11th – 23rd May
The end of the world, again
Sary-Tash is a remote Kyrgyz village where the mountain road splits – east to China, south to Tajikistan. We passed through here last August, en-route to China – it was pretty miserable then, in the height of summer.
This time, in May, it’s even worse. Dark, menacing clouds and frequent hailstorms obscure the road leading south through the immense snow-capped Pamirs to Tajikistan.
All up, it’s not an appealing prospect to be leaving this last, bleak, point of civilization and head south on the Pamir Highway – the highest average altitude road in the world.
Nestled in a rocky, snow covered valley at the base of the 4,282m Kizyl-Art Pass, the Kyrgyz border post feels like the remotest border point on earth. Certainly not a place we’re expecting to see foreigners.
Hitching in no-man’s land
Having stamped us out of the country, though, the border officials tell us there’s an Australian hiker stuck in no-man’s land a kilometre on, waiting for a lift. We try to imagine what sort of tourist would knowingly find himself stranded within the 21km of no-man’s land between the two isolated borders…
As we pull up to a solitary Kyrgyz farmhouse, an excited, bearded and bespectacled Westerner, in walking boots and a big jacket, springs from the house and walks towards us. No wonder John’s surprised to see us, he’s been here for a day and a half waiting for a lift of any description – the fuel shortage in southern Kyrgyzstan has decimated nearly all the border traffic.
“You need a lift? Hop in!” Soon John plus rucksack are loaded into the back of the car. We begin climbing over the pass to the even more remote Tajik border, consisting of a barrier and an assortment of converted fuel tanks and shipping containers. We can’t help wondering how much these officials have annoyed their boss to get posted up here…
It’s an arduous, two hour process completing passport control, customs, insurance, route sanctioning and payments for other forms that we still don’t understand.
The Pamir Highway
Finally, we’re driving south towards Karakol through the first of many sweeping high valleys: rocky plateaus at over 4,000m, where nothing lives except tenacious mountain scrub, bright orange and very furry marmot-style creatures, plus a handful of eagles soaring overhead.
We see no-one, barring a solitary Chinese border guard, manning a watch tower beyond the double barbed wire fence demarcating the buffer zone that runs parallel to the road. Now what this poor soul’s done to offend his boss, we can’t even begin to imagine.
We reach Karakol in time for a late lunch of manti (local dumplings). It’s not hard to find a homestay offering food: the village consists of about two dozen mud brick houses perched on the edge of a magnificent (and still frozen) mountain lake; one has “HOMESTAY” written across its walls in bright turquoise paint. Even at this time of year it’s hellish cold so we push on to Murghab, the region’s administrative capital (and hopefully a little more civilization) some 150km further south.
The scenery doesn’t change much. These valleys’ austerity is matched only by their remoteness - encircled by lifeless, rocky and snow-capped mountains. The Highway is asphalt in places, gravel in others – but this Soviet-built military road has subsided so much it resembles a rollercoaster more than a road.
Great Game country
In the morning we need to register before going anywhere. This region, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), is highly politically sensitive, sharing vast, remote and un-patrolled borders with Kyrgyzstan, China and Afghanistan – ‘Great Game’ country at its finest. We also need to find diesel – the only proper fuel station here ran out long ago thanks to the Kyrgyz fuel shortage.
Luckily, our homestay host knows ‘a man’– it costs nearly a pound a litre and comes in small plastic bottles. Our engine sounds particularly grumpy thanks to the combination of cold, altitude and poor fuel but there’s not much we can do about it here apart from press on.
So press on we do, leaving John to do some high altitude trekking. Another day of careful driving through similarly bleak and remote scenery sees us reach some delightful hot springs near Jelandy, where we have a much needed soak and a scrub.
Another 200km the following day and we reach Khorog, officially the end of the Pamir Highway. Finally we can feast our eyes on trees, abundant vegetation (courtesy of Aga Khan Foundation initiated irrigation canals), a pretty river and a well-stocked town.
The Pamir Highway itself is neither long, challenging, or blessed with stunning scenery, but it is incredibly remote and it’s a relief to have made it through without any problems.
We spend a couple of nights in Khorog, catching up on sleep and admiring the view down the valley into Afghanistan. The Afghani consulate here issues tourist visas on the spot for $50 – the temptation to nip across the border is considerable (especially as Badakshan, this part of Afghanistan, is so remote as to be safe) – but we don’t have multi-entry Tajik visas so sadly it’s not viable.
