The Pamir

Published: October 8th 2018
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Dushanbe to Bishkek

It's been a crazy 24 hours, after being denied access to the lounge at Dubai T2 I had a dispute with the girl in the cafe who want to charge me 5 bucks more to replace the dairy with almond milk. The short but uncomfortable flight allowed no opportunity to sleep so when I reached immigration first in an empty hall I was feeling positive only to be sent away to fill out an entry card, no pens of course so by the time I managed to borrow one and complete the card there were 3 hundred or so people pushing and shoving in the lines.

I finally got out of there and was at my hotel by 4 but couldn't sleep, eventually I must have gone under as my alarm went off at 8am and for a moment I had no idea where I was. The excellent shower and reasonable breakfast did nothing to make me feel better, but as I waited the 30 minutes or so for Nur to turn up with his driver it was nice to sit and watch the world go by in this surprisingly attractive very Soviet era city. We then went to the National Museum which was pretty good, each section had a guide and I really enjoyed it. Nur dropped me back at the Hotel and my driver was late by about half an hour and I realised I didn’t have a contact number so just as I was starting to get concerned he turned up with my travel companion from Hong Kong who has an Aussie passport so I don’t have to put up with a stupid person for the next 5 days.

The first part of the journey was through a long rural valley which appears to produce most of the country's food, very boring and we all went to sleep when I woke up however we were getting close to Kulob the gateway city to the Pamir. Had lunch here it seems I will be existing on a diet of rice and eggs for the next 5 days although I would get chips and eggs for dinner. The corrupt police began pulling us over every now and then for all sorts of dodgy reasons and occasionally a whole stretch of road would just disappear into the river or under a land slide. It was intriguing to travel hundreds of kilometres along the Afghan border it looks so quiet and tranquil we came as close as 100 meters from the frontier numerous times and the villages look quite prosperous.

We arrived at our guest house at about 8pm I was expecting something pretty rude but it has lights, real toilets, showers and Wi-Fi of course - even in the wilds of the Pamirs you now have Wi-Fi how disappointing.

Been following the Afghan border all day and it's an incredibly beautiful place the Pamir just needs a nice little pub. Stayed in a place called Khalikhum last night a nice little village I wandered around a little this morning lots of kids learn English here and are keen to chat.

The rest of the day was bouncing around on bumpy roads admiring the natural beauty, strangely there are no water birds or raptors, for mountains that is a little weird. I am seriously considering swimming over to the Afghan side but the prisons here I am told are uncomfortable.

Saw a few bicycle and motor bike tourers today and an old Austrian couple in custom made 4wd bouncing along the road. Lunch was a veggie plov which was much better than eggs but that ain't saying much.

Arrived in the "metropolis" of Khorog around 430pm my room is luxurious for the Pamir though the bed is like a slab of concrete. I went to a little restaurant by a river and had a couple of beers and now I feel sleepy they had a Spaghetti Balinese on the menu I was intrigued.

Khorog reminds me of a Himalayan town minus the Buddhist paraphernalia although I am told they were here once. Going to dinner in an hour it is a traditional restaurant, so it could be eggs again for me, damn those carnivores. I have a fly in my room that won't leave me alone.

One hour to download my photos and chill before dinner, tomorrow will be a long day lots of forts and petroglyphs and other stuff to see as we head closer to Kyrgyzstan I wish I had bought my mask and flippers.

After my only decent breakfast for the trip (big cheese and tomato omelette and some fresh baked bread) we headed up to a high point above Khorog to take photos of this pleasant city wedged in a valley. Apparently, the countries president has a official residence in most major Tajik cities and Khorog is no exception perched on its mountain side. It was time to leave the city behind as we passed a waving Lenin statue one of the few left in Central Asia and a couple of lovely vultures floating over the town dump. Soon we were again following the Pyandzh River East towards the Wakhan Corridor.

Today there would be much to see beyond the almost constant natural beauty this part of the world delivers. First stop the very scenic village of Anderob and the Garam Chasma which boasts a mineral hotspings, our driver advised we not go in as people with skin diseases bath in its waters, we went to have a look only to find lots of nude men in and around the spring- time to leave. We then drove up a steep hillside to the picturesque village of Dasht where an old man (Rustom Masain) hand makes traditional instruments. We visited Rustom and his family entering the drab looking house to find an incredibly colourful traditional interior and some lovely instruments one of which has taken to following me around.

Next we continued on to Ishkashim the site of the now defunct Afghan market, the bridge and market buildings remain but foreigners can no longer cross the river. Lunch was eggs, bread, and salad again at the famous local guest house which has lost much custom since the demise of the market in 2016. Just fifteen kilometres down the road in the village of Namadgut are the remaining mud ramparts of the Kushan era 3rd century BC Khaakha Fortress, it was worth a look around and I stopped to buy an Afghan hat from the single souvenir seller, his pretty wife and his performing goat.

