The eastern Pamir is one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. In our first day here we get snowed on twice, hailed on twice, rained on intermittently and have crossed three rivers on washed out roads. But the psychical battle is not the most prominent feeling on entering the Pamir. Instead it’s the overwhelmingly alien ambiance of the place. The isolation and desperation of entering somewhere that doesn’t feel like it belongs on this earth. As we crest over the ridge out of the Tajik border at Kyzyl-Art it’s this feeling that sinks through the marrow of my bones.
The ride from Osh to the border in no way prepares us for this. In fact, it’s all around enjoyable. From the city to Sary-Tash, the intersection between China and Tajikistan, the road is the best we’ve encountered in Kyrgyzstan. The tarmac is perfect, maybe even recently laid, and we glide our way out: first through the tail end of yellow grass valleys and then through deep red canyons that only get wider and wider as we get later into the afternoon. The are a fair amount of villages along the river that the road follows, some families in yurts, others in mud houses, and even others in what look like converted sections of railroad cars. We’d seen a couple of them before –a whole roadside diner made of them outside Kochkor even— but never so many as dot these hills, small movable outposts of blue, green and silver.
Past Aktala the road rises to the mountains to the last of the well-groomed passes we’ll see. The temperature is cold once again, the heat of the valley condensing into a summer chill. We stop for a bit at the top, where we pass two extremely (and understandably) tired cyclists, and then head toward Sary-Tash, where we’re planned to fill back up on gas and groceries.
Sary-Tash turns out to not be the place to get gas nor groceries. Maybe we should’ve realized it on our own, but “intersection between the roads to China and Tajikistan” literally means the town has two roads, one to China, the other to Tajikistan. At the junction between the two is the one gas station, which when we’re there only has 80 octane unleaded. We decide to only fill up our jerry cans, just in case, and head to the grocery store which carries some of the oldest vegetables I’ve seen sold, but also some very decent salami. We pass on the former and stock up on the latter, and make our way out of the mountain town, cold and parched on a mid-august afternoon.
On the edge of Kyrgyzstan is where things begin to get strange. The border crossing itself is simple, 5 minutes and a stamp and we’re out, but the 20 km of no-mans land before Tajikistan is something a bit different. It’s actually entirely different: entirely different than anything we’ve seen so far and maybe anything I’ve ever seen until now. The rocks are still red –now an even deeper red— and the grass is still a deep green; the sun is gone and the temperamental alpine weather has covered the sky with borderline black clouds. The once bright blue water has now changed to a green-grey that doesn’t look like it should be possible in nature. Like the skin ripping off a cyborg or a fake rock being picked up for the first time, it seems real, but suddenly it’s not. Even the road begins to devolve. A new river, this one red, has washed straight through the original route less than 5km in. We have to drop the bikes into it blindly, popping out the other side hard and wet.
We ride through as swirls of rain and hail fill the air intermittently, only stopping at the outhouse of the sole human that seems to live in this area, a tanned, smiling Kyrgyz man who invites us in for tea. Maybe he is the Cerberus of this dark gorge, an inviting watchman guarding the pass.
Ten minutes later we finally make it to the Tajik side of the border crossing at Kyzyl-Art. The freezing rain is coming down hard now, but the guards make us wait outside until the cars coming out leave. We sit at the gate eating cookies. Soon, the gate, held together by a single wire, is opened and we run into a small hut where equally freezing Tajik border guards ask us for cigarettes.
The passport stamps come quick as we make small talk with the guards. At this crossing they’re all on short rotations, ranging from 10 to 30 days at a maximum because of what the altitude (4,300m 14,100 ft) –and probably the isolation— does to your physical and mental health. One guard, dressed completely in pictographic conifer camo and a wide rim camo bucket hat, speaks perfect English with a British accent. I’m even a bit confused about where he’s from at first. Tajiks look much more Persian than the decidedly Asian Kyrgyz and the difference has come so sudden. He explains that, yes he is Tajik, yes Tajikistan is very different than the rest of central Asia, and that yes you have have to pay for the bikes to come in (we later find out, no you do not). He’s a bit confused about Jie & I though.
