Altitude Madness

Posted on 2019-08-07

After our long break in Khorog, it was finally time to tackle the high Pamirs. Leaving Khorog up the main M41, also known as the Pamir Highway (which is really just a small road), we first passed through a long string of villages for about 100km. The first few villages next to Khorog seemed to be a popular place to live in, judging from the several relatively nice houses we saw there, though the villages quickly became visibly less developed the further we went from Khorog. We were blessed with good tailwind almost all the time while cycling eastwards from Khorog, which seems to be the prevailing wind direction.

Soviet-built half-tunnels on the way out of Khorog, along the Gunt river

Soviet-built half-tunnels on the way out of Khorog, along the Gunt river

The road is not very steep, but slowly ascends from Khorog at 2100m to a 4272m high pass. The rule of thumb for ascending at altitudes above 2500m is to climb only 300m per day, with an additional rest day every three days to acclimatise. With Hannah's experience suffering from altitude sickness previously in Nepal, we didn't want to take any chances again, so we planned short days to be somewhat in line with this rule of thumb, and Hannah started taking Diamox, a medicine that helps with acclimatisation, on the first night after leaving Khorog, when we had reached 2600m. Nevertheless, we still went too far the next day, ascending 450m, and Hannah developed a strong headache that evening that persisted until the following morning. Our initial plan was to cycle to Jelondy that day, which was another 450m ascent, but we spontaneously decided to split this into two days (on hindsight, this 900m climb should have been split into 3 days in the first place #mathfail). This meant two extremely short days, the first with 150m ascent in a mere 11km (a record low for us), and the second with 300m ascent in 23km. With this spontaneous change in plans, we ended up camping three nights in a row, but we always managed to find camping spots next to the river and under a large bush, that provided shade from the early morning sun and allowed us to sleep in a bit (the sun rises around 5am these days).

Our campsite right next to the Gunt river on our first night out of Khorog

Our campsite right next to the Gunt river on our first night out of Khorog

The mountainous landscape along the Toghuzbulok river between Khorog and Jelondy

The mountainous landscape along the Toghuzbulok river between Khorog and Jelondy

Shortly before we reached the village of Jelondy, we crossed the tree line, and from then on, there was no more shade to be found along the road. Jelondy is popular with local tourists for its hot springs, that are attributed with positive health effects. Many village houses offer homestay opportunities and access to their hot springs, but we chose to stay in a sanatorium from Soviet times - a simple, somewhat run-down hotel kind of place with two shared hot baths, separated by gender. The bath, which you enter naked (thus no photos), is a small swimming pool through which the hot spring water flows. The temperature in the women's bath was somewhat bearable for swimming or long-term sitting, but the men's bath was so hot that people rarely swam and mostly sat halfway in on the steps for a few minutes between taking cold showers. The sanatorium also had a restaurant, but the food was quite basic and the portions were tiny. Many locals only seemed to have come for a day trip, but the rooms were also almost fully booked when we were there. The stay was very cheap at about 3€ per person.

Our room in the Jelondy sanatorium, in typical Soviet style

Our room in the Jelondy sanatorium, in typical Soviet style

Our room in the Jelondy sanatorium was in the first building here, that also appears to be the oldest. The white and red building behind it (visible on the left) is newer and has the restaurant and more rooms. The yellow two-storey building on the right is still under construction. With all the expansion, it seems like this place is really popular with (mostly local) tourists!

Our room in the Jelondy sanatorium was in the first building here, that also appears to be the oldest. The white and red building behind it (visible on the left) is newer and has the restaurant and more rooms. The yellow two-storey building on the right is still under construction. With all the expansion, it seems like this place is really popular with (mostly local) tourists!

Jelondy, at 3550m, was the last village before we would cross the Koitezek pass at 4272m, so we camped halfway up after another very short cycling day. It was here, after five days of ascending slowly and taking Diamox, and almost at the highest point (for now), that Hannah realised the reason why she had so much headache anyway: she had inadvertently mixed up the Diamox and the anti-diarrhoea pills and taken the wrong ones! No wonder her diarrhoea that started the night before we left Khorog ended so quickly...

We reached our campsite between Jelondy and the Koitezek Pass (4272m) early in the afternoon, but did not want to ascend any further because of the altitude. We set up temporary shade from the sun to chill out in.

