My second visit to Central Asia in 2008 started in Kazakhstan and brought me from there to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. As I needed to see something else besides Central Asia I finished the trip in India, my plan to visit Pakistan unfortunately failed.
The Pamir Highway is a dream journey for many travellers, a road that for hundreds of kilometres runs above 3,500m of altitude and reaches 4,655m at its highest point. The road has a military origin, in the 1930s the Soviet Union embarked on its construction to support its claims on the territory. The landscape is barren, winters are long, the sun bright and the wind strong. In fact, before the road there were no permanent settlements in the whole east of Tajikistan but the road needed workers, needed repairs, needed soldiers to guard it, and all these people needed food, needed housing and now a small number of people lives in an area that is immensely beautiful but honestly not well suited to human habitation.
At the Kyrgyz border post, we take another passenger. A middle-aged Tajik living in Moscow and on the way to his family in Khorugh had the crazy idea of taking this route. Now he is stuck as the border guards refuse to let his taxi driver pass. I find his story a bit fishy as I cannot imagine any Tajik seriously considering this route faster and easier than flying into Dushanbe and going from there to Khorugh but he seems friendly and we have a spare seat. He asks to be taken to the Tajik border post, but in the end, we take him all the way to Murgab. There are no cars anywhere. Exactly one car and two cyclists are heading the other direction on the nearly 200km to Murgab. Being the only one speaking Russian I have to do all the organizational stuff.
Between the border posts our driver Ibrahim changes number plates. It is easier with the police, he says, if you are a Kyrgyz car in Kyrgyzstan and a Tajik car in Tajikistan. Between the border posts the road is bad gravel but otherwise it is asphalt. There is a fair number of potholes but I would call the road acceptable especially given the challenging environment it is running through. In parts the border fence with China runs right next to it. After a few hours, we stop for lunch at the village of Karakul next to the lake of the same name. If you follow this blog for a bit you will have noticed that the name Karakul appears with a certain regularity. In Turk languages “kara” is black and “kul” means lake and this combination was used for several lakes, rivers and towns in this corner of the world [ I also hereby apologize for writing things like Lake Issyk-Kul, I do this for clarity but the initiated know that in fact it means “Lake Issyk Lake”]. Karakul lies a bit above 4,000m, consists of one-story houses and looks absolutely dead. We enter a house with the words “Central Canteen” scrawled on the side. The tea is hot and the food not bad. Meat, pasta, tomatoes, some sauce and bread. As we leave the building the local kids have taken notice of us. They have the typical burned-looking cheeks of people who are exposed to the strong high-altitude sunlight for a long time. Some boys operate the water pump.
I try to drink plenty, I had previously in my live never been above 4,000m of altitude and now we have already crossed the 4,282m high Kyzyl-Art pass on the border with Kyrgyzstan, have not descended below 4,000m since and are now approaching the 4,655m high Ak-Baital Pass. I feel absolutely fine as we cross the pass. Our wonderful driver Ibrahim is in a hurry, he wants to go to the mosque to pray in the evening but before, he wants to set up the new generator at his guesthouse that he has in the back of the car.
With a population of 6,500 people Murgab (3,650m) is the biggest town on this stretch of the highway and the administrative centre of the far east of Tajikistan. The market, a single row of stalls, is already closed as we arrive and the wind is blowing dust into our faces. The next morning the market is open but the offerings are extremely limited. Not much besides pasta, rice and a few vegetables. Murgab has an average annual temperature of -3,9 °C, anything besides animal husbandry is hardly possible (As a comparison Germany has an average temperature of 9,8 °C).
