Saturday, October 7

Kyrgyzstan 31

We arrive at the border and after passport control we see our connection - a similar black Toyota Land Cruiser - to my relieve (NB apparently the Land Cruiser is the only 4WE to be trusted given the availability of inexpensive parts).

The border guard informs that Americans cross the border the most followed by the French and the Italians. Tajiks or Kyrgs ? Not allowed either direction. It costs 500 somones bribe (about 15 dollars) to enter Kyrgyzstan.

Passing the guard, we enter a neutral territory between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for 35km accompanied by a military soldier to ensure our security. The border opened only four weeks ago to tourism otherwise the free flow of people is blocked. Before Covid, "many people died" because of fighting over territory until the Kyrgyzstan government shut the line. NB there are three crossings between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and one crossing with China.

Our new guide, Jyrghal, informs that Tajikistan has been hurt more than the Kyrgyzstan during the the border shut-down given the country is poorer, has less trading access to Russia and Central Asia (natural commerce partners Afghanistan and China are difficult) and is run by President Rahmon, a dictator ("one-thousand percent").

We are still on the Pamir hw (M41) which ends in Osh yet the geography immediately changes and here we are on a dirt road again, in the neutral territory, down and down in a red valley.

We drop off our protector, have our bags thoroughly searched for Afghani drugs, meet a motorcyclist stranded for one week since now papers, then exit - Jyrghal: "now I can welcome you to Kyrgyzstan."

Lone Cyclist 30

We stop to make sure the fellow is OK and has water. 
Easier - by far - to raise a billion Euros.

Tajikistan Soon Gone 29

We soon say goodbye to Macfhadir and Aziz, entering Kyrgyzstan. Before the border-crossing we drive alongside the Chinese border and, for the first time, there is an interminable rusting metal fence put up by the Chinese in the 1960s, separating Tajikistan and China. A Chinese visa is now complicated needing more than some money and a passport stamp eg a formal invitation required for entrance.
Guest house in Morgab

Roof Of The World 28

Rock for my desk
Aqbaital pass at 4,655m (15,362 feet) is the second highest pass in the world, below only the Kunjarab pass on the Karakoram Highway at c 5,200m that connects Pakistan to China. Eitan finds a suitable rock for my office.

We descend to the Karakul lake (4,300m), the highest in Central Asia, where Eitan and I both swim (bracing and clean). It is salt water and nothing lives here, unlike the pike found in the Yashikul late and Bulunkul lake which we passed earlier (note: 'kul' means lake). The small nearby village of 200 population where we have tea survives on tourists attracted to the beauty of this location.

As with all places we have travelled so far there are electrical sockets (European prong) to charge our iPhones and power the lights; sometimes a television or computer screen is in the guest or dining room but I do not imagine they work. Wifi another matter - mainly touch-and-go.

We blast Steely Dan's "Reeling In The Years" across the expansiveness and everything is right. 

Karakul lake

Beautiful detail

Friday, October 6

Kashgar 1997 27

A lonely unpaved road cuts from the Pamir hw to China across a bleak valley and into the Tian Shans - the border control yet miles away. Eventually, after crossing the Karakoram mountains, the turn-off will arrive in Kashgar, the ancient oasis market located on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, which means "those who go in do not come out", and once a key stop on the Silk Route.

Sonnet, Katie and I visited Kashgar in 1997, before the Chinese systematic genocide of the Uyghur  Muslims via re-education camps and torture from 2014.  Kashgar, along with its thousands of years history, was once a place where one could barter for a camel, Kalashnikov, or opium (knowing the door markings). I recall 5-gallon drums of fresh chicken guts (very clean) used for cooking, or the row of men being shaved by the barber for prayer - long blade, of course. Always carpets to be haggled over  chi in the privacy of the trader's home. Such friendly people.

China's brutality makes no sense - the Uyghurs are no threat to China or its great cities, located thousands of miles East and, anyway, China's western border is protected by the impassable Hindu Kush, Tian Shans and Karakoram ranges. It is strictly an assimilation of a peaceful Muslim people because Beijing can do so, overlooked or unseen outside a few small protests from us, the West.

Craftsman, Kashgar, 1997

Defender 26

I meet this friendly couple who have been on the road since June heading from a village in Switzerland to Nepal. They have their sleeping quarters on top of the Defender and a couple of deck chairs to watch the sunset. We don't really get into it but they are in the right place for sure.

Morgab 25

Evening school run
Morgab is the largest district in the Pamirs, nestled to one side of a wide barren valley. The altitude starts from c 3,000m. Here it is Sunni, identified easily by the mosque next to our hostel and the 5X call to prayer.

There is a market - Sundays are busiest - and we examine local items and Western scrapings - Coke and Fanta (of course), Colgate toothpaste, dish washing liquid .. bottled water for travellers is a must and clean water is an urgency (in 2002 President Ramon initiated the global Year of Clean Water, adopted by the UN).

