The Silk Road, China

Monday, 11 June 2007

The Pamir Highway

Most of the nations in Central Asia were invented by Soviet Russia, perhaps with deliberately artificial borders in order to counter pan Turkism and pan Islamisn. Whatever the aim, the borders are a complete mess, with ethnic groups spilling across into neighbouring countries to the extent that they dominate major cities.

A few political boundaries in the region do make sense however; those shaped by the mountains. The three massive ranges of the Tian Shan, The Karakorum / Himalaya and the Hindu Kush are responsible for both the definition and the isolation of China and Tibet and the separateness of the Indian subcontinent to the south.

The meeting point of these three ranges is the Pamir mountain range, which includes two peaks of over 7,000m and the source of the Amu Darya (Oxus) river. The 'Pamir Highway' is road through it connecting Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, with Osh in Kyrgyzstan.

Getting around in Tajikistan is extremely difficult at the best of times: after our night in a cave (see separate posting) we spent 8 hours travelling 170km to the capital Dushanbe and nearly died in the process.

[A brief explanation of the above: a 5km tunnel under construction; water flowing like a river through it; traffic using it anyway; total darkness; a breakdown somewhere in the middle; a subseqent huge backlog of traffic in either direction; no ventilation whatsoever; eyes stinging with fumes; "isn't this an effective way to kill yourself?!?!?;" don't panic; car eventually towed out of the way; big gulps of fresh mountain air...]

Consequently, we planned our trip on the Pamir Highway with some trepidation... some of the toughest terrain on earth combined with very little traffic meant it was going to be challenging. In the end, we concluded that without a LOT of time on our hands we would need to hire a jeep; on the Pamir Highway we sometimes saw only one other car in a day. The result, sadly perhaps, is that what could have been one of the most adventurous weeks of travel turned into one of the most comfortable (and costly!).

But this did not make the journey any less spectacular. The scenery was quite simply the most breathtaking I have ever seen in my life ....

Our journey took us from leafy Dushanbe east along the plains to Kalaikhum, where we picked up the Afghan border and followed it south into the Wakhan Valley. Well east of the bulk of Afghanistan, this sliver of land to our south - the Wakhan Corridor - is part of Afghanistan at the insistance of the British, who - in the 'Great Game' - were determined to maintain a neutral buffer zone between Russian influenced Central Asia and India. Our trip then took us north up onto the Pamir Plateau over passes exceeding 4,500m and right next to the Chinese border before we crosswed into Kyrgyzstan and descending onto its lush green plains.

Below are a few extracts from my diary along with the odd photo:

The Climb into the Pamirs

We drive along the plains east of Dushanbe, where men and women are bent double tilling the fields with wood handled hoes. We pass a women in a brightly coloured dress, flicking a rope across her donkey's flanks as the dust billows up from passing traffic.

The mountains bgein to loom large, cloud appears in the blue skies and a rusty red colour appears along with the greens of the plains. The road winds in a series of tighter and tighter hairpin bends, hugging the mountainside more and more closely as we climb. We cross countless streams that run unchecked over the road. The air is cold and a strong wind is blowing as we approach the snowline and the first major pass, at an altitude of 3,200m.

Our ears pop as we descend from the pass into a gorge in which a brown river roars.

We pass one of many rusty Russian tanks by the side of the road and the heads of two small children pop out as we approach.

Our progress had slowed considerably. But worse was to come. Heavy rain during our first night in Kalaikhum was making our driver nervous but we foolishly thought nothing of it.

We set out out early but come to a halt in a valley with half a dozen cars. We wait there for four hours before seeing why: the rain water had simply deposited massive piles of rock and earth onto the road overnight and each had to be cleared by rather a small bulldozer.

Clearing the way

The Wakhan Valley

The tight canyon with steep moutains on either side eventually opens to up to reveal a wide valley with the river at its centre. At first, small oases of green offer a burst of colour in contrast to red brown earth. Larger expanses of cultivation appear. A man works the field with a plough pulled by two oxen. Women tend the fields squatting on their haunches. Surprisingly, there are poplar trees everywhere: lining the roads, marking the orchards and separating the fields.

We stop to enjoy the surroundings: to bath in the natural hot springs and to wander through a village and climb up hillside to take in the view. One highlight is 工a 12th century fort with breathtaking views over the valley.

The Yamchum fort

The Pamir Plateau

The valley floor rises as we head up to the plateau. The shepherds are on the move; the occasional flock of sheep and goats blocking the road is now an occurence every couple of kilometres. Whole families, along with their donkeys and their dogs are taking their herds 200km to the high summer pastures.

The desolate landscape is beautiful but living must be very difficult. The cold wind is strong and brings rain suddenly with very little warning. We are now well above the treeline and so the shepherds must add firewood to the things they must take with them. Their huge dogs are not merely companions; they protect the flocks from wolves at night.

We see an Afghan shepherd on the other side of the river with Bactrian camel in tow. After some discussion we agree that this is surely time for an illicit visit to Afghanistan. The icey water and our nervous guide sees to it that our visit is extremely short... but still, a visit nonetheless!

The wind howls outside of the car and the rain turns to snow as we climb towards another - this time 4,300m - pass. The scenery can only be described as desolate now; quite different from the lush Wakan Valley.

We arrive in Bulunkal and huddle around the stove of our homestay drinking tea. Towards the end of the afternoon the weather clears and we walk to Yashil Kul and admire the view, soaking up the complete silence.

Lake Yashil Kul

As the shadows begin to lengthen, we descend onto the plain, back towards the village. We walk through a herd of Yak and stop to talk to a shepherd who lives in a hut a few kilometres away from the village. The wind prevents significant build up of snow here, even in winter, but temperatures in January must be almost unbearable.

Yaks graze on the plateau

The next day we discover that the patches of white on the grass that we thought were snow are in fact salt. We stop and walk to a salt lake just off the road.

A salt lake just off the Pamir Highway

Another excursion off the road sees us walk for an hour across the grass plain through herds of yak. We are heading for a remote Chinese shrine which shows how the Silk Road was important for the ideas it carried as much as the goods for sale. As we approach, a solitary Kyrgyz girl kneels in front of the shrine. She speaks no Tajik; without crossing the border, we are now in an area of the Pamirs populated largely by Kyrgyz people.

A Kyrgyz girl prays at a Chinese shrine

We continue towards a town called Murgab. The scale of the emptiness surrounding us is striking.

The plateau and the mountains beyond

The view from the top

As we near Kyrgyzstan we are at our highest point yet. We seize the opportunity and climb a 5047m peak not far from the road. The air is noticeably thinner on the way up, but we are rewarded with stunning views of the brilliant blue lake Karakol from the top. We stand looking over the plateau below - we are higher above sea level than the summit of Mont Blanc.

We both agree that we could have spent days soaking up the views from any of these stopping points. This is a road like no other I can possibly imagine. Except, perhaps, the Karakorum Highway. Which we will be travelling in three weeks time...



Tom said...

Hi, this trip looks and sounds incredible. I am actually planning on taking the Pamir Highway this summer from Dushanbe to Osh. I was just wondering what time of year you did it and what kind of temperatures you experienced? If you could get back to me that would be amazing! Thanks, Tom.

Liz Link said...

my niece's son is going through this place pretty soon.. I am a little worried... is it safe??

hajjabdullah said...

The Anzob tunnel you mention is ghastly, better take the pass [thru Uzbekistan]. M41 thru the Wakhan is fine, once you get past the Khrogh cut off for big trucks. Pamiri villages are the best, want to go back ASAP.