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Pamir Highway

Holiday Ideas & Foreign Travel
TaurusTheBull
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Pamir Highway

#243735

Postby TaurusTheBull » August 12th, 2019, 12:39 pm

Hi,

PRE-PAMIR

In late June I found myself in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan after a £115 flight from Stansted, via Istanbul, on Pegasus Airlines.

I first came in 2014. After the 40 som (1$ = 69.5 Kyrgyz som) marshrutka ride from Manas Airport into Bishkek, I checked into Freelander Hostel. It is new, clean, spacious, friendly and about £4 a night in a 4-bed air-conditioned dormitory.

Bishkek doesn't have many sights. Osh Bazaar is a sprawling market, and the central, neo-brutalist, Ala-Too Square is interesting, if only for the two-hourly change (hourly in winter) of goose-stepping guards beneath the massive Kyrgyz flag.

There are two elongated parks that run north-south between main roads, providing a tranquil inner-city escape where children play late into the summer evenings.

I submitted my online Tajik visa application, avoiding two treks to the Tajik Embassy and a full-page visa. Including the $20 GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit for the Pamir Highway, it costs $70, but needs close attention, as mistakes result in rejection and loss of money.

My application was successful. A .pdf file is emailed, for printing. The visa must be used within 90 days of mooted entry. The GBAO permit is valid for 30 days, whereas the whole Tajikistan visa is valid for 45 days, after respective entries.

After six days I jumped on the slow morning train to Balykchy, the town at the western end of the massive Lake Issyk-Köl. All marshrutkas from the station were seemingly heading east, along the northern shore of the lake, to the summer resorts of Cholpan-Ata and Karakol. I was heading south-west, to Kochkor, and so it was that I stuck out my thumb and got there via two quick lifts. Hitching is easy, speaking Russian is the hard part.

Kochkor is a small valley town, the main base for organised tours to Song-Köl lake, often on horseback. Homestays, tours, horses and guides can be organised via the CBT (community-based tourism) office in town. I walked in to Song-Köl from the northern side in 2014, staying at a yurtstay en route.

Five years ago the only Internet access in Kochkor was at Jailoo Travel Centre, but most homestays now have WiFi.

After two nights, I hitched south, 120 km, over the pass, to Naryn, set in an inspiring river gorge, and stayed at a local guest house.

Taxis ply the 180 km road from Naryn west to the isolated town of Kazarman, the second half along a rough gravel road, for 5,000 som (nearly £60), but sharing can be arranged at the CBT office in Naryn. I did that in 2014 but decided to try hitching this time: a failure.

The problem is that very few cars drive along the gravel road, and it is only clear of snow in summer. Nearer to Naryn most cars are taxis, and they invariably stop in response to a hitching thumb. After an hour or so I gave up and executed plan B.

I hitched back into Naryn, and thence back north to Kochkor, getting dropped off at the junction heading west along the valley, north of Song-Köl lake, and 130 km to the biggest village, Chayek. My last lift of the day was with two telecoms engineers going to meet a colleague... in Chayek.

My plan was to cut through to the main Bishkek-Osh highway, but was told that this 80 km scenic stretch is a poor road with hardly any traffic. However, a half-complete, Chinese-built, all-weather road now runs from Aral, 20 km west of Chayek, south to Kazarman.

My telecoms friends and I stayed at the only guest house in Chayek, a nice clean place at 650 som for bed and breakfast, and they spent the next day taking GPS readings along the new road until we were turned back in the evening due to ongoing road construction.

The northern section of the new road is a delight, following the Kökömeren River until it joins the Naryn River. The rugged scenery is a veritable kaleidoscope of pinks, reds, browns and greens, with streaks of white on distant mountains.

The next day we were allowed through and, after more GPS work, we eventually arrived in Kazarman late in the evening. The road is now more than half complete, and at the Kazarman end an elevated road section and bridge have concrete supports in place, but no road. It's perhaps a year from completion, the current road being diverted along a riverside track.

It took three days, rather than one, to get from Naryn to Kazarman, but I was happy, time not being of the essence. I saw some fabulous scenery, before the official opening of this new road that I hadn't even known existed. The beauty of hitching, to me, these days, is more about meeting people and experiencing something different, taking the unplanned route, than it is about saving money. It's also pragmatic, because in some regions there is little or no public transport.

Kazarman is a small service town cut off for more than six months of the year by snow, and then only reachable by air. Whether the new "China Road" will change that remains to be seen, but it'll take less than two hours to drive there from Chayek.

The next morning I found a share-taxi going west to Jalalabad, the market town north of Osh. As in 2014, I checked into the Soviet-style Molmol Hotel, with female directors on each floor. When I indicated that 750 som was too expensive, the receptionist crossed it out and wrote 600, for a clean but basic ensuite room with balcony overlooking a park.