Ibrahim brings us (me and the guys from Munich) to the Gumbezkul Valley and we start to hike up to the 4,731m Gumbezkul Pass. I am out of breath and for the first time I get a slight headache. Descending from the pass, we reach a yurt and are asked inside. The man of the house reports about his life, he has the livestock of several families under his protection. We are offered food and he lectures us on the healthiness and vitamin-richness of their food. Besides tea and milk, they have bread, meat and yoghurt every day for every meal. The occasional egg might also come into the mix. The climate does not give them anything else, where our host is finding his vitamins, I have no clue. I am free to take pictures of the ladies and kids but I am not allowed to take a picture of him. A bit further down the valley, Ibrahim picks us up and we move on to the hot springs at Madiyan. Hot springs in this part of the world are usually very basic, a concrete pool with hot water, but they feel great after the hike. At Madiyan there is an interesting concept to use the spring water for other purposes. We sleep in a yurt that actually has a radiator fed with hot spring water. German development aid has also contributed to the construction of a spring-heated greenhouse that should be able to produce some real vitamins. Unfortunately, conflicts over who runs the greenhouse have led to it lying fallow. A missed chance.
From Murgab minivans regularly run to Khorugh but we decide (again with the Munich guys) to take the more beautiful route through the Wakhan valley. This involves organizing another private vehicle. We trust Ibrahim and would love to go with him but he says he needs to fix something at his car before heading that way. We ask around and settle on a price with a guy we met at the market.
We stay on the Pamir highway for another 120km and then take a left turn onto a seriously small road. We follow that road and soon it begins its descent and a range of jagged mountains appears in the distance. You might have heard about the “Wakhan Corridor” before, it is a region of Afghanistan with a peculiar history. Looking at the map, the generally roundish Afghanistan has a strange strip of territory branching out to the east for a few hundred kilometres in the upper north of the country. The explanation for this anomaly is simple, Afghanistan was never properly colonized and the Wakhan corridor prevented the British and Russian Empire from bordering each other. Here we are, at the Wakhan river, the jagged mountains on the other side are part of the Karakorum range and lie in Afghanistan. Contrary to the high Pamir, the valley is full of life. It is still arid but wherever there is water food is grown and we regularly pass villages. It is haymaking time and the people are active on the fields. We don’t really get along well with our driver but we make it work, as we want to take a short detour to another hot spring, he demands extra money. We relent in the end. Afghanistan is always on the other side of the river, sometimes it is only 30m away. There is no road on the Afghan side, just a footpath, no power lines are visible. I speak with an old man about the Soviet Union, he longs back for the old days. “Without the Soviet Union”, he says, “we would be like them” and points to Afghanistan.
Border security is minimal to non-existent, a few times we see a soldier or two walking along the river, if you are serious about smuggling the river should not be a problem. A policeman though reassures me, “we know our guys here”, he says. We ask our driver about the diamond mines up in the mountains. He asks if we want to buy some and he sounds as if he had the right connections. On the third day, we finally reach Khorugh.
Khorugh is a small, provincial town of about 30,000 inhabitants (by far the biggest in the high mountains of Tajikistan) but coming from a week along the Pamir highway it feels like a metropolis. The first time since Osh that the shops have real coke, and not just some bad-tasting knock-off, internet is available. I’m so glued to the screen that I forget the time and it is pitch-black dark as I step outside. There is no moon, no street lights and I am glad as I am back at the small guesthouse.
It is time to get to Dushanbe. A friend of mine is working there and I am looking forward to see her. By road it is a fourteen to sixteen-hour journey on a bad road. Or you can take the 40 minutes flight. The flight has captured my imagination since a Spanish couple at Kyrgyzstan’s Song-Kul reported their experience. “It’s 20 metres between you and the mountain, I am not overestimating, seriously 20 metres, not more”. They also told me that they had never seen anything as inefficiently organized as the ticketing process at Khorugh airport and they had both experience in some of the poorest countries in Africa. Searching online, I quickly found a German TV report which had dubbed it the most dangerous flight on earth. This is rubbish, in fact taking the flight is safer than the road and in decades of operation only one plane crashed and that was during the Tajik civil war and the stories differ if the plane was hopelessly overloaded or shot down by a missile, might be both. The flight is a breath-taking affair. On the way to Dushanbe, the plane has to fly over 5,000m high mountains. The plane is non-pressurized and therefore does not operate as bigger planes who rise to their high cruising altitude, keep on that level and only descent when they have reached their destination. The Tajik plane flies into the valley and rises gradually as the terrain rises. Because of that, the flight is operated on sight and only takes place in good weather. That partly explains why the ticketing process is such a disaster. According to the schedule there are two flights a day but if the weather is bad, they might be cancelled for days on end. Tickets are only sold when the plane has departed Dushanbe and before that, all you can do is to put your name on a wait list. To make matters worse the ticketing process is run by a person enjoying and misusing his power over the tickets (probably also running a side business with them). I had to wait hours before I was allowed to submit my name to the wait list.
