Into the Pamirs

This is part of a series describing our route through Tajikistan–please refer to my post of 6.18.


We spent a day walking around surprisingly pleasant Dushanbe, a city with the comforts of modernity, a leafy charm and at times very exotic inhabitants. (Later, we were told that drug money is responsible for the recent boom.) Our next stop in Tajikistan would be Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, or GBAO, as the Pamir region is designated, and the only city of any size in that region.

There are two ways to get from Dushanbe to Khorog: plane or minibus/jeep. The Dushanbe-Khorog flight is famous for its astonishing views as the plane weaves through mountain valleys, but given frequent cancellations, my discomfort with heights and a desire to do it all overland, we opted for the 16+ hour car ride. (An American working for the State Department in Dushanbe told us that he had actually been in what was technically a crash on that flight, the tip of the wing of his plane clipping a mountaintop, and thought our decision wise.)

Planning to leave Dushanbe the next morning, we headed to the Badakhshan taxi stand near the airport to look into transport to Khorog for the next day.

Autocolonna 2927, also known as the Badakhshan taxi stand

The taxi stand, it being late in the day, was almost deserted and looked like an abandoned parking lot, but for a rather motley crew of drivers hanging about. One of the drivers said that he could take us in his Korean SUV for 200 somoni per seat (about $55), which was more than we had expected but seemed in line with the 150 somoni per seat that a driver of a (much less comfortable) minibus was also offering. We tentatively accepted and headed back to our hotel to return early next morning.

Arriving before 6 a.m., we found the taxi stand to be abuzz with activity. But as so often goes, the other seats in our Korean SUV sold slowly, with other vehicles filling up more rapidly and departing. In order to speed up our departure, be more comfortable and have access to windows on both sides for picture-taking, we paid for a third seat, thereby having the entire middle row to ourselves, with plenty of room for our small bags next to us instead of on our laps (our big bags being on the car’s luggage rack.) We ended up hitting the road well after 8 a.m., with a total compliment of driver and seven passengers.

Loading up–note the new luggage rack.

Our driver

The scenery was rewarding from fairly early on, as the road climbed up long valleys. [Derek would like me to note that many of the landscape pictures below were taken from our bumpily moving vehicle, limiting not only image quality but Derek’s ability to frame the image as he would have liked.]

Sometime around noon we made a lunch stop, where we had the choice of kebab (which turned out to be chunks of meat with noodles–see below) or shorpa (soup with meat and vegetables). Hungry, we ordered three portions–one shorpa and two kebabs–leaving us feeling a bit piggish when one of our co-passengers paid for the whole car.

Not bad!

As the road rose higher, the hills got greener and snowier.

Mid-afternoon, we came to what is known as the gateway to the Pamirs, from where the road would ascend to the 3200 m Saghirdasht pass and then descend to the Panj River Valley, shared between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. At the gateway, our passports were checked for the special GBAO permit required for foreign tourists in the Pamirs. (We had gotten ours along with our visa, see post of 5.30.) It would be the first of many, many passport checks in the Pamirs. [post on the military/police regimes of Central Asia to come]

Mid-afternoon was also when the car’s luggage rack began to fail. We were taking the higher, summer-only road over the mountains, which is unpaved and quite rough in parts. Our rack started by shaking at first, rattling to show its discomfort. The load on the rack was not unusually heavy–we think that this must have been the rack’s inaugral run. We slowed our pace to reduce stress on the rack. A lengthy stop to secure the rack to the car with wire proved fruitless, as the rack continued to shake loose. As the rack got worse, the driver explained that it would take days for us to get to Khorog at our rate, and we were forced to bring the luggage down into the passenger cabin. Fitting luggage for 7 people into the passenger cabin was quite a task, especially uncomfortable for the four guys who were sharing the small opposing benches in the rear compartment of the car. (We lost the extra seat that we paid for, and so negotiated a 100 somoni refund.) Laughing embrassedly, the English-speaking woman in the front explained, “This is how we live.” Given the condition of the roads and vehicles in Tajikistan, breakdowns are extremely common, and, we figured, the luggage rack is one of the most harmless parts of a car to go.

So the ride became more uncomfortable, but the scenery became more spectacular, as the road rose to the pass. As we entered the high summer pastures, we saw our first Kyrgyz people, as well as Tajiks who in the summer graze their livestock in the high altitudes. One flock of sheep was located on a high promontory overlooking what looked like half the world.

Just on the other side of the pass, we stopped at the encampment of a rosy-cheeked Tajik family selling milk and other dairy products to the cars that drove by. Livestock sometimes blocked the road.

As I mentioned, we had gotten a bit of a late start, and the situation with the luggage rack had slowed us down even more. Nor was our driver as aggressive (or as skilled, it seemed) as many others. The sun began to set, and we continued our ride in the dark. As the light dimmed we could see that the scenery was in many ways getting even more dramatic.

As it grew later and later, we nodded off to sleep in the moving vehicle. The car continued in the dark on a half-decent dirt road, now down in the Panj River Valley. At one point, we stopped at the side of a waterfall to refresh ourselves. Awakened by the ice-cold water, I got one of my first full views of the valley–the moonlight reflecting silver on the river in the distance and Tajikistan and Afghanistan rising steeply in a deep canyon. Everything was silence and stillness except for the rushing water of the waterfall and the river.

Eventually, at what must have been 3 a.m., our driver decided that he could no longer proceed safely, and we stopped for sleep in a village just off of the road–the driver in the car, the male passengers sharing a chai platform outside someone’s home and the sole lady passenger somewhere else I did not at the time have energy to note. Able to stretch out and warm in our sleeping bags, we were unhappy to be woken up extremely early the next morning by one of the passengers, who was more eager than we to get to Khorog, which was now only a couple hours away.

The last part of the drive, Afghanistan on the right

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *