Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Roof of the World

We spent about a week in Osh, Kyrgystan resting after our trekking and my assault before continuing our trip into Tajikistan. The Pamir mountains in Eastern Tajikistan are very remote and transportation is limited to occasional minibuses and the odd shared taxi. The other option is renting a vehicle and a driver, something which costs around $0.50 per kilometer and about $10.00 per day for the driver if he has to stay overnight.

Most travellers for some reason try to do the trip as cheaply as possible. We hear regular boasts from people about how the found a minibus right across the Pamirs for a very reasonable price. While I'm sure it is great to save some money, I'm not sure of the logic of spending thousands of dollars on flights and visas only to go through some of the most interesting and beautiful landscape in a 24 hour bus ride.

Lara and I were lucky enough to run into Patrick, Christina, and Kay (two Australians and a Japanese) who were all of the mind to split the cost of a car and do a more leisurely to trip. We arranged to hire a van for the first leg of the journey from Osh to Murghab, and on Monday, August 18, 2008 we left Osh in an old Russian van driven by Ibrahim, a friendly chap who spoke a little bit of English.

The drive was painfully slow as there were some huge passes and the vehicle had almost no power. It wasn't until late afternoon that we reached Sary Tash, a desolate little town perched at the edge of a big plain at the edge of the Pamir mountains. On the horizon were the white peaks of the Pamirs which marked the border with Tajikistan.

We drove across the barren plain and the mountains got larger and larger while we seemed to get no closer. Finally we arrived at the Kyrgyz border post, nestled among glaciated peaks which were bathed in the last rays of the sun. The border post was no more than a few mud houses, but for security reasons we had to stay in the car and not take photos. Immigration was painless for us, although we found out later that our driver had to bribe customs, immigration, and the drug control checkpoint to get us through.

With the border out of the way we wound our way up an enormous pass in the fading light. It was almost dusk when at the heady altitude of 4282m we reached the two metal drums which make up the Tajikistan border post. Here we were forced to wait for over an hour while Ibrahim was hit up for more "fees". A guard tried desperately to look serious as he marched back and forth in front of the gate in the freezing cold. My head pounded from the elevation (Osh was over 3km lower). I hoped that our planned stop at Karakul (3900m) would be low enough to give me some relief.

Eventually we got going again and we descended from the icy heights, gazing at the moonlight landscape through the windows. The term moonscape is overused, but there is no other description for this desolate land. It is a barren wasteland of gravel and stone, broken only by the snowy teeth of the mountains. The Pamirs are as dry as the Saharah, but with valley bottoms starting at 3500m they are also intensely cold with winter temperature dropping to -45.

Karakul was a ramshackle collection of houses along the highway. It is at the edge of a large lake, the remnant of an ancient meteor crater. Ibrahim found us a nice homestay and we were happy to get into a warm house where the family got out of bed to make us some tea. The five of us slept on the floor of a large room in the piles of blankets which are typical of all Central Asian homestays. Ibrahim vanished to stay with some family who lived in the town.

Most people rush to Murghab from Karakul, but I had seen on the map that the lake had a large peninsula extending about 10km into it's centre and our group agreed to spend a day to see if we could get a nice viewpoint from the peninsula. After some negotiation we got the son of the homestay lady to drive us out for the day and wait while we went hiking for about $35.00. It was great fun bouncing across the desert in his jeep and soon we were at the base of the small mountain range the ran along the peninsula.

The desert was intensely beautiful. The ripples of sand formed amazing patterns, only to be interrupted by jagged rocks jutting out of the ground. There was almost no vegetation, and the lake was salty and unpleasant to drink from. All around us were the giant peaks of the Pamirs, their snowy heights jutting out of the the wrinkled rubble left by thousands of years of erosion. I have never seen the earth look so old.