The Afghan market at Ishkashim
180km further south there’s a cross-border market between Afghanistan and Tajikistan held every other Saturday. By sheer fluke our timing’s spot on so we head south to have a look, picking up more local hitch-hikers as we go (there is virtually no public transport here so for 90% of the time in the Pamirs we’ve got a local on board).
The market sits on an island astride the Panj (Upper Oxus) River in a beautiful, fertile valley; a rocky stretch of no-man’s land between the two countries. Security is tight – we surrender our passports to enter and dozens of armed soldiers from both sides watch over the bazaar.
The goods aren’t interesting - mainly Chinese utilitarian plastic, but the faces are extraordinary. We’ve never seen such a mix of peoples. Sun-darkened Afghans wearing traditional koi hats rub shoulders with European-looking Hunzas from Pakistan; Turkic, European and Mongol features swarm through the Tajik contingent, a handful of Russians and a couple of Indian looking gentleman complete a cosmopolitan mix.
It’s a fascinating place to enjoy a cup of tea, some plov, and people watch under the ferocious midday sun.
The Wakhan Valley
We leave the market and head east, following the river and the Afghan border to our south. We spot John at the side of the road again – patiently waiting for a lift from anyone – it’s a happy reunion and soon he’s once again reclining, Nero-esque on our ‘bed’ in the back.
Pretty mud-brick villages come and go on both sides of the valley. The Wakhan is punctuated with 3rd century mud and stone forts – some still used by the Tajik military. Evidently this has been a sensitive frontier long before the days of Hayward, Younghusband and the like.
It’s hard to imagine how much strategic importance was placed on the Pamirs by both the Russians and the British during the latter days of the Great Game – even harder to comprehend how tough these clandestine explorers must have been, to reconnoitre these mountains in disguise, on foot or horseback, with little or no back up and often during ferocious winters. It feels arduous enough doing it in a Land Cruiser!
We spend the night in Yamg, at the homestay of Aybek, a Pamiri scholar whose grandfather was a local mystic who introduced Sufism to the area. Like so many other Pamiris we’ve spoken to in GBAO, he tells us that the Tajik government has virtually no interest in this part of the country.
The entire Pamir region from the Chinese border to Khorog is considered economically worthless (in fairness, it’s not hard to see why) and any attempts at mining, or bringing other forms of self-dependency to the area vanished when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Aybek’s sons work in Russia where they can earn $600 per month, whereas the average Pamiri salary is just $50 per month.
It’s all downhill from here…
Heavy rain overnight (therefore snow at higher altitudes) and fierce wind this morning means we head further east towards Khargush with some trepidation. The Khargush Pass, at 4,300 metres, doesn’t sound enticing (apparently it wasn’t passable a fortnight ago) but emboldened by John, we decide to give it a go.
From Yamg the road follows the Panj River for another 80km east, winding tortuously around ravines and traversing landslide prone cliffs, before levelling out in a high valley below Khargush.
Khargush must be one of the country’s most remote military outposts; a bored soldier takes 15 minutes to register our passports before shyly asking for a cigarette. Although armed, apparently the army cannot afford to supply its soldiers around here with ammunition…
Incredibly the pass itself is a rain shadow, so there’s no snow to be seen! This is our final pass over 4,000 metres on the whole trip, so it’s downhill all the way home. We complete our southern loop by resting up in Khorog for another few days before heading northwest to Dushanbe.
High road, or the low road?
On the morning we leave, though, there’s some bad news – Sayeed, our guesthouse owner informs us there’s been a huge landslide on the northern Khorog – Dushanbe road, blocking it, possibly for several weeks. We’ve already heard that the southern road has been shut for a month or so thanks to a collapsed bridge.
We figure that the country can’t afford to have both roads blocked for long – Sayeed agrees. So still in the company of the ever amusing and kind-hearted John, we set out for Kalaikum, the halfway point to Dushanbe and the point at which the northern and southern roads split.
The road is beautiful yet terrible – we’re still following the Panj River with Afghanistan the other side. We learn more about Afghanistan today than Tajikistan, the villages are so close.
