At 4000 meters, when the grey, rocky plateau finally presented itself before us, the air above the road shimmered like it did in the desert. Everything had a sunscorched feel to it; the locals we came across in the occasional settlement either covered up entirely or revealed the catalytic effect the sun at this altitude has on the aging process. There was little life beyond the odd yak herd and without the birdsong or the rustle of trees the intense sunlight was accompanied by complete silence. Headwinds provided the only naturally occurring sound and when they blew they were deafening and relentless. The place was everything it was cracked up to be.
We were on the Pamir Highway, the second highest international road in the world. This was the road, in its various guises of asphalt, washboard, gravel, and sand that my intended route through Central Asia had pivoted around. There were an infinite number of roads to choose from to the East and West of this one, but cycling across the Pamir Mountains was one of the few serious commitments I had made right from the start of this trip.
A fortnight of climbing led us to the plateau, most of it following the River Panj with Afghanistan on the opposite bank. At first the road was engulfed by a deep, steep sided canyon of dry rock, with the road precariously hanging onto to the cliffs that emerged vertically from the white water below. Respite came in the Wakham Valley where the valley opened up to fertile, green fields, bustling in harvest time while the Hindu Kush dominated the Afghan side of the river.
We spent a week in total on the plateau itself and the ride was as beautiful for the senses as it was difficult for the muscles. While riding, it was all too easy to lose yourself in such stunning surroundings and forget where you actually are in the immediate, practical sense: the often-terrible road subsequently reminded me of its presence a few seconds later as I rolled straight into a pothole or a large rock. But whatever difficulties the road threw at you – be it the bad road or the lack of oxygen – it was hard to remain frustrated at the conditions for long after simply looking around oneself.
Days ended early because temperatures plummeted as soon as the sun set; there was a general understanding between myself and Hubert that we weren’t being antisocial as we both retreated to our tents earlier than usual to brace ourselves for another freezing night. This routine was broken by the occasional bout of sheer decadence (relatively speaking), such as having a roof over our heads for the night during a localised snowstorm or taking half a day off to soak in some hot springs.
This been a month of pure unadulterated cycling through an unforgettable setting and I’m sure the pictures can say a lot more than I can by throwing in any additional anecdotes. It has been exactly the sort of cycling that came to my mind when I daydreamed about this trip last year. Expectations were met and surpassed.
On our final day in Tajikistan we had to push through dust storms, headwinds, blizzards, and two mountain passes, but none of this left a bitter taste in my memory of the place. On that last difficult day, it seemed Tajikistan didn’t want us to leave and the feeling was mutual. This was one of the few times I crossed a border and haven’t felt eager to move on to experience a new country.
Shortly after descending from the frontier, we found ourselves in a wide valley floor in Kyrgyzstan. Behind us lay the Pamir Mountains, covered in snow from the previous night’s blizzard, and in front of us were the lower, green, rolling hills of Kyrgyzstan. It couldn’t have been a clearer indication that the season to explore this spectacular part of the world is coming to an end and that, as the days begin to get shorter, I’d better keep moving.