Apologies for the lack of updates recently. I have been away for work at the Diamond Light Source (www.diamond.ac.uk) , swiftly followed by a job interview, while Jonathan has been busy with family-related stuff. Anyway, this evening I’ve been starting to clear the backlog of preparation tasks – sponsorship and publicity arrangements, and arranging for our gas canisters to travel to Tajikistan via surface mail (it takes a month!). Training has been proceeding well too, with a 50k fell run the weekend before last. Mind you, I can’t honestly say that I was still running by the end of it…
In this post I thought I’d set the scene for this expedition. I have been wanting to climb in the Muzkol range for quite some time – since November 2011 in fact! By June 2012 I had arranged to travel there and climb with Ed Lemon, veteran of several expeditions to remote and obscure corners of the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan. Flights were booked, excitement was mounting and everything was ready to go. Then just a week before departure, I received an email from Ed (who was resident in Tajikistan at the time) saying that there was a “bit of a security situation” in Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan province through which we needed to pass to reach the mountains.
Ed’s message that there was a “bit of a security situation” was quite an understatement, as it turned out that a wave of fighting had broken out between the government and opposition resulting in many deaths as reported here on the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18965366. We continued with the last minute shopping and packing hoping that things would calm down before the time came for us to depart for the mountains. Ed did some last-minute research into an alternative range of mountains, the Peter 1st range near Jirgatal in northern Tajikistan – access to these mountains would not be affected by the fighting in Khorog.
It was all a bit too reminiscent of 2010, when myself and 2 friends planned a trip to Kyrgyzstan, only for them to have a revolution 2 days after we booked our flights! Fortunately in 2010 the situation calmed reasonably quickly and we were able to travel.
Anyway, back to 2012. We bought ourselves more time by doing our acclimatization in the Hissar mountains near to the capital city, Dushanbe, while we waited for the situation in Khorog to calm. Ed’s friend Ines tagged along and we had a pleasant few days on and around the ~4,000m peaks of the Hissar mountains.
Ed Lemon and Ines Beyer acclimatising in Hissar mountains, Jul/Aug 2012.
But ultimately we were simply putting off the decision of whether to try and gain access to Gorno-Badakhshan province, where the Muzkol range is located. The British Foreign Office was still advising againt all travel to Gorno-Badakhshan province but it was now over a week since the fighting had stopped so we decided that you only live once so we would give it a shot…
Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan province, can be reached in an 18-hour shared taxi ride from Dushanbe mostly along landrover tracks. The road passes through Kulob, then over a mountain pass at Shurabad, then descends to join the Panj river, the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which it follows to Khorog. The road is guarded by a series of military checkpoints en-route, so we prepared mentally for a day spent dealing with the Militsia. We set off from Dushanbe at 9ish sharing a 4×4 taxi with a group of cheerful and friendly Pamiris, but knowing that even if we were successful at getting past the militsia we would be driving into the early hours of the morning to reach Khorog.
The first checkpoint is at Shurabad, where the soldiers spent 15 minutes trying to shake us down for a bribe before getting bored and letting us through. So far, so good! The next part of the journey was scenically quite spectacular. The road descends from the hills to follow the Panj river and Afghan border. The river enters a steep gorge and continues like this for many miles – absolutely spectacular, my photos really don’t do it justice. There are limits to what you can achieve photographically from a moving vehicle. On the Tajik side is the road, on the Afghan side there is a footpath that tenaciously clings to the often vertical cliff, and settlements consisting of mud huts.
Settlement on Afghan side of Panj river, Aug. 2012.
It was in this scenery that we pulled up at the next checkpoint, the checkpoint that controls entry to Gorno-Badakhshan province. Here the militsia were more friendly but there seemed to be a problem with letting us through. At moments like this, one is reminded of Eric Newby and Hugh Carless’s overland journey from the UK to Afghanistan in the 1950s to climb Mir Samir, immortalised in Newby’s classic book A short walk in the Hindu Kush. In situations like this they would explain that they were extremely good friends with General Abaidullah Khan, and that the General would NOT be pleased to find that they had been held up at the border. Of course, General Abaidullah Khan did not actually exist.
The militsia became increasingly adamant that we were not coming through and in desperation we turned to our very own modern-day, real-life, General Abaidullah Khan – Ed’s friend at the interior ministry. Ed gave him a call to see if he could help. The answer was an unequivocal no – the Militsia were not just trying to be awkward, the order that no foreigners were allowed into Gorno-Badakhshan came right from the very top. There was nothing for it but to accept the Militsia’s offer to arrange a lift for us back to Kulob (the nearest town with accommodation and onward transport options). They seemed quite amused by the concept that 2 Englishmen would want to travel to Gorno-Badakhshan right now, and took great interest in our mound of climbing gear and food as we waited for our lift to arrive. Many hours and a breakdown later, we arrived back in Dushanbe at 2am.
So, hopefully that sets the scene for this years expedition! This year all is calm in Gorno-Badakhshan, foreigners are definitely allowed in and excitement is building! Unfortunately Ed cannot come along due to work commitments this year so I am climbing with Jonathan Davey instead, a friend from my student days in Manchester. In the end, myself and Ed did get some climbing done last year in the Peter 1st range in northern Tajikistan – you can see photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/71640968@N04/sets/
It seems that politics is never dull in Tajikistan though. Currently youtube is blocked there, after persons unknown leaked a video of President Emomali Rahmon dancing and doing karaoke allegedly after a number of drinks at a relative’s wedding! You can see the video here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtCOYyf52f0), unless you are resident in Tajikistan, in which case you will need to use a proxy server (which I am sure you know how to do!)