Chasing Nothing with James Stronsky – Lost and Found on the Pamir Highway
Australian James Stronsky recounts traveling the exceptionally dangerous Pamir Highway in sub-zero conditions
James Stronsky is an Australian motorcycle rider and photographer currently catching his breath in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
Before his arrival to the capital of Tajikistan, James has ridden for six months across Japan, South Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. He spends his nights in his tent, days on the bike and life in the wild.
Just weeks ago James disappeared in the Pamir mountain range for two weeks, with all contact lost.
A search operation including volunteers from a handful of nations was launched, only to find James snowed in and without electricity nor phone reception in a mountain pass near the Afghan border.
Below you’ll find James’s own diary notes from these exact days, made while he was crashing, crashing and crashing – on this most recent phase of his adventures. Made available exclusively to MCNews.com.au.
“I don’t even grunt this time as my Kawasaki hits the ground. It slides out from under me, landing heavily on the ice, momentum carrying it away to plough into a snow drift nearby.
I don’t even swear this time. Not a mutter, barely even a sigh. Just an exhale of steamy breath, fogging up my glasses and then I get on with picking it back up.
I’ve lost count at this moment as to whether that was crash four or five for the day. I know that I’ve gone past the dozen mark in the last few days of trying to get out of this infernal snow.
It’s 80km through the snow and after the first two days of struggling in knee deep snowdrifts – we fell back to the last town in Kyrgyzstan and grabbed a truck for the third day.
However it turned out the driver couldn’t take us past the border, leaving us stranded 60km in with 20km of solid snow and ice left to cover.
At a measly 5km/h with feet down like skids, in first, with the revs up high this is a slow and exhausting ride.
We’ve already done four hours riding, with still another hour left to go, before we’ll reach road that’s not frozen. It’ll be solid mud instead but that will be a blessing, we just don’t know this yet…
I strain against the 200kg-plus of motorbike and gear, but I can’t lift it, it’s in an awkward position and I’m shattered. The simple strain has me panting, at 4000m above sea level, the smallest effort is exhausting.
I wait, my Korean counterpart has stopped his Honda and is walking back, not for the first time I’m envying his snow-chains, though he’s crashed as many times as me these last few days.
My only comfort is that I’m wearing one Olympus TG Tracker camera on the helmet and one on the bike, at least all our crashes will be immortalised and presumably loudly laughed at by friends.
As he slowly walks back towards me, I take the time to look around. It’s sunny, perfectly clear in a bright blue sky and the land is a blinding white, speckled only by the black flecks of rocks jutting out from the side of snow covered mountains.
This region hasn’t gone above –5Cº all week and even though today is the sunniest it’s been, it’s still bitingly cold.
We’re in the mountain pass that connects the southern tip of Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan – in no mans land between the two countries. A gruelling leg of the infamous Pamir Highway.
The pass rises up from the Kyrgyz side of the border already at some 3000m altitude and into the mountains of the Pamir range.
From there it winds its way over the Tajik border and then follows the valleys and passes all the way around the Pamir range before following the border with Afghanistan.
Eventually, the Pamir mountains give way to Tajikistan proper, some 800km later from where I am now.
The road itself is the Pamir Highway, the term highway used incredibly loosely. The best part of the road is behind me in Kyrgyzstan, perfect asphalt around sweeping corners that hug beautiful mountains – a distant memory now.
This section of road is gravel and mud, currently frozen solid, with a sprinkling of snow on top.
As it’s neither Kyrgyz or Tajik territory nobody looks after the road, not that it’d look much better if they did, this part of the world isn’t the pinnacle of road construction.
But that’s why you bring your bike out here – the challenge! Right? Well, that’s what I keep telling myself as I look at my KLR 650, lying forlornly in the snow.
Right now, in this white washed landscape, the autumn golden hues of only last week seem like months. Did it only start snowing last week? I feel like I’ve been stuck here on the border forever.
The green grasslands of Kazakhstan and Mongolia seem like years ago. Riding across the Mongol steppe on horseback while my bike lay in pieces on some mechanics floor.
And the Russian Taiga – thick birch forests of lush green, fading into orange as Autumn approached only three months ago. Riding through muddy puddles and clouds of mosquitoes – well that seems like years ago too.
What about the steamy rain soaked forests of Korea? Whose mountains seemed so much more forgiving than the ones I’m looking at now. And well, Japan – a lifetime ago. Did I really run across the skyscraper rooftops in the rain?
My daydreaming ends. My buddy Khan (his English name – don’t ask) has finally reached me and we barely exchange a word.
We both know the drill and this stopped being funny about six crashes ago – probably around about the one where he ran me over. We heave and puff and then the bike is upright.
I quickly check it over, everything’s still in one piece, and I fire the engine up as Khan walks ever slowly back the bikes – he’s totally out of breath.
Off we go, continuing down the frozen Pamir Highway, the road behind us frozen. No going back.
Giving up is not an option in the middle of nowhere. We do the only thing you can do, we pick up our bikes and keep riding, slowly but surely, bit by bit, making our way across the Silk Road of Central Asia.”
– James Stronsky, motorcycle rider and photographer
MCNEWS.COM.AU is a specialist on-line resource that provides motorcycle news for motorcyclists. MCNews covers all areas of interest for the motorcycling public including news, reviews and comprehensive racing coverage.