With one hand I try to hold on to a harsh rock of the wall of an old ruin until my knuckles are white even though my hands are covered with dirt and mud. My body leans dangerously over the brink of a cliff, under it a hundred meters of nothing and far far away some more sharp rocks. In my other hand I hold my mobile phone and try to stretch my arm as far towards the sky as possible. I look up to the display. When I can barely hold my own weight anymore a red exclamation mark appears next to my messages. Crap, not sent again. Slowly I start to suspect that my fellow travelers and endurists on their 250cc Yamahas, Hondas and Suzukis did not talk me into climbing up here because of the promised good cellphone connection. The ascent over a rocky 6 kilometer long serpentine dirt road was spectacular.
I am standing at the edge of a dilapidated castle ruin called „Yamchun“. The view from here on the green, 500 meter lower Wakhan Valley and the Afghan Hindukush is breathtaking not only because of the thinning air here at 3500 meters altitude. The castle dates back to the 1st – 3rd century BC. How often must people have been standing here, observing soldiers and attackers coming closer through the valley? I myself feel like the conqueror of this dilapidated fortress – only that there is not a saddled horse waiting but my “Cleo”, a Triumph Tiger 800 XCA. During the last days she probably met the challenge of her life on the though roads of “Pamir Highway” here in Tajikistan. I sigh and put my cellphone back in my pocket. My family and friends seem to need a bit more patience to get a sign of life from me.
A white spot
“Pamir Highway” is surrounded by something mystical. All travelers I meet on my way to Tajikistan and who I ask for their destination get all excited. But whenever I tell people at home about this next destination, I have to deal with big question marks. “Pamir what? Is this a autobahn? Tajikistan? Where exactly is that located?“ Apparently I enter a part of the world, which is only a white spot on the maps in the heads of many people. But Tajikistan with its population of just 8.6 million, has so much to offer topographically, that it can literally overshadow other nations with its over 7,500 meters high mountain peaks easily.
Through this mountain massif, the famous “Pamir Highway” stretches along the Afghan border only a stone’s throw from the Hindukush. „This route is only called Highway because it is mostly on very high altitudes“, the locals tend to joke. In reality the Pamir mountain range is packed with slopes that are anything but asphalted. Instead: loose rocks with river crossings, sand passages and deep gravel. Probably one of the last great adventures without electricity, warm water, internet and mobile phone reception. A road full of potholes and ditches into an almost extinct, solitary rocky paradise.
On my first approach to drive Pamir Highway I don’t get very far. I try to beat the first major mountain pass alone on my bike – in pouring rain. My motorcycle swerves back and forth. Suddenly the rear wheel blocks. Our constant instability nearly makes us take a bath in the mud. But at least this time the bike somehow remains on two wheels. But I can’t get it going again, no matter how much I turn on the power or swear. Something is wrong. But even after a brief inspection I have no clue what this “something” could be. In this ankle-deep mud I can’t even find enough grip to move my bike a centimeter. And my mobile phone seems to have lost its reception in the capital Dushanbe. So I do the only thing that seems reasonable to me in this situation. I wait.
Believe it or not, half an hour later the rattling sound of several Enduros sounds through the valley. As it turns out, it is an organized tour of the same motorcycle club, where I had my bike serviced and my tires changed a few days before. Three guides and an accompanying jeep show international tourists the Pamir Mountains. We are all glad to meet each other here in the mud – and before I can even talk about my issues, Anton, the mechanic of the club puts on a grim look and finally succeeds in bringing my motorcycle back to life with russian determination and a bit of brutal force by removing a few huge rocks that were stuck with the mud between my tires and my chain. If I would like to join the group until the weather gets better and the roads more passable? I do not have to think long. And I never made a better decision. In the next two hours I drop the motorcycle ten times.
When we reach the village of Kaleikhum, for the first time I see a stone’s throw away the mountains of Afghanistan on the other side of the river. I can’t tell any big difference to the ones of Tajikistans – nevertheless, the Tajik guides convince me to start drinking the first bottle of local beer to celebrate the sight at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Of course there is no Wifi or hot water, but the 65-year-old Kasim, who accompanies the group as a substitute driver, offers me a green tobacco. I follow his instructions and pinch the crumbly stuff between my teeth and lower lip until it foams and spit it out in the river two minutes later towards Afghanistan. Then I feel like walking on clouds for 5 minutes. But even after the intoxicating effect has long subsided, I smile happily.
Our beds for the nights consist mostly only of mats on the ground – but nevertheless the whole accommodation is more comfortable than any 5 star hotel. I really enjoy the presence of the group and its different characters: Anton, who not only saved me from the mud but also checks my motorcycle every night and morning as if it belonged to his vehicle park (and like a magician repairs all the lose and damaged parts over night without me even noticing), Farkhood, the president of the motorcycle club in Dushanbe, who lets me in on the habits of bribery, Kasim, who every evening tells the same Tajik fable of an owl flying against a tree or Marley, who is the owner of the travel agency Edge Expeditions and organized the tour for the international guests. I am touched that every one of them makes me a part of their group as naturally as if I had been part of it from the beginning.