There’s a tiny, gravity defying donkey track on the Afghan side that doggedly follows the river the whole way, picking its way through rock-falls and clinging to the sides of huge, sheer cliffs. The track links a network of otherwise isolated Afghan villages that consist of mud-brick houses, poplar trees and irrigation channels, immaculately tiered crops of barley and wheat and small pastures shaded by apricot trees.
There are no telegraph or electric lines and everything must arrive or leave by donkey. It must be a peaceful, simple yet incredibly isolated life here – cut off from the rest of the country by vast mountains and unable to cross the river to Tajikistan.
We reach Kalaikum at 6pm, knackered, and having found accommodation enjoy a well earned beer and plov at the village’s only restaurant, overlooking a thundering mountain stream that joins the dusty brown Panj 50 metres downstream.
Bordering on engagement
Later on, we go for a walk to admire the scenery – the confluence of these two fast flowing rivers, surrounded by vast, green mountains on each side, the pastoral village behind us and the perennially fascinating yet inaccessible Afghanistan in front of us.
It’s a suitably memorable spot. So memorable, in fact, that Charlie decides it’s the perfect spot to ask Nina to marry him – he’s been waiting for the right spot ever since asking Roger (Nina’s father) back in Hanoi in December if he could have his daughter’s hand in marriage…
We’re both, obviously, elated – but incommunicado until we reach Dushanbe, whenever that might be…
Luckily, John is on hand to share our celebrations; we drag him out of bed and head back to the restaurant to celebrate with the only booze on offer – Baltika “9” – very strong Russian lager! It’s suitably apt, though, and John is an excellent companion to celebrate with. Which is good, really, given tonight we’re all sleeping (in single beds) in the same room in the homestay!
Ironically the next day is our longest day’s drive of the entire trip so far, and any thoughts of a cruisy ride into Dushanbe to continue the celebrations soon fade.
Pick ups, tows and mudslides
At 8am, the police at the road junction direct us south. It seems the northern road will be out for several weeks and the downed bridge is no longer much of a problem…
The first 80km is bliss, but immediately deteriorates where a recent NGO road project finishes. Shortly after, we get flagged down by a new Mitsubishi pick-up. We’re greeted by fluent American English. “Do you guys speak English?”
Aziz is in his 30’s, tall, stocky with short cropped hair. He’s high up in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but like all of his government colleagues has a business on the side to make half-decent money.
Gratefully, they borrow our jack and spanners to change their punctured tyre (they don’t have their own…), and kindly promise us a meal out in Dushanbe. Aziz also gives us his number, telling us to call him should we have any problems with the police – it’s always nice to have some immunity!
Half an hour later and we have to tow them up a hill as their engine’s playing up. As they’ve got fuel injector issues, can we shadow them until the next town, Kulob?
We’ve now been offered accommodation for tonight as well – besides – we know how much it means to have assistance when your car’s playing up and you’re somewhere remote. We follow them at a snail’s pace for another 100km, towing them here and there, as well as towing a minibus out of a mudslide. Glad we can be the Samaritans for a change!
Finally, at 6pm Aziz hops in with us at Kulob, leaving his pals to sort out the car. Despite the non-stop, deafening American-influenced trash (tellingly, he’s barely even heard of most parts of GBAO), to his credit, he gets us through the numerous road blocks swiftly and without incident (our tinted windows are technically illegal here).
It’s 11pm before we say our farewells to Aziz and arrive at our accommodation – a swanky, out-of-town resort for wealthy Tajiks, 8km north of the capital. The three of us unwind over a beer by the pool before going to bed, still bewildered by our long, random day…
Finally, running water
We move into Dushanbe proper the following day, not wanting to overstay our welcome with Aziz. The capital, with its dilapidated pastel-coloured buildings and tree-lined avenues, is the perfect place to do very little, except relax and start the process of telling friends and family our news. We don’t even take a single photo of the city!
We stay in a homely guesthouse enjoying the company of our now old friend John, the hilariously acerbic Phillipe (a French photographer) and Jim and Thelma, a kindly Northern Irish couple. We take it in turns to cook supper each night, drink plenty of beer and enjoy the novelty of permanent running water (our last running water was in Bishkek, over three weeks ago).
Suitably refreshed, we drive north, overnighting in Istaravshan before heading for the difficult and often closed Tajik-Uzbek border.