The Pamir Highway: Everything looks great on paper… and then you hit the road!
Tajikistan was the one of the countries we were most looking forward to on the entire trip. It had the lure of high alpine treks, legendary road trips, and intriguing and remote cultures. We never expected Tajikistan to be an easy ride but it was the first place where we felt that we had bitten off more than we could chew. Maybe spending the first three months of our trip on roads less traveled was not our smartest move. Or, maybe, the record temperatures we experienced had finally worn us down. Or, was it the monotonous, taste-free food of Central Asia that was taking its toll. Either way, Tajikistan did not work out as well as we had hoped.
The persistent rumors coming out of Tajikistan in the week prior to our Pamir Highway trip were not encouraging either. The extreme heat has been melting the massive glaciers at an unprecedented rate, creating huge landslides on parts of the Pamir Highway. The Highway had also been closed for a couple of weeks earlier in the summer for alleged Russian-Chinese-Tajik joint missions against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Wakhan region of Afghanistan that borders Tajikistan had been a Taliban-free zone until this year but apparently they have moved north to protect their heroin operations on the Tajik border. As we sat in South Kyrgyzstan planning our transport to Tajikistan, the weather also turned on us. Although it was a relief to get respite from the incredible heat, the last thing we wanted heading into the Pamirs was thick cloud and rains. The omens were not good!
We had planned to spend anything up to 45 days in Tajikistan. We made it to day thirteen before we bailed out and headed to Southeast Asia. We were disappointed to leave Central Asia on a downer, but one of the many joys of travel is that you can hop on a train, plane, or bus and completely change your trajectory in 24 hours. Our first Thai meal more than made up for the disappointment we felt! And, I guess, we can always go back.
But, before we get to Bangkok we still have a Tajikistan story to tell.
We had planned to travel for 10 days on the fabled Pamir Highway, hike in Bachhor Valley for a week or so, and then head up to the Fann Mountains for a 12-day hike.
The Pamir Highway: Practicalities
Visas and formalities:
We arranged our visas and permits for the Pamir Region (GBAO permits) through an agency in Bishkek (firstname.lastname@example.org via the Interhouse Hostel). It was pretty straightforward but expensive. Our forty-five day visa and permit cost $140. Unlike Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which have both implemented visa-free regimes to encourage tourism, Tajikistan still charges large fees and occasionally rejects the odd application. The border guards’ habit of shaking down tourists and drivers for bribes hardly creates the image of a tourist-friendly country either.
Transport and sharing costs
Tajikistan has very little in the way of public transport and for most journeys you have to hire 4WD vehicles. This can make traveling in the country extremely expensive. Most travelers spend a few days in Osh (South Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajik capital) or Khorog (the main town in the Pamir region) organizing transport and fellow travelers to share the cost of a Pamir Highway trip. We arranged a vehicle and driver through the Osh Guest House. The rate was $0.80 per kilometer plus $20 per day for the driver’s bed and board. If you arrange a trip directly with the driver it is possible to get the kilometer rate down to $0.65.
We shared the cost of the trip with Yolanda, a charming and well-traveled Spanish woman from the Basque Country. We found Yolanda through the fantastic Caravanistan site, which has information and forums for the whole region. We decided that we didn’t want a guide for the Pamir Highway since we had heard many stories of incompetent guides with poor English and poor knowledge of the regions beyond their hometown. We did, however, request a driver that could speak some English.
Food: bring some goodies
We had heard from other travelers that the food on the Pamir Highway was pretty monotonous even by the usual standards of Central Asian cuisine so we stocked up on dried fruit, fresh fruit, and other goodies at Osh bazaar. We also loaded up on Tajik currency (somoni) at the bazaar since we were told that the rates on the Highway were poor. The moneychangers can be found on Alisher Navoi Street. We got 6.5 somonis to the dollar, which was the rate we typically found in Dushanbe.
On our last evening in Osh, we polished off a huge pizza at the California restaurant (our last decent meal for 10 days) and hoped for clear skies the next morning.
