10/06/19 - 15/06/19
Total distance travelled: 10695km (Sary Tash)

It is two months today (three now that I'm finally preparing to press 'publish') since our fateful crossing into Kyrgyzstan. You can read about it here. It's hard to believe it has already been that long! Cycling the Pamir Highway in Central Asia was a long time dream of Olly's and a hotly anticipated part of our trip, but not entirely for good reasons. Central Asia is not perhaps your standard holiday destination and the terrorist attack that killed four cycle tourists in Tajikistan just days before we started our adventure last year left our family and friends a little hesitant about our planned route along the second highest highway in the world (the first being the Karakoram Highway in China and Pakistan). Our friend Grace O'D recently sent me a message saying she was glad that we were "through the scary bit". We must admit that this part of our journey had us feeling a little hesitant too.

Furthermore, I had had a complete crisis of confidence in Shrangri-La, perhaps some avid blog readers (thanks if you're out there) may remember the "weeping into my porridge" episode. Before we cycled up to 4000m on the Tibetan Plateau, I thought I had reached the limit of my abilities and that above a certain altitude I would simply cease to function. I was so wrong - my legs are amazing! - and our time cycling in those mountains wrung with colourful flags so invigorated, enthused and motivated me. So much so, in fact, that on the two-day train journey from Chengdu to Kashgar I started to make a strong case to Olly that we should ride the Karakoram before entering the Pamirs. We didn't in the end, but it is definitely on "the list".

The road out of Sary Tash towards the Pamir Highway

The reason the Pamir Highway was hotly anticipated was also for a few of the right reasons too: mountains; vast, lunar landscapes; a chance to feel remote and in the wild; new cultures; challenging cycling; real adventure. And it was absolutely all of that and so much more.

Our short stay in Kyrgyzstan was poetic. It was so sublime that for two months (three...) I've delayed writing about it for fear of doing it an injustice. But, our four days there so inspired me too. I felt, and was, completely in the moment, reeling in the magnificence of the landscapes and the openness of the skies. It was beautiful. In four days and five nights it felt like we had such a serving of adventure. It was what Olly had longed for and it was what I didn't even realise I had longed for too.

Snow and smiles. Soaring peaks and vast skies. Kyrgyzstan was sensational. We spent four days and five nights cycling from the border with China at Irkeshtam through Sary Tash and onto the border with Tajikistan at the Kyzyl-Art Pass which, at 4280m above sea level, is another of the highest border crossings in the world. Despite taking a considerable amount of photographs, we feel that none do justice to the beauty or wild serenity of the tiny part of the country that we saw.

On our first morning in Kyrgyzstan, we woke up warm and cosy in the makeshift bunk room that we had secured, along with Dom, the night before when we finally made it out of China and into Irkeshtam, the border town in Kyrgyzstan. The old-school springs sagged dangerously close to my face as Olly shuffled around in the top bunk. We all commented on having heard the call to prayer from the small mosque in the early hours of the morning, but how it didn't keep us awake, moreover it awoke us and then lulled us back to sleep again.

Upon finally peeling ourselves out of our cosy cocoons, we packed up a little and headed into the room next door which functioned as a small, simple restaurant, known as a canteen, for the many truck drivers waiting to cross the border. The line of trucks was the longest we had ever seen. We ordered bread and tea and then also a fried, breaded delight filled with potato that tasted a bit like a savoury doughnut; I think it was a variation of a boortsog. Regardless, it had been made fresh that morning and we are grateful to Dom for enquiring about its contents in Russian. We sipped warm chay and discussed the potential of using "the facilities": a hole in the floor contained within a tin shack with three walls and no door. Olly advised I whistle.

When we paid for our bed and board, the total cost was about £2 each. The owner, a lady in multiple cardigans and purple headscarf, advised Dom that there was snow on the road ahead and that we would do best not to leave until at least midday as by then the snow would have had a chance to melt a little. We were high up in the mountains already and so were ready to heed any advice in this new and unfamiliar landscape. However, we were also keen to get moving towards Sary Tash and the start of our Pamir adventure proper. It felt like we needed to move for fear of otherwise never doing so.

