Tajikistan Part 1: Scraping the Sky in the Pamirs
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
The Pamir Mountains include peaks around 7,500 metres, with the road going as high as 4,655 metres. This route taught us valuable new lessons as overland travellers... including one learned the hard way!
In this edition we:
Avoid corrupt border guards at an isolated military checkpoint (4,281 metres)
Venture over the Ak Baital pass (4,655 metres)
Explore the seemingly desolate settlements of Karakul, Murghab, Alichur and Bulunkul
Venture off-road up a side valley in the Pamirs to bathe in a natural hot spring
Visit high altitude lakes Bulunkul and Yashikul
But first up I'll begin with a discussion of some of the altitude related challenges we faced in undertaking this route.
The challenges of driving at high altitude
Did you know: We typically think of water boiling at 100 degrees Celsius, even though this is only true at sea level. At 14,000 feet (4,267 metres) water boils at 85.5 degrees Celsius. To make water safe for drinking, technically the higher you go the longer you should boil it. In many countries this is more of a technicality since you can't go high enough for it to make much of a difference, but in Central Asia you can!
Tajikistan’s Pamirs were always going to be a highlight of our journey across Central Asia, something I could just feel in my bones from the outset. The altitude that we needed to travel at – as high as 4,655 metres elevation – posed the challenges that I had anticipated, but also one or two that I had not. It was entirely expected when I found myself more breathless than usual working to set up camp around 4,000 metres, though I was surprised when I kept waking on the first night due to a sensation of suffocating. What was happening, or so I believe, is that my automatic ‘sleep-sized-breaths’ lacked enough oxygen at that altitude. The kids all seemed to cope just fine, and other than headaches on the first night Sylwia and I did too. By going directly from one camp at 3,200 metres in Kyrgyzstan to the next at 3,900 metres in Tajikistan, we would appear to have broken an important guideline of not sleeping more than approximately 400 metres higher than the previous night. We considered that the time we had spent at around 3,500 metres in Kyrgyzstan in the preceding weeks should assist with our quick acclimatisation to life above 4,000 metres, and for the most part it worked out fine.
The dependable Mitsubishi turbo-diesel engine never failed to start… though it did so on the icy high-altitude mornings sounding rather like a 40-year-old tractor chugging slowly to life. Once warmed up it ran perfectly fine, other than some black smoke that’s not normally present and notably increased turbo lag; both symptoms of the thin air.
An unexpected issue arose when I discovered that my diesel-electric tent heater does not like high altitude; it began to encounter reliability issues much above 3,000 metres! Even though we reached the Pamirs weeks later than originally planned - autumn rather than summer - it can get cold above 4,000 metres at any time of year and as such I had hoped to rely more so on the tent heater. We experienced nights as low as minus 11 degrees Celsius, so this was something of an issue! What occurs is that the air/fuel ratio becomes skewed in the direction of being too rich, this owing to the thin air present at high altitude. Whereas the car engine is eventually helped out by the turbocharger kicking in to force feed additional air, the heater has nothing similar to aid it.
At the heart of my home-made tent heater is the same type of diesel-electric furnace commonly used to safely heat caravans and motorhomes. Ordinarily a consumer with a failed one of these units would be advised to take it to an authorised service centre for repair… that's simply not practical on a trip such as this! Time and experience have taught me that it’s hugely beneficial to acquire the skills to fix whatever may break yourself. I’d never repaired one of these, but there was nothing to lose by trying and everything to gain (the nights were cold!) Motor assembly off… glow plug out… separate combustion chamber from heat exchanger… and the issue was revealed. As suspected, the rich fuel-mix had caused so much internal soot build-up as to choke off any possibility of ignition being achieved. All that was needed was thorough cleaning and reassembly, which was good, however I failed initially to realise that as long as we remained well above 3,000 metres this was a process that I would find myself repeating daily. And all just to get a couple of hours of heat before it would fail again! Fortunately, we only had four nights at such high altitude, one of which was spent at a lovely and warm (sheep & goat dung heated!) homestay in the seemingly desolate settlement of Murghab - more on this below. On our fifth night we were eager to make sufficient progress to be able to seek out a campsite below 3,000 metres, this so that we could be confident the heater would return to reliable operation. We ended up being pleasantly surprised by how warm autumn can be just below 3,000 metres elevation in the Pamirs; low 20’s during the sunny days and only around minus 1 or 2 overnight… outside that is… with the tent heater working again we were very comfortable indeed.
Our Routes Through the Pamirs
The GPS track map above shows all of our routes through the Pamirs, including those that will be covered in future blog posts. Most overland travellers would pick just one route, however I was eager to explore this fascinating region more thoroughly than that. Most go via the not to be missed Wakhan Valley, others remain on the Pamir Highway, but it seems few even know a middle route exists - we did them all!
Tajikistan's High Altitude Eastern Pamirs
Setting off from Osh (963 metres), we gradually ascended from the lovely warm climate prevailing there, to a far more bitter one in Sary-Tash (3,178 metres). As I look back through the images we've collected from Kyrgyzstan - and now Tajikistan too - I note a number of them look as if they come from different seasons through the year, whereas in fact it's all just down to the drastic changes in elevation possible in these countries. Even just within Tajikistan's Pamirs life is very different at between 2,000 and 3,000 metres vs 3,000 to 4,000+ metres.
