Central Asia: Q&A with Olly

Cycling towards Lake Karakul, the Pamirs

Regardless of which direction we cycled in, I think Central Asia was always the focal point of the trip. Perhaps it's just in the name.

Although incredibly popular amongst cycle-tourists and overlanders, be they on motorbike or hitchhiking; be they in a tiny Vauxhall Corsa or a rugged, beast of a 4WD, Central Asia does not seem to top many holiday destination wish lists. It should. It is often, in fact, completely overlooked to the point that people have never even heard of "the 'Stans".

If I promoted our own tour de France and a trip to the southern hemisphere to experience first-hand the landscapes of The Lord of the Rings, it was Olly who championed crossing Central Asia. 

I had my doubts and these doubts were grossly exacerbated by the terrorist attack in Tajikistan that happened less than a week before we left England and set off on our pedal-powered adventure. Four cycle-tourists were ran over and then stabbed to death some 150km from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. It was a calculated attack. The cyclists were a 29 year-old, American couple, a Swiss national and a Dutch national. They had met en route and set off to cycle the Pamirs together. We paused at the memorial that has been erected on the site of the murder. It was impossible for tears not to fill my eyes as I contemplated the fact that these four cyclists never got to go home. We rang our bells before continuing on.

The man whose orchard the cyclists slept in the night before the attack said, "the reputations of nine million Tajiks were ruined [that day]" (link). Whereas Tajikistan ranked 72nd of 134 in the 2017 Global Terrorism Index, France (23), the United States (32) and the UK (35) all rank significantly higher. Go figure.

Cycling the Pamir Highway and visiting Central Asia has brought me joy. It has given me confidence and gratitude, and increased tolerance and respect. It was a month of extremes and I would, and want to, do it all again. This can't be the last time I'm here.

However, before I launch into the blog posts proper, I decided to do a Q&A with Olly whose voice is not often heard on the blog (he's building up to it and claims to need to catch up on his journal first - he's about three weeks behind).

I encouraged Olly to expand on his answers as much as possible and I have embellished his answers only a little! Olly will have the final edit. We started our "interview" in the courtyard of the Tilla-Kari medressa in Samarkand and continued our conversation during our stay in this stunning, ancient Silk Road city.

Following the Q&A are some "stats from the road". I stopped collecting data once we left Green House Hostel in Dushanbe, the hub for overlanders in Central Asia be they just starting or just finishing their Pamir adventure.

1. Central Asia and the Pamir Highway, seemed to me to be the focal point of the trip for you. What first attracted you to this part of the world?

The region of the Pamirs is often referred to as 'The Roof of the World' as it is the meeting point of the biggest Eurasian mountain ranges.  This is what initially caught my attention and sparked my imagination.

I first read about cycling in Central Asia in Josh Cunningham's Pannier CC blog. It simply struck me as being so different to home: it was eastern, middle-eastern, Turkic, Islamic. Since then, I've really wanted to visit Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey.

I had seen pictures of Samarkand and really liked the look of the buildings. I really enjoyed a trip to Morocco in 2014 and had found the Islamic architecture appealing.

For me, the Pamir Highway was the most appealing way to connect East and West. The Pamirs are not on the main backpacker route, but are popular with cycle-tourists and so it crops up often [in cycle-touring literature]. It appeared remote and wild and symbolised "real adventure". I became keen to experience it too.

I feel I've always been interested in the old Silk Road. I never studied it as this history isn't taught in schools in the UK. I'm currently reading Peter Frankopan, The Silk Road a New History of the World which is very good. Reading it is sparking lots of questions especially about religion which is a topic I've always found interesting. Central Asia has been a melting-pot for religions over history and it's interesting to learn about how countries' religions have changed with different conquerors and crusades.

I have a lot of how and why questions and it seems the answers may be here in Central Asia.

There has always been movement and travel in this part of the world, and the spread of religion and education seem to have started here too. Uzbekistan and these medressas used to be the centre of the learned world.

Central Asia is no longer the centre of the world in this respect, but it is perhaps set to return to be in others, especially if China plays its hand.

