High Altitude Cycling on the Pamir Plateau: Alichur to Osh

My memories of cycling from Alichur to Osh are hazy. This section forms the 'Pamir Plateau'; the road flattens out slightly but hovers around the 4,000 metre mark, except for the handful of times it climbs even higher, eventually peaking at 4,655 metres on the lung-bursting Ak-Baital pass, notorious amongst cyclists. Having ascended to the Pamir Plateau gradually over the course of two weeks I had believed I was well-acclimatised. I was wrong. It was only when I eventually reached the low-lying city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan that I at last began to feel human again, and could reflect on what had been the toughest part of the trip.

Waking up each morning my clock indicated I had slept for 13+ hours, but it made little difference. I never felt rested. I was in a state of consciousness where I only ever felt half-awake. An internal battle raged not to fall asleep during breakfast. My pedal strokes on the bike were weary, my legs leaden from the cumulation of seemingly endless rotation of my legs. Each pedal stroke was a little more difficult than the one before, until my mind could will me no further and I had to stop for a break.

This lack of rest was exacerbated by my obliterated appetite. I don't know whether I lost my appetite because of the altitude or because my body finally began to reject Central Asian food, much like a body might reject a new organ. Maybe it was a combination. Regardless, the effect was the same, and I struggled to find the energy to continue. For days I fantasised, much to the humour of my cycling companions, about having a bacon sandwich, a taste of familiarity and home.

It was hard... but sometimes the most worthwhile things are. I have always firmly believed that the fact something is a challenge should not dissuade you from tackling it. And indeed, that was the case here; the Pamir are stupendously beautiful and my time there was rich with 'WOW' moments. I'm sure I will look back on the experience as a highlight of the trip, and I look forward to one day returning. The following pictures tell the story better than I can with words.

Pamir Highway kissing the ground after leaving the off-road of the Wakhan Valley.
Kissing the asphalt after several hundred kilometers of off-road in the Wakhan and reaching the Pamir Plateau. Little did I know the hardest part was still ahead.
Cycling on the barren Pamir Plateau on the Pamir Highway
Cycling on the barren Pamir plateau felt very remote. If it weren't for meeting other cyclists it would have felt very lonely! (Me on the right)
Cyclists talking on the Pamir Highway.
Thankfully I met lots of other cyclists. Sometimes we cycled in a group of up to 8. Rachel and Patrick (in red) are cycle touring veterans, cycling through 50+ countries on 6 continents, up to 100,000 km - I cycled with them for two weeks which was really great!

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3 tents camping on the Pamir Plateau
This led to some really memorable nights camping together! These moments are what life is all about.
View from my tent looking out over the Pamir Plateau.
Seriously... These ARE the moments life is about!
Pushing up a mountain pass, the road too steep and the surface too loose.
Pushing up a mountain pass, the road too steep and the surface too loose.
Cyclists celebrating at the top of the Ak-Baital Pass after bike touring to the top.
4,655 metres!! But the emotions at the top make it all worthwhile! Sharing it with these people (Rachel + Patrick, and two girls from Switzerland) made it extra special!
Cyclist sitting in the middle of the road on the Pamir Highway with no cars.
The Pamir Highway sees almost no traffic. You can comfortably rest, or even have lunch in the middle of the road. On this particular day, we were passed by just 3 cars.

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Posing with Marco Polo sheep horns
I found a pair of Marco Polo sheep horns by the side of the road which led to this fantastic photo op!
A shop in Karakol
Another shop selling just sweets and biscuits. No bacon sandwiches here!!
Sitting outside the shop, dreaming of bacon.. Behind the camera is Patrick and Rachel, struggling to contain their laughter.
Sitting outside the shop, dreaming of bacon.. Behind the camera is Patrick and Rachel, struggling to contain their laughter.

 

It wasn't easy... but if I wanted easy I would have never set off to cycle around the world! And look how much I would have missed out on.

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4 Comment

  1. What amazing stories bro! Love it, keep pedaling and telling your story. =)

    1. Thanks Mike!

  2. This looks uh-ma-zing! Mountains and vast stretches of highway. You are very lucky you got to experience this place. I’m glad you weren’t on your own!
    Tiredness is definitely some kind of altitude sickness.

    Take care =)

  3. “I never felt rested” – I remember you from a hotel in Murghab, you didn’t look rested too 🙂 You found the shop in Karakol! Congratulations, I bet it wasn’t so easy 🙂
    Best regards from rainy Cracow 😉

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