The Pamirs: The Birth and Death of the Day

Sometimes, you run when you don’t actually need to. Other times, you don’t run when in fact you have to.

I am not sure whether I am standing there, as if completely paralyzed; because I don’t understand what is happening – or because I understand all too well.

I swear time is twisted around itself. It is all taking place in slow motion, and yet rushing faster than itself.

The first sign is a murmuring sound. First vague, crawling from a distance, and then louder – as if the barren valley transforms into a highway.

A cloud of dust from high above my head. The first bird fleeing. Then another one, and then a whole bunch of birds retreating from the rocks rumbling loose the mountainside.

“RUUN! RUUUNN!!”

And then Lars’ voice piercing the air from a distance, from that huge boulder behind which we had set camp to protect ourselves from the worst case scenario. And that’s when I do what I have to. That’s when I run.

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Among all the countries I have been to so far Turkmenistan is definitely one of those that I have put on my “must go back to-list”. Unfortunately I am way behind in my blogging so I won’t give you much detail about neither my stay in this nation nor its neighbour Uzbekistan, but I’ll give you a short briefing with a few photos.

dsc_0338dsc_0364The women in Turkmenistan dressed a lot more colourfully than Iranian women. Most wore long, beautiful dresses but didn’t necessarily cover their arms. Some didn’t wear head scarves and the ones who did usually wore them differently from what I am used to: Like a turban tied in their forehead or like a bandana tied in their neck.

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dsc_0374The majority of Turkmen people are extremely poor and yet this is the country of grand buildings and statues. The former dictator went so far in his narcissism and hybris that he even made a golden statue of himself in Ashgabat that moves so that it synchronizes the earth’s orbit around the sun, so that the beams of light always touch the dictator’s face. Dear Mr. Dictator, there should be plenty of better things to do with that money?dsc_0394

dsc_0371My two little friends in Mary, carefully and curiously investigating every single component of my bike.dsc_0422dsc_0423dsc_041190 % of Turkmenistan is desert and I got the impression of it being a wild, yet quite unexploited country in the sense of nature. Despite the striking heat I was frequently tempted to take off from the main road and explore one of those dirt roads leading to who knows where. An adventure of such is definitely on my to do-list, if they would just be willing to grant me more than a five days visa next time…dsc_0418dsc_0488I found the Turkmen people to be as generous as the Iranian people, and what I liked even better was that their generousity and kindness never felt as forced as Iranians’; It was always genuine. You see when I was in Iran I felt like they felt obliged to be kind simply to prove all the prejudices wrong (and it’s a shame really that they have to do this at all, that we are discriminating this country so damn much) but it just made it all wrong. There were simply too many people making sure: You love Iran, yes? Iranians are all very nice to you, yes? The Turkmens were never interested in asking this. They were just so at ease, and I felt so relaxed around them.dsc_0484dsc_0485

dsc_0380mmBravo Elvira, you completely worn out your first tire...

Once crossing borders to Uzbekistan I spent some nights in Bukhara, a former Silk Road metropolis, to recover from the tough Desert Dash ride.

dsc_0521dsc_0540dsc_0584dsc_0640dsc_0641dsc_0647dsc_0665 I rode just a few hours together with a Swizz couple heading to South-East Asia, this part of Uzbekistan was in fact quite mountaneousdsc_0681I spent one night under the stars on a farmer family’s lands and it’s one of my most precious memories from this trip. They were all sleeping under the stars but the kids since their little cabin wasn’t big enough for all of them. They barely had anything but yet they were so kind and I had so much fun that evening. They could not offer me a shower or a pair of those slippers that everyone wears indoors around here. But we could push each other around in the dirt and make fun of each other and I loved it!

The girl in the photos below is 16 years old and strong as an oxe. When I hit my head in a tree branch, she simply broke it off with her bare hands and a shrug of her shoulders: “Problem solved.” I will never forget her name. Mahleyo.dsc_0683dsc_0684dsc_0687dsc_0694dsc_0696dsc_0697Don’t ever assume that you are alone in Uzbekistan. There are literally people everywhere and even the most social person will go maniac from trying to reply to all the “hello! hello! hello! hello!” greetings in the villages. This field worker’s family in the photo came running out from the bush to say hi as I paused to drink some water.

The border crossings into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were both complicated and time-craving involving long interrogations that I had rehearsed in forehand and thorough investigations of my equipment. Crossing borders into Tajikistan felt like a bliss in comparison; they didn’t x-ray my panniers, didn’t ask me to open them to examine what was in them by hand; didn’t ask me to declare my money or show them my medicines. Nope, they were interested in nothing of that. Yet I ended up being held there for about half an hour. Reason being: They just had to know whether or not I would settle down in Tajikistan if I fell in love with a Tajik man. Well fellow solo females, I rather take another border crossing like this than nervously observing how a border guard goes through my panniers with that I am sure there’s narcotics in here-look. How about you?