However, it is literally the centre of the world and there are lots of hot-spots here. There has always been conflict in countries here, from Constantinople to Afghanistan. There probably always will be.

Olly realising a dream: turning left to join the M41, the Pamir Highway

2. What were your hopes and expectations prior to arriving in Central Asia?

I wanted to see some incredible mountains which were untouched by human development: no cable cars or ski lifts to caf├ęs; no scenic helicopter flights.  Just mountains.

I expected for it to often feel remote. I expected to do lots of wild camping and I hoped it would be an adventure. I thought it would be different to anything or anywhere we had cycled before.

I had read a lot about Central Asian culture, hospitality and friendliness and so I hoped to experience that too.

Just mountains

3. Have you enjoyed your time in Central Asia? Did it meet you expectations?

It met most of my expectations and I really enjoyed it. It wasn't as remote as I thought it might be and there were more tourists here than I had anticipated too.

4. What have been the standout moments of your time in Central Asia?

Without doubt, the mountain views and the emptiness of the high Pamirs. 

Meeting fellow cyclists has been a real highlight too as it's the most other cyclists we have met on the trip. Everyone has interesting stories and it's nice to be amongst like-minded people.

Hostels here have had a really genuine, friendly and homely vibe and contrast to the drinking and party culture I've often found in hostels in Europe. People are here for the culture and for the ride. In Lake Como we stayed in a hostel set on escapism: everyone was drinking and taking drugs. Green House in Dushanbe felt very different: repairing bikes (push and motor) and sharing stories over a beer.

I've also really enjoyed staying in homestays that promote community-based tourism. These stays have provided an insight into local life. We were always welcomed so warmly and there was always lots of food too. At Homestay Sadat in Karakul we had a four-course dinner. It was simple, but delicious - and vegetarian! In Jelondy we were treated to a feast for breakfast. In addition to fried eggs, we had a plate of sweets, biscuits and a whole swiss roll.

Crossing the border from China and cycling to Sary Tash was spectacular - and snowy! It was exciting to see the Pamirs looming ahead of us and I remember thinking, "how are we supposed to go through them?".

The cycle from Sary Tash to Murghab was very special too. We experienced the high-altitude and lunar landscapes that the Pamirs are famed for.

Similarly the cycle along the Panj river: the steep, rocky gorge and being a stone's throw away from Afghanistan for over 400km was incredibly beautiful and thought-provoking.

Moonscapes near Murghab

The snowy road to Sary-Tash

Olly and Artem on the M41 in Kyrgyzstan

In the Panj river valley

5. Any lowlights?

Getting the sh**s in Dushanbe. I lost my appetite for a couple of days and mostly just drank Coca Cola. I was still feeling unwell the day we left Dushanbe which involved hitchhiking through the "Tunnel of Death". Our driver was quite a character and the tunnel was horrible. I wouldn't recommend anyone cycle it.

Some of the road conditions were testing, especially corrugated, washboard roads. They're not much fun on a bicycle.

It was sad to cycle away from the dog that adopted us, but we couldn't take her with us or cycle slowly enough for her to keep up forever. I hope she found new friends or got home safely, wherever home may be.

6. What has been the biggest surprise from your time in Central Asia?

Seeing a camel spider (image) so close to the door of our tent! It was disgusting!

The small shops high up in the mountains or in tiny towns that don't sell water, but do stock an inordinate amount of biscuits. All of the boxes are open and when you walk into the shop the sweet smell of sugar really hits you.

The friendliness of everyone on the road has been quite a surprise too. One day a man drove away from our camp spot only to return a little later with a huge watermelon. The day afterwards, as we sat eating the melon, four or five ladies from across the road, where there was a small bazaar, came over in a relay bringing bread, tomatoes and Snickers bars. Several people have handed us fruit and cold drinks out of their car windows too.

7. What have been the biggest challenges faced whilst cycling in Central Asia?

I think I embraced everything, but there were definitely some challenging parts. 

