Words & Photos: Cédric Tassan
There are some adventures that leave a lasting imprint. This latest exploit from our ambassador Cedric Tassan through the heart of the Pamir mountains, is one of them. This is the story of a tough expedition, and not one for the faint hearted…
It can take just one image to make you yearn to visit somewhere. And for me, it was looking at a beautiful picture of Tajikistan with the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan in the background to make me realise I had to visit.
The time between initially researching the destination and the start of the actual trip always seems to happen quickly. When planning a trip, I always try to find a “fixer”, someone on the ground that can help me if needed.
I was advised that Sharaf from Pamir Trips is the go-to reference for expeditions in Tajikistan. When I contacted him, Sharaf gave me a lot of information about his country, its current situation, the isolation of the Pamir, and safety in the region. In particular, I learned that the mountains in Pamir are among the most hostile on the planet in terms of distance, altitude and climate.
Despite these hostilities, humans have lived there for many centuries, but younger generations prefer to settle in the capital city, Dushanbe, or emigrating to Russia where they can find work. The traditions and culture of Pamir are in danger of being forgotten, but Sharaf has an idea to bring employment to these remote valleys: creating camps made of yurts for trekkers and tourists. A bit like in the neighbouring country of Kyrgyzstan, which is far more advanced in this regard, and where this model sustains many families.
I liked this idea and decided I wanted to help. I asked two of my sponsors, Powertec and Katadyn for help – one of whom manufactures solar panels, the other, water filtration systems – two essential bits of kit needed for the yurts. Sharaf explained to me that it is difficult to find this kind of kit in Tajikistan, but luckily, my two sponsors were on board and I would carry these items in my luggage.
The project began to take shape and my route linked the two future yurt camps that Sharaf wanted to create. After the journey, the plan was to promote these installations through articles and a documentary, in order to showcase this destination to the public. I also created a crowdfunding campaign where the money raised will go to Pamir (here
). The creation of these yurt camps will take place in 2024.INTO THE WILD
I prepared as best I could, knowing the mountainous terrain that lay ahead. One thing I knew I desperately needed to work on was my hardiness. So over winter, I forced myself to swim in the sea, in all weather, all temperatures, all conditions: day and night, even when very windy. And when I returned home cold, I had a cold shower waiting for me.
All of this was to make me stronger, mostly by pushing me out of my comfort zone, be it physical or mental. I also traveled to Kyrgyzstan to meet my friends from a previous trip and spent some time at altitude to aid in building my tolerance to the higher mountains.
Fifteen days later and I was on the road leading into the Pamir. I discovered the remoteness of the territory when it took two big days of driving in 4x4s to drop me off at my starting destination. I had set the bar high in terms of commitment.
Along the way, I was struck by the proximity to Afghanistan. For several hundred kilometers, we traveled along the border of this very special country, with only a raging river, the Panj, separating these two nations.
I got off the 4x4 feeling cooked, but it was time to get on the bicycle. My Sunn bike was ready – well balanced in terms of luggage and weight distribution, and perfectly set up for the journey ahead. The first part of my ride schedule was full on, and there would be five days where I wouldn’t be able to top up on food.
To stay packed as light as possible, I didn’t take a stove or gas – I brought food supplies, and everything was rationed. For the first two days I was accompanied by Bukhon and his donkey – who carried my food rations. Bukhon was surprised that his donkey was so lightly loaded!
Our trio set off, and the climb alongside the Murghab River was incredible. It was beautiful, but had moments of difficulty, especially when the trail grazed the tumultuous river. Further ahead lay a big wall to climb: 600 meters in the rocks under a scorching sun. At the top of that mountain came a chaos of boulders, until the path broke through the rocks. This was just the beginning of my adventure. But I only understood that later.
We made it to the top of the natural dam of Lake Sarez. In 1911, a powerful earthquake caused billions of cubic meters of rock to collapse, and at 1,500 meters high, the mountains eroded and blocked the river. In just a few years, a huge lake emerged behind the dam, Lake Sarez. It’s the most dangerous lake in the world; if the dam were to break, eight million people would be at risk.
Then the trouble began. Out of nowhere, someone asked me for my permit. I explained to him, as he spoke a little English, that I was on the list of people allowed to come here. The discussion lasted for hours, and stuck in the boulders, tired, I tried all the tricks: sympathy, compassion, irritation, tiredness. Finally, at nightfall, I was allowed to pass.
