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Author: Maria Zehentner / Translation: Elke Weninger
Beitrag vom: 01.08.2017

Pamir Highway – an enchanting bit nothingness!

June 2017 already Marco Polo used to say!
You should be familiar with the fact that the Pamir Highway is the second highest Highway after the Karakorum Highway, which is located between China and Pakistan. Partly the Pamir Highway follows the route of the ancient Silk Road leading from the Tajik capital city Dushanbe into the Pamir mountain range, from where it firstly carries on along the Afghan border before it leads over high altitude passes of more than 4.600 meters and high altitude deserts further north meandering over the pass at the border to Kyrgyzstan into the city of Osh.
Now it was not only Afghanistan, but also the borders to China and Pakistan which came within reach. We saw rugged mountains at times as high as 7.000 meters on which there are glaciers visible as well as meagre moon-like desert landscape, ancient fortresses from the time of Alexander the Great, rushing mountain brooks and hot springs, wide and lush green high valleys with yurts and grazing yaks of Kyrgyz shepherds. All of these sights can be seen when using the Pamir Highway.

However, you are completely mistaken when you expect to get to see a proper “highway“ when using the Pamir Highway as you might know it from holidays in the USA. The rough road was built by Russian soldiers at the beginning of the 30s and resembles a masterpiece of road construction. The state of this road changes as much and as frequently as the weather when you are in the mountains. Once we drove on gravel road, then again on an asphalt road, which changed its quality fairly often and at times was rather bad with sections of it missing entirely. If this was the case we sometimes had to cross riverbeds and as mud slides and landslides frequently endanger the Pamir Highway you might have to change your plans or route at short notice or even might be stuck there for some time.
Luckily we were spared from such incidents.
We drove in a convoy with the Romanian family when we set off from Dushanbe in the early afternoon. Since riding their Ural (brand of their motorbike) the family got ahead much faster than we did with Akela they acted as vanguard. As our first aimed at destination Kulob on the Pamir was too big a distance to be driven on one afternoon, we stopped at Nurek dam. This lake is the highest dam in the world and the water provided lovely and very welcome cooling for all of us. We first turned into a side road and then drove offroad towards the lake. We thought we had to stop at a bridge which looked really as if fallen apart already but dared crossing it and were successful. We weren't able to get to the shore of the lake, but found a nice and suitable pitch on a meadow, changed into our swimming trunks and hurried to the lake.
Now a water reservoir might not be anything unusual, but we utterly enjoyed cooling in it. There was lots of fire wood available and also quickly collected to make a wonderful campfire on which the boys were grilling some sausages. While the boys afterwards fooled around and played, we adults got to know each other better by drinking some beer together.

The next morning we were not quite awake when we set off as we had spent time at the fireplace until 2 o'clock in the morning. The roads to Kulob were in a good state. They were meandering through the hilly landscape and in villages there were children riding donkeys and who were driving herds of goats or flocks of sheep. When we had already spent many hours behind the steering wheel and at the end of the day suddenly a jeep at excessive speed was approaching us on our side of the road. Since it is not really possible to stop a ten ton vehicle within seconds it was clear that the jeep would be hitting us. After the accident we all got out of our vehicles and in no time were surrounded by a crowd of people. The jeep had one dented mudguard and on Akela one storage box was scratched. One of the passengers of the jeep was able to speak English and explained to us that the driver of the jeep was convinced that we had caused the accident, quite apparently as we were the tourists.
As luck would have it we hadn't acquired any car insurance in Tajikistan. There was a stressed conversation with lots of shouting and gesticulations which made us get into Akela and drive off. Before that, we shouted to the English speaking passenger that we would carry on to Kulob. If necessary we could have the case clarified in the presence of the police. We were already welcome there by uniformed officials. I don't want to go into detail too much as this would go beyond the scope. We spent two hours negotiating, debating and quarreling. Once the police wanted to withhold our passports, then again they wanted to seize Akela, incorrect accounts of the facts were given. We had the classic situation of having an accident as tourists in a foreign country. The driver of the other car insisted on his innocence and simply wanted to receive money as compensation.
The police seemed to believe him and claimed that we had made a mistake when leaving the scene of the accident and, therefore, we are the guilty ones. In the end we agreed to pay 600 Tajik Somoni (about €60). Our Romanian friends were waiting patiently a few meters away and were looking after Lennox while we were having this heated debate. Rather annoyed and really knackered we followed Mihai and Oana to their prebooked hotel to have something to eat and drink there. Afterwards we strolled back to Akela, who was waiting for us safely parked at the police station.

