Conditions in the Pamir change fast and unforgivingly. Just like Tibet last month, the weather at altitude whips and flows through the valley in quick spurts and intense torrents. The first day in the Pamir starts off like the last day in Kyrgyzstan ended: we wake up to a bright sun, but are quickly covered in hail, freezing rain and snow –none of which last for more than ten minutes. Unlike Tibet though, the road in the Pamir is as fickle as the weather. From Karakol the Murghab, the road is mostly paved, which to be honest is surprising to both of us; however, it’s definitely not paved well, and sudden, deep potholes at 60km go about as you would expect. Other times the road devolves suddenly into rocks. At it’s worst it’s like an amalgamation of small river stones where you slide and skid at the slightest turn of the handlebars. I can’t blame the roads themselves though, life out here, constantly fighting the elements is bound take its toll. On long pavement stretches we come across multiple places where the tarmac has fallen out a large chunks; this might just be a place that people were never meant to go, a part of nature that was never meant to be conquered.
The drive is still absolutely unreal, in all the best of ways. The landscape is a swirl of red, orange and purple at some points and at others broad strokes of grey and tawny. The hills pulsate in the morning sun and the riverbeds emanate almost ethereal energy. It’s like gods playground for an alternate type of earth –the canvases of an artist in an experimental period all sewn together into one whimsical landscape. When I look out into it there’s some feeling I can’t explain: part excitement, part disbelief, part fear, and part absolute respect. It’s the feeling of being faced with something completely beyond yourself. It’s knowing that you have only been granted passage to make your way through; this far out time works in a way that you will never truly be able to alter anything out here.
We pass about four people an hour and if it wasn’t for them I might actually believe we’re the only ones out here. There’s nothing even close to settlement until past Karakol until we go over the Ak-Bital pass, and even then it’s no more than a lone house followed by two seemingly-abandoned crumbling brick shacks. Ak-Bital is the highest point on the Pamir Highway (4655m) and utterly Martian. The rocks are orange, their edges are jagged, and they burn and cut in different hues of brown. Our minds don’t really feel the ascent because we’re already so high up to begin with, but our bodies ache with every movement we make at the top. We stop off to rest and quickly find out that even the slightest shove of the bike can send our lungs heaving into exhaustion. In the face of strength of the mountains we are eternally weak, yet breathing air this pure I feel so wholly revitalized.
In the valley beyond the pass, we decide we need a little boost. Jie lies down for a quick nap, while I decide to make an alpine coffee. We bask in the sun like lizards in the mid-day alpine air.
The rest of the morning is quick and refreshing, bright sun is backed by a flush of inviting white clouds on either side. On the way, we pass three groups of cyclists. For them there is no redemption from the elements. Inevitably, they have to face what the Pamir brings. They have to camp, and more often than not there’s no way to hide. There are just not enough people living up here to be able to make it to shelter every night. I look at them almost like ghosts as we drive by; I can’t imagine what last night abandoned out this barren expanse would’ve been like.
We finally roll into Murghab in the late afternoon with more storms brooding on the mountains edge. Murghab is the main settlement out on the eastern Pamir and an important outpost in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) which encompasses the entirety of the Tajik Pamir and the Pamir highway. This region makes up 45% of the country but only has 3% of the people and is drastically different from the rest of the Tajikistan, to the point that you even need a separate stamp on your visa to enter. The GBAO even tried to secede from Tajikistan during the civil war, which lasted from 1992-1997, . In retaliation, the central government imposed heavy sanctions on the region. Fighting calmed (for the most part) after 1997 and the restrictions have most been lifted, but the Pamir still remains economically hamstringed.
Beginning in Murghab to the south, the population is almost entirely Pamiri’s: a grouping of indigenous peoples and languages separate people from Tajiks entirely, spread across the mountains of Tajikistan Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most surprising to me, they look way more Caucasian than Asian or Persian. With bright red or blond hair and deep green eyes, I’m always wondering how must’ve people looked before we started to migrate if these are the people originally from here.
The Pamiris are extremely warm and unbelievably hospitable, especially for living in a climate such the opposite. Perhaps it’s just that though: there is a need for human kindness to offset a place so harsh. They share and give all they have with us as strangers in almost every encounter, offering us water from their wells and bread from their ovens. Within five minutes of conversation here, people are constantly inviting us to stay with them or have tea. There’s an enveloping comfort knowing that someone is always looking out for you, someone we don’t even know and may never know but yet cares for us equally –another human soul tossed into this place the rest of the world has forgotten.
The first order of business in Murghab is to get gas. Surprisingly there’s 92 for sale (at a hefty 7.2 Som/L premium) and we head over to the biggest station outside the north of town to get it. The station itself if characteristic of getting gas on the Pamir: two drums full of gas which is then shot in to 5L plastic bottles to be put into the tank. The station has it’s own sieve, but to be safe we use our own filter too –we don’t want to be having engine problems out here. The fill up takes about 30 minutes, but in a way it’s a miracle that a service like this even exists out here. Especially because the best road is the one we came in on (the east-west portion of the M41 having been partially washed away by floods when we were there). On every road we drive through Jie and I share in the wonder as to how trucks manage to make it through sections we can barely get through on motorcycles.
