Tajikistan & the Pamir Highway

Past World Cycling Tour - 2009

Getting a flight into Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, proved a challenge, but one well worthwhile. Time did not allow me to ride the Pamir all the way to Osh, as I branched at Sari Tas in Kyrgyzstan, east to Kashgar in Xinjiang, China. This was a hard ride, much of it on the high altitude Pamir Plateau, days on end above 4,000m.  

It was a trip of incredible sights, remote riding, friendly people, limited infrastructure, unnerving army patrols & checkpoints (we were following the Afghan border much of the way), and welcome towns. This trip was also special as I met, and occasionally rode with, a number of hardy expedition cyclists, most of them doing the ride across Asia, 6 months to 2 years in the saddle.  

World location map, Tajikistan & Pamir Highway, Xinjiang, bike tour

Check out the SLIDESHOW

If you hover over the picture below, you'll see forward/backward arrows for navigating.  Click on the slide to open in viewer mode (good to see text when viewing with small mobile screen). Some of the comments were packaged after my visit, and may no longer be current.

Urumqi, Xinjiang (again)
Urumqi, Xinjiang (again)

I flew into Urumqi, far west capital of vast Xinjiang. After a day, I hopped on a regional charter to Dushanbe, capital of nearby Tajikistan (after suspense about whether they'd actually load my bike!) See earlier slideshow for 'Xinjiang & the Karakoram' for more on Xinjiang

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Parliament building, Dushanbe
Parliament building, Dushanbe

Dushanbe has a population of ~600,000. It struck me as surprisingly empty for a national capital, aside from several police who tried to squeeze a little money from me. This was only a village as recently as 85 years past, when it was named the capital of the new Soviet Tajik Republic. They became independent from the collapsing USSR in 1991.

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Urumqi departures
Urumqi departures

Photo with a performer from a street theatre group. 2 days after I left Urumqi, the city was wracked by horrific ethnic violence, mostly local Muslim Uighurs against mainly immigrant Han Chinese. Several hundred were killed. The Uighurs feel oppressed and biased against, and are becoming a minority in their own land. Authorities clamped down ferociously. The only certainty is that this will not have been the final chapter in a grim business.

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Urumqi, Xinjiang (again)
Urumqi, Xinjiang (again)

I flew into Urumqi, far west capital of vast Xinjiang. After a day, I hopped on a regional charter to Dushanbe, capital of nearby Tajikistan (after suspense about whether they'd actually load my bike!) See earlier slideshow for 'Xinjiang & the Karakoram' for more on Xinjiang

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Tajikistan & the Pamir Highway - Route

I flew into Dushanbe, underwhelming capital of Tajikistan, on a regional connector from Urumqi, in Xinjiang, West China (more on this below). Headed off east to Khalaikhum, but was forced to turn back after after a day - the story was that the government was fighting a warlord who had recently returned from Afghanistan. Tried again on an alternate southern route via Kulyab, the home town of President Rakhmonov (which had the grand infrastructure to prove it).

 

Then west to the Panj River, border with northern Afghanistan, which I followed for over a week. Beautiful, with some tough going. Rode a couple of days with a Dutch couple making their way to Australia. Reached Khorog, the west end of the iconic Pamir Highway. Met a few other travellers, and wandered the market and the university, sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation. Then climbing up into the high mountains in the company of several jovial Spaniards. Very remote, wild camping most nights, several nights in homestays of herders. Reached Murghab, hardscrabble town near the Chinese border, over 3,500m, where the market is a lot full of container van stalls.

 

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Cycle touring route map | Tajikistan & the Pamir Highway | cycling Xinjiang

Then north over Ak Baital Pass (4,600+m), past windswept Karakul Lake, and up Kizil-Art Pass to the border with Kyrgyzstan. Down and down into the Alay Valley and the town of Sary Tas. From here, east to the Chinese border, then on to the silk road centre of Kashgar, one of my favourite cities. My riding route in the map above ends here.

But there were several more chapters to this trip. I took the train NE to Kuche, along the northern Taklamakan desert. From Kuche I set off north on an alternate back route to Urumqi, seeking to ride through the Bayanbulak Basin and fabled grasslands of the Tian Shan Mountains. In my earlier visit to Xinjiang, I had ridden north from Korla on a shorter backroads route, and it had been so memorable.  Alas, I was stopped at a checkpoint, and turned back - apparently, Bayanbulak is a sensitive area. 

Back in Urumqi, I enjoyed the bustle and street food for several days, then flew out, once more thinking of Urumqi as a wonderful surprise. Shows how attuned I can be: 2 days after I left, the city was convulsed by horrific ethnic violence between the native Muslim Uighurs and the mostly migrant Han Chinese. Repercussions continue to this day.