“I shall wander the wilds of Central Asia possessed of an insane desire to try the effects of cold steel across my throat”
George Hayward 1839 – 1870
After two weeks of relentless sunshine, departure day opened with the all too familiar patter of raindrops bouncing against the plastic windowpane of the hostel dorm room. We packed up our gear in silence, the mental images of incredible Pamiri mountainscapes fading into nothingness like a PowerPoint effect.
It didn’t happen very often, for me, to be embarking on a journey where the element of travel itself was the aim and purpose of the voyage; in other words, I had – up until now – travelled, covering road (or rail, or air) with the purpose of arriving someplace. Today, to borrow from an often-misused aphorism, the journey was our destination. It was then hardly surprising if, in spite of the gloomy weather, we felt a pang of excitation as we extricated ourselves between omelettes and sticky jam.
There are a handful of ways to “do” the Pamir Highway, which, as the Lonely Planet writer will go to pains to point out, is “the second highest road in the world” (without bothering to mention which one actually held first place). Real travellers would be working their way up its switchbacks on foot, or would peddling overladen bicycles along its long ramps. For both categories, their efforts would be awarded by long hours spent savouring some of the most striking panoramas in the world. Cheaters will be driving or, even worse, be driven. We were cheaters, and of the worst kind, for we would be driven not by a desire to try cold steel across our throats, but by a man called Kudaibergen and his Toyota Land Cruiser.
I wasn’t, and I’m not, extremely fond of car travel. Granted, there are worse ways to go from point to point – coach, or the Piccadilly Line, spring to mind – but thinking automobiles would inevitably conjure, in my mind, images of motorways stuffed with speed cameras, the perennial quest for a parking spot and the relentless tailback aerobics: clutch-first-clutch-second-brake-clutch-first. This time, though, it felt different. I climbed aboard the old purple Land Cruiser with a sense of expectation, for this was the beginning of a long-dreamed trip, I was in a friend’s company and we had a driver who promised to be another.
Kudaibergen was born in Tajikistan, but had the wide, harmonious features – high cheekbones, almond eyes – of a Kyrgyz, and the serene demeanour of a Buddhist monk. We were to spend only one day together and in those hours he revealed himself to be a skilful driver, a great travel companion and an extremely likeable person but – in that Osh parking lot, on the corner of a housing estate – this was still the future. We watched him inspecting is beloved Land Cruiser and then we set off, southbound.
The hills begun immediately after we left Osh. We drove through verdant ridges, following a valley where a torrent had been busy digging a bed so deep, and with such vertical banks, that it felt as if a gigantic meat clavier had been used by a Greek god with some appetite for destruction. This was Kyrgyz country, a land of rich grassland where herds seemingly outnumbered cars 10 to 1. Shepherds’ camps were ubiquitous, with blue metal trailers, Russian-made motorbikes with sidecar and white felt yurt, the latter looking a lot more stable and less likely to rot, decay and fail than any other implement the herders held scattered around the fields.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Travelling with a professional photographer was a novel experience for me, especially if I considered that my arts and crafts skills were bordering zero, and I was being kind with myself. Apart from the constant shuffling of lenses, cleaning of invisible specks of dust, light readings and other activities too technical for my point-and-shoot understanding, there was the restlessness of it. He simply never, ever, stopped photographing, shuffling from side to side in the car and when windows weren’t enough he’d murmur an apology and eject himself from the Land Cruiser’s cab to pursue the occasion on foot, irrespective of whether we’d stopped or not.
In the ensuing lulls Kudaibergen and I would climb out of the car, him fixing some minuscule part that wasn’t exactly the way he or the Toyota designers figured it to be (I was beginning to suspect, to quote a Dilbert cartoon, that he had the knack for engineering) and I’d be standing beside him, soaking up rain but feeling rather upbeat about it. It was at one such stop, then, that Kudaibergen introduced me to one of the most poignant epics of Kyrgyz history in, as I was to learn was his style, a completely unassuming way.
A monument stood on a hilltop just above us, a stylised yurt with the statue of a venerable old man sat cross-legged in front of it. When I asked Kudaibergen who that man was, he began telling me a story of murder, invading Russian armies and the 50 som banknote; curiously enough, the person embodied in the monument was only a passing supporting actor in this epic. He went by the name of Alymbek and he was the datka or righteous ruler of the lands we were travelling through, which he administered on behalf of the khan of Kokand. Alymbek was born in Gulcha, a village where we’d stopped for petrol, and managed to rally and unite his troops against the Tsarist armies, guided by generals such as Von Kaufman and Skobelev, the one who once said that, in Asia, the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter inflicted upon the enemy. “The harder you hit them, the longer they remain quiet” he concluded.
