The Pamir Highway
Starting in Kashgar and ending in Dushanbe, crossing three countries and climbing and descending tens of thousands of metres, the Pamir Highway is arguably the most adventurous stage of the Silk Route expedition. Mind you, that’s always a dangerous thing to say with a desert crossing in an unknown country like Turkmenistan just around the corner.
No one city can encompass what it means to travel the Silk Road like Kashgar can. Sitting in the middle of the Silk Road travelling from the Oriental West to the European East, at the top of the road out of the Indian, Nepalese and Pakistani Himalayas, and at the far corner of nomad-inhabited Tibet, the riders were blown away by the mix of people, architecture, food, mannerisms, languages and products to be seen around the ancient Silk Road city. In our hotel alone, there were brochures for guesthouses in Pakistan, Mongolia and Tajikistan.
The two days of riding out of Kashgar gave us a glimpse of the green landscape to come over the border in Kyrgyzstan. Soft flowing rivers meandered through wide grassy valleys with horses grazing at their banks. The Sino-Kyrgyz border didn’t open until 10am, giving the riders and staff plenty of time to not-so-subtly take photos while sitting at the gate and boundary of the country which for the last two months had provided so much for them to take in.
The first day in Kyrgyzstan will forever go down in Tour d’Afrique’s “Best Ever Campsites” book as green meadows, friendly nomads and the gigantic white Tian Shan Mountains provided the perfect welcome to a new country.
While many of the riders were sad to spend such little time in this new and exciting country, this feeling was soon forgotten as they climbed up to 4,350m where the Kyrgyz-Tajik borders precariously sits. They knew that once their passports were stamped that they were starting one of the toughest cycling challenges known to man; The Pamir Highway itself.
Rarely dropping below 4,000m in altitude and receiving little enough precipitation to be classed as a desert, the Pamir Mountains provided the Silk Route expedition with a landscape that most of us has never witnessed before. For days on end, we would ride on a brief stretch of acceptable asphalt before having our bones rattled on 50km of the worst washboard surface any of us will ever ride on.
Camping next to a super smelly (thanks to the sulphur) hot spring in the middle of the Pamirs gave us all a chance to relax, just so long as the riders didn’t mind following the signs, written in Russian, to remove all clothing before entering!
After a beautiful camp spot overlooking Afghanistan in Khorog, the tour continued along the Panj River heading for Dushanbe. For four consecutive days the riders pushed their way along a barely paved road which was just about wide enough for two vehicles, all the while having an unbeatable view of how the people of Afghanistan live, with the just the river separating the two lands.
Leaving the Panj valley meant one of the toughest climbs that Tour d’Afrique can provide, not only due to 1,000m+ climb but thanks to the sandy surface accompanying the riders all the way to the top. It’s hard enough riding at 5km/h up a never ending mountain pass but when your tyre is sunk in 5cm of sand which hides countless rocks of varying shapes, it’s easy to understand why the riders were so pleased with themselves for conquering this one.
In Dushanbe we welcomed three new riders to the tour and enjoyed the double rest day by exploring the local restaurants and bars, although it was rare to see a rider out on the streets in the middle of the day due to the 40°c+ heat in the city. The day we leave Dushanbe we will also cross the Uzbek border; this tour has got unstoppable momentum!