The proper entry into the Pamir Highway began the next day when we left Kulob and drove further east and where the road morphed into a piste which was covered with potholes. It took us to a more lonesome, dustier and more mountainous area. The constant shaking and rumbling matched perfectly to the desertlike mountain area which passed outside the windows. We had reached the Pamir mountains and were driving along the Afghan – Tajik border, which is naturally given by the torrential river Panji. The road was following the left side along a steep mountain valley, deep below us was the river and on the other side of the river, nearly at arm's length, there was Afghanistan. We drove through little villages made out of mud, saw people with donkeys, groups of playing children and when passing, people waved at us. Going through Qalài Khumb and Vahdat we arrived at Bartang Valley. This is where we selected a nice spot next to the river as our pitch for the night. It was not only chosen to have the usual campfire romanticism but also to celebrate Leander's birthday. We did so with a native piece of Viennese schnitzel, though the ingredients were rather multicultural.

Our Romanian friends' timetable was tighter than ours as their son Vladimir had to start school at the beginning of September. Consequently, they didn't have time to do longer walks or the like which we luckily had.
There was a shaky suspension bridge over the Bartang River leading to the entrance of the Bartang Valley. The valley is known and famous for its wild and unspoiled nature. Despite being victim of a mighty earthquake in 2015 and many of them consequently losing their livelihood, the inhabitants are said to be the most hospitable and most fun-loving ones on the Pamir. Doing a short hike up to some mountain lakes we wanted to enjoy at least a small part of the valley. With our lunch box and swimming gear packed into our rucksack we started our hike. The landscape reminded of idyllic romanticism in the mountains. We were hiking along a crystal clear river which was lined with trees that provided shadow and everywhere there were growing herbs and wild flowers. We could hear bees humming away on their way to collect pollen. It looked like a postcard – at least as long until Lennox decided to call hiking -boring - and - too exhausting - again. Once again we tried our very best to motivate Lennox but similar to times before we did so in vain!
To make matters worse we had misread the map. The lake we had wanted to get to was too far away to be reached within half a day and the one we did reach resembled a mudhole more than a lake. Since Lennox wouldn't stop whinging and whining made Leander freak out. I could never have imagined what was happening within the next few minutes right in front of me, but it happened. Being absolutely enraged Leander threw his wickedly expensive camera against the rock face, being closely followed by the Go Pro and his sunglasses. Grumbling and cursing he put down his rucksack and left us standing there.

Absolutely baffled and speechless I collected the items. They all still seemed to be in working order apart from some scratches. Without saying a word, Lennox and I started our way back as well. After we had caught up with Leander we continued our silent walk back to Akela in a threesome. When we had arrived there, we told Lennox to get into the truck and Leander and I started to review what had just happened out there. Ashamed about our own behaviour yet still enraged by Lennox' selfish behaviour (then again, what behaviour can be expected by a five year old boy?) we tried to analyse what we might be able to do better and differently in the future. Though we didn't get a patent solution we came to the conclusion that we had to start from scratch regarding walking and hiking with Lennox.
Apparently, it was not possible to start at Lennox' stage of doing these activities back in Austria - we had to do them in a different way on our journey. We didn't want him to start hating the mountains, not only because we loved being there, but also because he had loved them in Austria and so decided to start from scratch. This might mean to stop at every other stone or flower to look at it or to take a break there. After we had excused ourselves and emotions had gone down, we climbed back into the truck and carried on driving towards Khorog. This is where the Romanians were supposed to wait for us.

Khorog is the capital city of the autonomous province of Gorno-Badachsan (GBAO, which requires an own permission) and is located at a height of 2.000 meters in a narrow Pamir mountain valley. Like an oasis the city is embedded in the mountain desert and we were greeted by the peaks of the Pamir mountains, with some of them reaching up to 4.000 meters. Beyond the river there was a border and one of the few “Border Markets” between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. After spending the night on the car park of the Homestay where the Romanian family stayed for the night we continued our trip to Ishkashim.
Since the northern route starting at Khorog was still closed we took the southern route over the Wakhan Corridor – a neutral area between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and remains of the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia fighting to get political dominance in Central Asia. The landscape was stunning and diversified, little villages on both sides of the river and water meadows and oasis. On one side we sneeked a peek at the peak of the Karl-Marx Peak (6.726 meters high), on the other side of the river we were accompanied by the steep mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush.