Wherever we pass on the highway we see children dressed in clean pressed school clothes, the boys with knotted ties and the girls with tight hair braids - sometimes they are walking many kilometres from the next village, often very young eg under ten years. I am informed that the norm is for local schooling until Year 4 then to a larger town/ relatives to Year 11. Some will then go to Dushambe for university. Unsurprisingly the more school, the less likely to return home. By uni most are interested in some travel, like Macfhadir, and Moscow is a big draw.

Busy days

Alichor Village 24

Footie at sunset
The M41, leaving and reconnecting with the Pamir hw at Chorug and Kona Kurgon, cuts through Alichor village whose populations of 1,200 people is mostly invisible to us as we arrive in the hot afternoon. The trim houses are made of brick and mud, often painted an agreeable pastel colour. Many of them are in a state of incompletion or abandonment. A single telephone wire strung on sturdy wood poles traverses the town. There is not a tree nor bush to be seen, only dirt and the brown mountains that surround us in a hazy distance. No Internet.

Eitan makes a few fast friends in a scratch game of football. Shouts of Messi! and Ronaldo! can be heard by the ten or so boys as they shoot on goal and trash-talk each other.

We stay at a guesthouse run by the family matriarch Rahima, the former (stern) local english teacher for ages 4-11 (her English to be desired). Rahima's grandchildren run about spreading joy. They are dirty and loved. 

Rahima before her house.

Aziz 23

Aziz at work
Aziz drives hard, he's got a job to do, aware how far he can push the Land Cruiser to the road's edge when passing a truck or vehicle. There are times I cannot look.

He knows many drivers along the way, honking or waving or stopping to chat about conditions ahead or whatever. At night he reconnects with his friends and they lie on their bed mats and pass the night away talking and drinking chi.

Poppy, Zong village

Kargush Pass 22

Yack horn
We cross Khargush Pass at 4,333m en route to Yashikul Lake and stop nearby Bulunkul village, population 200. The people here spend their whole lives in this spot. Some leave, but nobody immigrates, and it is easy to understand why - it feels like sci-fi, the nearest village or town hours away across a moonscape desert. The outpost survives on small tourism, animals/ herding and fish from the lake; there is no fruit nor vegetable. Remarkably there is a basketball court (Macfhider and Aziz have not heard of Michael Jordan).

Along with the lonely beauty of the place is the temperature. While today it is a very pleasant 25C, in January the needle will drop to -60C, the coldest point in Central Asia (along with weather meters and some solar panels there is a large satellite dish). For a nearby comparison of extremes, Dushambe will hit 50C in the summertime.

Bulunkul recreation

Thursday, October 5

Wakhan Corridor 21

Daily run
We have just travelled the route visible in the photograph, looping around a rock stream, then circling back encountering the cattle.

The Russians say, "you have not seen the Pamir Mountains until you have been to the Wakhan Corridor." People here are mainly from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and have their own dialect (Makhfdir informs). They are known for their striking blue eyes and blond hair. Similar to the unseen brown bear or snow leopard, which roam these mountains, they stay away from us, having no interest in such visitors to their home.

Aziz's local music is a constant in the background. We negotiate for Eitan's play-list and try to explain Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Tom Thumb's Blues"; he and Makhfidr are less convinced by bands Deer Hunger, LCD Sound System and the Sufian Stevens.

The shopkeeper, below, is well stocked including Budweiser, something not seen since London. The local beer, Sim Sim, is 4.7% (reported) alcohol content and sold only in 2L plastic bottles for 30 somone - less than a dollar. It is very good when cold and safe to drink, while the tap water is advised not.


Flour 20

Man with sickle, a common sight on the backroads
It is late summer/ autumnal and the villages, sometimes only four or five stone houses, sheer and mulch the (small) wheat crops to make the hardy bread we eat. It is back breaking work and the flour is stored for winter. Yet despite the baking heat there is always a right-hand-on-heart greeting and a smile. I also see the joy as they break for lunch or dinner on wool blankets with the women bringing soup and mutton.

Hindu Kush means "killer of Hindus."

Engles Peak 19

We trek upwards from Zong valley, c 3,000m, in the Wakhan Corridor, by a river irrigation to an alpine lake at the base of the mountains: Engels peak (6,500m), Moskovski Pravda peak (6,075m), Karl Marx peak (6,300m) and LGU peak (6,222m). Each capped by white glaciers breaking the endless brown lunar vista of the empty and desolate Pamirs. Around a bend, outside our view, is Lenin peak (7,200m).

On the 24km hike we pick up a healthy dog - I name him Mushka - who follows us to the lake rewarded by salami, salty sardines and hard bread. Mushka ditches us for the next hikers and all in a days work for his meal, I am sure.

