The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part III


“’Tis said to be the highest place in the world”
Marco Polo
Looking back, the handful of hours we spent on the road between Karakul and the Tajik town of Murghab were my favourite of the entire journey. It wasn’t because of specific highlights, or some particular memorable points; rather, I felt that the entire journey between those two villages was continuously brilliant; at every corner, the road kept on giving.
We met two cyclists as we left Karakul, indomitable forerunners of the dozens that were to follow them as the season continued, and a man braving the shoddy tarmac on nothing but an old, 1st series Volkswagen Golf. Then the road was ours for hours, dust devils our only companions.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
The landscape was, to put it mildly, a triumph. As we climbed atop Ak-Baital pass, 4,655 meters, we crossed an invisible border between the low-pressure front that had been following since Osh, and what lied ahead. And what awaited us was truly magnificent.
We stood on a rocky outcrop that, had it been in Europe, would’ve made it amongst the top-five tallest places in the continent; yet we were dwarfed left right and centre by mountains that seemingly stretched into the mesosphere. Looking down ahead, it was even better. An enormous valley opened before our plucky little car, so large that the pass we were standing on seemed nothing more than a side entrance. Space, untarnished by human meddling, rolled on for kilometres, until yet more mountains rose sharply to close off the perspective, revealing nothing but the promise of more mountains and more valleys, as spectacular as this one.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Nothing betrayed the presence of man. The Highway’s asphalt had since long decayed into a state not too dissimilar from the dust encroaching it on both sides, and was barely visible. Apart from that, nothing stirred. No houses, no ski pistes drawn onto the mountain sides, no pastures irrigated with sprinklers, no Goddamned skilifts or snow cannons, only the gigantic disco-ball effect of the alternation of sunlight and clouds on the sand and rock.
Rivers, in this corner of the world, are the true Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We were seeing them in their tamest guise, nothing more than bubbling streams of clear water slowly making its way downhill, so shallow that one could ford even the largest of them simply by taking his shoes off and rolling the trousers only halfway up the shinbone. However, one had only to look at the Murghab river’s bed to appreciate their wilder side. The road arrived to a large wound in the ground, where aeons of floods had dug a veritable canyon through the soft ground; a bridge made of prefabricated concrete, which had once linked the two banks, lied in tatters, its pieces dragged downstream by the waters. Undaunted, the Highway had found, as it was to do countless times later, a way around the problem: the old road was blocked by large rocks and fluttering rags strewn across the carriageway, whilst a new set of tracks swerved to the left, down the slope, through the water and then back up again. A solution had been found, but for how long it was anyone’s guess.
We stopped shortly afterwards to fill up the tires. I elected to walk a little bit further. The road followed the course of the valley, gently arching behind a spur that, as we were to discover later, hid Murghab from view. It was approaching sunset. We were in the light but, still, clouds from Kyrgyzstan lurked in the side-lines, exalting the contrast between the golden hues drawn on the mountains to the east and a darkening sky. To my left, growing larger and larger the further ahead I walked, opened another enormous U-shaped valley leading east towards inevitably spectacular mountains. I knew where we were.
This was the very place that caused Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, so many sleepless nights that I could almost picture him tossing and turning in his bed in Calcutta or Simla. This was the place whose occupation by British forces had been implored, suggested, commanded and pleased by hundreds of Russophobe pamphlet-writers in London. This was one of the epicentres of the Great Game. The Pamir Gap.
A wide corridor – the one we were driving along – linked the northern steppe, already in Russian hands, to Wakhan and, from there, to the Panjshir valley, Kabul and the Khyber Pass. Another – the one I was looking at – led to China, if one was to take to the left, or to Pakistani Kashmir to the right. This was the junction, Britain felt, whence the marauding Cossacks could gather and then steamroll down, towards the rich plain of the Ganges.
