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Pamir Highway, part 1

It’s time to leave Uzbekistan. I’ve had a wonderful time; especially Khiva and Samarkand were worth visiting. Riding here wasn’t very challenging but that I’m going to make up for in Tajikistan! I’m really nervous about the Pamir Highway but first I going to Dushanbe today. I decided to take the southern route with the border at Denau. My garmin isn’t informed yet about the closure of the nearby border and it takes me at least twenty minutes to find out that I riding in the wrong direction. When I finally again leave Samarkand, the landscape changes. I already saw mountains when I came here, but now I riding towards them. The landscape is comparable with northern Iran. Sandy mountains, more hills I guess, in different colours. Again I’m following a river what results in lots of green.

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I started early this morning at 07:00, it’s going to be a long day: more then four hundred kilometres and a border crossing. At lunchtime I see a sign with food on it beside the road. The family living in the house that belongs to the sign is cleaning the carpets and the rice. The kids are sliding over the wet and soapy carpet, mum is hosing another one and dad is cleaning the bales of rice. When I ask for food it’s a yes and the ‘mum’ shows me some fish out of the freezer. After twenty minutes she brings me a plate of fried fish and some bread that tastes great. The kids are going on cleaning the carpet, but can’t help showing of a little bit. With one of them I start a competition ‘ who can make the funniest face’. When its time to leave I ask the two boys if they want to sit on my bike what results in a full photo shoot.

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While driving away I feel something. My bike is reacting strange. Is it the road? No it’s my tire… Flat. Just a hundred meter ahead I see a truck standing in front of some houses, a good place to stop. I really need help for I don’t have a centre stand. When I start unloading my bike and pull out my tools, a group of men is coming towards me and without asking they take over. We support the bike with big rocks to keep it straight up, that works well, but is a heavy duty. The men do most of the work, I only have to guide them. They are used to do this I can see that, but not with motorbikes. I sometimes have to remember them it’s not a truck wheel. Within half an hour I can continue my ride. I just owe one of them a kiss on the cheek J

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After not even fifty kilometres I again feel my back wheel slipping away. No not again! I just past a village and am in the middle of nowhere. Luckily I can park at a widening at the other side of the road, under the trees. I start unpacking; no one stops. I feel a bit defeated. Today I really can’t use this delay. After ten minutes some men are walking out on me. No idea where they are coming from. Yes! Help! It’s harder to get the job done, there aren’t many big rocks here, but we manage to get the wheel out. There is nothing to repair on my inner tube: the valve ripped of. My former helpers have done their job too crass. I have to use my spare tire now. This time I do most of the job to be sure it’s done well. I cannot afford getting another flat tire before I am in Dushanbe. Another forty-five minutes have passed. Luckily the border isn’t that far away now.

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In Denau I have get some petrol but I can’t find a fuel station. Suddenly I’m at a checkpoint. Is this the border already? It isn’t. I find it strange those checkpoints just before or just after a border. You are going to be checked or just are checked thoroughly. Luckily right after the checkpoint I see a fuel station. But no ninety-two octanes, only eighty. Some men point me at another one just behind some trees. There they have petrol with ninety-one octanes, or must I say: that’s what’s written on the pump. I actually don’t believe a word of it, but pay for the more expensive petrol. Who knows! Some people say the ninety-two is actually eighty but worse of quality.