In the villages women collected water from the many mountain streams, which babble past the houses. The dreamy countryside invited us to stay and this made us put up our tents and stop there for the night. Well, the Romanians had to put up tents, we just had to stop the engine and our home was put up and ready to sleep in. I joined a woman at the stream with our dirty washing and began scrubbing, children were playing in the water and the lads were trying to catch fish with local people, yet unluckily didn't catch any.
A storm and bad weather which was approaching rather quickly set an unwanted very fast ending to our idyllic camping situation. How much would we have loved to continue talking to the Tajik girls who had joined us not being shy at all and also able to speak really good English, but everybody just tried to stay dry by running into shelter somewhere.
We enjoyed a big serving of spaghetti before going to our cosy beds. We took our time the next morning and didn't rush regarding departure and 'sucked in' the dreamy landscape before setting off to Ishkashim.

I had greatly been looking forward to the Border Market between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where Tajiks and Afghan people meet in the middle of the river on a little island and offer their diverse goods. We were very unlucky because the market had already been closed the previous week due to rumours of Taliban. While the Romanians set off quickly to get to Langar, our next planned stop, we continued our bumpy drive on the hills of the valley and visited the remains of the ancient and very fascinating fortress called Yamchun, which we reached after a very adventurous drive on a gravel road.
The fortress had been built to have control of this section of the Ancient Silk Road. The best thing there was that there were no entrance fees and, moreover, we were the only ones there. Lennox and I tried to tell what kind of rooms the remaining rooms might have been and Leander started the drone and used his camera.
Though we hadn't visited Bibi Fatima - the hot spring right in front of which we had stopped for the night - we couldn't go there because it locked while we were walking to the truck to fetch our swimming gear. Consequently we couldn't relax our tired bones in 42°C hot water and on the next morning it was too hot already to do so.

We rolled back down the road and stayed on the main road to get to Langar where we wanted to meet our friends again. Unfortunately, the bad roads had left its marks and we had to fix and mount our spotlight lamp for the fourth (or even fifth?) time. On the way we could make an incredible and unique experience when we saw nomads getting ready to set off on the Afghan side. A group of about 30 people, among them women and girls dressed in bright red colours, pulled down their camp to look for new pasture for their animals and pets. While some tribal members started off with flocks of sheep and herds of goats and cows, the remaining men loaded the few belongings on horses, camels and yaks.
The yak is the basis of livelihood for most inhabitants in the central Asian highlands because it can easily adapt to the climatic extremes of its habitat. It provides milk, meat, leather, hair, wool and has been used as carriers and for riding. Women were doing the dishes in the river while children were playing games. We stopped Akela and ran down to the riverside. Now only about 20 meters were between us and the nomads and Afghan people.

We sat down on the ground and devoutly watched the colourful hustle. Yes, they still do exist – wandering herdsmen who lead a life full of privations, here in one of the most meagre regions in the mighty mountains of Central Asia. Though one of the men signalled us that he could take us over the river on horseback we missed to answer with a yes and so had to stay on our side of the river and accompanied them in Akela on our side of the river for some kilometers. There was no possibility to cross the river again and so we stayed on our side. Hardly ever before in my life had I been so captured by a situation, maybe also because I was pretty sure that I would probably never again become witness of such an authenticity of ancient traditional living. From then on we went further north into the high mountain region.
Very slowly we approached the Khargush Pass located at a height of 4.344 meters. Not really going faster than 15 km/h Akela struggled upwards on the single track gravel road. And he was doing mighty fine, considering the big weight he had to take up there. We were now officially on the roof of the world and kept moving at a height of at least 3.500 meters above sea level. In order to counteract altitude sickness we each had a drinking bottle in the driving cabin which we filled up regularly during daytime. To make sure that Lennox drank enough as well we started a 'drinking competition' among us. ...that we had to stop every ten minutes to go for a pee should only be mentioned briefly.

After we had crossed the pass the scenery changed completely. The horizon opened up, the sky became very big and the road was leading straight as far as the horizon. Suddenly we were surrounded by high plateaus on which sheep, goats and yaks were grazing.
In Langar we stayed in front of one of the few Homestays. Whereas the Romanian people were freezing at night despite having many blankets we turned on our wooden stove in Akela and therefore enjoyed a very comfortable night in the warmth. On the Pamir Highway we saw numerous cyclists who made their way up the road. The hard-core ones among them even put up their tents at a height of 4.000 meters and slept in them. I have high respect for each and every of them who ride their bikes in such a rugged landscape. I have to admit that it wouldn't be my cup of tea at all!

