Heading south from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, the Pamir Highway begins and leads south towards the Tajikistan border. Slowly, from the low elevation, the route begins to make it’s way up into the Pamir Mountains. The landscape is beautiful and the twisty smooth asphalt roads are perfect to lose yourself on.
It feels good to be back out onto open roads that you don’t share with too many other people. The only traffic jams going on in these hills are the shepherds herding the livestock on to their next pasture. Sheep, goats, horses, and cows all take over stretches of highway.
The final village before the Tajikistan border is Sari-Tash, which was on the verge of being taken over by fluffy bottomed sheep.
Like everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, the kids are full of energy and greetings. I came back to my bike at one point and found it had become a play-toy for a few kids.
Even the local supermarket was run by a couple little girls. They were all smiles, but all business as well.
The ride from Osh gets you well over three thousand meters in elevation and back into the chilly nights. Unfortunately, the shorts have to be traded back in for jeans. After a fancy ramen noodle, canned peas, hot-dog soup dinner and cold night camping in no-mans land, it was time to say goodbye to Kyrgyzstan.
The cold damp night had brought fresh snow to the Kyzyl-Art Pass, which leads you into Tajikistan. This is when it feels like the Pamir Highway really begins. The empty road heads straight for the wall of white mountains that line up on the horizon.
As I made my way towards the elegant shapes, slowly growing in size, the thick clouds of the morning began to open up to expose more and more blue sky.
With the weather improving slowly and Kyrgyzstan disappearing quickly, a small Bordobo border post sits where the road turns from asphalt to gravel.
The laid-back Kyrgyz border officials casually stamp your passport and send you towards Tajikistan. The actual border isn’t until the top of the pass, just like on the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan where you do immigration in Sost, eighty km before the border. The soil becomes maroon and the mountains get a zebra look from the fresh snow that has striped them. The vibrant colors of the red earth, turquoise river, white snow, and alpine blue sky combine to make a beautiful scene.
The frozen moisture had started to thaw out and the red soil was turned to a slippery, muddy mess.
The top is stunning with views back over where you’ve come from and the incredible route that lye ahead in Tajikistan.
The Kyzyl-Art Pass is the second highest international border in the world behind the Karakoram Highway, which we did entering China. At 4,282 meters, it literally takes your breath away.
A short roll down the other side brings you to the small cluster of customs and immigration shacks. The friendly, if a bit bored and lonely, soldiers welcome you to Tajikistan. A customs official is very insistent on a ten-dollar custom charge for motorcycles, which feels official, but could very well be a scam. The “transport police” officer who grabs you next and leads you into an office, is 100% scam artist. He tried telling me I needed to pay a $30 fee for the police and flashed official looking forms. The kind customs official had already told me there was nothing else to pay and I simply told him no. After a couple of minute rant in broken english about how I would be in big trouble with the police, he yelled “finished” and pushed me on my way. Seems like he got a bit greedy. Trying for five bucks is reasonable, but to try and get thirty is dumb. The beauty of Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains lie ahead.
The Pamir mountains and famous Pamir Highway run through eastern Tajikistan, which makes up the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region (Kuhistoni Badakhshon in Tajik). The route of the current “highway” formed a major link on the Silk Road since it was the easiest way through the high Pamirs. It’s commonly referred to as “the roof of the world”, where most of the time you’re at three to four thousand meters, crossing passes well over four-thousand, and gazing up at six and seven thousand meter snowy peaks. Three out of the five seven-thousand meter peaks in the former Soviet Central Asia are found in Gorno-Badakhshan.
The region makes up 45% of Tajikistan’s land-mass, but only a mere 3% of it’s total population. The rugged landscape is speckled with small to tiny villages. The largest “city” is Khorugh with a population of 29,000, and it’s in the far west of the region. The second is Murghab that claims to have around 4,000. It was difficult to imagine more than a thousand while looking over it from my guesthouse.
Scattered throughout the desolateness are crumbling evidence of homesteads come and gone. Before 1895, the area was made up of several statelets, such as Rushan, Darwaz, and Wakhan who were semi-self-governing. The region making up todays Tajikistan spent most of it’s history in the Persian Empire. In 1925, all these territories became the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, and in 1929 was attached to the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. In the 1950’s many of the native Pamiris from the region were forcibly relocated to southwestern Tajikistan. 1991 brought independence when the former Soviet Union collapsed, but civil war broke out in 1992, and Gorno-Badakhshan’s local government subsequently declared independence. This proved a decision that would have serious consequences and lots of Pamiris were killed by rival groups. The region became a stronghold for the opposition.
