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Cycletourer logoAs several people have asked us we thought it would be great to have some guest bloggers contributing to our site. If you would like to be a guest blogger on this spot and write an article that is relevant to cycletouring then please get in touch. As this is a non commercial site we are looking for articles from genuine touring cyclists, therefore no commercial articles please.

Pamir to Karakoram- cycling the highways on the roof of the world

Pamir
Celebrating our first pass over 4000meters.

By Clare Connelly and Antoine Cottet

Inspiration and planning

The mountains made us do it. They were the inspiration behind the whole thing. We live in Chamonix Valley half of the year and mountains are kind of our thing. Tales of 8000meters peaks and the largest glaciers in the world were irresistible for us, we had to visit Pakistan. The cycling part was secondary at first, though we are both keen cyclists and had toyed with the idea of a big trip in the past. We have both travelled a lot in remote parts of the world, but more hiking- never by bike.

The rest of the plan came together of its own accord. The Karakoram Highway connecting Western China with Pakistan is known as the highest international highway in the world. The Pamir Highway, also part of the old Silk Road and running between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, is a close second. It promised everything we could wish for - high mountains, high altitude lakes and solitude.

The planning stage was complicated, there's not a huge amount of information out there- especially for the Pamir Highway. We used two wonderful books- the Adventure Cycling Handbook which was great for telling us what gear to buy and other practical planning issues; and also Himalaya by Bike which was a bit out of date but hugely detailed on all the major routes in the Greater Himalayan region, including the Karakoram Highway. We also read a bunch of blogs and watched available travel videos. It took up a lot of time, but it was a really exciting period.

Sardinia
The incredible surroundings kept our spirits high.

The kit

Deciding on what kit to buy was probably the most stressful part. We had never done a bike trip like this in complete autonomy before and the idea of choosing gear upon which we would be completely dependent for months at a time was daunting. Luckily we already had good quality camping gear which we love, including an MSR tent which feels like a palace inside. However, for the bikes we were starting from scratch. We visited a friend of Antoine who has a bike shop and he advised us to buy specialized Sequoias, Specialized's adventure biking model. It's made of Cromoly steel in place of aluminium- apparently less prone to fatigue and possible to weld on the way in case of emergency. It also has a bunch of other features which make it well adapted to tough journeys in less developed areas. We had decided to take exactly the same model as this minimised the number of spares we would have to take with us- and would look better in the photos, too!

With the bikes sorted it was time to choose bags, tyres, travel pumps and all the other assorted extras. We initially decided on a bikepacking setup, since we knew the road would be tough in Tajikistan and also to keep the weight down. We chose specialized to be sure it would work well with the bikes and took one of everything in the largest size. However, when it arrived it was evident that the numbers attached to the bags (eg seatpack20) don't exactly correspond with the litres of storage. Since we were planning to make a film of the trip Antoine was carrying a lot of extra filming equipment and I was carrying most of the shared stuff like tent, cooking gear etc and there was no way it was going inside those bags. Ever. In addition, we hadn't checked, but the larger sized framepack doesn't fit on the smaller bike frames such as mine. So it was back to the store with some of our shiny new bags and back to the drawing board for us. We finally came up with a hybrid set-up where we kept all the bike packing bags and added a surly steel front rack with Ortlieb front panniers. I also got a custom made framepack made by UK company AlpKit which was perfect.

Pamir
Our yurts next to the still-frozen Karakol lake.

It was still a squeeze, but we got everything in and even avoided breaking Antoine's Golden Rule of not starting the trip with things attached to the outside of the bike. We stocked up on spare parts from our friend's shop, panic bought a few more items from Amazon and suddenly it was time to pack everything into cardboard boxes and drive to the airport.

The route

We are now one month into the trip and have completed both the Pamir Highway and the incredibly difficult liaison road that takes you to Kashgar and the start of the Karakoram Highway. Incredibly difficult politically and in terms of police controls and constant bike searches- the road itself is a huge highway that is actually delightful to cycle. The roads that brought us here haven't been easy, their surfaces destroyed by tough winters and heavy trucks that they were never built to carry. The broken surfaces, loose rocks and corrugations have tested us physically, mentally and emotionally. They have tested all our shiny new gear to the maximum- each one our famously strong Ortlieb bags has broken in a unique and surprising way and one of our tasks here in Kashgar is to chase down the spare parts that the company has kindly posted us. But those roads have equally taken us to some of the most beautiful places we have ever experienced.

Pamir
Storms brewing in the distance, stirring up the ubiquitous headwind.

