The Pamirs are a vast, remote and wild region of a fairly wild and remote country. Bordered by Kyrgyzstan, China and Afghanistan, the mountains and plateaus of the region contain 45% of Tajikistan’s land area, but only 3% of its population. Locals call the area Bam-i-Dunya, “The Roof of the World.” And while there are a few other places that could put in a claim to that title, after our visit to the Pamirs I certainly wouldn’t disagree.
Because of the beautiful, but mostly un-peopled nature of the place, I’m going to dispense with my usual style of ‘blogging here, and the next few entries will be more in the style of photo-essays. We spent much of our time in the Pamirs sitting in the back of a jeep. While doing this we took a lot of photos. And the place was so gorgeous that a picture being worth a thousand words holds very true here. All of these facts combine to mean that the photo captions ought to serve as narrative enough.
Welcome to Tajikistan! The border posts for the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were separated by about 20km of very poor road, leading over the 4282m Kyzyl Art Pass. In both cases the facilities were simple (on the Tajik side much of the border post was constructed from shipping containers) but the guards were friendly and the process simple. We didn’t even really need to get out of the car as Saghan, our driver took our passports in to be stamped (though we did anyway, if only to chat with the guards and stretch our legs.)
And welcome to the GBAO (Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast.) An Oblast is an administrative division similar to a state or province. The GBAO is the largest one in Tajikistan and covers pretty much the whole Pamir range.
The main road through the region is the M41, more commonly known as the Pamir Highway. For its first 60km or so inside Tajikistan the road parallels the Chinese border. You can see the border fence on the left side of this photo.
Despite their very dry climate, the eastern Pamirs are dotted with lakes. They’re primarily fed by snow melt and the plateau geography of the area means that there’s not much of anywhere for the water to go. The lake seen in the distance here, roughly 30km in diameter, is the largest of them all, Kara Kul (yet ANOTHER Kara Kul… We’d already seen one in China and two in Kyrgyzstan!) The basin it sits in was formed by a meteorite impact.
As mentioned before, there really isn’t much in the way of human habitation in the eastern Pamirs. Though every now and then we’d see some poor soul trudging along the roadside marching through the wind blown emptiness from somewhere inconceivable to somewhere unimaginable.
The town of Karakul near the lake is the only settlement between the Tajik border and Murghab.
Looking down from the highest point on our trip through the Pamirs, 4655m Ak-Baital Pass. Going from Osh at 890m up to this elevation in a single day meant that all four of us were taking our chances with altitude sickness, though we’d all been at high elevations before (if not so quickly) and knew we’d handled it well. As it turned out, the worst any of us experienced at any point during our trip was a mild headache
Rain and sleet as we descended from the pass and approached Murghab was the only precipitation we experienced during our whole 9 days in the Pamirs
We arrived at our destination, the town of Murghab at around 18:30. Murghab, population 6500, is the major population centre in the eastern Pamirs. Just over the horizon in this photo is the Qolma Pass, leading to Tashkurgan in China. We’d been only a few dozen kilometres from this pass when we visited Karakul in China as a day trip from Kashgar six weeks before!
Our first homestay in Tajikistan. Hot tea and coffee, meat and potatoes (it was unclear what the meat was… didn’t taste like beef or yak, and the only other animals we’d seen in the region were donkeys…) tasty homemeade bread and jam. And a cozy bedroom (from my perspective anyway… everyone else found it a wee bit chilly, thus the toques.) There was even electricity to charge our camera batteries (if not entirely reliable electricity. Lights often dimmed, and the tourism office that was the one place in town with internet access needed to use a diesel generator to get steady enough current to make it work.)
This lad was carting a load of plant material up to his home on the hillside above the town. I wanted to ask him what it was, so joined up and helped him haul the cart. I’d originally thought it might be some medicinal herb, or incense, or something of that ilk. By the time we got home I realized it was nothing more exotic than firewood (or what passes for it in the Pamirs.) We said goodbye and, on my way back down to the homestay his neighbours offered me some fresh bread, hot out of the oven in their front yard (I’m not sure if this was a reward for helping him out, or just general mountain hospitality.)
The Murghab bazaar was reputed to be not much of a bazaar. But we found just about everything we could’ve asked for there, ranging from the ayran (yogurt drink) sold by these ladies in a yurt, through bananas (which had somehow made their way to Murghab all the way from Ecuador!) to money changers willing to trade Tajik somoni for our US dollars
Two beautiful young women in traditional Tajik dress in the bazaar. While it was well stocked, it wasn’t flashy, with pretty much every shop residing inside a shipping container
The dudes. These three older men posed wearing their traditional Kyrgyz felt caps. Though we were in Tajikistan, in this part of the country many (about half in Murghab, even more in the smaller towns) of its residents were ethnically Kyrgyz
The hull of an old Lada in the yard next to the market, with snow capped Pamirs in the background
We were very lucky to have arrived in Murghab on a public holiday, the Day of Unity and Accord, which celebrated the end of the vicious five year long civil war which killed at least 50,000. The sides in the war were anything but clear cut, but ethnic Tajiks and Kyrgyz were often pitted against one another. Though the celebration was amiable enough, there was obviously some tension as some Tajiks who wanted to receive the we’d photos taken of them asked that we find some other way than e-mailing them to the Kyrgyz tourism co-ordinator in the town. As you can see from the uniforms in this photo the military played a major role in the events
One of the best things about the public holiday was that it meant that everyone in the village was out on the main street in their “Sunday Best.”
