The Bartang Valley, probably the most scenic, remote, and adventurous way through the Pamir Mountains, was about to be explored by 4 more cyclists. It was definitely the end of the season to cycle the Pamir Highway and /or the Bartang Valley when we left the city of Rushan on the 21st of October 2019. In the Rushon Inn Guesthouse where we stayed for one night, we met Robert and Bex from the UK who just arrived in Rushan after cycling the Bartang Valley the other way around.
We could literally see the adventure in their eyes as they told us enthusiastically about their time in the Bartang Valley. Moreover, it was also great to get some tips from them about camp spots, homestays, or what to bring on food for the upcoming route. In return, we gave them some recommendations for the route we already did along the Pamir Highway to Samarkand and Uzbekistan.
In Rushan we also stocked up on food for the first few days in the Valley. Each of us four had about 3kg of rice, lentils, or buckwheat on us. Instead of having a rest day in Rushan and paying for another night in the Guesthouse, we decided to have a rest day out in nature as we also had pretty sunny wheater. Right at the entry of the Valley and near the Bartang river, we found a flat spot where we put our tents and enjoyed a restful afternoon playing cards, writing diaries, or having some sips of coffee-cognac we bought in Rushan.
The next morning, it was time to start the next part of our Pamir adventure. We entered the valley along the river from which the valley bears its name. The gravel road, which was slightly better than the last few kilometers on the M41 to Rushan, meandered along with the strong blue and clear mountain river. To be honest, I’ve never seen such a shiny blue river before, not even in Switzerland. The first day of this road was beautiful and relaxing. We cycled past some more yellow, orange, and red-colored trees and between massive rock walls rising next to us.
On the first day, we saw one or the other shepherd with his flock and as we asked to fill our water bottles at a fountain in a small village, a family invited us to have some tea and dried fruits. What a start we had! It confirmed what we already heard and experienced a lot before, the further you got into remote areas, the friendlier and more hospitable the locals became.
On the evening on that first day in the Bartang Valley, we found a nice and flat stretch of grass next to the river where we could put our tents. Meanwhile, we were at 2200m and were during the days it was still possible to ride in a shirt, as soon as the sun went down, it got pretty pretty cold. We collected some dry wood from dead bushes nearby and made a campfire while listening to the relaxing music of Buena vista social club and cooking our usual dinner of rice and lentils. Simple things like that were the perfect ending after a long day on a bike and cycling in such special scenery. It is that special feeling of pure freedom, to be able to spend every day and night outdoors, living outside and being so close to nature.
Bartang Valley: The road to Savnob
The second day was similar to the first one, slowly we cycled along the gravel road towards Savnob, the biggest village in the Bartang Valley with some homestays. Due to the road condition, it was not possible anymore to do our 80-120km’s a day. The road was sometimes covered with huge rocks and a lot of times we had to cross small streams, if possible by bike or barefoot pushing the bikes. But the road was definitely varied!
Sometimes a few hundred meters of the road disappeared and we stood on the finest brown sand as you know it from the beach or the desert. In the middle, green and yellow-leaved trees. On that second day in the valley, it became a bit more difficult to find a proper place to camp as the valley became more narrow and there were not that many flat places around.
Just before it got dark, we found a small place between some trees just next to the road. Nearby there was a suspension bridge over the Bartang river to a small settlement of 3-4 houses. There we decided to find some water for the next day and for cooking dinner. We also knocked on one of the houses to ask for 2-3 loaves of bread, a tip we got from Bex and Robert.
As most of the families out there are self-sufficient, almost all of them are also baking their own bread and were happy to sell us some of them.
On the third day, we had about 40km’s left to reach the village of Savnob. The first 30km’s were like the two days before, still along the beautiful Bartang river. Suddenly the Valley opened up and from far away we saw a huge wall which looked like in a canyon. We knew that our road was going up there somewhere as there was a steep climb to see on komoot up to the village. Before we reached the beginning of that climb, however, we entered another small village where we got invited by a family for some tea and food.
For the first time we got invited into a traditional Tajik house, which had an oven in the middle of it that also served as the kitchen and around, some kind of loft bed with small mattresses they used for sleeping and eating on it. We expected to get some tea and maybe some dried fruits like last time, but they served us freshly made Manti’s, an outstanding home-made tomato-pepperoni sauce, bread, lots of cookies so as chocolate. While eating all that delicious food, we could talk to one of the younger family members who spoke a little English, learning a bit about their life here in the valley.
Suddenly the grandfather or another older family member arrived in the house and tried to speak with Favio. The man spoke to Favio in Tajik-language, while Favio tried to explain he didn’t understand a word. That went back and forth for about 10 minutes, and we all couldn’t stop laughing. It was hilarious.
As great as the encounter with this family was and though we could have sit there for another 1-2 hours, we had to leave as we still had a big climb ahead of us.
After leaving the family and the village again, we had to go through a dry river bed with huge stones on the road which made it almost impossible to cycle. Next to that and just after cycling around a corner, we saw the small road leading up to the plateau we saw hours before from far away. Some parts of the road were too steep to cycle and we had to push our bikes up the road. Luckily we had Kata’s Bluetooth speaker and some uplifting songs which made the climb a bit less grueling.
