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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by simon thomas, Aug 26, 2006.
By 7:30am we pushed back the half a ton of bedding and managed to escape the bed. Lisa had been awake most of the night with a splitting headache. Worryingly she was now showing the symptoms of early altitude sickness. Waves of nausea were coming thick and fast. I’m genuinely worried about her. The main reason for this is because there was little or no time to acclimatize. One day we were in the lowlands the next over 13000 feet.
The temperature inside our room according to Ben’s thermometer it was -2 in the room. We got dressed quickly. With a few good mornings exchanged with our host we headed outside only to be face slapped by the frozen air. Within seconds bare skin was icy cold, it was -10. The visit to the public loo was an unpleasant experience, not good at the best of times but when you’re that cold getting sensitive body parts out, whilst you fight the gag reflex which is working over time due to the acrid stench of ammonia and piss.
A thick layer of frost covered both bikes making them glisten in the pristine morning air. We headed back inside and took our places at the low wooden table, our legs crossed underneath us. Steaming bowls of ‘shir chai’, were served, (salty soupy brew of tea with goats milk, salt and butter). After the first sip I knew I couldn’t finish it. Lisa did her best but didn’t fair much better, whilst Ben forced it down with thick bread. He simply needs the body fuel.
With a few cups of normal tea downed we all headed outside and down to edge of lake Kara-kul, the highest lake in Central Asia. A glistening lake of icey blues, the waters lapped the shores. Farther out the perfect reflection of the snow covered peaks are easily seen. Even with layers of gore tex, and thermals, gloves and hats, we knew we had to be quick if we wanted to get some photos. Apart from our hands freezing up, at these temperatures the cameras weren’t going to last log either. We managed to shoot for about 20 minutes before being forced back inside. Shit it’s going to be a cold ride today and ahead of us the Ak-Baital pass (which means white horse) at 4,655 metres (15,300 feet).
Ben's was already getting packed up when we tried to start the bikes. The 1100 protested a little but then sparked to life. Lisa’s 650 was going to be a different story and after 40-minutes of key turning, push starting and finally jump started with jumper cables we got her machine started. It was now gone 12:00pm. We paid $25 for the night which included dinner and breakfast, which sounds expensive but saved us from a low of -22 last night.
To our left tall snowy mountains rose steeper and steeper, the snow coming right up to the broken tar for which we’re so grateful for. 50 feet to our left a seemingly endless fence of wooden post and barbed wire marked the Chinese border, well, actually it doesn’t; the border a few miles away and it’s a sneaky land grab by the Chinese. It’s the closest we’ll get to China on this trip. So close we could literally touch it. To our right the aquamarine blue water of Lake Karokal glisten, we’ve been on the road for 15-minutes and already our eyes are straining to take in the the surreal beauty of this incredible landscape.
the long razor wire fence at the Chinese border
We both feel uneasy with the sheer amount of layering we’ve had to use. Two sets of thermal leggings, a t-shirt, a heated Jacket (on full) and then our riding suits. We’ve brought out our winter BMW riding gloves and even the BMW balaclavas to cover our faces. The wind chill is indescribable.
Higher into the mountains the switchback require all our concentration, the tar finished 30-minutes ago and now we’re up on the pegs and riding rough over ice encrusted muddy shallow streams and loose rock. The snow is now drifting onto the track and we’re doing our best to avoid it. The whole landscape seems overwhelming. This is truly a giant’s playground and we really are just specks passing through. Where the snow has slid from the steeper mountain faces or melted the earth it’s a delicious mix of caramels and coffees, the shadows deep mauve not black. Even with sun glasses and dark visor the glare from the snow is painful.
Three kilometers from the summit of the pass our progress is halted, the track covered in compressed icy snow. To the left thicker virgin snow. Lisa’s feeling worse and a mistake here, a moment’s loss of concentration could see her over the edge. I haven’t told her but her lips are now a scary blue and all I want to do is get her over this pass and down in elevation. I waive down a passing Russian 4X4 and explain my wife is unwell and ask if they can give her a lift to the top. With Lisa inside and heading up the track I ride one bike at a time a 500 metres and then return for the other. Short of the summit, the track is clearer and Lisa’s stood waiting. My lungs are fit to burst, god know how far I walked back and forth to ride one bike and then the next. The taste of blood in the back of my throat was pretty unpleasant and more than a little concerning
We stop for the briefest of moments at the top the pass as much to take the view as video the gps screen which read 15,309 feet. We desperately wanted to take a dozen photos but we were just to cold.
