One month of nature in its purest form in Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan

Being for more than 8500 km on the road means that we’re far from home in the unknown. The unknown makes our journey very exciting and feeds our curiosity. Yet, it also makes it all more intense. Fortunately, intensity consists of a mix of different elements such as history, people, culture and nature and this intensity differs between the different chapters of our travel. With the legendary Pamir Highway and its desolate moon landscapes as the next part of our journey to Tokyo, we prepared ourselves — with panniers full of food — for a next chapter which was all about breathtaking nature.

Video time: images say more than words in the case of Tajikistan

Cycling in Tajikistan— made by the one and only Manon Brulard

There are obviously many different ways to cycle from the west to the east. Yet, the Pamir Highway is something you don’t want to miss as a cyclist. That’s why it’s popular among cyclists and we came, as from Uzbekistan, for the first time across other bike tourists.

Our journey on the Pamir Highway — full itinerary on https://roadtotherisingsun.be/

From Uzbekistan into Tajikistan: from a dry to green environment

We were glad to have made it to Uzbekistan after our race against time in Turkmenistan. We took a few rest days in Bukhara and Samarkand, but noticed that the country — with its magnificent archeological sites as the Registan — is much more touristy and much less spontaneous than other countries we visited before. Moreover, its climate in summer is similar to Turkmenistan dry and hot. It felt like time for a change and soon after we crossed the border with Tajikistan we felt relieved to be surrounded by less cars and green landscapes.

On our way from the border to Dushanbe, we passed by the beautiful Fann Mountains.

Manon in autopilot mode on her way to the mountains
Perfect place under some trees to have lunch
Friendly locals who gave us some apricots
Kids in Tajikistan are on a mission to give as many high fives as possible to cyclists
Great mountain scenery on a small detour to lake Iskanderkul
Lake Iskanderkul, at an altitude of 2195 m, which was considered as one of the most beautiful lakes of the Soviet Union

On top of the last mountain pass before Dushanbe, at an altitude of 2700m, we had to cross the much-discussed Anzob tunnel, also called the tunnel of death among cyclists as it gained the reputation as being one of the world’s most dangerous tunnels with poor pavement, no ventilation, no lightning and a lot of coal trucks racing through it. We didn’t want to cycle through the tunnel, so we hitched and got picked up by truck full of coal rocks. The driver was used to help cyclists and he simply put our bicycles on the coal.

Entering the Anzob tunnel sitting in a truck
Selfie with the driver of the coal truck who helped us get through the tunnel
Stunning views on the descent from the Anzob tunnel to Dushanbe
Steep slopes on the descent: we had to be careful to not miss a turn

From Dushanbe to Khorog: cycling in a spectacular lush valley

Dushanbe was our last big stop before we officially started cycling on the Pamir Highway. As it was the last city with a wide variety of ingredients, we each filled one pannier with food for the next weeks. It turned out to be a very good choice since there isn’t much else to buy than some basics on the Pamir.

Tajikistan’s national dish: qurotob, a mix of bread and onions in a yogurt sauce — it’s super delicious

From Dushanbe to Khorog, there are two routes possible: the northern one, famous for dramatic landscapes but bad roads, and the southern one, known for its scenic route and perfect asphalt. As the latter sounded more appealing to us, we headed to the south and started cycling again in the heat. Golden hills soon surrounded us while cars became rarer.

On top of a serious climb near Shuro-obod
Beautiful yet challenging route to Shuro-obod
Very encouraging road sign — this is what we do it for!
Gift from a vendor along the street: our daily watermelon

A few kilometers before Danghara, we stopped at the memorial to remember the four cyclists who got killed in a terrorist attack last year. Feeling emotional, we stood there in silence, thinking about how unfair this is.

Memorial for the victims of last year’s terrorist attack

After a climb of 5 hours to Shuro-obod and a night in a weird hotel (remember the Grand Budapest Hotel? Something in those lines…), we rolled down to a stunning valley with the Panj River in-between. The Panj marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, meaning that we had the chance to observe bits of Afghan daily life: kids running to schools, motorbikes riding on dirt roads and villages of clay houses settled in small oasis.

