This is my fourth time visiting Osh and there’s nothing new I really want to see. Plus I’ve got a wound on my foot that needs to heal and the prospect of just relaxing for a while seems pretty sweet, and some of the fellow hostel guests are good to kill time with. It takes about a week before I hit the road again, through the mountains to the old caravanserai at Tash Rabat. One of the very few ancient building in this land long inhabited by nomads.
It’s a slow road, the road conditions are better than in Tajikistan but the traffic seems even sparser. And I’m back to my strategy of not sticking my thumb out, but just walking until someone offers me a free ride. I mostly get rides from shepherds heading back to their summer pastures. They tell me the Chinese are building new roads and tunnels in the area and soon the ride won’t have to take so long.
The third day after leaving Osh happens to be Kurman Ait which means there are people on the road heading out to visit their relatives and one family even invites me over to their house to spend the night with them and treat me to a traditional holiday sheep’s rib while watching musicians retell the Kyrgyz national epic on TV. Though the wife seems to be doing most of the work I don’t talk to her. I’m not sure if there’s a language barrier or if it is a cultural thing, perhaps a bit of both. Meanwhile her husband is sitting on the sofa going through the pictures on my phone. In any case as welcoming as the family is and as grateful as I feel for their hospitality, I don’t feel entirely comfortable and call a night early.
A few hours after leaving the family I end up in the town of Naryn, renting a room from a local tourist office. There’s not a whole lot to do in town which consists of little more than one road. But it does have the world’s shortest trolleybus line servicing said road, and the museum is a strange mix of Soviet era displays with some bits of modernity shoved in between.
After visiting the old trading post together with a fellow tourists who was also staying at the apartment I hitch to Bishkek where I plan to spend the winter. I end up getting a ride from two parents and their kids selling socks, stopping many times on the way to show off their wares to potential customers. I join them for a brief visit to the Burana tower before finding my last ride into the city.
I’ve seen some harsh scenery these last few days, the Wakhan valley didn’t look like the easiest place to settle down, but at least it is possible to grow food. But here at an elevation of almost four kilometers there’s a village on the lake’s shore. I really do wonder how people survive. Though it’s late August it’s cold already and the lack of oxygen leaves me tired just from wandering around the village for a bit.
As remote as the village feels the guest house negates any feelings of romantic isolation. I meet about half a dozen fellow tourists there including a guy I spotted at Yashikul lake two days ago. His rented car had gotten stuck somewhere and he declined my offer to help out. With the encouragement of the place’s owner who hardly speaks a word of English and has been using me and two Russian tourists as make do translators I ask a him if I he could possibly give me a lift across the border to Osh and he thankfully agrees. With so little traffic coming through I figured I’d be stuck in the village for at least a day or two but I guess the Pamir highway has been my lucky road.
The border crossing takes a while. There’s a lot of extra paperwork and attention involved with driving cars across borders but I told the driver I won’t be able to help him out since I always pretend not to understand a word of Russian at borders since it severely restricts the possibility squeeze money out of me.I hope the driver forgives me, he ends up paying a border guard a small bribe, as a pedestrian without anything drawing attention to me, my process goes smoother.
After a rough road through the mountains we end up on driving past farm fields to a village just on the other side of the Pamirs. The contrast between that morning’s scenery is huge, the place feels like the garden of Eden with the impenetrable backdrop of the mountains. The next day after a brief detour to the old trade center of Uzgen we part ways in Osh.
It’ll take an hour or two to walk to the lake, but there is so little traffic here I guess that’s my only option. However three kilometers down the road an old Lada stops and five guys invite me to squeeze in. It’s very cramped and occasionally a few of the men get out to give the car a shove to make it over a hill but I’m super grateful for the offer.
They bring me to a small village and point out a guesthouse. But by now tourists have mostly replaced yaks as the former Kolchoz’s main source of income. There are about a dozen houses a volleybal field, a medical clinic and a school. Actually I happen to be around on the first day of school and I’m surprised to see Soviet rituals have survived. Neatly dressed students recite poetry and bells are rung.
