All too quickly the trip with Saidali and Ismail of the Pamir guides winds down to the inevitable conclusion. After Murghab its a night at the azure blue Karakul Lake, followed the last day with the Kyzlart border crossing into Kyrgyzstan and the dizzying descent down to the heat of Osh at a positively oppressive 1000metres above sea level. There is just time for a day sightseeing around this attractive green modern central Asian city.
Pamir Alay Range from Kyrgyzstan
I bid my travelling companion Anthony goodbye as I fly out in the evening to Bishkek, the capitol of Kyrgyzstan ad that same night at 2 am to my final Stan, Kazakhstan. It is an exhauting night with snatches of broken sleep caught on hard airport benches before a 4 am arrival to Astana, the capitol of Kazakhstan. Just as Anthony before me I wait before an empty “Visa on arrival” window. When I gently ask one of the female customs people she berates me for arriving without a visa. She maintains there is no such thing as visa on arrival despite the fact that there is a counter for just that. After about 20 minutes a grumpy consular official arrives and I have my visa within 10 minutes. I then have to make myself understood at the lost luggage counter as my pack has already been removed as everyone else has cleared off. Finally emerge into the arrivals hall for another couple of hours of hard sleep on airport benches.
Behind Khorog Murghab is the second “city” of the Pamirs. Unlike Khorog there is not a single blade of grass or any other greenery or vegetation here. This is a depressing town of ugly squat scruffy mud brick buildings. Many have been whitewashed in the past, probably in Soviet times when this poor area fared well in the attempt to equalise the living standards throughout the USSR. Since the collapse of the soviet empire, Murghab has reverted to its desperately poor status.
Our travelling today matched the lowered mood a low key day up the Madian Valley. Our first stop was at the hotsprings. A landslide 2 years ago wiped out the road so the last 2km was a walk and a creek rock hop to what is a set of derelict buildings. The spring “bath” is functional but without human input to mix the hot spring with cold river water the bath water is unbearably scalding.
After a lengthy wait for lunch we visit 3000 year old petroglyphs only to find the addition of 20th century graffiti marring the whole experience. The mindless cultural vandalism leaves us feeling angry.
We bid ourt yurt family adieu today and once again set off on another rough dirt track to Murghab. Our guide has avoided large chunks of the actual Pamir Highway for more scenic off road experiences and we are loving it!
We are on a track that sees no traffic. The landscape is protean here. The flat dry valley floor extends for miles in all directions. On one side are deep brown to ochre hills sculpted by erosion into fantastic shapes. On the other are the blackest of snow capped mountains all composed of crumbling shale. The occasional yak and goat herds graze on the valley floor and we stop at villages that see no traffic, let alone tourists. In one spot enjoying their hospitality of tea, bread and tasty yak yoghurt.
A dip in very hot hotsprings and a visit to see 3000 year old petroglyphs complete an idyllic day.
Please accept my apologies this should come before the Pamir trek entry. For some reason the program failed to save this one when I wrote it up a couple of days ago so here it is:
From Ishkashim to Langar the track continues to wind westwards. To our right our constant companion te Panj River separates us from the rugged mountains of th Afghan Wakhan corridor. Breaks in the foothills yield views of the 7000metre snow clad peaks of the Hindu Kush, tantalising and tempting trekking country.
At Kargush the dirt track veers left and we start the slow ascent up to the 4200metre Kargush Pass. To our right the Pamir river, a tributary of the Panj now separates us from Afghanistan. The mountains have changed and are now the heavily eroded ribbed and corrugated Pamirs. We have turned our back on the Hindu Kush.
The river now seems in parts to be more like a fast flowing creek that it would be easy to wade across and make the illegal border crossing. We see herds of whimsical Bactrian camels and finally we leave the Pamir river to tackle the steep switchback dusty climb to the pass. As we climb the rugged hills give way to gentler striated rounded mounds with colourful bands of yellow, red and brown soils. We have levelled off onto the 4000metre altiplano, so reminiscent of Tibet. Apart from the yurts here even the scruffy little villages look the same.