Britain came to know of the existence of this monumental, glacier-made Piccadilly Circus thanks to one Lieutenant Thomas E. Gordon, one of a seemingly endless rank of British Indian army officers that were granted “shooting leave” and were given a small entourage to ramble around Central Asia to their hearts’ content. It was him who, en route to Xinjiang – or Chinese Turkestan as it was known then – found out that the gap preserved “its even surface right up the high ranges and ridges which stand out and rise from it, without any ondulating or broken ground […]. The appearance thus presented is strikingly like that of high bold headlands rising from the sea”.
This image, contained in his best-selling book (Great Game travelogues were Victorian Britain’s equivalent of today’s vegan recipe books, or J.K. Rowling’s latest novel), was designed to evoke gasps of horror in the Empire-loving readers, for it was all too easy to imagine the Gap as a seaway, and the seaway chock-a-block with Tsarists longships packed with booty-thirsty Cossacks bound for India.
The worries of men with handlebar moustaches who lived 140 years ago faded into the background as I continued walking along the Highway, climbing an imperceptible knoll. Apart for our lonely Toyota, nothing and no one was visible for kilometres all around me. As I stood there I was reminded again of Apollo 11 and of his command module pilot, Mike Collins, the one who didn’t land on the Moon and the one I’d always found the most interesting of that trio of explorers. Of his first solo crossing of the dark side of our satellite, he said: “three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side”. I knew I was stretching it, but standing there I began to have an idea of what he must’ve felt.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
– § –
How does San Miguel must look like when there’s no Clint Eastwood fomenting the Rojos against the Baxters and vice versa? Probably a lot like Murghab, Gorno-Badakhshan.
We stayed at a homestay that boasted flush toilets and heated showers, both commodities worth boasting in a place where no houses had running water and pumps bought by the EU and the Aga Khan were everything people had to wash and cook. In addition to these comforts, the house featured frosted windows enriched with pineapple motifs and a full set of Angry Birds quilts. The clientele included a young Belgian couple, another small platoon of the army of cyclists scattered along the Highway, and a Tajik trucker who kept us suitably well supplied with vodka over a dinner of cow liver, potatoes and fresh vegetables.
Roll the clock back 200 years and Murghab didn’t exist, save for some nomad encampment, so transient that it didn’t even yield a name. But then came the Great Game, and things changed pretty quickly. We’d seen, along the way, the ruins of a fortified house, built by the river at the time of Tsar Nicholas. It was, however, in an unfortunate position, not quite close enough to the real Piccadilly Circus to control it, and in facts it didn’t last long. What was needed was something like Murghab.
In 1892 a battalion of Cossacks, led by a lieutenant Michail Ionov – who was to gather considerable notoriety in Britain only a few months later – set up camp in the wide plain where we, too, were staying. In little time an outpost was built and christened with the rather unimaginative name of “Pamirsky Post” (if there ever was something that the Cossacks lacked, I suspect that it was marketing skills). It was, however dedicated these rugged men were, a tough place to live in. It snowed whilst we were there, and it was June. “How these Russian soldiers can support existence there is a marvel”, Younghusband – who visited the valley before the Post was built – was begrudgingly forced to admit.
Murghab’s shortcomings couldn’t be ignored, the altitude – it had been USSR’s highest village from its incorporation into the Union until Tajikistan’s independence – had its drawbacks and there was a distinct air of decay, as if it was the day after a natural cataclysm worth of a Hollywood disaster film, but I felt the place growing on me. If I were to say why, I’d say it was the light. I’d read, somewhere, a story that I believed apocryphal but that I liked to think true, according to which “Murghab” was an erroneous Tajik transposition of “Nurkap”, a Kyrgyz word that the first settlers gave to this place when they moved next to Pamirsky Post. Nurkap meant ‘beam of sunlight’ and today, as the sun sunk slowly behind the mountains, I found it an incredibly fitting name.
It was the end of the road for our travelling companionship with Kudaibergen. We hugged and then we watched drive back towards the China-bound truckers’ accommodation. I’d hired him by chance, after having doubts over the paucity of shared taxis on the road we were due to ride on, and I was sad to be parting ways with him.
We went for a quick wander around Murghab as the sun fell behind the mountains. It was late, but the village was buzzing with activity. Be it playing volley, pumping water into buckets or simply standing guard at the army base, undoubtedly knocking one day off from those remaining until the end of the conscription, everyone seemed keen to make good use of the light whilst there still was some (lampposts seemed in short supply). Then, as soon as a cold penumbra invaded the plain, they all scattered whilst the pungent smell of dried dung fires puffed out of the tin chimneys.