The Chinese border fence kept us company to the left and all around the mountains demanded our attention. The road a mixture of broken tar and gravel washboard that jarred us to the core. We were both thinking the same thing – what if we just stuck our hands over the fence….then we could say our hands had been in China – the thing is – there might be a distinct possibility that our hands would remain in China if we stuck them over the fence cos you never know who's watching – with guns!
By late afternoon we had entered the outskirts of Murgab at 13,576 feet and with a few directions asked easily found the Ibragim guest house. Ben had stayed a couple of nights ago and recommended it.
Murgab market place
With the bikes parked up in the small dusty compound we headed down to the sad little bizarre in search of water and somewhere to exchange dollars for someone. Dozens of small stalls, line a single street, some small wooden stalls but most are old shipping containers or the backs of 4X4’s, basically any kind of ‘shell’ that can be used to sell from. A ramshackle mix of old cloths, twix and snickers bar with the occasional bottle of shampoo make up the bazaar. The gusting wind that had picked up was blowing thick street dust over everything and making already sore eyes worse. Back the the guesthouse we handed Anaja (guest house girl) our passports which she promptly returned with the registrations stamps now inserted.
I’m typing fast as the laptop is running low on power and I’m recharging from an ancient looking generator, which I’m sure will stop any second.
I spent some time this evening reading to Simon the history of Tajikistan. Amazing to think that it has had such terrible struggles so recently. The inhabitants of the Pamirs have had a hard time – their lives are really really tough. It has been a great eye-opener staying at home-stays over the last couple of nights. Not something that we would normally do – but quite literally they are life-savers with the temperatures getting so low.
I'm in. It's a must!
Great detailed writing and spectacular photos
Just saying Hi, remeber the Brit guy Winnemucca - Elko NV summer 08 !!!
You 2 have inspired my own adventure US - Vlad' - BAM rd - Stans - Europe, early stages, but its a start.
Best wishes from Sean.
Very exciting! O Brave New World!
Oh Oh take me along!
I totally love that part of the world! Hope to ride out there myself one day...
Excellent story and pics. Inspiring.
You two were really pushing the season here, eh? Well done.
I believe the word Im lookin for is "awesome"!
Thx for taking us along, the 'stans is my dreamtrip :)
Very, very nice pics !
What camera and lens are using?
Hey thanks so much for all the words of support, really appreciated.
Spirre, for us the 'Stans' really was incredible and we truly felt 'out there' if you know what i mean. Totally alive every day and never really knowing what was coming our way, what we'd face or even where we'd end up.
Oroku, re your camera question. We're using a a Nikon d300 and a d70s. Most of the time we shoot with a cheap little 18-55 nikor lens as most of our other lenses having simple got clogged up with dust and dirt and stopped working. I think they can be fixed.
Our longest lens is a nikor 80-400 which on the d70s and d300 (non-full frame) ends up being more like a 600mm. It's weighty but allows for some great shots. Check out the front of our website and have a look at the recent tiger photos on the index page.
Thanks again, I'm prepping the next post now.
Al the best
Wed asked directions several times, as we tried to find some fuel, each time we were directed with a degree of certainty in the opposite direction from where wed come. This continued until we found ourselves almost back at the Ibrahim guest house. The young man in the beaten up 4x4 was emphatically pointing at the locked metal gates painted in cream. We were all of 300 metres from where wed slept last night. Hearing the bikes an older man appeared, took one look at the bikes and turned away, returning a few moments later with a 5 litre jug of what we hoped was gasoline. We explained that we needed 30 litres and understood that the fuel was 80 octane. Well thats what he told us. Judging on how the bikes felt later were guessing it was more like 60-70 if that.
In the freezing wind I did my best to help funnel the precious liquid into the bike, whilst Lisa played with and entertained a group of youngsters whod come to see the tourists. Smiles and the sounds of innocent laughter make a nice sound track to the morning. Lisa takes photos of them and then they all take turns to look at the screen, shrieking and giggling.