Eventually, the local government stepped-back from the former calls for independence. The civil war lasted five years and devastated the country. The relationship between Pamiris and the central government is strained at best with a fair dose of suspicion for each-other. The Pamiris want high level government positions to be filled by locals and not by outsiders from Dushanbe. Clashes in recent years haven’t been uncommon. The main ethnic group are the Pimiris, and followed by a small amount of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and other nationalities. Like in the upper Hunza Valley, the main religion is Ismaili Islam, and the people are equally as warm, friendly, and welcoming. Their leader is Aga Khan, and you can see welcoming messages to him spelled with white stones on the steep brown mountains. Blonde hair, blue and green eyes, and skin lighter than an irishman isn’t uncommon.
Over the pass, the route leads you through a wide valley encased in colorful mountains. On the map the Chinese border is much further east, but a new thick barbwire fence runs along the highway. This is a “neutral zone” between the two countries. In 2011, Tajikistan ceded 1,000 sq/km to China, which resolved a century-old border dispute. This was only 5.5% of the land China had been seeking. Over a ridge, the first views of Karakul Lake. A smooth decline wraps you around the lake towards the tiny almost eerie village of Karakul.
There’s an island in the pretty lake, which has a not so pretty past. Unfortunate German POWs were held on the island during World War II, and still for many years after the end of the war.
The beautiful multicolored mountains and cold-dry air blasting you in the face, gives the true sensations of being at an almost four thousand meters looking over an alpine lake. The turquoise blue water brings a feeling of gazing over a warm sea on a tropical island. The lake was created millions of years ago by meteorite impact. The afternoon winds start to rough-up the lake.
I’m always a sucker for reflections and Karakul Lake puts on quite the show in the afternoon. The vivid array of colors are beautifully contrasted against each other.
Along the lake shore the small ponds sit peacefully still and reflect the dark blue sky and fluffy white clouds. They’re surrounded by an array of green, yellow, orange and red vegetation. Cream colored boulders and rocks mix with bleached white sand and crystallized salt. The aquamarine lake and multi-colored snow-dusted mountains are the gorgeous backdrop
The tiny settlement of Karakul is a scene straight out of a movie. I could imagine a wild-west style shootout or an insane horror movie being based here. It feels like an old army outpost that was abandoned and then turned into a village. Walking around during most of the day, it feels like a creepy ghost town. Gravels roads bisect the cluster of mud and brick buildings and a few traditional yurts.
People are definitely living in the houses, but with the icy cold air, most are cozied up inside. Wandering down the “main” street I caught glimpses of a man fixing his old rusty bicycle, a young girl digging in the dry soil with a piece of trash, and an elderly woman gazing up towards the mountains with an epic daydreaming session well under way. Most of the locals have animals that they herd around the surrounding land, and besides that, it’s a pretty simple life.
A few homestays are tucked into the community, hosted by warm welcoming families. Homestay Sadat, named after the lovely lady running the place located just off the highway behind the first homestay you see. This might have been the best one I stayed at during my time in the Pamir. Most of the homestays include breakfast and dinner in the low price, but like Forest Gump said, you never know what you gonna get. The woman cooked up delicious hearty meals. Theres a picture of the old man on the wall as a young soldier. In broken english, they explained how he had spent time in Ukraine for the Red Army. The Central Asians love their colorful rugs, pillows, and blankets. Giant kaleidoscopic vibrant rugs cover everything except the ceiling. They psychedelic colors always add a homely warm feeling to fall into dreamland.
If you can brave the icy evening, sunset around Karakul is a beautiful time. The mountains behind the village begin to glow with the final warm rays of sunlight splashing across them. The brown and white crumbling old mud walls also illuminated before the sun slowly disappeared behind the mountain tops across the lake. Oranges and pinks spread across the top of the dark waters of the lake before they too disappeared, giving way to night-fall.
The morning brought clear skies and a peaceful lake.
A fresh coating of snow gleamed off the high mountains across the lake. It would have been a cold night to camp. The strong morning sun shined brightly down through the water and showed its clarity.
It was really tempting to get stuck at the lake for longer, but somehow I managed to drag myself away and back onto the Pamir Highway towards the Ak-Baital Pass. The last month has been filled with places like this. One after another, the gorgeous lakes, mountains, and natural beauty keep on coming, and it never gets old.