So, where are we now in the narrative? Oh yes, Khorog. Sleepy town in eastern Tajikistan, straddling the Gunt river just upstream of its confluence with the Panj river and the Afghan border. Khorog is often quoted as being one end of the Pamir highway, a road built through improbable mountain terrain during the Soviet era to keep control over some of the most remote parts of the empire. Nowadays the Pamir Highway is often compared to its more famous counterpart connecting Pakistan to China, the Karakorum highway.
The Pamir highway starts in Osh, south-western Kyrgyzstan, passes into Tajikistan, through Murgab in the eastern Pamir, and then on to Khorog. During the course of our expedition we drove just over half of the Pamir highway, from Khorog through Murgab as far as lake Kara-Kul. Our travels on the Pamir highway were the only part of the trip where we met significant numbers of other tourists, as the Pamir Highway is deservedly quite popular. A lot of people cycle the Pamir highway, though this sounds like quite hard work given that there are a number of passes at over 4,000m altitude and scorching hot daytime temperatures during the summer.
On our trip we turned up late at night at the Pamir Guesthouse in Khorog, to find other visitors chatting away into the early hours on the terrace. Our driver had kindly dropped us off at the guesthouse, saving us the hassle of carrying our heavy bags up the hill. We savoured a night spent in proper beds after several days spent sleeping outside on the tapchan in our friend’s garden in Dushanbe. The following morning our hosts provided us with a breakfast of copious quantities of bread, butter and jam, fried egg and unlimited tea which we ate contentedly in the slightly cooler mountain air (Khorog is at an altitude of 2,500m). The weather remained beautiful (as it did for 99% of the trip!) as we set off into town to buy petrol for our camping stove.
Eventually settling for Tajikistan’s second best petrol we returned to the guesthouse to check out and make our way to the departure point for shared taxis to Murgab. Just as elsewhere in Tajikistan, one cannot walk far without encountering a billboard or mural presenting the wise thoughts of President Emomali Rahmon:
President Rahmon says something important!
Unfortunately the minibus service to the town centre failed to materialise so we eventually carried our bags to the main road and hailed a minibus there. We arrived at the departure point for shared taxis to Murgab and entered negotiations with a prospective driver. We had got a very good price for the journey from Dushanbe to Khorog but negotiations this time were tough. After the delays procuring petrol and getting our bags across to the departure point we had missed the boat as most drivers heading to Murgab that day had already departed. Only 2 drivers vied for our custom, offering fares significantly above normal but succeeding in communicating to us that the fare was higher because they would not be able to find other passengers to fill the vehicle. Jonny stayed with the bags whilst I cast around elsewhere for anyone who might take us to Murgab. By the time I returned the driver offering the (slightly) cheaper price was nowhere to be seen and we had not much choice but to pay the higher price and get going to Murgab. We were paying significantly more than we had paid for the ride from Dushanbe to Khorog despite the journey to Murgab being only 2/3rds the distance and ½ the journey time.
We shared the taxi with a mother and child who were travelling as far as Jelandy (roughly 1/3rd of the journey we were making) and the drivers mate who was travelling all the way to Murgab. We made our way up the valley in which our driver lived, passing between increasingly snowy and beautiful mountains and stopping off at every village for our driver to make a delivery or chat with his friends. We filled up with petrol and the driver had a bottle of beer as he drove.
Gunt river, increasingly good hills.
Harvest in progress.
Entering Murgab county, but unfortunately still some distance from Murgab…
Sassyk-Kul salt lake, Pamir plateau
Our driver proposed stopping for lunch at his friends house / restaurant. We sat down in the living room, inexplicably plastered from floor to ceiling in wallpaper featuring a Caribbean beach and ate a simple but effective lunch of bread and (yet more) fried egg. Unlimited tea was on tap as always. Later on we stopped for food for a second time in the small town of Alichur, nestling on the Pamir plateau at about 3,600m altitude. Life is tough here during the winter. Again we stopped at our drivers friends house, and this time were presented with Tajik dairy products. The Tajiks are very keen on dairy products. At one extreme, you can get koumys – fermented (i.e. gone off) unpasteurized horse milk and national drink in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, at the other extreme you can get qurut, rock hard salty cheeseballs the size of large marbles. Dairy products of every viscosity between these 2 extremes are available.
Undoubtedly the Tajiks make brilliant and tasty dairy products, but the weather during summer is extremely hot and most people do not have fridges so sometimes the food you are offered is not the freshest. It is pot luck, you have to take your chances and tuck in. But this time, we were in luck with exceptionally good butter and Keffir (runny natural yoghurt). Jonny later admitted he was convinced we were going to die when the range of dairy products was unveiled to us but we both had to agree that they were in fact rather good.
Jonny about to sample finest dairy products at our drivers friends house in Alichur.
We drove on as night fell, through another military checkpoint (relaxed but slow) and on towards Murgab. Our driver dropped us off next to his friends guesthouse and was clearly keen for us to stay there but we resisted the hard sell and instead tried to work out where we were on the map and make our way to the Erali guesthouse which had been recommended to us. Two teenagers working there heard us approaching, offered us tea and showed us where to sleep…..
And that is all for this post! Tomorrow night myself and my fellrunning partner are going for what will probably be our last evening fellrun of the year and on Friday night I am going to the pub. So most probably your next post will be on Saturday! In the next post we will have amusing haggling with police over permits to visit the national park, carry 25kg rucksacks in 45°c heat and reach basecamp! I do also need to tell all at some point about the very fine cuisine of central Asia – plov/osh, laghman, manti, shorpa, qurutob, shashlik… But maybe that is more suited to the last or last but one post.