The Wakhan Corridor was created by the Russian and British Empires as a buffer zone during the 'The Great Game' era and I was surprised at how narrow it actually is at times, you could hit the Afghan side with a well thrown stone. This part of Tajikistan is the home of the Islamic Ismaeli sect who do not pray in mosques and create shrines called mazors which are often decorated with Ibex skulls.

The next stop was the dramatic 12th century Yamchun Fortess purched high above the valley, it is remarkably well preserved and looks incredible framed by the distant peaks of the Hindu Kush (killer of Hindus). Next stop was the village of Yamg which has an interesting museum dedicated to the areas only Sufi mystic who died about century ago, 'it's free' yelled the curator who then demanded a 'donation'. The village of Vrang has what looks like a ziggurat perched high on a mountain side and Zong looks across the river at the Afghan fortress of Qala-e Paja, we spotted a baby fox as we entered the village.

Our lodging for the night was in a home stay in the village of Langar, my Chinese companion was not happy when there was no Wi-Fi. The home is located in an Ismaili village which means a pray hall rather than a mosque. We went for a walk into the village Jason cant understand what the young people do for fun, I think they study they are fluent in Tajik, English, Russian and their tribal languages.

Dinner for me was more stale bread, and a stew of cabbage and potato and some tomato and cucumber. I am sharing a larger room with Jason, he is a pleasant lad with an adventurous streak like mine and he snores like my dogs.

Breakfast was stale bread and you guessed it fried eggs. We left Langar and my very cute new canine friend around 830am and began winding our way up through the village of Upper Langar wading our way through often large herds of mixed livestock being driven up to the summer pastures. The shepherds and their dogs would make their homes there for up to three months. We were lucky enough to spot a pair of Golden eagles souring only about 10 metres above the 'road' as we made our way past Ratm the last of the Wakhan's Tajik villages continuing on another 70 kilometres, with only the occasional caravanserai and Afghan yak or camel caravan treading the same path that their forefathers carved out of the rugged Wakhan hills millennia before. Jason keeps muttering how cars would be far more efficient than Yaks while I kept identifying spots where we could wade across to the Afghan side of the river.

Finally, it was time to turn away from the river and head north towards the 4200 metre Kargush pass on the road to Murgab, here near the shores of Zor Kul we spotted another fox and the first of hundreds of seriously cute marmots that are so common at this altitude. They are never far from their burrows and are very amusing to watch as they sprint tails in the air for safety. Next attraction in Bulunkul (3737m) a pretty lake surrounded by pretty coloured mountains and the larger Yashikul. From here we stopped for lunch, some cold fried fish, tail, fins and all were put in front of me, I ate one but there was so little meat and so many bones I gave up and accepted my stale bread and bowl of carrots, cabbage and potatoes with a grimace. The grimace grew when I fished out strips of animal fat, vegetarian indeed. A brief stop amongst the Kyrgyz hovels of Alicher proved fruitful as Jason discovered some women baking fresh bread and I had to have some and the ladies were accommodating they didn't even charge me and it was still hot!!!!!!

It was still early in the day and our guide offered to take us bush to find Marc Polo and Ibex sheep this was of course extremely exciting for me. Being local he new exactly where to look and as I giggled at the antics of the marmots, they soon sighted two groups of three Marco Polo sheep. We then headed for the rockier mountain terrain favoured by the Ibex. A quick chat with a shepherd saw us approach a small valley and a big heard of Ibex which as blind as I am I couldn't bloody see for what seemed an eternity. On the way back to the main highway we spotted another heard of about ten animals much closer this time.

We were welcomed to Murgab a nondescript dump by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself and were delivered to a guest house located on a rise above the town as our driver and guide are going home to their families. The guest house is quite attractive - BUT my Chinese friend is unhappy at the lack of Wi-Fi, I am unhappy about the stinking pit toilet, the lack of bathroom, the lack of power, the lack of beds and the stale bread and vegetable stew they served me for dinner. I have mild altitude sickness, headache and a bloody nose and truly weird dreams which combined with my hard pallet and Jason’s snoring meant a sleepless night.

After a fried egg for breakfast (I didn't eat any of the peanuts or lollies) we were on our way to our first objective, the Ak-Baital (White Horse) pass at 4655 metres probably the highest point of the trip so far, and the ideal spot to do some car repairs - unless of course you are suffering from altitude sickness already. I was sitting in the back today for the first time and was getting thrown all over the place on the shocking roads so trying to sleep off my headache was hopeless unless I wanted my head through the window.