Hardly traditional dress, but this guy looked awesome!
The centre of the main street was the setting for song and dance presentations, such as this one which was an allegory of the civil war. I was a bit distressed to see that all of the “bad guys” who appeared later on in the dance wore big fake beards that looked rather like my own
The crowds were out in force to watch the show, but all of the performances were actually directed towards the dozen or so officials sitting at the table above the street, meaning that the performers often had their backs to the majority of the crowd
Sarah and Nat were both presented with festive rings (for sale by several vendors on the edge of the “fairground”) by little girls whose photos they were taking.
After the song and dance finished, we headed out of town to the Madiyan Valley. Though the area immediately around Murghab was as dry and barren as the rest of the eastern Pamirs, the floor of the Madiyan was well watered and green. It even had TREES in some places for goodness sakes!
Sadly, our final destination, the hot springs near the end of the valley weren’t reachable. The road had washed away before the formal walking path began, and the track that could be used to access the springs was a bit treacherous for most of our party
Instead of heading to the springs we went for a walk back to the main valley. I headed up another side valley to a bench well above the valley floor and was rewarded with this spectacular view back down the valley towards where we’d come from
Back in town festivities were still going on when we returned, this time centred on the sports ground
Events on at the sports ground included tug of wars (tugs of war?), weightlifting and wrestling. The ladies got into the act too, with two teams of brightly dressed women pulling for their lives in a tug of war.
Even our driver (who was actually from Murghab) participated, taking part in the weightlifting competition, where competitors tried to lift an iron ball above their heads as many times as possible. He ended up just making it into the prizes, finishing fifth and winning a dress shirt (or was it a pyjama top? It was white and pink striped…)
As we sat and watched we were constantly being approached by boys and girls wanting their photos taken. While I often hesitate to take photos of people, it was virtually impossible to avoid it in Murghab that day. I think I took more portraits in a single day than in the whole rest of our trip combined!
Proving that children are the same the world over, the boys above were irritating these girls by throwing rocks at them, sparking retaliation in kind (and then stern words from one of their older sisters.)
Sarah with our homestay’s puppy. This little guy was very excitable, wanting to play with anyone who stepped out the door. Which made going out to the toilet in the night something of a challenge if you didn’t want to step on/trip over him
After our second night in Murghab we hit the road again, climbing up and over another mountain pass and leaving the (relative) fertility and civilization of Murghab behind
A couple of hours driving through the desert of the high plateau brought us to the tiny town of Alichur (population not much more than 1000, even in the height of summer) where Chinese truck drivers often stop for a rest on their first day out from Kashgar headed towards Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe
Alichur formed the boundary between the primarily Kyrgyz and Tajik regions of the country. Yurts are decidedly Kyrgyz dwellings, and we were invited to have a look into this one, owned by the family of a 17 year old boy we had a chat with. We were astonished when he happily showed us the title to the house that he’d just purchased. He later told us that he hoped to buy a car by the time he was 20… Slightly different to the usual order of things in Canada or NZ!
Alichur also gave us perhaps the most improbable meal I’ve ever eaten. Fresh fish at over 3000m elevation in a landlocked country
The salt lakes to the west of Alichur provided some of the most dramatic scenery on the whole trip through the Pamirs. Sadly, none of our photos comes close to properly representing the desolate majesty of the place
20km long Yasil Kul, 15km or so along a bumpy, rutted, road off the Pamir highway explains the fresh fish at the restaurants in Alichur. The road towards the lake and the nearby village of Bulunkul was often poor enough that Saghan chose to drive along the bare valley floor instead
Yaks! We hadn’t seen any since our early days in Kyrgyzstan. Yaks are a mainstay of life in the eastern Pamirs, where every square inch of land is over 3000m in elevation. A sign at the tourism development office in Murghab described how in the 1990s the region, cut off from outside assistance during the war, “retreated to a yak-based economy.” All hail the yak!
Sarah at the Bulunkul AWS (Automated Weather Station), adding to the list of wonderfully weird AWS she’s visited during this trip
Another salt lake, this time the smaller Chokor Kul. Described in our guidebook as “teeming with migratory birds,” it was a bit more spare than this. We saw a grand total of five. Perhaps we’d missed the migrations. Or possibly (and I’d be willing to believe it…) five birds actually DOES qualify as “teeming” in the eastern Pamirs
Poo by the side of the road near Chokor Kul. Our driver Saghan looked at me like I was nuts when I was taking this photo. But given the amount of hair in it, and the size (I wish I’d got my hand in for scale…) it had to belong to a large carnivore. I’m not 100% certain, but I believe the only large carnivores in the area is the exceptionally rare snow leopard. If there are any zoologists reading who could positively identify the owner of this poo I’d love to hear about it!
In the first three days of our time in the Pamirs we’d seen only one other tourist (in the Murghab bazaar.) Others were around though, including these two French overland jeeps we crossed paths with. We encountered them on one of the least used sections of roads in the Pamirs (which, of course, have many infrequently used roads!) near the top of the 4344m Khargush Pass, leading out of the eastern Pamirs and to the Wakhan Valley
That’s all for now…
Coming up in the next entry: the Wakhan Valley
Massive Hindu Kush peaks, raging rivers, ancient forts, and the border with Afghanistan’s supremely remote Wakhan corridor!
Tags: Alichur, Badakshan, GBAO, Llew Bardecki, Murgab, Murghab, Pamir, Tajikistan, Travel