Paid up and on the road, were brought to stop just a mile later on the outskirts of town. The large red and white metal barrier across the road seems pretty emphatic.
The low mud wall either side of the barrier making it impossible for us to skirt around it. Three men appear from the low brick building to our right and waive me inside. What now I was thinking. Nothing in our books or research had mentioned this stop. Inside I was feeling uneasy as 4 more men looked up at me from a low table as they each dipped into a communal bowl of rice and mutton. I cant put my finger on why, but I was feeling uncomfortable and more than a little vulnerable. I counter my nerves my launching into a full on round of handshaking, making sure to look each of them in the eye and shake their hands more vigorously than I would normally. I threw myself back onto the dirty bed in the corner of the room and acted as nonchalant and carefree as I could. 3 of the men were looking unsure. Good thats what I wanted. As the boss looked through my papers I could see that 3 of the men were whispering conversations between mouth fulls of food and breaths of air. The occasional snatched glance towards me suggested Im the topic of conversation. Standing, I made a move closer to the door, only to have it shut before I reached it. One of the men had me by the arm and firmly, in English suggested I sit and have some food with them.
Everything Id experienced in the last few years was telling me something is wrong! Theyd not asked for anything, my papers seemed of little interest to them and theyd not asked a single question about the bikes. Everyone asks about the bikes?
Id declined their offer of food and standing over them explained that I was the scout for 8 tourists who were following closely behind me. I could see they understood. A murmur of conversation passed between them and then the man that had originally led me inside 15 minutes earlier stood and demanded that I pay the eco tax. Feeling Id got the upper hand I did my best to protest, but it was clear that I was going to pay something. I handed over $16 and to my astonishment even got a stamped receipt. Outside, I explained to Lisa what had gone on.
Now on reflection I may have simply been having an attack of cynicism or paranoia but I dont think so. After all this time on the road weve come to trust our gut instinct and I knew something was off. I just cant tell you exactly what! We rode away feeling that wed got away from a situation that could have ended badly. You be the judge.
Any negative thoughts were soon forgotten as we sped into the rode into the wide and vast Madiyan valley, the patchy tar snaking around the lower caramel hills to our west. Down to our right a fast flowing creek carves its swollen path.
The sky was a creamy blue and in the distance only the patchy cloud gave any hint of the true scale and size of the taller peaks. The cold air was making the light seem a little crisper. The M41 was the ambitious and official name of this thin line of broken tar and rough rock track that we were now following. History and legend know it better as the cross-roads where the Silk Road and Bam-i-Dunya (roof of the world) meet.
The soviet military had carved this insane route between 1931-34 to facilitate troops, transport and provisioning to this very remote outpost of the Soviet Empire. This whole area had been off limits to travelers until recently. After all the research and reading it was now sinking in; we were actually riding the extremely remote high altitude road wed first heard of as legend.
We were in the Pamir proper, riding Tibetan-style high plateaus and then wide remote valleys. Bolivia, almost 4-years earlier had been the last time wed ridden this high and felt this utterly separated from the rest of the world. Lisa had read that the Chinese called the mountains the Congling Shan or Onion Mountains, now I could see why. We werent riding a single mountain range but rather a complex series of ranges separated by high altitude valleys. Again, Lisa words from last night came ringing home, most of the Pamirs are too high for human settlement. Riding here was hard enough, living here was unimaginable to me.
By mid-afternoon wed raced a snow storm across the Alichur Plain that had pushed in from the south. A wall of freezing air and heavy snow that had threatened to catch us before our route had taken a westerly course. Wed stopped by the roadside as we needed to warm our hands and take a few photos at least. The heated grips and thick gloves had felt like they were having little effect and our surroundings so over-whelming that wed simply forgotten to take photos. Checking the LP guide book had confirmed we were on the shores of Tuz-Kul (Salt Lake), wed passed Sassyk-Kul (stinking Lake) earlier, the fact that theres no smell just makes the name all the more strange. The absolutely still waters of the lake had mirrored the mountains perfectly. The lower chocolate smudge hills fading back into flanks of pink and then dark grey peaks. The photos will do the view more justice than my words.