The scenery at that moment however was at its best! As we were quite late regarding the stop at the family’s house, the sun already went down at the horizon and offered us some amazing orange and red colors on the surrounding clouds and peaks. Especially the snow-covered and 5916m high peak of majestic mount Lyapnazar was breathtaking to see. You could literally feel the energy of these mountains around us.
As we arrived on top of this climb, it was already completely dark. We put all our bike- and headlights on and slowly cycled in a row on top of the plateau. After some time we slowly descended a little along the road on a hillside, on the right side of the road there was a steep slope down to the village of Savnob, whose lights we could already see. A few minutes later a couple of flashlights pointed up at us. Quickly we realized that it was the owners of the different homestays as they all wanted to have us as guests.
We didn’t have to make a decision about which homestay we should choose as we wanted to follow the advice of Robert and Bex and stay at the place they recommended. Super tired we finally arrived at the homestay, where we got some tea and a big pot of home-made soup for dinner. After some long and much-needed sleep, we decided to have a day off here in Savnob to explore this beautiful village and again, get some more rest.
The next day, the owner showed us around his place. There were a lot of houses made of stone or clay, a lot of kids playing outside and women preparing vegetables or other kinds of food for dinner. Almost every house had a solar cooker with which they cooked stews using the sun during this perfectly sunny day.
We also got to see the old mill that was operated by a stream. It was a truly calm and great place to have a day off from cycling. Here at this homestay, we even had the opportunity to have a shower in their own made steam-bath just a few meters from the house. As there was energy and power-sockets inside the house thanks to the hydroelectric power plant nearby the village, we were also able to charge all our cameras, headlamps, power banks, or other electronics for the upcoming uninhabited part of the Bartang Valley.
A collapse at 3000+ meters
After some much-needed rest in Savnob, we continued cycling towards Cudara, the last village and inhabited place in the Bartang Valley. The Landscape around us, once again, was marvelous. We cycled on stony roads with an average speed of about 4km/h and crossed some more small streams until we reached Cudara. There we found a tiny shop where we could stock up on food for the last time before heading out into the wild. We bought some more rice, lentils, and several packs of instant noodles so as Snickers.
We needed to carry enough food for about 7 days, because we would need about that long to get to the next inhabited place, the village of Karakul. For these days we are on our own. We left Cudara with fully loaded bags and made our way to start the challenge of the day a few kilometers further. There was another short but steep climb waiting for us to finally get above 3000+ meters of altitude.
The road up to this next intermediate plateau was quite tough. Exhausted we reached the top and decided to find a suitable campground as soon as possible. Soon our next campsite was found in a short stretch of forest where we could also find enough dry wood to make another campfire.
While cooking dinner in front of the fire I started to feel a bit sick. It was like overwhelming fatigue and although I was usually very hungry at dinner, I hardly wanted to eat anything that evening. I gave the rest of my food to the others and went into my tent. A short time later I had a fever. I slept about 2 hours that night due to diarrhea and since it started to snow that night, didn’t make the whole situation much more comfortable.
The morning after I then had to start vomiting, never was I happier my tent had two entrances and vestibules. I told the others about my situation and that we may have to spend a rest day there in that forest. The whole day it went on in the same way, diarrhea, then vomiting, sometimes both at the same time. If it was tea or plain rice, my body refused to keep it. Fortunately, there was Favio and the others who looked after me every few hours, bringing me tea and rice.
I couldn’t be happier I was not traveling alone at that moment. Except for them, there was nobody around up there. One rest day turned into two, as I was still not fit enough to continue. Because of these unplanned and additional days, we also had less food left for the next days until Karakul. On this second day off, Andres walked all the way back to Cudara to get some more rice, buckwheat, and lentils. At the same time, Kata also started to feel sick. We didn’t know if it was from the altitude or from the food we had in Savnob.
The next morning we packed our wet and snow-covered tents and decided to get as far as we can. We managed to do 6km’s in 5h. After every few minutes of cycling or most of the time, pushing our bikes, we had to stop a minute or two due to exhaustion. Followed by another 200-300 meters. At that point, Andres and Andrew were the only ones who still felt fit. Favio was not at 100% too and joined Kata and me at our snail’s pace.
Also the dramatic and cloudy weather somehow matched our current situation. After a night a few meters from the road, the next day, we all felt a bit better and also made it a bit further than the day before. 16km’s it was that day. Still, nothing to compare to the weeks before, but at least more than double the distance compared to the last 3 days.
Out of the Bartang Valley and up to the roof of the world
On day 6 after our departure from Savnob, a big challenge was imminent. Or to be more precise, the biggest challenge of the whole Pamir adventure, the climb up to the Pamir Plateau. The climb up to the Pamir Plateau and out of the Bartang Valley is known to be a tough part and as we heard from Robert and Bex, it is even a challenge to cycle down the other way around regarding the steep gradient. Most of the ascent has an incline from 16-22%.
