Guidebooks & maps
The Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia has the most comprehensive practical information. The recently published Odyssey guide presents a different viewpoint and offers a wealth of background material. More than for other destinations you will be dependent on details gleaned from the internet (see links).
We are lucky to live in the same town as Tim Barnes, who gave us a lot of useful information.
There are good tourist information offices in Khorog (attached to the museum) and in Murgab (at the META office).
The Soviet maps available from topomaps provide a few extra place names (in Cyrillic) but otherwise add nothing to Hausers much more convenient map.
There are no hotels east of Khorog. Mostly you will either camp or stay in informal accommodation.
Homestays are private households providing accommodation and meals commercially to travellers. Since the Tajik people are hospitable, it is said that anyone at all will be willing to put you up in their house, so there is a fine distinction between homestays and non-commercial private houses. It is said that the hosts of private houses will often decline payment, but this didnt happen to us.
In the posher homestays you may be given a lockable room or two of your own. At the other extreme you may sleep in a room normally occupied by the hosts. Most often a room or two is set aside for guests in the main house; clearly you have no way of securing your belongings.
Pamiri houses have raised platforms for living on. You will be given a mat and cushion, a duvet with a clean cover and a clean sheet for sleeping. Meals will be served at a low table which makes no compromises for westerners ungainly limbs. There will be a drop lavatory outside which is likely to be clean if it is owned by the homestay, and not if it is shared with other properties.
There exist a couple of places calling themselves guesthouses in Murgab, but we didnt stay in them and suspect that they are less luxurious than the homestays.
The Pamirs are not a gastronomic paradise. The foodstuffs are of poor quality and unvaried, especially on the Murgab plateau, the cuisine is a little unimaginative and the dishes are sometimes oversalted. Meals are best in the low-lying valleys of the western Pamirs, where market gardening is a common activity.
The national dish is plov, rice cooked with a few slices of carrot and some small scaps of lamb, and served moist. Tajik plov differs from Kyrgyz plov in the colour of the carrots (I am not making this up). Its a fairly stupid national dish, since it isnt very nice and the rice isnt grown locally.
In practice you will more often be served soup, which is the natural complement for the bread which is the staple of the Pamiri diet. The better soups incorporate vegetables and even herbs; the simpler ones are mostly potato and pasta in lamb broth.
The bread (in flat loaves) is good though a little dry: most families bake their own.
Sweeties and tea (often green) are served before the meal, and the tea is replenished as needed. Bread is broken at the start of the meal, and usually available in unlimited quantities.
Rice pudding is occasionally served for breakfast, and you sometimes get eggs. Like most peoples of west and central Asia, the Tajiks are fond of cherries, which they preserve in syrup and sometimes serve at breakfast-time.
Homestays provide breakfast, lunch and dinner to their guests, and tea as often as you want to drink it. They seem to be the best source of meals.
Places serving food are otherwise very rare. There is an occasional choikhana (tea house) or café, but we only ate at one in the whole of the Pamirs.
The larger villages have at least one shop, often operating from someones house, which may be unsignposted and hard to find: you have to ask. The Tajik word for shop is pronounced like the English word magazine.
There are also a few roadside stalls in villages, which may be useful sources of biscuits.
Bread is not often seen for sale. If you are staying in a homestay you can ask for a loaf to take with you, and will be given one free or at a small cost. You can ask people in their houses for bread, and they will usually provide you with some. But when we purchased bread in markets, the prices varied so much that we have no idea what is a fair price for a loaf: perhaps 2 somonis.
Cheese is almost never seen east of Khorog, although it would seem a natural product in the predominantly pastoral economy of the Pamirs.
Our customary camp breakfast is porridge. We bought some from the Tim supermarket in Dushanbe and saw a different brand available at the SHOP in Khorog: we saw none, nor any acceptable substitute, elsewhere. Fortunately we bought almost enough to last for entire trip. When we ran out we tried vermicelli in cocoa (horrible) and then dipping bread in cocoa (okay in small quantities). A French couple, Mat and Hélène, told us that they cooked semolina for breakfast: we dont know how widely available it is, or whether we could have stomached it ourselves.
The cocoa had been carried out from the UK. We bought some nuts and dried fruit (apricots and raisins) in Dushanbe market for snacks and to add variety to the porridge, though a limited range of dried fruit seems to be widely available.
We bought all the dried milk powder we needed from the Tim supermarket, and again verified that it could be obtained from the SHOP; we have differing recollections as to whether we saw it in Murgab.
Our recommendation is to stock up in Dushanbe or Khorog with everything you will need for breakfast during your entire trip.
Most cyclists seem to make do with cold snacks for lunch. Biscuits and swiss rolls are readily available, though they tend to dryness, and bread has already been mentioned.
We dont know how it is possible to get enough calorific intake from such unappetising fodder. We soon decided that the only way to eat an adequate meal was to cook a hot lunch. If we had spent the night in a homestay, we would take bread with us and cook up some soup from powder, dunking the bread in it. Otherwise we would make a meal with Rollton 5-minute noodles, which come with their own quite pleasant soup mix and are available from almost all food shops. We used two packets of noodles between us, but towards the end wished we had budgeted for three per lunch.
