Mudslide, or From Jalang to Osh

This post can be read as a continuation of a series describing our route through Tajikistan–please refer to my posts of 6.18, 6.20, 6.23, 6.24, 6.25 and 6.26.

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From Jalang it was off again, to see geoglyphs in an even more distant place called Shurali and a meterorite crater. In one of the most remote (and beautiful) settings we met again (after seeing them first in Uzbekistan–tourists’ routes are often surprisingly well-established) a Swiss couple that was driving their two dogs and a very high-tech looking RV that looked something like a souped up waste management truck from Switzerland to Siberia. We stayed the night in a homestay by the lake of Karakul. A chip error has sadly deprived both you and us of the images from much of this segment of the trip.

Karakul, in the background the Alai Range, which forms the boundary between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

We came down from the high Pamirs of Tajikistan and crossed the Kyrgyz border into the small crossroads village of Sary Tash, all without event in our hired Russian Jeep. After saying goodbye to our Kyrgyz-ethnic driver and having a lunch of instant noodles and fried eggs at the local cafe, we were able to flag down a Murgab-Osh minivan, a Russian 4×4 vehicle that was almost filled to capacity but generously allowed us to board, with many children ending up on the laps of their parents. We expected the trip to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city sitting at the end of the Uzbek-ethnic Fergana Valley, to take about 5-6 hours.

The drive was gorgeous–from the desert of the Pamirs we entered lush green mountain valleys, dotted with yurts and livestock, including horses and chickens that we had not seen in the Pamirs. The people living on these mountains were Kyrgyz, just like their brethren in Tajikistan across the border, but the land around their homes was so much more welcoming and fertile.

About two and a half hours into our ride, as the road entered a narrow gorge, we began to pass cars that were stopped on the side of the road, seemingly unable to go any further. The guidebooks warn about traveling in the mountainous regions of Central Asia in early summer, due to snowmelt that can flood roads and make river crossings impossible, but we weren’t quite prepared for the series of mudslides we encountered. The first two rock- and mudslides were easy–our tough vehicle easily made it past. But then we came upon another that was much larger–and apparently fairly recent–just as the road entered the narrowest part of the gorge. We stopped, unable to go any further, and other cars started piling up.

Of course, no-one spoke English, and we had no idea when the road would be cleared and we would go forward. With hand gestures, we seemed to get various guesses, from 3 to 10 days. Tourists also began to pile up, as this is one of the only routes through the region. We met a Swiss couple and a Swedish man from other vehicles. The Swedish man, whom we had met earlier in Murgab, had told us that he was on a five-week vacation, a week of which was unexpectedly eaten up in Dushanbe waiting for a visa. The man then proceeded to stall for three or four days in Murgab unsuccessfully waiting for tourists to share vehicle hire expenses with him, to do some touring in the region. His vacation was clearly cursed, and we found some malevolent comic relief in his predicament–unlike most tourists in Central Asia, who had more time than anything, he had tickets for a flight out of Osh.

All of the vehicles turned back to the last village before the mudslide, where there was a very basic inn. Everyone rushed in, but, not speaking Kyrgyz or Russian, we couldn’t really figure out what if any rooms were available. The woman behind the counter showed us one large communal room, but the thought of sleeping in refugee-like conditions made Derek start searching for an alternative. We ended up procuring the prayer room of the inn, by far the sweetest accomodations of any of the stranded. We unpacked and pondered our next move.

Things weren’t so bad. The village, while little more than a few houses along the side of the road, was set in a beautiful location. Our room, while basic (no bathroom, though not too far from the outhouse and conveniently near the water tank, where we were late at night able to do some light bathing), was comfortable and we even had intermittent electricity (something of a novelty coming down from the Pamirs), permitting us to catch up on some photo and blogging work. At dinner, we found that the food served at the inn was surprisingly good (goulash and roast chicken), and we had the company of fellow tourists to chat with, including not only the Swiss couple and Swede, but also a Belgian couple and an Australian girl who pulled up later.

We learned that we were in a much better situation than the others. The part of Kyrgyzstan we were in was completely isolated from the rest of the country by the mudslide. Since the road forward, which connected to Osh, Bishkek and the open borders with Uzbekistan, was closed by the mudslide, the only options were the road south to the Tajik border and the wilderness of the Pamirs (with over 24 hours’ drive to Dushanbe, the only city of size in Tajikistan) and the road east to the Chinese border. The Belgians and the Australian had just come from China, did not have a valid visa for either China or Tajikistan, and were headed to Uzbekistan, and so had no choice but to wait. The Swiss and the Swede had just come from Tajikistan and did not have a Chinese visa, and so also had to wait. At least we could, if the road didn’t clear promptly, call Kyrgyzstan quits and flee to the modern comforts of China.

We were ready to do just that, but, because it was the weekend and the Chinese border was closed anyway, we decided to hang out and wait. We were sad when the power cut out, but we still had the benefit of a private room (the Australian girl had to sleep in a car with its driver, who kept coming onto her all night), good food and pleasant weather. The very next morning, we heard rumors that we would be moving forward that very afternoon, that the mudslide had been cleared in the space of about 24 hours. We were incredulous, but packed our bags and got back into our van, to find that all the vehicles were indeed making it through. While the road itself had not been cleared, an alternative path closer to the river had been made. By sunset we were in Osh–the end of the Pamir Highway.

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