Pamir Highway Part 2
Updated: Jul 8, 2019
The roads deteriorated as we progressed eastwards. They were generally stony/rocky and/or sandy. We were climbing higher too (well ok, the car was). The Hindu Kush mountain range could be seen in the distance (peaks of nearly 8,000m) but closer to us, most peaks were now snow-capped too.
The Pamirs take up 50% of the land mass of Tajikistan yet have only 3% of its population. There’s a bit of subsidence farming in the East, but not much. It’s just too high. We did see modest flocks of sheep, goats and the occasional cow. Even a few yaks wandered about. Donkeys were ubiquitous on the trip so far, up to the point we arrived at the Pamirs. But not out here. I didn’t see a single one. There are marmots scurrying about. Bright orange in colour, with a darker tail, they cut quite a dash. Almost impossible to photograph though, as you can be sure they’ll dart into their burrow as soon as you have the camera readied. Less cutesy is the fact that a few have been found with bubonic plaque, so best not to get too close! The temperature drop at higher altitudes is quite noticeable. We moved from 33deg to 3deg in a few hours.
We arrived at a town called Murgab. It wouldn’t win any beauty prizes. Living there looked harsh. There are homestays all about (kind of B&B) in an attempt to scratch a living from the backpacking, tight budget tourists (sorry, ahem, travellers). We were at about 3,200m though had been up to 4,000 on the route to Murgab.
I was feeling lightheaded, nauseous and short of breath. Feeling the effects of high altitude are really not nice. The books recommend only increases of 400m every 24 hours. We were way, way over that. Our ‘hotel’ was more like a hostel. It was in desperate need of a sort out. Electrical connections of Sellotape were all about, shower trays propped up with bricks…We opted, at only an extra £7, for a private bathroom. Well, yes, there was a loo, a suspiciously damp carpet, a brick propped shower and a cold water only basin with a pedestal that wasn’t made for it. Oh, only one night. When I used the loo and flushed, I could see why the carpet was wet – the failed outlet pipe virtually drained it all onto the floor. Ah well, as I said, it’s only for one night and I was feeling rotten. Too rotten to enjoy the food served that evening. I turned down the offer of a soup that Pat declared to be very good – I think he’d either gone native or was suffering the effects of excessive Imodium consumption. The next course was soggy dumplings filled with a ground meat of some sort. No, I couldn’t really eat it, let alone savour it. This only scored OK in Pat’s rating system, which I felt was a definite sign of delirium!
I felt a little better in the morning and took breakfast. Pat was ecstatic about the eggs. I thought the altitude should be added to my growing list of possible reasons for him gushing over a fried egg!
We set off towards the border and the completion of our Pamir Highway adventure. The roads worsened. There had obviously been a snow/rain storm overnight as the roads were wet. It then started to snow! Not much but proper snow nevertheless. And it became colder. We climbed further until we reached the famous Bak Altal. This is the highest point of the Pamir Highway and a sort of travellers’ rite of passage. It was damned cold though so we didn’t hang about.
I have one of those machines which caused a bit of a fuss at Gatwick airport recently, well mine is a mini-version. I really wanted to get it going, recording some of the amazing views. But although not illegal in Tajikistan, they are frowned upon and in Kyrgyzstan too. Given the proximity to the Afghan and China border, maybe it’s not surprising. In Uzbekistan, they are most definitely illegal and having one can incur heavy fines and/or imprisonment. Having it was becoming a bit stressful so I arranged for it to be sent home courtesy of DHL before we reached the Uzbekistan border. So, for clarity, no laws were broken, right?
We came across a beautiful, very high up, turquoise lake which was apparently formed when an earthquake diverted and then blocked a river. It is very deep and there’s sadly a village within its depths. What a place for budding filmmakers. The machine was extracted and prepared and we looked for a suitable spot or location as luvvies might say. We were certain this going to be Palme d’Or winning filmcraft. Then, as we rounded a bend, we saw a few buildings, which after a few seconds looked suspiciously like barracks. Hold off, take two, switch off lights darlings etc etc. You might imagine our terror when a real, live soldier popped out behind a rock. He hailed us down. We stopped with a look on our faces which probably said “It’s a fair cop gov, there’s 200kg of Afghan’s best in the back. But I ain’t doing chokey for nobody again” and, I imagined, I hurled myself over a steep precipice instead. The soldier walked around to the driver’s side. He was very young. He politely asked for a lift to the border, where he worked. There was quite a lot of scurrying about in the back, supposedly making space for him but I was actually burying the possibly offending equipment.
The road became bouncier and crashier than any before, made worse by rivers of water and deep mud. I was a little worried that something might dislodge at the back and reveal itself to the soldier. The driving was worrying enough. Knowing we had the blinking Tajik Army only a few inches from discovery made it erm exciting. And how the hell could we secrete it before any likely border search? And would Pat nervously try to make conversation with him and talk about his blimmin eggs that morning!