Dom packed up as he too was keen to make tracks and he was heading for Osh. His plan was to hitch a ride in a truck, though according to the lady, trucks didn't start coming through the border until the early afternoon. As he hauled on his rucksack, Dom said he wouldn't say "goodbye", given our history of farewells, as we would likely see him stood on the road side shortly. Inevitably, he managed to thumb down a truck within five minutes and we didn't see him again.

By 11 o'clock, the itching of our feet became unbearable. Fully kitted out in the winter gear we had been carrying for thousands of kilometres, we packed up the bikes and headed out into the mountains.

Riding a fully loaded bike felt unusual after the long break we had had in China; our last day of cycling had seen us descend from the dizzy heights of over 4000m on the Tibetan Plateau to the Tibetan town of Xiangcheng almost three weeks beforehand. As soon as we clipped into the pedals we were waved down by a stationary truck driver who looked concerned. We quickly worked out that he too was warning us about snow. When I mimed a little or a lot, he positioned his hands about a metre apart. Simultaneously, slush fell to the road from underneath his truck. We noticed several of the trucks had an icy moustache as we started our descent into the only town between Irkeshtam and Sary Tash, Nura. We were both apprehensive about what we might find.

En route to Nura

The landscapes and views were immediately spellbinding. Huge, snow-covered mountains soared all around us and the one road, our road, weaved its way through them whenever and wherever they, the mountains, relented a little. Soon after Nura we started climbing, snaking our way up into the sky. It was quiet as we rode, only the occasional truck rattling by broke the silence that surrounded us.

Nura was an important town to pass through as it was here in this tiny town high in the mountains - a collection of ramshackle houses, colourfully clothed children and a metal mosque - that we had read we could buy fuel. We had had to empty our fuel bottles before boarding the train in Chengdu and so we needed to restock.

First attempt to buy fuel here was unsuccessful

Initially, unintentionally, we cycled straight through the town and towards the mosque which stood just before a bridge that preceded the first of many climbs that day. It was clear we had missed the spot. Olly said that we should maybe just wait until Sary Tash to buy our "benzin". I wasn't so sure. It was already after midday and Sary Tash was 70km from the border. We had so far done 5.

A pick-up truck rumbled down the hill towards the mosque and we penguin-danced over to it with our bikes and called "benzin? benzin?". The driver motioned for us to follow him. We quickly turned our bikes around and pedalled back the way we had just come.

A little way down the road, outside of a red-fronted building, the truck stopped, the driver pointed out of the window and then waved before continuing on his way. There was nothing going on and nobody around.

In the time it took for us to look around and then helplessly at each other, the town's children had descended upon us. Just before we lost complete control, as the children started to shake our hands and clamber all over our bikes, we managed to communicate with a couple of them who led Olly, clutching our red fuel bottles, to the front of the red building.

Adults had moved towards the squealing and giggling children by this point. Olly tells of being led around the back of the building by a lady (!) who stopped beside a bucket of petrol and asked how much he wanted. Olly held up the fuel bottles. The lady then used a plastic tube to suck up the petrol. Olly explained that she expertly stopped at just the right time in order for no petrol to be spilled or consumed! Our filled bottles cost about 50p.

We felt a huge sense of achievement in acquiring fuel: it meant hot food and drinks which already seemed very desirable 5km down the road in what was a beautiful, but clearly unforgiving landscape. It was also very fortunate as we did not make it to Sary Tash that night and set up camp just 15km later.

Leaving Nura behind

The only way is...

The road to our first wild camp spot in the Pamirs just 15km later was tough going. Our legs were heavy and tired quickly after having had a considerable amount of time off the bikes in China. Our morale and resilience were weaker as a result of the break from cycling too: it wasn't long before I started to feel frustrated about how clumsy I felt on my bike. I felt so foolish and questioned why we thought taking a three-week break from cycling before starting the most mountainous and likely the most challenging section of our trip was a good idea. We should have been training hard, I thought, not stuffing our faces with vegetarian beef and sipping bubble tea. This physical and mental struggle combined with a few mechanical issues (our bikes complained as we did) meant it was slow going.

