21 May 2013
Practical concerns on the Pamir Highway
I cycled the Pamir Highway in the middle of April 2013. This article is concerned mainly with the road from Khorog to Osh although I do make some reference to the valleys along the Afghan border, including the detour through Ishkashim. Research is key, fitness is important and luck will play a large part in whether you have a good time. Don’t be put off by over-exaggerated accounts of the Pamir Highway. Most like to tell a good story (including me – see my Pamir Highway blog post) over the absolute truth. I’m trying to give an honest assessment here.
- The cold. Of course it depends what time you go. But don’t rely on knowing what the weather will do just because you’ve seen statistics for the previous year. I cycled the Pamir Highway in April and was warned by tour companies and internet forums that temperatures could be as low as -20C with windchill. I had a wobble and thought seriously about whether I was biting off more than I could chew. What I failed to research was the severity of the previous winter, and luckily for me it had been an exceptionally mild one. I cycled all the way through 5-15C temperatures – no problem. Last year it would have been at least 10 degrees colder. On the high passes, the temperature can drop quickly, even in summer. A Swiss traveller who travelled the 4655m Ak-Baytal Pass recalls being freezing in his Toyota Land Cruiser while I had basked in the glow of the mid-morning sun over two weeks before. Be prepared for the worst but don’t expect all the scare-stories touted by other travellers and forums to come true.
- Getting enough to eat. By far the biggest issue for me; I relied on homestays to provide dinner and breakfast. Neither of these meals were ever really sufficient (dinner: potatoes and onions, breakfast: two eggs or shirchai with some bread). Shops are difficult to locate and usually sell only biscuits, sweets, condensed milk, Snickers if you’re lucky, and, bizarrly, beauty products. Pasta and rice can be found, as can onions and potatoes if you persevere. Best to get bread at your homestay or a local house; shops never stock bread. Murgab has by far the largest selection of food to choose from (dried fruits and processed sausauge included). I haven’t heard of anyone able to buy fruit and green vegetables, except the odd rumour that you can in Murgab. In short, if you want to eat well on the Pamir Highway, stock up in Khorog or Osh beforehand.
- Costs. Prices on the Pamir Highway, particularly the Pamir plateau, are higher than you find in the rest of Central Asia. The high cost of importing goods to such a remote place pushes up shop prices. Expect to pay at least 50% more than the usual price. $10 is the asking price in most guesthouses although you may be able to get a better deal in Murgab where there’s more competition. This includes dinner and breakfast. Luxuries like processed sausage, dried fruits and petrol command a large premium. Jeeps are very expensive for the non-bicycle traveller: expect to pay over $100 per person for a modest distance. From Dushanbe to Khorog, Jeeps are $60. Ultimately, locals have realized the Pamir Highway is a big draw for tourists and that, combined with the remote location, has pushed up all prices.
- High altitude. It certainly slows you down but shouldn’t stop a fit cyclist from completing the Pamir Highway. The slow nature of cycling means you’ll have time to acclimatize and at these altitudes it is rare to become seriously sick. Lonely Planet warns of getting sick at 2500m+. I’ve never met anyone having a problem at that level. Coming from Khorog is supposedly better as it climbs more gradually that the way from Osh. Over Ak-Baytal pass and the pass on the Tajik/Kyrgyz border there are short parts with very steep slopes which may mean getting off and pushing. My legs whirred just fast enough at about 5km/h on these parts. Sufficiently low gears are important if you want to cycle every kilometer. Gears on the Rohloff hub should be fine. Your greatest problem may be off the bike – quite a few people have problems sleeping at this altitude.
- Water. The Pamir plateau is extremely dry and it is certainly advisable to have your whole day’s water supply ready when you set off in the morning. Distances between villages are far in this part of the world but still there’s only one gap of over 100km (between Murghab and Karakol – and even then there’s a house or two on the road). Villages have water and in some of them ACTED (a French NGO) have built deep wells. Summer temperatures don’t get high enough to cause major water-loss through sweat.
- Road quality. Contrary to the expectations of most cyclists, the Pamir Highway is in good condition. The road is almost entirely asphalt, and not awful asphalt either. There are a few bad stretches. From the top of Ak-Baytal Pass to the almost entirely deserted village of Myzkol is a 20km unpaved stretch. Rutted tracks make for a bumpy ride. The road is steep near to the top of the pass and will require patience and a fair bit of swearing. About 40km from Karakol on the way to the Kyrgyz border there’s another unpaved part all the way to the Kyrgyz border controls, probably around 25km long. Rutted tracks again. The worst road quality comes now: between the Tajik and Kyrgyz border controls. A very muddy, stony road which is only otherwise attempted by local 4x4s and trucks. If it has rained or snowed recently you’ll be in for a tough time. After that the road is perfect (newly built) all the way to Osh.
The detour from Khorog, through Ishkashim to Langar and then Alichur, is in very poor condition. Expect long stretches of unpaved road, particularly the part between Langar and Alichur (no asphalt or villages for 150km). I found it difficult to get traction going up the steeper hills on such gravely roads. Consider having thick, off-road style tyres if you want to tackle this section.
A word also on the stretch between Kalaikum to Khorog. The road gets better as it gets closer to Khorog but frequent landslides plague the rest. Long parts without asphalt on dusty, rocky roads are certainly a challenge. This section is much worse than the Pamir Plateau proper (but incredibly beautiful).
- The wind. I’m not particularly well-placed to write about the wind on the Pamir Highway as I had relatively calm days. I did have one day climbing the pass at the Tajik/Kyrgyz border against the wind and it almost slowed me to a standstill. The wide-open nature of the Pamir Plateau means there’s nowhere to hide. In the valleys, channelled wind could be heavenly or hellish. All I can recommend is that you don’t bite off more than you can chew – don’t rely on making a distance unless you know what the wind is doing.