Wednesday, July 6, 2011

TAJIKISTAN - Khorog to Karakul via the Bartang Valley

Khorog-Bartang valley-Karakul lake-Kyrzyl Art pass 
June 13-20

Distance: 421 kms     8 days riding
Sealed: 139kms  Dirt: 282kms
Elevation gain: 4820m
Odometer: 3592m

This was another backroad route I took to complete my circuit of the Pamirs, this time following a remote valley in the Western Pamirs and climbing back onto the plateau. Dramatic landscape through the impressive canyon country, with friendly people in the small villages and some great campsites. The road quickly became a 4WD track with some very rough steep sections at the head of the valley as it left the last settled village. Very little food en route, so I stocked up with 7 days of food in Khorog. I bought (or ws kindly given) a few staples like bread and sugar from houses along the way.

From the Bartang valley, looking into a side valley (Ghijez).

 I kept meeting people tending flocks of goats. This is Saeeda, who spoke a little English. She and her friends kindly invited me to a picnic lunch and put on a billy of tea for me.

A man I met wandering down the desolate road. He's wearing the traditional Pamiri hat.

The road through the Bartang valley is often washed by the raging river. Here the water laps up against the road. Last year 3 bridges were destroyed by summer rain and some sections like this one were inundated. Many villages upriver were cut off.

The road also goes through large sandy areas, hard pedalling on a fully-laden bike.

Then the bumpy stony stretches, as the track traverses rocky plains (like the 'gibber' plains of central Australia, but here the stones are much bigger).

Towards Yapshorv, and the road meanders high above the valley floor. Lots of steep climbs and descents.

Some bridges were flimsy affairs, made of sticks and stones.  Lucky I didn't have to cross this one.

One of my idyllic campsites. This one just beyond Yapshorv, with Mt Lapanazar 5994m looming above. Revolution Peak (6940m) was ever so close but obscured by lesser peaks and tucked away in the parallel valley was Fedchenko Glacier, at 77kms long, the largest glacier outside the polar iace caps.

The austere beauty of the upper Bartang valley

The bridge crossings were often a bit scary with the raging torrent rushing by under my feet.

Up and down the rocky plains - a bad section of the road between Rukukh and Ghudara

Rozik was walking to Ghudara (40kms from his village) and offered to help me push the bike up the very steep road. He was a volunteer for a local NGO, doing environmental advocacy work in the valley.

In the village of Bopasor, I was invited into a small house for tea, yoghurt and bread. Here is my host, Baktibekov Runazar and his two daughters, Ayora and Soyiba. The Pamiri girls often carry around their pet goats.

Ooops! Negotiating this bridge, a large boulder fell through the bridge, leaving the back wheel wedged in the gaping hole.

The kids of Ghudara village, the last settlement in the valley.

In Ghudara village I stayed with the Baktibekov family. This little girl followed me everywhere - such a sweet-natured kid always beaming with this angelic smile. I kept whistling The Police tune - "Every little Thing she does is Tajik"

The matriarch of the Bakitbekov family, who raised a family of five on her own. She's firing up the tandor, the outdoor oven to bake bread. Within 15 minutes I had 2 loaves of freshly baked bread to take on the road.

Bobi Baktibekov, one of the sons of the family. He was a kind and knowledgeable host, telling me much about the history of Ghudara and the upper Bartang.

After Ghudara the track became quite difficult. This stretch of road near Kok Jar was a killer late in the day. Clinging to the crumbling hillside the track left the river and climbed steeply to a pass. In 6kms, the elevation gain was 550m!. The surface was so bad I couldn't even push the bike- so I did 'the Bartang Shuffle', pushing the bike for 1 km. with just front panniers and then going back for the heavier rear panniers and backpack. I also had little water with me. It was getting late and I had to find camp soon!

7pm, feeling buggered and thirsty I looked down  from the pass onto this idyllic meadow by a stream. For other cyclists coming this way, it is 44kms from Ghudara to this camp. I only averaged 7kph, and it was a total climb of 1100m. A long hard slog, but what a reward at the end of the day!
This is 'Haibe', a dog who slept outside my tent waiting for morsels. While I was pitching my tent in the fading light, a family of nomadic shepherds rushed down to my campsite with a large tray of food, including a plastic container of fresh, warm goats milk. I was saving it for my porridge at breakfast, but during the night Haibe quietly crept under the tent flap and slipped away with it between his teeth. This is next morning, a very sheepish dog and the  tell-tale signs of the theft - look for the teeth marks.
The food which two women brought to my campsite on trays. Fresh bread, yogurt, cream and milk. One of the kindest gestures of hospitality I've ever received on the road. This was a very remote spot, miles from any settlement, and they were living in a very primitive shelter. This is pure Pamir hospitality.

This is the very hospitable Murkareeva family -  nomads from the village of Roshorv, 100 kms away down the Bartang.
They move their goats to this high pasture  at 3700m every summer and spend 6 months in this remote but beautiful valley.

The Murkareeva girls and their pet goats.

A self-portrait on a rare smooth section of road. Superb cycling high on the plateau again.

Geoglyphs dotting the broad plain at Shurali at 3750m. They are thought to be a 2500-year old solar calendar, marking the equinox and solstice. Very eerie and otherworldly place.

Swirling dust devils sweep up out of nowhere. Muzkol range in the background.

My campsite in the  Kokuibel valley.

Off road again in the soft sand. In the background is the Pamir Alay range, marking the Tajik/Kyrgyz border. Pik Lenin at 7094m is the flat-topped peak on the right.

High-altitude skies on the plateau.

Lunch-time - resting up after fording the chilly waters of the Muzkol river.

Astronomers and geologists from France and Poland at Karakul lake. They were searching for clues of the meteorite which created the lake 10 million years ago. We stayed up late at the homestay drinking French wine and discussing all things planetary. To complete the picture, the early morning moon in orbit above their heads.

Pamir Alay range behind Karakul lake

Karakul Lake 3950m

Moonscape above Karakul lake, climbing towards Kyzyl Art pass. A lovely fine crisp morning with views of the lake, the Alay range and the island. The scientists were out on the island in the lake, collecting rock samples of the meteorite.

The Chinese have erected this ridiculous border fence inside Tajik territory.

Just below the Kyzyl Art pass 4300m. I crossed this pass in May and was greeted by a wild snowstorm- so it was good to get views this time around.


  1. I'd love to cycle from karakul to Ghudara and up to Pasor.
    Bravo for your lovely pictures.

  2. Beautiful story. Can I ask you some questions? The road to Karakul is always visible or there is the risk of getting lost? There is possibility of finding food in this week it takes to go all the way? Same question for drinking water. How many villages are there in these 400km? Sorry for all these questions, and thanks for the help.

  3. Loved going on this journey. Even if it was only virtually. Absolutely beautiful and stunning. Thank you.