Karakul, the Murghab Plateau and the Kyzyl-Art Border:
Coming from Sary-Tash in southern Kyrgyzstan via the Bor Dobo and Kyzyl-Art border posts is one of the classic ways of entering the Pamirs. Passing Kyrgyz immigration is generally painless, and once you do you’re in for about 20km and 1000m of climbing through a scenic no-man’s land and up to the Kyzyl-Art pass, which marks the official entry into Tajikistan (and the high desert of the Murghab Plateau). If necessary, you can camp in no-man’s land without a problem and enjoy a night of statelessness.
The Tajik Kyzyl-Art border (at 4000+m in the middle of nowhere) has historically been notorious for scams and phony fees, but either I was lucky or the government has cleaned up its act, because after waiting for about an hour I was stamped in without incident and thru the border with no requests for money at all.
On the other side of the border you enter the moonscape of the Plateau, and it’s an easy ride to Karakul (paved, albeit badly, after the first 10km). The dilapidated town feels like a place after a bombing, but there are good homestays (try homestay Sadat at the north end of the town – 80 Somoni with dinner and breakfast) and a fairly well-stocked magazin, plus the shore of the lake itself is a beautiful place to explore on foot or by bicycle. From here it’s a couple of hours cycle down to the turnoff to the Bartang, or a couple of days over the pass on the M41 to Murghab. The Plateau is an austere and starkly beautiful place to travel, but also has serious winds, including possible headwinds that will slow your progress to a crawl.
The Bartang Valley:
The Bartang is the Pamirs’ truest bikepacking route, running about 300km from Karakul west to the service town of Rushon on the M41 north of Khorog. This is a gorgeous, adventurous traverse of the Pamirs that has it all – high mountains, remoteness, steep and fast descents, extremely rough track, numerous stream and river crossings, isolated villages boasting incredible hospitality, and even the very real possibility of landslides. Depending on the time of year, the weather and the vagaries of geology, the route may or may not be passable: ask other cyclists in the area who have done (or attempted) the route, and don’t listen to anyone who hasn’t been there who tells you that it is or is not currently possible.
This route can be done either east-west or west-east. The first way loses about 2000m of overall elevation; the second way gains it. You can guess which one is harder overall. Your choice of equipment makes a significant difference in how easy and enjoyable the route is. Big tyres and light loads are recommended. People do this with traditional loaded-touring setups in about seven days; with more sensible equipment it can be done comfortably in four. If water levels are high, you may end up having to shuttle your bags and bike separately across the streams and rivers, especially running pannier setups. Ditto if a landslide has blocked the route and you have to carry the bike over it.
About 20km south of the village of Karakul, a track runs off west across the Plateau thru the desert – the beginning of the route to the Bartang Valley. Several hours later the track meets and follows a gorgeous stream valley for many kilometres; the last place to camp before the track turns away from the river and back into the desert is about 70km from Karakul.
On the second day the track crosses the Plateau for several hours before abruptly hitting the edge and descending very steeply off it to the Bartang River Valley. I met a couple of aggressive and very unofficial-looking men who demanded money here for a national park permit. I gave them my details and told them I would buy it at an official office only (I later did in Khorog). No idea if they were scammers, but they didn’t seem legitimate, and I would generally suggest not giving money to random men who demand it for official-looking pieces of paper.
At the end of day two, after a great many water crossings, you hit Khudara, the furthest of the villages up the Bartang Valley, and for the rest of the route there is periodic (if isolated) habitation. The hospitality of the Bartangi people is legendary, and you’ll find yourself having to decline most of the invitations to people’s homes for chai if you want to make any progress at all.
Days three and four the road follows the river through a steep, narrow canyon on frequently dodgy track that depending on conditions can be covered either by landslides or the river itself. If you’re not sure of the depth of a crossing, walk it rather than trying to ride. The main river fortunately never has to be crossed, as there are always bridges (though watch out for nails in the boards!). The track rejoins the M41 just south of Rushon, from which there are guesthouses, shops, restaurants and transit connections onward to Dushanbe or back to Osh.
This route sees few visitors; I met only four other cyclists, all in a single group, on the final day. They were travelling only a short distance up the valley. I met no one at all from Karakul to the edge of the Plateau.