For days we knew about this climb and its difficulty and we were quite happy we all, more or less, felt fit again right on time. In the first part of the climb, we were still able to cycle. We made a last snack-break to have some tea and to enjoy the view down to the Bartang Valley, which offered us such a great and adventurous time so far. What followed next, then was the biggest challenge and adventure we all had since the crossing of the old road on the northern road to Dushanbe a few weeks back.
Suddenly, the road inclination changed drastically, letting us realize what lies ahead of us.
The road was that steep that most of the time we had to work in a team of two persons, pushing up one of our 75kg bikes, resting every few meters for a minute, and then going back down for the other bike. To make the whole thing a little bit more interesting, mother nature offered us a lot of stretches covered in snow, which led to a slippery task.
Almost on top of the Kok Jar Pass, using our last bits of energy and supporting each other for the last hundred meters to climb, it started to get dark. We knew that we had to go down again for camping to avoid an encounter with altitude sickness. In the last few minutes with daylight, we were almost running down the other side with our bikes after reaching the top and found a flat place for the tents next to a river.
We did it, up to the Pamir Plateau and so-called roof of the world. We were done! literally!
It was a climb of about 510 high meters, but the effort we had to put in to get us and our bikes up to the top was tremendous.
We fell into each other’s arms, knowing that this day was physically one of the toughest in our lives and an adventurous experience we might not experience again for a long time.
The Pamir Plateau was the part of the whole Pamir adventure I was looking forward to the most. For several years now I had these incredible and surreal Images in mind I’ve seen from other Travelers. Images of an open, wide, barren, and majestic landscape I haven’t seen before.
Now I stood up here with my bicycle on my own, on 4000 meters of altitude. To cycle and camp at 4000m, surrounded by this incredibly beautiful and surreal scenery, snow covered 6000m high peaks and frozen rivers was a highlight which made me speechless.
Knowing that you have all this for your own, with no people or animal herd around and the fact that you have made it up there all by your own power, made everything even more special!
There was this peaceful silence and although the freezing winds and terrible roads, these views have compensated for everything, all the struggles, the sickness and exhausting climbs of the previous weeks!
I could write much more about the Pamir Plateau and its beauty, but the following Images will tell much more than I ever could.
Back on Tarmac and the M41
At the end of the Plateau coming from the Bartang Valley, our road led through the Kyzyl-Dzhiik river, a river that finally flows into lake Karakul. Unfortunately, there was too much water and the current was too strong to be able to cross the river and follow that road. So instead of having this final stretch of 10km back to the M41, we had to do a detour of 26km, first cycling 10km back south to reach the M41 and then following the official Pamir Highway for another 16km to reach the actual exit of the Bartang Valley.
Because of this impending detour, and because it was already quite late and freezing cold with very strong winds, we decided to camp another night on the Plateau before heading to Karakul the next day. This particular night was the first time I camped and slept above 4000 meters of altitude and the thermometer went down to -18 degrees in the early morning. The sunrise, the absolute silence, and the light in the morning was nothing but beautiful and although I was definitely going to miss all that, I was also looking forward to reaching lake Karakul, another highlight regarding Landscapes up here in the Pamirs.
Every chapter comes to an end, and so did the Pamirs! After our third night on the Plateau, we finally reached the M41 again and thus smooth tarmac. As we were cycling/pushing our bikes on challenging, rocky and bumpy roads for almost a month, being back on a paved road felt like heaven on earth. With top-speeds of 30km/h we were nearly flying towards the village of Karakul, passing the gorgeous and deeply blue Karakul-lake on the left side of us. With freezing feet and fingers we happily entered a Homestay, treating ourselves with a warm bed and a full plate of freshly made Tajik Manti’s.
The next day we made our way up to the Tajik border and the climb up to 4282m on the Kyzyl-Art Pass, in “no man’s land” between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, continued by cycling, or better said “sliding” down on the other side of the mountain.
This second half of the day was literally the suitable final of that previous Pamir adventure, to keep it short: walking/falling down on icy roads for several kilometers, a -8 degree headwind so as a final 25km stretch in the dark to Sarytash in one of the most violent snowstorms I’ve ever experienced.
Arrived in Kyrgyzstan, sitting in a cozy Guesthouse, being served with warm Kyrgyz dinner and drinking ice-cold beer, I looked back to the previous weeks through these magical mountains and mainly felt one thing: gratitude!
Not only for all the priceless experiences, cycling in one of the most remote areas of this planet and sharing all this with new friends, but mainly for doing that first step more than 7 months back, heading out to live this dream!
Special thanks to all of you for being part of my journey: Favio, Andrew, Kata, Andres, Viktor, Rober, Bex
Howdy! I'm Fabian, a Swiss adventurer, photographer / filmmaker who loves exploring and capturing our beautiful planet. From March 2019 - April 2020 I cycled 20'000km from Bern Switzerland to the pacific coast in Vietnam, trying to inspire others to do the same, to travel more, going outdoors, enjoying nature and get to know our amazing planet wi live on.