The landscape is dotted with salt pans and salt lakes varying in colour from turquoise to deep navy blue. We drink from sulpherous mineral water springs and sit down to watch the show provided by a cheerful little geyser.
It is the variety of experiences along the Pamir Highway that impresses. The two nation journey from Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Osh in Kyrgyzstan has taken us along the mountainous border with Afghanistan with exquisite views of the Hindu Kush. There are ancient fortresses, caravanserais, glacial rivers and lakes through to hot springs and geysers. When we do ascend up to the Pamirs proper we experience a bleak, haunting but beautiful “moonscape” of sculpted rugged hills and snow capped mountains on the 4000metre altiplano.
The people also change with each variation in scenic tableau from Tajiks to Afghans to nomadic Kyrgyz with their whimsical peaked white felt hats. We have spent the night in a massive Kyrgyz yurt in the tiny hamlet of Keng Shiber at 4200metres above sea level.
Today’s 5 hour walk begins with a hearty cooked breakfast served on the yurt floor seated on magnificent deep red patterned traditional hand woven carpets and mats. A 10km rugged jeep ride takes us to the trail head for our walk up the Belainik valley to the high pass at 5000 metres.
We started at the terminal moraine of what must have been a massive glacier during the last ice age. The scalloped grassy U shaped valley is 1 km wide here and the snow covered mountainous walls rise 600 metres on each side. Yaks graze freely around a large yurt.
There is no path here, these are yak pastures in the warmer months and this is not on any well worn tourist track. At first we pick our way through rocky, grassy slopes pockmarked with marmot burrows. We hear the distinctive chirps of these shy furry little rodents but fail to see one.
More taxing on the feet is the transit through the frozen bog where we have to hop onto tussocky mounds which are islands in a large frozen pond. The occasional loud snap of frozen ice cracking warns us we have landed close to the edge.
Finally we pick our way up the rocky scree of the lateral moraine of the glacier, the tiny remnant of which we spy up high on the left hand side of the valley. The altitude is really taking its toll now and it is slow baby steps up punctuated with forced sucking in of the oxygen depleted air. Head down, concentrating the arrival at the top comes as a pleasant surprise. We are literally blown away by the biting icy wind roaring off the snowy slopes, and, more importantly, the panorama of snow capped mountains and the deep blue Zorkol lake beneath us figuratively blows us away.
Exhilarated we turn back to partake of the picnic lunch at the trailhead and a well earned rest in our yurt.
The approach to Khorog, the capitol of the Pamiri region of Tajikistan sees the Panj river valley broaden as the river meanders lazily sinuous on the valley floor. It is a stark contrast to the frenetic white water action downstream. Green patches with affluent looking little villages dot the landscape on both sides of the river. Even the corresponding track on the Afghan side has graduated from goat track to one that would at least support a single vehicle.
Khorog itself is a thriving little town straddling the Gunt River, a tributary of the Panj. We spend a pleasant half day wandering through its attractions including the world’s second highest botanical gardens, parks and museum.
Leaving that afternoon, the third day of our trip we drive to the tiny village of Ishkashim, the easternmost intertional entry point into Afghanistan. As we drive we come face to face with magnificent 7000 metre snow capped peaks of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. We finally feel we are on our way!
The Pamir Highway winds 900km from the Tajik capitol, Dushanbe to Osh in the northern neighbouring country of Kyrgyzstan. In the process it skirts the sensitive border with Afghanistan before spending most of its length at 4000 metres through the rugged and remote Pamir Mountains. Some sources actually suggest that the highway really starts in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif and goes through Termez in Uzbekistan then to Dushanbe. With what I have already done I have that covered.
