A riddle: What do a barn piled with hay, a field nearby a police checkpoint and a stretch of riverbank across from Afghanistan all have in common? An answer: For a night, they all had Megan being afraid of only one thing – big spiders finding shelter in both the clothes she was and was not wearing. Absolutely not to say that I was not or should not have been aware of the other risks, likely superseding arachnids in importance. But fear narrows my thoughts and spiders are so tangible, so quiet and unhindered from getting in my business as we lay out in the air.
And, well – that’s about it for common characteristics of the above nature hotels, save for that we found them all on the the Pamir Highway (and the optional offshoot through the Wakhan Valley). I’m still trying to think of an interesting and concise way to describe what it was like to spend time on this route through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. For many we met, the Pamirs were the most anticipated part of their travels; I feel the pressure to come up with a deserving description. So far I’m leaning a bit too heavily on ‘awesome’, ‘rad to the power of sick’ (thanks, Josh), ‘brown, and then not brown’ ‘barely showered,’ and my personal favourite, ‘it was like a biking AND walking trip.’ Simple, but kind of vague.
If I was asking, I think I would want to know something peculiar. Something about living life. So here’s something that was peculiar to me about cycling in the Pamirs: We slept in a slew of different types of places. Such diversity!
Ilona and I were rare to turn down anything with a shred of suitability for a place to rest. There were a few times that the weather turned and we needed to find shelter quickly. But even on those divine, sunny mountain afternoons, once we started talking about ending the day it usually meant that we were both ready to quit. Over it. The kilometres that followed dragged on and we wished for but a few. Each bend, crest, horizon or building stirred or dashed hope of stripping off the cycling shorts and the hiking boots and doing more sitting – but just not saddle sitting. At least, that’s how I felt. Had we been pickier, or faster, or less lazy, maybe we’d have had more consistent sleeping arrangements. But we didn’t, and I’m glad for it. It was extra field research.
A comparative report follows:
‘Seven Sleeping Setups in the Pamirs.’
Even though it details things seen and experienced during a cycling trip, a disclaimer: Not much actual cycling is discussed. We pedalled from, to, between each of these spots, except for those few times that we didn’t. As per my initial ‘describe your Pamir experience’ goal I hope that this report is both interesting and concise, but if it’s only one of those I’m still drinking a beer after I finish writing it. Let’s start:
1) Abandoned Trailers
Trailers are scattered through the valleys along much of Kyrgyzstan’s stretch of the Pamir Highway. In my mind they added a bit of an apocalyptic vibe to the rolling hills. I’m not sure what the deal is, perhaps people live in them during part of the year. We spent our first night in one, which you can read about here if you please.
Positives: The abandoned trailer features a roof, walls and windows. No need to wear that rain shell over your down jacket – it’s always comfy pants time in the trailer! Also includes a floor that isn’t dirt, making it all the easier for you to play house in. Marble countertops not included. Abandoned trailers require little to no setup, as long as you can find a way inside. If it’s locked, I don’t recommend forcing your way in. But don’t worry, all is not lost – you can still unleash the ruthless tent+trailer combination – BAM. Just watch that rusty metal, no one wants a grumpy cycling partner with tetanus. Interestingly, how creepy the trailer feels is largely up to your own imagination. This can be a fun game.
Negatives: Creepy. Your bike stays outside. May not actually be abandoned. Sorely lacking in ‘beautiful nature’ feelings.
2) Abandoned Buildings
Abandoned buildings come in many different varieties on the Pamir Highway, but generally they’re a single-storey structure of brown mud bricks, located not far off of the road. In Kyrgyzstan we found them to be less decrepit than in Tajikistan. We slept in a lot of these, because….
Positives: You’re out of sight! They block the wind! I’d like to point out that the abandoned trailer is still superior in this regard. Many abandoned buildings that we happened on are without a roof and high walls. Other benefits include passing the time marvelling at the bizarre floor plan layout. What are those weird small rooms for? You’ll have extra time for this, because sometimes a night in a building means a night without setting up the tent, but not necessarily. Lastly, the view out the doorway can actually be beautiful.
Negatives: Curious folks might live nearby. May have a floor of livestock droppings, but it’s usually all dried up so quit your complaining Megan. Other hazards include broken glass, barbed wire, offensive drawings, the effort required to carry your loaded bicycle up large stone steps. Sometimes there are too many wasps already living in the house, that’s no fun. The vibe inside abandoned buildings is not peaceful nature. It’s more like ‘this building has stories and they’re maybe not all happy ones.’
The Pamirs have beautiful nature. Cycling through it in the daytime not enough for you? Too much time staring at the road avoiding potholes? Get your tent out and spend the night with nature too. Camp spot settings include riverbanks, fields, and clearings at the foot of landslides and rockfalls…but only if your team geoscientist asserts it’s okay.