The Romanians drove ahead as usual as they were significantly faster on their Ural than we were in our Oldie. It had been a really good decision to drive on the Pamir Highway as a team with the Romanians, especially for the children as they utterly enjoyed meeting in the evening to play and have fun after they had to sit still during daytime. It was a shame that we weren't able to stop spontaneously when we felt like it. Before starting to drive in the morning we had planned the daily distance and arranged a place where to meet and stay for the night. However, we had decided to do it that way ourselves. If we hadn't liked each other so much we wouldn't have rushed through the Pamir as much as we did.
Then again, 'rushing' might not be the suitable word regarding the speed we were driving. Quite ironically it normally took us about nine to ten hours to drive a distance of 100 kilometers each day. We carried on driving through the valley of Alichur along the high plateaus and turned into the road leading to the small village of Bash Gumbez. Apparently it should be possible to ride on Yaks there and this was exactly what we wanted to try out.

We stopped the truck in the middle of the village and immediately were surrounded by local people. Between the yurts and mud houses there were grazing yaks. We weren't able to go riding on them after all as the information had been wrong and riding yaks was not offered in Bash Gumbez. Instead, we were able to watch a farmer taking bits and pieces of his freshly slaughtered yak out of the boot of his car to process them accordingly. After having talked to him a bit we got back into the driving cabin and set off on our trip to Murgab. This little town is the second biggest supply center in East Pamir and has even got a hotel. When we drove past this hotel we couldn't trust our eyes when we saw Iwe, the Dutchman, who had travelled with us in Tabris (Iran) for some days.
When he saw us he dashed out of the hotel and approached our truck in a staggering way. I don't know what caused his staggering – the height or alcohol. Mihai had seen us as well when we arrived – well, it's difficult to miss Akela – and joined us. Since it had already turned rather late we all went to bed. All but Iwe, who carried on celebrating and drinking.

Murgab is famous for its Container Bazaar. I had read in various travel reports and blogs that the bazaar is enchanting and picturesque which is why we definitely wanted to visit it to get some change. When getting to the bazaar, however, we couldn't sense anything of this hyped atmosphere. Old and rusty Russian containers or delivery trucks served as selling booths. There were clothes, toys, food, tools,...mainly cheap Chinese rummage on offer.
China, basically, was located just round the corner of our current location. We were able to spot a little shop there which offered traditional handcrafted goods. Leander could shop until he drops in such shops whereas I could control myself quite well in them.
Our son was amazing there as he took a lot of effort and time to look for little presents for his friends at home and which he wanted to give to them in September when we were going to fly home. Leander and Lennox carried the bought souvenirs with a pride in their faces to the car before we carried on. On this Bazaar there were numerous men wearing traditional Calpacs - high crowned caps made of felt or sheepskin - sticking out of the crowd. These men are members of the Tajik minority and we could tell very easily now that we were very close to the neighbouring country already.
The road just after Murgab led as close as 30 kilometers to the Chinese border. Inbetween there was a piece of no man's land, which was marked with barbed wire. Nobody seemed to mind that it was torn quite frequently. I assumed that up here illegal border crossing were not on the agenda.

Once more it became challenging as we were about to pass the highest point of our entire journey named Ak-Baital-Pass at 4.655 meters height. The ascent was not very steep and consequently was tricky in a way as we hardly noticed that we had already reached quite a height. We basically hadn't had any health problems because of the height while crossing the Pamir.
No headache, no nausea – nothing! However, when we had reached this highest point and wanted to take a picture to prove that we had been up there, walking to the photo point became really difficult as we had gasping breath. We were surrounded by rugged high altitude deserts and wilderness. The atmosphere was incredible.
We were as high up as 5.000 meters above sea level and still appeared to be tiny in the whole landscape – a bit like ants. Being so close to Pik Lenin, which reached up as high as 7.000 meters, we got the impression to be able to touch it and next to this 7.000 meter high mountain there were other peaks as high as that one and they were simply extremely impressive.
Two thirds of this country consist of alpine high mountain region – quite incredible, isn't it?

After a final view of this landscape we slowly started driving down towards Karakol Lake and the village bearing the same name. After a two hours' drive the deep blue lake appeared in front of our eyes. It is said that the lake resulted from a meteorite impact five million years ago. Its nickname is “Black Lake” as the water of the 238 meter deep lake gets really dark during winter time. The village with its mud houses seemed deserted, there were only some noisy children and some older people in front of a small Homestay who we could spot.
Imagining this place at winter time gave me a shiver. It was simply incredible how tough and difficult it must be to live up here and to imagine what hardships these people had to stand. And maybe I was so fascinated and attracted by this landscape because of these hardships.

We stayed in the same Guesthouse as the Romanian family for the last time on Tajik ground and enjoyed some kind of potatoe soup before driving over the Kyzil Pass at 4.280 meters again to get to the Kyrgyz border and to say good bye to Tajikistan.

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