I have to say that nothing compares with what I saw of the Panj valley between Shurabad and Zigar.  That was the most dramatic scenery and road I have ever seen. (thanks Pieter)

I passed thru Ishkashim, where I saw a bridge across the Panj to Afghanistan.  T was told there are 3 crossings in Badakhshan to Afghanistan.  One just outside Khorog, one just outside Ishkashim and one near Langar, a bit further on.  If I had more time, I would have tried to pick up a visa in Khorog at the Afghan consulate and try to pop over on the bikes, if just for an hour or so.  Maybe another idea for 2011.

I passed a old fort on the right off the road.  Yusuf had told me to keep an eye out for it.  It predates the great game in which the Russian and British jockeyed for control of this region.  The British got Afghanistan and the Russians got Tajikistan … but all things come to pass and now neither of them have either of those territories.  Prior to the great game, this region (and northern Afghanistan across the river) belonged to the Emir of Bukhara … and it was his mud brick fort that now is slowly eroding away.

I stopped for the night at Vamg, a small village about 5km before the larger town of vrang.  I saw a sign on the road pointing to a “homestay” here and popped in.  I had been following the Panj River and the Afghan border now for over 24 hours.  I started at 600 metres and now I was at 2900 metres, 650 kilometres later.  I still have 30-40 km to go beside the river before turning north into the Pamir proper.  The river valley is very wide here, several miles across.  At various points earlier in the day it was no more than 50 metres wide, and an Afghan on the opposite bank could have thrown a stone and hit me.

Now I am in the Wakhan valley.  Across the valley to the South is the Hindu Kush mountains and the thin Wakhan corridor – 25km south of me is Pakistan.  North of me is the High Pamir.  Its an amazing place to be.  I have two days left in Tajikistan … I should make it to Murghab tomorrow, and Kirgizia the following day.


The Road to Dushanbe


It was 18 days ago when I last did serious miles on the bike and I woke up early today to recify that. The goal was Dushanbe … 500 km, one border and 2 high passes away.

Vlad came round at 8am to pick me up and take me to his garage where my bike was stored. I spent some time preparing my luggage and bike while Vlad zoomed off to do some errands and pick up a bolt and some hose clamps for me. By the time he returned, Zhenya had joined us and the boys decided they would ride with me to the Tajik border, about 100km south of Tashkent.

Despite best intentions to leave early, it was after 11am by the time we were all on the road and fuelled up. We got to the border about 12:30 and chatted to the Uzbek border police for the best part of half an hour before pushing onto the border itself. They had vague recollections of another motorcyclist coming thru here a few days earlier.  I said fond farewells to Vlad and Zhenya, the two young Tashkent bikers who had helped me totally while I was in Tashkent. The guys had been terrific and I knew I would miss their company and help. I entered the border zone and shut off my engine to hear their two Kawasakis screaming away in the distance, heading back to Tashkent.

Border formalities were simple and relatively quick. The Uzbek side naturally enough needed a ot of paperwork, but the Tajik side was a very simple passport stamp and a 5 day customs importation permit. Unfortunately 5 days is the maximum they can give at the border. He opened his logbook to prove it … sure enough every vehicle had been given only 5 days. I even saw the other motorcycle in there – a Russian called Gleb, on a Honda, 4 days ago.

By 2:45 I was on the road in TJ.