Out of Tajikistan
On the way out of Tajikistan we passed through two of the most god-forsaken towns either of us have ever visited – Murghab and Karakul. Next time you are feeling sorry for yourself, just be grateful you weren’t born into either of these barren and windswept holes.
To arrive in Karakul from Murghab, we crossed the daunting Ak Baital Pass which stands at 4655 metres. We celebrated this achievement by sharing coffee and biscuits with our bestest travel companions, James and Claire; Fabio and Elias, two bright-eyed and bushy-faced Austrians who are on their way to Tokyo; and Alek and Monika, an adventurous and capable motorcyclist couple who were on their way home to Poland from New Zealand.
Coffee tastes even better on the roof of the world.
On our way out of Tajikistan we met, for the first time meaningfully, every cyclist’s nemesis – headwind. From the border, which sits atop another pass, we descended 1200m across no-mans-land and into Sary Tash, the first village in Kyrgyzstan. Facing a brutal headwind, we worked for every metre of elevation we dropped. There is something extremely demoralizing about having to pedal, hard, downhill after having climbed for hours to earn a descent.
Over the next two days we rode 185 kilometres from Sary Tash to Osh, over two more passes but also descending a cumulative 2.2 vertical kilometres.
The headwind became an unwelcome, but fiercely loyal, companion – so much so that we toyed with the idea of shouldering the bikes and hitchhiking. And, had a truck with room for us and our gear rolled by, we probably would have tried it.
The window of opportunity to bail, however, was short.
We soon pedaled through a small village where the air was flooded with the earthy smell of fresh-cut hay being heaved onto rooftops by farmers wearing silly hats. We were instantly reminded of the benefits of traveling on bikes. Your speed is capped and, accordingly, more of your senses are engaged more often.
Spurred by this hay fever (or maybe it was the buffet of cheap ice cream bars we had devoured in attempt to re-focus our attention on the road in front of us and away from than the carrying capacity of the vehicles that passed), we continued.
Quick aside: we don’t recommend Shrek-branded ice cream bars.
The next day we arrived in Osh, exhausted. Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city. Over the preceding weeks of basic living we had begun referring to it as “The Promise Land”. Indeed, in response to various exclamations such as “my front wheel is bent and I have no idea how to fix it!”, “I am tired of cucumbers and stale bread for lunch!” or, Emily’s most common, “we are almost out of coffee!” someone would invariably reply “you can take care of that in Osh”. No doubt, there was a lot riding on our arrival.
Now in the city, as if to test our capacity for disappointment, we beelined it to Café Brio, a mecca for caffeine-deprived foreigners. There, we each slammed an americano and a piece of carrot cake. It was everything we had hoped for. The next day we did the same thing. And then repeated that for the next eight days. It was glorious.
Fork In The Road
While in Osh we discovered that the route we had planned to take through Kyrgyzstan and into China, via Song-Kul Lake and Torugart Pass, would involve Chinese-government-mandated transport which would run us about USD $500. This hefty price tag made that option, effectively, a non-starter.
We were not too disappointed though. Despite our limited exposure, we had yet to become enchanted by Kyrgyzstan. This is perhaps because we were just too tired from the Wakhan and Zorkul to get excited for another 1000 kilometres of gravel roads and mountain passes. Or possibly because the Karakorum Highway, the apex of our cycling dream, now sat tantalizingly close, just beyond the Kyrgyz-China border.
So, we hatched a plan to retreat to Sary Tash in a shared taxi. We justified this because we had already biked, and nearly been defeated by, that same road once. From Sary Tash, we would cycle west into China via Irkeshtam Pass.
To split the cost of both the shared taxi to Sary Tash as well as the transport that we knew we would be forced to take upon entering China, we joined forces with another cyclist, Stefan.
Stefan is an energetic and engaging German biochemist with a wild mane and an intense distrust of authority. When visiting a province of China where one can anticipate police checkpoints every 10kms, perhaps he was not the best guy to tether our ponies to – but hey – maybe rolling with him would result in a few extra laughs (and hopefully not an elongated jail sentence).
The road out of Kyrgyzstan was stunning. We almost wished that fortune had been different and that we had sought out the scenery in the centre of the country. But no matter. Serenaded by Stefan’s tales of beekeeping, sourdough bread cultures and paragliding, we traveled to Kashgar, another legendary stop on the ancient Silk Road.
After a little sightseeing in Kashgar, we were again on our own.
Stefan was headed east to Beijing and we were headed south towards Tashkurgan and beginning of the Karakorum Highway!
Somewhere on our first climb up the road that would eventually take us over Khunjerhab Pass and past some of the highest mountains on the planet, we pedalled our 4000th kilometre. Dreams do come true!
Note: Western China was always going to be a difficult section of our journey. But we made it, and the abundance of tasty food helped offset the hopeless comedy that often follows a foreigner in China and the hassle of the near-constant police interactions.
Happy to share more details/stories over a pint if you’re ever interested.