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

To Khorog.

“Recent years have struck a final crippling blow to the roadlessness
of Kirgiziia […]. Instead of isolated districts there is now one connected and unified economic whole.”
M.M. Slavinskii, 1935
A minute man waited for us in the dusty courtyard. He stood up as we returned from a walk into town, looked at the landlady – who nodded vigorously – and came to greet us. He pistoned forward a hand, beamed a smile and said “My name Komron, driva”, succeeding in introducing himself and exhausting his English vocabulary at the same time. Still, it was a lot bigger than my Russian one.
In spite of the klingonesque assonance between their names, Komron and Kudaibergen, our two drivers up to that point, couldn’t be more different from one another. Our Kyrgyz friend was tall and slender, his Tajik colleague short and stocky; Kudaibergen was pale and hairless, Komron looked as tanned as a Sicilian fisherman and seemed the kind of chap who’d shave at 6 AM and could do with another pass of the Bic before the clock hit 10.
They did, however, have some common traits. Both were young, quick to smile and desirous to communicate, even though the language barrier seemed more akin to a tall wall. Both had a quiet adoration for their vehicles, which in Komron’s case consisted of a tattered Hyundai minivan, toughened and robust but seemingly no match for the road we were on. Both, finally, wore as much Adidas garments as humanly possible, with Komron going to the extent of sticking two gigantic copies of the brand’s logos on his van.
A couple of gesticulating conversations later and we were ready to go. A sharp bend to the left was all that was needed for Murghab – whose last inhabitant we were to see was a Kyrgyz man riding a sidecar – to disappear as if it’d never existed. We stopped at a check-point in the large, verdant valley and piled out of the van while Komron went on to negotiate with the officers of the law. The checkpoint consisted of a prefab hut, a pole strewn across the road, two cops, a truck with two drivers and a three-legged-dog.
Click on any photos to start the slideshow.
Pretty soon the trip assumed, for me, dreamy connotations, whether because of the panoramas of canyons and dried-up salt lakes or because of the effect of breathing unburnt petrol (which the van seemed prone to discharge into the cab rather than into the combustion chambers) I didn’t and don’t know. In any case, it was hard not to be carried away, yet again, by the spectacle of nature kindly offered by Tajikistan.
The sun was shining and we were careering down a large valley. Around us cliffs of sedimentary rocks, stratum after stratum of organic matter orderly stacked like pancakes, were thrusted skywards at impossible angles. I ransacked whatever memory of high school geology remained in the colander of my brains, and remembered that sedimentary rocks were typical of the seabed, being formed by the remnants of millions of years’ worth of dead mollusks and fishes. Yet here they were, arcing their way north of 5,000 meters. Amongst them, canyons appeared almost without warning, and down them we descended, the Highway zig zagging between the walls of clay powder, bringing a crippling blow to the “roadlessness of Kirgiziia”.
Click on any photos to start the slideshow.
Every now and then we encountered large snowfields, where the streams still had to work their way through walls of the white stuff. In other occasions a turn revealed a panorama of soft rolling hills covered in white tiger streaks against a backdrop of tall mountains. We were travelling along a time machine, dancing between summer and winter – with a sprinkle of spring thrown in for good measure – in the space of a valley.
We didn’t encounter any vehicles up until Alichur, but that didn’t mean that we were absolutely on our own on the highway. A herdsman cruised in the opposite direction, conducing two sturdy ponies somewhere we can only imagine. Flocks of sheep hunted for grass amongst the rocks. Two men with bulging packs on their shoulders worked their way towards Murghab. I found myself envying them deeply, wondering how it must’ve been to be able to walk instead of driving, savouring and discovering anew the views that we could see only briefly through the windows of our van.
Click on any photos to start the slideshow.
It is cliché to say that a place has a certain “frontier-town-feel”, but it was a platitude that fitted Alichur like a glove. Dusty roads with walled compounds raising from the ground as if they were excrescences of the Earth, a smattering of tin-roofed buildings with faded posters hanging from their walls, a school with a skeletal playground, the usual jumble of telegraph poles. A man in bicycle drove past us and, when asked by Komron about the whereabouts of the bank, looked at him as if he’d just confessed an irrepressible desire to stroll across town clad in a mankini and plastic flippers.
Corinne, an intrepid pensioner from someplace near Hamburg, had hitched a ride with us. She was travelling on her own and had her eyes set on the Wakhan valley, the large corridor separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. We, instead, were going on along the Highway proper, towards Khorog. Now, it would normally be preposterous of me to claim the paternity of good, perhaps even crucial, ideas – “He got it. Just one minute too late” could well be a good epitaph for my tombstone – but this time I can safely claim that if the German Federal Foreign Office didn’t have to mount an international search-and-rescue mission for Corinne they had to thank yours truly. See, her idea was to get us to drop her at the actual junction for the Wakhan valley, some 50 kilometers south of Alichur and whilst I appreciated her “Good-things-happen-to-good-people” attitude, I was feeling a lot less Hakuna Matata about the prospective of leaving somebody alone on a road where we hadn’t seen any car yet, on a high mountain pass, with only the shelter that could be granted by a Jack Wolfskin fleece jacket. Long story short, we managed to persuade her to leave us at Alichur and to check into a house marked “Guest House” in blue letters.