From the top of the ridge the views were amazing. On the north we could see the border with Tajikistan, and 7000m high Peak Lenin. To the East, the snowy glaciers of the Chinese border. Wrapped around us was Karakul Lake, so intensely blue that it seemed to have stolen the color from the sky. The lake was so beautiful that we couldn't resist the temptation to swim in one of the highest lakes in in the world, an experience which left us refreshed (and cold).

The next day we continued down the highway to Murghab. Tajikistan is still a bit of a police state and you have to register with the security forces within 3 days of your arrival so we couldn't linger two days in Karakul. However, my map showed a cave on the east side of the highway and we decided to ask Ibrahim about it when we got close. Prospects didn't look good however, as a shiny new fence had followed the highway since the border with Tajikistan. The poorer your country is, it seems, the more you must in protecting your border from imaginary threats.

We reached the valley that was supposed to have the cave and we asked Ibrahim to stop the car at just about the same instant as he was flagged down by two soldiers standing on the side of the road. After showing photos of caves on my iPod it emerged that nobody knew anything about the cave (it latered turned out that my map had it marked in the wrong valley). However, the solidiers said that there were some Petroglyphs in the demilitarized border zone with China and offered to take us there for fifteen dollars. (Note: Many people have problems with Fifteen and Fifty. Write everything down. It avoids problems.)

At $3.00 ($10.00 it turned out) each this seemed like a great adventure and before we knew it we were driving through an army base into the DMZ with a machine gun toting soldier keeping us company. Patrick even got to play with the gun once the ammunition had been removed.

The road eventually deteriorated and we walked a few kilometers to the "Petroglyphs". It turned out that these were just graffitti in the soft sandstone walls of the valley and after we spent a few minutes pretending to be interested our guide took us further up the valley. At one point he told us to stay on the road so that we wouldn't step on any landmines, although the numerous tracks of animals and vehicles made mines seem unlikely. We hoped he was taking us to the real petroglyphs, but we simply hiked to a view of the Chinese mountains in the distance and then returned to our vehicle.

Not sure whether to be dissapointed or happy about our strange adventure we continued to Murghab, our solidier now another passenger. We went over another 4000m pass and then dropped into land that was even drier. As night approached we rolled into Murghab where Ibrahim's family runs a guesthouse. Murghab sits in a broad valley is threaded by a river which provided just enough moisture to the surrounding land to allow for some agriculture. The valley is bordered by mountains of dry rubble, and on the distant horizon the 7400m Mustag Ata towers out of the Chinese Pamirs- a constant reminder of the powerhouse that lies next door and is the source of most of Murghab's wealth these days.

Not that Murghab is wealthy. The population of Murghab is only a few thousand and it is little more than a few hundred mud houses. Unemployment is 50% and winter temperatures are below -30 even before you factor in the ubiquitous wind. Other than a slow stream of Chinese trucks from the recently opened border crossing to the East, and a handful of tourists that come during the brief summer nobody passes this way. It is at the end of the earth.

It was terribly beautiful in the way that only deserts can be, yet it filled us with a deep despair. What were we going to do in this lifeless wasteland for the next five weeks until our Uzbekistan Visa started?

To be continued....


markus said...

Hi Taco,

I am Markus, the author and cartographer of the map you used. Sorry for the wrong cave symbol. This was the information of a former NGO worker and obviously he has no clue where exactly the cave is located.

I would be most interested to know the place of the "petroglyphs" you visited together with the soldiers. Could you mark it on my map? Did you took some photographs?

Enjoy your trip and try to leave the main routes. 5 weeks is to less to see the Pamirs and the rest of Tajikistan! Try to buy the new Odyssey Guide of Tajikistan and the new maps of Tajikistan in scale 1:500'000 with a lot of Information (probably in Khorog, for sure available in Dushanbe).

Best wishes

Julia Bradshaw said...

Hi Taco,

I'm just really pleased to read this post - we heard that two Canadians were on the plan that crashed after taking off from Bishkek, and were rather concerned that these people might have been you two.

Take care