We left Dushanbe after taking a direct flight from Frankfurt. The roads were smooth and fast, though busy with traffic coming out of the city. We came to a junction with the new highway heading south to Kolob and chose to keep going along the traditional, but no longer maintained, northern road. The first day and half of the second continued on good roads through lush valleys filled with agriculture. It was after lunch on the second day that the roads changed. One minute we were flying along on asphalt, the next minute it stopped. No explanation. The tarmac was replaced with loose stones and gravel, the rivers of melting snow having caused havoc with what may have once been a smooth-ish surface. The road climbed steeply for 5km up to a pass before descending equally steeply on the other side. I don't know which side was worse- I'm no mountain biker and the skidding of the loaded bikes on the ascent and the sheer terror of a bumpy off-road descent were not what I'd signed up for. There were two passes like this in quick succession, but luckily for my broken spirit there was a kind old man at the top of the second pass who fed me wild rhubarb - a gesture that was enough to keep me going for the rest of the afternoon.

Camping was easy for the first few days with a huge choice of flat open grassy areas. After the main road heads north to Kyrgyzstan the Pamir Highway continues as a bumpy path through a steep sided valley and the good camping stops. Luckily, the good thing about this road is that it avoids the 'mass tourism' (by Tajik standards) that passes by the busier southern road and we had no shortage of kind locals inviting us to sleep and eat in their homes, or pop in for a cup of tea. Offers which we were often delighted to accept.

Pamir
Birds-eye view over lake Karakol.

The first of our high passes lay on this route, a pass of 3200meters. It was smaller than the other passes we would cross but remains the hardest we have done to date. We later found out when we reached the town of Khorog that the road was still officially closed for winter, which explains a lot. It was a steep ascent out of the village where we had spent the night in the home of the local doctor, and we were frequently forced to walk by the thick mud that appeared in patches caused by the melting snow. By the time we were above 2800meters we had a wall of snow about 10ft tall towering above our heads and the whole road was a mud bath. We had to push our bikes for almost the last 3km, stopping every few minutes to scrape thick mud from all of the moving parts to avoid the bikes becoming stuck. We weren't acclimatised to the altitude yet and it was steep. When we reached the top we were exhausted, but the mud was even worse on the other side. We stopped to clean the bikes as well as we could and check the brakes were working before starting a slow and cautious descent. I had to be coaxed back onto my bike several times on the way down and I definitely learned a lot about mountain bike techniques that day. We had to descend for at least 10km before the melting snow started to form itself into small streams and then a roaring river which dropped into a steep valley to our right. After this the path dried out and we managed to pick up a bit of speed. The surface remained bumpy and rocky most of the way down, until about 10km before Qalia-Khumb where we would rejoin the main highway and the tarmac we had been dreaming of.

From here we followed the traditional Pamir Highway, with only one more off road diversion to visit the tiny end-of-the-world village of Balunkul and the lake of the same name. Here we passed through the most beautiful scenery we have ever experienced. It was definitely the highlight of our trip, and is the only day so far when we have felt like regular tourists. We forgot our aching legs and the challenging road surfaces and were just captivated by the beauty of the high altitude lakes - each one a different shade of blue- the mountains on each side which were impossibly beautiful formations made up of a huge array of different colours and the earth itself; lying over a crack in the earth surface it gave birth to natural geysers, layers of white mineral overlying a grass so yellow as to be almost unnatural. We were mesmerised.

Back on the main road we stopped briefly in the small, quaint but non-descript villages of Alishur and Murghab before heading to lake Karakol over the highest pass of the Pamir Highway. Lying at 4655meters we expected it to be more difficult than it was. It climbs gradually upwards over more than 70km on good roads before a final steep section on a 3km stretch of unpaved dirt track. Now acclimatised to the altitude and having slept at 4200meters the night before, we found it challenging but better than we had feared. The other side of the pass, however, is a long testing day of riding over the dreaded corrugations. We had hoped for a long, easy descent to Lake Karakol and so the tough, physical day that followed broke our spirits. We managed to dig deep and keep going in spite of the road surface, all the unexpected ascent and the unrelenting headwind and late that evening we were rewarded by the view over Lake Karakol. To attempt to recover our broken moral we abandoned the tent and paid to stay in a traditional Yurt right at the edge of the still-frozen lake. The beauty and tranquility did the trick and we were soon ready and willing to set off on the final stretch.

Pamir
Taking a moment to take it all in.

The pass between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the ensuing 20km of no-man's land has the reputation of being the worst stretch of the whole Pamir Highway. We weren't looking forward to it. And there are in fact two passes; you climb up to nearly 4300meters on good road, descend back to the same altitude as the lake then climb up again to the second pass also at nearly 4300meters. The approach to the second pass features those dreaded corrugations, the standard headwind but we were incredibly lucky with the road itself. As it had been dry in that area for some time the mud had mostly dried out, leaving a relatively flat, hard surface for our long descent down to the border village of Saray Tash. We couldn't believe our luck, and in fact kept descending until about 8pm when the light failed us just in case it rained in the night.

Overall it has been an incredible journey so far. It has been tougher than we expected, but also far more rewarding. This is adventure touring as it should be. Now it's eyes forward and onwards to the Karakoram Highway. Follow along the rest of our trip either over at the blog: www.docgonewild.com or on Instagram: @doc_gonewild and @cottisch.

Happy travels!