Through no-man’s-land into the Pamirs

Everybody faces her fear sooner or later in her life. The real one. The big one. Not the small ones that we believe are so important – be it being humiliated, failing in front of others, showing emotions when we are vulnerable, …  These are the kinds of fear we are used to in our everyday lives. No, there is an existential fear that is a completely different matter. It is a fear that teaches you what fear really is. An instinctive fear. A primeval fear. A fear you might feel when you are running for your life. A fear that many of us are only facing when we are on our dying beds. I believed that death would not scare me and maybe it actually doesn’t. Still, leaving alone for the Pamirs, on this wind-swept day, on this empty road, towards those towering mountains, I felt as if I was jumping off a cliff. I decided to trust the universe to catch me. To accept that everything beyond this jump is beyond my control. To hand myself to these mountains and accept whatever the outcome.

I had believed that I had already jumped when I started off in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), almost a month prior. On this morning, I realized that I was only really jumping now. The real decision for this journey and for whatever it would entail. And instead of death I found my paradise. The paradise that is waiting for everyone of us behind our biggest fears. Hard-earned, often on the edge of all of my limits, but maybe the best decision I have made in my life for far. Some of the deepest joy I have ever felt. Some of the most peaceful feelings of fulfillment. The kind of fulfillment you feel when you are in the exact place that has been waiting for you all your life. Doing exactly what you were born to do. There might be higher mountains in the world, more remote places. It didn’t matter. This place was and will forever be special for me. The Pamirs.

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The awe-inspiring Pamirs, not always showing their friendly face

When I was about to start cycling away from Sary Tash, a Japanese tourist showed up out of nowhere. Just having returned from the Pamir the day before (by jeep), he was wondering how to continue, given that it was a Kyrgyz holiday. I had not even been aware of that holiday. Staying another day as to not be trapped in front of a closed border? No way. I had woken up with the resolution to leave, so I would. The high altitude plain lay in front of me. The first movements on my bike Emily felt unfamiliar. The headwind was stronger than ever. I left the last houses behind me in complete silence, seeing no human anywhere outside. The longer I pedalled, the more a deep quiescence overcame me. This was it. I had jumped. And despite the tough headwind, despite my weakness due to the bout of sickness I had just overcome, I was glad to be out there again. Smell the smell of snow ahead of me. Feel the intense sun on my skin. See a herd of horses walking past me in front of this gorgeous panorama. The road quickly deteriorated, from good tarmac to rough asphalt full of potholes. Once I had gotten closer to the mountains, I realized that there was indeed a way through them which was not yet covered by snow. I pedalled into a wide gorge that continuously became narrower, climbing slowly. It felt as if the mountains took care of me by taking me into their arms instead of letting me feel every bit tiny and unimportant as on those wide open plains.

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The last herds of Kyrgyz horses before the border to Tajikistan

When I reached the Kyrgyz border post, it was late afternoon. My first border crossing by bike, in the middle of nowhere. Despite the national holiday, the border was open and I was beckoned to the passport control. The border guards were not overly friendly- they just did their job. The one in charge looked at my papers. ‘Ah, Angela Merkel!’ – ‘Yes, yes. That’s our chancellor.’ Unsure if this would improve my chances to pass without having to pay bribes, I smiled at him broadly. I was waved through, into the 30km no-man’s-land. This piece of land stretches between the Kyrgyz and the Tajik border post. In spite of the natural beauty of this valley, none of the two countries claims it. It felt like the right place for me to be. Between countries. In a place that officially does not exist.

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My bike Emily and me on our way…

I had just passed the guards when a jeep showed up. The two male drivers turned out to be Swiss and Belgian. Their eyes almost fell out of their heads when they heard that I was about to head further into the mountains alone by bike. They had just taken a day trip up to the Tajik border (lacking a visa, they could not pass into Tajik territory). I felt their curious stares. ‘It is really cold up there.’ (I knew.) ‘There is a lonely house at the foot of the switchbacks, just before the pass. If you are lucky they’ll let you stay there overnight.’ (I knew that, too. The lonely house is famous among cyclists as a fallback option if you are hit by a snow storm- there is no other human habitation until you reach Tajikistan).  ‘If you get going right away, you might make it there till sunset.’ I was thinking of this sentence for a long time after. While well-meant, this certainly was a statement made by people who have never cycled in the mountains themselves… It turned out that it would take me an entire day to get to that house. Certainly not the one hour I had till sunset.

