Sary Tash (3100m) to NoMansLand (3992m) 44km
To Karakul 58km
For 27km from Sary Tash it is flat, very flat, without a building, without even a hillock to block the wind, and it was blowing, from the left, straight into my face. The road has deteriorated, but still not too bad. You just have to concentrate, and use the whole width, to dodge the potholes, and make corrections as the wind blows you off course.
The only humans I saw, saw me first, and came racing towards me, on their donkeys. These are the kids whose job it is to watch the flocks of goats and sheep. I've no idea where they live, but they spend the day out here in the wind. Lovely manners, very polite, and very interested in where I was from and going. Pretty good English too.
At 27km I meet two young guides. They are waiting for a group of Danish tourists to arrive from Tajikistan. I chat to them for a while, until a soldier comes over and opens the gate to the Kyrgyzstan border control. I have to visit Customs, where I'm asked a few questions....have I got two cameras? Have I got more than one computer? Have I got more than $300? Have I got drugs? No, no, no, no. I've passed. Then to another shed, where a soldier stamps my passport. I'm free to enter NoMansLand.
And the road starts to climb. .....not too steeply, but I can feel it in my legs, and I'm reminded that I'm already at altitude. After several hours, I'm at 38km. I'm managing about 1km at a time, between rests, when I put my head on the handle bars, and take many deep breaths. A truck has slid off the road, and is stuck in a muddy stream. I manage to ride on through. A guy, Tajik, is there with his mountainbike. "Come to my Dom for chai and rest". "Okay". "5km on left"."Okay". He cycles off, occasionally stopping, pretending he's puffing, being nice to the "old tourist", and waiting. I'm struggling. It's the longest 5km I've ridden in a long time. Eventually we arrive. Turns out, this Tajik, is the road maintenance man, picture Lewis Pass Engineers Camp, and lives in NoMansLand with his wife and four kids. The chai, it always comes with bread and food, is most welcome. I'm invited to stay the night, but don't fancy sleeping in the same room as two adults and four kids, on mats on the floor. I pitch my tent in front of the house......a very very basic house, and crash out, even though the sun has not yet set.
Chai again in the morning, and then I pack up and ride away...... 300m.....and I'm exhausted. I'm at the foot of a multiply zigzag, built by Russian Engineers. They just don't allow for cyclists....it's steep. Riding, I'm going too slow, and I'm scared I'm going to fall off. I push. For 3km. The best I can do is 50m at a time, and then I'm gasping for air. I've found my new "hardest damn hill so far". But eventually, I don't know how long it took, but it was tough, tough, tough. The summit, 4482m. I'm pretty proud of that effort, but I'm knackered.
It's 2km downhill to the Tajik border post. There are two cyclists there already, a Peruvian, Pedro?, and an Irish/Englishman, Will. We only get a few minutes to chat, and then they are told to get moving. They did ask..." Any washboards (corregrations) on the road?" I should have taken it as a warning. Meanwhile my Passport is stamped, I visit the Customs, no questions, and I'm in Tajikistan.
I hit the road, gentle downhill...... washboard. Bumpy, bumpy, bumpy. You are forever trying to find the best line, dodging the deep gravel at the same time. I'm questioning my choice of tyres. Mtb tyres might have been better here.
10km along, and my eggs aren't broken, but I am. I spot two other cyclists. They're still dismantling camp, an Austrian and a German. I slip down a stony bank to chat. They're right next to a 6m barbed wire fence. We think it protects a "no go area" near the Chinese border, but it has an open gate..... unguarded??? When the guys are ready to go, I help them get their bikes back up on to the road..... we all have to sit on the road edge to catch our breath....we are still above 4000m.
I need another rest, and to eat, so stop about 5km down the road, at the beginning of the tarseal. Just as I'm repacking two more cyclists arrive...... two more from Basque Country (I've never even considered the Basque was not Spain, but all these folk are passionate about identifying themselves as Basque, not Spanish). As I chat, I realise my shoes are sinking into the tar. It's not that hot, but the tar is soft. The tar shifts to my pedals....what a mess.
Today I saw 6 cyclists, 6 motor bikes, 6 Landcruisers, 2 military vehicles, and 234 Marmot, all of whom seemed to be standing on their hind legs and laughing at the old geezer pushing his bike up the hill. Apparently, a busy day on the Pamir Highway.