We met our driver (Baktiar) at 9.30am on July 27 and after checking out the car (4WD Mitsubishi Pajero- the most common 4WD on the highway), the driver’s English (pretty good), and handing over the dollars we headed out. Part of the deal for the car is that you have to pay for the car and driver to return to Murghab. The return rate is $0.35 per kilometer, which added about $100 to the trip. Later in the trip, the driver confirmed that he had picked up three locals for the return. This was a bit irksome since we had no way of getting back our money for the return trip. Maybe it would be worth withholding the return fee until the end of the trip and only pay it if the driver had no fares. I doubt the driver would be honest about this though!
Avoiding altitude sickness
We had decided to spend the first night at Tulpar Kol Lake in the Alay Valley in Kyrgyzstan. The altitude here is 3500m. The alternative was to spend a night at 3900m at Karakul Lake on the Tajikistan side. We were not comfortable with taking the risk of getting AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), so staying in Alay was the sensible option.
Homestays and food
We stayed in cozy traditional family homes (‘homestays’) for the whole Pamir Highway trip. The typical cost for the room and board (usually breakfast and dinner but sometimes we had lunch for no extra cost) was $10-20. Despite the fact they are called ‘homestays’, in reality they operate as guesthouses, so you get little insight into family life in the area. The food is pretty monotonous- breakfast will be bread, jam, eggs, and/or porridge; lunch will be bread and soup; and, dinner will be soup or noodles or fried potatoes, and bread. Rarely will you get meat on the trip unless you specifically ask for it. Honorable mention goes to the homestay in Bulunkul, where the family broke the monotony with delicious fried fish for dinner. The downside was that our bedroom for the night smelled of greasy fish! There are a couple of fish restaurants for lunch between Murghab and Bulunkul. For a ‘splurge’, you can hit the Pamir Hotel in Murghab for a plate of fried chicken.
Beds are typically a mat on the floor and lots of duvets. The beds are warm but a little uncomfortable. Once in a while, you will find a place with a proper bed but don’t expect Tempurpedic mattresses.
Get informed & keep informed
Quite often the only information you get of road conditions ahead is from fellow travelers. It’s good idea to meet up with other travelers coming in the opposite direction to get the lowdown. This was particularly important this year as there was considerable disruption on the highway due to the extreme weather.
You get what you paid for except when you don’t
On the first night we shared a yurt with a Dutch couple that had just finished their Pamir Highway adventure. They gave us the lowdown on the food, the homestays, and an update on the landslides. Since this was a short vacation for them, they paid for a premium price tour but it seems that this is no guarantee of the quality of service or car. They were stranded in the Murghab region for several days since their car repeatedly broke down. Eventually, they jumped in another 4WD as the engine of their car was shipped to Osh to be overhauled.
One of the real frustrations for people on the Pamir Highway is that you pay first world prices often for third world service. A German group we met paid for a ‘Five Star’ tour, but was sharing rooms with budget travelers like us. They obviously didn’t do their research since there are no 1 Star rooms on the Pamir Highway never mind 5 Star rooms. However, they were sold a premium package tour by their Tajik hosts.
Landslides-they happen every year but this year was terrible
As for the landslides, they seemed much worse than we expected. Apparently three kilometers of road (not on our route) were washed out and sixty houses buried. Landslide conversations were to be a constant feature of the rest of the trip.
Our schedule for the Pamir Highway trip with approximate drive times:
• DAY ONE: OSH-TULPAR KOL, 10AM-3PM
• DAY TWO: TULPAR KOL-KARAKUL LAKE, 9AM-2PM
• DAY THREE: KARAKUL-RANGKUL LAKE-MURGHAB, 9AM-1.30PM
• DAY FOUR: DAY TRIP TO PSHART AND MADIYAN VALLEYS IN THE MURGHAB REGION, 9AM-5PM
• DAY FIVE: MURGHAB-ALICHOR-SHAHKTY-BULUNKUL, 8AM-4PM
• DAY SIX: BULUNKUL-LANGAR, 9AM-3PM
• DAY SEVEN: STAYED IN LANGAR AND VISITED RATM FORT
• DAY EIGHT: LANGAR-VRANG-YAMCHUN
• DAY NINE: YAMCHUN-KHAA KHA FORT-ISKHASHIM (COMBINED WITH DAY EIGHT) 9AM-6PM
• DAY TEN: ISKHASHIM-KHOROG 9AM-1PM
We ended up combining day nine and ten once we got on the road. The weather was not great for most of the trip and it wasn’t worth prolonging the agony with more days of no mountain views.