Albeit stunningly beautiful, the terrain was challenging. My gears picked a good spot to stop shifting: by a bridge crossing a two-toned river. I was equally awestruck and miserable at this point: quite a confusing state of mind to be in. Olly gives little away and tended to my bike with his usual stoicism. However, he has since told me that he had started to question our route through the Pamirs at this point because of how we were progressing.

Slumped over my bike; not smiling for the camera

As we crossed over the river and started to climb, the weather changed. Maxims about unpredictable and changeable weather in the mountains are common, and at this point on our adventure it was being caught in a snowstorm that I was most afraid of. Despite being prepared, we had all of the necessary kit, I didn't feel I, personally, was capable of surviving in such harsh conditions. This is one of the reasons that we set up camp at 4 o'clock and just 20km from where we had started that day. It was a sensible decision too and not one made purely as a result of my nervousness.

The snow fell quickly, whirling in all directions and stinging our faces as it whipped them. We quickly pulled out any remaining layers from our panniers and sought to continue cycling. When we reached the top of a climb and found some level ground we stopped to reassess. Visibility had rapidly reduced and all around us it was white. Thinking back to the scene now and picturing us there, I can't help but smile: it was utterly exhilarating. At the time, though, I was definitely scared: not shaking-in-my-boots scared, but my heart was beating fast and I knew we had to quickly come up with solutions and not dwell on problems. We have definitely got better at this as our time on the road has gone on.  We came up with two options: set up camp immediately where we were or try to hitchhike to Sary Tash.

As Olly started to carry our stuff down onto the grassy area by the side of the road, I unloaded the bikes and simultaneously looked out for any passing traffic. Two brilliant, brilliant things about travelling in Central Asia, that we certainly experienced in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are firstly, that the nomadic lifestyle is prevalent and so wild camping is accepted almost anywhere and secondly, vehicles almost always stop to help, often even if you haven't signalled for it. Before too long I saw headlights emerging from the grey ahead of me which I knew was the brow of the hill. I stuck out my arm and waved it around a bit, dancing on the spot to keep warm and calm my nerves too. The truck pulled over and I felt elated! Perhaps we would make it to Sary Tash after all.

The drivers were kind, but motioned to their fully loaded wagon: trucks re-entering Kyrgyzstan from China are jam-packed and there was no room for the bicycles, though we could have squeezed into the cabin. It meant the decision was made: we had to camp where we were. We increased our efforts and with numb hands, feet and faces set up our tent. I struggle with poor circulation and probably have Reynaud syndrome, which meant my hands were utterly useless. Olly was - in his words - the superhero and continued to battle the weather outside of the tent whilst I set up our beds (and climbed into them) inside of it.

The spot we picked in the storm wasn't bad!

We were so relieved that we had made the extra effort in Nura to find petrol for our cooker. Whilst I hastily chopped a few vegetables inside the tent, Olly got the stove going outside of it. Fortunately, we had thought ahead a little and so we were quickly able to warm our insides with hot drinks thanks to having filled our Thermos flasks from the kettle in the canteen that morning. To cook pasta, Olly had to go and find some snow; our unanticipated camp at the side of the road meant we hadn't sourced any additional water. After running a little way up the hill opposite the road and scraping away the top later, Olly brought back a pot of white crystals for us to use.

From inside the tent, where my toes were tucked into my sleeping bag, and with a hot drink inside of me and with food on the way, I started to relax into our situation and see, not the scary side of it all, but the adventure. The snowstorm was at its worst at the time the truck couldn't take us and we started to set up our camp. It subsided as we ate an early dinner and although it was freezing cold (we think our coldest night in the Pamirs, -6 Celsius which meant we slept with various precious items inside our sleeping bags), inside of the tent, we felt safe and happy.

Emerging from the tent the following morning provides a very special memory of our time in Central Asia. The mountains were covered in a thicker layer of snow, the air was crisp and the sky was clear. I felt so energised at having survived what, beforehand, had been some of the most frightening conditions I could imagine. Emerging from the tent that morning, anything felt possible! Just as I was soaking in this wonderful feeling, I saw horses galloping and seemingly straight towards us! They were a little way down the hill and I called Olly out from the tent to take a look. Just as Olly was starting to move, a boy riding a horse appeared from over the top of the hill. I couldn't believe my eyes. This was Kyrgyzstan.

