Aside

I’m writing this from Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, still very hot at 9:30pm as I write this.  We’ve spent the last few days slogging around the town in 40c+ heat doing the food shopping for 2 weeks in the Pamirs, and the nights sleeping in the open air without sleeping bags on the Tapchan outside our friends house.  Shopping has involved a number of visits to the bazaars for more basic food (boiled sweets, onions, rice, pasta…) and the supermarket for a few more specialised foods (e.g. salami).  The bazaars are quite a sight (pictured), fresh fruit and vegetables piled up high.  Certainly no shortage of watermelons in Tajikistan…

Image

 

We had planned to make the 18-hour drive to Khorog today (Weds 24th), but when our alarms went off at 5:30am Jonny was not feeling very well – nausea, headache and vomiting.  So instead of us making the arduous drive over the mountains to Khorog today Jonny spent most of the day in the position shown below – lying on the sofa surrounded by the first aid kit.

Image

It seems Jonny’s illness came from eating an excess of extremely good food in the cheaper cafes in Dushanbe (though it didn’t seem to do me any harm…).  In any case, Jonny now feels (reasonably) recovered and we are ready for attempt 2 at the 18-hour drive to Khorog at 5:30am tomorrow!

John

 

Advertisements

Turkish Delight

It has been a long and interesting few days. On Friday we met up at Tim’s in Manchester to but a few last bits and pieces, finally start packing and meet old friends for a few drinks. The packing wasn’t nearly as stressful as expected, after the first effort we were around 4 kg over Turkish Airlines’ 30 kg personal limit, even with wearing our boots, jackets and trousers onto the plane. We set about cutting out every little bit of unnecessary gear, not an easy task when your life may depend on it in an emergency.

The ever chivalrous Fhyndho gave us a lift to the airport in the gangster bus and the plan was at last in motion.

The flight to Istanbul left on time (with free Turkish Delight on a stick on take off), the in flight food was pretty good, lots of “eggplant” with a Turkish version of a burger, some chicken and rice.

We touched down at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport around 11 pm local time and headed to the metro line into the city centre. After a brief delay acquiring some of the local currency (apparently dollars just wouldn’t do!) we stepped out into thousands of people in a funfair atmosphere, thanks to it currently being Ramadan.

Our accommodation was Istanbul Hostel, cheap, fairly nice but not easy to find without a map or address, just a sketchy memory of its general location. About 1 am we found it, bought cold water bottles and collapsed into bed.

The next day (Sunday 22nd) was to be a whistle-stop tour of Istanbul’s sights and sounds. With a flight at 9 pm that evening we had to make the most of our free time. Unfortunately John’s fairly hefty B3s wouldn’t fit in his hand bag, so he was forced to endure the heat of a turkish summer in them. Lots of minarets, mosques, muezzins later we made it to the main attraction: Taksim Square. Unfortunately it had all calmed down a lot, so we didn’t see anything more exciting than some overheating dogs and locals playing football.

We headed back to the airport for our next flight, arriving with a couple of hours to spare., and very much looking forward to it.

FAQs

Tags

,

Dushanbe (Capital of Tajikistan), coat of arms

Dushanbe (Capital of Tajikistan), coat of arms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where are you going?
Tajikistan.

Where’s that?
It’s between Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Nope, sorry.
Here then.

Oh, ok… Is it safe there?
Yeah it is hopefully. I mean there was a civil war for much of the ’90s, and last year it all kicked off again, but we’re pretty optimistic we can get in, get up, and get out in one piece.

So why are you going?
A few reasons, exploring a culturally alien country, the lure of unclimbed mountains, but mainly the massive boost our egos will get from the subsequent publicity.

Isn’t it going to be really hot there?
Yep, it’s high summer, in Dushanbe it’ll be around 35 degrees in the shade.

Isn’t it going to be really cold there?
Probably, we can’t say how cold for sure but the mountains reach over 6000m, they are snow covered all year and there are glaciers in the valleys nearby.

You’ll be hiring Sherpas then?
Sherpas live in Nepal, so no, unless any of them are holidaying nearby.

What about porters, to carry all your things?
Unlikely. We hope to hire a horse or donkey off local nomads to help with the walk in to base camp, but it’s quite possible the terrain will be totally unsuitable and we’ll end up with all the weight on our backs.

This all sounds like hard work.
You’re not wrong, but pain is weakness leaving the body. Well, according to all PE teachers anyway.

Hmm, when are you home again?
Thursday 15th August, though we will be finished in the mountains a week before that.

