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Along the Pamir Highway

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More pictures with this story: https://goo.gl/photos/gGuSuEXRN6cQKNFR7

Just months ago, I knew next to nothing about Central Asia. Probably like most people, I knew there was a group of countries just west of China, with names that all end in -stan. I was vaguely aware of a connection to the old Silk Routes, the former Soviet Union and a few acts of recent Muslim extremism. I had read something once on the near disappearance of the Aral Sea due to irrigation of cotton crops. That was about it.

Flying from Moscow to Bishkek, one passes over empty steppes and deserts for hours on end. Kazakhstan is in the top-ten of biggest countries in the world, yet somehow I completely failed to notice it on the world map that has been hanging above my bed for over 5 years. The country is dry, flat and grassy, and most of it is covered by the vast steppes of Eurasia that are the evolutionary home of most grasses as well as grazers, both of which have been essential to humanity. These steppes are also the home of the Turkic languages that we currently associate mostly with Turkey, but which actually originated in current-day China and Mongolia. While seeming empty and lifeless from afar, up close the steppe is home to various kinds of birds, rodents and insects, as well as herds of animals and the occasional settlement or yurt. To the north of the steppes are the forests and tundras of Siberia. To the east, vast mountains separate the "Stans" from the steppes and deserts of China. South of Kazakhstan, the mountainous countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are a prelude to the Himalayas.

My first acquaintance with Central Asia was the city of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan before the president decided to build a new capital city called Astana (Kazakh for "capital city") at a more central location in the middle of nowhere. Almaty is a fairly pleasant city, although its many black SUVs and fancy shopping centres betray the fact that Kazakhstan is an oil producing country, and therefore among the wealthier of the Stans. We took a two-day trip to see some canyons and a lake with our guide and driver Sergey, a Cossack and former tank-driver in the Russian-Afghan war, who looks oddly like a Russian version of Sean Connery. After Almaty, our journey took us south, to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. But not before one of our party was held at the border when trying to leave Kazakhstan, had to go to trial the following morning for failing to register within five days with the proper authorities, and subsequently got deported from the country we were trying to leave anyway. Such bureaucratic weirdness is one of the more unfortunate leftovers from Soviet times.

From Bishkek we decided to travel further south, a two-day trip over the mountains to the city of Osh, one of the oldest settlements in Central Asia. From Osh we would start a ten-day trip through the Pamir mountain range, a remote region with high snowy peaks and mountain passes, salt lakes, plains and high altitude deserts. The main road through the region is the aptly named Pamir Highway, apparently the second-highest altitude road in the world, which is only accessible during late spring and summer.

As soon as you drive over the Taldyk Pass (3650 m) into the Alay Valley, you feel like you've arrived on another planet. While the grassy northern plains transition from winter to 30°C in a matter of days, the Alay Valley was still mostly covered in snow. To the south, "Peak Lenin" (7134 m) and the Alay range tower over the valley and separate it from Tajikistan. An abandoned Soviet "meteorological station" with two giant half-broken radar domes added to the otherworldly feeling, as did the dusty town of Sary Mogul where we spent the night. The town could easily feature in a Star Wars movie, if it weren't for the constant sound of chickens and braying of donkeys (and of course the conspicuous lack of alien lifeforms).

Apparently we were among the first tourists this year able to cross the Kizil Art Pass and the no man's land beyond, into Tajikistan. In places the road was still covered in snow and ice, and a 4WD was certainly no luxury. Beyond the pass the road runs along the rusty "Systema" border fence for over a hundred kilometres. The fence marks the no man's land between China and the former Soviet Union, although large parts of it have since fallen over or are now missing altogether, presumably used as firewood. Despite the snow and lack of vegetation, there were quite a few birds and marmots, and we could spot the occasional vulture circling high above. Once in Tajikistan, the road descends toward Toktokul, the "Black Lake". Despite its name and high salt content, the lake was still completely frozen over, and therefore quite white. Beside the lake lies another dusty Star Wars town with low mud-brick houses and a small forest of disconnected telephone poles. There is no electricity supply here, but most houses do have a small Chinese solar panel on the roof, which is connected to a 12V lead-acid battery. This is sufficient to charge phones and power a few LED lightbulbs in the evening, and sometimes a small television. People cook meals and boil their tea water on stoves powered by animal dung and dry desert shrubs (which unsurprisingly are becoming increasingly rare around towns).

The strip of land between the town and the lake is covered with salt, rusting car parts and animal carcasses (or parts thereof). Several yaks graze in a marshy bit of land by the lakeside, slightly downhill from the town. I was surprised that such large animals can find sufficient food in such sparsely vegetated lands, but undoubtedly they have large fat reserves, and apparently the region is much greener in summer. Despite being dry and dusty (and sounding like a place in Mordor), Karakul is not a lifeless town. Everywhere were groups of children in colourful clothes, eager to practise their "Hello" and "Goodbye" on passing strangers. Walking to the lakeside, we were joined by a little girl called Fatima and (presumably) her two, somewhat over-active brothers. Fatima, with her purple dress, pink plastic boots and white flower in her hair, turned out to be a fairly good portrait photographer, once I had lent her my camera. I am now the proud owner of around forty group portraits, taken from the perspective of a six-year-old. Despite having no language in common with us, she was able to express very clearly who needed to be where in which picture, in the peculiar way that way only small children can.

