A Week in the Pamirs: Part One, Osh to Murgab

Posted on July 2, 2012


NOTE: I wrote out everything of note from the Pamirs yesterday and found that it was far too long to post in one go. As such, I’m breaking up my Pamirs posts into three or four posts and will try to post them all by the time I reach Samarkand within the next couple of days.
Here is the first Pamirs post, which I consider to be the wort section, but oh well. Gotta start somewhere. 

Dushanbe is hot as hell right now, and that’s good for me. The heat (and utter exhaustion, to be explained later) have forced me to hole up for the morning in an airy room on the second floor of the house we’re staying at for the next couple of days. Secluded as I am, I finally have the time and the space to sit down and write out everything that’s happened since we left Osh and wandered into the Pamirs–some of the most eventful and (at times) difficult days of our trip yet. Looking at my notes, I think the best way to do this is just to take it chronologically, as the progression of time fits the progression of thematic elements of the past few days.

But before I get into the chronology, I feel like I have to give some background on the Pamirs:


Tajikistan is complex. Really, really complex. The fact that it exists as one single administrative and national entity is a testament to the sheer, brutal force of the Soviet Union. We saw as much when, from 1992 to 1997, the nation descended into a brutal civil war, which divided the nation into each of its geographic, traditional, and cultural components. Everyone in the nation is, I suppose, a Tajik in the sense that they have a distinct history and culture (more Persian) from the Turkic dominance of the rest of Central Asia, and they all speak some dialect of Tajik Persian. But that hardly matters. Historically the region has fallen under the “rule” of many peoples but remained de facto semi-independent at the micro-level.

Let’s zoom in on one of those sub-groups: the Pamiris. The Pamir mountains, the roof of the world, make up about half of the mass of Tajikistan, although only a small fraction of its population. Each valley, like that of the Gunt River around Khorog, existed on and off as a little, independent state and some, like the large Wakhan Valley, grew so distinct as to develop a separate dialect, Wakhani. For all their differences, many Pamiris still share a few elements of culture with each other–styles of houses and clothing, and religion.

The Pamirs became a single entity under the Soviets known as the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO for short). And they cemented their control over the region, and tied it to Tajikistan proper, by constructing the awe-inspiring Pamir Highway. In truth the highway is just a little wider than a single lane, often nothing but a pot-holed gravel road, and at times has been worn away by rivers and waterfalls that crash across the way. But its mere existence is, given the terrain, miraculous.

Unfortunately, in that Civil War I mentioned, the GBAO picked the losing side. An economic blockade starved the region from 1992 to 1993, at the same time as the region was attempting to relearn traditional agriculture, which had been unnecessary given the central government’s subsidies in the Soviet era. Many Badakhshanis were executed en masse if found outside of the Pamirs and ever since the end of the war, they have seen nary a dollar from the central Tajik government. The people are, as I shall describe, doing well by themselves on the local level, but infrastructure has fallen by the wayside.

So that’s the region we just got through–fractured, distinct, devastated, and illogically bound into a nation that doesn’t seem to care too much for it on the political level. Now, to the blow-by-blow.

Day 1: Osh to Sary Tash

On June 25th, we departed from Osh, Kyrgyzstan heading south towards the border with Tajikistan. I’d worked out a deal with the man who owned the apartment we were staying in; having accepted that the roads are confusing and harsh and that none of our language skills would hack it in the Pamirs, we bit the bullet and got a guide to take us through in a Mitsubishi Pajero. We were assured that the guide could help us through and that he spoke good English, although because he only had a Tajik driver’s license we would need a second driver to take us all as far as the border. It all sounded good.

Except we immediately learned that our guide didn’t speak English. He spoke German, and quite well. I speak a pittance of German and so it was decided that for the next several days I would act as the translator and help to communicate our desires and itinerary. This didn’t seem too hard at the start, given that our guide, T., seemed like an affable young man of 22. He had perhaps a little too much pretentious machismo for my liking–despite his beer gut and inability to keep up with Mike when running, he claimed to be a skilled Thai boxer. But still, we thought he’d get us through just fine.

From Osh, we climbed up through the mountains towards Sary Tash, a small town of 250 on the Kyrgyz side of the border. Our visas for Tajikistan did not start until the 26th and Sary Tash seemed as fine a place as any to acclimate for the night–the grey and drizzling town sat just below the snow caps and ice packs of the mountains, themselves slowly growing up and up towards the Pamirs proper.

Mike and I decided to take a walk in the afternoon’s ice rain to get ourselves used to the cold, but also to look for Dean, who we thought might have passed into Sary Tash for a time. We walked across the mud and shit roads, slipping and sliding, eyes squinting and screaming Dean’s name above the wind, but we failed to find him. All we found were piles of dung, used to make fires in this region where no trees grow and coal is too expensive. So we returned to the house where we intended to stay the night.

There, we met a German man with a love for mountaineering and two older Israelis celebrating their 60th birthdays. Over our first mountain meal–a thin meat broth with a potato and a carrot, maybe some unknown animal flesh–they told us that they were part of a group of friends, all former Israeli Defense Force members, who tried to travel together every year. “Travel is good,” was their self-assuring refrain. As veteran travelers, they were well stocked, though, and we had a fine feast of biscuits and tea before wrapping ourselves in giant blankets for the night.