The boy stopped right outside our tent door and seemed to be as intrigued and impressed by us as we were of him. I told him I liked his hat and he smiled as he touched it and gave it a pat. After some smiling, nodding and a round of charades which led us to believe he lived right nearby, he and his horse galloped off and fortunately the herd of horses that he must have been tending to didn't come our way. They would have trampled all over our tent for sure.

Waking up on that second morning in Kyrgyzstan, I felt different; I felt ready to go. Surviving the snow storm, despite it really being very minor as far as snow storms go, provided a real boost to my confidence and I looked forward to the 50km ride to Sary Tash.

Ready as I'll ever be

It was a spectacular and special ride that day. We both commented that we couldn't imagine how the landscapes could get any better. We were in the mountains. It felt like the peaks were within touching distance; the night's snowfall had given them all a fresh layer of white: they were so pure and perfect. Three big birds, maybe mountain eagles, drifted in the sky just above our heads and I felt my eyes fill with tears. It was an awesome sight.

We stopped for the first time that day just a kilometre along the road. The previous evening, I had smelt smoke and in the morning we realised why. A tiny settlement of three yurts was just along the road from where we had camped. We couldn't believe it! Imagine, I said, if we had just come a little further. We might have found refuge amongst these nomadic people, the first of many we encountered during our short time in Kyrgyzstan. I also felt relieved, though, to learn that we had camped just down from this small tribe: to my mind it meant we had picked a good spot!

The children from the tribe waved us off the road and so we went over to say hello. The children all shook our hands and then the mother smiled bashfully and shook our hands too. Smoke drifted out of a chimney in the middle of the yurt, which wasn't as romantic as we had envisaged, being quite muddy underfoot and very dark. The children stared at us, agog. As I looked around and imagine my eyes were agog too.

Back on the bikes, we cycled through a silent, white landscape. Fortunately, the road was clear of snow. It was bitterly cold and when snow started to fall again, we rushed to put on our few, remaining layers. The gradual climbs started to warm us up from the inside. 

The cold makes us sleepy and hungry. We decided to stop to eat in a bid to stave off our slovenly feelings. It was huddled in a tunnel under the road that we slowly ate bread with spicy tofu that we had brought with us across the border. This was the coldest I had been on the trip. I was shaking and my teeth were chattering. We both tried to not stop moving so as to keep warm, but the temptation to sit curled over on a rock was too strong.

Olly was insistent that we got going again quickly. It was not one of our more leisurely lunch breaks. We started a more significant descent off the plateaus near Irkeshtam towards Sary Tash and the sun broke through the thick clouds, beating down on us and reintroducing movement to our numb fingers.

I am wearing ALL my clothes!

We were awestruck as we saw herds of horses grazing on mountain sides, a yurt positioned not too far from them. We stopped to watch as shepherds on donkeys and horseback expertly rounded up huge herds of goats and sheep.

Everything had an awe of wonder to it. The wide, grassy plains which abruptly transformed into soaring, jagged peaks; the yurts; the herds of horses. We had never seen anything like this before.

Olly claims that as I sped down hills, I aroused the interest of huge, shepherd dogs who, missing their chance with me, opted to chase him instead. He says this happened twice. I had absolutely no idea!

As we continued pedalling into the afternoon, the morning's freezing cold conditions seemed like a distant memory. The ride became truly invigorating. We were gleeful and felt so excited for the month to come.

Reaching Sary Tash felt good! The final approach was a very mildly undulating 10km stretch that allowed us to speed along and really feel the thrill of cycling in such an awesome environment. As we reached the top of the final bump, the town appeared before us magnificently framed by mountains. We stopped to stand and stare.

The approach to Sary Tash 

The word 'town' conjures up an image in a western, or maybe European, mind which is not wholly reflective of such Kyrgyz settlements. Sary Tash was a community; a collection of mostly one-storey buildings many of which had hay piled on the roofs. The roofs were flat and drooping wires connected the buildings to poles that looked unusually tall. On the one hand, the town had a ramshackle air about it. On the other, it felt hardy, built to survive.

