The “Roof of the World” has been used to describe the mountainous high altitude interior of Asia, but the term was first applied to the Pamirs. In the 19th century, a British explorer wrote that it was a “native expression” used by the Wakhi. In older encyclopedias and personal narratives the term was used to describe the Pamirs. When the world began getting interested in Tibet and the struggles there, the Pamirs fell out of the spotlight and people started using “roof of the world” to describe the Tibetan Plateau. Despite this, the true original “roof of the world” are the Pamir Mountains. This is where the worlds highest mountain ranges meet face-to-face in dramatic fashion. The Kunlun Shan, Karakoram, Himalaya, and Ladakh mountain ranges converge from the south-east, the Hindu Kush stands majestically along the south, the Tien Shan range slams in from the north, and the Tibetan Plateau lies to the east.
The masterpiece of this meeting of mountain ranges are the Pamirs. Over the past two months I followed these incredible ranges while making my way to the masterpiece. Through Nepal, the Himalaya mountains were followed, full of seven-thousand meter peaks and the famous Mt. Everest. Then I made my way into the Ladakh Range of India and drove over the worlds highest motorable roads exceeding 5,600 meters. Up into Northern Pakistan, I caught the Karakoram and Hindu Kush Ranges where massive glaciers were explored. After seeing the eastern edge of the Pamirs in China, the Tien Shan Range was crossed to enter Kyrgyzstan. Each region was special in its own way, and I could never choose one as better than the other. Each new area I arrived in blew my mind even further. All these mountain adventures led me to this. An adventure in the “Roof of the World”. The enchanting, rugged, mysterious, desolate, and romantic Pamir Mountains.
Leaving beautiful Karakul Lake, near the Kyrgyzstan border, begins the steady climb towards Ak-Baital Pass at 4,655 meters. Open stretches of road with nothing but yourself and vast nature all around. I stopped on this gorgeous stretch and laid out on my bike, and took it all in. It was close to an hour before any other human passed me, and this was two Dutch bicyclists. It’s much more common to so a foreigner on a bicycle trip than any type of vehicle.
Amazing scenes are around every bend in the valley. The colors up at high altitude have a whole other dimension and light up the senses. Small streams and rivers make their way through the desolate landscape, being a lifeline for hearty plants and toughened animals.
Some are able to survive while others whither away or move to greener pastures. The same is true for the Pamiri people who have forged an existence in these inhospitable lands. It takes a strong type of person to make a life in the harsh climate of the Pamir mountains. Abandoned homes and “ranches” aren’t uncommon. Where a family once made their home is now crumbling mud block structures being reclaimed by mother-nature.
Closer to the pass, the “highway” turns to the all-too-familiar washboard gravel. Unless you can get your speed up close to 60 km/h, it’s like being shaken violently and rattling you apart. Things come loosely quick on a motorcycle. Fortunately, my body doesn’t have any screws except for in my ankle and brain, which I’ve already managed to loosen a bit.
The beautiful snow-covered mountain views get better and better.
When you drive out in desolation and emptiness, it’s kind of exciting to meet another soul and share a chat. Up towards the top of the pass, I met an awesome french couple who had driven their Mercedes jeep all the way from France. A couple of warm friendly souls. Old in years on this planet, but still young in the mind. As luck would have it, another vehicle pulled up with some Japanese and South-Koreans. We all had a little shindig in the middle of the road and got out the white-out pens. My motorcycle and the French couple’s jeep got some new languages written on them.
After a delicious tall-can of Heineken, which gives a good buzz with an empty stomach at high altitude, I made my way up to the top of Ak-Baital Pass.
Some experiences or moments get you high, and it feels like a rush of happy drugs going through the blood. The Heineken might have helped, but it was 99% natural. The feeling of standing in the middle of the Pamir mountains looking over some of the most surreal landscape I’ve ever witnessed was spiritual. If there was ever a place to feel at one with the earth and any forces it holds, it’s up here. Over the pass, the road leads down through an amazing valley until everything widens out, and Murghab comes into view.
Murghab is the second biggest settlement in Gorno-Badakhshan behind Khorog. It claims to have a population of 4,000, but that’s hard to believe. The cute Homestay Erali sits up off the highway and looks over the village. At sunset, the valley begins to glow and the cold wind sweeps through. It’s a very strange place that has an almost lonely feel to it, but not if your with the family and guests at Erali. The sweet lady who runs the homestay has a permanent smile on her face and an infectious laugh that never stops. She does her best to make you feel right at home and fill your body with hearty meals.
To the east of Murghab is a largely unexplored area which borders China. Once out into the vast emptiness, paved roads disappear. A maze of dirt roads weaves all over the hills and plains. Some of the most fun I had in the Pamirs was exploring on these.
Using my map, I found one path that led up to a pass, which delivered me to another valley. The trail was a combination of smooth dirt, loose sand, and rough rocks.
At the top, I met a couple local Pamiri guys who lived in a small shack on the hillside and dug for gemstones. What a friendly couple dudes. Neither of them had seen many foreigners in their lives and especially never out here. They found it incredible and a tad humorous to meet an American guy on a motorcycle out in these parts.