Itinerary

Tags

, , , , , , ,

As the date of our departure grows ever nearer, perhaps it is time to actually tell you when that date will be, along with the juicy details of our long planned expedition.

On Saturday 20th July we will board the first of our flights, from Manchester to Istanbul. Once there we will have approximately 23 hours for riot-dodging and tourism, then jetting off again to Dushanbe, where we will arrive at nearly 4am on Monday morning.

Our first task will be to get over our jetlag and acclimatise to the heat of our new surroundings (peaking around 36 deg C). Our time is limited, so we will head straight for the local bazaar and stock up on all the rice, lentils and pasta we need to keep us sustained at base camp.

Along the Dushanbe–Khorugh highway

Along the Dushanbe–Khorugh highway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Next is a long, long day in a shared taxi along the Pamir Highway,to the city of Khorog in Gorno-Badakhshan province.

As the crow flies the distance is 160 miles, however the mountainous terrain means the journey is actually double that, at 321 miles. The poor condition of the roads and long uphills will add even more time to the journey. We hope to make it to Khorog before the sun rises the next day…

View of Khorog from the Botanical Gardens

View of Khorog from the Botanical Gardens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Khorog we hope to stay at the Pamir Lodge (hot water!) before continuing in another taxi to Murgab. This journey is shorter, and the temperature will be more amenable as we head higher into the Pamir mountains. The altitude will probably have some effect, as the road hits 4300m at Koi-Tezek Pass.

Murgab is a small town, only growing at all thanks to its position at a crossroads, where trading routes from China, Kyrgyzstan and the capital meet.

Again we will be moving on quickly, taking the Pamir Highway north for 65 miles, then sneaking round the back of the mountains on dirt roads. Our aim is the mouth of the Bozbaital valley, where we hope to hire a horse or donkey from local nomads, to speed up the walk up the valley to base camp. If there are no nomads, or the valley is impassable to horses, then we will have to take the weight ourselves.

The head of the valley and unclimbed peaks will then be within our grasp…

The geeks shall inherit the earth…

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

So much has been going on lately, there hasn’t been much time to post on here! We’ve been trying out a petrol stove to take with us, sorting out the first aid kit, trying to remember some Russian phrases (a thankless task if ever there was one), buying/borrowing replacement equipment that we need, booking off-road transport from Murgab to the roadhead… Also a friend has been translating reports for us from the internet of recent (and not-so-recent) Russian/Ukrainian expeditions to the area (thankyou Zhelyo), we have been leaving instructions and useful contact details for our helpers back in the UK, trying to cut down on the weight we carry in to basecamp…. you get the idea. Also when time permits (i.e. not very often for me given my work situation) going running to keep fit for the expedition.

But I thought I’d blog about one of the more innovative things I’ve done this time around, improving our use of maps and GPS/GLONASS. Many expeditions to central Asia make do with google maps, but actually there are much better maps available. The quality of the surveying on the Soviet military maps is as good (in my past experience) as the British Ordnance Survey maps, and the map information is presented in a similar way with major and minor contours marked, crags marked, glaciers and permanent snowfields marked etc. Also the Soviet military maps are very beautiful maps, if you like that kind of thing… You can download small sections of the Soviet military maps in colour from www.topomapper.com and then stitch them together. Fortunately for us, when I became interested in the Muzkol mountains in Tajikistan 2 years ago there was a website available where you could download entire sheets of the map in one go and save yourself the time-consuming task of stitching all the small segments together. Alas, that website (www.poehali.org) is now part of www.mapstor.com where you have to pay for your maps.

Anyway, I digress. There is one problem with the Soviet military maps, they use a datum (i.e. grid system) that isn’t available with our GPS (or, if it is, it has a very different name on the GPS list of datums). So you cannot turn on your GPS, get a grid ref off it, then use that to place your location on the Soviet map. To solve this problem, you need to overlay the Soviet map datum (Pulkovo 1942 Krasovskii spheroid if you’re interested to know) with a datum that the GPS can use (e.g. WGS84 datum as used on google earth). In principle, the data you need to convert directly from one datum to the other is known (http://www.eye4software.com/resources/datum/4179/ ) but wading through all the maths to do the conversion “properly”, and then working out on which pixels to begin and end your grid lines would be quite time consuming.