We reached our campsite between Jelondy and the Koitezek Pass (4272m) early in the afternoon, but did not want to ascend any further because of the altitude. We set up temporary shade from the sun to chill out in.

The next day was unexpectedly tough. The road had been fairly good since Khorog, so we expected to climb the remaining 300m up to the Koitezek pass quickly in the morning, after which it would be mostly downhill to the second, lower Tagharkaty pass at 4168m, and then downhill again to Alichur. But shortly after our campsite, the asphalt turned into a gravel road with big, rough stones in it, and the road stayed like this until across the pass. Even in lowest gear, Hannah could not exert enough power at this high altitude to keep her balance on the steep, bumpy road, and ended up pushing the bicycle for most of the 5km to the top, stopping every 20m to catch her breath, finally taking us 2.5h to cover the distance. By the time we were on our way down from the first pass, Hannah had already developed a headache from all the exertion at high altitude. The second pass, then, became torture for Hannah. Although it was shorter and less steep, and under normal circumstances should have been relatively easy, it was also unpaved, and with an intensifying headache, it was not only tough to cycle up, it was also painful to cycle down, as the headache intensified with every bump on the road.

The landscape at the top of the Koitezek Pass (4272m)

The landscape at the top of the Koitezek Pass (4272m)

Lone house along the road on the way down from the Koitezek Pass (4272m)

Lone house along the road on the way down from the Koitezek Pass (4272m)

On our way up the first pass, we were overtaken by a Russian cyclist who had started from Jelondy that day. We were surprised that most cyclists we met, like him, seemed to plan their days with absolute disregard for altitude considerations. Everyone seemed to be cycling "normal" distances (i.e. normal at lower altitudes) up the mountains and across passes without any problems, judging from the number of days they take from one place to another, usually much fewer than us.

Altitude problems aside, the landscape also changed dramatically after the first pass. Before the pass, the landscape was always dominated by a deep river valley flanked by steep mountainsides. After the pass, we suddenly entered the Pamir plateau, with wide valleys and lower mountain peaks (in relative terms). The electrical grid from Khorog had ended in Jelondy, and what we thought was a (surprisingly low-voltage looking) power line running next to the road was actually a Soviet-built telephone line, that has fallen out of repair since independence. The environment here was drier and less hospitable, and there were no more villages along the main road until Alichur - only the occasional lone house in the barren landscape.

The valley on the way down from the Tagharkaty Pass (4168m)

The valley on the way down from the Tagharkaty Pass (4168m)

We hadn't filled up our water in the morning, as we had planned to reach Bulunkul lake that day, where we would be able to refill our water in the village before camping. Bulunkul is a 13km downhill detour from the main road along a fairly good dirt road, that should have been relatively easy under normal conditions. However, it was clear that we would not make it to Bulunkul that day. Even when the road finally improved, Hannah was still progressing extremely slowly, controlling her speed across the cracks in the asphalt road to keep the intense headache under control. Without water, we also couldn't camp, so we went to the nearest homestay, a lone house in the middle of a dry, salty plain, and asked to stay there.

The family living there was kind and friendly and had also hosted other cyclists before. It was not a comfortable experience though, and life in this inhospitable place must be very hard for the family. For dinner, we were offered a bowl of warm milk, and instructed to mix in some butter and break pieces of bread into the mixture to eat. For breakfast, we had the same combination again, and we suspect that the family eats this same food most of the time, as they keep cows, so they are self-sufficient in milk and butter, and they bake their own bread, while everything else must be expensive for them. We slept in an empty room adjacent to the family's sleeping room, and were awoken frequently by people stopping by the house for something, or by Hannah's headache.

We stayed a night with the family living in this lone house close to Chururkul lake

We stayed a night with the family living in this lone house close to Chururkul lake

With our host family outside their house close to Chururkul lake

With our host family outside their house close to Chururkul lake

Thankfully, it was no longer very far to Alichur the next day, where we found another homestay, this time much more comfortable, and were able to take a hot bucket shower and had one of our best sleeps in a long time.

Alichur village, at the end (or start, in our case) of a long, wide, and surprisingly green valley (though the green part cannot be seen from here)

Alichur village, at the end (or start, in our case) of a long, wide, and surprisingly green valley (though the green part cannot be seen from here)