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.
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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?