News: Along the Pamir Highway

Posted: 25 March 2019

Despite not knowing much about Central Asia, the idea of an utterly off-the-beaten track road trip along the Pamir Highway aroused my curiosity. The more I read about all the majestic mountains and the immense wild deep valleys I would cross in the footsteps of Marco Polo, the more eager I was to depart.

Still weary from the early arrival, I receive a warm welcome at Bishkek Manas International Airport followed by the first orangey hued rays of the sunrise which reflects on the distant snow-capped mountains. After a few hours of restorative sleep, it was time for me to tackle the local culture with a short city tour of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, located at 1400m. It is hard not to notice the distinct architecture unique to all these former Republics of the Soviet Union: squeaky-clean quiet boulevards, imposing rectangular monuments on either side, ornamental statues carved from marble and proudly erected, and central to all of this, a gigantic flag lazily flowing in the blue sky. My walking tour in town ends in a charming open-plan café hidden in the beautifully well-manicured Panfilov Park. Gazing at the happy toddlers on the merry-go-round, I associate the lightness of the moment to the inspiring French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party painting. After this short pleasant introduction to the destination, I leave the capital for the second largest and oldest city in Kyrgyzstan, Osh; from where I expect to begin the “real” adventure. On the way, azure lakes are liberally scattered in an otherwise deserted landscape.

A somewhat alarming moment came when my guide Altynbek - literally meaning Prince of gold – was waiting for me, and the police took the car’s number plate down, tough luck! It is apparently common practice in the country that one needs to clear a tedious police check to get the car’s ID back and be able to drive again without having to pay a fine. We laughed about the bureaucracy over a few skewers and a jug of kumis (a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk) later before turning in for the evening.

Leaving behind the lively city of Osh and its 250,000 inhabitants, we began our 1,600km journey to Bishkek, along the M41, a.k.a the legendary Pamir Highway. The rows of poplars planted by farmers as wood stock and wind stoppers gradually give way to hills where sheep, skinny cows and fruit trees stand side by side. The verdant Fergana Valley reminds me of Tuscany, and looming on the horizon appear the first soaring mountains constituting the Alay range. Kyrgyz, known as nomadic people, set up their yurts and leave their precious horses to gallop wherever they wish in the grasslands. A few minutes later, we cross the Chirchik Pass, the first of nine passes of the Pamir Highway, situated at 2,345m and then swiftly reaching the Taldyk Pass at 3,615m in no more than ten hairpin bends. After the steep climb with no hint of what would lie beyond this point, a vast expanse spreading out before me. We stop in a secluded village near the Tajik border and enjoy staple local fare of a substantial tasty soup made with a vegetable broth, rice and pieces of lamb or beef along with a kind of ravioli stuffed with more meat and seasonal veggies. Each meal is served with a compact round loaf and a massive 8-cup pot of green tea – helping me to keep hydrated which is of course essential when at altitude.

Continuing our drive in this mesmerizing landscape, we cross the basic Kyrgyz border and find ourselves being greeted by the high-pitched whistles of countless sougour (happy looking marmots gifted with a thick coating of fur) on the look-out on either side of the poorly-maintained dusty road.  

After about 25km of no man’s land leading up to the Tajik border, we negotiate another pass at 4,282m with a further hour’s driving in close proximity to the mountainous Chinese border. We stop for the night by the largest lake in the country: Karakul, eponymous of the tiny village situated on its banks.
Seizing the last hours of daylight, we take a walk in the surroundings of the Sadat Homestay. I decide to sit further away on a rock to give free rein to my imagination. A quick glance around transports me to memories of overloaded drawings that, as children, we all sketched at least once: a half page filled with as many mountains as possible, with six to ten layers of ever higher peaks slotting into each other like fish scales to show that, yes, there are mountains absolutely everywhere, and the other half below filled with turquoise wavy water and deep green steppe. To complete the picture, a giant yellow sun half set prominently features in this kaleidoscope of colour. It is in this stunning setting that I face my first chilly night at about 4,000m in the autonomous region of the High Badakhshan (GBAO), also known as the Pamir region.

It was an indescribable pleasure that evening to gather with a few other travellers in the intimate atmosphere of the warm living room, with no access to the internet nor telephone network and electricity (although there is a solar panel for basic use). While the temperatures drop considerably outside and the dark sky becomes illuminated by a billion stars, I am captivated by the stories of the locals (translated by my guide) and cannot stop asking Sadat, the owner, about her living conditions in this isolated village, deprived of shops, bars and restaurants and where the closest hospital is located 160km away. No matter how low the standard of living is and how rough the conditions are, without even mentioning the incredibly harsh winter months, Sadat and all the other Tajiks I meet on my journey, seem to be gifted with an infinite generosity and a contagious joie de vivre.  

