Before Taldyk Pass to no-man’s land before Tajik Border, Day 17 (62km)
Pamir Highway Day 3
It was the day I had been dreading and I woke up with a thick layer of ice on the tent and a desire to stay inside my slightly mildew smelling sleeping bag until midday. I crawled out of my tent, smashed the ice on the nearest stream to fill my water bottles and mustered all my strength and energy. I boarded my steed and started the days task of climbing to an altitude of 3500m. The Taldyk pass has been conquered by no one; it’s ferocious weather and steep slopes have beaten many, and the Sovietski road’s condition suggests that it has finally surrendered to the mountains, only for a new contender to take their turn; the Chinese, who are now attempting to cut a new road through the remaining mess. Stories about the ferocious wind, plumes of dust and army’s of Kamaz trucks storming up the narrow channel , have haunted me since Osh, when cyclists arriving at the hostel looked as if they had been marooned on a desert island; coughing sand from their lungs, shaking powder from their hair and stuffing their hungry bellies with kilos of shashlyk. This was the stretch that they said hurt them!
The surface was in places only sand and the heavy bike sank, forcing me to run alongside pushing the sinking bike to avoid being squashed by the determined Kamaz drivers. It’s interesting that it’s the Chinese trucks which slowed down and offered courteous waves to allow the lone cyclist to weave his way unimpeded up the pass, whereas the Kyrgyz drivers hooted and accelerated to insure a good gassing from their diesel fumes.
From my travels in China I had always thought of the Chinese as cold and uncompassionate, yet the mainly Uighur drivers seem to have a great respect for the European hauling his weight over the mountains.
It takes me two hours to reach the crux of the twisty climb and as I approach the monument to the lives lost building the pass, a mighty wind bellows over the summit hitting me and rattling every bolt on my bike and bone on my body. The mighty Pamir is upon me and I am surrounded by snow capped peaks. I barely dare take out my camera to take a victorious photo, and fight a losing battle to move forward off the pass. The temperature has suddenly plummeted and I am cycling in all my clothes and trousers for the first time on the trip (and it would turn out the first of many days for the next weeks).
On the way down I see the wall of the mountain covered in small ant like figures painfully drilling away into the hillside with small hand drills; if anyone can conquer this region, it’s sadly the Chinese and brute force and sheer bloody mindedness are their weapons of choice. At the bottom of the rock face are poor looking Kyrgyz shepherds camped up in traditional caravans that look like they were once train carriages on a Moscow bound route alongside cheap and grubby looking yurts. These are poor people even by nomadic standards. Their way of life has survived hundreds of years, in these parts largely surviving even the long arm of Stalin’s collectivisation; their only protection was their extreme isolation and as the Chinese tar a two lane highway alongside their settlements and over their grazing, you have to wonder for how much longer. My silly nostalgic view takes a hit as I pass a group of Kyrgyz children who have gathered to throw stones at me by the side of the road, they all have snotty noses, are painfully thin, have chapped skin from the constant wind and bloody red eyes from the constant cooking smoke in their Yurts; maybe the Chinese will be their saviours.
Sary Tash is the last village in Kyrgyzstan and where the road splits from the Pamir Highway to the road to Kashgar and China. The roads split at a modern looking petrol station which dwarfs over the white washed village which could just as well have been lifted straight out of Tibet or Ladakh. I look out at the road to Chinese Simhana and wish I had fixed my visa problems in Bishkek; I have a Chinese visa but cannot continue my journey there to the Silk Road town of Kashgar. I take lunch in a small cafe, which is probably the last small cafe for a few hundred kilometres, poke around the village to search out any fresh vegetables and set out across the plateau which I have reached only two bruised looking onions and a snickers bar heavier, completely alone but for the howling wind. The sporadic truck traffic which has lent me company from Osh is going towards China, and only an old soviet radar station, its gold dome shining in the sun and a dilapidated Krygyz army base, complete with a comic selection of ex-Soviet hardware, collapsed walls and what look like US-aid tents in place of the crumbling barracks offer any clue to any human inhabitation. Small birds are attempt vigorously to fly off a single line of the tale tale wooden pylons which litter the former CIS heading towards the border station, but are blown back by fearsome gusts blowing from the west. I stick up my hood and push forward head down, struggling to enjoy the view which I have so yearned for in the last year towards Tajikistan.
I finally reach deserted border station to check my way out of Krygyzstan. I’m left standing in the biting cold by the border guards who won’t let me enter their building, and who leave me for newaly forty minutes. I pass though without fanfare into the large stretch of no-man’s land which separates the two republics and snow begins to fall. Slowly snow begins to settle on the ground around me, and dwarfed my snowy giants around me, I pitch up in the shadow of a huge glacier and fall asleep to the sounds of the wind and the blizzard battering my tent. I hope and pray the snow doesn’t settle. For the first time in a long time I fear the wrath of Mother Nature; I am scared.