Throughout our time in the Pamirs, we marvelled at the location of towns and suggested why each location might have been chosen. Sary Tash sat at T-junction: roads led to China, Tajikistan and Osh. It was a practical place for there to be shops and a petrol station and we felt that the town must have grown up around these travellers' needs. However, as we rode away from Sary Tash two days' later and looked back at it, we couldn't help but think it had simply been spilled onto a mountain side and that it was completely bonkers to find this settlement in the middle of nowhere.

The petrol station cum money exchange in Sary Tash.  An important reference point for travellers.

Reaching such towns became one of the many great joys of cycling the Pamir Highway, one of a limited number of safe passages through the high Pamir Mountains, which has been in use for millennia and which formed one section of the ancient Silk Road trade route. M41, as it is also known, is the Soviet road number given to the highway which is the second highest in the world. The route became more of a road for the first time in the 19th century during "The Great Game", a period of political tension as Britain and Russia, the key players in the game, each sought to protect and expand their empires. It may not come as a surprise that Afghanistan was one of the countries most fiercely contested. Britain also deeply feared the loss of India to Russia. 

We learnt a lot of this history from Artem, our now wonderful friend, who had taken three weeks of annual leave from his job in St Petersburg to cycle the Pamir Highway. We met Artem at our guesthouse in Sary Tash and continued to cycle with him (/ an hour or so behind him) to Murgharb. Artem told us that the M41 continued to be developed in the 1930s under the Soviet Union whose influence can still be felt in Central Asia and particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where Russian remains an official language.

With Artem

In Sary Tash there were plenty of signs indicating homestays and we mused over which one to choose whilst devouring a bottle of coca cola and a Bounty Bar outside of one of a couple of the small grocery stores in town. The joy at finding a Bounty Bar was tangible!

Well-stocked shops in Sary Tash

So many sweet treats available in almost every store we went in; the sugary smell really hits you as you walk in

Feeling ready to stop, we picked Guest House Eliza which was just to the left of the shop we were stood munching outside of. We walked our bikes down a stony path and opened the big, green gate which led to a courtyard. There was a small cow nibbling at grass, a dog loosely tied up and a coup with some chickens in it. An older lady wearing colourful clothes and a black headscarf welcomed us and we communicated that we would like to stay for two nights having just arrived in Kyrgyzstan from China. We also nodded vigorously when she asked if we would like a shower.

Guest House Eliza

In order to have a shower, water had to scooped from a big vat in the courtyard and put in another container, like a water butt, in the bathroom. Coal was then used to heat the water which we extracted using a tap. Swapping stories with another cyclist in Dushanbe, who was heading East and thus the way we had just come, I said how much I had enjoyed taking a shower every three to four days when we stopped in guesthouses along the Pamir Highway. 'Shower' is quite a loose term, as we mixed hot and cold water in a bucket and then used a measuring jug to pour it over ourselves and wash. The other cyclist was very against locals using coal to heat water for "precious, western tourists". It got me thinking. So many of the small towns in the mountains have numerous guesthouses and so seemed to me to depend on tourists or travellers journeying along the M41 and stopping for food and rest. At Guesthouse Eliza, we also noticed the family using the bathroom too and so it wasn't entirely for our benefit that the water was warmed.

I really did enjoy my bucket shower that afternoon, and even managed to wash my hair. When I hung my clothes and towel up on the pegs outside of the wet room, the cool, mountainous air rushed in under the door and covered me in goosebumps. However, stepping into the wet room was like stepping into a sauna and I really thought I might faint it was that hot! Showering, and we actually only had two bucket showers during our month in the Pamirs (in addition to a few 'normal showers' too, I hasten to add), was one of many unique experiences that really forges this time in my mind as being incredibly special.

An electric heater was brought into our room and we perched on the bed in front of it to really warm ourselves once the heat from the shower had left us.  Guesthouses in Central Asia are really wonderful places as included in the very fair price is a bed, hot shower, dinner and breakfast.  We had been a little apprehensive about maintaining our vegetarian diets in Central Asia, but we needn't have worried.  Meat is a precious commodity and so if used, it is done so very sparingly.  We mostly left the three or four pieces of meat, which were added almost like garnish to the top of the plate, to one side, also considering the strength of our stomachs.  Sometimes, though, realising that we were being offered something special, we respectfully ate the meat preferring that than seeing it go to waste.

