Sunday, 28 October 2012

Pamir Highway, Part 1: Khorog to Murghab

Megi and I were to meet in the morning at the market, where vehicles to Murghab leave. I arrived and wasn't able to find her, and after waiting around and periodically wandering down the main road to other places she might be waiting (we agreed to meet where vehicles leave, but it isn't always clear exactly where that is), I began to fear that she might have left before me for some reason. It turned out that she and the family she had been staying with had spent the night at a different house, and they had only returned relatively late in the morning. So it was pretty late by the time we were prepared to leave, and most of the vehicles had already left, but we found a Chinese-made minivan without too much difficulty, and were on our way before too much time had passed. We were stuck in the back seat with some cargo, and it was actually fairly comfortable because you don't have to worry about elbowing the cargo or slinging your legs over them.

Chinese minivans are popular on this route, as the road is decent enough for them not to be shaken apart, they hold a fair number of people, and they're dirt cheap: I think they cost something like $6,000. One of the other passengers in our van was a bright young girl of maybe 12 or so who was returning to her family in Murghab, and it was really charming to watch her talk with Megi and the other passengers, as she was absolutely nothing like the timid, downtrodden girls you see in the Fann mountains. She was bright and outgoing, and had no fear of challenging and disagreeing with the adult men in the van, let alone simply talking with them.She wasn't that happy to be returning to Murghab, however, as there simply wasn't enough there to be appealing to her

Megi had earlier told me about her taxi ride from Dushanbe to Khorog, where she had been similarly surprised at just how different Pamiri women were from the lowland Tajik women she was used to in Kulob. The women in her car showed no fear or hesitation to dominate and chide the men, telling her that in Pamiri families it is women who wear the pants in the family. This is so different than most of Central Asia, and Tajikistan in particular, but hugely refreshing, and a large part of the reason why Pamiris are my favourite people of Central Asia.

On the road to Murghab

For the first hour or so the M41 east of Khorog has scenery similar to the road between Khorog and Ishkashim, which is to say that it's relatively verdant with lots of trees and small villages. After a while, however, the valley rises and widens into a more desolate and rocky environment of the type we might expect to see in high-altitude mountain plains, rising to the deceptively high Koi-Tezek pass (4,272 meters high, even though the pass is not between close mountain but simply the crest of a long hill in the middle of a wide valley).

Entering the high plains.

Near the Koi-Tezek pass. Despite the snow, it feels like a desert and it's difficult to imagine that much vegetation grows in this stony valley, even in the summer.

Mountains to the south.

We came across a car stopped at the side of the road, and got out to stretch our legs while the drivers talked. It turns out the other car had run out of gas, so we gave him a ride to fetch some.

The road is often washboard and bumpy, but isn't overly rocky.

Chinese minivan in need of gas. Not the best place to get stranded.

We dropped the driver here to get gas; I hope he found some. When I see a building with a gabled roof line, I imagine that it's a Soviet-era building constructed by the government. This may explain why it's abandoned.

After Koi-Tezek the road descends gradually, until you come across a bend in the road near the turnoffs for Bulunkul (to the north) and Langar (to the south) where the road follows a ridge above Sassyk-kul and other lakes on the plain below. As this is a much-praised view, both Megi and I wanted to get a picture. Megi said she would pretend she had to go to the bathroom, but in the end she simply asked if they would stop for a photograph, a request the driver happily obliged.

Sassyk-kul from the vantage point of the M41.

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Panorma of the valley and the M41.

As the lakes have no outlet, they are naturally saline.

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The M41 stretches into the distance. This stretch is more or less paved.

The lakes from down in the valley, shortly before Alichur.

A river near Alichur, fringed with ice from the overnight frosts.

Buildings just east of Alichur. It's near here that our van was chased down and pulled over by a Pajero full of burly young men in shearling bomber jackets. The driver talked with them outside, and I wondered what the hell was going on, but they let us continue.

Looking north.
Because just about every car ride needs to stop for a meal break, we stopped in Alichur and pulled up to one of the non-descript boxes of a building, which we discovered to be a restaurant when we went inside. I decided to walk around the village instead of eating whatever they happened to be serving (fish is the specialty in Alichur, and I don't eat fish).

Yaks graze near Alichur.

Youngster out and about in the harsh town.

While walking around Alichur I was approached by one of the buys from the SUV who had stopped us earlier. It turned out that they weren't police or security guards (or worse), but a health-services crew from the Aga Khan Development Network who were traveling to rural communities in the Pamir to deliver medical equipment. And the reason they pulled us over earlier was because the guy I was talking to needed to go the Murghab, while the rest of his crew were heading to more rural communities, so he wanted to see if he could hitch a ride with us... and since we were dropping someone off in Alichur, he was joining us there. Anyway, he had come to talk to me to invite me to stay with him, saying that I could stay for free with him at the hospital, while he would be able to practice his English (which was pretty good). I said that that sounded good so long as the ofer extended to Megi, and he said that would be fine. And so we picked up a passenger to Murghab, and Megi and I saved some money.

At the turnoff to our truck-stop restaurant.

The road out of Alichur, towards Murghab..

The red lines striking through the town name let you know you're leaving the village. You know, just in case there was any confusion about that.

I wonder what this looks like in summer.

Stark shadows.

I'm guessing this tiny little shack is an outhouse.

There are no real streets to speak of in Alichur.

Long shadows as the sun sets. It was only 4:35, and still almost two months before the winter solstice.

The whitewashed and mudbrick walls of these flat-topped houses are more what I imagined houses in Bolivia or Peru might look like.

About midway between Alichur and Murghab.

It was dark by the time we pulled into Murghab, just before entering which we ran into only the second checkpoint station I encountered in Tajikistan: this and the security inspection outside Ishkashim were the only places where I had my passport and GBAO permit checked.


October 28, from Khorog to Murghab: 131 somoni
  • Taxi to Murghab: 120 somoni
  • Breakfast in Khorog: 8 somoni
  • Bread in Khorog: 3 somoni

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