After a day spent hiking past some beautiful mountain lakes and fields I decide to wake up early knowing it will be difficult to get back to the main road. But I luck out again when it turns out two Germans in the neighboring guesthouse somehow found out about me and offer me a ride.
On the main road again it doesn’t take long to find a ride. Three guys in a small van who hit the road early to make their way to a wedding. They invite me along too, actually the third such invitation in Tajikistan, but just as the others I turn this one down too. Though it would undoubtably be interesting to attend I think I would feel incredibly out of place and somehow obtrusive at a strangers wedding in my worn out clothing and overall foreign appearance plus I hate to dance, and that is pretty much an obligated activity.
After being dropped off in Murghab I think about spending a day in town, but the place is so bleak even by ‘post-Soviets town in remote locations standards’ and the tourist information office is closed so I decide to split. Not much traffic has any reason to head past Murghab to the border with Kyrgyzstan. And as it starts to rain about an hour later I change my mind, but as I pick up my pack a car stops and I get a ride from three seismologists, two from Dushanbe and one from Germany. Perfect guides for a drive over one of the highest plateaus in the world.
As I make my way further east I settle down in a homestay and spend a day hiking up to another hot spring and some impressive ruins of centuries old fortress. Yet another few kilometers down the road I stay in homestay with a guy who learned a bit of English and founded a museum of local culture. Cars are getting few and far between but it seems like every village has at least one bed and breakfast catering to the tourists coming through on bikes or in cars. In a way the poorest region of Tajilkistan has the best tourist infrastructure.
At the point where the road stops following the Panj river and starts heading into the mountains to the Pamir highway local traffic dies off almost completely. Only tourist and soldiers take that road. So I start sticking out my thumb whenever a car comes along which is not very often, luckily I brought a book along. By the end of the day I’m still there and I decide against spending the night by the roadside and take up offer of night in a homestay. Somewhere it feels weird to spend a day waiting for a free ride only to pay for a meal and a comfortable bed in the evening.
Later the next afternoon I’m finally taken along by a Tashkent based Pakistani tour guide and his Tajik assistant and driver. Really interesting company through impressively harsh landscape. We part on the other end as I head to lake about 20 km down a side road of off the highway as the guide goes the other way to pick up a bunch of tourists from Peak Lenin.
It takes a few hours to hitchhike to the hot water spring at Garm Chashma. I book a room in a Soviet era hotel for two nights and walk around the village past a fancy brand new hotel before settling down in typical stolovaya. It’s an odd village existing solely to serve the people visiting the spring. A Pamiri resort town in this region where the landscape looks so harsh I can hardly understand how people manage to eek out a living.
I don’t hitchhike by sticking out my thumb here in the Pamirs, I just walk until someone offers me a ride, at which point I ask if it’s for free, about half the people say yes. It slows down progress but I kind of feel guilty asking for free rides on these roads where people’s destitution is so apparent. I end up getting rides from all kinds of folk, four soldiers who say that the region’s reputation for heroin smuggling is overblown, but do warn me that Afghan snipers might shoot me from the other side of the river. Two man one of whom nostalgically talks about his student days in Kharkiv a city over 3000 km away on the other side of the former Soviet empire, a police officer and his friend, a truck (one of the very few I see) bringing goods to the local village shops. A car full of relatives just back from visiting a neighboring village.
People are incredibly generous. A taxi driver offers to take me along as the fifth passenger in his car. I’m beginning to regret accepting the invitation a bit as I sit cramped between the car door and a drunk guy. But after a while we stop at the traditional Pamiri house of a relative and it makes the lack of comfort totally worthwhile. As we continue on our journey the drunk guy invites me to his house multiple times insisting that his wife and daughters will make me feel at home but I’ve learned to stay away from drunks without exceptions and the driver drops me off next to the ruins of an old fortress.
After returning to Dushanbe for a few more days the guy I met in Mashad and I part ways and I head further South East on my own. I want to spend some time in what is usually referred to as NBOA, Gorno Badakshan autnonmous zone. This mountainous area is known for it’s rugged roads and isolated villages, and that is exactly why it’s a huge draw for tourists.
