This is part of a series describing our route through Tajikistan–please refer to my posts of 6.18, 6.20 and 6.23.
We woke up in Bulunkul to find that we were not only in the middle of nowhere, but what seemed like the end of the earth, on a nearly barren windy plain surrounded by mountains. Surprisingly big given the location, the town was populated with Tajiks mainly involved in animal husbandry. As starkly beautiful as the surroundings were, I thought to myself, “What did these people do to end up living here?” Our homestay was the most basic yet, an elderly woman who seemed to live alone although her adult children were also about providing assistance.
Weighing a yak
The Pamiris, as the Tajiks of mountainous eastern Tajikistan are called, are typically very fair in color–not at all like the typical Turkic people of Central Asia or even the relatively dark-featured Iranians to whom the Tajiks are closely related. Indeed, ancient Chinese and Indian records before the Mongol conquest indicated the fairness of certain Central Asian populations, and it is believed that the Pamiris represent the remnants of this red-headed/blond/blue-eyed group. The Pamiris’ light coloration highlighted the extreme altitude and sun exposure of life in Bulunkul, with people who looked essentially northern Europe tanned to a crisp brown.
For our trip from the town of Bulunkul back to the Pamir Highway, we decided to take a scenic detour along a very poorly maintained and little used road along the Alichur River.
Lakes near Bulunkul
It was a bumpy but beautiful and pleasant drive, until our Land Rover seemed to have greater and greater difficulty with the uphill stretches on the hilly road. Great black clouds of smoke were coming out of the tailpipe and the car’s ignition died with increasing frequency. Finally, our driver had to admit that the car was out of fuel. Now, such an error would generally seem the result of gross negligence, but in this case we do believe that the car was not behaving as it should (smoke as evidence), resulting in much faster than anticipated fuel consumption. (The lack of replacement fuel may have been the cause of the driver’s reluctance to drive up to the fort to look for Derek, see post of 6.23.) At any rate, we were in the middle of nowhere, about 10 km from a hot springs and 25 km from the nearest town, on a road with essentially no traffic. Fortunately, it was not too late in the day (3 p.m.). Without a word, our driver set out walking with a couple of empty containers. (Was he wearing his Muslim skullcap all day because he foresaw this problem?)
Now, there are no gas stations in most of the Pamirs and it is a very common site to see someone out of and begging for fuel; the only problem here was that we were so far from other vehicles, on a road that essentially no-one has any reason to use, with no way of getting help. We didn’t know for sure that there would be anyone at the hot springs (and if there were, if they could be of any help), or whether our driver would be able to make it back to the car by night. We took stock of all of the food we had in the car (a couple packets of halva that we had taken from an Iranian hotel breakfast buffet and a minijar of jelly from the Kuwait City J.W. Marriott), and with plenty of bottled water in the back figured that we could certainly make it through the rest of the day and the next comfortably, and with our sleeping bags not freeze in the car overnight. We created a backup plan of waiting for our driver until the next morning, at which point we also would set out on the road.
After waiting a couple hours, another tourist vehicle passed us, and not only gave us some more food but also the driver of the vehicle gave us the positive message (through nonverbal communication, since he didn’t speak English) that he had seen our driver looking for fuel and thought that our driver would be back soon. And he was–after a total wait (in a pretty pleasant setting, really, despite the uncertainty) of only four hours. Our driver was able to get assistance from a Kyrgyz family that lived at the hot springs, and when we stopped for tea at the house we expressed our profound thanks.
Our Kyrgyz savior
With enough gas, but not the confidence to drive us all the way to Murgab, our driver dropped us off at the city of Alichur. He was visibly distressed at his car’s condition, fretting that he would have to take his Land Rover all the way to Dushanbe in order to repair it. We hitchhiked on the side of the road, and soon picked up a ride on a minivan. We stopped for more fried fish at a restaurant popular with passing Chinese truckers (ferrying goods between China and Tajikistan over the Qolma Pass east of Murgab) and also briefly to visit a yurt, the first that we’d seen.