The soup powder had been carried out from the UK, and we often mixed it at half strength. We wished wed taken more.
For dinner we usually cooked up pasta in powdered soup from the UK. Pasta is available from all shops, so there is no need to carry much.
We took some finely chopped porcini mushrooms and some curry powder from the UK; more of the former would have been welcome.
When we managed to buy and to carry tomatoes with us, we cooked them up as a soup/sauce. We wish this had been more often.
The petrol we bought in Dushanbe lasted for the entire trip. Some people have reported problems with Tajik fuel, but ours burnt happily in an MSR XG-K stove, though the filler cable and fuel tube needed more frequent cleaning than we usually give.
We cooked 9 breakfasts and dinners while camping and 14 picnic lunches, making 32 meals in total, each accompanied by a hot drink, and working out as about 55ml of petrol per meal.
Mostly we drew water from streams, purifying it when we doubted the quality. We sometimes thought wed been rash in drinking untreated water, but it never seemed to do us any harm. On a couple of occasions we had to ask people in villages to give us water, but they were always happy to do so.
We usually encountered a water source every 10-15km, but drier stretches can be identified from the Hauser map and we try to mention them in our route notes.
You can occasionally buy Jalalabat mineral water, which is lightly sparkling and quite delicious even when its gone flat.
You can easily buy tea from shops, and as easily tire of it. Sachets of powdered fruit juice are also widely available (unlike in the UK, where such things cannot be found). Theres a bewildering variety in Khorog market, but on the road we saw two brands: Subi Subi Swiss Formula and Kent Boringer Ice (made in Turkey). Tracey detected a chemical aftertaste in both, but found it less pronounced in the Turkish product.
Roads are not usually this bad.
Those crowded roads
Old versions of the Lonely Planet speak of the Pamirs receiving only 150 visitors per year, so we expected to be pioneers. But from the very beginning, when we identified the OVIR office in Khorog from the tour bikes leaning against it, we were surprised by the number of tourists we encountered, many of whom were cycling. We encountered other cyclists on most days, and on our return to Khorog we were told that eight were staying at the Pamir Lodge.
The majority of cyclists were on massive transcontinental tours, showing us up as mere holidaymakers.
The greatest number of independent travellers seem to be Swiss, with Italians in second place. The group tours we encountered were run by the Italian company Viaggi nel Mondo which has some rather macho yellow 4WD buses, and three of whose groups converged on Karakul while we were there.
The British cycle tour company Red Spokes ran a tour through Tajikistan a month before our arrival, and have it again in their program for 2009.
As we rode through Pish, a youth in a group brandished a stake at Colin in a half-jesting, half-threatening way. Tracey thought he was on drugs. We wouldnt mention it except that a cyclist called Blaise was robbed nearby in 2007: it seems to be a bad place.
We suffered a little from pilfering, in part through being too trusting. Several items were taken from our pannier pockets at Langar.
At Murgab someone helped himself to Colins camera from our homestay, where we had strewn our belongings haphazardly. We suspect a driver who was lodging there. Its probably best, if you have nowhere to secure your belongings, to keep everything valuable in your panniers.
Bill Weir, who made an extended journey in Central Asia during the summer of 2008, posted a security warning on the Thorn Tree listing the unfortunate occurrences which had come to his attention:
The worst story is of a solo woman cyclist attacked by a man in a very remote part of Tajikistan, just south of Khargush Pass near the Wakhan Valley. The attacker wrenched her arm and dislocated her shoulder, but she fought him off and rode on until she could get help. Police have arrested the man, but the injured shoulder ended the Tajikistan cycling. In olden days men would kidnap women for brides, and some men still have this crazy idea. A woman will be much safer in this region with a male companion.
Driving standards are low in the region, and traffic police are rarely seen outside the towns. I met a cyclist who was hit by a speeding and out-of-control car in the high country south of Bishkek. The cyclist and bicycle went flying through the air. He survived without any major injury, but the bicycle was trashed. He got a local mountain bike and continued his riding. Us cyclists need to be extra alert for reckless drivers in the region.
Bicycle theft is common, most often in Kyrgyzstan, but thats probably because more cyclists go there. Bicycles stolen in villages usually get recovered, it seems, but not those taken in the cities. Be sure to lock the bicycle to something solid, or at least to the tent. A teenage boy stole my bicycle when I camped in Kazakhstan. Police were very helpful and got it back the next day, but many accessories were stripped off and lost; also my front rack was broken in two. The police told me that its dangerous to camp near villages. So either camp where nobody is around or seek out a homestay. Most people are hospitable and will help you find a place for the night. Losing your bicycle or gear is a trip ender because touring bicycles and gear are not available in the region. Bicycle theft is particularly cruel because most of us travelers have come half a world away to visit Central Asia.
Opportunistic theft is also a big problem targeting us travelers. I met one noncyclist who went to a bazaar in Bishkek and tucked her money belt under her arm while making a transaction. A thief came up from behind and made off with her money, passport, and visas all time consuming and costly to replace.