The highway sees little traffic and has a minimum of habitation along the way so for this section of my adventure I have booked a jeep, driver and guide through Pamir Guides a company I have found on line. It is a leap of faith as there are no reviews of any of the companies offering Pamiri tours. I am relieved to meet with my guide who is the owner of the company Saidali and the driver Ismail who both turn out to be excellent!
After 3 weeks solo travel I am to be joined by Anthony who flies in just before midnight. I am waiting in the tin shed that passes for the arrival hall in Dushanbe International Airport. The flight is late and I have an anxious 1 hour wait until he finally emerges. Officially as he had an LOI he was entitled to a visa on arrival at the airport. Unofficially the relevant consular official is only there consistently for Turkish Airline flights and spasmodically for any others. Sure enough he wasn’t there and it took the intervention of an arriving Canadian Tajik to rouse him and have the applications processed.
The road south of Dushanbe is amazingly good for central Asia and our little jeep cruises for the first 3 hours. We stop at the little archaeological site at Hulbuk with excavations revealing a bronze age palace and artefacts. Not long after this the road degenerates into a rough 4WD track. The countryside becomes increasingly mountainous and when we reach the Panj River which is the border with Afghanistan the narrow track now hugs the Tajik mountainside precariously over the grey fast flowing murky glacial river. Our eyes are drawn continuously to the “forbidden” Afghan side for glimpses of life and activity in this dangerous and blighted country. For the next 2 days the rugged Panj gorge is our constant companion.
I awoke today to an unfamiliar sight, rain! A steady drizzle and grey sky that I last saw over 3 weeks ago in an antipodean little town called Melbourne. I cursed inwardlay as I have paid a hefty $200 US for a day trip to Alexander Lake (Iskander Kul).
92% of Tajikistan is mountain and the northern Fan Mountains are not on the itinerary for my adventure up the Pamir Hwy hence the effort to get here now that I have a day spare here. It is a 3 hour drive from the capitol Dushanbe and the mountains intrude some 20km out. We drive by the palatial president’s holiday house and the road narrows and there are more frequent concrete tunnels to protect the road from avalanche and snow. Some 2 hours out we reach what our driver euphemistically calls “bad tunnel” an 18 minute drive through a pitch black hole that seems to lead into the very core of the planet. The road surface is grossly pitted and corrugated so the only way through is to drive in a sinuous serpentine fashion playing chicken with the oncoming traffic. This is not an adventure for the claustrophobic. Some of the craters are veritable lakes and I wonder at the sense of having a nice white Mercedes as our vehicle rather than a 4 WD.
This thought becomes even more sensible as after the tunnel the road descends down vertiginous hairpin bends before turning int a narrow dirty potholed dirt track. Somehow are car negotiates all of this with a minimum of fuss and we are at the stunning turqoise blue lake. We have time to walk down to the waterfall and up to snake lake before our trip home through the “bad tunnel”.
In a couple of hours I pick up Anthony for our 11 day tour up the Pamir Hwy to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. This trip is in a 4 WD and involves high altitude trekking, homestays and yurt stays. I would be surprised if there is any internet at all along the way so this may be a bit of a hiatus. Stay tuned, I will be back in about 2 weeks from Kazakhstan. (Home of Borat!)
Well, the Uzbek border officials certainly didn’t disappoint! The drive from Samarkand to the border is down as 5-6 hours. For some reason it took us 8 hours and it was 5:30 pm by the time we arrived at the border. The sun was low in the sky and the border closes at 6pm. I hasten in and complete my declaration form quickly having had some practise already. I know that the Uzbeks are dynamite on the currency declaration and I have my US dollars addded up to perfection and am ready to go. I hit a snag. My last entry into Uzbekistan was my day trip from Afghanistan. I only took $200 across and back. I am leaving the country with $1700 how is this possible? I explain it over and again through an attractive female customs officer who speaks some English. There is lots of head shaking and grimacing as they wave me to one side and take my passport away. More questions and I explain that I did declare over $2000 USD on my first entry so they go off somewhere to download a copy. Amazingly they do eventually find one and after a cursory search I am allowed through an hour later.