By this point, it was too late to go to sleep where I wanted to, and enjoy the scenery and the beautiful light. But, I was given a hot meal on the premises of the lake’s surveillance post. At least I saved some of my food! Before going to bed, I was asked again to sign a release of responsibility. Here, trekkers who want to continue normally take a boat to cross the lake. There is a trail, but it's extremely exposed and collapsed in places. I had already decided not to take the boat, so I signed the document, clearly warning me of the danger ahead.
The next day, after an hour in the boulders, we hit a new wall. This time, with a climb of 700 meters. We took turns to push the bike to the top of the mountain and enjoyed a good snack at the summit. When the trail plunged towards the lake, I rode with euphoria in front of this blue stretch of water. The trail got more technical, and I waited for my friend. He was already surprised that I rode so much of the trail, and the danger of what lay ahead dawned on me.
The donkey was unloaded from his bags, as it was too dangerous for him. I sorted the food and left a lot of things aside. Bukhon was again surprised at how little I took to sustain myself for more than three days.
The trail is really impressive, some passages are very dangerous, as it has collapsed, and falling results in certain death. I stay focused without thinking about the consequences. In the grueling uphill, we took turns. After several hours, we reached the Irkht valley. Without Bukhon's help, I think I would still be there! My friend spent the night in a hut, and even though I was so tired after 12 hours of effort, I kept going as I only had 7km to get to the bivouac I had planned to sleep in.
I loaded up like a mule, said goodbye to Bukhon, and plunged alone into this isolated valley framed by peaks of more than 5,000 meters.
After a kilometer, I understood that the Pamir was going to fight me mercilessly. I came here thinking it would be business as usual, but things were different this time. The mountains are so wild that there are no trails at all. I had to make a choice between swamps and boulders.
I switched to survival mode. To move forward at all costs, knowing that I couldn’t turn back. Salvation was ahead, my food was limited, and I was alone with no one to guide or help me. Night fell, and I turned on my headlamp. I left the rocks and went into the icy water of the marshes – my reasoning being it would always be less tiring than the rocks.
The starry sky was beautiful, and I walked thinking only of that and finding a place for the night. I finally stopped around 8:30 PM. I slipped into my sleeping bag, my head facing the sky.TRACKS AND TRACES
I realised then that the days in the Pamir were going to be long, so I woke up early in the morning. Then, with a lurch, I realised I was on the wrong side of the river, so for almost two hours I tried to cross the stream that almost carried me away several times. Keeping my cool, trying to figure out how the river works, deciphering the best passage, that's what I had to do. Finally, I detected a weakness in the water flow, and found myself making my way across to the right bank.
The tracks of a snow leopard dotted the sand. I felt I was being watched, becoming an animal myself in this adventure. This valley was endless, a rocky bedlam of more than 20km, and my average speed didn’t exceed 1.5 km/h. I came out of this hell at the end of the day, in front of a shepherd's camp where I was invited to share bread and butter and a hot tea. I jump on the food and thank my hosts warmly. I was asked if I would like to sleep in their modest earthen hut. I fell asleep with the whole family in this amazing shelter.
In the morning, the women were busy preparing butter. Here, the family produces 40kg in the short summer season. They came from a village several days away and have to cross a high pass in the snow with their thousands of animals and young children – a rough life, miles away from ours.
I left the camp to head up a very long valley where several lakes followed one another. This configuration gave me some reprieve and some great moments on the bike. In the evening, I set up my bivouac at 4,500 meters high, not far from the pass I had to cross the following morning. A WORLD OF ICE
When I woke up, there was ice everywhere and even the water in my cans had frozen - it must have been very cold. I reached the pass, a little over 4,600 meters with the added excitement of a good descent. But I had my doubts: why would the terrain change? I got on my bike as soon as I could. The technicality of the trail meant that walking was tiring, but on the bike it was utterly exhausting.
I arrived at the foot of the future first yurt camp, a beautiful location at the crossroads of the routes. I thought, wrongly, that from there, along the river, I would be able to complete the remaining 20 kilometers easily. I was wrong, and fought a new battle against the mountain: I climbed rocks and crawled under trees and thorns. A branch broke the visor of my helmet.
