Hitchhiking the Pamir Highway
The Pamir Highway, starts in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and ends in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. It's 1252km and goes south from Osh to Sary Tash, over the border in to Tajikistan past Karakul lake to Murghab, then west to Khorog and finally to Dushanbe. The highest point along it's route, is the Ak-Baital Pass @4655m. It was built between 1931 and 1934 to facilitate Soviet troop movements throughout the region.
The Pamir Highway, passes thru a remote corner of the world. And remains my favourite place of all time. Its barren in the extreme and as I near the end of my African Overland trip, revamping this article, I am planning a return trip.
I Hitchhiked the Pamir Highway in May 2015. I use the term hitchhiking as I did not hire a jeep from Osh to Murgab as is the usual way, following other backpackers like a lost sheep. There us little to no hitchhiking culture here. You always end up paying for the ride.
From Bishkek to Osh and onto Sary Tash, pictured here, looking down the road towards Tajikistan. It was almost May, the weather still wintery. I waited 5 hours for a ride and in the end I took a taxi to the border.
At the border, once done with the formalities, I had no choice other than to wait. I had no tent, the border guards were not so friendly and it started to snow. I wanted adventure, come on. There is 21km of no mans land between the Krygyz and Tajik border posts. The former is at 3200m, the road then climbs like the proverbial, crossing the Kyzylart Pass @ 4280m before a short downhill section to the Tajik frontier. I was picked up by a family who ran a home stay at Karakol, the village I wanted to get to. They were on their way to Murgab, the biggest town further along and would return to Karakol and open up for the summer season, the next day. It is normal that you always pay for any ride. We did not speak money. They were doing me a massive favour. And when they dropped me off with their neighbours who ran Karakol's other home stay, they were more than happy with 20$.
Home stay Aigerim, named after their daughter. A lovely family. Communication was limited. The man of the family knew about 5 words in English. My Russian had progressed to around 30 words, mostly regarding food, drink, numbers and pleasantries. His wife spoke more and they were organised by the CBT, Community Based Tourism, where they were talked thru the basic needs of us travellers and so they could open their homes to tourists, generating a small income, supplementing their own income generated by breeding, mostly, sheep.
The man fussed over the fire to make sure I was warm enough. In fact I was more than comfortable and I told him in a game of charades that he did not need to use any more of the precious fuel, some scrubby bushes, yet still he brought in more. Things grow very slowly up here at 3900m. There are no trees, just these bushes and winter is long and hard, summer is oh so short.
View down the road from Karakol village @3900m. Traffic is slow up on the Pamir Highway. On the first day, not one vehicle came past. and so slept another night in the rarefied air.
Karakul lake, frozen for most of the year despite being salty. Was formed a millennium ago by a meteorite.
I slept fitfully. My head ached. I had been at Altyn Arashan @2600 for 5 days and also 1 night at Sary Tash 3200m the night before, overnighting at 3900 is never easy. It had snowed in the night. The wind howled. Yet I wrapped up and went walk about. Desolation in the extreme. Who chooses to live in such a place? Never before had I been somewhere so extreme, yet I loved it. So peaceful. The air so brittle, rarefied.
Dinner was pasta and potatoes. The meal took an age to prepare. They began at 5pm to cook. At nearly 9 it was served. The end result made me gag. How can you go wrong with simple ingredients? The Tajiks can sure as hell fuck it up. You do not come to the Pamirs for the cooking.
Yet I could not complain. The family were so sweet. The man of the house fussing about the fire, the wife, about the food and my bedding and the grandmother bringing me endless tea. Even their little girl kept coming in to fuss over everything.
Traffic was non-existent the first day. And after a second night, the day was wonderfully sunny. I had to wait until 2 pm until the first vehicle came thru. A Mitsubishi Shogun, running Osh to Murgab. The driver dropped off some supplies at my home-stay, and after tea and never ending bread, they made room for me and took me to Murgab.
The Ak Baital Pass @4655m, the highest pass on the Pamir Highway, my second highest ever, after the Kunjerab Pass in Pakistan. A wonderful day. The guys took me to Murgab, dropped off at another home-stay. In fact it seems that every home-stay has a son who owns a 4x4 and they become the unofficial taxis across the Pamir.
Home stay Erali, Murgab @ 3618, after dropping 1000m it felt positively balmy. Also staying there were 2 female cyclists, Megan from Canada, Ilona from Belgium. We were brought endless chai and bread and the wonderful host with her gold teeth asked continuously if we were 'хорошо'. Was grateful of some western company. We exchanged stories. I was fascinated by their tales from cycling thru this mostly inhospitable land. We walked out of town a ways, ate lunch and drank a beer at the Pamir Hotel, chatted away the day. We took beers back and in the late afternoon as we waited for dinner, sitting around a yak dung burning stove, we toasted life.
And then another night under heavy blankets. Mornings were brutally cold. But spring was here. The sun was gaining strength.
Mother and son at Erali Home stay. Great food here, endless Pamir hospitality!!!!!!
Tajik, my driver for the next leg. I had met him the day before. We shook hands and told me he was almost ready to go. We had to go and pick up a sheep. He would be travelling roof rack class, out in the cold for 311km with his legs tied together and half stuffed into a 50 l rice sack. Poor thing. I help load him up. And for company he had a skinned yak next to him which I also man handled up to Tajik who was up on the roof of his Pajero.
In the shop I had picked up an extra chocolate bar. I had an errand. The 2 girls had left 3 hours before me on their trusty mounts and I asked Tajik to stop when we caught them up. They were having a little picnic in a small hollow, out of the wind. They were delighted. And then, they were alone again. I'd bump into them some time next week, with the promise of more goodies.
Khorog, the biggest place I've seen in over a week. The time for some RnR. Met some others who I had seen on the crossing, straight down to the Indian restaurant for dahl, rice, naan and lassi.. oh so wonderful. And 2 rather expensive beers. Celebration time as I felt I deserved it after the Pamir crossing. A great home stay, a chance to wash clothes, recharge camera batteries with the 24hr power but as the few days rolled by I longed for the wastelands, the emptiness, the harsh realities of life up at 3900m, of eating eggs, potatoes and pasta and wiping my butt with snow. Life had been reduced to living with the just simple necessities. Life on the Pamir Highway!
Riding in Tajik's 4x4 towards Khorog. Coming towards us there were Chinese trucks heading for the Qolma Pass and onto Kashgar, China.
to be continued...