Mornings don’t get much crispier than they are at 3,800 meters of altitude. Fumbling with my jacket and boots, both perennially covered in dust, I elected to go out for a walk to see Murghab stretch and get out of bed, my dinner companions nowhere to be seen. The night’s sleet had left a dusting of snow on the upper peaks that border the valley; in the crystalline air of the morning, it felt that one only had to extend his arm to be able to touch it.
A handful of elderly men – ascetic Kyrgyz, serene faces beneath their Kalpak hat, and Taijks sporting long, white goatees – ambled around the dusty sidewalks, studying thoughtfully each pebble, hands tied behind their backs. Besides them, the trickle of kids in school uniform and beanie hat became a torrent streaming towards a series of buildings I’d mistaken, a day earlier, for a chicken farm, erupting in waves of “Hello!” each time the foreigner happened to cross their path. Two women pushed a wheelbarrow laden with a broken table. From the steps of the bank – where no cash was issued – and the exchange office – where no currency was traded – throngs of layabouts oversaw unfathomably Murghab’s rush hour.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
A slender white obelisk stood next to a building housing some obscure public office. A curious blend of Soviet iconography and nomadic artworks flanked Murghab’s monument to the glorious dead of the Great Patriotic War, their names listed scrupulously in tiny font on two dark stone steles. There were seemingly hundreds of names crowding around an eternal flame now long gone. On the other side of the road, slightly below than from where we were standing, a white statue gave us the shoulders, busy addressing a crowd clearly more interested in chatting amongst them than in listening to whatever its message could’ve been.
Lenin’s statue, here, was a lot less imposing – and refined – than its cousin over in Osh. It looked coarse, roughly cut out from a slab of white stone, its expression the one of a man who’d just legged it above the highlands from Kyrgyzstan and all he wanted was a pint and none of this revolution malarkey. Around it, men in civvies and in uniforms kept talking on, ignoring the pleading Lenin, their small sons waving shyly at us.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
We walked into a neighbourhood of hovels that clung on to the escarpment below an Army base that looked as if it’d just suffered a major kitchen accident, judging by the charred buildings and the crumbling outer walls. By accident more than by design, we walked into somebody’s backyard, attracted like moths first by the lime-green carcass of a rare Zaporozhets sedan, then by the views. A massive dog, a hulking beast of sand-coloured fur, rose on all four, sniffed in our direction, sneezed and then sat down again. “Duh, tramps” I could feel its canine brains thinking.
A door opened, revealing a man in a zipped-up fleece and pile sailor hat, coupled with the mandatory Adidas tracksuit bottoms. With all likelihood, the owner of dog, courtyard and possibly even of the Zapo. We expected to be kicked out of his property, as it was the norm all the world over; instead, he gave me another example of the second reason why I felt Murghab growing on me. With the naturalness that we’d by now learnt to associate with the locals, he saluted us in the polite Islamic way – hand on heart, “Salaam aleikum” – and then shook our hands, as if it was absolutely normal to find foreigners nosing around his ‘yard, and then proceeded, in a halting English, to introduce us to the views.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
We stood on the margin of the Murghab River plain, at the extreme border of the city; beyond it, no other building dared braving the seasonal floods but for a yurt with a fence and four minuscule minarets – “Ismaili majid” confirmed our unnamed host. Past the verdant wetland, were a lone calf grazed, the ground rose sharply, losing colour as it went. Dark green immediately gave way to a paler shade, and then it was prairie yellow where banks of sand and pebble lied abandoned by the last passing of melt waters. Even that didn’t last long, for a mammoth cliff of rock and snow followed suit. “Gank Mountain” said our newly appointed guide. I was later to search for that peak, but without success; hardly a surprise in a place where there was such an abundance of summits that it defied the Soviet cartographers’ will to name them and the alpinists to climb them.
Before retreating again indoors our host, ever so gentle, pointed up the valley and said “China”. He then looked to the south-west, following the course of the wide corridor, past a few rickety bushes, and said “Khorog”.
That was our next destination.
This entry was posted in Asia, Tajikistan and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part III