The first leg goes smoothly, I even get a ride in a shared taxi van, the driver offers to take me all the way to the regional capital Khorugh but I only take up half his offer and asked to be let off where the road south takes a turn east and starts following the Panj river and the Afghan border in the tiny town of Kalai-khum. The road is too beautiful to travel down in the dark. Also, with the poor road condition, the lack of lighting and the unpredictable traffic I reckon avoiding being in a car at night is a pretty sensible move.
The next days the views only get more spectacular and the road gets even worse. Based on where I’ve traveled I’m beginning to suspect there’s a strong correlation between terrible roads and amazing views. But it could be worse, looking to Afghanistan on the other side of the river there only occasionally seems to be a road. And while the villages here have electricity that doesn’t seem to be the case of the other side.
Khorugh is an interesting town, though it only has 28,000 inhabitants there is no bigger place around for hundreds of kilometers. There’s an army base, some government things but since the region is largely Ismaili the Aga Khan’s money is also a lifeblood funding several NGOs and a new university. It also has the only hostel in the region where I not only run into a bunch of people I’ve met in Dushanbe, but I also spend an hour or so talking to a German motorcyclists who I ran into on three separate occasions in the last two days. The town itself doesn’t have much too offer apart from a nice park and a museum which is unfortunately closed but is supposed to house a piano a bunch of poor Soviet soldiers had to lug over the mountains in order to bring some Soviet civilization to the Pamir mountains.
Getting down to the point where we leave the main road to get to Iskanderkul is easy enough. One man even invites us to his brother’s wedding for when we get back to Dushanbe. But as we approached the intersection it started to rain and when we leave the car it’s absolutely pouring. We hesitantly enter an old factory to ask if we can shelter there. There are not many workers around but after a few minutes we find one. He takes us to an empty office, brings us some tea and leaves us alone for the remaining rainstorm.
Once the weather clears we continue down the road. Hitchhiking now is a bit more difficult just because of the sheer lack of cars. Our progress is slow and by the evening we get to a fork in the road. There are some houses around so we figure we’ll wait and if all else fails we’ll just ask if we can pitch a tent in somebody’s yard.
As evening approaches we hesitantly walk towards the closest house as the threatening barks of a dog ring out. I really hope it’s on a chain like most dogs are around here. We knock on the door and as my travel companion doesn’t speak Russian it’s up to me to explain our situation and ask if we can stay close to their house. The guy answers in English that of course we can stay, but why stay outside, come indoors, and by the way have you eaten? Turns out the guy has studied petroleum engineering and has worked in the Gulf. Lucky for us he is visiting his parents.
By next afternoon we’ve reached the lake. The scenery is so beautiful it’s hard to put into words and since its a mountain lake it’s also too cold to swim in. So all we can do is stare at it. After a walk around the lake and a visit to the waterfall we eat dinner on a restaurant’s peer and pitch the tent. Further to the west in the Fann mountains there are supposedly even more beautiful lakes but there are no roads and we have neither the time nor the supplies to cover the distance on foot. So we head back down to Dushanbe.
I’m heading to the Northern city of Khujand with the guy I met in Mashad and a friend of his. Hitchhiking with three people is always a bit more tricky, but we’re going to give it a go. After taking a bus we start to walk North and one of the first cars that passes us stops and offers a ride all the way to our destination. Hitchhiking is mostly just dumb luck.
The guy is driving a fancy new black Lexus. He asks us on our political opinions on the refugee crisis in Europe and the future of the EU. It turns out he works for the anti-corruption office and I guess he must be pretty high up. When we are stopped for speeding all he has to do is wave his ID in the officer’s face before being waved on.
The drive is stunning. The only road crossing the mountains and connecting Khujand with the rest of the country leads through a notoriously dark tunnel and a few more stable looking new Chinese ones. When the civil war was happening the government fled up north knowing that there was no way the rebels could ever threaten the city.