A great panorama taken by Lisa
We needed to push on if wed hoped to reach Khorog by nightfall. Wed passed several huge Chinese trucks all barreling in the opposite direction. The large statue of the Marco Polo sheep should have been reason to stop again for more photos, but like so many times in the last few weeks we knew that the fading daylight was against us. How much farther, Lisa yelled over the noise of the bikes. Too be honest I wasnt even sure where we were. A snatched glance at the GPS confirmed we were at the half way point and in the Pamir Plateau. The grey and light coffee coloured lunar landscape unlike anything wed seen or ridden before and thats saying something. Cliché as it sounds it felt like we could touch heaven if we just reached out our arms in this high altitude desert. I wanted to grin but my face was now aching from the cold. It was going to get colder. Under heavy clouds the patchy tar had contorted into a wave of undulating and twisted tar before completely disappearing into a mud and rock track. As the afternoon disappeared we rode the switchbacks to the top of the Koi-Tezek Pass at 4,272 metres (14,097 feet). As beguiling as the landscape had been we were now painfully focused on just how cold wed become. Much like our time in Norway we could feel our concentration wander and wane as our blood internalized to protect important organs. My hands had been numb for too long, my heated grips had stopped working some weeks earlier.
As if on cue the dark clouds cleared and white bright light illuminated the downward track. Wed crested the pass and not even known it and were heading down at last. In the distance we could see the impressive vertical peaks of the Gunt Valley.
Wed upped our speed now racing the daylight. As twighlight set in we knew we were close, wed passed a dozen small villages in the fertile valley, a fast wide flowing river keeping us on track to our right. 6-miles from Khorog we breathed a sigh of relief, wed made it. The relief was short lived. At the passport and GBAO permit check point an officer had stood in front of the low barrier and ordered us to stop. Pulling up to him, Id applied the brakes and stopped by his side, much to his great offence. He immediately launched into one - a full on hissy fit that had taken me completely by surprise. Hed not liked the way Id stopped!? and Id no idea as to why. He was demanding I follow him with all the documents into his brick office. I was gutted, 20-minutes later and it was pitch black outside and the 3 officers were now yelling at me to pay the fine. All the while I was trying to smile through my anger and protest that Id done nothing wrong, caused no offense. The officer had told me to stop and so Id stopped. The friggin barrier was down, what other choice did I have, stopping was mandatory. After almost an hour we were no farther along and I was close to losing my rag. The idiot cop outside kept opening and closing the swinging barrier and banging it into Lisas stationary bike, with her still sat on it. Wed stopped on a decline so pushing it back wasnt an option. From inside the tatty office I could hear Lisa shout. Will you stop hitting my bloody bike, or Ill hit you
.God! Theyd now given up any pretence of a fine and resorted to simply
you give money. We were now so tired and cold that for a split second I even considered it. Out of the blue they got bored and in disgust dismissed us. Lisa deliberately farted her bike in disgust and protest as she belted out into the blackness. Id not even managed to get my helmet on yet.
It was another hour before wed managed to negotiate the steep turns of the Khorog valley, getting lost twice, asking directions 4 times until finally finding the Pamir Lodge with the help of an escort.
Wed parked up and hauled our bags into a room. I was so tired I could barely remember my own name. Wed not eaten all day and the police nonsense was the last thing we needed. Wed been up since 6am this morning and on the road for 14 hours it feel like weve ridden 1000 miles in reality weve only covered 200.
Ah well, tomorrows views will be a nice surprise
Wow great story telling and great pictures, thank you for sharing! I am hardly waiting to read your next post!
Great Thread, great trip
Again thanks for the support, it's great to get reactions to the posts.
Right night I'm sat in a small internet cafe at the base of the Anapurna Hymalyan Mountain range in Nepal. The view is breath taking.
I'm just prepping the next photos and I'll get the post up asap.
wow. simply, wow.
great trip, wonderful story and amazing photographs.
keep them coming!
You guys are simply awesome! Crazy, but in an awesome way. Doing the Stans with winter still gripping them.
Great pics, great writing, thanks for sharing.
Freaking amazing, Simon. L.A. Woman and I have been discussing an RTW lately ourselves.
Nice report and nice pics