Though a recent attack on cycle tourists in Tajikistan has many wary of the region, my experience (and that of thousands and thousands of other cyclists and bikepackers) is that Tajikistan is not only spectacular and safe to travel, but one of the most friendly and hospitable countries you will ever visit. If you’re interested in bikepacking Tajikistan, check out the practical information below for how to cycle tour the Bartang Valley, Wakhan Corridor and more adventurous routes in the Pamirs and elsewhere.
www.caravanistan.com is the best source for up-to-date information about Tajikistan, the Pamirs, and Central Asia as a whole. Check out the Tajikistan country pages for general information, and reports in the forum for current conditions in the area.
www.pamirs.org, though less well organised, also has a wealth of information for planning a trip in the region.
http://www.visitpamirs.com/welcome-to-pamirs, the homepage of the Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association (PECTA) is another good place to check out.
Tajikistan has now introduced an e-visa scheme: apply and pay online, get your e-visa emailed to you about 24 hours later. Print it out and take it with you to the border or airport. $50 USD plus another $20 for the GBAO permit (Gorno Badakshan Autonomous Oblast – where the Pamirs are). Validity is 45 days, single entry. Current information suggests it is not necessary to register with the government OVIR office for stays of up to 30 days, and possibly the full 45 days (see caravanistan.com for latest information).
Local currency is Tajik Somoni, about 8.8 to the $USD as of Aug 2017. Functioning ATMs that accept international cards are thin on the ground (or nonexistent) outside Dushanbe. It’s probably best to take as much as you think you’ll need for your trip in $USD and change it into Tajik Somoni as necessary. It’s common for hotels, tour operators etc to quote prices in $USD, and also to accept payment in them rather than local currency. People seem to be good about using the exact bank rate rather than some wacky ‘adjusted’ exchange rate that benefits them on the transaction. Small notes are always more useful than $50s and $100s. People in Karakul near the Kyrgyz border also seem happy to accept Kyrgyz currency (Som) if you happen to have any.
Phone and Internet:
Acquring a Tajik SIM card is cheap and easy to do in any larger town. For the Pamirs and the GBAO, Megafon is your best choice for coverage, with signal in Karakul, Murghab, the Wakhan, and even up the Bartang Valley as far as Basid. Most of the time, obviously, you’ll have at best an E network for data, but it’s still possible to stay connected in more places than you’d think. Data is cheap in the country and easy to reload at small shops all over the country (just look for a poster on the shop for Megafon or whatever other carrier you might have). Otherwise, wifi is thin on the ground throughout the country (even in places like Khorog), and even then usually is only switched on in hotels for a few hours a day. Phone internet access is generally your best bet, and as wifi connections are often terribly slow, big photo uploads may have to wait until Dushanbe at the very least.
Camping is much of the joy of bikepacking Central Asia, and in Tajikistan you’re spoiled for choice – there are endless amazing wild-camping opportunities, and it’s easy to find a beautiful campsite with a clear freshwater source in most places. Even in small villages, homestays (some official, some unofficial) are generally available with local families, with a bed (or floor mattress), dinner and breakfast (generally simple and vegetarian) for between $9 and $15 USD.
There are many more sleeping options in the region centre of Khorog, where the Pamir Lodge remains immensely popular with independent travellers and cyclists, and is the town’s most social lodging choice, though it’s a bit far from the centre. Hostel Do Nazarbayt is closer to the action and good value at $10USD for a room with private bathroom, including breakfast; the owner is also friendly and helpful. Dushanbe has the full range of lodging you’d expect for a capital city.
Food and cooking:
No one has ever accused Central Asia of being a gourmand’s paradise, and food can be pretty grim (and questionably hygienic) throughout the region. Highlights are plov (a kind of rice pilaf with meat), lagman (noodles with meat and veggies) and shashlik (grilled skewers of meat), though the quality of all of these dishes varies widely. Flatbread is ubiquitous: delicious when fresh, and increasingly dry/stale/mouldy/unpalatable the longer it’s been sitting out. Fair warning: getting sick in the Pamirs is pretty common.
‘Magazins’ are small shops, found everywhere, that generally have at least instant noodles, biscuits, snickers and sugar drinks (though there are also magazins with shelves that are pretty much bare of anything to eat – disappointing if you’ve just arrived to a town after a long ride hoping to find a snack). If you’re lucky, they might also have some fresh vegetables to help you stave off scurvy. Beer and vodka are also common to find, and Sim-Sim, the local Tajik brew, is decent stuff, as is imported Baltika.
For camp cooking, unleaded petrol is available everywhere, though you should also be able to find isobutene-propane fuel canisters in Dushanbe and Khorog. Clear-running freshwater is easy to find on most routes, though you’ll still want to filter or disinfect it because of livestock upstream. Most small villages also generally have a well with a pump; I have generally drunk this water unfiltered without a problem, though your comfort level with this practice may vary.
You’re not going to find much in the way of spares or service outside of Dushanbe (which is itself hardly a bicycle paradise). You’re best off bringing anything you might need to deal with a mechanical with you. Conditions are frequently dusty and/or muddy, and some routes have a significant number of water crossings that will require you to relube your chain regularly. Roads are generally rough, so running high-volume tyres is a good idea, as is going tubeless, which will let you run lower pressures and eliminate the possibility of pinch flats. If you have to cross rivers or streams when the water levels are high, you may also rue having low-riding front panniers.
Surprisingly high. The M41 Pamir Highway between Osh – Murghab – Khorog – Dushanbe is one of the world’s most popular routes for cycle tourists, most of whom are riding traditional loaded four-pannier setups. On most routes through the Pamirs in high season you’ll meet many cyclists each day, sometimes in big groups, and depending on your interests the social aspect of a trip thru the Pamirs can be a real highlight. The busy Wakhan Corridor route along the southern border is currently regarded as the region’s must-do cycling trip, though the remote and difficult Bartang Valley is both more beautiful and more rewarding, with almost no tourist factor. The Fann Mountains in the country’s northwest also receive a small fraction of the visitors to the GBAO, and are ripe to be explored for bikepacking.
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.
The Wakhan Corridor:
Though everyone raves about the Wakhan, the narrow strip of land running along the Panj River on Tajikistan’s southern border with Afghanistan, I found it a bit of a disappointment after the Bartang and the Plateau. Afghanistan is just a stone’s throw across the river, and there are glimpses of high snowcapped mountains, but the road for the most part lacks blockbuster scenery and can be quite ‘same-y’ along its length. Add to this the crowds of foreign cyclists and it can be difficult not to feel that you’re just on another kind of tourist trail here. Many people love this route for the social aspect found with other cyclists, but if you’re not keen to stop and chat a couple of times every hour, the busy-ness of the route might get tiresome.
The M41 Highway: Dushanbe – Khorog:
The route to or from Dushanbe to Khorog (or Rushon, just 60km north) follows fantastically bad, dusty road along a river valley for several days along the eastern Afghan border. It’s reasonably scenic, and so worth riding if you have the time and inclination, though be aware that traffic is often fairly heavy on this route – something you may wish to consider given the general recklessness of drivers in Tajikistan.
The Fann Mountains:
Though I didn’t visit the Fann Mountains, which lie in the corner of the country to the northwest of Dushanbe towards Uzbekistan, I’ve been generally made to understand that they receive few of the visitors who flock to the Pamirs, making them ripe for exploration. A vast network of hiking trails runs through the valleys and over the passes between Iskander Kul and Panjkent; check out the Gecko Maps ‘Southern Tajikistan’ map as a potential place to start researching a bikepacking route through this little-visited region.