THE PAMIR HIGHWAY: UPS AND DOWNS
We were really hoping to get good views of 7134m Pik Lenin on our first day. We had hiked in the area earlier in the trip but the weather was terrible and the great peaks were hidden from us. We stayed in a family yurt at Tulpar Kol Lake near Pik Lenin base camp and hiked a small distance beyond the lake to get better views of the mountains. The weather teased us a little but, thankfully, we got brief glimpses of the magnificent peaks. The next morning the weather played ball for 10 minutes giving us fabulous views of Pik Lenin again. The peak is a massive snow and ice clad behemoth and worth the trip to Tulpar Kol to see. This is the mountain country, however, and as we were to find out much to our horror the clouds can be your real enemy for days and days. There are no guarantees up here and those glossy images you found on Google can elude you for the whole trip.
Sadly, the clouds closed in all too quick and persisted for most of the day. I could not believe this! We have had scorching heat with astounding blue skies for the whole trip so far and when we really need clear skies we get goddamn Seattle weather!
The border post is at an incredible 4200m. You would think as we were gasping from lack of oxygen that the border formalities would be nice and efficient to set us on our way. Alas, no! On the Kyrgyz side, the guards watched for what seemed like hours before they let us into the compound. My blue face and gurgling bloody sputum did not get them moving too swiftly either. I am pretty sure there is a global exam for border guard that requires them to excel as an asshole before they are given their post. On the Tajik side, they excelled in snail-paced surliness and then expected a little bribe before allowing passage. Baktiar said that this is typical. If he didn’t pay the bribe, the guards would search all of our luggage and cause problems.
The pass beyond the post was truly outstanding. The skies were very moody and made Mordor look like an Indonesian beach resort but there was no doubting the raw beauty of the landscape before us.
Welcome to Tajikistan.
Karakul, the end point on day two, is a scrappy little town on the shores of its namesake lake. The lake was created millions of years ago from the impact of a giant meteor. We had seen photos of azure blue lake fringed by snowy peaks. Sadly, we got dull grey dishwater and rolling black clouds. In between swatting mosquitoes, I kept myself entertained by photographing the car junk on the beach. It’s a sad fact of life that there is no easy solution to removing modern life’s junk from beautiful remote areas. It seems to me that over time most of the world’s beauty spots will look like the set of a Mad Max movie.
In Karakul, we stayed at an unnamed homestay, the last one in town before you hit the road to Murghab. Although there are 4 homestays in town it seems that all the traffic comes here. It was absolutely jam packed with bedraggled tourists heading in both directions. Our entertainment for the night was an elderly Japanese woman getting lost and stumbling round our room at 3am. In fact, I suspect this was the only entertainment on offer in Karakul tonight or any other night. The town has an undeniably beautiful setting but I cannot understand why the hell anyone would want to live here! Winter really must be Hell on Earth since the village is cut off for months. In fact, one of the daughters of the family told Laura that her dream is to go to America because it is a developed country with tall buildings.
Surprise, surprise- a misty start to day three! We began to refer to this as ‘atmospheric’ since it adds a positive twist to dismal weather. The road careers through a wide spectacular valley with magnificent looking side valleys. As the trip progressed, I began to think that driving through this terrain is a real waste of time. I want to be hiking out there not driving past everything at 60-80KPH. This became an even bigger urge as we hit the Wakhan Valley a few days into the trip. The Wakhan has villages all along the route plus an abundance of homestays every 5KM or so.
We veered off the main track on to a rough road to head out towards Rangkul Lake. This is not on every Pamir Highway itinerary but we thought it was one of the most beautiful spots on the trip and well worth the extra hour or so to drive out here. We also had a rare blast of blue skies at the lake. Maybe that is why we thought it was so special! Laura was happy since she was able to indulge in her favorite outdoor activity- taking reflection shots in lakes! The lake was surrounded by fabulous red, yellow, and orange hills. Shame the mosquitoes were so hungry though. They seem to love me. So, while Laura was busy snapping away I flagellated myself with a sweater in full-on death to mozzies mode.