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Splendid no-man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Still, I set out in good hope. The road still showed a few remainders of tarmac , but gravel took over soon. When I hit my first river crossing, I realized that the road had been washed away. Carrying a fully-loaded bike down to the water, across the little stream and then up the small hillside was a lot harder than I had thought. Still in a T-shirt, I quickly realized by the chill I felt on my arms that I had little time left until the cold of the evening would hit me with full force. At the end of the valley, the road turned left into the higher reaches of the mountains. I decided that this would be for the next day and searched for a good spot to camp. The grass was wild and deep, more used to the altitude than me. It took me a while to get my stuff to a place well off the road, a little bit less exposed to the wind. By the time, I was setting up my tent, I was already dangerously cold – and within a few minutes, being in a T-shirt was out of question. But the fleece, windjacket, gloves and hat I put on quickly helped less than I hoped. A lesson soon learned: have your tent up before the sun vanishes behind the mountains. Well before that. Too tired for anything else, I fell asleep just past 7pm, after nibbling on some nuts.

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Snow on the horizon…

The next morning woke me with absolute silence. This would be the soundtrack for most of my time in the Pamirs. This unbelievably deep silence. The wind, sometimes. My own breath. My tires grinding on the gravel. Those quiet awakenings in the morning, however, were greeted by absolute silence. And nothing seemed to be missing. It was not loneliness I felt. I was where I was supposed to be. It felt like being in the center of the universe. The center of the universe had one disadvantage: it had gotten really cold at night, meaning my sleeping bag was covered by a thin layer of ice in the mornings, as was my tent and surely my poor bike Emily whom I had left outside. Thus, leaving before the sun was up was quite unpractical. The sun warmed things quickly (starting at around 9am), but it was rarely before 10am that I would have packed my camp. Neither did I on this particular morning. Dark clouds of snow formed while I was getting ready. Nervousness started to creep into my mind. I was trying to get over Kyzil Art pass today (4,280 m). I had hoped for a day without precipitation for this endeavour… In addition, the path ahead of me was really just gravel, mostly washboard and quite steep. Given my weak physical state, I decided to push on many of the steep stretches, trying to be as nice to myself as I could. Still, I could not outrun the snow. The silence around me seemed to intensify, as thick white flakes started to fall. The road seemed never-ending. Always another turn. Always another climb. And nowhere to camp, really. While the valley had seemed to embrace me mercifully yesterday, it felt as if it was strangling me today. I was getting really cold, too cold almost to open a power bar with my fingers. When, finally, the lonely house came into my view I could have cried from relief. I had only made 10km so far, but I was frozen to the bone. A little girl came running towards me. ‘Chai? Chai?’ Yes, I could have died for a hot tea! With the last bit of strength, I pushed heavy Emily up the steep hill to the house, stumbling from exhaustion.

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Not alone! Remains of human habitation in no-man’s-land

oven, 1600x1067The house was very simple, essentially just one small room for the whole family (the parents and three kids) to live, sleep and cook in. As elsewhere in Central Asia, the floor was covered with carpets. For sitting and sleeping, thin mattresses would be spread on the floor. But despite its simplicity that room contained the most beautiful thing my fantasy could have imagined: a boiling stove made from massive iron. Next to it was a giant bucket with snow to be melted. I was ushered to sit down and the father prepared some hot tea for me. He asked in Russian if I also wanted to eat, pointing out that it was already past 2pm and that I would hardly be able to cross the pass today if I ate anything. Looking outside, I realized that the swirl of snow flakes was getting darker – it almost seemed as if night was already falling already! I did not care about risking the pass for today. I was dying for warm food and human company. Yes, I wanted to eat. I did not even know whether they would allow me to stay for longer, I just followed my deepest inner wish. After a hearty portion of noodles, I could not help myself- my body just took over: I closed my eyes, curled up and fell asleep right away on the floor. Inmidst the small group of children, to the wonderful sound of boiling water. When I woke up, the darkness of the snow outside betrayed the fact it was only 4pm. The father turned to me with a concerned face. ‘You can stay here overnight, if you want.’ With deep gratitude, I sighed and went back to sleep. As became the habit during this journey, I did not care if I slept on the floor or not, I only cared about being safe and warm. And I was.

My little savior, the daughter of my host family, in front of their simple house the next morning

The next morning saw an early start- and sunshine. The latter seemed hard to believe given that we had been engulfed in snow the afternoon before. Above me, the awful switchbacks were waiting, the road every bit as steep as yesterday. Cycling was out of question and pushing would be hard work. I said goodbye to my generous hosts, leaving behind some items they had asked me for, and started. While it was sweaty work to get to the pass, the strong wind got me chilled to the bone. I was driven by only one wish: not to spend another day between borders, to get somewhere at lower altitude. Somewhere warm. I knew that the tiny settlement of Karakol was waiting for me on the Tajik side, but I had two passes beyond 4000m between me and the village. Would I make it?