A few kilometers from the village, a river blocked my way. It was already late in the day, and it was impossible to cross in the water. I didn’t want to get stuck overnight, but as there were no paths anywhere it was hard to know where to go.
If only I had a local guide by my side! I pulled out my phone and scrolled through the satellite maps I had downloaded beforehand, and I spotted a bridge. I ran through the trees and found salvation, entering the village of Bachor tired, hungry, thirsty, and stinking from my fifth day without a shower. I had traveled 45km, most of which were at more than 4,000m!
The next day, everything went wrong. The mule rider I wanted to hire to help me was not up to the task. I refused to spend two days with him in the mountains, as I didn’t feel confident about his lack of experience. Thus, I opted for plan B and headed to Khorog, the capital of the Pamir.
Here, I found the noise of ‘civilization’. I took the opportunity to eat tons of food at a restaurant. The next day, the president of Tajikistan came for a tour of Khorog, so all access to the region was blocked. I couldn’t get out of the city or into it before 4PM, so had no choice but to find a vehicle to drive me up the mountain to where I should have arrived with my guide and his mule. 120km down the dirt road, we arrived at the remote village of Javshangoz. Tired by the day on the road, I went straight to bed.
In the morning, after interviewing someone from the village who will be working for the second yurt camp, I went to discover the spot itself. I found a magical place: an alpine pasture at the foot of the imposing Engels and Karl Marx peaks. It is here, beneath these peaks of almost 7,000 meters, that the second yurt camp should see the light of day.
I celebrated with a simple but well-deserved meal: sardines and bread. I descended through the valley, across a long plateau in the sunset, and climbed up a new valley until nightfall. Another big day in the Pamirs, but this time mostly on my bike.
The last part of my adventure came, and I knew I was going to have a hard time. Particularly after hearing what the locals in Javshangoz had to say: "You won't cross the pass, there's ice".
I tried to chase it out of my mind all day while climbing up to my bivouac at more than 4,500 meters. “Hold on, tomorrow is your last day”, I thought.
At 4:50AM, I left the bivouac. I could barely see and only found my way thanks to my headlamp. Not knowing the path and not having any markings on the ground, I opted for the left side. It was easier to climb than the black moraine of the glacier.
Unfortunately, I climbed too high and saw the glacier was much lower. I didn’t keep climbing any higher, worried about getting stuck without being able to cross and reach the snow. I carefully tumbled down the crumbling moraine to reach the bottom of the glacier. I set foot on the white mantle, which is frozen in places. Without spikes, I had to be extra careful.
After an hour and a half of climbing, I reached the Vrang pass, which my GPS indicated was 5,013 meters high. It was incredibly beautiful, wild, and isolated, but I knew I hadn’t done the hardest part – that would be the descent.
There were hours of boulders to descend, it involved highly technical cycling, lost trails, grueling uplifts, and problematic river crossings. To finish me off, there was a long and exposed final section. The view of the Fort of Vrang indicated that I was almost at the end.
I set foot in the famous Wakhan Corridor, the end of the world – a unique place. It took me two days to cross the Vrang Pass with 35kg of equipment.
I returned to the place where Panj and Afghanistan are in perfect symbiosis. The beauty of the Wakhan corridor dazzled me and left a definitive impression. I knew that from now on, the kilometers I had to travel would be a formality.
I had completed a very difficult crossing of the Pamir region, a challenge that revealed inner strength I didn’t know I possessed. I discovered people of extreme kindness, of fantastic benevolence.
At the end of the day, the less you have, the more you give. We should not forget this to create a better world.
Warning, this itinerary is not to be duplicated
Given the beauty of the scenery, you may be tempted to follow my route. We advise you not to: it is an adventure where a bicycle would put you in great difficulty, even in danger. Cycling in the Pamir can only be done on the trails that criss-cross the valleys.
If you too, want to help and donate to the funding set up by Cedric, here
is the link of the crowdfunding for the Pamir.
We advise you to go to Sharaf to organize your stay in the Pamir.
Cédric's film, which should be titled VRANG, will be screened from 2025 and will be previewed at the Objectif Aventure festival, which will take place in January in Paris.
www.met-helmets.com (Met Helmets & Bluegrass)
www.katadyngroup.com (Katadyn, Nemo equipment, Trek’N Eat)