Over the weekend I worked out and implemented a much quicker way to do it. My method utilises some knowledge from my other life as a physicist – knowledge of a free scientific software called Datathief. Datathief is a piece of software for reading numerical data values off a graph. So if as a scientist you see a graph in a publication and want to read off the data points to input into a theoretical model, or to compare to your own data, Datathief allows you to do this. You simply save the graph in question as a bitmap/gif/jpeg, and load it into Datathief. You calibrate Datathief by moving calibration pointers to three different locations on the graph, and inputting the x and y co-ordinates of these locations. Usually you would choose the origin of the axes and one point on each axis, but you can use any 3 points that do not lie on the same straight line. Then, you take additional pointers and move them over each datapoint you want the value of. Using the calibration, Datathief can give you the x and y values for each datapoint.

How does this help you work out where on earth you are during a snowstorm in the Pamirs? Well, what Datathief does mathematically can also be used to draw a new grid system on a map. Over the weekend, I loaded the electronic copy of the Soviet military map into Datathief and drew on gridlines for the WGS84 datum that our GPS uses. It is possible for Datathief to tell you where to draw the grid lines for any map datum you want, as long as you can calibrate it first by placing the 3 calibration pointers at locations with known co-ordinates in that datum. This is, of course, assuming that the datum is a simple square or rectangular grid, a reasonable approximation as long as you are covering a sufficiently small proportion of the earth’s surface for the earth’s curvature to be negligible.

Placing the 3 calibration pointers is where google earth comes in. Google earth gives you the location of any placemarks you put in, using the WGS84 datum. So you can calibrate Datathief by putting google earth placemarks at 3 points that are easily identifiable on both google earth and the Soviet map (e.g. summits). You then input the WGS84 co-ordinates of the placemarks into Datathief and you have your calibration. Of course, if your calibration is not accurate, then your grid lines will all be wrong so it is worth making the effort to ensure your calibration is as accurate as possible. You can do some or all of the following things to achieve this:

  1. Choose 3 points that are a long way apart on the map (preferably near 3 corners).
  2. Choose your feature carefully so there is no doubt as to its location – don’t choose a mountain with closely spaced twin peaks for instance, or an indistinct peak partway along a ridge.
  3. Google earth reproduces some features better than others. In the case of summits, you can get some idea of how good a job google earth has done by comparing the spot height on google earth to the spot height on the Soviet military map (in my experience, the correct spot height). I guess an alternative would be to compare the simulated image on google earth to real photos if any are available, and see how closely they match up.

Now, you can move the data pointers around the map (while leaving the calibration pointers where they are) and Datathief will give you the co-ordinates of the data pointers in WGS84 datum.

Image

Soviet military map loaded in Datathief with calibration marker and data marker shown

So to draw a grid line (say that for 75 degrees 5 minutes) you simply move your data pointers to opposites sides of the map where they are both reading 75 degrees 5 minutes on the relevant axis, then open a copy of your map up in paint and draw a new gridline that connects the locations of these 2 datapoints. Repeat until the map is covered in all required gridlines. In practice, there are 2 factors that make this much quicker and easier than you might at first think:

  1. Your map will probably only cover a fraction of a degree of latitude and longitude, so you need to deal only in minutes and do not need to worry about converting minutes into fractions of a degree. You do, however, need to set google earth to give you lat. and long. In decimal fractions of a minute rather than minutes and seconds, or do the conversion yourself.
  2. You do not need to go through this for every single grid line. You can do it for a few grid lines and interpolate to get the starting and finishing pixels for the rest of the grid lines. The fact that you have only entered 3 calibration points means it is not possible to draw anything other than a simple square or rectangular grid in any case.

Once you have finished, you can check that you have got it right by looking at the google earth co-ordinates of other features and checking that these correspond to the co-ordinates of the feature according to your map grid.  The summit co-ordinates predicted by my grid lines on the Soviet map of the Muzkol mountains are within 50m of those predicted by google earth so this method does work.  I have just got the finished map with both grids printed to take to Tajikistan:

Image

Finished map with original (Pulkovo 1942, black) and GPS-compatible (WGS84, red) datums marked.

Intriguingly, in addition to the grid on the Soviet maps (Pulkovo 1942 datum), there are markers at the sides of the maps corresponding to some other datums. One of these sets of markers lies tantalisingly close to the grid lines I have drawn, almost close enough to be from the WGS 84 datum…. but definitely not quite. There are literally hundreds of different datums in existence, so I guess it should come as no surprise that there are many that are quite similar…

I guess the final thing to note is the accuracy of this method is limited by the accuracy of the calibration, i.e. the accuracy of google earth. The Muzkol mountains seem to be surveyed very accurately by google earth (evidence for this is summit spot heights corresponding closely to those on Soviet map, and simulated images corresponding closely to real photos of the range), but if you had a range of mountains covered more poorly by google earth (e.g. the Torugart-Too mountains on the Kyrgyzstan-China border, where I climbed in 2010) it could be more tricky to get an accurate calibration….