At the lake I meet a solo Serbian and ask him about the Balkans. He is 42 and informs of being in grade school as Yugoslavia dissolved in 1995 and bodies lay in the street and man-of-wars flew over-head. Milosovik ? who disregarded NATO and, as a result, Serbia was bombed by NATO to prevent more genocide in 2002 - "He was a pawn in the operation and manipulated (by Serbia, I think). All countries were doing bad things in the war". NB Croatia is Catholic, Serbia Orthodox, Bosnia Muslim and the Balkans' seven country lines imposted upon them post Second World War creating a tinder box for conflict, which ignited following the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Wednesday, October 4

Zong Village 18

German traveller
We meet two attractive couples (unmarried) in their late 20s/ early 30s, Swiss (German speaking) and German in Zong village in the Wakhan Corridor. The couples have been travelling at least a year, having quit four career track jobs to do so. Why? Why not, despite their advanced education they are learning and motivated by the journey, frequently re-routing on a whim or a conversation. Besides, there are always jobs to go back to in Berlin and Zurich, they believe. Given the ages, I ask questions about work, music and family/ kids which draws awkwardness especially from the women, who are ambitious, and - more so than the men, it seems to me - thinking about politics and the planet. We need them in the game - especially these women - as Germany in particular is heading hard to the right.

It is not lost on me that this crew is equally interesting to Eitan, looking forward 10 years, as me, seeing a younger generation in thought and action.

Boy in Zong village

Lada 06 17

Proud owner of a Lada
"Zero six!" Aziz cries as we pass the Russian Lada, model 06, which is from 1992 (I think). Aziz knows his Russian cars : Lada, Zhiguli, Niva, Moskvich, Uaz, Kama and Ural (to name a few I can catch).

The Soviet cars on the highway, almost always white, are sometimes moving or left on the side of the road. Many of these vehicles, and certainly the earlier Ladas, date to the 60s and 70s, and were the workhorses of the era. They are more romantic than the orange Hyundai trucks that are now here to take from the mountains (and sometimes make our passing tenuous). 

I have seen the Russian car roofs stacked a story high with wheat since the harvesting season has begun.

Better days behind

Tuesday, October 3

Qah Qaha 16

We visit Qah Qaha, a fortress located outside Ishkashim village, where we stay last night, bordering, still, Afghanistan (note, we left the Pamir Highway yesterday and are now on what is only called "the silk road").

The fortress was built in the 3rd century to protect Ishkashim during the Arabic period. This area connects Afghanistan to India, a key trading route for clothes, spices and knowledge on the ancient Silk Route.

The fortress stones are from Afghanistan, transported across the Panj River. A similar fortress, from the same period and with the same name, is in Afghanistan 1,000km from here. The rulers of both fortresses were brothers - Zangibor was their family name - and they provided protection for the price of crossing.

At the base of the fortress we engage a vendor who sells beads, cloth and local jewellery. We bartar a few things and Eitan walks away with an Afghani hat called a 'pakol'.

We meet a young hostess at a hot-springs - the mineral water is 50C after being cooled to this temperature by mixing with another mountain stream. I receive her permission for a picture - difficult to take photographs of women, I have found.

Pamirs 15

We pass military patrols somewhat frequently, walking the hw in camouflage fatigues, from cap to boot, despite the oppressive heat. Kalashnikov riffles are swung over their shoulder and they march in groups of 3-4 making no eye contact as we pass them by.

We race the sunset's elongating shadows as the road winds its way to the Wakhan Corridor.  We see the snow capped Hindu Kush for the first time, the massif towering overhead, in the far distance.

Kul Lal 14

Kuhl Lal (“ precious mountain”) is where emerald is found. Mostly only here, in all the Pamirs.

Russia 13

We meet Oleg and Alexei at a dirty checkpoint on the road - they are on motorcycles, in full leather, w panniers filled with travel gear. I guess in their late 20s and from Moscow. Oleg smokes a fag as we wait and talk about the road - they have been travelling from Almaty. Eitan is reading Dostoevsky, which makes a connection.  It is impossible not to ask the question on the Ukraine, and at first both reluctant to discuss the war but each against it. “The old people watch the news and they support Putin”, Igor says, “but my Grandfather has changed against it”.  I ask if Moscow is normal? “Yes, normal accept the politics”. Do people follow the politics? “It is only thing discussed”.

Both are in danger of being unexpectedly drafted, and Oleg spent last year in Sri Lanka but his mother’s health returned him to Russia this year. Alexei lives in Turkey - but no Turkish passport, he shrugs. I have the feeling he is not leaving Turkey any time soon. 

Botanical Garden 12

Botanical gardens
Giving the botanical garden its due, one of the most peaceful places I have been - from the placard : formed in 1940, 2,340m above sea level, its nurseries and plots have "tested" over 30,000 plant species from Central Asia, East Asia, the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Crimea and the Caucuses, and North America. Today there are over one thousand foreign plans in residence. As for water, it comes from mountain springs, not the Panj river below, so it is an oasis above the city.

Eitan meets four local men one playing guitar. He is invited to join and plays a blues song for them. "They found it a bit weird", he says.

Morning gossip