Our final destination for the day was Murghab, which is the administrative hub of the area and our base for the next couple of nights. Murghab gets a bad rap in Lonely Planet, which makes it sound like the pits of the universe. But, I found it a pleasing place with fine views from our homestay (Erali Guesthouse), which was perched on a small hill overlooking the valley. The homestay was a traditional Kyrgyz house and a decent deal ($18 per person for bed, breakfast, lunch and dinner). Although we were in Tajikistan, the people on this side of the Pamirs are Kyrgyz, not Pamiri or Tajik. The people here really look to Kyrgyzstan not Tajikistan for their education and trade. Most of the kids here go to Osh for university and the main trading partners are across the border. This is not the first time we have seen this in Central Asia. There are many enclaves (some official, some not) in Central Asia where people are cut off from people of their own ethnicity and language group by borders drawn up by Stalinist Russia and maintained at independence.
Murghab has a bank that changes up dollars at a decent rate, a bazaar, some souvenir shops, and the odd decent restaurant. The Pamir Lodge served up a decent chicken dish and a cold beer, both of which are rare on the Pamir Highway.
Pshart and Madiyan valleys near Murghab are not on every Pamir Highway itinerary but we heard good things about both areas so we thought it worth investigating. Pshart is just north of Murghab. It is a wide Pamir (glacial valley) with astounding side valleys and mountain scenery. Our destination was Gumbezkol valley, the site of a yurt camp and horse-breeding center. Gumbezkol is a beautiful green valley, which leads up to a high pass that links Pshart and Madiyan. The hardy types can cross the pass and get picked up in Madiyan but we opted for a more sedate three-hour hike up the valley to get views of some gnarly peaks and glaciers in one of the side valleys.
The trail is super-easy to follow. Follow the small stream up valley and turn back when you have had enough. We stopped off in one of the yurts for a quick afternoon tea of yoghurt, cream, bread and tea. The dairy goods were fresh out of the cow and they even tempted this lactose-intolerant to indulge (and tolerate the grumbly tum afterwards). It was certainly delicious and, yes, I suffered later. But, lets be honest it is not a genuine Pamir experience if you haven’t had at least one stomach upset!
Madiyan is south of Murghab. Most people head here to laze around in the hot springs 40km up the valley. Sadly, a bridge 8km before the springs was washed out so we had to console ourselves with the rugged, beautiful scenery of the valley. Oh, did I mention the Russians in Speedos?
At the washed out bridge, we bumped into a large group of over landers from Russia who were also bummed they missed out on the hot springs. One guy had obviously prepared in advance since he was resplendent in his Speedos while the group figured out what to do. It all looked very wrong to me. I don’t know why I found this dude so funny but the thought of him kept me amused for the rest of the day. You can judge yourself in the picture below!
Speedo Man at the broken bridge.
This is in a region where the Lonely Planet admonishes tourists to dress modestly to avoid offending locals. The Russian edition of the guidebook obviously doesn’t contain that advice! We have met a lot of Russians on this trip and you really have to admire their utter inappropriateness and ‘lack of giving a shit about what other people think’.
Back in Murghab, we supped cold beer and nibbled on spicy chicken while lapping up the latest news from the highway. Rumors were circulating that all three roads in the Pamirs were now washed out a few days’ drive away. Given the unstable weather so far, this really concerned us. At one point, we even considered bailing since the idea of being trapped on the Pamirs between landslides was a little scary. Not to mention, the concern that we could get caught in a slide. More likely though was that we were terrified by the idea of having to eat dismal food for more days!
It goes without saying that the next morning was rainy. This upped the tension a little. More rain meant higher possibility of more landslides. Our driver hardly helped matters by telling us that there had been a landslide in Ishkashim, which was the final village of our trip. The one problem of being in the Pamirs is that hard information is difficult to come by. Even worse, there is no Internet here. Well, actually, that is one of the pleasures of being out here…except, in situations like this. Baktiar’s brother lived in Ishkashim so he called him for an update on the road. Also, the owner of the guesthouse in Murghab had a relative who worked for the local information service. After a few rounds of calls, we had the all clear on the roads and set off.
Although Baktiar had proved to be an excellent driver and de facto guide so far on the trip, he really annoyed us today! One of the areas we had been looking forward to visiting was Shahkty, an area of outstanding ancient rock paintings. We passed what we thought was the turnoff but didn’t mention it at first since we had become used to alternate routes to avoid changes in the river flow or washed out roads. After a few more kilometers I decided to ask him about Shahkty. Baktiar said he did not know Shahkty. After we explained, he gave us a cock ‘n’ bull story about Shahkty being in a permit-only zone. Whatever the story was, it was clear we weren’t going. We had been warned to watch out for this kind of behavior but Baktiar had been awesome up to now so we didn’t see the need to reiterate our itinerary everyday. Lesson learned.