“You are Chinese?” He says looking at Jie. “And you are Australian?” Pointing to me. “But you are friends?” This to him seems like some sort of impossibility.
An older Russian guard helps us fill out a form in his hut carved out of what looks like an old gas shipping container and even gets us out of more bribes at the “quarantine” office. Probably because he’s so impressed that Jie can actually speak Russian. They finally open the gates at about six o’clock. The sun is setting and we both slip out on the icy mud before we even make it out of the checkpoint.
From here begins the most otherworldly experience of this trip. As we head down the dirt hill, there is no visible human life in front of us. None appear that night until hours later. The landscape around us is an angry wash of grey, mauve and burgundy and as the sun falls behind the mountains, it loses any trace of warmth. Maybe it’s the infamy of this road but tonight the mountains seem steeped in malice. Menacing peaks shoot up in every direction. In some places being in an alpine basin can feel like an embrace. Here it feels like entrapment. It’s something completely different. I have never felt so captivated yet so threatened.
The fields are utterly void of any plants but there’s no lack of water. Unbound streams break out in every direction like some kaleidoscope of the river Styx. We splash through two more river crossings, one a shallow dip at sunset, the other a plunge as it’s getting dark. At this point, I’m getting concerned. The weather’s not good, it’s surprisingly cold, and we’ve ascended almost 3000m (9,800ft) in one day. On top of that, there is literally no cover whatsoever. If we camp we are not only exposed, but vulnerable –just waiting to be eaten up by the black of the Pamir night. We decide to keep driving; “at least until we’re lower down,” we tell each other.
By now it is dark. Wholly and unforgivingly dark. There is no moon and with the clouds no stars. Even our lights feel like they shoot into nothingness. I start to feel like I’m losing any sense of perception. I can tell how fast we’re going by looking at the speedometer, but like some carnival house of mirrors at I can’t figure out whether the slope we’re on is going up or down.
I keep asking Jie over the intercom “Do you know? Can you feel it?”
I'm like an astronaut thrown into a cave in the Martian night. Nothing seems right, nothing is comforting. It's as if we’re descending into the earth itself, unnoticeable against the scale of the world, banished to a barren nowhere.
Some uncountable amount of time later, we see a light in a distance. We’re excited but perplexed. No matter how long we drive at it, it doesn’t seem to move. Nor does it get any bigger: it just bobs up and down, suspended in black. It’s at this point I feel like I might actually be going insane. I check with Jie whether or not he seems the light too; is the same thing happening with him? It is and it does for maybe about 15 minutes until, suddenly, without changing shape, we’re next to it. It’s a car moving extremely slowly with only one working headlight; a grey sedan packed with four people in the backseat. They tell us there is a town in 20km. We celebrate silently, continuing forward not feeling any better.
The town begins as one or two houses, the first of which are all completely dark. They appear as cold as the rocks in the dark; we keep going. Soon there are more definable structures. We pull in front of the first house with lights on. They open the door, and accept us instantly: no words, no questions.
Inside we’re lead past a raised sitting room and into the back to where we will stay. The walls of both rooms are covered in red tapestries and the electricity is pumped in by the generator which hums along outside of our room. Our hosts bring us bread and tea. I’m giddy with disbelief; we’ve been saved from the night.
In the morning, I wake up and walk outside. It’s cold and the hills are covered in snow. It turns out we’ve made it to Karakol, and where we’re staying in a homestay called Agerim, painted above the front door in a sweeping baby blue ubiquitous across the Pamir.
There’s something so beautifully refreshing about waking up early here. The morning sun, the thin air, the slight crackle from the fire or the soft smell of the wood –I’m not sure what exactly, but it makes me so happy. It’s so invigorating. I walk into the white washed outhouse with mud walls and no roof and almost giggle just looking into the sky. Everything is a part of you here, you can’t escape it. The crisp edge of your morning breath; the slow exhale of late night deliverance; the patterned pant of a fear of the unknown. It’s the articulation of the feeling of being in a place where the world can change in the course of the night.