An Audience with Lenin

The Pamir Highway

Andreas and Claudia Hϋlsmann first rode the Pamir Highway back in 2006. Now they’re back for another bite of big mountain terrain – and a glimpse of one particularly elusive peak…

Lenin Peak has rejected us again! It’s our second visit here and it’s still not visible. As we approach, the 7,155m giant creeps away behind big clouds and our hearts sink. We were at this spot three years ago, and it was the same story then. Lenin Peak isn’t the highest mountain in the Pamir, but it’s the most impressive. This massive rock rises more than 4,000 meters from the plains of Kashkar Suu. Some- times, only for short moments, the tip appears between the white hazy curtains. But the wind is blowing constantly and carrying huge billowing clouds towards the Pamir massif. Lenin won’t be granting us an audience today.

We left Osh two days ago and are now following the Pamir Highway. The Pamir is the second highest mountain range in the world. In former times, trade caravans and soldiers crossed the Pamir, plagued with cold and suffering from altitude sickness. Today the Pamir Highway makes crossing this remote mountain scenery easier; nevertheless, the skyway between 3,000 and 4,000m is still an adventure.

We’d spent three very enjoyable days in Osh, south Kyrgystan. The city is an oasis; one of the largest markets of Central Asia is located directly in the centre. It’s a lively shopping spot which sees thousands of visitors every day. An endless queue of minibusses carries the customers to the market, where they’re soon engulfed by the chaos of stands, restaurants and shops.

We would have gladly stayed longer in Salimas Guesthouse in Osh, enjoying our landlady’s excellent cooking and command of the local ingredients, but we didn’t have the time. With our visa for Tadzhikistan about to expire, we had a deadline to meet. Yesterday we faced the first challenge on the Pamir Highway: The Taldyk Pass. At 3,615m it’s by no means the highest pass along the highway, but it’s certainly the most crooked. Bend after bend gives way to yet another, and the whole road up is covered in a deep dust. As we ride, hundreds of Chinese road-workers are laying asphalt on the road; it’s being dug, shovelled, blasted and levelled all the way. ‘But why are Chinese guys doing the work and not the Kyrgyz people?’ you ask. The answer is simple. Whoever pays the bills calls the shots when there are big decisions to be made, and the Chinese don’t trust others. This kind of development is a huge investment in the future of the Middle Kingdom. Extensive roadworks will open the doors to the markets in Central Asia, and China wants to be at the forefront of these business dealings.

The Pamir Highway

Photo: Andreas and Claudia Hϋlsmann

A good day’s riding later and we’ve already passed Sary Tash, the last village for the next 250km and our last chance to fill the tank. The border of Tajikistan is only a stone’s throw away. It’s time to change the map. I’ve looked over this piece of paper so many times, carefully folding and unfolding it; every time I do, I get excited. The cover reads simply: The Pamirs 1:500000. But behind the relatively boring title hides a unique richness of detail and descriptions about the place.

We leave Lenin and head towards the border. Twenty minutes later we’re faced with the Tajikistan border customs officer. This guy is a composition of a hygienically neglected body, exhaustion, and listlessness. We’ve disturbed him and he takes out his displeasure about the upcoming work on a Tadzhikistan family that is waiting with us in a rotten van at the border. The officer harasses the family at every available opportunity. Only when a goat changes hands does the situation improve. It’s a horrendous entry fee for the family, but sadly, that’s how the game is played. Whoever has the power makes the rules. We have nothing to do with these goings on though. We’re foreigners and that means we’re a matter for the boss. He’s not the fastest but he’s very professional-looking in his smart suit and everything he does is above board; he doesn’t ask for any ‘souvenirs’ or other special gifts.

Between the Kyrgyz and Tajik border post – our next port of call – lays the Kyzyl Pass. At 4,380m it’s a serious challenge. A steep, worn-out track seems to lead straight up into the sky and is peppered with sharp turns and deep gouges. It’s basically a wreck. Parts of the track are missing having been washed away completely by heavy rain.

Ascending another 380m and we reach the Tajik border post, which sits just under 4,000m. The high altitude here is a challenge for the bikes as the thin air reduces power; it also makes breathing difficult. We’ll be living in these conditions for the foreseeable future. The customs officer is a cheerful chap, though, which makes the border crossing easy for us. Passport control, customs formalities for the bikes, road tax – everything is done in minutes. And that’s it! We are in Tajikistan. We’re on the Pamir plateau.

The Pamir Highway

Photo: Andreas and Claudia Hϋlsmann

The vista is literally breathtaking. A seemingly endless world lies ahead of us. The air tastes of dust and the wind seems eternal. There is no vegetation at all on the plateau; the Pamir Mountains are a dry zone. After a few kilometres the asphalt begins, but it doesn’t make driving on the highway any more comfortable. Whenever the magnificent scenery catches my full attention, that’s when the potholes spring up. These huge craters appear without any warning, some of them seem to swallow my whole front wheel!