At least we got some rare protein for lunch. Not too far after our Shahkty disappointment, we found a very remote restaurant serving up fried fish from a pond in the yard. In typical Central Asian style, the fish were fried beyond all recognition and were full of bones but it made a change from potatoes. We shared lunch with one of the very many demented Central European cyclists we saw ‘doing the Pamir Highway’. He gave us the inevitable update on the landslides and regaled us with his antics as a lone cyclist on the road. The freedom they have seems fantastic but I don’t think I would have the nerve to cycle in this remote unstable part of the world. Even worse, I would have to wear Lycra cycling gear for weeks on end!
We sat grumpily in the back of the car for the next couple of hours but soon cheered up after the clouds cleared and we got to the splendidly named ‘Stinky Lake’. This was another beautiful high alpine lake surrounded by stupendously colorful mountains. Obviously, the mosquitoes were on hand to temper our joy somewhat but this area was one of the real highpoints of the ride.
Our final destination on day five was Bulunkul. Bulunkul is alleged to be the coldest inhabited place in Tajikistan. It is a bleak spot with one attraction- a beautiful deep blue lake. We could neither corroborate whether it was blue nor deep since the murky sky colored it grey and the freezing weather discouraged examining the depths.
Bulunkul homestay was one of our favorites on the Pamir Highway. It was super cozy and served fat chunks of white juicy fish for dinner. You get real ‘ah ha’ moments many times when you travel and Bulunkul provided one of these. Our hosts were a medical doctor and nurse. They served a village of less than 100 people. They lived in a two-room house in the bleakest part of Tajikistan. They get their water from a well in the center of the village. They live a five day drive from the nearest ‘big’ town. They clearly make next to no money. Yet they dedicated themselves to studying for many years at University. I guess I should admire their dedication to their hometown when many doctors and nurses from such countries follow the dollar and practice in the West. I know what I would do and I wouldn’t stay in Bulunkul. They don’t even have the best views of the Pamirs!
We chatted to Baktiar about his background later on. He studied economics at university and was clearly a smart guy but here he was driving tourists up and down the Pamir Highway. He told us that he had lined up his first post-college job at a large bank. However, to secure his job he was told by his manager-to-be that he must pay him $5000 to secure his employment. Baktiar declined since he did not have the funds nor was he cool with paying a bung and so that was the end of his banking career. It is pretty obvious that corruption is all-pervasive here. It is clear that the job of border guards is to exact bribes from drivers and the job of police is to levy fines on drivers for spurious traffic offences. We know that corruption exists everywhere, but it was far more overt in Tajikistan than in any other country we’ve visited.
The weather was bloody awful on day six! Foul black clouds covered the skies and the rain was pounding down. The road out of Bulunkul is a mud track at best. Thankfully, we had no issues getting out but a day later a massive landslide blocked the road cutting off all traffic.
We were heading to the fabled Wakhan Corridor- a valley bordering Afghanistan on the other side of the Panj River. The views here are said to be some of the finest mountain scenery on the planet. Oh, how we ‘prayed’ for the skies to clear. At the turn-off to the Wakhan, you have to pass through a Tajik military post. The post was staffed by an obnoxious collection of preening dick-brained teenage soldiers. They sneered and goose-stepped like Nazis in a British WW2 B-movie. It would have been moderately amusing if it was not for the fact that the entire battalion looked completely unhinged. The guide coughed up the by now expected bribes of cash and cigarettes and after what seemed like an eternity we moved on.
You can see immediately why no one has been able to successfully conquer Afghanistan. In an area of astonishingly rugged mountains, Afghanistan rises up in a gnarly tangle of preposterously steep mountains. It looked beautiful too…if only.
Guidebooks and blogs comment very little about the hair-raising road in this area. I have traveled on some of the world’s craziest, adrenaline pumping highways- the Lhasa-Kathmandu ‘Friendship Highway’ and Bolivia’s ‘Road of Death’ to Coroico- and usually you have some idea of what you are letting yourself in for. Today’s section of the Wakhan was terrifying. The road is hacked out of the cliff face, is barely wide enough for one and half cars, and at times is hundreds of feet above the river. Even worse, since the main Murghab-Khorog highway was damaged by landslides, Chinese trucks were hurtling through here with loads of plastic trinkets for the Tajik markets.