At about 7pm, we were called out from our room and sat on the cushions on the raised platform where the table was.  We were joined by a young, American couple: friends Martine and Jojo who were both travelling ahead of starting college.  Jojo had been travelling overland from Paris and Martine joined him in Tashkent.  They were an energetic and enthusiastic pair, and it made me long for my student days.  You're not nineteen forever.   Jojo talked to us about being in Paris at the time of the Notre Dame fire and Martine spoke about her growing concerns for the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, being from Hong Kong herself, which at the time were just beginning.  We shared stories of our fateful border crossing which the two friends would be attempting the following morning. 

We were treated to such a hearty and tasty meal.  Without exception, bread and tea, khleb and chay, are integral parts of any meal in Central Asia, and both were so delicious.  We then had a salad of cucumber, tomato and onion, followed by a big plate of potato and vegetable stew with a few pieces of meat on top.  We were so happy sat there feasting; we felt very comfortable and content.  

We didn't see Martine and Jojo in the morning as Martine had been in favour of a very early start: their plan was to hitchhike to the Irkeshtam border in a truck and then take the required taxis to Kashgar from there.  We enjoyed a truly leisurely breakfast gazing out at the mountains that we would be cycling towards, and into, the next day.  Breakfast in Central Asia was brilliant!  Fried eggs, which Olly slathered in 'Pamir ketchup', bread, tea and homemade jam, usually apricot or cherry.  Our pot of tea was re-filled with hot water a few times as we sat slowly eating.

We didn't do much on our rest day in Sary Tash, using it mainly to take stock and acclimatise a little more.  As we were sat sipping our second and third cups of tea, however, an event did start to occur in the small town of Sary Tash.

Suddenly, we both jumped!  We had heard a gunshot.  We started to discuss what might be happening and both agreed that it was likely related to animals: either to scare or kill.  We didn't have to wait too long for the definite answer, however.  An old man and a younger apprentice walked through the metal gate and into the courtyard at Guesthouse Eliza.  The old man had a gun slung over his shoulder.  Olly was sat next to the window and looked out to see the dog being shot!  He told me not to look as the dog's two back legs were then tied together and the corpse dragged across the courtyard and out of the metal gate.  About only ten minutes had passed from our initial jumping to the gate rattling closed.

About five minutes later, we heard another gunshot and then several more throughout the morning.  It seemed it was a bad day for dogs in Sary Tash.  Later, we asked the guesthouse owner, who spoke good English and impeccable Russian, having moved to live and work in Moscow after graduating from university as many Kyrgyz young people do, about the killings.  She explained that a dog in the town had caught a disease and as a precaution all of the dogs in the town had to be killed.  We relayed the story to Artem later on over dinner and he presumed the disease in question must be Rabies.

In Sary Tash

Artem arrived at Guest House Eliza in the early evening.  We were delighted to see another cyclist come through the gate and we immediately struck up a conversation and friendship.  Like us, Artem had walked in the direction of the first guesthouse he had seen upon arriving in Sary Tash, longing for the shower, bed and Wi-Fi that the sign advertised.  We all laughed about the room pictured on the sign being a generic Google image that in no way resembled the eccentric and far more characterful rooms that we were all sleeping in.

Horsing around in Sary Tash

Artem is from St Petersburg in Russia where, amongst many other things, he is a Warm Showers host.  A year or so ago, he hosted an 80 year-old cyclist who told Artem that should he [Artem] only do one cycle tour in the rest of his life that it should be along the Pamir Highway.  And so here he was.  Artem had taken three weeks of annual leave to complete the ride from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe in Tajikistan and so after four brilliant days together, Artem went on ahead and we said goodbye in Murghab.

After taking a shower, Artem told us that every summer in St Petersburg, the hot water gets shut off for a month.  There is a schedule and so each district is affected at a slightly different time.  During this month, hot water has to be boiled for washing or friends go to each others' houses if they live in different parts of the city.  Artem said it is usually such a happy time in the city and his shower in Sary Tash had reminded him of it.