The rumors about Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, turned out to be true. There were indeed a couple of real supermarkets there. (Trust me, if you have spent the past months in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran particularly (seriously I didn’t even find a real supermarket in Tehran!!) this is front-page news. In fact I still get euphoric each time I enter a big ass supermarket, letting my eyes smear upon all that wonderful edible stuff lined up on the shelves).

I met up with Lars in the city (whom I rode with in Georgia) and together we planned on taking on the supposedly toughest road one can take across the Pamirs; the Bartang Valley.

The first time I came across it back home I was in the office supposed to do work. Instead I ended up flickering my eyes upon the computer screen trying to find as much information as possible about this remote stretch of the Pamirs, spellbound by the photos a few bloggers had published. That was the most interesting thing though. There was not much information available about the Bartang Valley on the web. Not many people seemed to have done it.

Ever since it was on my highlight-list of my upcoming Eurasia-trip. I had to do it. If Lars would be on it? Dude. He is the Lost Cyclist!

We had to ride about 450 km on the Pamir Highway before taking off to our valley however, and we couldn’t help feeling a little impatient and restless as we did.

First off before we arrived into the actual Pamirs was a mountain pass of about 3200 m and we set camp just below the top as we couldn’t have enough of the views from there. It looked splendid really; The evening sun making the whole landscape appear like a painting created by an artist with a passion for contrasts; Patches of shadow and patches of highlight alternating one another.
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dsc_0732mmOnce we descended the mountain pass the next day, we reached a river. And not just any river. The river that parts Tajikistan from Afghanistan. It felt surreal, getting glimpses of Afghan people’s lives and greeting them with waves and cries as they were doing farm work or passed on a motor bike. And it felt unfair. That just because we were tourists on one side of the river, we were safe – well relatively. And just because they were villagers on the other side of the river, they had to live under constant fear of the taliban.

Riding on Tajik ground, Afghanistan to the right
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Lars and I often told each other the road looked more adventurous on the Afghan side of the river…
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Glimpses of Afghanistan: A girl collecting water by the river
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Boys playing with each other
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Farmers – I guess we did it the same way a hundred or two hundred years ago?
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We camped right next to that river once, and it is by far one of my all time favourite camp sites!

A bunch of photos from before Bartang Valley
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No wonder he was faster than me in the uphills! This just gotta be cheating!?dsc_0719
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dsc_0811The main highway in the Pamirs is quite populated with touring cyclists, and each time we told one we were going to do the Bartang Valley it seemed none didn’t actually believe we were going to make it. No, we were probably going to give up about halfway-through and have to turn around to 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!
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img_7470The 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.
dsc_1027The 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 nine days in Bartang Valley. We knew however that a bunch of Ukrainian cyclists had entered it just before us, so we were probably going after them the whole time.

the French guys hiking back to Rushan, they had apparently been walking for three days…
dsc_0849The first half of the valley is however 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 vast place? Suppression from their own? If anybody knows, please let us find out.

Seeing to how closely the road went by the river, it’s only logical it disappears into the water sometimes I guess…
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We had to make one pretty hard river crossing… the current was really strong and I thought I’d lose both myself and the bike to it at first!
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The people in Bartang Valley are poor and live off their own lands, but 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 matter. 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.

The views from going up and down a little pass in Bartang
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dsc_1006Don’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 ten days in Rushan.

Bridges like these brought up the discussion whether we should try them simply to see if they hold or not…
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In most villages in the valley women didn’t veil themselves or wear headscarves, but in one 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 it’s called in Russian, though I’m not sure of the spelling) 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 scull was lying on the layers of dust covered floor! Parts of the rotting meat and blood-drained fur was still smudged onto its scull, 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.

Another scull of the Marco Polo sheep, laying at the border to Kyrgyzstan
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These people below lived in a cabin in the middle of nowhere after we had left Kudara and they invited us in for tea
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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. By no doubt it is one of this 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.
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On our last night before Kudara I believe, 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 all calm but as I went to do my business in the morning however, 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 cryout words going on repeat: Ruun! RUUN! I ran as if my life were on it. Because it was.

I remember continously glancing back over my shoulder as I ran. How the land slide escalated in size each time I did. How the noise from boulders thumping to the ground got louder each time. 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, cathing 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.