On the other side the road descended enough to make life more bearable, on my left was the Chinese border fence on my right the huge Karakul a salty high altitude lake formed by a meteor hit some 10 million years ago. The village of Karakul is probably the most unpleasant inhospitable place on the planet to live we only stopped there because the driver had a bad batch of fuel and had to refill. The Tajik border post is 63 kilometres further north along some rough road we crossed over the Kyzl-art pass (4282) the last in Tajikistan a few minutes before arriving at customs. It was interesting to watch our driver at work if I had not been watching so carefully I would have missed the sleight of hand exchange of bribes with the customs official, the narcotics policeman and the immigration soldier that got us through in just a few minutes.

The road covering the 20 kilometres of no man's land was the worst yet, a Swiss guy came off his bike into a big muddy pool he was not happy man. The scenery between here and the Kyrgyz post at Bordobo was extremely beautiful one snow covered mountain was made of green and red rock and was striped, the valley below was lined in green stone and looked like a stone river. The Kyrgyz border point was a different kettle of fish, it was clean and organised, the staff immaculately dressed and friendly the only problem was that the Customs sat feed had dropped out so if the vehicle owner was from a non-CIS country they would be stuck at the border indefinitely. A German, the Swiss and a South African were settling in for the long haul when we left.

The road from here improved, Kyrgyzstan is significantly more advanced and much greener than its neighbour within ten minutes we were sitting in a cafe at Sary Tash with Wi-Fi, eating fried eggs and cucumber, they were eating pastries and dumplings, we lost 45 minutes at the border and an hour due to a time difference which will make Jason's flight home from Osh this evening more tenuous. Actually, as we travelled the three hours through the mountains to Osh he remained quite calm while the road was often completely covered in livestock and the driver put his Land Cruiser to work avoiding sheep, goats and horses as he drove as fast as he could to reach Osh.

The countryside is beautiful and green and littered with nomad’s yurts and what look like gypsy wagons many more people out there than I remember from the last time I was here in 2004. About 20 kilometres from Osh the drivers friend was waiting in a much more modern and faster vehicle to whisk Jason off to his flight he must gave made it as he was going to come to my hotel if he didn't. My hotel is a fair distance from the central area we stayed last time, but it is also much more luxurious, I ordered a pizza then walked down to the supermarket to buy some beer and a chocolate bar, no sooner had I left the store the plastic carry bag split and my beer smashed on the road, I was not happy.

I slept well, it is amazing what difference a soft bed makes. Breakfast was awesome, and I stood under the shower for ages washing away days of stink and dirt. Unfortunately, my favourite travel shorts let go and I was forced to consign them to the deep. I set off into the city around noon heading first to the riverside bizarre which has four souvenir shops which is four more than the last time I was there. One lady rambled on at me in Russian for about 5 minutes until I said nyet Ruski she looked confused then annoyed and started talking to me in English.

When you leave the market, there is a type of amusement park where they have shooting galleries various rides, table tennis, chess etc. It seems to be the place to be in Osh, I sat chatting with a retired English teacher for a time watching the world go by. I then went looking for the Lenin statue which was impressively large and an Atm to draw some Som.

Osh main attraction is Sulayman-Too but been up there before so didn't bother this time, there is a large museum at the base that wasn't there before, and the mountain appears to be fenced off now. I think that is, so they can charge foreigners to get in, the museum was ok but there was no English labelling or guides so a bit of a waste of $3.

I caught a taxi back to the hotel to avoid a sudden downpour and am going down to the spa for a much-needed massage at 8pm.

I leave for Bishkek, Kyrgzstan's capital tomorrow morning at 10am it will be interesting to see if it has changed much in 15 years.

Additional photos below
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8th October 2018

The Pamir
Wow. If t'was not for the names of the places and the wonderful vistas in your photos, I would have had no idea you followed the same trail and met some of the same folk we did in August last year. I regard the scenery as breathtaking and exhilarating. You seemed to like it too. However from your writing our experiences were so, so different. You make it sound like an unpleasant ordeal. Your descriptions of the accommodation that was basic and the food albeit bland was as if you expected 5 star. There were three on our trip that had similar expectations. We found the generosity of the people who offered all they had transcended all lack of comforts. This is one of the harshest climates in winter in the World. Summer is a warm window of opportunity. Our foray into the Pamirs was such that our spirits soared at the wonder of the place. If I travel remote I want to experience remote. Everyone's experience is different. T'was an interesting read to experience yours. Yours is a warning that if one expects comforts then the Pamir is not the place to be. That feedback is valuable for readers who need to know that.
10th October 2018

The amazing Pamir Highway
We were there a year ago and your blog has brought back amazing memories. The river has such power. The people are so friendly. The road trip of a lifetime. Thanks for taking us along.

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