We had a delicious meal again that night (a plate of pasta with potatoes and vegetables, such as carrots and peppers) and and afterwards went for a short walk around the town as the sun set and the sky became a pink backdrop for the white peaks of the Pamir mountains.  We're confident we could see Lenin Peak which stands at 7134m asl on the Kyrgyz/Tajik border.  It is known for being one of the easiest mountains over 7000m to summit.  Maybe one day...

The following morning, we started slowly.  We had only 30km to cycle and wouldn't reach the Tajik border under the day after.  This was so that we could acclimatise.  Sary Tash is at almost 3200m asl, an altitude at which you need to start taking care to avoid mountain sickness.  It is advised to not sleep more than 300m above your starting position each day.  30km in distance would take us up 300m and so it was after 30km of cycling that we started to look for a place to sleep that night.

Guesthouse Eliza

Artem was going the same way and had the same plan, but wanted to do an out-and-back to Sary Moghul in order to get a better view of Lenin Peak.  He shot off after breakfast; we were sure he would catch us up and/or find us to camp with.  As it happened, Artem returned from his 60km - luggage-free ride just before we left.  Despite having lunch before leaving the guesthouse, Artem caught us up after we had pedalled just 10km.

Artem approaching

We were absolutely in awe as we cycled out of Sary Tash.  The sky was blue and the sun was shining  enough to warm us to a very comfortable temperature.  The 5km out of Sary Tash and towards the left turning onto the M41 proper were unreal!  The mountains before us were just so big that we couldn't comprehend them.  I must have put my foot down every 500m or so in order to try and take it all in.  A few trucks hurtled passed at a fair speed, but nothing more.

I was desperate to capture the moment that Olly turned onto the Pamir Highway as in doing so he would turn a long-time dream into a reality.  It is such a special feeling when that happens and I felt so grateful to be there too.

The Pamirs now hold a dreamlike state in my mind too rendering me this excited!

We paused for some lunch just a few kilometres down the M41, which is when Artem caught us.  He had a Snickers bar, compulsory fuel along the Pamir Highway, and we soon, all three, set off our way into the mountains.

It was a very gentle ride, gradually climbing along a smooth road for most of the way.  Just as we hit the 30km mark and started to scout around for a suitable camp spot, the road conditions began to deteriorate.  This was just the beginning...

Already such fun to spot were the numerous marmots bobbing in and out of their holes.  Bright orange in colour, they formed a stark contrast to the green/grey, snowy landscape they inhabit.  We all really delighted in spotting them ducking up and down, calling in a squeaking, high-pitched way to one another (though this is something they do when they sense danger, which isn't the kindest position to have put them in!).  They seemed curious, cheeky and nervous all at once.  The place we put our tents was surrounded by holes leading down to burrows.

As well as being surrounded by marmot burrows, our camp spot that night was at the foot of a snow-covered mountain and a few steps from a saline stream - which made Artem's cup of fruity tea taste unusual. Our campsite was not hidden being just a short walk from the only road that led through the mountains: the Pamir Highway. Camping in Central Asia was just so brilliant because it is so accepted there, indeed for many it is a way of life.

Olly collecting water from a salty (we later realised) stream

Our spot was in No Man's Land. We had checked out of Kyrgyzstan, but 20km separated that checkpoint from the Tajik border and we wouldn't make it that far that day. I felt a little apprehensive about camping almost literally in the middle of no where and so I felt reassured to have Artem with us too. The few vehicles that did pass us, however, tooted their horns and waved enthusiastically.

It was a perfect spot. It wasn't late when we arrived and so we pitched our tents without rushing and checked out each other's kit! Artem made a cup of tea with his gas cooker and we envied the speed and ease with which he did it. We have a petrol stove that needs pressurising and priming before it boils water in about 30 seconds flat! It cooks our vegetables with gusto too. Fortunately, we had filled our flasks with hot water at the guest house in Sary Tash and so we joined Artem, who could also lie in his tent and cook in the little porch - such luxury, in having a hot drink.



We cooked and ate dinner shortly afterwards and it was a good job too as it started to snow! Not heavily, but a whirlwind flurry that whipped around us and forced us to retreat into our tents. It was hard to then emerge out into the cold to brush our teeth an hour or so later.