In Khujand we stay at a couchsurfer’s family house. His parents, siblings, their wives, nieces and nephews are all squeezed in three buildings surrounding a courtyard. I loose track of who I’ve been talking to. But everybody is super hospitable. On the second evening we pile in to two vans to visit a park filled with rickety Soviet era rides and newer booths advertising ‘7-D cinema’ before heading to a cafe to eat ice cream.
I’m finally hitchhiking again. Or at least, that is my intention. My second ride drops me off in the middle of a town by the taxi stand. Figuring I still have a couple of thousand Uzbek som in my pocket which will be useless once I cross the border I decide to not make things unnecessarily hard for myself and take shared transportation to the border.
When I walk to the border post I come across two cars with British license plates. Inside a pack of young British men are stressing out over their visa which won’t be valid until tomorrow. It turns out they’re part of the Mongol Rally, a race across Eurasia in purposely ramshackle cars.
Now that I’m across the border I have to hitchhike for real: I haven’t been able to get my hands on any Tajik Somoni yet. Luckily my destination is not far away. It takes a few rides: an old couple in a van, a few guys carpooling home from work, and a man who goes into great detail about the economic decay in the region after the fall of communism who stops somewhere along the way to buy me some grapes. The last guy is driving three women to Dushanbe. They are dropped off as soon as we get to the edge of town. I offer to get out as well, but he insists on driving me to the center until I decline his invitation to visit a restaurant and a hotel several times. He drops me off with seven kilometers to go to the hostel and I’m beat after a long day. I keep looking around for an ATM so I can at least take public transportation, but no luck. Thankfully I still have the grapes.
I don’t do much during my Dushanbe days: I visit a few museums, walk down to what was once the world’s tallest flagpole, and try to track down some old Soviet buildings before they’re razed to the ground. Dushanbe is the sleepiest of all the former Soviet capitals I’ve visited. But tranquil streets are exactly what I need after having to be on my guard constantly in Afghanistan. I stay in a hostel for a few days. The place is filled with cyclists, Mongol Rally participants and various other intrepid travelers, including a guy I met previously in Mashad (we kept in touch via email as he made his way through Turkmenistan).
I’d rather not be crossing this border into Uzbekistan. The visa is expensive, I’ve visited the country before and it’s a detour to Tajikistan, my destination. But since the direct road to Dushanbe goes through the Afghan city of Kunduz and that city fell into Taleban hands for a few days not too long ago I decide to travel via Termez in Uzbekistan instead. This does give me the opportunity to cross the railway bridge made famous when the last Soviet troops retreated over it in 1989 at the end of the Afghan War.
The Afghan border guards are alright. One insists on becoming Facebook friends with me but the process is generally smooth. Not so on the northern side. I have to unpack my bag three times, my computer gets thoroughly checked, and even though it’s scorching hot and there’s a sink in the corner I’m not allowed to get a drink of water. To be fair there’s a lot of heroin being smuggled across this border, but it feels like they’re just being hard on me to see if I will slip them some cash.
I’m pretty close to Termez so I decide it’s easier to take a cab into town instead of hitchhiking there. It’s a chance to get rid of some Afghan cash too. I’ve found two hotels online about two kilometers apart. The taxi driver drops me off at one. I walk in and hear the price. It’s three dollars which sounds cheap by Uzbek standards. I think there must be something wrong with the exchange rate I saw earlier. I visited the country two years earlier but inflation seems to be getting crazy. So I decide to drag my bags along Termez’s stifling main drag to the other hotel. It turns out to be a very fancy affair and I turn around and walk back. I order some mors along the way, and the lady running the stall refuses to take my money which after a long long day makes everything feel alright.
I hang around town for two days, getting a Tajik visa online and visiting the city’s sights. Actually it used to be a great regional center, but just like a few other places I’ve visited in the wider area, not much was left after Genghis Khan came through. What was once a city is now a park, the only thing in it a shrine where people come to take pictures and to pray. There’s a brand new museum, but with little material remains there’s not much on show.