One of Kyrgyzstan's urban attractions are the parks, with their antiquated fairground rides, bouncy castles and radio-controlled cars. Children happily play until late at night in a completely relaxed and trouble-free environment, something sadly lost in the West.

Osh is about 70 km south of Jalalabad, equally hot in July, and a crossroads for overland travel into China, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. I stayed two nights at the cheap (364 soms including breakfast) Osh Guesthouse, a good base for travel information and to organise Pamir Highway tours.

The Soviet-style Alay Hotel, near Osh's Bazaar, where I stayed in 2014, has been converted into a characterless modern hotel, seemingly bereft of customers, and the hostel I stayed at in Bishkek five years ago has now been knocked down. It's interesting, if not a little bittersweet, to revisit old haunts.

I decided to cross into Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley (more like a big bowl), and travel the Pamir Highway from west to east, thus avoiding inflated transport prices for the Osh-Murghab section and the big altitude rise (from about 1,000 m to 3,600 m) in one day, if not staying at Sary Tash (3,160 m) en route.

The Kyrgyz-Uzbek border had large queues, in 35 degree heat, but foreigners are given priority, so the wait was minimal. I took a bus to the city of Andijon, and a marshrutka to Ferghana, arriving at lunchtime (Ferghana is an hour behind Osh).

Ferghana is old but looks modern. It has some nice parks and a hostel with tasty breakfasts for $8 per night. Temperatures touching 40 degrees celsius made everything hard work (some outdoor cafes have overhead water-aerosols), and thus I eschewed day-trips to Marguilon (silk) and Rishton (ceramics). After two nights I pushed on, via share-taxis, to Tashkent and then Samarkand.

Samarkand was sweltering, with less tourists than in April, albeit with a steady trickle of foreign cyclists, coming from or going go Pamir. Some cycle at night to avoid the heat, a risky business.

The city was gearing up for an August music festival at the Registan. Each evening at 8.30 pm there was a splendid son et lumiere show, the iconic madrasas bathed in kaleidoscopic lights.

It's 50 km from Samarkand to Panjakent, in Tajikistan. My online visa print was duly processed as I, along with other foreigners, was invited to jump the queue of Uzbeks and Tajiks patiently awaiting their turn in the morning heat.

I did the so-called "Seven Lakes" trek from near Panjakent in March, and didn't get to the top lake due to ice, mud and poor footwear. In July the vibrant greens and whites had been replaced by dusty browns, and I had no inclination to trek in the July heat, nor visit the remote but scenic Iskanderkol Lake.

I again stayed in the dorm at the modern Umariyon Hotel in Panjakent, $10 including breakfast.

Another 80 somoni (1$ = 9.43) share-taxi delivered us to 41 degree C Dushanbe, and it was here that I finally found some water purification tablets for Pamir, bottled water supposedly being in short supply there. I changed $300 at Dushanbe Airport, a good exchange rate. After three languid days at the Sakho Hotel-Hostel, exploring shady parks and cool beer gardens, I was ready to go.

Share-taxis bound for Khorog, the main town (30,000 people) of Pamir, leave around 0630; 300 somoni, eight passengers in three rows. We stopped for breakfast in Kulob, and headed on to the Panj River (Amu Darya), which marks the Afghan border. This river is followed for more than half the journey, demarcating a northern protruberence of Afghanistan. It's barely one hundred metres wide, but so fast-flowing as to be uncrossable. And yet, it isn't. Sharing a border with Afghanistan of over a thousand km, Tajikistan acts as a primary filter for Afghan opium.

With food, shop and water stops, we finally reached Khorog at 2030, after 14 hours!

In July last year four foreign cyclists (of seven) were killed between Dushanbe and Kulob when they were deliberately run over by the sort of fruitcakes that have popped up worldwide in recent years. It wasn't until I'd been in Khorog a week that I was even aware of this. If that puts Tajikistan in the "at risk" category, you can add it to France, Germany, Belgium, UK etc.

PAMIR

Khorog is the capital of Pamir (Gorno-Badakhshan) province, a green oasis at the confluence of the Gunt and Panj rivers, adjacent to the Afghan border. In the 19th century the territory was disputed between the Emir of Bukhara, the Shah of Afghanistan, Russia and Britain. Russia won out in 1896 and built a fort in the town, which became the regional Soviet capital in 1925.

In 2012 at least forty people were killed around Khorog when guerillas, operating a long-standing smuggling operation, were tackled by government forces following the murder of secret services chief General Abdullo Nazarov. GBAO permits became difficult to obtain for a year or two.

