Published: April 26th 2009April 26th 2009
It was a Tour de France moment, minus the speed. Cycling out of Murgab, it felt special for a while, as locals yelled and whistled to grab my attention. Kids running along the bike cheering, but that was for a reason. I was told earlier in the week that I was the first backpacker of the season. Here for 5 days I would be 320km from the nearest tourist and that tourist was riding on a bike. With its scenery ranging from Mars to Pluto it was a spectacularly remote feeling.
The sound of silence was only broken by the occasional cool breeze and the racist dogs that can smell a foreigner a mile away - Even with the wind going the other way. My brief moment on the bike was treated to a cyclist’s tradition of being chased by a dog. In the remote part of Mars it was just me 2 dogs snapping at my heels (literally) a farmhouse and some cattle - Nothing else for about 10km. After this experience, others here and the rest of Tajikistan I can see why scriptwriters in movies have dogs being shot. They must have been here or Eastern Turkey (I
heard). The first director who okayed a dog to be shot in the middle of a bark and chase is my hero. I would love to see movies top 10 dog killings - they must have used dogs from here. But despite that, most of the time here the feeling is empty, a feeling that something’s missing and that seems life. Mostly red earth it feels like you’ve landed on a bit of Mars.
I tried to do a trek over a peak to a yurt stay and live with Nomads but as the ex-soviet jeep (army colour green) tried to get me to the starting point it was soon realised it was a no go. This was in the next valley from Murgab a city cushioned in the southwest mountain of a plateau. Here there was no snow just an unfertile reddish existence. On the other side was snow cover on the mountains up to the thighs and a snow-covered valley, impossible to pass. This again left me restricted and forced me to ride a bike for two days.
Murgab is the major town in the Eastern Pamir’s at 3576m - near the Chinese border its infrastructure
is so limited that the markets shops are either caravans or cargo storage containers. And the electricity alternates from one side of town to the other every other day. So remote that in winter it’s basically blocked off to the world as the roads in and out are blocked by snow and the reddish earth turns to a snow white.
With limited physical activity this trip and the occasional hill I had my moments with the altitude. But cycling the Pamir’s really is the only way to appreciate this place especially in March so I was happy to guts it out for 50km on the first day.
I was staying in a home stay with a mother and a 4-year-old boy and I think some other older sons. I would do drawings with the 4-year-old, play cars. One time one of the Chinese toys had a broken piece looking like a leg, laying on the floor. I picked it up and went walkies with it. The boy picked it up and made gun noises. What is that all about?
Like with all houses in the Pamir’s the toilet is an outside pit toilet. I don’t want to harp on
it but when you come to places like Tajikistan, toilets play a big role in the days proceedings. See the problem was that because of the lack of water here, water would be boiled and I would have a pot of tea each night and by the time I was just about to go to sleep I’d go “Oh no, not now…” It was freezing here and under the warm blankets it’s hard to get up. I would prefer a pot next to my bed than have to go outside to pee. One night I was about to explode and said, “Oh right that’s it I’m buying a pee pot.’ It’s about 6 times a day and the rest of the time I was holding on. Still homestays whilst travelling are a real great way to appreciate a region and also assists the local area. And this of all places needs it.
Locals couldn’t believe how early I was - I was at least 2 months early. It gave them a lot of optimism for the season. Many concerns were expressed throughout the small part of Pamir’s I covered. About the world financial crises whether it will affect their small
industry. I was told that on average this part of the Pamir’s get 250 tourists a year. 250!!
How can a place like this have only 250 tourists?
That is because the area was cut off to the world for 100 years until the USSR folded. Called the Great Game by the British and the Tournament of Shadows by the Russians it was the first real cold war with Britain and Russia spying on each other. Eventually leading to this region being blocked off to the world.
Another reason is because there is no real tourist industry. This means people who want to go either give up because of lack of information. And the ones that go are clueless half the time. For me I found it frustrating. First the registration and then having to put up with crap from soldiers.
The land is mountainous so there is no real resources. Things are tough here. Out of the 15 former Soviet countries Tajikistan has one of the lowest per capita GDPs. Nearly two-thirds of the population live in abject poverty. In the Pamir’s around 80% of the population at least a few years back earned less than $us200
a year. Even beggars don’t get pushed away - here they receive.
But that just doesn’t make sense to me? Staring right in front of them is their savior - its land. The tourist industry won’t solve everything but it could do a lot of good. Comparing to a lot of other crappy destinations, here has one of the richest natural beauties that I have seen. They just need to put some kind of effort. The only place that seems to do that is Murgab. Which seems to have some form of organization with META and ACTED. (although the META guy was pretty useless)
Because of the difficulties encountered here I don’t think I could encourage people to come here. I’d only advise a rough as guts type traveler. It would take an effort for me to come back and that is a shame because I do want to come back. In Murgab sitting down having my Hungarian canned peas on my red dusty blanket of earth I had that moment, that inner peace, self-satisfaction that previous trips have had. In the desert-like landscape I could picture Norway’s other Nordkapp Knivskjedden from JP2. Salvation Islands in French Guiana JP3.
I hope before I die this place makes it easier or maybe I just stuffed up and it’s easier during the peak season June-September. I’m afraid it’s possible I won’t find out.
There are more photos below