It is now after 6pm and as I walk through no mans land past the trucks stranded there I wonder if I will have to sleep out on the ground. At least I have my sleeping bag but no food or water it will be a long night. The door is still open on the Tajik side but it looks deserted inside. I wander through until I find an occupied office. The nice Tajik man happily hands me the forms to fill out and I am through immigration and customs in 5 minutes! Next hassle is what is at the other side. I am mentally prepared for having to hitch as the nearest town is 12 km away. My luck is still in for there is one car left and after some taxi negiotiating argy bargy I am on my way in the darkness for the last 66 km of my journey to the capitol of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. This journey is supposed to take 45 minutes. It takes us over 2 hours along road that is more dirty corrugated, construction zone potholes than main road. I am oh so grateful to arrive late at night at my guest house.
Dushanbe is actually quite a pleasant leafy, green capitol. The main avenue, Rudaki Street stretches for kilometres with well established elm trees lining the way providing ample shade from the late summer heat. There is nothing historic here and up until a few years ago nothing of modern significance to see either. This has changed with the changes to the Bag i Rudaki parkland that is a magnificent green oasis literally gushing with kilometres of fountains and as its backdrop the new Presidential Palace which cost more to construct than the annual national health budget of this nation of 7 million. A pleasant day is had seeing as much as possible of this pleasant green central Asian city.
I arrive at Samarkand to find it barricaded up with security officers closing down the inner city for the visit to the classic monuments here by the Chinese President and the Uzbek President. The resourceful Iranian businessman who is my companion for the day speaks the language and somehow we get a cab to take us up the bck routes to his hotel. The Iranian also negotiates a price for me aand suddenly the 4 star room is a steal at $55 rather than the normal rate of $100! I head off in the late afternoon and get most of the way into town by cab and walk the last kilometre along lovely green shaded boulevards which ar a balm to my eyes that have had almost 3 weeks of desert and shades of yellow.
Samarkand is Uzbekistan’s most glorious city! With a history that stretches back to 5 BC it became yet another key post on the silk road. In a familair plot it was obliterated by Genghis Khan in the 13th century before becoming the capitol of Timur’s empire in 1370. At its zenith this empire stretched from Kazakhstan in the north to China in the east and down to Delhi, Iran and all of Turkey to the Bosperus. His capitol became a centre of learning and culture in the Middle East. Ultimately it declined as the neighbouring Bukhara became more powerful.
The monuments here are on a truly grand scale and the centrepiece is the 3 massive blue tiled, mosaiced medressas set around a large square called the Registan. Early morning and I beat the tour groups and the ticket office and have the best of the light. I am surprised to find that all is open and by the time someone badgers me to pay I have already seen all I want to. At my next venue, the Bib Khanym mosque I utilise a trick that worked here at a mausoleum yesterday. I wander in amongst the middle of a large tour group and again I don’t have to pay. It is not something I will make a habit of but it was the challenge to see if I could get away with it. I did!
Gur e Amir mausoleum
Gur e Amir Mausoleum
This place is the closes to the capitol Tashkent and I have seen as many tour groups here as I have for the last 2 weeks but it is still easy enough to wander around between groups and get good pictures. Despite the tour groups the locals are truly friendly. Last night at dinner at a local restaurant I find I am being eyed off by a corpulent elderly Uzbek lady dresssed up to the nines. Finally she speaks up loadly and says “You tourist?” When I nodded she roars “I love tourists, I love you!” much to my embarrassment. Today walking near the Registan I am set upon by 8 teenage girls who all want to be photographed with me. It was a good five minutes before this celebrity managed to extricate himself from the poses and phone photos with the girls.
This is my last day in Uzbekistan. I am not looking forward to tomorrow’s border crossing into Tajikistan. The Uzbeks at my last departure point were particularly officious and intrusive and there was a big language barrier. No matter I wil prevail and tomorrow it is from the capitol, Dushanbe.