At 2,200 metres, Khorog boasts the second highest botanical gardens in the world, in a lovely setting outside and above the town. Poplars form a green ribbon along the valley, beneath the craggy brown mountains, whilst water-wheels irrigate the riverside foliage. Water is one resource in constant supply.

Summer temperatures are 10-15 degrees lower than Dushanbe, a great relief to visitors.

I had a cosy $5 room at Simple Hostel, overlooking the Gunt River, of which locals are happy to drink but no-one dare swim in. Patchy WiFi is often available at a few guest houses, PECTA (Pamir Eco-tourism Association) within the central park (inaugurated in 2009), and at the mischieviously named "MAC Doland's".

Khorog was hosting it's 12th three-day "Roof Of The World Festival", in the park, so I bowled up for the last evening, possibly the busiest night of the year. Much of the town seemed present for a mostly Central Asian music extravaganza, played in a lovely green setting. The park has a popular open-air swimming pool which becomes a skating rink in winter.

The next afternoon I was strolling along the road to Wakhan, south of the town, with Afghanistan across the river, when I was invited into a Pamiri home. The teacher was hosting two Kyrgyz colleagues from Osh, who had just spent two weeks at the Aga Khan University in Khorog. It was a feast, and in true Pamiri tradition, we were plied with food and drink, punctuated by regular toasts to our host (only mine of which I understood), until we were stuffed to the gills and had to politely decline more.

One morning I was shown around the impressive new Ismaili 'Jamoat Khana', a cultural, academic and prayer centre opened last December, built over three years with funds from the Aga Khan Foundation, and adjacent to the park and river. The prayer room holds up to 1,500 people and has four four-sided inner eaves, representing the elements, leading to the central skylight.

One annoyance is indiscriminate littering. After an alfresco lunch with my learned telecoms friends in Kyrgyzstan, they put the fish cans and a plastic bottle in a bag... and left it on the rocks rather than put it the car! As a lowly hitch-hiker, I kept quiet, but resolved to leave at the next town. In Khorog I was waiting for a meal at a riverside restaurant when one of the two men at the next table threw his empty beer bottle into the river without a moment's thought. I had some choice words with him (he understood my sign language) and promptly left.

After nine days in Khorog I took a 40-somoni minivan 90 km east to the village of Jelondy, following the Gunt River upstream, at 3,520 m. The road is mostly surfaced, but often potholed. I stayed at Sayram Homestay, complete with long-drop and hot thermal shower. Full board was 100 somoni, superb value, with wonderful views, starry nights and so peaceful. I walked up a 'hill' on the south side of the valley, over 4,000 metres, a breathless scramble, occasional marmots in evidence.

Jelondy has an extensive grassy patch by the river, popular with local cows. There are two tiny indoor thermal pools, no doubt popular in winter. There is a decent hotel, but no WiFi. Sayram served very filling meals, particularly on the last evening, when I was joined by a Slovakian motorcycling couple. It seems the lure of the Wakhan detours many visitors away from this western section of the Pamir Highway.

Based on my previous two days, there were about three vehicles per hour travelling east, getting scarcer in the afternoon. I started out at 0800 and by 0830 I was in a minivan, travelling toward the 4,272 m Koi-Tezek Pass. The landscape becomes scrubby and lunar. White peaks appear in the distance. A marmot scurried across the road. The two men turned off down a track to an isolated house after the pass, leaving me on the deserted main road.

After half an hour's walk, a big truck pulled up. Lorries are slow but solid, bouncing around on the bumps and ruts, with panoramic views. With so few people, and no public transport, the hit rate for hitching is high, in my case 66.67%. After coming off the pass and down past some salt lakes, we finally pulled into Alichor, a windswept village of low whitewashed houses, at 3,800 m. There are more Kyrgyz inhabitants here, with sporadic yurts. It was midday. I offered the driver 20 somoni but he refused payment.

Living in Alichur is hard. Even in the summer the wind can be strong, but the people plough on, accumulating cow dung for winter fuel. Electricity comes via solar panels. Telegraph poles consist of short concrete stumps anchored in the ground with the wooden poles strapped to them, a few feet off the ground, presumably to avoid the wood prematurely rotting when buried under six months of snow.

There are a few homestays, with a trickle of tourists stopping in the summer months. Yoghurt, porridge and bread are staples. All eggs, vegetables and fruit come from Khorog. At my homestay the retired couple's English-speaking daughter was running the place, visiting with her young daughter, both on school breaks from Dushanbe.

Next day I was waiting for a lift towards Murghab at 1030, a little early for lorry traffic coming from the west. The first one came an hour later, giving me a 50% hit rate, a 4WD having driven past earlier. A bumpy 100 km later, along a surfaced but very potholed road, we pulled into a hot Murghab, where my visa was checked for the first time since entering GBAO.