Alymbek datka died early on in our story, killed – in 1862, as I was to discover – in a palace coup in Kokand, where he’d gone to act as a regent for the teenage khan. Despite the monument, he wasn’t the one for whom Kudaibergen had the greatest amount of respect. He indeed fished a crumpled 50 som note out of his walled, studiously unfurled it on the bonnet and pointed a finger at the thoughtful image of a woman, an elderly lady wrapped in an elaborate headgear, half turban half headscarf. She, he said, was Kurmanjan, wife of Alymbek. He might’ve had the statue on the hill, but she was on the banknote, and that was telling.
Born in 1811 from a nomadic clan in the Altai Mountains, Kurmanjan needn’t long to prove that she didn’t fit the job description of the remissive Kyrgyz woman. Aged 18, she was given in spouse to a man whom he’d never seen before; on the wedding day, upon finally meeting him, she decided he wasn’t of his liking and fled back to her father’s encampment, near the Chinese border. Her meeting with Alymbek must’ve been more successful if she agreed to marry him in 1832; they still were together when, 30 years later, news reached her of her widowhood.
Normally, following Alymbek’s death, some other male member of his family would’ve taken his place as dakta, but not on Kurmanjan’s watch. As it was shown in a triumphant scene in Queens of the Mountains, Kyrgyzstan’s only blockbuster, she rose up to power, obtaining the approval of both the khan of Khokand and the emir of Bukhara, the highest authority – politically and religiously – in pre-Tsarist Central Asia, who even met her in person in Osh. Kurmanjan thus became general and governor of her people at the time when being either was a difficult, thankless and possible doomed-to-fail job. The khanate – and all local forms of government – were in facts in terminal decline, suffering an accelerate obsolescence at the hand of the Tsar’s army, which had gained an aura of invincibility.
Her greatest success, I was to learn after that chance encounter in the Kyrgyz countryside, wasn’t won on the battlefield. She didn’t beat the Russians, because she couldn’t; horsemen couldn’t do much against European soldiery. Rather, her greatest achievement was to realise that, and to urge her people to accept the status quo and the new Russian rule coming from the north. It mustn’t have been an easy decision to make, but she stuck to it even when her son was sentenced for arms smuggling and sent to the gallows. By doing this, though, she ensured a light-touch government from the new Russian overlords – who, as history was to show, weren’t above using tactics worth of Attila when faced with rebellion – and, in the long term, the surviving of her people’s customs, beliefs and autonomy. Her skills were recognised by the Russians, who dubbed her Tsaritsa Alaia, Queen of the Alai, a name etched in history in this corner of the world.
Sary-Tash is the last village before the border and, crucially, the last chance for a hot meal this side of Murghab, Tajikistan. As far as cities went, Sary-Tash didn’t cut a particularly flattering figure as we drove closer; oa sunny day, with the vast valley stretching as far as the eye could see, framed by the hulking slopes of the Pamirs, the location would’ve made for a more impressive view, but today’s low clouds and drizzle gave me the distinct impression of having arrived at the end of the world.
Sary-Tash: a smattering of low, squat buildings sprinkled across the plain without a great deal of order or harmony, surmounted by gnarled electricity poles planted at odd angles and seemingly without logic. A petrol station stood at the edge of town like an odd gate guardian, two shy toddlers looking at us from the shop’s doorstep. Yellow pipes snaked all around the village, mostly accompanied by abandoned vehicles. We parked under a precipitation that felt more sleet than drizzle, and got out, following Kudaibergen. Despite its depressed looks, I felt some sympathy for Sary-Tash, for I’d always felt some for that sort of transient, forgotten places, the kind of towns that weren’t given a second glance by visitors; I was born in one such place.
Kudaibergen led us to an izba that didn’t look any different from the ones to its left or right, were it not for a small sign proclaiming, perhaps optimistically, “Hotel”. Inside, past a set of double doors, was a room sparsely furnished with plastic chairs and tables, a counter and a few shelves of non-perishable groceries. A shy-looking girl and a well-used menu, laminated in plastic, finished the ensemble. Hotel, convenience store and restaurant.