Then I am at the border. I expect the officials to be strict but friendly like the last time. This time I’m not that lucky. Although the passport control goes as planned, the custom control doesn’t. The man that stops me is nice, but then his female colleague arrives. I’m a woman myself but I can say that women in uniform are (mostly) not quit friendly. It seem they want to prove themselves of being extra cool. I know I’m screwed. She asks one of the men to get her a canvas and then she lets me unpack everything until the smallest detail. I have to unpack every carefully packed bag. This is going to take me hours to pack again. It was already late, 18:00h, when I arrived here at the border. The unpacking takes an hour and the packing another one. In the mean time I have to hand over my cameras and laptop. I’ve already heard that they are looking for film material and pictures that isn’t allowed. Luckily they didn’t find my Olympus tough, were I make most of my pictures with. Especially while riding. And the GoPro remains unseen as well. They are not used to my macbook so I can guide them in the wrong direction. I’m so angry, but I know that doesn’t help me much, so I stay calm until the checking has been done, but when I see all my stuff lying there on the canvas I almost lose it. There is one man left that wants to help me. He is very friendly but he can’t help me packing I have to do that myself. Every bag must be packed systematically. I can see that even the woman has two faces. So now and then I see some compassion. That doesn’t help me though. Another hour passes by in which I so now and then lose my temper. Not a normal habit, mostly I’m quit relaxed, but I can’t stand these power games.

The Tajik border is as expected: fast forward. Three hours are lost in total for the whole border crossing and it is 21:00h when I start my bike and head on for the last sixty kilometres for today. I don’t know what to expect. I know I’m going more and more into mountainous terrain. But I’m lucky. Thanks Tajikistan for asphalting the road to Dushanbe that well! Sixty kilometres of well paved highway and even in the built-up areas there are street lanterns!!! I don’t like driving in the dark. My eyesight isn’t very well in these circumstances. Without the help of good pavement and lanterns it would have been really heavy. I wear lenses since a few months and after a whole day like this in the dust and heat they aren’t comfortable any more. After forty-five minutes I enter Dushanbe and am surprised by the liveliness in the city. What a difference. It is Sunday evening and lots of young people are having a night out. I stop at a group of them knowing they are the most obvious to speak English and have a GSM with internet. Only one of them speaks a bit of English but is able to help me. I’m not prepared very well and only know the name of the hostel: Green House Hostel. He finds out the address and can show me where it is on Google Maps. Now I can transport this information to my Garmin. Another six kilometres to go and then I’m finally there. At 22:00h, fifteen hours after departure I park my motorbike at the courtyard. I’m exhausted. The only thing that can put a smile on my face is the sight of Hette and surprisingly also Gabor is here.

It’s packed at the hostel. For the first time I have to sleep in a dorm. Don’t like it, but ok, I have to. There are a lot of backpackers but also cyclists and even another guy on a motorbike, Fabi from Germany. Hette, Gabor and Fabi are having one thing in common: they are all waiting for spares to get their motor fixed. Despite the fatigue I feel a lucky person. My bike is doing great! I’m proud of her (it’s definitely a she).

At breakfast after a not so good night sleep Gabor askes me if I want to join him and Fabi for lunch. Hette has left this morning. His bike was doing ok and he wants to go on. Every time we say goodbye we have the feeling it will be the last time we meet during our trip. With him two Dutch push bikers leave as well.