Obligatory food poisoning
In the morning of day three I feel terrible. A short time later I see my hardly digested dinner again. I can not imagine to be on the bike for hours in the heat in the rough rock landscape. “I can not go with you,” I tell Farkhood. “What do we have a substitute driver for?” He answers immediately. “You can cure your sickness in the jeep and Kasim drives your bike.” I’m too weak to resist his instructions. Packing my bags is such an effort for me and stresses my body so much, that I throw up right in front of Marleys feet when I leave our accommodation. Hardly impressed he waves with a pill right in front of my face. “Against nausea. We don’t want this to happen to you in the car, do we? “I spend the day trying hard to keep all my liquids to myself while sitting in the jeep. The rest of the time I am so exhausted by these efforts that I just sleep – no matter how deep the potholes or rough the streets are.
The cliff toilet
100 kilometers, two flat tires and eight hours later: finally we reach our stay for the night. Like most of the accommodation in the Pamir Mountains, the toilet consists of only a hole in the ground and is a two-minute walk across rough cliffs from the main building. And it smells worse than any cowshed. I can not count how often I stumble this way back and forth. Exceptionally, I get a separated room to be able to rest. A rarity in the traditional pamirian houses with their open interiors in which you have dinner normally at the same place where you later sleep. But constantly it knocks on my door.
While I vegetate every single one of the group seems to visit me with their personal secret recipe. Anton brings me a Vodka shot, Kasim a tea made from a herb that he just collected for me outside in the mountains (“I have collected some more. Just in case. You can as well chew it …”), Kuba, the driver of the jeep hands me some coal tablets and Marley brings some powder to prevent me from dehydration. At some point I stop the madness. “Guys, I’m not dying. I just have to sleep.“ And even this last wish for this day they fulfill.
How to ride Pamir Highway
The next morning I feel better. The following days we drive our motorcycles happily on the rough mountain roads of the Pamirs, stay with families in simple but cozy houses and yurts, bathe in hot springs or listen to locals and their musical performances. Like no other road, Pamir Highway is a test for our motorcycles and their riders. But we all come to the conclusion that there is nothing better for a diarrhea-affected body than riding on rough gravel roads.
After a detour from Pamir Highway over the route through so called Wakhan Valley along the Afghan border we make another detour to the secluded lake Bulunkul. A total of 40 kilometers on the worst corrugated sand waves. There is only two choices: driving extremely slow or going extremely fast. I decide to try out second option and carefully turn on the throttle of my Triumph Tiger 800 XCA and feel how my motorcycle takes on some speed and hunts over the wavy sand piste.
The faster we go, the more the unpleasant waves become a gentle vibration. I am driving between 90 and 100 km/h now, flying along the road and passing by rugged and at the same time smooth-looking sand-colored rocks, which rise even though we are on an altitude of about 4,000 meters still some hundreds more in the sky. And I drive past my colleagues on their smaller Enduros, which start to suffer extremely from a loss of their power due to the altitude. My Tiger doesn’t care at all. The speed, the thin air and the extraterrestrial landscape impress me deeply. Did I accidentally make a trip to the moon?
Welcomes and Goodbyes
Together with the group I cross the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – the border officials are bribed with some dollars and 20 bottles of vodka. I could continue traveling like this forever, but one day later I have to say goodbye in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. When the group takes off to drive back to Dushanbe my heart bleeds. “Come back to Tajikistan sooner than later,” says Farkhood when we hug to say goodbye. „At some point in the future Pamir Highway will only be a normal paved road.” When I am all alone again, I open my tankbag. I get a glimpse of the corner of my almost forgotten iPhone. “I’m alive. But Pamir changed my way of living for a bit,“ I answer my family on their countless anxious messages. “Message sent” appears under my text. I nod contentedly and for the first time since a week I take a warm shower. Even though the dust and mud of the mountains are gradually washing away from my face, hair, and body, Pamir Highway with all its challenges and deep friendships will stay in my heart.
Safety: Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union, and parts of Pamir Highway run directly along the Afghan border. Even though these facts do not sound particularly trustworthy, the security risk is currently low for foreign tourists.
Route: From Dushanbe there are two possibilities. Either take the southern route, which is often clogged with trucks and coaches, or the more northerly route, which leads through Khaburabot Pass with many small river crossings and rocky gravel roads. In Kaleikhum the streets meet again. From Chorugh, take the route through Wakhan Valley along the Afghan border. Cross back over Kargush Pass to M41, the Pamir Highway.
Sleep: Greenhouse Hostel Dushanbe: all long-term travelers of Central Asia meet here – whether its cyclists, motorcyclists or hikers. The inner courtyard offers enough space for all kind of vehicles. You can be sure that you are not the only one being able to tell some stories about recent adventures!
Pamir Lodge Corough: Located in the capital of Pamir area, WLan is accessible at Pamir Lodge two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Make sure to tell your family and friends a goodbye if you continue the road wo Wakhan Valley further. There are hardly any travelers who do not stop here.
Homestays: If you do not want to camp, you can find private families who usually offer a place to sleep on their floor, blankets, a warm dinner and breakfast. On the complete route there is no Wifi and hot showers are as much a rarity as toilets with running water
Bash Gumbez: At over 4000 meters you can stay at this Yurtencamp with a huge Yak herd that grunts you to sleep.
Experience: Driving the Pamir Highway is an experience in itself. On the way you can also take a dip in the hot Bibi Fatima springs, visit the old Fort Yamchun or jump into the ice-cold lakes Bulunkul or Karakul.