Over a lunch of manty, lukewarm Baltika beer and tea, alone in a room with another six plastic tables, Kudaibergen told us his story. If I close my eyes, now, I can see him again: sitting composed, hands on the table edge, eyes down, his pile cap and phone placed on the empty seat beside him, a shy smile on his face whenever he raised his head to look at us. A former assistant teacher of Chinese at Biškek university, he’d to quit academia to serve table in Russia, for the pay for professors was only $100 a month.
“Russia was not good for me” he summarised, rather embarrassedly. He’d lasted two years there, before returning home and – stupidly – I asked why he’d done so. He raised his eyes to meet mine and repeated that it simply wasn’t good, but his looks and hand – mimicking a punch – told me everything I needed to know, so much that I regretted, and still do, asking him that. It wasn’t infrequent, for Central Asian immigrants, to fall victim to real pogroms by the hands of Russian xenophobes, even amongst the law enforcement, and I’d just asked Kudaibergen to remember all of that. Back in Kyrgyzstan he’d applied for an American visa, failed, and resolved to learn English. He had been at it for six weeks now, and already he reached a level that Italian students couldn’t even dream to achieve after years. “Driving tourists helps” he smiled shyly at our congratulations.
We left Sary-Tash soon thereafter and I was deep in thought about what we’d just learned about our driver. We took left as the main highway continued right, and almost immediately our road degraded to a hole-ridden sheep track, whilst snow stuck to the telegraph poles like flies on sticky paper. “It’s worse in Tajikistan” commented Kudaibergen, and we didn’t believe him. But he was right.
Two gigantic golf-ball made of concrete, part of an old Russian radar installation, were the partying gifts of Kyrgyzstan. Then it was only the road, the clouds and us. At times the clouds would lift for the briefest of moments, and our world enlarged tenfold to reveal that the road was in fact running on the margin of an enormous valley dug for millennia by an incomprehensibly large glacier, constellated by boulders the size of houses. In those fleeting moments it felt as if we were space explorers and, all of a sudden, the whole galaxy had opened up to greet us.
Switchbacks soon arrived. The weather closed back in, and the Land Cruiser thermometer collapsed to 20F. By now the road was distinguishable only by a handful of concrete pillars placed on both sides at regular intervals, but more often than not I realised that, had it been me driving, I’d have gone straight whilst Kudaibergen drove us up the bend.
He really looked more in his element that he’d done since our departure from Osh. He wore a pair of old sunglasses, slapped in the low range gears and drove on with confidence but not with cockiness. Two of the protagonists of one of my favourite Stephen King novels, Dreamcatcher, had a gift, the one of finding the right way no matter what, often indicated by a yellow line in the ground; as we climbed higher and higher I began to wonder whether Kudaibergen didn’t see the same thing.
A red billboard appeared out of the murk after clearing the Kyrgyz border, deep into the deserted no man’s land. I couldn’t read what its Cyrillic letters said, but the numerals – 4,282 – were unequivocal. We posed for photos, Kudaibergen joining obligingly, too polite perhaps to point out that the highest spot of the road, at 4,655 meters – was still to come.
If order posts are in any way, shape or form indicative of the country they guard access to, then Tajikistan was definitely going to be an interesting place, in the “raised eyebrows” sense of the term. Officialdom, still enacted with conscience by those who saw us off from Kyrgyzstan, had gone completely out of the window over in Tajikistan. Perhaps it was because there were no glass panes left intact in the first hut we stopped at, marked “Customs”. Out of it emerged a number of men, five or six, who had evidently had to share three full uniform sets: one had the trousers, one the padded coat, another the jacket. The rest was made of Adidas tracksuits and slippers. The only things they all were given were the Kalashnikovs.
The commander of the group asked if three of his men could use our car to reach Karakul, some hours downhill; given that he was holding our passports, the answer couldn’t be anything but an enthusiastic yes. Having increased our party, the only other thing that remained to do was to be stamped into the country, an enterprise that assumed farcical tones. We drove a couple of meters to the kind of garden shed that unscrupulous tenants in London would put up for rent as a self-contained maisonette; here, instead, it consisted of four naked walls, one old school desk cluttered by a Kalashnikov and a register like those of hotels in days gone by, a cast iron stove alimented by cow dung and the least martial border guards ever, to the point that I originally mistook them for truckers having gone a bit too feral.