Positives: It’s camping. Food cooked outside tastes better. You wake up with the sun. Views in every direction. Starry nights with the inevitable contemplation of your existence. But that’s camping in many places. Specifically for cycling: Justify bringing along that tent that’s filling up your drybag. No need to do any lugging of your bike up stairs or through doorways – pick your spot, bike falls over into the grass. Done. Specifically in the Pamirs: Cows and sheep may come to say hello. As well, the border guards enthusiastically warned of wolves, a circumstance that did not materialize but would not be listed under positive if it did.
Negatives: Some stretches of the Pamirs are high altitude wastelands that leave you exposed to wind and snow. There is a risk of extended periods of banishment to the tent, eating cookies for dinner because it’s too cold outside to cook. That could be a good thing for you. I didn’t mind. The other negative of camping is that both you and all of your gear are visible unless you manage to tuck yourself away down a hill, or you find an abandoned building and just sleep out behind it. But, is that still camping?
Price: Free, or perhaps a few dollars if you ask to camp in someone’s garden.
Barns are also abandoned building, but herein you find them separate – they offer unique draws. They’re covered rooms piled with hay. As I’m writing this, I realize that maybe barn is inaccurate – maybe it’s a hay silo. Barns generally require animals and there were none. You get the picture.
Positives: Unavoidable desire to have Away In A Manger sing-a-longs. Extreme levels of cushion compared to other Pamir Highway sleeping options.
Negatives: Two of note are the fire hazard for cooking, and that the clouds of hay make it difficult to lay out your stuff, as would be the first order of business on a nice flat grassy area. As a result, activities will be restricted to sitting on your mat in the hay, or laying on your mat in the hay. Spiders and mice love hay.
5) Picnic Stops
In Central Asia there exist picnic stop gazebos, concrete structures with pillars supporting a roof, and picnic tables. We spent time at three of these. At the first, we were joined by the occupants of a passing car, and with them plenty of homemade vodka. At the second, we were ambushed by a friendly Ismaili wedding. At the third we weren’t sure exactly what happened, but a conspicuous nighttime transaction took place nearby. So, positives and negatives…
Positives: Picnic stops offer weary cyclists a flat surface and a roof, but also fresh air and an unobstructed view. Having a table with benches to sit at and cook for me was a welcome contrast from squatting on the ground. It seemed that the picnic spots are chosen with intention, perched on a vista or better still, alongside a stream or spring diverted into a fountain at just the height you need to wash your face. It’s the little things, right?
Negatives: They are right off the road and frequented by those wanting to break up their road trip. Given that the only way to travel through this region is a road trip, you’re almost guaranteed visitors. Our experiences were only positive, and we only had visits during the day.
6) Home Stays
There’s the rare hostel, guesthouse and even hotel along the Pamir Highway, but home stays are ubiquitous. More than anything else, home stays offer a small look at what it means to be a person living in this part of the world. And, eat too many refined carbs.
Positives: Share meals, living space, sleeping space, dancing and variously successful hand miming gestures (or conversation, if you speak Russian) with the people living in this part of the world. I cannot overstate the relaxation washing over me as we were welcomed inside warm wooden or stone homes by women in colourful clothing. Tea, cookies, bread on the way while you are invited to lounge about on blankets – the contrast from sleeping outside in the wilderness was stark. Other benefits include seeing for yourself the wide variety of outhouse construction techniques implemented in the Pamirs. Always an adventure.
Negatives: Privacy varies but can be nonexistent. And as you just barged in all but unannounced, you’re on your host’s timeline. This may mean late bedtimes and rising early, along with mysterious mealtime schedules. We also experienced a few moments of confusion and awkwardness relating to payment. Many home stays are clearly marked as such, with cute blue signs. But many other times, when invited off the road into someone’s unadvertised home, we were unsure if and how much to offer the next morning upon departure.
Price: Generally 8-10$ (US) per person, which may include meals, but if it doesn’t, those are a few extra dollars. Sometimes, unpredictably, free.
7) Friends and Warmshowers
Warmshowers is like the Couchsurfing community, but exclusively for cyclists – although you do not have to be one to host. That sounds kind of pretentious ‘only for cyyyyyyclistsss’ – but I do think the conditions of Warmshowers end up fostering a small, awesome, like-minded community. Anyways, I digress. Our time spent on the M41 was bookended between two lengthy Warmshowers stays, in Bishkek and in Dushanbe. We also by chance made a friend at a taxi stop in Murghob, and stayed with him in the town of Chorog, about halfway through our time in Tajikistan.
Positives: Home away from home. Laundry. Shower. Kitchen. All things you will be hard pressed to find in the above six sleeping situations. Get the foreigner’s perspective on living in an off-beat place like Central Asia. Meet other cyclists.
Negatives: Hard to leave.
Price: Free, but do something thoughtful for your host!
Whew! There we have it – seven sleeping situations we encountered cycling on the Pamir Highway and in the Wakhan Valley. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was not what I encountered!