After a very rough few km down off the top, the route gradually made its way out of the wide valley. Small villages popped up out of nowhere, and shepherds tended their massive flocks of sheep, goats, and a few random cows. Riding slowly through these parts, it gave me the feeling of going back in time to scenes I imagine in biblical times. The trail lead me to Rangkul village where a fork leads you east to the Chinese border or west to a couple stunning alpine lake. My Chinese visa being used, I turned west.
Rangkul and Shorkul lakes sit in an inter-mountain trough close to the Chinese border. The two lakes make up a closed drainage system where none of the gathered water is allowed to reach exterior water sources, like rivers. Much of the water comes from melt up on the Chinese border. The first lake, coming from the east, is Rangkul. The shoreline is swampy grassland, which makes it difficult to get right next to it. What a gorgeous sight it is, with views towards the snowy border and golden brown mountains running parallel on the other side. The wispy green, yellow, orange, and reddish grasses add a pretty contrast to the blue water.
When the winds calm, the surface reflects the surroundings. I was going to camp next to this lake, but the mosquitos drove me away. Rongkul is a freshwater lake, but no fish live in it, just lots and lots of mosquitoes.
A short ride down the gravel road brings you to Shorkul, which is a brackish lake. There were some amazing colors going on in the afternoon. Along with the different color grasses there was a bleach white almost crust. With the dark blues and mountain peaks, it was a magical scene.
I rode up to a small ridge at the base of the mountains and an endless view over both lakes. A picture perfect camp-spot away from all the craziness of the world. During the day the sunshine warms everything up nicely. It’s the perfect temperature to sit out and get some rays on the bones, but as soon as the sun sneaks behind the hills it’s a big drop. The night skies brought incredible stars crossed by the bright milky-way, but also below freezing temperatures. It was a rough night in the tent with, but I can’t complain. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be, except for maybe a tropical beach for a couple of days.
The crisp morning air brought cloudless blue skies and strong sunshine. The calm lake surface created some gorgeous reflections of the mountainous landscape.
Continuing from the lakes another 20 km, you find yourself back on the Pamir Highway.
There are no words for the sheer beauty of this ride.
Eventually the road splits and you have your choice of heading south to the Wakhan Valley or continuing west on the actual Pamir highway. Both ways are spectacular. I did both of them, but will post about the Wakhan next time. It deserves its own. The section before the split shows off some pretty lakes before climbing in elevation. There’s one final view out over the massive landscape and where you came from.
Unlike the Wakhan Valley, this section of the Pamir Highway is fantastic smooth asphalt.
I had a plan to cross from the Pamir Highway over a rough mountain pass to the Roshtqala Valley, but half way up something amazing happened. Since starting from Australia, over 25,000 km ago, I got my first flat tire. Out of all the zillions of places it could have happened, I found one of the worst. As I was going up a steep vertical climb on soft sand, I noticed the flat and tried to stop. Doing this on that kind of slope was a terrible idea. To make a long story short I laid the bike down. I had to drag it around with all my strength just get the right angle to be able to lift it up. I mustered everything I had to get it up, but couldn’t balance it and lost it again. That time I broke my mirror and clutch lever. Eventually, I got it turned around and rolled back down the hill where I had seen a group of locals working on a truck. They had a nice flat open area. When I found what it was that punctured my tube, I was blown away. The tiniest sliver metal wire had gone through my tire. It looked like a tiny spring. For the next hour, as the sun creeped below the mountains, I removed the tire and patched the tube. It was kind of nice to have some locals around to joke with. Just as daylight left us for good, I finished up and they got their gearbox working.
Running along the Pamir Highway is one the most beautiful aqua-marine rivers I’ve ever seen. A truly amazing sight.
Getting closer to Khorog, you get your first evidence of the massive mudslide/landslide that happened earlier this summer, which created an artificial lake. It’s much smaller, but eerily similar to Attabad Lake in Pakistan. In the spring and early summer months heavy rains are a major issue in Gorno-Badakhshan, which cause disasters often.
Fifteen km east of Khorog, the massive mud and rock flow came down and choked the flow of the river as well as destroying a large section of the Pamir Highway. Many homes were destroyed and eaten up by the dangerous flow. To make things worse, the river channel being closed off cause an artificial lake to form. This flooded and submerged many homes and small shops in the area. Road crews have done an incredible job of quickly building a new road and re-opening the route. When I went through, a handful of locals were scavenging in the rocky debris of the slide.
It’s terrible to see the destruction that it caused, but you can’t deny the beauty of the lake. Large chunks of electrical poles float and bob around. The landscape is very similar to the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan where the Attabad landslide occurred. Here’s a LINK to my post about crossing the artificial lake it created and the surrounding area. I had flashbacks of being back in that wonderful area.
The color of the water is dream colored. With the early morning reflections cast over its tropical surface, surrounded by tall green trees, and highlighted by a rich blue sky, it made for a truly beautiful scene.
Approaching Khorog, the valley walls get tighter and steeper until you climb up out of it. After going through a section of tunnels, you get your final views over this beautiful river. Stop and enjoy the moment and take it all in.
Next up: The Wakhan Valley along the Afghan border.