Night was not spent in Karakul but in Murghab, the largest town in the region, and the home-town of our driver Muhammad. Like most towns of the high Pamir, Murghab features mostly dusty streets, low buildings, telephone poles and rusty car parts. In theory there is an electricity supply, but it was out of order for an unknown period of time. As Murghab and many other towns cannot be reached for half the year, people have to stock up on food during the summer months. Even in summer the town is mostly supplied by container trucks that have to traverse hundreds of kilometres of unpaved roads through steep mountainous terrain, so this is not exactly the cheapest place to buy supplies. No wonder that many people keep a small herd of animals, that graze in the river valley and on the hills around town. Also no wonder that the food in this regions consists mostly of mutton, potatoes, onions, carrots and rice, as these ingredients are easily obtained and keep well through the year.

After saying goodbye to our driver for the night, we decided to try and find a place where we could exchange some money. We rang the doorbell of a travel agency, as it seemed that they might speak English and may be able to help us. To our great surprise it was our driver Muhammad who opened the door of what turned out to be his family home, where we were promptly invited to tea with home-made pastry. Unknown to us at the time, Muhammad's grandmother had died two weeks earlier, and the family was preparing a feast to mark the end of the mourning period. We were happy to have this opportunity to visit a local household, although we were also slightly embarrassed when we learnt of the occasion for the festivities. The next day, we were invited again to come and eat a meal and drink tea, while town elders gathered in the family home to eat and pray.

Two more days of beautiful and otherworldly landscapes followed, including a visit to the Pshart Valley, a moonlit but very windy night in the remote town of Alichur and a visit to the even more remote Bulunkul town and lakes (reportedly the coldest place in Tajikistan). Then we crossed the Khargush Pass (4344 m) into the Wakhan Valley, the southernmost part of Tajikistan. The Pamir river flows through the valley, and further downstream becomes the Panj and then the Oxus (Amu Darya). The river also forms the border with a strange, narrow strip of Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor, created in the nineteenth century as a buffer zone between the British Empire (current-day Pakistan) and the Russian Empire (current-day Tajikistan). The eastern extremity of the Wakhan Valley is known as the Pamir Knot, the meeting point of several major mountain ranges: the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun and Hindu Kush. However, we travelled west along the river, toward the mighty Hindu Kush range ("Killer of Hindus") which rose in the background and beyond which lies Pakistan.

The Afghan side of the river has only a narrow dirt road running along the mountain side. There were few signs of habitation there, just some goats and the occasional Afghan on a horse or walking with a donkey. Our side was not much different however, there were only a few (abandoned) buildings along our dirt road, which sometimes ran along the river bank and sometimes along a steep crumbling cliff side with the river far below. We met only a single person, probably a soldier walking from the remote checkpoint at the pass, a good two-day walk to Ratm, the nearest village. Near Ratm, suddenly green fields appear in the rocky valley, plowed by farmers using oxen and old tractors. The dry soil was irrigated through a system of simple canals that divert water from nearby mountain streams. While the people of the high mountains were traditionally Kyrgyz shepherds, the people in the lower valleys speak Tajik (a Persian language) and look more Afghan in their features and clothing.

We spent two days in the lovely town of Langar. Spring had only just started in the valley, so fruit trees were flowering, green leaves just started to appear and everywhere we saw newborn lambs, calves and baby goats. On the lower slopes of Peak Karl Marx and Peak Engels we met two old shepherd ladies, guiding their flock among the rocky terrain. One of them was hand-spinning yarn from the wool of her animals. Trade routes ran through these valleys in ancient times, and the remains of several forts and temples can still be seen on the mountain slopes, overlooking the valley in strategic places. One of these forts is actually still used by the Tajik army to guard the border with Afghanistan, near the town of Ishkashim. However, the young border guards were very friendly and gladly showed us around the ruins, on the condition that we didn't take any pictures of "military installations". Apart from a small barrack, an outside cooking stove and an antenna array, we failed to see any military installations. There was one mysterious structure with lines on the ground, which we thought might be some kind of helicopter pad, but turned out to be a volleyball field.

Our guesthouse in Ishkashim was next to a police station, which featured a large machine gun on the roof. As we found out later, there had been fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces several days earlier, some distance from the border. This is probably why Ishkashim has a strong army presence, and official buildings are well-guarded. We had hoped to visit the Afghan market on an island in the river, between both countries, but it turned out that the market was closed for safety reasons, and it had been for three years.

The rest of our journey through the Pamir region followed the Panj-river northward, over increasingly bad roads as the amount of traffic increased. Large Chinese-built container trucks crawl up the hills from the capital Dushanbe over the narrow unpaved road to Khorog, and from there to Murghab and Ishkashim. The many trucks and frequent landslides don't really contribute to the quality of the road, or the comfort of the journey. But at least there is a road. On the Afghan side of the river there were still few cars, and on some sections road workers were hacking out a path through the rocks with pneumatic hammers, a task that looked like it could take at least several years of hard work to complete. Toward Dushanbe, the Tajik roads at least get better. Road workers there were busy constructing concrete walls to protect against landslides. However, a few hundred meters beyond, large sections of the newly constructed wall had already been destroyed by said landslides. I guess in the end, the mountain always wins.

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