The aftermath. Believe me it was huge, I never thought I would ever witness such a thing!
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We were a little nervous riding here after what had just happened…
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This photo is taken just upright the mountain side
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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 steppe-looking plateau lined with majestical mountain peaks reaching for the sky, some of them as high as 7000 m. Unfortunately, the sky was covered in clouds on one of these days when we were supposed to get our best views. Even though this meant lesser sceneries however, it added some mystique to it.
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No doubt the plateau was our favourite part of the Bartang Valley. The sights were more epical, 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, it was okay riding next to the road as the ground was packed and solid.
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My hunger gradually came back and here I could appreciate a Snickers pause...
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So Lars was convinced this was a seal at first. Then he was sure that “ok then, it’s just a rock”. But it was neither – it was a marmot and we saw plenty more of them on the plateau!
dsc_0114nnI I really liked the looks of this other one!dsc_0274
Though the Bartang Valley never was as tough and challenging as people had told us, we were pretty relieved when we after nine days reunited with asphalt again back on M41. I guess that’s the charm about a valley as such anyway. The rumors go around… and nobody really knows for sure what happened and what did not happen to those who went there.

From this…
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To back on asphalt!
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Ahhhhh Marmot attack!! FOR NARNIAAAA (Yep, that’s right. I mean comon he’s a freaking marmot – obviously a Narnian and not a Spartan, right?)
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Lake Karakul must be one of the most beautiful and breath-taking places on earth. My eyes just couldn’t get enough of it! Sadly, the pictures don’t really make it justice.
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Outside a shop in Karakol we ran into our first other touring cyclist since we left Rushan. He was from Holland and we shared camp with him for a night. The most interesting thing about him was that he suffered from narcolepsy. For those of you who don’t know this disease decreases the ability to regulate the sleep cycle and one can for instance unwillingly fall asleep in the middle of activities and those infected can – among other things – officially not drive cars. Unlike less fortunate however, this guy had learnt to feel his urge to sleep coming and hence stop what he was doing in time for it. When we rode together, he would therefore have to stop every now and then to let himself sleep for a few minutes next to the roadside.

With the cyclist from Holland
img_7497As you may tell from the pictures the Pamirs are generally an extremely dry, desert-looking mountain range and it felt unreal to cross the mountain pass that make out the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It wasn’t a gradual change. Nah, it was like an explosion – in a blink all those brownish rocky mountains transformed into a lush, prospering green. And the valleys became occupied with the nomad people’s yurts from which puffs of smoke were rising.

The landscape just before the borders to Kyrgyzstan
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In Kyrgyzstan
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The main reason for traffic congestions
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Spot the cyclist! (Below)
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Reunion at the Kyrgyz border! Funny as it is, Lars and I had both met these Austrians motor bikers before – but not at the same time. I met them at a hostel in Cappadocia back in Turkey, and Lars met them in Osh a couple of months later…
img_7505Kyrgyzstan was the easiest border crossing I have made since Bulgaria! Just a stamp and then we were in. To save ourselves some time we followed the main road for our whole duration in the country so there’s a lot to explore still – but no worries, Kyrgyzstan is visa free!

And in my next post I will explain why saving time was so important…
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The dark has fallen and the air is just perfect; Not too hot, not too cold; not too dry, not too humid. We have set camp on a beach next to the river, which means that the lands of Afghanistan are just about 50 m away. In fact, the steep, craggy-looking mountainside in Afghanistan is piling up so high and close to us that it kind of clutches onto our faces.

And it is all still. The only sounds are those splashing ones occasionally coming from the river, and the rhythmic performance of the crickets. Not to mention the sparkling from the open fire we have made. I look into the mysteriously dancing flames upon the carbonized wooden chips and inhale the scent of smoke as I let my thoughts wander away to places where I can merely see them.

There are no mosquitos bugging us. We are sitting in the sand – that kind of sand that’s perfectly smooth and cool when it softly touches your skin –  and we are eating a water melon that we have split in half. I let my half rest on my lap as I cut a square pattern in it just the way I was taught by a water melon seller earlier on, with the Swiss army knife that I got from my sister before I left. The sensation of the finegrained sand lightly embedding my feet and the fresh-tasting water melon in my mouth give me goosebumps and I feel so at peace.

Every now and then a mysterious light flashes from the Afghan side of the river high up on the mountainside, and we are wondering what it is. Field workers going home carrying a torchlight to see their way in the dark? Is our guess.

Above us, there is the endless black cradling millions of stars millions of light years away, and the fuzzy white powder of the milky way is the cradle’s blanket. A star falls. The biggest one I have ever seen and for a moment I believe it will crash into the earth crust as its tail stretches across the whole sky, intensely glowing white.

And I ask myself:

Is this life?

I can’t believe this is life

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Psst! For those of you who don’t mind reading in Swedish Lars has written his version of our ride together here

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