Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Rangkul Dunes

We spent several days in Murghab after completing our Wakhan valley loop.

Our first trip was a bike ride down a valley to a meteor crater. An enterprising young man has set up a bike rental business which promises "state of the art" mountain bikes. The bikes are OK but don't have any suspension which makes for brutal riding on the washboarded dirt roads. While the Pamir Highway is mostly paved (by Central Asian standards) most of the side roads haven't seen a paver let alone a plow in years and are badly washboarded. Still, it was lovely to get out on the road.

Unfortunately we didn't make the crater because the bridge that was shown on the map was washed out and the river was a bit too big to cross. Apparently we should have crossed the river close to Murghab at Kurgan, but we didn't know this at the time. Still, it was a great ride and gave us an appreciation of how wonderful (and cold) cycling across this region would be.

The next day we did a two day trip to the nearby town or Rangkul. We hired a driver for this to take us on a loop. Our destination was some sand dunes that were shown on our map. We both love deserts and it seemed like a great adventure. The META office told us the sand dunes were off-limits because they were too close to the border, but Lara wanted an adventure so we set off anyway.

Our vehicle of course didn't work properly and every time we stopped for photos he had to park on a hill so he could do a rolling start. By now this didn't even phase us, even when we were the only thing moving for 20km in any direction.

The town of Rangkul is pretty small and lonely and is situated in a broad valley. Camels are a common means of transport around here although we didn't see any. The valley is irrigated by a river and groundwater from two very salty lakes, although by our standards it is pretty bleak. Our driver took us to a house for lunch where we had incredible fresh yak yoghurt. I had two big bowls and it was the best yogurt I have ever had. Yak milk is much tastier than regular milk I think, and eating yogurt which is only a day old is a great experience.

It turned out the lady who fed us was his sister-in-law, and she worked as a teacher in the local school. She insisted on no-payment and feeling very satisified we set off for the dunes. To our surprise we were able to drive right to the base of them, and what a worthwhile trip it was.

The prevailing winds that howl down the long valley have over the course of thousands of years created 300m high dunes at the end of the valley. They are an incredible sight and we lost no time getting out of the car and hiking towards them. Lara wasn't feeling very well so I ran up the dunes ahead of her while she took photos of the weird rock outcrops that poked out of the sand and the border between the dunes and the desert.

The view from the top was stunning. The dunes formed rounded ridges with beautiful patterns on them from the wind. To the west we could see past the salt lakes near Rangkul to to the 6000m high glaciers of the Central Pamirs that lay maybe 50km away. To the East, towering above the nearby mountains was the 7400m high Chinese peak of Mustag Ata. It was completely snow covered and it's size was staggering.

The dune field was several KM across and I had a great time running down the dunes to join Lara who now felt stronger and joined me for a second trip to the top. By now Mustag Ata had been consumed by the clouds; mountains of this height are often wrapped in perpetual cloud and show themselves rarely. I left Lara on the summit to take photos in the setting sun and ran down to the driver to let him know we would be late. An hour later, Lara showed up, delighted that the clouds had parted for a moment so that she too could glimpse one of the highest places in the world.

That evening we slept at our lunch spot in the living room on a comfortable pile of blankets and enjoyed another awesome meal. In the morning the lady again didn't want to be paid, so we gave her a donation for her kid's education instead at the standard homestay price.

From Rangkul we completed a loop back to Murghab, stopping an old mine site along the way so that we could see where the local rubies come from. We found out later that collecting Rubies is a serious crime if you don't have permission, so that's all we will say on that topic. We won't be retiring any time soon though, if anyone is wondering, although the mine site was very interesting and shows just how much hard work goes into collecting precious stones.

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