John Proctor

A Little About Your Bloggers

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

While you have been reading about previous trips, the state of Tajikistan and our shiny new attire, you may have been wondering “Just who are these people?” and “Why would they want to go all that way when there isn’t even wifi or a Starbucks to reward them?”.

Well the truth is that John lives (for the time being) in Hull, and Jonathan lives in semi-rural West Yorkshire. Neither are too bad, but both fill you with the desire to get out there and see snowier, pointier, and generally more exciting parts of the world.

Mountaineering in West Yorkshire is not on quite the same scale.

Mountaineering in West Yorkshire is not on quite the same scale.

For most of the time walking, running and climbing in Snowdonia, The English Lakes or the Cairngorms will suffice, but success on these modest peaks only leads to ambition for higher targets!

There aren’t many places left which are genuinely unexplored, but the greater ranges of south and central Asia are one of them. Of course, there are people who live there all year round, so to actually explore and tread new ground you must go of the beaten track and search hard for those places so far untrodden by man.

The Muzkol Pamir lie 30 miles north west of Murghab, the only settlement of any size in the mountainous east of the country. These peaks have been visited in the past by several Russian expeditions, and in the late ’90s by half a dozen EWP trips. These climbed many virgin summits, but left a few still to be claimed…

Documentary on BBC2 last friday

Tags

, , ,

So, on friday I was posting on the facebook group and twitter urging people to turn on BBC2 (UK TV channel) to watch a rather good documentary that had just started.  If you missed it then don’t worry, as you can watch it online (links at bottom of post).

The documentary features British TV presenter Kate Humble spending time living with nomadic shepherds in the Wakhan corridor in eastern Afghanistan.  If you look at a map showing Afghanistan, there is a part of a country that sticks out like a finger at the eastern side – this is the Wakhan corridor.  Geographically and culturally, it is relatively separate from the rest of Afghanistan – it was added to the country in the 19th century to ensure that the Russian empire (now Tajikistan) and the British empire (now Pakistan) did not share a common border.  Throughout decades of civil war in Afghanistan the Wakhan has remained peaceful, and has never been controlled by the Taliban.

The Wakhan corridor is entirely mountainous.  Life for those who live there is hard, and has changed little over the centuries.  In the documentary we see yurts being dismantled, bread being made, kurut (hard salty cheeseballs) being made, for me all very reminiscent of summer holidays past and future.  The way people live in the Wakhan is quite similar to ways of life in mountainous parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, though the Wakhan is even more remote.  You can see photos taken looking across the Panj river into the Wakhan corridor in my photo album on flickr from last year’s trip to Tajikistan (http://www.flickr.com/photos/71640968@N04/sets/72157631212753764/) but from there it is still many days travel to get to the high mountains deep within the Wakhan corridor.

My only quibble with the documentary would be footage of them travelling through Kabul at the start, and the claim that you have to do this to reach the Wakhan.  In fact (unless the BBC were unlucky enough to be travelling out to the Wakhan last July!) it is possible (and much safer) to cross directly into the Wakhan corridor from Tajikistan at Ishkashim, without ever venturing into Afghanistan proper.  Even in the current climate, a small number of intrepid trekkers and climbers do visit the Wakhan corridor by crossing from Tajikistan, a glimmer of hope in a country with so many problems.

If you are in the UK then you can watch the documentary on BBC iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p018hn8p/Wild_Shepherdess_with_Kate_Humble_Afghanistan/

If you are not in the UK then you either need to do some technical wizardry to access iPlayer, or log onto youtube and search for “kate Humble Afghanistan”. the full documentary is there.

The legacy of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman…

Tags

, , ,

Our expedition has been awarded a $ 1,600 Shipton-Tilman grant from Gore-tex®, for which we are deeply appreciative and grateful.  The Shipton-Tilman grant (as the name suggests) is an annual grant set up to support expeditions that tackle their objectives in accordance with the lightweight, environmentally sound philosophy of the 20th-century British explorers and mountaineers Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman.