Langar is described as one of the more pleasant villages to stay in Wakhan so we opted to spend a couple of days here. There seemed plenty to do- walks to see petroglyphs, forts, and mountain scenery. The downside is that no one can tell you where to find anything. At times I was convinced that no one in the Wakhan had the slightest knowledge of their surroundings beyond the walls of their family compounds. We tried to climb a hill behind town to find one fort but ended up in a very rough and tumble military lookout post. The 35 or so soldiers were utterly bemused at us but seemed friendly enough!
There are a lot of soldiers and special forces in the Wakhan at the moment. The Wakhan region of Afghanistan had been considered safe in the last few years, but this year the Taliban has moved close to the border and the Tajiks (and Russians and Chinese) are not happy about this.
Wakhan, like the rest of Tajikistan, is a Muslim-majority area but I doubt they buddy up too close to the Taliban. Wakhanis are Ismailis: a small sub-sect of Shi’ism whose spiritual leader is the Swiss-based Aga Khan. The Aga Khan is a substantial investor in the area. He is responsible for creating a decent school system in the area and his foundation seems to support an abundance of projects here because the Tajik government gives no support to the region. Wakhanis and Pamiris do not jive too well with mainstream Tajik politicians. This is evident from the state of the local infrastructure. The roads instantly become much better and safer once you leave the Pamirs. It took the president two weeks to visit the area after the summer landslides caused so much devastation and loss of life.
I am pretty sure that the Taliban wouldn’t be too impressed with the shrines that are common in the area. We found one Mazar (shrine) in Langar that was dedicated to a local holy man that was resplendent in Marco Polo sheep and ibex skulls. A Swiss guide at our lodge explained that the skulls were related to ancestor worship. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on the album cover of a Black Metal band!
The spooky shrine and gloomy weather added to the overall creepy feeling we got from Langar. People by the side of the street stared at us as we walked by. A lot of the villagers looked slightly odd, with dodgy limbs or wonky eyes. We suspect the family tree here doesn’t have many branches!
In the evening, we had a rare night in front of the TV and ended up with a severe case of homesickness! We watched a Ukrainian travel program about Seattle. Weirdly, it featured numerous shots of both our last places of work. I love travel but when you are in a packed uncomfortable homestay chowing down on your 20th bowl of mutton-tinged potato soup this week, I think it natural to pine for your old work mates and a pint of cold Reuben’s IPA!
Next day, we tried to find our way to Langar’s ancient petroglyphs, cemeteries, and viewpoints. We managed to get lost in less than 30 minutes. Even worse, Yolanda got a bit gung-ho on the steep trail and ended up in a spot where she couldn’t descend safely. We headed back to a safer part of the trail since Yolanda, in trying to find a safe route down, was loosening rocks and creating mini-rock falls. We kept an eye on her from a safe vantage point but it was clear she was struggling. It was a blazing hot day and we had her water bottle. I ran back to the village to find help. Help was offered at a cost ($50), which annoyed our driver. He decided to go rescue Yolanda himself. By the time we got back, Yolanda could not be seen. This was concerning. Baktiar ran up to higher viewpoint and eventually found her. She had muddled her way back to safety and was busy taking photos of petroglyphs. Baktiar headed back down and shot me a filthy look! Clearly, he thought we had over-reacted. Argh! What to do? We could hardly leave her up there! Yolanda had sunburn and a few cuts and bruises. Other than that she was pretty relaxed.
Another day when things did not work out well. We had had a lot of those in the last few weeks and after last night’s homesickness we actually discussed heading home. A warm crappy beer put those thoughts to the back of the mind pretty damned quick!
We decided to combine the last two days of the trip and drive to Ishkashim in one day. Although we got the occasional glimpse of the mighty Hindu Kush Mountains, most of the time thick clouds blighted the views. There is no real point being in the area if you cannot see the mountains and culturally I don’t think there is enough to keep you occupied. In the afternoon, we headed back up the road in the 4WD to visit Ratm Fort. It took us a while to find the trail but once we eventually got to the fort the views of Afghanistan were fantastic.
