|room for 3 more|
Setting off eastwards the next day we begin to get the sense of how high we are. The Pamir plateau is really a series of high dry valleys between the enormous peaks that cover most of this region. There are not many settlements - we are at about 3900m and the summer season is very short. We pass small farms of sheep and goat herders. A man is moving yaks across the road.
|lunch break at 4100m|
The town of Murgab sprawls down the hillside at a junction of valleys. It's full of single-storey square houses and only a few trees or gardens. The Pamir plateau is a barren desert place. Murgab is significant in our minds simply because it's a place where we might find fresh food in the container bazaar. For a few days fresh food supplies have been low and the tiny shops we come across stock mainly just the essentials like pasta, Snickers bars, tea and flour. Now that we're back on the main road food has become our priority. 'Bartang' Robert discovers duck shashlyk at the big hotel up the road - result. There's also World Cup football matches to catch up on - Gayle can hardly contain herself. Our numbers have grown - Damian and Hannah have caught us up and Hanne and Tyson are here already. At mealtimes the courtyard of the guesthouse is full of camping stoves all struggling to boil spuds at 3600m.
The road turns northwards out of Murgab - only the big Chinese trucks continue east into China, using a border not open to foreigners. We cycled past that border back in 2010 on the Karakoram Highway. Now we are heading northwards towards the Big Pass on the highway - a 4655m climb that is guaranteed to leave us all breathless. There's hardly any traffic on the road - just occasional jeeps ferrying passengers between Osh and Khorog. One of them drives straight towards us on our side of the road before veering around us. He has Kyrgyz plates. Our first mad Kyrgyz driver and we're not even in the bloody country. I arm myself with a rock for the next one, which never comes. Later on Dino tells me the same thing happened with them and then he shows me the rock he put in his pocket. Fools seldom differ, it seems.
|taking a break from the saddle|
The road takes us gradually uphill and we camp before it steepens. Hannah and Tyson have left us a sign and an arrow to a good pitch by the river. We put the tents up - five of them - and get down to the communal cook-in. The next day is the Big Climb over the Big Pass. We set off in dribs and drabs and begin what turns out to be a relatively short climb (relatively - it takes an hour) that ends at a pass blasted through the rock.
|Robert tops up the tan|
|contemplating the washboard|
|Robert and Damian looking out for Hannah|
lovely camp where the valley flattens out beside another winding river. It's a bit windy but the winds seem to drop off when the sun goes down. We pitch on a large patch of grass and get down to the cooking. As the sun sets the wind changes direction by 90 degrees and starts to gust strongly. Our tunnel tent is facing the wrong way. Rob has turned his little tent around and Suzy and Dino have just helped Robert turn his. They peg it back down and are about to move away when the wind gets under the tent and it flies up in the air towards the river. The pegs come clean out of the ground. Luckily they manage to grab it and bring it to ground, but a pole is bent and Robert doesn't trust the wind. He wraps up the tent, still with his things inside, and buries it under his panniers. Meanwhile our tent is getting hammered and we need Damian, Dino and Suzy to help turn it around without it taking off. As we have a 3-man tent we offer refuge to Robert for the night. Warm Showers hosting? To be honest, we always think our tent is only big enough for two and a half adults, so it's a good test to see. Of course, there is room for all three of us. By the time we are all settled in the wind has reverted back to its original direction and soon dies down.
Arriving in Karakul the next day at lunchtime we are disappointed to learn that the homestay Robert stayed in on his outward journey has no food. Or very little. We opt to raid the village shop of bread, condensed milk, biscuits, tinned meat or fish, the ubiquitous Snickers bars. It's a poor do. The bread is brought from someone's house. It's probably yesterday's. We dip it into our tin of condensed milk, sitting on a wall. "Vagrants" Robert had jokingly referred to us all one day. Looking at us now, he's not far wrong. We fill up the water bottles at the well which has been fitted with a giant pump and head off around the huge lake beside the village. It stretches far and wide and the colour varies with the light. At times it looks like the Caribbean, at others a grey and threatening sea.
This afternoon I bonk. Dino and Robert hang on for me while I shovel dates into my mouth. Meanwhile Damian, Hannah, Gayle and Suzy head off up towards the next pass. Rob has opted for a night's rest in a homestay. The afternoon's ride ends slowly as we all plug uphill into an appalling headwind. Damian strikes out and finds us all a cosy spot in a ravine out of the wind - a charming little gravel pit to pitch our tents. "Bloody marvellous!" Robert grins and rubs his hands.
|gritty but windless|
|Dino unusually at a loss for words|
Careering down the switchbacks on the dry dirt road we pause at a house where Robert found refuge on his way up when he came from Osh. The woman here makes us tea, brings us the freshest bread we've had for over ten days, sweets and jam. She indicates she can't join us - Ramadan has begun. Greedily we munch and slurp away before continuing down the mountain, following rivers flowing red with the soil. It's a good downhill on a dirt road with just one river crossing. We are leaving the Pamirs behind and heading into the green lands of Kyrgyzstan.