Dramatic landscapes on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan
Afghan village surrounded by very high mountains
Fascinating views on Afghanistan

While traveling along the border with Afghanistan, Manon read A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini, which is an excellent novel taking place in Afghanistan (highly recommended!). Reading books about the environment we’re in is extremely inspiring— it provides us with more context.

Cycling along the Panj river
Cycling on rough roads with dramatic landscapes

Between Qalai Khum and Korog, we met a Belgian family we will never forget: the BE-5, a family from Nil-Saint-Vincent who is traveling by truck for more than a year. In the following days, we kept on bumping into each other and camped together for 3 nights. Being with them felt like coming home every night: the laughter, comfort and the instant appreciation of one another. Their family is filled with positivity, playfulness and freedom. Funny enough, it turns out that we were already following Vincent on Twitter and that Dries & him had lots in common (map geeks!).

Our comfort vs. their comfort
Last goodbye before we left Korogh
Arrival at the campsite: giving Manon a last push to the top
Our departure in Korogh: Diego, Noe and Flora didn’t want to let us go

From Khorog to Osh: nature in its most extreme form

After two days of rest in Khorog (and food!), we headed towards the M-41, known as the famous Pamir Highway. In order to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude, we decided to sleep maximum 500m higher each day. After four days, we were standing at the foot of our first pass (4200m). Excitement and much adrenaline made us climb and soon, we arrived on the Pamir plateau with its amazing moon landscapes.

Easy to camp along the road on the Pamir Highway
Slowly climbing to the top of the first mountain pass
Innovative way to reuse old car parts

Riding at this altitude can be though, yet it was extremely rewarding. It’s a place where nature takes its purest form and you feel the intensity of all the elements: the winds blowing, the snow-capped mountains around, the bitter cold when the night falls and the sound of the river. As human beings, you feel tiny and yet so alive. We climbed the biggest climb of our cyclist life: 4655m where we needed to stop every now and then to catch our breath, oxygen being already rare at this altitude.

Manon striking a very particular pose on her bicycle
Arrival at Alichur, one of the few villages on the Pamir
Cycling to the top of Ak Baital (4655m)
One of our highlights: we made it alive to the top of the Ak-Baital Pass (4655m)
View from the top of Ak Baital

Cycling the Pamir made us wonder: “How could it get better than this?”. It’s one of the most beautiful scenery we have cycled in so far. At the same time, it’s also our physically and mentally most challenging route taken!

Selfie in nomandsland/nowomansland (guess who told me to add this last word)
Some of the roads are in a poor condition
Climb to the top of another 4000+m pass
Taking a shower on the Pamir: in a container!
The bazaar in Murghab is a special one: it’s a container bazaar

From moon landscapes to endless grass fields

After having spent about one month in the stunning nature in Tajikistan, we were looking forward to going to the next country on our journey: Kyrgyzstan. Right after the border the landscapes drastically changed from moon landscapes to endless grass fields with yurts and yaks.

Our first yaks right after the border in Kyrgyzstan
Family living in a yurt
A future cyclist

Bye bye cycling, hello city life (at least for a week!)

Cycling the Pamir Highway was both mentally and physically very demanding. That’s why we’ll take a week off now in Osh and Bishkek. In both cities we’ll get good food and take time to relax, write, read and work.

Bicycles on a shared taxi between Osh and Bishkek: always an adventure
Dries presenting Open Summer of Code at the School of Data in Bishkek

Entering China in less than 2 weeks

We’re getting closer and closer to China! From Bishkek we’ll take a train to lake Issyk Kul, cycle further eastwards to Karakol and then cross a small part of Kazakhstan before entering China.

Dries Van Ransbeeck

Written by

Crazy about civic innovation, open data, liveable cities & long-distance bike touring. Coordinator @OpenKnowledgeBE.

Road to the Rising Sun

We’re Manon and Dries, cycling all the way from Brussels to Tokyo. This is our story!

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