‘Take the alley by a row of kiosks … Take a diagonal right at the rubbish dump and turn left at the 2nd apartment, 3rd entrance on the top floor’. So went the description of how to find Osh Guesthouse in typical Lonely Planet fashion. Well we looked for it for two hours but couldn’t find it for love nor money. Our 2nd choice took us to Tes Guest House – a place normally reserved for NGO workers. This made for a whole different type of conversation over breakfast….
The penultimate day in Osh it started to rain, and the temperature cooled off a fair bit. The next day thankfully it had stopped raining and it was generally quite good cycling weather. As ever it was a bit of an effort getting back on the bike, not least because the road was on a gentle climb up to the first pass. The last 5km it climbed steep enough to the top of the pass, but it was no match for our new level Pamir fitness. Plus it wasn’t that high – it was a strange to think that we were nearly twice as high as this on one of the other passes in Tajikistan.
A puncture just on the other side which needed fixing twice didn’t leave us with a lot of sunlight to find a good camping spot. The road descended sharply the other side of the pass. Houses and small villages either side of the road meant it was difficult to find somewhere to pitch. Camping spots can be a bit hit or miss but I can’t remember the last time we got a really bad one. As it turned out on this occasion we hit the jackpot – a small nature reserve with the perfect patch of grass underneath a tree right beside a river. We were at around 1500m and it was noticeably warmer at this height.
We woke up to rain for the first time in ages so we decided to pack down our stuff and head to the nearest town for brunch rather than cooking in the rain…. The following stretch of valley was particularly beautiful. For one it was green which was a really welcome change to the bare rocks of the Pamirs. The majority of trees were evergreens but for those which weren’t stunning autumnal shades were coming through. Mist clung to the mountain tops. [would be nice to show a photo of this].
That day we met a Welsh cyclist who was heading to Almaty. He looked pretty frozen. He had recently come from the Pamirs and informed us that the temperature had dropped as low as -18 and that in Sary Tash there had been 5cm of snow a few nights back. He also said there was a group of three French cyclists about 3-4 hours ahead of us who were heading to Tajikistan. Unlucky.
The next day we cycled past a village which had a Buzkashi pitch (a sort of rugby on horseback type game played with a headless goat as the ball). Sadly they only really play this sport in the Springtime but it would have made for an entertaining substitute for the real rugby world cup. The same day we tackled the 2nd pass which was a lot higher than the first (3800 as opposed to 2300 or something). The journey up was fraught with danger. On the way to Osh we observed that around 5km was unpaved dust tracks and that there were workers drilling the side of the mountain, big rocks falling down in the process. Thankfully we didn’t have to deal with these workers on our ascent. Truck drivers were hurtling down the mountain road at over 80kph which wasn’t too fun. I skitched about 500metres on the back of a slow moving lorry but then ran out of tarmac. Switchback after switchback followed like the coils of a giant dirt track anaconda…. The pass itself was in fact two passes in one which took a bit of extra effort (a Mars) but was doable. A healthy crosswind made for a tricky descent.
We re-checked in to the Sary Tash Guest House and met the three French cyclists. Karine, Ben + ?? had cycled from Bishkek and wanted to do the Pamirs before flying back out from Dushanbe, Karine eager to head on to Iran. We gave them what advice we could and wished them well for the cold which no doubt awaited them.
And so it was that we made our way to the Chinese border. There was one pass on the map but we had heard from some Austrians that it barely registered on the difficulty scale. When we were up there it t started to snow. Nothing full-on so it was good fun to cycle through. I hate to say it but I was getting a bit bored towards the last few days of the Pamir Highway. Cool as the mountains were it was all getting a bit samey. Perhaps the problem was that it never really felt like I was in the mountain experience but rather observing it from a distance. The section from Osh to the border, however, felt a lot more involved and for was for me a lot more visually stimulating.
We were expecting a big tailback when we arrived at the border, but instead were greeted by these guys [photo of camels here]. I never realised 2 humped camels could grow so big. Just down the road the tailback began but it wasn’t too bad. Only 1-2 km. This border crossing was the same end-of-the-world dystopian vibes as all the big crossings I’ve passed through. We found the best spot to camp, happy that we nailed the journey from Osh in 3-4 days.
In stark contrast to the rumours we had heard, the border crossing into China was possibly the most unproblematic to date. The immigration officer spoke excellent English and even gave us a recommendation for a good restaurant in Kashgar. We had our bags scanned and our passports digitally copied, and had a good laugh at the guy on a podium with flags directing lorries with a very serious looking locking routine. After nearly two months in Central Asia (and all the visa nonsense) it felt great to get out of the Stans and finally be entering China…