Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pamir Travel Travails

From Langar the road follows the Pamir river slowly upwards. The mountains recede to the distance, hanbitations disappear as do the trees and the fields as you leave the valleys of Badakhshan behind and enter the high, desolate, windswept Pamir plateau. The land is parched and the driving wind coats everything in a fine layer of dust in an instant, seemingly forcing it into your very pores. There are few inhabitants except for Kyrgyz herders driving their flocks of sheep and goats from one sparse pasture to another, and a handful of settlements servicing them and the Chinese truckers importing cheap, shoddy goods (it's not just Westerners who complain about the quality of Chinese manufacturing, or lack thereof). But for the most part the plateau is an intensely inhospitable place, a fact noted by Marco Polo over seven centuries ago. The floor of the plateau rarely descends below 3500m and I could feel the effects of the altitude on my first day whilst crossing the pass from the Wakhan at 4300m - a shortness of breath and slight pounding of blood in my head.

The Pamir plateau is beautiful yet barren. Very little can grow at such high altitudes and with such little water and the winters are bitterly cold.

I was lucky to hook up with three other travellers whilst in Langar - a couple of Dutch women in their 50's and a Japanese guy who was travelling from Tashkent to Islamabad in Pakistan in three weeks, a trip I found somewhat foolish as he was spending most of his time sitting in uncomfortable transport on bumpy roads - and so we could split the costs of hiring a car to the Pamir Highway since Langar is the end of the road as far as public transport is concerned. Even so it wasn't cheap. For the 100km to the junction with the highway (and here the word highway means sealed road) it cost $110. When we were finally deposited at the junction I was a little apprehensive. I had thought that it wouldn't be too tricky to catch a ride further east, but the reality of the deserted high plateau without a soul in sight, made me think that I might be in for a long wait. In the end I was amazed when only 10 minutes later a Chinese truck came rolling round the bend a kilometre away and picked me up. Incredibly one of the shortest times I've had to wait whilst hitching for a ride. He took me all the way to Murgab, the last Tajik town on the highway where the road splits going to China in one direction and Kyrgyzstan in the other. My route lay north to Kyrgyzstan.

Murgab is a true, gritty frontier town. If tumbleweeds could survive in the Pamirs then they would be constantly rolling through its dusty streets. Houses are low, white-washed affairs with overly-large windows that let in the cold; rusty cars lie abandoned in yards; a forest of wooden electricity poles uselessly dominates the skyline as the distance from the power station makes the current so weak as to be ineffectual; and the bazaar is composed of converted shipping containers and metal boxes. It's a mainly Kyrgyz town: peoples' faces are decidedly Oriental and older men sport kalpaks, towering, traditional white felt hats.

Murgab's delights.

Stalls in the bazaar are converted containers.

Getting out of Murgab proved a tricky proposition. There is no scheduled transport across the border, but various vans do make the 400km trip to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. The problem is finding out when and where they leave. I must have spoken to half a dozen people and each one gave me different information regarding times and prices. The most valuable currency for any traveller is correct and precise information, and I was slowly getting frustrated. Whilst stopping in a local cafe for samsas (the local take on samosas) the friendly waiter said he knew a man who knew a man who knew a driver, and so eventually I was put in contact with a man who said that he would be driving early the next morning and that it would cost $28. I was ready to pay significantly more to escape the constant sandblasting and quickly agreed.

The next day I was sitting at the appointed spot in the bazaar at 5am waiting for my wheels. It was dark and cold. The sun rose, 6am came and went and I was getting nervous. But finally an old UAZ Bukhanka ("loaf") came trundling round the corner and I thankfully bundled my rucksack in the back and hunkered down for a long ride, unaware how long it would truly be. My neighbour was a local Kyrgyz man in his 30's dressed a in tatty old tracksuit, smelling of stale cigarettes and with the worst case of overall head abscesses I have ever seen (he could easily have landed a starring role in a medical textbook) - some were the size of golf balls. Nineteen of us piled into the the truck as it set off for the border and, finally, Osh. Although the road wasn't particularly bad our progress was painfully slow and I was far from comfortable as my legs had to compete with a couple of bags and a large gas cylinder for space. Still, in such situations I am always thankful that I am relatively short as travelling in many developing countries must be particularly uncomfortable for tall people.

A short pit-stop on the Pamir plateau: time for a quick pee and a much-needed stretching of legs.

By 1pm we had managed to cover 150km and were waiting at the border in a small snowstorm. As soon as we had crossed the crest from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan the clouds had rolled in and vegetation reappeared. Despite the slow pace all the passengers remained remarkably stoic, including the little baby who barely made a sound during the entire trip. The countryside got lusher and the weather damper as we penetrated into the Kyrgyz countryside until we finally, at 9pm, 15 hours aftr setting off, arrived at a guesthouse on the edge of Osh. Despite not doing much all day I rolled into bed exhausted, oly ready to take on my new surroundings after a good night's sleep.

A grubby little roadside restaurant in Karakul village. An obligatory piece of adornment in all eateries in this part of the world is large posters of food and exotic, island paradise locations to make people forget where they are and what they're eating.

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