Our new travel mates wore camo trousers and those leather jackets that were the real uniform of the piece of world stretching from Sarajevo to Kashgar. They didn’t share any of Kudaibergen’s ascetic Mongolic traits, looking instead like Mediterranean fishermen; amongst them they spoke a soft, harmonic language that had nothing of the guttural sounds of the Turkic family of idioms. They were indeed Tajiks, and we’d just crossed not just a physical watershed, but a demographic one as well: from the grasslands to the deserts, from the Kyrgyz world to the Iranian one. The language our newfound companions spoke, in facts, was nothing more than a Farsi dialect.
Generation of travellers passed through these lands en route to somewhere and, almost inevitably, left disheartened comments in their wake. A Chinese pilgrim named Hiuen Tsang, as early as the VII century AD noted gloomily that, since “the soil is almost constantly frozen, you see a few miserable plants and no crops can live”. Marco Polo’s convoy marched through here some six centuries after and clearly time hadn’t done the Pamir any good, for he labelled it “nothing but a desert without habitation or any given thing”. Francis Younghusband, the stiff-upper-lipped Lieutenant of the Dragoons whom I was to meet – figuratively, of course – a few more times down the road wasn’t a lot more congratulatory: these lands were, for him, “desolate” and “barren to the extreme”.
Yet, despite a barrel-load of discouragement spanning centuries and cultures, I was becoming increasingly addicted to these views, to its colours – the browns, the tans, the greys, the whites – and its pure, unfiltered emptiness. Buzz Aldrin’s “Magnificent desolation” was my favourite quote of the Apollo 11 lunar landing party; as we drove on in silence I felt I could begin to appreciate what he meant.
A man-made line, a scar on the pristine ground, ran parallel to the road to our left. It was an endless theory of telegraph poles, but what lied strung between their outstretched arms wasn’t an electric cable; rather, it were lines after lines of barbed wire, four deep. More of it was woven between the poles themselves, creating a net, a cage for the tumbleweeds, a wall separating nothing from nothing. It was a desolating, unsettling view under those dark skies. I felt it was a taster of what Mr Trump had in mind, ready made with less than a fraction of the fanfare, for no Hollywood actor had ever protested against the Neutrality Line as Kudaibergen said its name was, being erected between Tajikistan and China. The impassable Tajik soldier riding pillion above the transmission box grimly commented in Russian, and Kudaibergen translated: the wall lied fourteen km inside Tajikistan’s territory.
We drove on through the desert, crossing path with two trucks riding in the opposite direction, our first companions since the Kyrgyz border. My mind begun to wander, playing on a loop the most memorable rhythms from Talking Timbuctou, the album that Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré recorded together in Mali and that seemed so apt for this place, certainly more than the stale Russian disco that we’d been suffering through since Osh. To our left the neutral line continued, impenetrable, above ridges and plains. Then, by a small gully, a gap appeared. Three poles had fallen, their barbed wire netting bundled in a confused tangle in the dirt. This, I guessed, was why walls don’t work.
Karakul Lake appeared behind a cloud, first like a pale blue mirage, and then gathering more and more credibility as the road drew us closer. A collection of ramshackle buildings lied as an afterthought on the near shore, pale against a dark mountain background. Karakul village looked as if a slow-moving monster had hit it, and then spent some time chewing ponderously the remains. Amongst the inhabited compounds, walled fortresses with seldom a window facing the rocky roads outside, lied the gutted shells of abandoned houses: roofs caving in, doors missing, walls blackened by the smoke and anything of value long since gone. Our Tajik companions dismounted and walked towards a military installation, a forest of antennae lying behind a low, sun-bleached wall. Barely a soul stirred around the roads, not a splash of colour adorned the place. Kudaibergen grabbed the steering wheel. “It’s hard to live here” he said, looking into the distance. “Very, very, cold”. We believed him.
We drove to the shore. With the exception of two lonely-looking cows, we were alone. Clouds raced each other across the sky. It was dark and cold on our side of the lake, but the island standing in the middle gleaned in the sort of light that Vermeer would’ve used for one of his paintings. I had jotted down a number of quotes from travellers who preceded us on this route, Younghusband being one of them. Remembering that he’d been along these shores, I fished out my notebook and read his impressions as he stood on the foreshore one day in 1891.
“A terrific wind was blowing, washing the water into waves till the whole was a mass of foam. Heavy snow clouds were scuttling across the scene and through them, beyond the tossing lake, could be seen dark rocky masses; and high above all this turmoil below appeared the calm, majestic Peak Kaufman”.
I closed my notepad and glanced around. Kudaibergen was ready to go, having tended again to his car; around us, it seemed that nothing had changed from when it was a young Dragoon lieutenant, not us, to be standing on these shores.