Having spent some time traveling north of Saint Petersburg with friends, two of them head home but my friend Sam (who does a great job editing the stuff I write) remains as together we want to hitchhike to Norway’s northernmost town in Hammerfest.
The weather’s shit, but we’re determined to hitchhike for old time’s sake. Also, public transport is ridiculously expensive. The first ride comes along soon enough. But after that things get tough, and also very cold. Even without the snow the land we travel through would seem bleak with its long winters and harsh landscape. Not many people can live up here. One guy giving us a ride is a social worker at a school who tells us about programs to reduce suicides. We ask the next person giving us a ride what people do for a living up here. ‘We cut each other’s hair’ she replies.
By the evening we check into a motel in Karasjok. The next morning, not keen on repeating the previous day’s experience we opt for a bus journey further north, which also gives us enough time to visit the Sami parliament and a museum.
The scenery along the road is spectacular: barren mountainsides occasionally covered in snow. I’m glad I’m inside a warm bus. In Hammerfest we stay at a friend of a friend’s place who provides me with some old boots as a substitute for my sandals and woollen socks. He’s a local tour guide so he has some good stories to tell about the area. Though when he invites us to accompany him and his dog for a hike up a mountain Sam and I decline, opting to just wander around town before settling down for a meal in a cozy restaurant.
Orenburg is an old frontier town. Currently located close to the border with Kazakhstan it once played a central role for the Russian empire as a base for conquering Central Asia. With its glory days very much behind it both the city and the provincial history museum don’t even bother covering twentieth century history, apart from some displays on the Second World War. Still the city center’s nineteenth century architecture and quiet streets leading down to some great views of the Ural river make a good place to wander around for a day.
I’m heading northwest to the city of Penza and I’m finally hitchhiking again. It’s great to be out on the road again, where it’s impossible to predict who I’ll end up talking to or where I’ll be in a few hours. Though the journey is over 800 kilometers I still manage to get to Penza in the evening after a long ride with a former Soviet army officer who had served in Afghanistan but has by now become a tax lawyer and a Russian orthodox believer to boot. Plenty of subjects for some good conversations.
Unfortunatly my day in Penza isn’t half as interesting as the previous day getting there. Orenburg at least still felt like a place where different cultures came together. But Penza is just drab. Maybe I’m just not paying attention. My only moment of surprise is the bust of Stalin in a courtyard off one of the big streets I glimpse from the corner of my eye. I walk over to take a closer look, and there’s a giant banner as well as a sign above the entrance way of a building announcing it’s the Penza department of the Communist Party’s Stalin center.
The next day I’m walking along a road trying to find a good place for vehicles to stop. It rained last night, and the pools of water and mud make it difficult to find a strategic place to wait and not get brown water splashed on me. I’ve got a long way to go. I want to get to Saint Petersburg by tomorrow evening. That’s 1,352 kilometers in 36 hours. The first two rides are provided by truck drivers. The second, a Kazakh who moved to Russia for the better healthcare that could be provided to his ill son, has a meticulously decorated and clean cabin. I take off my muddy sandals but I still feel guilty about all the mud I’ve undoubtedly dragged in.
I get dropped off at Moscow’s outer ring, a good 70 kilometers from the Kremlin, in the evening. As the hours progress the kind of people giving me rides changes. First two friends driving home from work. Then a migrant worker from Southern Kyrgyzstan on the night shift and a truck driver bringing goods to central Moscow before the stores open. Then some people on their way to work followed by a bunch of guys driving to their dachas followed again by long-distance delivery drivers. The last guy has driven a van all the way from Tatarstan to transport some furniture. He tells me he’ll spend the night sleeping on the front seat before going back the next day. But I’ve gotten to my destination of St Petersburg and by the time I get to the hostel I’m beat, having been awake for a good 36 hours. I manage to stay awake just long enough for the first of my friends to arrive before I crawl into bed.
It’s starting to snow less and less often which is a sign that I should be getting ready to leave Bishkek. I’m planning to meet some friends in Saint Petersburg in May which means that I need to get a Russian visa which isn’t realistically possible in Bishkek. (I’d need a statement from the Dutch government saying I don’t have a criminal record, which though true just seems like too much work, and forging a fake statement would be a little too heavy on irony). Luckily I can get a visa in Almaty. So I throw a few items of clothing in a day pack, head up to the border and sit down for a six-hour bus ride.
