Along the side of the road a handful of grazing cows, a Chinese truck, stuck and a bit further a herd of shy yaks. On that same road, a fully loaded jeep with on its roof a sheep, looking around. He likes it there. The jeep rattles along a couple of world cyclists, gasping for oxygen in the air.
Yip, it’s that time again … rush hour on the Pamir ‘Highway’!
The Pamir Highway or the M41 traverses Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Situated in the Pamir Mountains, it is the second highest international highway in the world. Ak-Baital, its highest pass, is located at 4655 meters. The Pamir Highway goes through Gorno-Badakhshan, an autonomous region in Tajikistan which covers 40% of the country and where 3.3% of the Tajik population lives.
The Pamir Highway … the wet dream of many world cyclist.
It was also a dream for me. It didn’t have to be wet, I prefer some sunshine!
After cycling in the Andes and the Himalayas, I realized that pedalling between those giants make me the happiest. Biking through a huge landscape, being blown away by beauty and camping every night in a million star hotel … what does one want more?
A landscape only for you, occasionally shared with grazing cows, a herd of yaks or crazy marmots. Marmots which are blending in the ochre-colored landscape, which stand upright when they notice that stranger on two wheels. Their looks inseparably on you and suddenly sprinting away at an unseen speed and leaving dust clouds behind with their thick tail. I’d rather prefer their dust between my teeth than that of a raging jeep.
Dilemma of the day: ‘Should I pee in front of, behind or next to my bike?’. What does it matter, there is no yak around, as long as I check the wind direction. Because there is wind, every minute of the day and especially … ‘in your face’!
Cycling on the Pamir Highway is cycling with detours, at least for me. Apart from the highway, I also wanted to explore different valleys: Bartang and Khudara, known as the wildest and most memorable in the Western Pamirs (more on them in my next blog post). Wakhan, where the Panj river forms the border with Afghanistan. Where villages alternate with shrines with impressive ibex or sheep horns that flash you back to Zoroastrian times. Each one unique experiences.
‘What is your name?’, ‘What is your name?’. I cycle through a village in the Wakhan Valley. Children appear out of nothing and holler at me from far. Maybe they can smell me. Maybe they notice I didn’t shower the last four days. It doesn’t bother them. They run towards me with curious eyes.
‘My name is Trien. What’s yours?’ Ouch, end of communication. I should have formulated the question differently. I tried again: ’My name is Trien. What is your name?’. Yip, that’s better! I instantly hear the names of that joyful bunch of kids. This scenario up to twenty times a day. Children in the Pamir? Enthusiastic and sweet, multiplied by twenty.
Tajikistan, a beautiful country. A country with extremes; with cold, icy winters (up to -30°C) and warm, hot summers (up to 30-40°C). Its people are also warm. And unfortunately often poor. 33.2% of the population is malnourished. And yet you are invited daily for ‘chai’ (tea). Bread and smetana (cream) are immediately served as well. Life on and around the Pamir Highway is a life of simplicity, of survival, of warmth in cold and of immense hospitality.
My life on the Pamir Highway was slow, like the speed of my bike, and the speed of those rare trucks or jeeps I saw in a day.
The Pamir Highway … ‘What’s in a name?’.