Day 2: Sary Tash to Murgab

Early on the morning of the 26th, we left Sary Tash and began the drive down to Murgab, the largest town in the eastern Pamirs, and also the home of our driver. Though he was Kyrgyz, worked in Osh, and studied in Bishkek, it turned out his family was all Pamiri–the far eastern Pamirs on the border with China are almost half Kyrgyz, and oddly enough this has led the region to run on Kyrgyz time, whereas the rest of Tajikistan runs an hour earlier (although our driver, for reasons unknown to us, refused to acknowledge the shift to the Tajik time zone even when we did reach it).

As soon as we hit the border, we commenced what I’ve come to call “The Travails of Mike Young.” At Bar Dobo, the Kyrgyz exit checkpoint, Mike opened his passport to show the Kyrgyz border guards his visa only to find that the adhesive had come loose and it had fallen off the page. Fortunately he still had the visa, but it was no longer in his passport. Not a big deal, we thought. Wrong.

The border guards called Mike into their office and started grilling him as to why his visa was not adhered to his passport. Of course, the driver could not communicate this to him, so I was called in to, with the guide, translate from Russian to German to English.

Mike explained that the glue came loose. The guard said this was impossible. Mike said it was obviously possible. The border guard did not believe him. He told Mike he would have to turn back around to Osh to get the visa re-adhered, that it was not his problem, that he would have to find his own way back as well because Anna, the guide, and I would need to pass through as he had already voided our visas with an exit stamp.

So our guide tried to bribe the border guard. He was offended and refused to take the bribe. We sat and argued for some time more. And only when, half an hour later, the guard realized we would not go away did he pull out a frozen canister of rubber cement and re-glue the visa, letting Mike off with a verbal warning.

From Bor Dobo we climbed slowly up into the snow pack and through the Kyzyl Art Pass, from the windy heights of which we looked not really down but just across to the even higher peaks of the Pamirs. The eastern Pamirs are a moonscape–the mountains of Kyrgyzstan are covered in scrub grass and take on a green hue in the sunlight, but these peaks just rose red and brown and grey and desolate, snowy and lonely, allowing a thin ribbon of road to pass through a desertous valley half-blasted from their sides.

Perhaps two hours later, passing through unchanging and beautifully bleak scenery, with the border fence to China fifty meters to our left, we saw several mounds clustered in the distance. They were more densely packed, smaller, more rounded and young than anything else in the area. These, I saw, were the kurgan mounds on the Kara Art plain–ancient Central Asian burial sites once adorned with petroglyphs, but now all but subsumed into the mountains and their hills.

Immediately after the kurgans, we came upon the eerie crystal blue waters of Kara Kul, a giant lake blasted into the Pamirs by a meteor hundreds of thousands of years ago. Even now, it’s salty and all but lifeless–windswept, flat, yet somehow undisturbed. Absolutely still.

We stopped in Karakul, the aptly named town by the lake and the first sign of human life since we crossed over from Tajikistan, where we had lunch with our guide’s family. Much as in Mongolia, life on a desolate mountain plateau had put wrinkles into their faces young. And much as in Mongolia, almost everything was spare and locally made–like the sheep’s wool earrings worn by all the bald, small children in the house.

Here, Mike faced his second travail: He asked if he could swim in Kara Kul. The guide translated this to his grandmother and she started yelling at Mike, eyes wide. What ensued what a small village meeting, the logic of which neither Mike nor I could understand, but when something like this:

Karakul Citizens: No! It is too cold, you will die!
Mike: It’s fine, I’ll be okay. But if it’s going to be a big problem I don’t have to do it.
KC: You will die!
M: Okay, I won’t go.
KC: Okay, we will take you.
M: What? So we are going?
KC: No! It is impossible! … Okay we will take you. Wait but no, it’s salty and if you drink it you will die!
M: I don’t intend to drink it, but again, if it’s a big deal I won’t go.
KC: No! It is impossible! … (All begin to pray.) Okay we will take you. Wait but no, there are tiny red worms that live in the water.
M: Oh, so they’re parasites? They’re bad for your health?
KC: … Actually, we think they’re good for your skin. But no! You should not go. … Okay we will take you. Wait but no, the lake is holy and that is why no one swims in it.
M: … Oh. Why did you not tell me that before? Okay, like I already said, I won’t go.

Immediately thereafter, we fled the village under the wary and confused eye of our guide’s grandmother. From there, we climbed up into the Ak-Baital Pass, where for the first time we passed the 15,000 feet mark, and then clamored down into Murgab (population 6,500 and the largest thing in these parts). I wandered around the mud-brick and concrete houses until I found a line of conex boxes picked off the back of trains, which doubled as the stalls for the local market. While I sat there wondering how they’d even managed to get these conex boxes to the town, given that there are no train tracks anywhere nearby, my Kyrgyz som were changed into Tajik somoni and the driver bought some carrots and potatoes for another Pamiri meal, and another night huddled under layers of thick blankets to keep out the cold. Here, the blankets were all the warmth, as the town only had electricity for half the day and even that was not enough to power a heater, nor was there fuel for a stove.

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