On my planned day of departure, I am lucky. The runway has been cleared of the cows and I get a ticket for the first flight which is perfect as I overhear the pilots (both Russian-looking) that there will be no second flight today as the clouds are already coming in. There is no security control at all, if your bomb has less than 20kg you are free to take it. You carry your backpack to the plane yourself and just throw it into the cargo hold, feels more like hoping onto a bus. As we start to move, the cockpit door is still open but as we turn around at the end of the runway the door slams shut. The flight is amazing, beautiful mountain scenery (and it is close), a lot of footpaths are visible and I would say we came even closer to the mountain than 20m. As the plane comes to a stop at Dushanbe airport one of the pilots opens the door and asks “Everybody alive?”.
As the Soviet Union broke up, Tajikistan was as unwilling as its neighbours to embrace independence. Being the least developed and economically weakest republic of the Union, they knew what they had to lose if they had to stand alone. To make matters worse the country descended into a brutal Civil War that was largely fought on regional lines. 20,000 to 60,000 people were killed. Food security became an issue, the German NGO “Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (German Help against Hunger) has diplomatic status for its work restoring old irrigation channels to help the people grow their own food again. The Aga Khan Foundation, Ismailis (a strain of Islam) live in the Pamir region, is an important player as well. Sometimes you get the feeling that NGO cars outnumber other cars.
Politically, Emomali Rahmon came to power in 1992 shortly after the beginning of the Civil War and has clung to power ever since. The grip of the central government on the entire country is shaky though. My friend in Dushanbe tells me the story of an NGO-driver from Khorugh who would always show an aggressive hand gesture to the officers when passing the police checkpoint in the middle of town. After some time, his foreign boss asked why he was doing that. “They took my license and I am telling them to give it back”, was the reply. A month before I arrived a presidential visit to Khorugh had to be aborted as the local militias objected to the presence of the presidential guard. The barricades went up along the old civil war lines.
I stay with my friend Sonja (who wrote the first German-language guidebook for Tajikistan) and explore Dushanbe and some nearby attractions. The Museum of National Antiquities, Hisor Fortress, the Varzob valley and the Nurek Dam. There seems to be a certain amount of paranoia with the security forces. I visit the Nurek Dam, by the way the world’s highest dam (at that time) and the source of nearly all of Tajikistan’s electricity and the usual way goes that you bribe the guards and then you can access the dam without problems. I make the strategic mistake and take some pictures of the dam before speaking with the guards and they basically chase my away as I approach their hut as if I would be a massive security risk. The other incident happens in Dushanbe itself. I walked up and down Rudaki Avenue so often that I just aimlessly wander into on of the side streets just to take another way home but apparently I am walking straight into a sensitive area. A policeman sits relaxed on a bench but as I approach, he stops me. “Where do you want to go?” I can’t really tell him as I just wander around aimlessly. “And you have got a camera”, he points to my camera bag. “Yes, I have”. He tells me I can’t go that way but he doesn’t want to tell me why. I have no clue about nothing but he treats me as if would know exactly what I was looking for and he just foiled my spying attempt.
