THE PAMIR HIGHWAY | Trading Comfort For The Off Beaten Track
Few places in the world can leave us with as little expectations as the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia do. Lost in translation between a past under the mighty red banner, and a present under authoritarian rule with limited interactions with the western world, these nations are some of the world’s best kept secrets for the traveller willing to trade comfort for the extraordinary.
Take me on a road trip, somewhere far, somewhere mind-blowing, take me to South Africa’s Wine lands, take me to Route 66, to Australia’s Gold Coast. Fabulous destinations that have been stirring the world’s minds and souls for decades, and yet, for the few and the brave, one route stays relatively unexplored, and the rewards highly fulfilling; the Pamir Highway.
Our journey takes us to Osh, Kyrgyzstan, a 3000-year-old City famed to be one of the great markets of the Silk Road. Despite suffering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, with one of the tallest statues of Lenin in the world here to witness it, the city is bustling with life, a perfect starting point to tackle the world’s second highest road.
Southern Kyrgyzstan is a brutal combination of rolling hills and mountains, a land where nomads install their Yurts wherever their herds can feed, selling cheese and meat by the roads, and the occasional fish caught in the alpine lakes. Our destination; the Kyzylart Pass, the 4,300m high border post into Tajikistan. From now on, we’ll be driving on unpaved roads above the 4,000m marker. Despite being in summer, the icy winds and snow-capped peaks constantly remind us that we’re in a region where the Pamir decided to meet the Himalayas, a wild, preserved region where the raw beauty of nature strikes even the most seasoned traveller.
Making our way past an uneasy border guard who insists on making sure no pictures of the modest control post are taken, we descend towards Lake Karakul (Black Lake in Tajik), a vital wildlife sanctuary for dozens of species, including the Himalayan Vulture and the Tibetan Sand grouse. This unexpected oasis in such an arid landscape originated from a former impact crater, and is today nested higher than Lake Titicaca.
We’re regularly held at military checkpoints by friendly officers, happy and curious to exchange with us in Russian, to whom we offer the extra fruit we may have to help us get along our way. A crumbling sign marks what used to be the frontier between the Soviet Union and China, and a few km away, we arrive in a small nomadic settlement where we’ll be staying overnight. In such an isolated part of the world, where nature and the harsh living conditions are a daily challenge, it’s a small wonder in itself that this area is inhabited.
And yet, before dark falls, the youth appear from nowhere, guiding impressive herds of Yaks to shelter the young ones from the adults in pens for the night. I’m as fascinated by these scenes than the children are at the sight of a foreigner, a rare occurrence in this lost valley. That evening, as I settle in my yurt, the village elderly comes to visit me with a car battery from which he’ll provide light for the night. From the remoteness of a 30 people settlement on the Tajik-Chinese border, we have what ensures to be one of the greatest conversations of this trip; when my host learns my nationality, he quotes me Honoré de Balzac, a distant memory from education under the Soviets. It is incredible to be able to communicate with him, and even more so to see that a rough life in the Murghab region still allowed him to shame me with his literary knowledge.
We part the next day after a cold, windy night, with the permanent barking of dogs guarding the herds from hungry visitors keeping us awake. As we make our way south, the mountains start rising higher, the valleys are becoming warmer, and we finally arrive in Khorog, a vital crossroad within the region. Khorog is the starting point of a spectacular drive in a narrow valley, where furious rapids separate us from Afghanistan. The city is lined with fruit trees, and our host for the night lights a fire under a water tank for what is to be the first shower of the trip. A filling meal later, we enjoy the luxury of being able to read outdoors in a peaceful, warm valley, with wonderful views from our terrace.
We’re about to embark on the riskiest part of the journey, an unstable road permanently threatened by falling rocks, dodgy bridges, threatening waters below us from which few can escape, and no alternative route in case of an emergency. One of the most striking visions in this region are the people, particularly the women. Tajik women wear colourful outfits with short sleeves and a matching bandana, with many of them revealing stunning green eyes. In cruel contrast, the Afghan women I see on the other bank wear blue burkas, a chilling reminder that one side of a river can mean freedom and not the other.
The uniforms of the men stopping us at the checkpoints have changed too; I later learned that their primary mission is stopping Afghan drug shipments from crossing the border. The road is wild, rough, bumpy, with low visibility and the danger of large trucks on narrow segments of the road. A number of vehicle carcasses lie in the river, a permanent reminder that risk is everywhere. Numerous UN Agencies and NGO’s have facilities along the road; the Tajik side is safer for them to base their staff who cross the border by day to help the Afghan people, notably to help detect and remove landmines. That night, I stay in a house where I meet two Swiss travellers who were initially going in the opposite direction, before being forced back; a large truck experienced a brake failure and crashed into a bridge, cutting off the road. The width of the road forbids the following vehicles to turn around, everyone will be stuck till the bridge can be fixed, at best a matter of days. We were extremely lucky; had we had to turn around, we would not have been able to leave the country before the expiration of our visas, a very sensitive topic in Central Asia, and a difficult solution to face when the nearest border post is a cluster of pre-fabricated buildings perked on top of a lost mountain.
After four days in the valley, we finally leave the Pamir, progressively moving to a landscape of dry hills where cattle and pictures of the President can be seen everywhere along the roads. The scorching heat is starting to make itself felt, as we push on towards Dushanbe, modest capital of a small nation where President Rahmon, in power for the past 22 years, thought relevant to build himself a fabulous palace next to a gigantic Tajik flag, a competition of “who’s got the biggest flag” other former Soviet countries seem to enjoy too.
From now onwards, the road is open for us to push to Uzbekistan, and the incredible cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, architectural gems of the Silk Road, with the satisfaction of having challenged one of the World’s most extraordinary “Highways”.