At dawn the next day, I wake to a chorus of hungry barking dogs and powerful sunlight seeping into every opening of the otherwise sober annex which serves as a small dormitory. It is true that the home is extremely basic, however this is of no importance to me as the quality of the human contact is quite extraordinary here. Leaving Sadat and her daughters behind, Altynbek takes me to the shore of the Karakul Lake to admire one of the most astonishing panoramas one can face in the Pamir region. The many minerals that have poured into the lake from the adjacent mountains render it a mesmerizing deep and intense blue colour. We continue on our journey through these dazzling enclosed valleys where, here and there, herdsmen tend to their flocks of yaks and sheep. As we continue to gradually gain altitude, the landscapes become more and more lunar, abrupt and hostile, but somehow no less beautiful. Despite my elevated heart rate as a side effect of the altitude, I feel immense elation to reach the highest point of the Pamir Highway - the Akbajtal Pass, culminating at 4,655m.

Over 90% of Tajikistan comprises of mountains, although only the majestic fifteen peaks covered by permanent snow between 5,700m and 7,500m enjoy the privilege to be named unlike all of the surrounding valleys. In the distance, spreading into a wide plateau perched at 3,700m, the city of Murghab appears on the horizon. In the soft light of the setting sun, I ramble amongst the blue and white low Pamiri houses, dilapidated by the harsh climate and frequent dust storms. Silence prevails and I can scarcely believe that some 6,000 inhabitants dwell here. I encounter a few men wearing the kalpak -the traditional local headdress which reminds me of a giant thimble-, some kids curious to see a stranger walking alone and a couple of women ardently washing their carpets in the stream and, to my great surprise, a large group of friends playing volleyball. I have no idea who was most intrigued and intimidated at that exact moment but, despite the language barrier, I got to join in with the game for a couple of rallies before heading back to my basic but comfortable family-run hotel for the night.

The following day, we delve into further mesmerizing wide and unspoiled spaces where open pastures meet violently with jagged peaks under a cobalt-blue sky. The only signs of life in the area are on the road itself, which was completed under Stalin in the 30’s, a statue of a snow leopard -a rare animal that roams the slopes above- and, quite unexpectedly, a few very well-preserved cave paintings dating back to 6,000BC. A short distance later, sacred pristine multi-hued lakes brimming with fish lay spread out in succession before us.
We leave the M41 and continue our journey on a secondary dirt track, reaching the Kargoush pass at 4,344m, marking the end of the high plateau and the beginning of the fabled Wakhan Corridor. The remarkable road created by the sheer force of explosives in the rock hugs the ever-changing curves of the Pandj River. At various bends kids herd their skinny goats and women wearing the burka cast a furtive glance from scattered Afghan style hamlets on the other side of the river. The road is rough in parts, damaged by the forces of natural erosion, landslides and avalanches in the bleak winter and spring as temperatures rise. Peaks up to 7,700m soar into the sky close by. After hours following this age old border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the vegetation becomes slightly more abundant.

Our arrival in the Langar village is most welcome. With their ceilings pierced by a skylight, and their benches covered with rugs, the interiors of Pamiri dwellings here are somewhat reminiscent of Tibetan houses, I think to myself. The symbols engraved on their pillars embody ancient Aryan goddesses and, outside, houses are surrounded by apricot trees, small gardens and sea-buckthorn fences. The welcome and the hospitality from the family in their home stay is so warm and well worth the long journey.  

On our way to Ishkashim, forgotten Buddhist hermitages and ruins of ancient forts, including the antique Yamchun Fortress, are scattered at the foot of the Karl Marx and Engels peaks, rising to more than 6,500 meters. The most unexpected stop of the day comes at the Bibi Fatimah hot springs: somewhat lost in the middle of cliffs where iron rich mineral water gushes and villagers bathe in the natural thermal springs. The naked Tajik women are amused by my presence and help me to gradually enter the boiling sacred springs, supposedly good for fertility. The experience is repeated the following day at a more popular hot springs renowned this time for their antiseptic qualities, where locals come to dip in the natural baths at a balmy 42 degrees. Touching the water immediately heightens my senses, as if lava was melting on me – but, as they say: no pain, no gain!  

