Saturday, September 20, 2008

Down to Khorog and up a Mountain

After spending about a week in Murghab it was finally time to leave the Eastern Pamirs and head to Khorog. As usual the hardest thing was finding transport, but fortunately it has become very easy to get rides towards Dushanbe. The reason is that there is a constant flow of goods coming in from China through a border post about 2 hours east of Murghab. The Chinese drivers go to the border where Tajik drivers pay bribes and then take the vehicles into Tajikistan.

Much of the traffic is actually brand new vehicles. There are very nice Chinese mini vans on sale here for $5500 brand new, and they all come down the Pamir highway. As a result there are tons of empty cars heading west, and there are also empty mini-buses that transport the drivers to the border.

We let it be know that we wanted to head to Khorog, and within an hour somebody was at our guesthouse offering an (outrageously priced) ride. It turns out that he was a guide who had just finished driving some clients around for 10 days and now wanted to head back home. When we let it be known that we knew the going rate he agreed readily and the next morning he picked us up at the guesthouse and we got door-to-door service all the way to our guesthouse in Khorog. We even had a stop at a hotsprings along the way.

In Khorog we stayed at the Pamir lodge, a cheap, clean, and very pleasant place to hang out and the only place to meet other travellers. There were five rooms around a nice courtyard and we paid $5.00 each for sleeping and $2.50 for meals.

The next day I decided to scramble up a mountain overlooking town while Lara wisely decided to hang out and relax. The mountain, which is just North of town looks big and is bigger. I think the total elevation gain must have been 2000m and the summit I made it to was still some distance from the main summit.

One of the amazing things about the mountains in this area is the sheer scale of them. In Canada summits are typically 1000-1500m above the road, and what you see is what you get. Here there are many summits that are 3 or even 4km above the surrounding landscape. When you climb a ridge you find yourself on a tiny spur of a vast massif that continues to impossible heights beyond where you stand. I'm used to being able to get up everything I see as a day hike, but I've had to content myself to hiking to a viewpoint and leaving the summit for well equiped mountaineering teams.

I think many of the summits we see here have probably never even been climbed. The rocks are so jagged that many of the peaks look like cartoon mountains; impossibly sharp and challenging to climb. On top of that there are numerous border zones which are closed to climbing.

Anyway, my particular scramble was much tougher than it seemed. It started well with a nice hike through some old streets at the edge of town and a pleasant path up the valley that splits the main peak. As I got higher up things got worse however, and what looked like a nice hillside from town was a loose jumble of boulders. The summit didn't seem to get any nearer despite my best efforts and I was pretty happy when I finally reached the top after 4 hours of climbing. I had to be extremely careful on the descent not to twist an ankle. I suspect that mountain rescue services here are not what they could be and a night at 4000m with a broken ankle wouldn't be much fun. I would only recommend this hike to serious scramblers.

The Indian restaurant where we ate dinner the next night is probably a much better bet.

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