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Looking back into Kyrgyzstan at Kyzil Art Pass (4,280m)

It was noon when I pushed my bike Emily the last metres up to the pass. Kyzil art. The pass that separates Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 4,280m (14,042 ft). At that moment, I heard motorbikes behind me. A German couple. We chatted briefly before they descended down the border ahead of me towards the Tajik border post. This time, the game was not quite as easy, but I was off better than the Germans on their motorbikes. While they were made to pay a hefty fee per day ‘for using the roads of Tajikistan’, the border guards seemed to see me as a mildly amusing, but harmless lunatic. Fortunately, it did not seem to cross their minds that I was also using the Tajik roads with my bike… As every so often on this journey, bikes were not seen as a ‘proper’ means of transport. And since, in their eyes, I was more or less ‘walking’ into their territory, no fee was asked for Emily. Or maybe they were just content to have gotten so much money out of the other Germans. Whatever it was, I made sure to leave the border quickly before the border guards might change their mind. The group of younger guards protested – they had just invited me to join them for a cup of hot tea – , but it felt risky to me to wait at the border too long. After all, I still had a lot of meters of altitude ahead of me until I would reach the first village.

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Barren and wild… the carcass of the cow was not really reassuring

Splendid Tajikistan lay to my feet (or rather: to the foot of the mountain from which I was descending). An immense space to all sides of me. Little did I care that the road was now bad washboard, hard to cycle both for your body and your bike. I was all eyes. Multi-colored mountains. Raw, wild, wind-swept, vast. And dry. While the Kyrgyz side had shown me how much snow the mountains can accmuluate even in September, the Tajik Pamir was bone dry at this time of the year. The beauty all around me made me feel as if I had stepped into a surreal painting. A tiny spot on the road far ahead of me turned into a Belgian cyclist half an hour later. ‘There is quite some scenery ahead of you!’ As if I was not IN quite some scenery already! I had brilliant descriptions of the road by Bill Weir, detailing how long the washboard awfulness would continue. Again, I was getting unsure whether I would make the next pass today. But, as he wrote, the mountains are gentle here – the next pass did not even feel like one, just a long, gentle incline up.

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Multi-coloured mountains and the fence towards China
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Grass on the wayside, Pamirs

Once I was at the rim, a few hours later, Karakol lake lay ahead of me in all its spectacular beauty. In the background dark mountains with patches of snow, the glittering piece of water ahead of me, the late afternoon light just perfect to illuminate nature’s perfection all around me. I knew it would be downhill all the way until the village of Karakol. I had one hour left till sunset. I had already pushed the limits for today – crossing an international border and two 4000m+ passes in one go had been quite something. Despite that and although the shores of the lake presented themselves as beautiful camp grounds- no steep shoulder off the road, flat sandy grounds- I was determined to make it to the village. Why? I was driven by the urge to smell hot water. Hot water had never had any special meaning to me before. The Pamirs taught me how incredibly valuable it can be. Water meant the ability to wash the dust of the day off. To warm up. To feel secure. Over the weeks and months of this journey, it has become to mean the quintessential luxuary of life for me. The best thing my mind could imagine (even better than food!). Up until now, during this journey, the maximum days without a shower is at nine days (in Oman, mind you, where temperatures oftentimes exceeded 40 degree Celsisus). Water, clean water, feels incredible on your body after nine days. Now, I was only at three days, but I already felt that insane longing for hot water.

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Descent towards beautiful Karakol lake

So I changed gears, mentally and physically, and tested how much I could get out of my legs after this long day. I mustered a strength from who knows where. I did not even know I had such a reserve for energy. Emily literally flew across the high altitude plain at almost 30km/h. My heart jumped with joy. I had not even imagined that I would be able to ever reach such speeds with a fully loaded bike, let alone after having crossed two passes that same day! With the last light of the day, I raced into Karakol. An old man waved to me. ‘Homestay?’ Yes, yes! We were engulfed in almost complete darkness, when we reached the house of his family. Had I arrived a few minutes later, I had not seen a hand in front of my eyes, let alone find a homestay so easily. My legs shaky from the exhaustion, I fell onto the floor of the living room next to the oven. The daughter of the grandfather brought me a simple, yet wonderfully nourishing dinner. I could barely stay awake long enough to eat it all. With kind smiles, they promised me that they would warm up water the next morning for me to wash. Heaven was real. And it was right here in Karakol.

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Karakol village bathed in the last rays of sunlight (next evening)


  1. Basti Hirsch says:

    Fantastic read Anne! Thank you for taking us along on your journey and stay safe on the road ahead!

    • annewestwards says:

      Thanks for your comment and the nice compliment, Basti! I am glad to have you all with me in this journey and I’ll try my best to stay safe 🙂

    • annewestwards says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Anastasia! I am also still mesmerized by the photos- the landscapes there are out of this world…

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