I head north from Dushanbe. I want to hike in the Fan Mountains in north-west Tajikistan. The shared taxi (all long-distance travel works that way) takes the long road over the pass as the Anzob Tunnel is currently closed. The breakup of the Soviet Union led to transportation problems as the new republics did not manage to establish a proper way to work together, in fact they demanded visas and sometimes even closed the borders completely. Journeys that had been a simple bus ride became riddled with bureaucratic trouble. Suddenly, all the usual connections between Dushanbe and Khujand, Tajikistan’s second biggest city, ran through Uzbekistan and needed a transit visa. The only remaining connection on Tajik territory was the 3,337m high Anzob Pass which was prone to landslides and had to be closed in winter. The 5km tunnel should re-establish a year-round connection. Tajikistan just didn’t have the ability to built it. Most skilled workers had left the country during the civil war, and structures and competences once lost are hard to re-establish. An Iranian company built the tunnel and it was opened in 2006, when it was passable but nowhere near to being finished. Water coming into the tunnel was a constant problem so one of the two tubes was exclusively used for drainage. Tajikistan also does not have the necessary knowledge to fix it (The tunnel was finally finished (by an Iranian company) and officially opened in 2017).
I get out of the taxi, get a lift (payable) for a few more kilometres to a small village and keep walking into the Fan mountains. There is a steady stream of donkey and people traffic and the locals like to enquire about what I am doing here. In late afternoon, an old man asks me where I will be spending the night, I tell him I have my tent. He is upset, I cannot sleep in the tent, the wolves, they will get me. I need to come to the village, and stay with them. I have seen the villages, tiny stone houses and absolutely nothing draws me to me. On all my travels in Russia I had never considered wolves to be dangerous, only bears posed a threat but still the old man gets me thinking. I still put up my tent and cook some soup. I put my trash into my tent. The night gets weird but it is not because of wolves. Trying to fall asleep I hear something rustling, it seems close, nothing big, not dangerous but still weird. I switch on my light but see nothing, must be outside, maybe a mouse checking out my tent. I fall asleep, I wake up, it keeps rustling, I fall asleep again, I wake up. “What, something has just fallen on my knee, what is going on”. I’m upset, I could clearly feel something touching/falling on my knee, that is not normal. It is quiet. I switch on the light again. I find nothing. I have no good idea what to do, but the whole thing falls more into the category weird as dangerous so I tell myself to stop worrying and go to sleep again. The next morning, after I have taken out all my things from the tent, a small, cute mouse sits in the corner. Fear has frozen it. I start lifting up the tent until the mouse starts to slide towards the entrance, I give it a slight push and the mouse falls onto the ground. It seems to be shivering, sits for a few seconds and then speeds away straight into a shallow stream where it basically just runs through. You have made it to safety, little mouse, I wish you a good day.
The difference between Kyrgyz and Tajik herders is that the Kyrgyz have yurts that can be moved around whereas the Tajik have stone houses that they build at different pastures and just abandon until when they come back. After entering one of the stone houses I strongly prefer the yurts. The single room in the house is only about 1,5m high so that most adults will not be able to stand and the ceiling is black from the fire and it smells strongly after smoke. The Kyrgyz yurts are much more hospitable.
I pass a small caravan of donkeys loaded with household stuff. My timing is perfect, the herders leave their summer village today and move lower in the valley. They have loaded all their stuff on the donkeys, an older man rides on a horse, the boys like to pose for my camera. I reach the beautiful Alauddin lake. I feel the weight of my backpack, it must have about 25kg, I have plenty of stuff with me, clothes, books, camping gear and food. One of the drawbacks of my hiking plan is that I have to carry all my stuff over the mountains as I will not return this way. I leave some of my food at a small shelter, I have more than I can possibly eat. On the way up to Alauddin Pass a group of tourists with their guide come the other way and a while later the donkeys who carry their belonging. It has started to snow but on the pass it clears up again, the sun has just disappeared behind the peaks. I try to climb down as quickly as possible, there is just nowhere to pitch my tent here. After an hour-and-a-half of walking I finally find a place for the night, still not even ground but possible to sleep, all night I slide against the wall of my tent.
The next day, I hike down to Artush village and catch the one daily bus to Panjakent. The man next to me is very talkative, at some point he wants to know how many statues of Hitler are in Germany. I tell him there are none. He seems genuinely puzzled, “but he just wanted the best for his people”. “If your actions kill so many people and cause so much suffering you do not deserve anything”. I spend the night in Panjakent and head to Uzbekistan the next morning. The border is currently closed for locals (some stupid dispute between presidents who care for themselves but not for their peoples) but open for foreigners.