Past Alichur the road became a lot worse for wear, but the views were something out of an Andean altiplano. Dry lake beds mingled with specs of water of a turquoise blue, whilst the mountains brought up to the rear as we climbed up and up again. In one of the most surreal experiences of the entire journey Komron, who had no idea of our nationality, chose this precise moment to play Toto Cotugno’s most famous song. We bounced from pothole to pothole with him telling anyone who’d cared to listen that they’d better let him sing, for he was a real Italian, as mountains and salt pans and desert rolled past our windows. I knew that Toto Cotugno, together with other 1980s Italian pop stars, had gathered something of a following in the former Soviet Union, but to have the peninsula’s answer to Tom Petty bleating out of a car stereo in the middle of the Gorno Badakhshan region of Tajikistan was uncanny. It felt like finding Paul Newman’s own salad dressing at a roadside café in Vietnam, or discovering a Nickelback fan amongst the Taliban.
Click on any photos to start the slideshow.
The junction for Wakhan came soon afterwards, and it looked exactly as I thought it’d be: high, exposed, forlorn and absolutely lonely. I spent the briefest of the moments congratulating myself for having spared Corinne from this, and then I found myself floating, weightless, above my seat. We’d hit the mother of all potholes; a crater, in fact. Komron stalled the engine and, with the same urgency of a parent who’d seen his child fall off the swing, catapulted himself outside. We followed soon.
We looked under the bonnet, and then waited a little for the dust to settle and Komron to bring a torchlight. To our left, a ridge was all that separated us from the road leading to Afghanistan; it was on this road that, in August 1891, one of the periodic incidents of the Great Game flared up.
Protagonist of this diplomatic crisis was, once again, the ineffable Francis Younghusband. The mop-mustached lieutenant was in Kashgar, keeping a close eye on the perennially scheming Cossacks, when he caught wind of a possible Russian occupation of the Pamir Gap. Somebody had to check it out, and that somebody was him. Gathering just the most basic necessaries – tents, servants, pack horses and field kitchen – he set off at once, crossing into the country from the Wakhan valley.
It was less than a day’s gallop from where we were standing checking our Hyundai’s radiator that, on August 13th, 1891, Younghusband pulled his tent’s flap open to see twenty or so Cossacks, guided by six officers and preceded by the Tsarist flag, trotting towards his encampment.
These were, without a shadow of a doubt, gentler times. Had this sort of Mexican standoff happened today, it’d have inevitably escalated into a firefight, or a drone attack, or even worse a live Facebook video. But this was 1891, when women wore tweed gowns and men starched collars, even in the heat of the African jungle. Younghusband, in facts, saw the approaching Cossacks and reacted by ordering his butler to fetch one of his business cards – I can almost see them, arranged in a neat pile inside a mother of pearl box – and to bring it to the Russians. Because even if it was true that they were in the no-man’s-land between Turkestan and Afghanistan, manners were still manners.
Click on any photos to start the slideshow.
What followed was as Victorian as the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Younghusband and his Russian counterpart – who turned out to be the same Colonel Ionov who was to establish Pamirsky Post – began a wood grouse ritual made of reciprocal invites for supper, toasts to Queen and Tsar and furtive glances at each other’s gear to see who’d brought more bling. Younghusband was delighted to note that his quarters were more luxurious than the Russians’ (and I could imagine his book’s readers at the news, caressing their mutton chop beards and muttering “By Jove, that’ll teach the Ivans!”) but he was forced to admit that their catering – which included plenty of vodka, brandy, wine, fresh vegetables and stews “Such as native servants from India never seem able to imitate” – was a lot better (and here I could see his readers slamming their fists on the armrest, cursing the damned sepoys).
It was all for nothing. Three days later, as Younghusband was about to call it a night, he was visited by thirty Cossacks, still headed by Ionov, who informed him that the brief season of their high-altitude dinners and toasts in French to their monarchs had come to an end, for he’d received orders to escort the Brit back into China, a duty that, he hastened to add, “very much disliked to perform”. Younghusband could do nothing but obey, and the whole affair would reverberate across diplomatic channels from London to Calcutta and St. Petersburg as soon as it was made public, but not too soon. First, the two sat for another champagne-showered dinner again, because they might’ve been in the Pamirs but manners were still manners.
We, on the other hand, had no champers, no quarters, no fresh vegetables, no delicious stews and certainly no manners. It emerged that the car suffered nothing wrong, much to Komron’s relief, and soldiered on. Soon we began losing altitude as a series of fast switchbacks delivered us in a cloud of dust and hardbass music to lower grounds. Life, there, was flourishing. Huddled between barren mountains and ogled by snowy peaks, our valley grew greener and fertile by the meter. Orchards, woods of tiny poplars, villages and flocks whose main preoccupation was to stand still on the asphalt began appearing one after the other.
Click on any photos to start the slideshow.
We followed a torrent which grew larger and larger until it flowed into an artificial lake; then a bridge carried up a ravine, morphing into a crumbling viaduct, partially encased into the mountain side. Large slits opened on the vertiginous drop as we bounced along the concrete road, again losing altitude. Finally, things we hadn’t seen in a while appeared: sidewalks, houses with more than two stories, billboards, cows munching on the lowest branches of mulberry trees planted by some city council. We’d arrived in Khorog.
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18 Responses to The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part IV.