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Today I want to find out if there is a possibility to get a centre stand on my bike, or another solution. I can’t expect to find big rocks everywhere and I can’t expect to have that much help as well when I’d have a flat tire again. I’m lucky. The mechanic is coming to take a look at Gabors motorbike and so I we agree to meet at 12:00h at the workshop. It’s hot and sticky here in Dushanbe and I’m still tired. Arriving at the workshop I see a familiar motorbike standing in front of it and when I walk inside I see Hette standing there. Although I normally like to see Hette, I this time feel sad. I’m so sorry for him. His bike started to fall out again. He stays at the workshop while I hurry to get back in time for lunch with Gabor and Fabi. With a new inner tire and a metal bar to support my bike ( It’s not possible to get a centre stand) I ride back to the hostel to see that Fabi and Gabor are nowhere to find. I wait another forty-five minutes but no show, so I leave the hostel on my own to get some food. I feel a bit deserted and get emotional about it. I’m tired, it’s hot, the hostel is crowded, the guys forgot about me. I feel a bit depressed. At the beginning of the trip I had my doubts, but in the last two weeks I started to feel better and better. I guess I just have an off day. Back at the hostel I see Gabor and Fabi. It seemed they walked to the workshop to meet me there and we’ve missed each other. We make up with having dinner all together. With some take away food we gather around the kitchen table. I’m having a nice conversation with Fabi, who’s traveling with his brother Basti and his brother’s friend, Denis. They travel together for years but now they all quit their jobs and have planned to travel for two years. After Asia they will get to Canada and America, North and South just as I dreamed of. Before I left I gathered some information about traveling through China with my own motorbike. That is very hard to arrange. You need a Chinese drivers licence, a Chinese number plate and lots of other paperwork before you can travel through China. Then it’s still difficult to travel through China on your own. You need a guide all the way through China. All with all that costs lots of money. I still am in contact with a travel agency: China Overland, who’s organizing it all. It is possible to group up at a border and pay for the guide all together. A great way of lowering the costs. I know there is a group traveling from Mongolia to Laos at the end of August and thought about going with them. There even are three motor bikers along them, but I want to go to Tibet and this group goes straight down. I didn’t like the program: to many cities. Talking with Fabi I find out that he, Basti and Denis are the three motor bikers who are doing this China trip. What a coincidence. Fabi’s here because he got his bike broke after a class with a big rock. His friends moved on and they will meet up at the end of the week. He already rode a part of the Pamir Highway. There are different routes. You have to choose twice: The route from Dushanbe to Khorog can be taken over the northern road or the southern. The first option is the more challenging one: a technical more difficult off road route. The southern route is longer but easier to drive. Not easy, but easier. At this moment there are a lot of diversions because off road works. I still don’t know which route to take. My hart says north, my head south. Then after Khorog you can choose between north and south again. Here the southern route through the Wakhan Valley is the more challenging one. I really want to go through the Wakhan Valley. After the two flat tires and because it always more sensible I decided to not ride the Pamir on my own even if I have to wait a bit longer here in Dushanbe. Gabor is leaving on Wednesday and also Hette would like to join. Fabi has to wait a bit longer for his parts to arrive.

Wednesday morning I stand up with jitters in my belly. I’d like to leave early but the guys take there time. At 08:30h we finally start our motorbikes. The more we leave Dushanbe behind the worse the road gets. I love it!

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We decided to take the Northern route and I feel good about it. Fabi did it already. He said it’s doable but warned us for one deeper water crossing. In the mean time the tarmac is gone and we are riding on a mountain pass. The road is getter worse and narrower. This is what I like; this is the same feeling I had while riding in the Himalaya’s. The only things I don’t like are the sandy bits, but I manage quit well to pass them. I choose to ride behind. Gabor wants to go fast, he still is in a hurry to be on time for meeting his girlfriend and I know I’d better leave the testosterone bombs ride in front of me. I feel relaxed and the only thing that is bothering me is the dust the two guys are leaving behind. So now and then I have to slow down for Hette. He does a tremendous job riding here. The only experience he has, are some off road rides in NL. If it’s getting harder I can see him freeze and then he lets go of the gaz. He can be very proud of his achievement; it isn’t easy to ride here. The circumstances are tough. Despite all of this I keep taking pictures while riding and a song from Muse comes to my mind: I’m feeling good’.

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At lunchtime some kids ask us to eat at there ‘restaurant’. We of course accept. Soup with bread is on the menu. There even is a small lake we could swim in. Gabor and I would love to but we choose to move on. Not long after, when I’m again taking a picture while riding I fall and hurt my knee. I’m a little behind because of my picture actions. Hopefully they are aware of me not following them anymore. It takes a long time before Gabor comes back to help me picking up my bike. My knee really hurts and I know I torn my ligaments on the inside of my knee. Grrr, just when my foot is starting to heel… Luckily riding is not a big problem, only walking is. The reason Gabor is alone and that it took him so long to come back gets clear when we get around the corner: a nice water crossing. Hette already stands at the other side of the stream. In India I fell down some times at water crossings so for me it’s a loaded subject. I look twice but then go for it. No problem at all! Is this the nasty crossing Fabi told us about? I don’t think so. From now on I’m suspicious and expect the big crossing after every turn we make.