Crossing the Uybulak we complete the next 4,000m pass and by the end of the day we arrive in Kara Kul, the biggest lake in the Pamir and one of the highest lakes in the world. The water is encircled by enormous mountains which are more than 6,000m high. Being surrounded by all this beauty is close to decadence. The nights at this high altitude are freezing. When the sun goes down it gets cold at the lake. The chillness gets under your skin and the only way to prevent it from doing so is to creep into sleeping bags.

Our destination the following day is the highest point of the whole journey; the Akbaytal Pass at 4,655m. Near the top lives our friend Ramal with his family. His father’s job is to keep the pass free, which is no problem in summer, but in the winter the heavy snowfall and severe storms makes it a hopeless venture. Leaving Kara Kul Lake, the highway snakes along the edge of the Chinese boarder; a massive barbed wire fence secures a buffer zone between the countries. It seems China is a very territorial neighbour.

Eventually we reach Murghab where we stay at Ibrahim’s Guesthouse. Anara, Ibrahim’s sister knows how to cook – especially French fries! After all this rice with mutton, Anara’s French fries are a culinary delight, and the Soljanka (Russian soup) and Palmeni (stuffed dumplings) are a tasty revelation, too. After enjoying two days of Anara’s hospitality we’re back on the Pamir Highway/ Next destination: Bazar Dara. The track up to this place is steep, narrow and gravelly. We battle against the terrain, but in the end our efforts are thwarted and we have to turn back; a massive landslide has destroyed the way. Sixty meters of street simply vanished and even turning the bikes around is a challenge on what remains of the road.

The Pamir Highway

Photo: Andreas and Claudia Hϋlsmann

We barely make it to the Key Tezek Pass before the sun sets. We were here three years ago and we want to call in on a family of herdsmen we met the last time we came. They live in an old Russian Pass Station; the family doesn’t recognise us at first, but then we produce a photograph from our first meeting and the memories come flooding back. The head of the family died last winter and we can see that the herdsmen have experienced some hard times. His successor is young and still inexperienced; there’s a noticeable lack of necessary things in their small home. We bought vegetables in Murghab which we offer for lunch as the family have invited us to stay; despite the poverty there is no limit to their hospitality. We’re fed a handsome meal of bread, cheese, yak-butter, yoghurt and tons of tea. Claudia’s always prepared for these kinds of situations and always carries a small present of soap, cream and other toiletries in her panniers. These small things put a smile on the herdsmen’s faces. They strictly refuse the money that we offer for the meal. We still have to get used to the fact that hospitality in the Pamir is free of charge.

The following day we make it up to the top of the pass. Below us are the hot springs of Jelandy. Another 60km and the Pamir Highway ends in Khorog, the capital of the autonomous Gorno Badakshan region. We skip the last stretch of the highway, because our visas are due to expire in three days’ time and we want to spend as much time as possible on the Pamir plateau and soak up its magnificent scenery. We spend the next few days retracing our tracks over the high passes until we find ourselves at Lake Kara Kul and pitch our tent on the waterfront.

The next morning dawns – our last on the plateau – and our last chance to catch a glimpse of Lenin Peak in all its glory. But the weather doesn’t look promising: heaps of thick clouds are drifting around the mountain giant. Not ideal for an official audience. Ever hopeful we roll into Kashka Suu. It’s dark and cold when we set up the tent at the base of Lenin. There’s no way to take pictures. But in the early morning light our persistence is rewarded and by 6am the sun comes up into a bright blue sky. And there is Lenin in all its magnificence. The mountain is clearly in view. Unrestrained our eyes take in every detail. The whole north massif of the Pamir extends down to the horizon. Finally, after three failed attempts we’ve succeeded. We have our audience with Lenin: the Pamir’s farewell parting gift. It’s a wonderful moment.

Who’s riding?

Andreas Hϋlsmann is a German motorcycle and travel journalist with over 25 years of adventuring uder his belt. His travels have taken him through Australia, North and South America, Arabia, Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia and all over Europe. He’s penned over 100 travel stories for German motorcycle magazine Motorrad Abenteuer and Touratech’s Tourenfahrer publication. One of his proudest biking achievements is tackling Australia’s infamous Canning Stock Route from Hall Creek to Wiluna – one of the toughest and most remote tracks in the world – unsupported, along with a mate on two BMW F650s. His latest project is covering the whole of Eurasia by bike from Gibraltar up to Magadan in the very far east of Siberia, together with his wife Claudia.

The Pamir Highway

Photo: Andreas and Claudia Hϋlsmann

Climate

The best time to travel the Pamir is between mid-June and the end of August, but the weather is changeable in summer and you should be prepared for snowstorms. Some higher passes may get snowed off, so don’t restrict yourself to a tight timeframe if you plan to ride the Pamir Highway.