  1. I love your idea of turquoise. You will never be disappointed. I’ve noticed that Italians (well, one) doesn’t know or care about the song “Insieme (Unite Unite Europe)”, with which Toto won the Eurovision Song Contest 1992 in Zagreb. It was hugely popular around our parts. Do you notice how I tend to pick rare recognisable pieces out of your posts, because all of the rest if not exactly scares then at least intimidates me. I wonder how that woman traveller liked it. Probably she did, because as you say and prove by example, good things do happen to good people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Well, Manja, don’t forget I’m from Piedmont, whose colours are grey and, if it goes well, green. Tertium non datur!
      I didn’t really remember that a) Cotugno went to the Eurovision and b) he actually won!
      The girl we gave a lift to was a real adventurer. I mean, when you’re 18 you’re bound to be reckless, but she really did a great trip.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. richandalice says:

    I’ll take your travel writing over Paul Theroux’s any day of the week.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. J.D. Riso says:

    Klingonesque. Here I am in Nice airport, sitting among a bunch of families, and that word made me laugh out loud. Oh the looks I got. Hahaha. Thanks for another vibrant, evocative account. I much rather be there, in that glorious desolation, than where I am now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Ah-ha, Nice?! So is it the south of France your new digs? I know, I know, being nosy… If it is, then bon courage! And if it isn’t bon courage nonetheless. By the way, I recently used “Klingonesque” in a meeting and only one of my senior stakeholders got it… He was the one who also named his department AT-AT just to use a Star Wars logo. Anyhow, I digress, thank you so much for taking the time to read, Julie, especially when you could be hitting the champagne bar instead.

      Like

  4. lexklein says:

    Klingonesque was just my first water spit out the nose in this reading today. Something about that bleak tableau seems to have brought out the humorist in you; I smiled and chuckled almost the whole way through, with the Nickelback reference leading to a true guffaw. I’m loving this trip of yours and even though I am definitely not as intrepid as Corinne, I’d love to travel this route as well as the others in this series, as you know. This time you didn’t say where next, so I can’t pull my map out again until you continue! How long was this whole road trip?

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Lexi, sorry for accidentally inducing drowning symptoms (should I add some Health & Safety disclaimers? I can hear the lawyers being unleashed…). I’m glad, regardless of how many lawsuits I’ll get, that I managed to convey a bit of the fun we had on the road, it really was a festival of random and odd occurrences as it seemingly is always the case in Central Asia (and, to a lesser extent, the Balkans). I’m also glad the Nickelback analogy worked, for it really was as eerie and incredible, for us, to be listening to Toto Cotugno (after a warm up with Adriano Celentano and some proper chavishness with Eiffel 65) smack-bang in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t end there, because the following driver treated us with a crescendo with Al Bano e Romina and, finally, an incredibly trashy song that you’d normally hear scaffolders sing whenever a scantily clad lady walks by the building site… All this in Italian.
      Anyway, where to next? I’m afraid that it’d be the end of the road, Dušanbe. Ee, quite a journey that one that one was. Anyway, the whole thing took us about 5 days. It can be done in 3, but I’d have wanted to do more, and spend more time in Murghab. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Looks like a pretty epic trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. varasc says:

    Wow. That page made my day. Great story and description, probably one of your best ones. 🙂

    Like

  7. My goodness if only every roadtrip I went on provided such breathtaking scenic landscape.

    Liked by 1 person

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