I settled on Erali Guest House, with great views across the valley and east to the white tips of Mustagh Ata (7,546 m). It's a well-run old house with carpeted walls. The lady dropped the price of dinner, bed and breakfast from 150 somonis to 100, as long as I didn't tell other guests, who were few. Surprisingly, Erali had sporadic WiFi.

Murghab is sometimes called the Wild East, a motley collection of low whitewashed houses scattered alongside the Murghab valley, the gateway to eastern Pamir. At 3,650 m, it's the highest town (as opposed to village) in Tajikistan and the former Soviet Union, and has a population of about five thousand. It was founded in 1893, under Russian rule, as Pamirsky Post, an army outpost. Kyrgyz shepherds later settled.

The town has lower and upper roads. Most lorries follow the lower road over the Kurma Pass to China; no normal vehicles are allowed. Murghab is an hour ahead of Dushanbe time; ironically, given the Kyrgyz majority, on Bishkek time.

I wandered down to the bazaar, a chaotic collection of shipping containers, easily secured at night. The mosque is on the outer green banks of the wide valley, and behind it I came across a dozen women madly scrubbing their carpets in a stream. These are left to dry on the grass in the warm afternoon sun. It's hard to imagine that temperatures here average -18C in January.

An overcast day loomed as I walked out of Murghab. With no lorries on this route, I was anticipating a long wait. After 20 minutes the first car came along.... and picked me up! We drove for a couple of hours, past dozens of marmots, alongside the fenced 'neutral zone' between Tajikistan and China, and over the 4,655 m Ak-Baital (White Horse) Pass, to big blue Lake Karakul, supposedly formed by a meteorite ten million years ago. The Saudi friend of two Tajiks then deployed his photographic drone over the lake.

They were returning towards Khorog, so I found a homestay in the isolated village of Karakul, a popular overnight stop for tour groups in the short Pamir summer. Mosquitos also seem to like it near the lake, though they are not aggressive.

Lake Karakul is situated at 3,914 m, higher than Lake Titicaca. It is 380 square km, with a maximum depth of 238 m. The only fish in the lake is the non-edible Noemachilus-locusnigri. Although salty, it is frozen and snow-covered until May.

Karakul village is strange, bleak and yet in such a fascinating setting. The only sound under a star-filled night sky is the distant yapping of dogs. The locals are a hardy but friendly bunch, considering what they must endure for most of the year. As in Alichur and Murghab, Finland has funded covered hand-pump water wells in the past few years.

I knew it would be a big test getting out of Karakul, because nearly all traffic heading to the Tajik border, 63 km away, is either tour groups or share-taxis that are full when leaving Murghab. And so it proved. Half a dozen vehicles roared past me until, after forty minutes, one stopped, but with a proviso.

The driver asked me how much I would pay to go to the Tajik border. I offered fifty somoni (thirty would've been a fairer rate), relieved to be away. The problem is that the Tajik border post is near the top of the 4,282 m Kyzyl-Art Pass, and it's another twenty km from there to the Kyrgyz border post. I breezed through the run-down border (registration and then immigration processed by hand, in logbooks), getting priority over other waiting foreigners, since they all had transport.

The pass is supposedly a good place to see the famous long-horned Marco Polo sheep (Ibex are rarer), but there weren't any around in the midday heat. Walking was fine after I beat off the pesky insects. A few km downhill, I came across two isolated homestays (which an Irish cyclist had told me about in Murghab), and decided to stay the night, in no-mans land. They had a few cows and half a dozen yaks. Bread, eggs, yoghurt, pasta, tea and biscuits. Toasty warm at night, as it'll need to be in a few months time.

An early start today, heading sixteen km to the Kyrgyz border post, with stunning views over to snow-capped mountains, one of which is the 7,134 m Peak Lenin. The young homestay dog accompanied me the first few km, but we parted ways when he found a recently killed marmot and began tucking in.

About five km past the Kyrgyz border post a local chap stopped and gave me a lift the final twenty km into Sary Tash, a village in the Alay Valley, and gateway to the rest of Kyrgyzstan.

Pamir was big, dry and harsh, but very scenic, the people extremely amiable and the experience unforgettable. I didn't get to the Wakhan or Bartang vallies; always leave something for next time.

Cheers
Taurus

malkymoo
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Re: Pamir Highway

#246397

Postby malkymoo » August 22nd, 2019, 9:05 pm

Hi Taurus

Thank you for sharing the account of your latest travels. Your posts are always interesting, an inspiration for the rest of us to be more enterprising in our own travels.


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