The Pamir Highway is the gateway to the heavens, the skies and to the stars beyond. It’s called the ‘roof of the world’ by the locals and for good reason. I can’t write about it without tearing up and feeling an immense urge to go back and experience it again. The giddy nostalgia accompanied by one’s pining to soar to the heights of this special place often overcomes me.
‘The plain is called Pamier, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you can not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out so much heat as usual….” Marco Polo
The road from Khorog to Osh was build in 1931-1934 by the Soviets. It served to feed troops and provisions to perhaps the most remote outpost of the USSR. It now is often referred to as the Opium Highway for obvious reasons. The stats make for ugly reading, between 100-200 tonnes of heroin seeps through the Afghan/Tajik border each year. The supply form Afghanistan is so enormous that it far exceeds the demand from Euro junkies. The camel caravans of the silk route are long gone only to be replaced by 4x4s and ladas smuggling kilograms of the gunk through to Russian and Europe. I was intrigued to see Pajeros, Land Cruisers and even a Hummer on the Pamir Highway. After asking about, apparently the money one can make by smuggling is pretty lucrative and often a 4×4 is thrown in as payment. Heroin is sadly everywhere as I found out…
We drove the heavenly route for a while and dropped old babuska off and Kame decided to stop as well. I decided to push on to Jelandy, the promise of hot springs was too tempting to pass up! My driver kept on making eyes at me and winking. I didn’t quite know what to do, me alone on the Pamirs with a strange man who could pull over any time and demand extra payment? Who knows what he could have done? It seemed like we were the first tourists he’d lifted as he seemed pretty taken with Kame and myself. That and the fact that he had no idea how to charge us, eventually he asked us to pay what we thought was appropriate. Part of me feels he didn’t want our money, just the company on the long road to Khorog. He seemed kind and harmless enough, bless.
We got to Jelandy and my driver made inquiries about whether I could stay the night. He mentioned I shouldn’t pay to stay there and that I could stay with him and his family in Khorog. He seemed pretty persistent in trying to convince me to go with him but I stood my ground and stayed in Jelandy. I wanted to stay mainly so that I could view the entire Pamir Highway in the daytime, I didn’t want to loose a second to darkness that would snatch up the scenery that would be a waste. I couldn’t bare to loose sight of the mountains for a second, even if it meant paying a bit more. Turns out my two rides along the route and my stay over in Jelandy was cheaper than what most tourists pay for a one way ticket. I stayed in the Sarez Sanatorium. I got my own beautiful room with twin beds and on suite bathroom for 1 frikking dollar (how I got it this cheap is beyond me). Hot springs on tap and a kitty cat on my bed made me so happy. I hadn’t bathed in over a week and so I treated myself to a couple of scolding hot baths. I hadn’t been well for the past few days after my altitude sickness bouts and I hadn’t been this warm in over a week either, pure bliss.
I went to dinner which was amazing soup slop and loads of bread. I ate my weight in bread in Tajikistan, there’s really nothing else to eat in the winter months. A lady who seemed to be head of house keeping spoke pretty good English and offered me GREEN TEA! Praise be to God, Allah or whoever is up there!! I mentioned to her that I was looking for a lift to Khorog the next morning, she didn’t look convinced or reassuring as she muttered something in reply. She popped into my room (no lock on the door by the way) and took the TV which wasn’t working in the first place. Throughout the evening I got persistent knocks on the door from drunk men. I eventually moved the table across the door. Thank goodness I did as someone banged and yelled at me at about 2 am and tried to bash down the door. . . maybe that’s why I only paid a dollar.
I awoke later on that night to the sound of snow and felt more at ease and at peace. I managed to sleep pretty well and indulged in the warmth of my bed. I got up early for breakfast and asked about for possible lifts to Khorog, most people seemed to be coming from Khorog on to Murgab. Eventually the landlady who’d taken pity on me and decided to place me under her wing told me to wait in the foyer for a lift. I did, and eventually some men in the typical Tajik attire of black tracksuits, black leather jackets and black leather hats hollered at me. Outside was stunning and afresh with the overnight snow. It’s incredible how quickly the snow descends down the mountain slopes with just a night’s worth of snow. I rushed to get my backpacks from the room and stumbled to the lada in the blanket of beautiful snow. Of course no one offered to help me carry my bags or offload them. “There’s always space for one more” exists here as it does in Africa. I was offered a seat on a box of sorts in the back of the lada (of which the back seats where taken out to optimize space). There were about 6 men in the back of the van with me and three in the front. I was glad I was squashed next to the window rather than in between two men. Though after a while I was offered a lap to sit on which broke the ice!
Initially I think the men felt a bit intimidated by me, a few stares and shy smiles and that was it. I wore a headscarf and my fake wedding ring (which in all honesty didn’t really help me on my travels!) and put on a brave face as I endured the long journey as the only woman among 8 or so Tajik men. The driver seemed a bit brash to me, he was trying to ask me the questions everyone wanted to know and with my pretty lame replies he gave up. We dropped off people here and there and picked up two women, thank goodness! I felt much more at ease knowing there were two women (though they made no attempt to speak much to me until they reached their village). They were rather giggly with the men and after a while the flirting broke out which was rather charming (despite everyone in the van seemingly married). Their red headscarves were arranged just so slightly so that they conveniently kept on slipping and had to be readjusted. The more daring they appeared the more face and hair was reveled. This is far more seductive than any boob busting corsette or miniskirt and I don’t care what you say. The small subtleties in the eyes and facial expressions of these beautiful women made me want to mimic them. Watching this innocent yet intense courtship was fascinating and made me realize how clumsy and unfeminine I must have appeared.
The one lady spoke pretty good English but was far too scared to converse, or perhaps embarrassed that she knew much more English than her male passengers. Either way she mentioned they were off to a neighboring village to barter and meet family. And as soon as we got chatting they were off, never to be seen again.
The drive along the Shokh Dara Valley as we approached Khorog was stunning. The trees alongside the road and river bed were bursting with orange and yellow flames, the water of the river was like an opal ribbon meandering through friendly villages. I can only pine for and dream of returning to such an enchanted land.