Leaving Murghab, we arrive at our first passport checkpoint in the Pamir. Because of tensions between the GBAO and Dushanbe and unrest on the Afghan border, passport checks are common on the Pamir Highway. We try to limit our encounters with anything military and police when we’re out on the road (and in life in general I guess), so don’t really know what to expect. It turns to be painless: nothing more than our names, passport numbers, and route written in a worn notebook by two well-armed guards watching Tajik music videos. It’s about as harmless as I think any interaction with a person carrying a Kalashnikov could be.
This kind of checkpoint ends up being the norm rather than the exception. Tajik soldiers are all extremely friendly to us, probably the most friendly uniformed authorities I’ve ever encountered. On multiple occasions we get pulled over, only to realize that the soldiers just want to talk and ask us where we’re from. In the heat of mid-day they offer us parts of the melons they’re eating, pushing us to eat fat slices of dripping honeydew even though our hands are already full. They even ask me to take pictures of them on our bikes.
After a full day in the Pamir, we decide that we should try our luck at camping. We search for caves by the roadside in the inviting cliff faces that frame the drive, but nothing really seems to fit the bill: they’re either inaccessibly high or precariously low. We keep driving and suddenly it’s gone from rocky mountains to a wide expanse of only far off hills in the distance. It’s only getting darker and the wind is picking up. It’s getting colder by the minute. We don’t have many options at this point, so we start looking by the road for the lowest places we can, those most hidden from the elements. We end up finding a spot in some kind of carved out sand outing that we slip and slide through as we make our way to a flat place to sent up camp. The tent is howling in the wind, but the moon is bright and full. Neither of us are hungry enough to eat dinner so we just slide in and go to sleep.
At night I wake up from the wind almost convinced someone is outside our tent. I lay silent for a while thinking through all the things it could be –a wolf, a curious nomad— none of the options really likely, but we’re so deep out that your mind wanders to worrying about everything. Finally I open the door; of course it’s nothing, just a flap hitting the sand in the wind.
I wake up to the sun coming over the ridges of the mountains. Jie and I lay out on the sand trying to heat back up again. Morning time in the Pamirs is cold. Jie takes the chance to even model a new line of camping clothing.
We set off towards Alichur where the roads are pretty good. On the way out we stop at a house for water. The owner greets us with a handshake, talks to us for a bit, and not only fills up to water bottles but also sends us off with a loaf of bread for which he wont accept money in return. People are so giving even when they have little to nothing. We stop by a small, sudden diner for lunch where outside a dad and two kids are trying to build an addition to the building.
The high desert expands and keeps swirling in dozens of far off clouds out towards massive salt lakes. We stop off briefly in the town to ask directions to Bulinkul, a village off the main road we’ve heard has the best natural hot springs in all of the Pamir. We never manage to actually find the springs (you should try if you go!), but what we do find is some awesome off-roading. The “road” toward Bulinkul is more like a collection of tracks than it is any proper path. Lanes of treaded sand shoot out in parallel multiples all the way through the soft desert, all equally as good, all equally as drivable. We’re given the freedom to wind as we like. We play through hard packed ground and the low chaparral that bumps through unnamed mountains and open valleys of the Pamir. It feels like we can do anything we want to. We’re free to fly here: it’s the nowhere of nowhere.
We end up in a glorious mountain basin in the town of Bulinkul by the middle of the afternoon. An old man in the village tells us the springs are over the mountain so we head over that way, jie cutting up one side of the mountain and me the other. Apparently the man confused our request for “hot spring” with “unbelievably beautiful face of Saturn reservoir” because that’s what we end up at. We’re not complaining, but unfortunately we’re not warm. Back in the village I try to make sense of two young Pamiris girls with paltinum blond hair and stare into the volleyball net wondering why, in central asia of all places, are they so into volleyball. We say goodbye and I shake hands with a man who has “1959” tattooed across his knuckles.
We get back to the main road and take a turnoff towards the south. It’s perplexing how different things are in real life and on a map. There have been so many places on this trip that have blown me away with how they actually are as opposed to what they look like in an imagined space of a designed infographic. The Pamir is definitely one of them. What’s the biggest intersection in the entire eastern region on the map, is nothing more than one flat road into another in real life. No roadsigns, no fanfare --nothing.
After here is where the road starts to deteriorate. The road is full of big, deep patches of sand. Enthusiastic from an afternoon of off-road, we push and slide in good spirits –it’s almost nice to see the plumes of dust shoot up into the air when we hit another patch. We tumble and trudge past two salt lakes and a desert void of almost anything. By an hour in, there’s not too much focus on the road through, because from here you can start to get magnificent views of the Afghan Pamir and even the Pakistani Hindu Kush, mountains that tower in succession higher than any I’ve seen. It takes us the entire afternoon to go barely any distance but neither of us really seem to care. With days like this, why would you ever be thinking about where this road ends.