Essential Reading

Tajikistan and the High Pamirs Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas, £18.95, Odyssey This is one hefty tome and probably not the sort of guide book to take with you on you on your trip; it is, however, must-read material for the planning stages. Jam packed with useful information about Tajikistan and the Pamir, you’ll find everything from insights into the country’s political history and culture to geographical points of interest, seasonal flora and fauna, maps, and practical resources like embassy contacts and visa info. Both authors lived and worked in Tajikistan (Middleton as legal adviser for the Aga Khan Foundation and Thomas as programme director of the Aga Khan Health Service) and their love of the place is clearly evident in this excellently researched and well-thought-out book.

Must-have map

The Pamirs, Gecko Maps, ISBN 978 – 3906 – 5933 – 57

How the land lies….

In spring 2010 there was a dispute between Uzbeks and Kyrgyt ethnic groups, around the city of Osh. The situation has since cooled and is returning to normal, but it’s advisable to be aware of what’s going on around Osh.

The situation in Tadzhikistan is stable, but there are still are still some uncleared minefields between the capital Dushanbe and Chorog. These fields are well marked, but stay on the road at all times when travelling through.

The Pamir Highway

Photo: Andreas and Claudia Hϋlsmann

A mountain by any other name…

Lenin Peak was first seen and referenced in 1871 and was originally named Mount Kaufman, after Konstantin Kaufman who was the first general Governor of Turkestan. It was renamed Lenin Peak (Pik Lenin) in 1928 after the Russian revolutionary and first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. The people of Tajikistan officially renamed the mountain Ibn Sina Peak in 2006, but in Kyrgystan it still goes by the name Lenin Chokusu (Lenin Peak).

It’s possible to reach Lenin’s Edelweiss Glad Base Camp by motorcycle, which is located just eight hours’ ride from Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city. If the view from BC isn’t spectacular enough for you, though, Lenin’s a popular peak among climbers and various companies organise expeditions to the summit each year. It’s considered a relatively ‘easy’ climb for a 7,000m-plus if you’ve got the right kit and know-how (two common routes are graded PD+ and AD, if you know your climbing jargon). The snag here is the changeable weather and, of course, the altitude, which scuppers more than most.

The Pamir Highway

The Pamir Mountains belong to the western slopes of the Himalaya and runs through China, Tajikistan, Afganistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Pamir is situated between the mountain range of Tianshan in the north, the Karakoram in the south, the Hindu Kush in the southeast and the Tibetan Highlands in the east.

The elevated road leads from Khorog in the south of Tajikistan up to Osh in the Kyrgystan. The 800km-long Highway is situated between 3,000m – 4,000m altitude. The highest Pass is the 4655m-high Akbaital Pass. Food and fuel supplies in the area are sparse. The only markets (Basar) are to be found in Khorog, Murghab, and Osh. Petrol is available in Khorog, Morghab, Sary Tash and Osh, which means your bike should be capable of covering 400km on one tank of fuel. You’ll also need to get your hands on a GBAO Permit (Gorno Badakshan Autonomous Oblast) in order to travel the Pamir mountains. You can apply for a GBAO permit with your visa at the Tajik Embassy in the UK. For travelling through the former Russian and Stan-Countries, you do not need a Carnet de Passage.

The Pamir Highway

Photo: Andreas and Claudia Hϋlsmann

Accommodation

In villages like khorog, Alichur, Murghab, Sary Tash and Osh you’ll find small hostels or B&B-type accommodation for around $8-15 (£5-9) per person. You can pitch a tent wherever you like in the Pamir, and it’s quite safe to do so; the Pamiri people are very friendly.

Must-see Pamir

  1. Dushanbe – Osh via Khorog and Murghab. This route passes through the Wakhan Corridor and takes in fortresses, shrines and Buddhist and Zoroastrian remains
  2. The high plateau around Murghab in the east of Tajikistan where you’ll see spectacular lakes, yurts and meet nomadic Kyrgyz herders
  3. Travel north from Dushanbe to Khudjand through two mountain ranges and via Lake Iskanderku, to take in Alexander the Great country
  4. Wild camp at least once. Lenin base camp is an awesome spot and the night’s sky is as spectacular as the morning views
  5. Hang out in Dushanbe for a day or two, to soak up the culture, check out the Museum of national Antiques and the city’s impressive neo-classical architecture
  6. Osh is another must-see city. Be sure to restock your panniers at the huge central market – one of the largest in Central Asia

Need to know Pamir…

  • Vaccinations needed for travel in the Pamir are Diphtheria; Hep A; Tetanus and Typhoid
  • Altitude sickness can be a problem here, particularly if you plan on staying at high altitude over several days. Drink plenty of water and take rehydration salts if necessary. Common side effects of high altitude are diarrhoea and a sore throat, so take lozenges and Imodium, too.
  • It’s offensive to blow your nose into a handkerchief in public. Always remove your shoes when entering a house or yurt and never point the soles of your feet at anyone.
  • If you’re invited to stay or eat with a family then the invitation is meant. Hospitality is a basic tenant of the people in central Asia. Be sure to take a gift; small trinkets from your home will be treasured.
  • The normal greeting is to place your right hand over your heart, bend your head slightly and say ‘Assalom aleykum’ peace be with you, the person you’re greeting will return the gesture.

The Pamir Highway