The road up to the Tajik border was almost impassable but we plugged through it all. The border was drawn straight from a Mad Max film. Or maybe Ypres. Photography is illegal at borders so you’ll just have to believe me. The oozing mud was shin high. Broken shipping containers and bits of rusting iron machines lay about. The passport office was a little shack, inside which was a very sophisticated multiple battery management system. By contrast, and more in tune with its environs, there was a vast, antiquated iron solid fuel stove, for keeping the chai hot and to provide a rather unpleasant 35deg fug against the by now near freezing conditions outside. Our camouflaged soldier got out of the car and shook our hand in thanks. We’d seen some of his colleagues earlier on patrol. It was doubtless his turn to march through the wilderness with his AK-47. Poor sod.
Passport control for both us and the car was very simple but entirely paper based. I think the weather conditions put paid to any vehicle search. We would find out shortly how paper systems can be useful.
There is a very long, maybe 20kms no-mans land between the Tajik and the Kyrgyzstan border. Oddly, there's a decidedly rustic homestay along the way. An Austrian guy we’d met, stopped there and had some fermented Yak’s milk. He was polite but his face said it all when explaining to us what it tasted like. The road was just a joke really. The car was part driving, part swimming.
We arrived at the Kyrgyzstani gate and had a bit of an erm tidy up. Typically, borders have two sections. The first is the passport control, for people and vehicles. The next is Customs, where the process is effectively the same but there is a through search of the car, inside and out. It’s not just a matter of flicking open the glove box. They have looked inside the engine compartment, under the wings and seats and every box in the back. Strangely, they’ve never looked on the roof rack. It would be a disappointing hunt since all that’s up there is spare water, engine fluids, a spare (spare) tyre and a tyre inflator. I suspect they would mess up their smart uniforms. I think they are empowered to force me to lift them down. But there is always the threat of an old boy like me tumbling off and having a coronary I suppose. Just think of the paperwork.
The Kyrgyz border crossing was reasonably neat. Well, a bit like an old petrol station without the pumps because Tescos opened one up the road. There was a below ground level inspection pit to check under a car/truck and a gantry to check on top. We were given the standard, maybe standard plus a bit inspection. All OK, as expected. In front of us was a German family – mother, father and three children, the youngest of whom was just 10 months. They were travelling in a large four wheel drive ex-fire truck ( a Magirus, for any petrolheads). It was incredibly tough looking but how they all managed in such a confined space (for 8 months) amazed me. Apparently, they took it easy, driving for just 40kms or so a day. Then another young couple, from Belgium arrived. They had struggled to get their old VW camper up to the Tajik side but were turned back and had to negotiate their way back down. I think their visa started about 10 days later so they weren’t let in. And then a Romanian couple. It can take about 2 hours, maybe 3 to get through both sides of a border. This was different. The heavy storm the night before had knocked out the internet. And, guess what, there was no manual back up system. We had to wait. It was at least midday and the sun was out – not hot, hot, but fine. 3 French bikers arrived at the border as an entrance. It was getting very Eurovision. One of the 3 bikers was sent back (a 4 hour ride) because he hadn’t got the stamped customs declaration. The ‘Stans have formed a Customs Union, which is a bit like Schengen, but for goods (eg cars, bikes). You’re given a form on entry to one of the participating countries and then you hand it back when you exit the ‘Union’. This, as you will read, directly impacts me.
We sat there patiently, wondering if the internet really would be fixed by the end of the day. The German father said he was desperate for some western food and he knew of a pizzeria in Osh, some 400kms to the North. With a boot full of largely untouched food, I decided that there was either a very good business opportunity here or a diversion for all from the boredom. The Belgian spoke about how he desperately wanted a European beer. I put my hand into the boot and produced the last bottle of chilled Kronenberg. He could hardly believe it. I had some bruschetta and opened a tin of foie gras. When handed to the German, he almost gave me his truck in gratitude. Our fridge wouldn’t keep paté fresh as it needed chilled water or ice to keep it cool and it was at the end of its useful purpose for the day. So I gave it to him to get him as far as Osh and his waiting pizza.
The Customs officer provided us with an update to say that he had phoned HQ and they were on the case. Nobody had a lot of confidence however. I got the two folding chairs off the roof rack and Pat and I looked at bit like those couples you see who set up a picnic in the most unlikely of places. Time rolled on. I opened a bottle of cote du Roussillon and shared it. Fortunately by the time a guard came down with a gruff “No alcohol” ruling, we’d finished it all. We waited. And we waited. We had been hanging around for 6 hours and it was becoming very cold. We all joked about my never-used-so-far tent (Christened The Virgin Tent that afternoon) perhaps having its first night out. All the others were OK. They lived in their vehicles. The prospect of sleeping a freezing night in a tent with doubtless more snow wasn’t very appealing. We agreed that the car would be a preferred option.
I put our dilemma to the Customs guard, and hobbled a bit for dramatic effect. He offered us the possibility of going to the nearest town as long as we came back in the morning but I explained that we had to be in Tashkent on Wednesday for Pat’s flight. He relented. He wrote the car reg on a piece of paper and the phone number of the border post. I was told to only hand it to customs personnel at the next border into Uzbekistan. We were free!
We had effectively lost a day and we had a 4-hour night drive through the mountains in prospect. We had our first possible car problem (overheating) and I was a bit doubtful that the handwritten piece of paper instead of lots of stamps on a certificate would work. Stay tuned.