I also had particularly bad luck in Khorog (Tajikistan) where someone stole my cycle computer (the mount had been stolen in Kazakhstan, so the computer was taped on the bicycle and not easily removed). On another day someone hit me in the foot with a rock, trash was thrown at me, and a checkpoint policeman east of town said problem and demanded $50 (he got a firm nyet instead). Now I always bring my bicycle inside when in towns. Central Asian towns in general seem to be more dangerous at night; I try to be off the streets by nightfall.
So is Central Asia worth a visit? I found Kyrgyzstan and especially Tajikistan to have very beautiful mountains and mostly very hospitable people. Im glad that I cycled in those countries, but road conditions and the bad people have made this region the most difficult of my Asian travels.
Thorn bushes are much used in the western Pamirs. Branches are cut from them to make fences to protect fields and orchards from livestock. The thorns are a common cause of punctures.
Dogs are generally well behaved.
We both suffered at times from upset stomachs, as did several of the other cyclists we met.
We travelled in August expecting it to be the best month, but were rather disappointed by the conditions. Initially Tajikistan was subject to Afghan weather: a dust haze which limits visibility to a few km. This period was otherwise hot, sunny and dry, and the wind was no stronger than at other times. We have no idea what causes the haze, or how common it is, or whether it is specific to high summer.
The dust was displaced by a cold cloudy spell, and only when we were on the way to Karakul did clear skies take over. A little fluffy cloud would bubble up over the mountains in the afternoon, but that is only to be expected.
Bill Weir a month later had consistently good conditions with attractive autumn foliage.
The Pamirs are noted for their winds, which blow almost invariably from the west.
In an excess of caution we took five-season sleeping bags, which were too hot. Three-season bags would have been sufficient.
2007/8 was a hard winter in most of Tajikistan but mild in the high Pamirs, which for the second year running received less than their usual amount of precipitation. In a typical year water will be easier to find than it was for us, streams will be harder to ford, and mountains will be snowier.
For the first time since the cold war, Ramadan is starting to encroach on the tourist season. Bill Weir, who spent the whole of Ramadan in Tajikistan in 2008, found that it made almost no difference, and that in only one village did he notice people observing the fast.
Our route wasnt ideal, since we rose from 2000m to 4000m with no subsidiary high points along the way; but at least the altitude was gained slowly.
Dont plan to cycle high passes without reading up first on the medical effects of altitude. Strength and fitness are no protection against altitude sickness, although they do mitigate the weakening effects of a thin atmosphere.
One of the banks at Khorog has an ATM. There is also a bank in Murgab which will exchange dollar bills for somonis, as will several money changers in the Pamirs.
Prices are sometimes quoted in dollars when payment is expected in somonis, conversion being implicit at the standard rate. The Khorog Serena quotes prices in dollars and accepts payment in dollars, but the dollar price equates to a somoni price at one exchange rate, and dollars are accepted in lieu of somonis at another, so that the dollar price is not in fact the price you pay in dollars.
Prices are low by western standards but high relative to other places in the third world. In part this may be because tourism is new to the Pamirs, and people havent learnt how to set prices. No one seems to be getting rich from tourism, though this may change. In part the prices seem unaccountable.
The most we were charged at a homestay was at Karakul, where we paid 140 somonis (£20) for the two of us for one night. This included all meals but no hot water. India is much better value.
Tajik is a form of Persian, but probably not the first language of many people in the Pamirs. The valleys in the west each have their own dialect, while the language of the plateau is Kyrgyz, a form of Turkish. Generally we found communication hard except when someone knew English, as was usually the case at homestays.
People often regretted that we didnt know Russian, but Russian is harder to learn than Tajik and in large measure the language of officialdom. We learnt only the word for beer (for which we had insufficient use), and most of the tourists we met had taken their studies no further.
Tajik is written in an adapted form of the Cyrillic script, described in a Wikipedia article.
We would have liked to cycle the Bartang valley but were disuaded from doing so by reports of it being impassable. It sounds like a desirable objective, though it is said to be difficult (particularly in ascent) and to necessitate several stream crossings. We could find almost no practical information about it. Bill Weir visited the lower reaches, and didnt find the valley as scenic as the alternatives.
The Pamir highway is the best known route in the region. It connects Dushanbe with Khorog (we say a few words about this section elsewhere) and then climbs along the Gunt valley on its way to Murgab, finally turning northwards past Karakul into Kyrgyzstan.
Our natural preference for back roads led to our staying away from the Gunt valley, which certainly offers the greatest quantity of tarmac to riders for whom that is a consideration. Bill Weir enjoyed it.
With our present knowledge we see considerable appeal in the following attractive and challenging circuit. Ride north from Khorog as far as Rushan, and then up the Bartang valley, taking the northern fork to Karakul, and head to Murgab over the Ak Baital pass. Stay on the Pamir highway until the turning for the Kokbai pass, and cross to the Shakhdara valley, immediately leaving it by the Matz pass in the direction of the Panj valley, which you then follow back to Khorog.