As we continue alongside our faithful companion, the gushing turbulent torrent of the Piandj River, we leave the harsh mountainous landscape and emerge into modern Mesopotamia, abounding with fruit trees, poplars and rice paddies. Donkeys replace horses and yaks, and the Shugnan Valley welcomes us through its front door. Khorog, the modest capital of the Pamir standing strategically at the junction of several valleys and rivers, mocks the rigorist nearby Afghanistan. Here, in the Pamiri homeland, a more liberal feel exists – the city-state, fiefdom of the Aga-Khan and the Ismaili community, extols a contemporary faith.

An atmosphere of freedom and tranquillity reigns and a sense of personal liberation envelopes me. Seemingly overhanging the city and the neighbouring valleys, the world’s second highest botanical garden offers astonishing views and a very pleasant stroll in the middle of a superb floral collection of some 2,300 varieties. Later I enjoy a flat bread making masterclass in the street, a game of volleyball with random city-dwellers, and a glass of plum juice sat on the rugs of the tchaïkhana, open-air houses adorned with balconies raised above the tempestuous torrents below.


A night and 90km further away, we cross the Nepalese bridge which marks the start of a relatively short but gruelling trek on a steep rocking pathway. Slowly zigzagging up under the burning sun to the alpine pasture, we reach the tiny houses which form Baghoo village. Altynbek and I are greeted with well-deserved sweet snacks and a jug of green tea. My curiosity leads me to see what was beyond the embankment a little further away – where I discover a veritable Garden of Eden with birds chirping from the branches above a dazzling lake. Lured by the sun reflecting on the sediments of the adjoined mountains, I feel at one with the elements. I take a freezing bath, but the embracing scenery nevertheless warms my spirit.
Our journey continues for another day and a half along the border with Afghan in these dizzying valleys to which I have now become accustomed, stopping on the way in the small towns of Rushan and Kala-i-Khumb, where I will recall more than anything else the kindness of our considerate hosts.

It gets hotter and hotter as we approach Dushanbe, the landscapes become flat and under the influence of the heat, the mountains too slump and take on a more volcanic texture. Casting a last glance at the picturesque Afghan views and the Piandj, we leave the high passes behind, fork on the Pamir Highway again and entrench ourselves in the middle of a bright-red canyon worthy of the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon. The change of scenery is irrevocable: alongside the impeccably sealed road, trees are wizened, rivers dry out, and lush grass turned into hay and human activity resumes unabated. As easy as we turn a page, one switch from the unspoiled wilderness from the Roof of the World to the iconic shaped-fortress of the Silk Road instead.

Dushanbe is sadly my last port of call on this epic journey. Located at 900m above sea level, it is a quiet capital inhabited by a million souls. The dry heat provokes a constant mist which settles in the uncluttered streets and adds a natural filter to the scene. Luckily, thousands of sycamores bring shade and local markets sell hundreds of watermelons. Not far from the town, the Hissar Fortress dating back to the Xth century imposes itself royally on 70 hectares of rolling fields. Rebuilt by each generation, that is to say for the 24th time now, this coveted fort has resisted every hazard of history and has been an undeniably strategic point on the mystical Silk Road. Through the impressive carved Persian style gate of solid wood, light streams through the windows and the cleverly thought out shapes and textures confer to this place a charm which is in my view on a par with the similarly awe-inspiring Ark Fortress in Uzbekistan.

Back in Dushanbe, my adventure comes to an end in the way it started in Bishkek, as the biggest fireball I have ever seen slowly vanishes behind an artificial lake at the heart of the city, leaving a pinkish shade which harmoniously highlights the gigantic Tajik flag languidly swaying on its pole 130m above my head.

I feel a pang of emotion as I leave Altynbek at the airport. One sure thing is that at the end of this captivating adventure, I am carrying back with me a great life lesson and memories of unique moments created by simple but sincere human connections with humble people who have learned to live in harmony with their sublime natural environment and continue to share with anyone that which they possess regardless of the cost.

Adventurous travellers prepared for rough roads, basic conditions in some accommodation and ready to endure a few hardships (outdoor loos, no Wi-Fi and sometimes cold water) are guaranteed to be rewarded with a rare and unforgettable glimpse into the life lived on “the Roof of the World”. Cross my heart, cross my heart and hope to die!

……….

Estelle Hisler travelled in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan from 31st July to 10th August 2018.

If you would you like to discuss any travel plans, please contact us for a quote.

We offer every year a departure along the Pamir Highway in July and can also assist with tailormade tours as well.  

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