We agreed on a relatively early start the following morning in order to reach the Kyzyl-Art  Pass at 4280m which denotes the border with Tajikistan, though the border checkpoint is just a little way down from it. There are several sections of the Pamir Highway that are ingrained in cycle touring legend. Word gets around about especially challenging or beautiful spots (the two often go hand in hand) and then you pedal both in awe and fear of them. Our journey to the Tajik border was one such section.

Notoriously tricky for its terrain, gradient and then a very steep, serpentine section to reach the summit which was reportedly just mud, we decided that the earlier we started cycling the better as the ground would likely still be frozen and so we wouldn't have to drag our bikes through the rumoured mud. We had seen photos: it looked like it could be a truly torturous episode of Fun House or Get Your Own Back.

We all pedalled in wonder as we followed the path into the mountains. From where we had camped it was neither obvious which way the path went nor which way it seemed it should. The (mostly) paved road we had followed the previous day was gone and we bumped and skidded our way up and up. Artem pulled ahead and we said he should keep going! We all planned to sleep in a homestay that had been recommended to Artem at Lake Karakul that night and so we would regroup there if not before.

One of the reasons that Artem gained a lead on us is because Olly had to stop to dig an emergency hole at the side of the road to poop into!  He felt it important I mention this so as to highlight the varying ways that altitude sickness can affect you.  This was one of two such stops that day.

As it happened, as we kept climbing, a building came into sight. We had heard about this homestay in No Man's Land that had apparently been established with cyclists in mind. Artem's bike was propped up outside of it and when we went inside the small building, which was the family's home save for the back room which was reserved for guests, he said it seemed like the right time for second breakfast. We had found our perfect cycling pal!

Thanks to Artem's being Russian, and our enthusiastic efforts, in addition to much nodding and smiling, hot tea and bread was brought out and we sat filling our tummies, warming ourselves from the inside out. I love making stops like this every now and then as it adds a sense of adventure to the day.

As we prepared to leave, a Dutch, cycling couple bounded happily into the room. They had seen our bikes and wanted to come and say hello. They were heading to Osh and so were approaching the end of their time along the M41. We swapped stories, each of us greedy for information about the road ahead. We were assured that the switchbacks would be the hardest part of our day...

We took a photo before waving goodbye. This couple were the first of so many that we met along the Pamir Highway. Five minutes spent in the company of so many other cyclists in this wild, remote and incredibly beautiful part of the world created such a sense of community.

We pedalled away from our second breakfast stop with the switchbacks in sight. It started off OK, and we were lucky that the previous night's snow hadn't had any impact on the road surface which was frozen mud. We gawped in horror imagining what the conditions could be like.

Soon though, we were breathless. Panting and struggling as the road twisted upwards. Although frozen, the mud did not make for smooth cycling. 4x4s roared passed, bouncing all over the place. We all got off the bikes and started pushing.

It felt like the awesome Marco Polo sheep statue which stands proudly at the top of the pass was in sight for so, so long before we reached it. I was perhaps managing 20 to 30 steps at a time before I had to drape myself over my bike, catch my breath and slow my crazily beating heart. I was reassured that both Olly and Artem were doing the same. We were panting, but laughing: this was insane!

The closer to the summit we got, the worse the weather became! Snow flurries and an icy wind meant that we quickly cooled down whenever we stopped moving.

When we finally, finally made it, I felt completely done in! My arms and legs were weightless and weak, and despite having plodded so incredibly slowly, I was panting as hard as if I had just beaten Usain Bolt in the 100m. There was no wallowing, though, and it felt like a great achievement: pushing a 45kg bike up to 4280m! I quickly dispelled the notion that it would have felt even better if I'd pedalled because there was simply no chance of that happening! We all pulled on as many layers as we could find, took a few photos that couldn't really capture any of what we had just experienced and started our descent into Tajikistan.

Olly has kindly pointed out that if I continue to update the blog at my current rate, it won't be finished until about 2025. I've been reading some really good books recently, as well as trying to teach myself a bit of Spanish via a podcast and to keep up with my German Duolingo exercises. I've also been enjoying the adventure and feeling quite exhausted at the end of each day of it! I'm keen to get up to speed though, and will endeavour to do so.