The consulate is only open two days a week, so I make sure I get there early with all the required documents and stand outside along with a dozen or so other people waiting to be called in in no discernible order. So I just sneak in behind a fellow tourist. The consular official is nice enough, but he explains it would take two weeks for me to get the visa, since it takes two weeks for Russians in Kazakhstan to get a visa for the Netherlands, which seems a bit petty, but all right. I tell him I don’t have enough things with me for a two week wait and I need to go back to Bishkek, collect my stuff and apply again in a few days.
A week later I’m back at the consulate. Unfortunately I’ve had to change my plans of hitchhiking a bit more through Kyrgyzstan, but I can travel around southern Kazakhstan a bit until my visa is ready. But the official says that due to World War Two commemorations it will now take me three weeks to get my visa, and gives me back my passport saying it’s better if I keep it with me, and then I can pick up the visa in a few weeks. I get a rare sensation of anger: if I’m allowed to keep my passport with me while waiting, why didn’t he mention this when I was there a week earlier? Still I don’t want to piss the guy off because I really need the visa so I just smile and say thank you.
I’ve been to Almaty a few times, and it’s not my favorite place. Unlike Bishkek I never figured out any good ways to pass the time. But I’ve met some Almaty-based fellow foreigners through the site Bewelcome in Bishkek and they invite me for a trip to the pilgrimage site of Turkistan and the ancient ruins of the once great cities of Sauran and Otrar (where Timur met his death).
Afterwards I spend some time in the cities of Shymkent and Taraz and though they’re not unpleasant places I feel traveling and doing touristic stuff is getting a a bit perfunctory. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m just killing time or perhaps it’s that I haven’t started to hitchhike again which always adds another layer of spontaneity to my travel. I start to feel a bit better after wandering through the Victory Day celebrations in Almaty and picking up my visa. But I don’t want to lose time since I’m meeting my friends in a few weeks already. So I take public transport to Orenburg, a Russian city just on the other side of the northwestern border of Kazakhstan.
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 buildings in this land long inhabited by nomads.
It’s a slow road, and while the road conditions are better than in Tajikistan 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. 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 it 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 the town which consists of little more than one road. But it does have the world’s shortest trolleybus line servicing said road, and the local 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 tourist who’s staying at the same apartment as I am 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. here at an elevation of almost 4,000 metres there’s a village on the lakeshore. 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 Yashlikul lake two days ago. His rented car had gotten stuck somewhere and he had 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 him if 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 tell the driver I won’t be able to help him out since I always pretend not to understand a word of Russian at borders as it severely restricts the possibility of someone trying to squeeze money out of me. I hope the driver forgives me: he ends up paying a border guard a small bribe, while as a pedestrian without anything drawing attention to me my process goes smoother.
After a rough road through the mountains we end up driving past farm fields to a village just on the other side of the Pamirs. The contrast with that morning’s scenery is huge: the place feels like the Garden of Eden with an impenetrable backdrop of mountains. The next day after a brief detour to the old trading 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. By now tourists have mostly replaced yaks as the former Kolkhoz’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’ve hit the road early to make their way to a wedding. They invite me along too, the third such invitation I’ve had in Tajikistan, but once again I turn down the offer. Though it would undoubtably be interesting to attend a Tajik wedding, I think I would feel incredibly out of place and somehow obtrusive at a stranger’s wedding in my worn out clothing and overall foreign appearance. Plus I hate to dance, and that is pretty much an obligatory activity.
After being dropped off in Murghab I think about spending a day in town, but the place is bleak even by the standard of post-Soviet towns in remote locations 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 a 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 local traffic on the Pamir highway dies off almost completely. Only tourists and soldiers take this 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 in the same place and I decide against spending the night by the roadside and take up the offer of a 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. They make for really interesting company through an impressively harsh landscape. We part on the other end as I head to a lake about 20 kilometres down a side road off the highway and the guide goes the other way to pick up a bunch of tourists from Lenin Peak.
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. But in this region where the landscape looks so harsh, I can still hardly understand how people manage to eke 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 men one of whom nostalgically talks about his student days in Kharkiv, a city over 3,000 kilometres 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; and 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 crammed 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 exception 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 southeast on my own. I want to spend some time in what is usually referred to as GBOA, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. This mountainous area is known for its 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 ask 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 day 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 over 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. The town 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’ve run into on three separate occasions in the last two days. The town itself doesn’t have much to 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 approach the intersection it starts 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 remainder of the 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? It turns out the guy studied petroleum engineering and has worked in the Gulf. Luckily 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 it’s 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 pier 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.