Some of the road conditions made for very difficult cycling and I didn't enjoy some of the longer sections of washboard.

The Ak-Baital Pass (4655m) was tough and took a lot longer than I had expected. We were pushing our bikes and I could really feel the effects of the altitude on my breathing. I could only take twenty or thirty steps at a time.

The heat since reaching "the lowlands" has been almost unbearable.

8. Would you recommend cycling the Pamir Highway to others? What advice would you give?

I would definitely recommend it, but with the caveat that it's not easy. I probably wouldn't suggest my mum and dad cycle the Pamir Highway on their next holiday, but there are other ways to experience it!

You've definitely got to be comfortable pooing in small, smelly, traingular holes and in the wild to come here. Initially, the thought of busting a squat after a full day of cycling up mountains filled me with dread, I worried if my quivering legs would hold, but my hip flexibility has really improved after cycling through China and Central Asia. The views while you do your business are often incredible too. Bring a shovel, leave no trace.

I'd recommend allocating at least month to the cycling. You can lose time due to illness or bike issues and then end up rushing.  It's also nice taking days off to soak it all in. I'd also recommend bringing a good sleeping bag and warm clothes as it can get cold in the mountains: we experienced minus six in Kyrgyzstan. A means to purify water is a good idea too.

We met plenty of solo cyclists and I'd say not to be put off coming if you are alone. We met lots of cyclists here and the chances are you'll meet someone to share some or all of the journey with anyway. It was nice to spend four days cycling with Artem, a solo-cyclist from Russia.

Finally, if possible, cycle the Pamir Highway from Dushanbe to Osh - West to East.  We cycled in the opposite direction and had some ferocious headwinds and faster altitude gains.

What a place to pee!

9. Do you want to come back to Central Asia? Where would you return to? Would you travel by bike?

Yes. I would like to spend more time in Kyrgyzstan as we only had a few days there at the start of our Pamir leg. I really liked the landscapes and nomadic culture that we did see and definitely want to see more.

I would go back to Tajikistan and cycle the Pamir Highway again. I'd like to cycle the Wakhan Corridor and the Bar-Tang Valley in addition to exploring some of the mountains and lakes more.

Supposedly the region is set to change in the not too distant future as China is investing billions of dollars into its "New Silk Road" project. An article by Cycling Tips therefore recommends cycling the Pamir Highway as soon as possible.  Given our experience cycling through Laos, with its countless Chinese trucks and construction projects, I think I agree with them.

And yes, I'd travel by bike! I would probably consider a bike-packing setup with fatter tyres if I wasn't on such a big trip.

10. Can you pick one of your favourite photos from your time cycling the Pamir Highway and explain why you chose it?

I really like the scale in this photo: it shows how empty the landscapes of the Pamirs can be; how big the mountains are and how small we are in comparison.  This photo is of Lorna cycling on a nice section of the M41, the road was not always this good.  I like the shadows cast by the clouds and how the photo feels quiet.

Stats from the road

I found it interesting to keep a record of the cyclists we met whilst on the Pamir Highway.  We met 47 cyclists in total during our time in Central Asia and 40 of them (including us two), we met whilst cycling the M41.  We know there were some ahead of us and some that we missed due to the route we took.  Regardless, this is the most other cyclists we have crossed paths with and there was a real community feel as a result.

Total cyclists: 40

West-bound cyclists: 4 = 10%
Female cyclists: 4 = 10%
Solo cyclists: 13 = 32.5% *

British cyclists: 6 = 15%
German cyclists: 12 = 30%
French cyclists: 10 = 25%
Basque cyclists: 5 = 12.5%
Australian cyclists: 2 = 5%
Japanese cyclists: 1 = 2.5%
Russian cyclists: 1 = 2.5%

White cyclists: 37 = 92.5%

The statistics show that cycling in the Pamirs remains a white man's game and far more cyclists travel east than they do west.

* I defined a 'solo cyclist' as someone who was alone at the time we met them.  Many people come to the Pamirs alone, but meet up with other cyclists en route and share the ride with them.