This post deals with cycling the Bartang Valley from west to east. For a report of the trip in the opposite direction, see Cycling the Bartang Valley: from Karakol to Rushan.
The Pamir Highway is quite populated with touring cyclists. Each time we told a cyclist we were going to do the Bartang Valley it seemed no one actually believed we were going to make it. No, we were probably going to give up about halfway-through and have to turn around to the M41 again.
But I heard it’s the toughest road through the Pamirs!
There will be floods up to your waist!
At some stretches you will have to detach your panniers from your bikes and carry each across separately!
Maybe we were meant to be discouraged by these comments, but they did nothing but getting us even more excited!
The day we were to leave Rushan and take off the main road however, excited was the least thing I was. You see, my stomach sickness couldn’t have arrived with better timing than it did. One does not simply ride across Tajikistan without getting a sick stomach. And I don’t remember ever being so sick in my life before. It was pure fucking misery. But at least I was not puking anymore the day we left, and we both agreed that we had had enough of that incredibly claustrophobic and bacteria-infested guesthouse, so off we went.
“Are you going to the hospital?” The son in the guesthouse asked as we loaded our bikes.
“No, we are going to Bartang Valley!” Lars had cheerfully replied, the son looking at us as if we were crazy tourists not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. So not only was Bartang Valley infamous amongst our fellow cyclists, but also amongst the locals. Too weak to talk and nearly too weak to even stand up – my posture was like a sack of meal nearly tipping over – I just nodded, yes, Bartang Valley. Awesome.
The first 20 km or so as we had left the M41 was paved road, and that was all we did that first day. An impressive distance of 20 km – that’s how much I had the strength to do haha!
On our second day, we ran into a couple of French guys walking down the road. It turned out they were cyclists too.
“But this is all we have left” one of them said and held up a pannier. They gave us no sequel or even hint of what had actually happened to their bikes. And we never asked for it either, which we regretted later. Those French guys were the only foreigners we ever saw during our 9 days in Bartang Valley. We knew that a bunch of Ukrainian cyclists had entered it just before us, though, so we were probably cycling behind them the whole time.
The first half of the valley is populated with villages, and Lars raised the question: “How come people went this far up the valley and settled down in the first place?” What brought them here, to such a place?
The people in Bartang Valley are poor and live off their lands, but are obviously educated. Seemingly more educated than those in the villages along the main road, in my opinion. Many spoke nearly perfect English, and I talked more to one woman specifically as we were given carrots from her garden. She wished to travel too but she didn’t have the money.
“But Tajikistan is beautiful!” I guess I wanted to cheer her up by these words, making her aware that most people would love to travel to the place where she had spent her whole life. But that was the point. That she had spent her whole life there.
“It is beautiful to you”, she said, “but this is what I see every day. I am used to it. I want to see something else.” She was right, of course. It is inevitable not to get blind to your every day surroundings. And it is not until now for instance – when I have been on the road for months – I have realized what a beautiful capital Stockholm is, the city I spent my whole life in.
Don’t expect to find much stuff in the shops in these villages. As I said, they live off their own lands so it’s not necessary for the shops to sell much. You might find some biscuits, noodles, and lollipops. As for me it didn’t really matter at the time. I had no appetite anyway, and we had stocked up with food for 10 days in Rushan.
In most villages in the valley women didn’t veil themselves or wear headscarves, but in one village women dressed very differently from the others. They veiled their hair and faces but not in a hijab or burqa. Instead they had simply used pieces of clothing wrapped around their heads, leaving a narrow spring for their eyes to look through. I have seen similar clothing on both men and women in the desert to protect themselves in case of a sand storm, but in this village it seemed to be a cultural dressing code rather than a practicality, and no man did it.
We asked some of these women where we could find a “magazin” (as a shop is called in Russian) and they showed us to an old booth with mouldering wooden planks and pitch black, soiled windows. In a few minutes, some teen boys unlocked the booth for us.
It was dark in there, and a huge Marco Polo sheep skull was lying on the dust-covered floor! Parts of the rotting meat and blood-drained fur was still stuck to the skull, and Lars and I later discussed whether the sheep had been illegally shot or not. Most likely, we agreed, it had indeed been illegally shot. We bought a few eggs and lollipops from the teen boys and then we moved on to find camp.
Snow leopards and landslides
We met a shepherd on the road once, who had lost several of his sheep. “Tiger” he had told Lars, which should be translated into “snow leopard”. It was indeed true that we were in a snow leopard habitat. Unfortunately, chances of spotting this extremely endangered species, are pretty much equal to zero.
Still though, just the thought of a snow leopard wandering around, maybe within a 100 km radius from you, makes your heart pound a little extra. No doubt it is one of our planet’s most mythical carnivores. In fact I believe its act of hunt in the wild has only been documented by a film camera once in history. Sadly but not too surprisingly, we never saw any snow leopards. Neither did we ever see the Marco Polo sheep alive.
On our last night before Kudara, we had alarmingly steep mountain sides surrounding us in each direction with large boulders that had once fallen from the mountain scattered around everywhere, making me think of the trolls that turned into stone when trying to eat Bilbo Baggins. To make sure we’d be safe for the night, we camped behind one of these. The night was calm but as I went to do my business in the morning, it started.
A landslide. And I didn’t react immediately. I didn’t run when I should have. Not until I heard Lars shouting: RUUN! RUUUN!
That’s when I ran. I ran towards the words cried out on repeat: Ruun! RUUN! I ran as if my life was depending on it. Because it was.
I remember continuously glancing back over my shoulder as I ran. How the land slide escalated in size each time I looked. How the noise from boulders thumping to the ground got louder and louder. How the whole mountain seemed to decay above me. And I kept telling myself: faster faster faster
And then I was finally safe behind that huge boulder at our camp, catching my breath like crazy and with legs aching from lactic acid.
Lars said it had looked as if taken from an Indiana Jones movie, although instead of a hat I had been holding a roll of toilet paper. “So your trademark would be a roll of toilet paper instead of a hat!” Gah fine, I’ll do it. I’ll be the toilet paper girl.
After Kudara, wilderness
The real wilderness began after we exited the last village post; Kudara. From then on, there would be no more village until Karakol, 150 km northeast. That was also when the steeper climb began up to the plateau. Before, we had been slowly ascending through a narrow canyon.
Now we were finally to enter the open surfaces of the plateau lined with majestic mountain peaks reaching for the sky, some of them as high as 7000 m. Unfortunately, the sky was covered in clouds on the day when we were supposed to get our best views. Even though the scenery was less beautiful, it added some mystique to the experience.
No doubt the plateau was our favourite part of the Bartang Valley. The sights were more epic, and the sense of being in the wild was greater. Unlike the rocky, bumpy road in the canyon this one was made of sand; unfortunately it also meant it was a washboard (corrugations). Luckily, we could ride next to the road where the ground was packed and solid.
Though the Bartang Valley never was as tough and challenging as people had told us, we were pretty relieved when, after 9 days, we reunited with asphalt again, returning to the M41. I guess that’s the charm about a place like Bartang. The rumors go around… and nobody really knows for sure what happened and what did not happen to those who went there.
This post was written by Elvira and first appeared on Bike Syndrome.