I am lucky to own a copy of the 1943 first edition of “Upon That Mountain” (pictured) by Eric Shipton, purchased for the princely sum of £10 from a second-hand bookshop in Llanberis.  In it, Shipton discusses at length his involvement in various attempts to survey and climb Mount Everest in the 1930s – expeditions which were often expensive and extravagant affairs.  Shipton explains that he did not see the need for 14 climbers, 170 porters and 400 pack animals to climb Mount Everest and outlines his view that 6 climbers and 30 porters would stand just as high a chance of success.  He complains about the environmental cost of the large expeditions to Everest – the removal of so many local people and animals from agriculture would lead to food shortages in the area the following year.  He also disapproved of the fact that cases of champagne were transported to base camp, and of the fact that the enormous financial efforts being put into climbing Everest and other 8,000m peaks were distracting the mountaineering community from the vast ranges of unexplored mountains that remained in the Himalaya.

Image

In the next chapter of the book, entitled “Small Expeditions”, Shipton expounds his philosophy that mountain exploration should be conducted by small teams with exploratory objectives travelling and climbing in alpine style with a minimum of baggage.  Shipton’s view was that an expedition with one climber is a small expedition, while an expedition with 3 climbers is a large expedition.  To illustrate his philosophy, he describes in vivid detail his exploration of the Nanda Devi sanctuary in India with Bill Tilman in the 1930s.

Shipton’s views were not fashionable at the time, and ultimately led to him not being included as part of the expedition that successfully summited Mount Everest in 1953.  However, 35 years after the deaths of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman the merits of their lightweight, environmentally sound and exploratory style of expedition are now widely accepted.  Gore-tex® award grants every year to expeditions that reflect Shipton and Tilman’s philosophy, and we have been lucky enough to be awarded one of these grants this year.  Gore-tex® have also provided us with shiny new jackets for the trip which we tried out climbing the weekend before last (photos below).  Unfortunately the weather was far too good to test out the waterproof properties of the jackets but I am sure the British weather will be back to its usual self soon.

I will finish with a quote from “Upon That Mountain” by Eric Shipton, at the start of Chapter IX, “Small Expeditions” – one of many passages from the book that could just as easily have been written today:

“One cannot wander far from the normal trade and tourist routes without being impressed by the enormous area of the earth’s surface still unexplored… The superficial observer is too apt to suppose that, because the South Pole has been reached the mysteries of the Antarctic Continent are all revealed, or to imagine that if Everest were climbed then there would be nothing more to discover in the Himalayas… But the detailed exploration of the world is very far from complete…  Even a well-mapped area may be terra incognita to the botanist, the geologist, the zoologist, the archaeologist.  There is no end to it.”

–          Eric Shipton

ImageImage

Thanks very much to  our friend Wilf Sargeant for being the photographer.  In return Wilf gets a day climbing with Gore-tex®-sponsored athletes!

 

Tajikistan, Twinned with Narnia…

Somewhere between China, Russia, Pakistan and Afghanistan are a group of countries almost unheard of or unknown by the average westerner. A product of the collapse of the Soviet Union, these central Asian states are a muddle of languages, ethnicities and incredibly complicated borders. That 1000 piece jigsaw doesn’t even come close!

One thing they do all have in common, however, is a name ending in “-stan”, which simply comes from the Persian for “land” or “country”, the equivalent of England or Ireland. The ‘Stans are about as exotic and near to real exploration as you can get in the modern world.

Our destination for this summer is the smallest and poorest of the ‘Stans, Tajikistan, named after the Tajik people who make up the vast majority of its population. The Tajiks speak a form of Persian and share close ties with Iranian and Afghan culture.  After the rather hotchpotch border delineation of the republics making up the USSR, many ethnic Tajiks now live in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The Tajik cities of Samarkand and Bukhara are now part of Uzbekistan, something of a sore point for many Tajiks.

After the Tajiks’ declaration of independence in 1991, rival factions brought about a devastating civil war, which lasted until 1997. Over 100,000 were killed, and 1.2 million became refugees, huge numbers considering the current population of just 7.5 million. Until John’s visit in 2012, the country was more or less peaceful, and slowly recovering from the effects of the war. The sheer remoteness and money from drug trafficking lends power to local tribal leaders, who were behind pockets of violence last summer, as reported here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18965366.

The consequences of the violence included closing Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast to foreigners, meaning John could not reach his planned destination, unclimbed mountains in the Muzkol Pamir north west of the town of Murghab. (See previous blog post for much more about this adventure.)

Hence the reason for our trip this year, there is unfinished business in the esoteric peaks of central Asia. The security situation in Gorno-Badakhshan appears to have calmed down, and we are hopeful that it stays that way. However John’s trips never pass without some sort of civil unrest, and we must change flights in Istanbul, hopefully we will be able to go sightseeing without needing to don our climbing helmets!

More details on our itinerary and exciting objectives will follow shortly…

How it all began….

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.  Image

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.

Image

 

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!)