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An hour later we meet up with the dutch bikers that left two days before. It’s amazing how far they are already. It must be exhausting cycling here, up the mountain in this heat. Not that we on our motorbikes have an easy ride. With our suits, helmet and gloves on it’s so hot and on these bad road we almost all time stand on our footrests. The concentration asked a lot of our energy. You have to scan the road for obstacles and in the mean time look forward in the direction you have to go to. The biggest mistake is to focus just in front of your wheel. So you have to change my gaze from nearby to further away. If we don’t drink enough water we just fall down.

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He comes unexpected, in a village after a short stop to buy something to drink. And yes, it’s a biggy! In the last few weeks I’ve heard a lot of stories about the Pamir Highway and in some of them I’ve heard that the northern route wasn’t possible to ride because a bridge collapsed. This is the place. You can see where the bridge ones was and they are building a new one, but for now we have to cross the not too big stream. The first part is tricky because of the current. At the second part the water runs over the road, which makes a slight turn as well. Gabor goes first; he manages to come through. At the second part he almost falls down. It’s tricky. Then Hette tries but falls at the first part. He decides to skip the second part by riding up the higher very stony area beside the road. It’s almost impossible to drive there. I will try to take Hette’s route, but because of the current I’m set aside and quickly have to switch on taking the second part through the water. At that very moment my front tire hits a big rock and I fall aside a bit. With help I get on the bike again, get around the big rock and ride on through the water. Yes! Did it!

When we ride on to Kalai Khum, the place we are staying tonight, I notice that we’ve had the hardest bit of the trip for today. The road is going down and getting better. The weather is changing and so now and then we have some rain. Just a few drops. Enough to see wonderful rainbows.

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Kalai Khum is a small village where the two routes are coming together. From here everyone who’s going to Khorog has to ride the same route. We find ourselves a nice place to stay, a small homestay, where we share a room, have something to eat and then it’s time to go to bed. I’ve had a great day. I feel so much alive riding under these circumstances. The only thing that bothers me is my left knee and leg. My knee hurts and my lower leg still gets swollen after a day like this.

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The second part of our trip to Khorog lays ahead of us. I can’t wait to leave, but the guys need to do some maintenance. They both still have problems with their bikes. I love my X even more!  Before we leave Kalai Khum we first have to get some petrol.

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We are going to ride along a river again, just like yesterday, but this time the other side of the river is rather special: Afghanistan. Again the scenery is stunning, the roads are easier to ride on but still challenging . It’s surreal to see people at the other side of the river, knowing that’s Afghanistan. I’m surprises about the lack of visible military. There are some bases and checkpoints but they are everywhere after leaving Europe. I see lots of people riding a motorbike, more then on this side of the river. Some are waving at us. They are so close and yet so far away.

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After not even an hour Gabor stops. Flat tire. Hette and Gabor patch the tire and we move on. Half an hour later when we have to stop at a checkpoint his tire is flat again. He already patched the tire several times. I don’t think it’s possible to patch it again. Gabor left home with a friend. He had an accident, broke his clavicula and had to go home. They were riding the same sort of motorbike and had their spares divided over two bikes. Gabor had to choose what to take with him and what to leave behind. Traveling alone has this disadvantage: you have to take everything with you on one bike: not only spares but also camping equipment and other useful stuff. That’s why my bike is packed like a mule (I think I’ve found the best excuse now for taking so much stuff with me J ). Gabor left the spare inner tire for his front wheel behind. In my opinion a big mistake. Most of the motorbikes prepared for this kind of traveling ride with a not very usual front rim: 21-inch. The inner tires are hard to get; even in NL I had to search for it a bit longer. These countries already aren’t very motorbike minded so I guess a 21-inch inner tire isn’t for sale here. Hette has a 19-inch. Some of us bring those because you technically can use them for and 18 inch and 21 inch rims. It’s not for the best but works. I have a spare 21-inch tire with me, but am hesitating to give it away. We decide to try the 19- inch first. But they screw up and puncture the inner tire by putting the cover on the rim. Already the first time I saw that the guys start with putting the outer cover on the rim at the opposite side of the valve. I wouldn’t do that. Then you have to do the hardest part close to the valve. Mostly you have to use tools to get the last part on the rim and with that you can damage the inner tire more easily. I said something about it by the last attempt, but me, a woman, who listens to that. Gabor is freaking out now. He still is in a hurry to see his girlfriend. We sit down for a minute to drink something. I say to him that maybe it’s time to stop hurrying and start enjoying the ride. He looks at me and says: ‘I know, I’m stressed, I should enjoy more’ and I see him softening up. Finally he lets go and relaxes. Hette, being proud of what he has achieved and Gabor letting go of his stress. Nice to see that happening. I know that I have to sacrifice my 21-inch inner tube. Gabor appreciates it a lot and even askes me how to put the cover on the rim. It’s nice to be a bit older and more relaxed J

