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I’ll start this post by telling you a bit about the town of Murgab.  In eastern Tajikistan, it stands on the remote but strategically important border with China.  The Pamir highway drives roughly parallel to the border on the Tajik (formerly Russian / Soviet) side, and the Karakorum highway drives roughly parallel to the border on the Chinese side.  Muztagh Ata can be clearly seen from here.  In the past there was an important Russian military garrison here (the Pamirsky Post), and the large statue of Lenin in the town centre is a reminder of the Russian presence.  Competing for prominence with Lenin is Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon who is featured on a number of posters and billboards throughout the town, just as elsewhere in Tajikistan.

SAM_1401 View across Murgab.  Muztagh Ata (in China) visible on the skyline in centre.

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Statue of Lenin in Murgab.

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President Rahmon saying something important.

While the town of Murgab is not the most beautiful from the architectural point of view, its situation high on the Pamir plateau is quite spectacular and the buildings do not rise high enough to block the views of the extraordinary natural beauty surrounding the town.  We found ourselves delayed in Murgab for an entire day, so had plenty of time to appreciate the place.  We were delayed over the issues of transport and permits – issues that may interest some readers, and which I will therefore describe here.

Firstly, the issue of permits.  As I think I mentioned briefly in a post before the trip, if you want to climb in the Himalaya and surrounding ranges in Asia the cost and bureaucracy involved in obtaining the permits is a major factor in determining your choice of holiday destination as it varies widely from country to country.  The general trends are that the safer the country in question is perceived to be in the western world the more expensive the permit is, and the more famous and desirable the mountain(s) in question are in the western world, the more expensive the permit is.  At one extreme, permits to climb in Nepal, India and China can often run into thousands of dollars/pounds – especially if you want to climb a mountain hitherto unclimbed.  At the other extreme, if you want to go to Afghanistan to climb Mir Samir or Noshaq, no permit is required.

The various ex-Soviet central Asian countries are, in my view, very good places to do cost-effective mountaineering as permits to climb here don’t tend to cost more than about $100 each.  No doubt Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, whose eponymous grant we received from Gore-tex®, would have approved.  Due to their slight political instability and proximity to Afghanistan these countries are sometimes perceived in the west as not being safe for visitors but I feel that a bit of careful research reveals that perception to be false.  Nevertheless, the perception is (I guess) a factor in ensuring that permits to climb there are relatively cheap.  The fact that the mountains are not as famous in the west as peaks of similar stature elsewhere in the world is also a contributory factor in keeping the permits cheap.

An extreme case of how under-recognised the mountains in ex-Soviet central Asia are is the Karavshin valley in Batken province, south-western Kyrgyzstan.  It has granite big walls and trekking to rival Yosemite but the entirety of Batken province gets only 1 page in the Odyssey guidebook to Kyrgyzstan and less than ½-page in the Lonely Planet guide to central Asia (themselves arguably fairly niche publications!)

Anyway, I should stop digressing and giving away my plans for next summer’s holiday.  In the case of Tajikistan the only permit required until very recently was a permit to visit Gorno-Badakhshan province (in which most of the mountains are located) costing the princely sum of £50 ($80).  You apply for the permit at the same time as applying for your visa, and the permit is stamped in your passport next to your visa.  However, very recently (the last year or so) an additional permit has been introduced for visiting the Pamirs “national park” (not defined).  At the time of travel we had conflicting reports on whether or not this permit was required and enforced for the range we were visiting so had decided to ascertain the situation once we were in Murgab.

In Murgab we chatted about the permits to the English-speaking teenager and future business magnate who seemed to be running the show at the guesthouse where we were staying, and were advised that there is some chance of our permits being checked – admittedly we were unlikely to encounter a Tajik official at basecamp or on the mountain, but driving close to the Pamir highway round lake Kara-Kul we could do.  Given that the additional cost involved in getting this permit was small there seemed little point in risking it so we went with our hosts to the newly-established permit office to purchase the necessary pieces of paper.

Inevitably, this being Tajikistan, the amount to actually be paid was negotiable as the rules regarding how much you have to pay are complex and open to interpretation.  For instance, you have to pay extra to visit important historical and religious sites.  Unfortunately our proposed route into the mountains passed by an important shrine so we had to convince the police that we would look the other way whilst we passed it.  Our host from the guesthouse who was interpreting for us showed us locations on the map on the wall, pointing out that we wouldn’t be able to drive down the kokuy’bel valley to our proposed drop-off point as it was too muddy, and would instead need to be dropped off at the top of the valley.  We readily agreed to this, knowing he was probably saying it to secure the cheaper permit.

Eventually a final price was agreed, less than £35 ($55) each and the necessary pieces of paper were filled in for us.  On the way out we encountered a group of French butterfly collectors who had been caught without a permit and were negotiating the size of the fine they would have to pay.

The second factor delaying us in Murgab was our onward transport arrangements.  One can travel from Dushanbe to Murgab on standard public transport, but of course to reach the mountains we were travelling to we needed to drive a track that is rarely driven, if the track even existed at all.  We therefore arranged, and paid half the price for, our transport onwards from Murgab before leaving the UK.  We had been told that the staff at the guesthouse where we were staying would put us in touch with our driver.  But on arrival in Murgab, we found that the guesthouse staff had no idea that such an arrangement existed and explained that the company with whom we had booked the transport had recently moved their office from Murgab to Dushanbe.  Phoning the company at their new office, we were promised that our transport would arrive at the guesthouse soon.

Eventually, said transport turned up but the driver took a look at our map showing where we wanted to go and explained that his vehicle (a land cruiser) would not be able to get there – the road was too bad.  Instead, we were advised that a Russian Uaz jeep would be a better bet.  So, after a little more to-ing and fro-ing, a Russian Uaz jeep was organised to take us to the mountains the following morning at no additional cost…

Next post (probably Thursday) will feature some photos of the Muzkol mountains!  (I promise)

– John

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