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Marion Shoote: Sunburnt Rock and Desiccated Peaks – Bikepacking the Pamir Highway
For me, bikepacking is about being able to explore those remote corners of the world that are otherwise hard to travel through at the right pace. Self-sufficiency is key: pack up your bike with your tent, food and some spare layers, and head off into your chosen slice of wilderness to see what the day will bring. You never quite know what is going to happen each day: what you're going to see, who you're going to encounter or where you're going to sleep that night. If my trips over the years have taught me anything about bikepacking it's to not worry about it; embrace the beautiful randomness of it all and allow yourself to be carried along.
A recent trip took me and my husband Ed to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to ride the remote Pamir Highway. Juggling full-time jobs after many years of travelling made us restless to immerse ourselves in some more breathtaking Central Asian scenery. Combined with the pull of a demanding bike trip, we booked flights to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. What followed was a rather dream-like experience: three weeks of intense physical exercise and mental immersion in a landscape that both physically and metaphorically took our breath away.
Our first view of the Pamir range came at the end of day two after what felt at the time like a hard couple of days' riding, but they would soon pale into insignificance. As we descended another pass, we rounded a bend in the valley to reveal a line of immense peaks stretching across the horizon, their snow-shrouded summits reaching up into the evening light.
Riding across the grassy plains towards them the following day, it was impossible to see where we could penetrate this natural barrier, but the road found a way. Twisting away from the river up a side valley, our track deteriorated to red earth scoured by the weather as we headed towards the Tajik border.
Finally we reached a pass and stopped to melt snow for tea, our stove spluttering at over 4000 metres. Yesterday's dry bread did little to re-energise us, firstly for the baffling bureaucracy of the border crossing and then for the next section of the ride. As we descended from the ridge we found ourselves on a wild desert plain, completely empty except for the road stretching away from us, too barren for anything to grow. In places like these I revel in the feeling of my own insignificance and enjoy being just a little dot in the landscape.
We rode on, across the grey rocky expanse, chased away by an enormous dust storm roused by the swirling winds. The a perpetual headwind was becoming a defining feature of the trip and would bring us howling to a near-standstill several times each day. It made each stretch of road endless as we ground our way along heads down, lifting them only to gape at the raw beauty of our surroundings and be astounded each time.
Wild camping in this landscape gave us a chance to be still, to listen to the wind's song over the rocks and watch the colours change on the desert mountains. We sought shelter where we could: in a dry riverbed above the bright blue expanse of Lake Karakol or tucked between stony hummocks on the banks of the river that formed the Afghan border. Where possible we stayed in homestays, enjoying the opportunity to see a little of Tajik life. Our hosts were always friendly, keen to tell us about their lives as well as to understand where we’d come from to end up on their doorstep. Our favourite was a yurtstay in a tiny windswept village. We slept soundly under a pile of colourful blankets next to a glowing yak-dung fire while the wind tore ineffectually at the felt walls.
After a week crossing the high desert plains, winding our way amongst the desiccated peaks, we turned off the highway onto a sandy track, choosing a detour that would take us down to the floor of the Wakhan valley and thus the Afghan border. The Wakhan is a place so full of history and culture that it is a privilege to have seen even a corner of it. Here, civilisation after civilisation has battled for control and ancient petroglyphs rub shoulders with a Buddhist stupa and hilltop forts; here the children grow up speaking five languages and you cannot buy a can of Coca Cola.
From here, we followed the river-border, waving at Afghan children on their way to school and nodding at soldiers fishing in the river in their pants. We stayed with the headmaster of a local school and learnt to count in Tajik with his tiny grandson. We ate apricots and cucumbers grown in local gardens – a joy after many meals of noodles. And all the while challenging our legs to keep pushing us forward, into the wind, over the stones, up the next hill.
Our final week meant it was time to find our way back to Osh and reluctantly wake from this dream of sunburnt rock, towering peaks and valley oases. We knew then that we'd be back to see more of this remarkable corner of the world.
A big thank you to our sponsors: Kinesis, Apidura and FINDRA clothing.
Written by Marion Shoote: A cyclist, runner and snowboarder based in the Scottish Borders. She is one half of adventure travel and photography blog WeLoveMountains.net. Marion has spent the last fifteen years exploring remote corners of the world by bike and snowboard, but also loves all the adventures Scotland has to offer from her doorstep.