The next day was to be the most varied and most interesting day of the Pamir Highway trip. The weather played nice and had a rare beautiful clear day. Our first stop was the 4th Century Buddhist stupa at Vrang. Although the area is uniformly Muslim now, this was an indication of the complexity of religious life in Central Asia in the past. The stupa sits on a small rocky outcrop above the village, which affords spectacular views of the valley below and the Hindu Kush above. As seems all too common in Asia, there was a group of Central Europeans inappropriately clambering all over the stupa for dumb fucking selfies!
Next stop was the rebuilt house of the local Sufi saint Mubarak Wakhani. It was a small museum but the curator and manager was hugely enthusiastic about explaining the life and work of the saint. This was our first real insight into the culture of Wakhan and it was quite fascinating. Many elements of their religion and culture are drawn from Persian Zoroastrianism. The manager got a bit carried away and labored a little but he provided substantial context to religious life and culture of the area in which we were traveling. He pulled down a few instruments from the displays and treated us to a few plaintive Pamiri songs. Certainly the cultural highlight of our Pamir Highway travels.
Next up was another hair-raising section of road leading up to Yamchun. Like all the forts in the area, Yamchun resembles a collection of randomly placed dry stonewalls but it is clear from their positioning the strategic advantages afforded by the forts.
After lunch, it was time to get butt-naked with a bunch of Tajik bros and leap into the Bibi Fatima hot springs! The springs are a hot attraction for locals since they are alleged to improve your chances of conceiving children. I fail to see how boiling your testicles in sulfurous water aids conception but I was game to find out from the bros what the fuss was all about. The springs are carved out of the rocks in a cliff wall and are quite aesthetically pleasing. The rock wall has a small cavern in it that to these eyes looks like an anatomically correct depiction of a vagina, clitoris and all. It would appear that the local chaps like to slither into this tight hole and soak in the waters within. The hole was very tight and the only way in seemed to be straddling the hole before pulling your other leg through. So, lets get this straight- you boil your testicles then you drag them over a rocky lip before boiling them again and this is meant to aid conception? Unsurprisingly, I could not be persuaded in and after 40 minutes of wincing at chaps braver than I, I headed out back out into the cold.
We headed back down the moderately terrifying road and made haste toward Khaa Kha Fort. The weather was up to no good again and so was Baktiar. Two Slovenian cyclists from our Langar homestay who were having a terrible time in a vicious headwind flagged us down and asked for a ride to Ishkashim. We were happy to give them a lift but Baktiar refused. Another asshole moment from our driver. The fort was the usual pile of dry stone walls so we moved on quickly to our homestay.
Our homestay was in Ishkashim, which like everywhere else in the Wakhan is extremely close to the Afghan border. Every Saturday there is a market on an island in the river where Tajiks and Afghans can trade. This is a highlight of most people’s Pamir Highway trip. Not ours though. The market has been cancelled for most of the summer. No one is quite sure why but the rumor we heard most was that recent Taliban incursions into the area was beginning to worry the Tajik border guards. This was pretty much confirmed by our homestay hosts. Apparently, the Taliban now has a presence less than 10KM from the border and recently they had been responsible for a murderous assault on a wedding party in Sultan-e-Eskhashim. The Taliban shot and killed more than 20 people at the party for the ‘grave sin’ of dancing to music at the wedding. ISIS seems to be stealing the Taliban’s thunder these days, and apparently, they are now active too in Afghanistan, but it seems that Taliban have not downed AK-47s just yet.
The next day was fairly uneventful and we were happy to roll into Khorog without having to negotiate Taliban or landslides. Although we had hoped to trek in the Bachhor area just north of Khorog, we decided to head out of the Pamirs since the road to Bachhor was washed out. But before we left the Pamirs, we headed to the famed Delhi Darbar restaurant to eat some Indian food. Typically for this trip, we were once again thwarted! No curry for lunchtime since the restaurant was fully booked by tour groups. And, this evening? No sir, we are fully booked by tour groups. Now I was really pissed! Something in my expression must have scared the manager since seconds later she was taking our order for dinner. Dinner was fantastic but obviously we couldn’t leave without one of us ending up with the shits. Step forward Laura and her ill-advised lassi!
Have you ridden the Pamir Highway? What’s your best story of an adventure or misadventure on the road? Let us know in the comments.