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With another fifty kilometres to go I notice that Hette starts to have major problems with his bike again. In Dushanbe the mechanic changed the fuel pomp by a not official one. The only problem is, that the fuel filter isn’t new. We have to stop and do something about his bike. Hette decides to take the fual filter out. I’m not technical enough to oversee the consequences, but Hette reassures us that it’s possible and that the mechanic already told him to do this if the motorbike starts to have problems again. It’s hot and windy. I can’t manage to set up a tarp to create some shade, so the men have to work in this heat. It takes some time but they do the job. When we ride on it doesn’t seem to be the solution. After another ten kilometres we have to stop again and we know we have to find transport for Hette’s motorbike. What a disappointment… Hette has had problems with his bike for so long now. Gabor and I ride back to the last village we passed. It’s a small one. At the first sight we can’t find a proper truck but then a nice blue one rides of the mountain. We ask him to stop. In the mean time some women gathered around us and one of them speaks English rather well. She translates and all together we can convince the driver to take Hette and his bike to Khorog. He says he cannot drive into Khorog itself because he doesn’t have a permit for that. We all think: that’s a problem for later, lets first try to get to Khorog. Gabor leaves us to warn Hette, The truck driver has to fill up his fuel tank and I wait for him to come back. It’s so nice to talk to the English-speaking woman. She’s a tough lady: twenty-nine years old, not married, doesn’t want to. She wants to study again. I missed having contact with the local population. Since Bukhara I’ve only met other tourists.

The truck comes back and I follow it. Hette is only a few kilometres away. Loading the truck is not the most pleasant sight. You can clearly see Hette is defeated. We help him as well as we can. It’s hard to tie down the motorbike. It already was hard to lift it in the truck. Petrol was running out, I got a big part of petrol all over me. Luckily I could wash it off with water immediately, but it left the bottom of the truck very slippery. Gabor will lead the convoy; I will secure it at the back. It’s getting dark already. I’m not amused riding in the dark. The river is just beside us. One mistake and it’s over. The truck only manages to drive 20-40 kmh. It’s another 40 kilometres. We have to stop several times to tie up the motorbike again and finally Hette takes place in the back of the truck with his bike. It’s a weird sight: Hette sitting on his motorbike that is placed abeam in the truck. His suit and helmet are lighting up because of the reflecting stripes on it. I can’t help it but have to laugh. It looks ridicules.

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Then finally after two hours at 21:30 we arrive in Khorog. The truck stops. ‘O, please’, I think, ‘please drive on!’ We can persuade him to bring us to the lodge. For that we have to cross town and ride up the mountain over unpaved roads. But the driver follows. At 22:00 we stop in front of a big white gate. Pamir Lodge. Gabor and I ride down and ask some strong men to help us unload the truck. It’s nice to see some familiar faces. A few of the guests we already met in Dushanbe. The nice lady of the lodge even prepares something to eat. Am I hungry! After a small chat with the other guests it’s time to sleep. Tomorrow we will deal with the rest.

 

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