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Pamir Highway - part 1

I’m sorry about the delay in getting this report to you. The Pamirs are simply beautiful but simply extends to very poor internet connections. Despite some accommodation declaring it had wi-fi, it was rarely working and when it did, it was unusable.

We left Samarkand and drove to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. There we stayed at a very good value, but quite swanky small hotel, as a sort of ‘last supper’ before heading for the hills. We ate well that evening at a Lebanese restaurant called Al Sham (yes, a bit worrying). The taxi driver misunderstood us and drove us to a shopping centre where there was a fast food burger place, rather like Burger King, named Al Shah, but we got there in the end. Probably the best food on the trip so far.

Next morning, we left for the Pamirs proper. The highway itself was only built about 100 years ago to protect against possible invasion by the British Army (yes, us again!) although it was a Silk Road of sorts for over a thousand or so years before as it connected China with Afghanistan and on to India and Iran.

The first leg was from Dushanbe to Q’ali Khum (spelling varies). We had intended to stopover at Kulob. The first part of the drive was very easy with pretty good roads. But after Kulob, things started to become rather more track-like. Progress was very slow and with large potholes, stony surfaces and ‘washboard’ corrugations. You just have to drive over these sections quite quickly or the car rattles itself to bits, not to mention spinal injury to its occupants! We began to recognise that maybe we should not have extended to Q’ali Khum.

The scenery is just stunning. This is a wild, remote place. A very fast flowing, white water river runs through most of it and on the other bank was Afghanistan. It’s a little bit sensitive around there and you are not meant to even dip your tippie-toes into the river. Every few miles, 3 or 4 armed soldiers were on patrol. They looked about 17 but armed with AK-47s, they got the same respect as any soldier twice their age!

There are small villages (hamlets really) along the way and children would wave, sometimes rather over energetically. The ‘pros’ in this knew that tourists tended to offer sweets to them. It became so bad that there are reports of the little rotters throwing stones at the car if you don’t produce the confectionery. It happened to us just once – a 6 year old with fortunately a poor aim and throwing strength. I had packed some rather more healthy gifts. I had packs of blowing bubbles, kites, playing cards (Union Jack backed!) and LED torches. I only selected non ‘pitching’ kids who, at most might raise a smile and offer a little, slightly shy wave. They got the goodies. Oh and I also made sure there was a parent around. Don't reports to the police of a foreigner going around handing gifts to children!

Their reaction was utter astonishment, like Christmas (but not Christmas, if you see what I mean). Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in Asia. The kids are very beautiful, especially the younger ones, dressed often in traditional clothes. As we ventured further East, we saw more Mongolian looking people, often with deep red skin.

Everyone was immensely friendly and would wave as we passed. There was not a great deal of other traffic. When a vehicle was seen, it was mainly Landcruiser ‘taxis’ ferrying tourists, (6 to a car, not comfortable!), huge trucks, usually Chinese registered and bashed up old Ladas filled to the brim (including the roof) making their way gently through the dirt tracks. The roads were extremely dusty so every car left a huge cloud behind it.

If someone approached us, they would often test a bit of their English and shake hands. The ‘passport’ to more conversation happens when they ask where you are from “Meestere, where you live?” Once you say London you get “Manchester United, Leeverpol, Chelsea, Arsenal” etc as a response. Many of the kids were wearing Man U (knock off branded, natch) t-shirts. The people had an endearing manner. Asalaam, handshake and then a touch of the palm to the heart which seemed to mean “I’m sorry”, “I don’t understand”, “Nice to meet you” or something similar. Despite average monthly salaries being only $150 (and you can be sure people in the Pamirs don’t earn the average), there was no hustling. Extraordinary people, anxious to help and really appreciated any favourable comment about their country.

Our hotel was newly built and very cheap. But, as we found often elsewhere, not everything quite worked. The shower would not clamp in one position, the aircon might leak and the curtains wouldn’t quite stretch across the window. Not exactly a worry for us intrepid travellers though.

The food was pretty dire. One restaurant we entered showed us a menu, allowed us to study it for a few minutes whilst we made our choices and then announced that nothing (yes nothing!) in it was available. But they did have ‘Khazak Kebabs’. Well in for a penny.

It was lumps of bony braised meat – could have been lamb, beef, goat or horse, I’m not sure. This tasted remarkably like the previous restaurant experience where again we were told they had chicken or Lamb ‘kebabs’ these turned out to be exactly the same dish – albeit one chicken, one lamb (or something), boiled to death, and swimming in a soup of stock, garnished with hopelessly overcooked rice. Contrary to my family reputation, I will eat most things, especially if I’m hungry. Both of us left this particular one. We asked for some wine and the owner/waiter produced a bottle with a label of a monk. It was a massive 18.5% alcohol, so probably fortified with something. It had probably been stored for years in 30 deg heat. It was brown. We sipped and left it – and I’ll have a go at most grape crops! Pat, who had bravely endured gastric Ghengis Khan for a few days, needed to take care. But the ‘restaurant’ had a balcony just over a roaring river and the spot was lovely. We bought some chocolate and crisps at the shop on the walk back.

Total respect for the fit and hardy souls who cycle the Pamir

As you rounded one bend after another, new vistas would open up. I don’t know how many times we said “wow!” and never seemed to become blasé at the views. However, every single journey/navigation app/tool we had was utterly hopeless at estimating journey times. So, an ‘easy 3 hour hop’ would only be feasible in 6 hours. And the driving was hard, bumpy and a little dangerous, edging round sheer drops. And I’m no slouch either.

Next blog will be a part two. This includes details of the climb up to 4,600m, a special snow feature and more nightmare roads and loveable people.

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