  1. Zaporožec! 🙂 Might be that our preferred vistas are diametrically reversed, but you add all the colours with your words.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. J.D. Riso says:

    Breathtaking starkness in those photos. What can you say when you are confronted with such a panorama? I can imagine it was easy to feel like an explorer out there. Adidas tracksuits seem to be the post-Soviet uniform of choice. I’m curious…was it difficult to arrange this trip?


    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Julie! Since I’m a poet, what I did say when we stopped just outside Murghab and looked at the incredible space all around us was “Fuck me, this is incredible”. Yeah, I know, Neil Armstrong’s got nothing on me when it comes to memorable comments, huh?
      Arranging this trip wasn’t that hard, I’ve to say. Some elements – accommodation, chiefly – was left to the day, especially when it was about homestays, but the rest was mainly organised on the internet, Caravanistan being a very good starting point… Plus, everything seems quite easy there, everyone knows someone who has a cousin that can help you, and you generally go with the flow. We found a cabbie for our last, 15-hours-long, stretch that way. I’m finding it a lot more confusing to organise a trip through the more urbane Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (any tips welcome!)


  3. Amazing storytelling! I could almost smell the air and the feel it on my face with your words 🙂 Just wondering, is June – August a good time to visit Central Asia? I read on blogs that it offers good windows, weather-wise, but it would be great to hear your firsthand opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Thanks Julia, glad you liked the post.
      Ah, weather! Bear in mind that Central Asia is as big as Europe, so you have anything and everything from high mountains to boiling deserts. However, since you asked…
      Roughly, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have milder winters and very hot summers. Kazakhstan can still be cold (in minus C) in the steppe, and go to the thirties C in the summer. The mountains (SE Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan but for Ferghana, East Tajikistan) are cool throughout. However it’s really a world apart: I was in Murghab and it snowed, and two days later I was in Dušanbe, 600km away, and it was 35C.
      Rainwise it’s fair to say that, the further south you go, and the furthest away from the mountains you go, the less it rains.
      Hope it helps!


  4. lexklein says:

    You and the ‘Stans … I am envious of your various trips in the region. I’ve got such a fascination with this part of the world and just about no way to get there and do this on my own, I feel. I read your post slowly and carefully, then pulled out a map and followed your route (including the next stop). I want to step into that lovely desolation and feel what it’s like to be in those (sort of) famous gaps and passes and moonscapes. At one point, I found a group taking the slow road around five of these countries but I passed it up, and now that trip is no more – no takers, they say. I’d organize it on my own, but intrepid though I may be in some parts of the world, I can’t see myself there on my own. What do you think? Or should I be doing a much better job convincing my husband of the charms?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Want my honest opinion, Lexi? Convince the hubby. Hide his beer. Threaten to give him a Juventus season ticket and force him to watch every single game they play. Change the shape of the cushion on his favourite armchair. Do the knot of his shoes’ strings after he’s taken them off. Anything!
      I don’t want to oversimplify Central Asia, or make it too easy to visit – there are oddities, cops can be quite dodgy and I hear certain border crossings can be quite hairy – but you’ve been to countries that are a lot less safe than most Central Asian ones. If you need any tips, ideas or advice let me know, I’ll drop you a line.


  5. Steven says:

    Great writing! I hardly ever finish a travel blog but I read this one til the end.

    I answered your post on the site as well in case you missed it:

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue: Travels in Central Asia. | Are we there yet?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.