World Travelers: Pamir Highway and Silk Road

Text: Simon Thomas • Photography: Simon and Lisa Thomas

The Pamir Highway: Since time immemorial, the Silk Route (M41) in Central Asia has existed as an artery of trade connecting west to east and north to south. Contrary to its name, the Silk Route is not a singular road but a web of ancient tracks and rock-strewn trails trodden for a millennia by travelers, merchants, explorers, soldiers, and kings.

Over 3,000 years of meandering history is carved into one of the most striking landscapes in the world. Our dream of riding the Silk Road is now a reality, and we must ride it successfully if we are to reach Iran and continue our westward journey.

We wake in Kochkor-Ata, a small village northwest of Jalal-Abad in Kyrgyzstan. We sit cross-legged around a tattered Persian rug joined by ten or so construction men, each covered in paint, mud, and sawdust, watching us intently as we munch down mouthfuls of stale bread and pieces of fruit. The strong smell of concrete hangs in the air. We pay our bill for last night’s accommodation in their locked compound by handing over two pirated DVDs we’d acquired, giving thanks that money isn’t the only currency when you travel.

The Siberian town of Novosibirsk, where we collected our Kazakhstan visas three weeks before, is only a fuzzy memory. We now only remember Kazakhstan as a blur, with fragile recollections of paperwork, more visa applications, and depressing overnighters in old mental asylums now posing as motels.

It’s midday as we ride southeast around the low-lying Fergana Mountains before turning southwest and entering the ancient Kyrgyz city of Osh. Market stalls spill their wares into the streets, selling all manner of items from flashlights to goat heads. A few domed mosques dot the city skyline, making the scene feel familiar, almost Moroccan. Riding into the center of Osh, our cheerful waves of greeting are received without a response by the locals, whose blank looks make me feel uneasy. Hidden from view inside a small café, we devour a bowl of rice flavored with the ubiquitous mutton fat. As we eat, locals stop, stare, and finally crack huge smiles as they walk past the parked bikes.

The Teeth of the Pamirs

We head down the road after lunch, and Lisa’s 650 thumps a steady rhythm as we pick up speed on serpentine tar that now stretches out below us. The M41 disappears from view and reappears as it snakes its way between layers of orange and caramel mountainsides; in the distance, the teeth of the Pamir Mountains rake the sky. My GPS lists our destination as Sary-Tash, a small village on the Kazak-Tajik border, and we need to press hard if we are to cross the Taldyk Pass before nightfall.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the March/April 2012 back issue.