Believe it or not we were perfectly cosy on our first night along this route, at 3,178 metres elevation just outside Sary-Tash. But only because the tent heater worked through the night and didn’t first fail until the morning, just as we were about to pack up. Feeling anxious about heading higher into the snowy mountains without a working tent heater, I changed priorities and set about repairing and testing it in a bitterly cold wind, while Sylwia cooked lunch (picture further up the page). With the heater fixed, though me not yet aware that the high altitude would only see it fail again in short order, we finally began our ascent out of Sary-Tash late in the afternoon - not ideal and we briefly considered delaying the border crossing to the next day, but carried on. The friendly Kyrgyz border guards seemed in high spirits as we exited Kyrgyzstan and were eager to know what I thought of their country; it seemed important to them that I considered it better than Kazakhstan. It eventually becomes fairly normal to be making conversation with heavily armed soldiers at these remote military controlled border checkpoints. Once through the Kyrgyzstan checkpoint we were immediately out into the ‘no-man’s land’ that exists between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. To reach the Tajikistan border checkpoint, situated at a lofty 4,282 metres, we needed to ascend a lonely mud & snow road.
Welcome to Tajikistan!
With light falling we reached the very remote border checkpoint controlled by the Tajikistan military, situated on a snowy mountain pass at 4,282 metres. The only large building initially visible through the barbed wire was derelict with broken windows, though after a short while soldiers emerged from a tiny station to open the gate and usher us in. Processing took place at three stations within the compound, continuing until after dark. The third and final station was fake – my thorough research prior to undertaking this route had made me aware that this border checkpoint had earned its reputation as the most corrupt in all of Central Asia. But merely knowing this didn’t prepare me for how to handle a confrontation with border guards eager to extort money for fake taxes – in my case a ‘vehicle disinfection fee’. The solution turned out to be much simpler than expected, but only because we were fortunate to find the exit from the compound unguarded. When presented with an invoice that I knew to be fake, and after attempting to convey that I knew I didn't need to pay this particular tax, I changed tactic and indicated I would need to go out to the car. The family were already in the car and I'm sure the guards presumed I was going out there to get money, but instead I jumped in, turned the key and we departed. This would sound considerably more 'James Bond' like if I permitted you to form the impression we sped away, wheels spinning in the snow...! But given the previously described effects of high altitude on the Pajero's engine performance, it would be more accurate to say that we slowly chugged away in a puff of black smoke. Damn, why do I have to be so honest about it!? I should have left it at the 'James Bond' style impression, maybe even have dressed it up further and claimed to have run to my car and slid across the bonnet to shave off the precious two seconds it would have taken to walk around to my door. (You might have seen through that one - the bonnet is quite high). Well, regardless, the key point is that we ignored the border guards yelling and whistling as we escaped ‘extortion-free’ into a dark and snowy night. Welcome to Tajikistan - another border within Central Asia successfully navigated!
On a more serious note, I only got away with this due to the generally sloppy and opportunistically corrupt manner in which this border is run. At most of the borders we've crossed this year I wouldn't dare defy strict instructions given by no-nonsense soldiers toting automatic weapons.
We drove out of the snow while descending to 3,900 metres and made camp on the shores of Lake Karakul. It was minus 5 degrees Celsius as I set up the tent, and though it was apparent the tent fabric was frozen and 'crispy', it didn’t feel too bitter in the perfectly still air. But mostly I was braving the cold, safe in the knowledge that as soon as the tent was up the heater would be switched on. It allowed us a warm dinner in the tent before failing again not long after we’d gone to bed. We quickly put on all our jackets and returned to our sleeping bags. Though it was obviously very cold the next morning, we were pleasantly surprised by just how strong the October sun still was up there; the day warmed up quickly.
The first settlement we passed through in Tajikistan was the tiny village of Karakul; described by Lonely Planet as looking as if it has weathered one too many storms!
The remainder of this day’s drive took in some stunning high-altitude scenery and included driving the highest pass in the Pamirs - the Ak Baital (4,655m) - which I had not expected to find virtually snow-free in October.
There's only one seemingly quirky hotel in Murghab and we quite liked the idea of staying there for an experience, but were to discover it had closed for the season at the end of September. We decided to try a nearby homestay and it turned out to be a great experience. Our accommodation was heated in the traditional way up here, being a dried cattle dung fired stove. Water for our shower was warmed up via the same means, and I've no doubt whatsoever that dinner was cooked on it too! But I can assure you that no unpleasant odours were detected. With few fuel alternatives in this desolate place, cattle dung is a staple fuel source and I must admit to being impressed by its effectiveness.
One wonders how local people eek out a living in Murghab. The winters must be particularly harsh. Although as of the time of writing this post we've had ample opportunity to experience first hand just how incredibly self-sufficient Tajik people are, still it seems that the environment surrounding Murghab doesn't give these locals much to work with. I found myself pondering whether a Hollywood style world apocalypse scenario would have any effect on the people living here at all, because in many respects it seems like they've already adapted to surviving with so little resource.
Murghab has a shipping container shopping mall. It's nothing flashy, but you can find most of what you might be looking for there. Several container-stores sell groceries and I saw a butcher. Other container-stores sell clothes, hardware or car parts.
In these next two images (below) we were buying diesel! Not for the car - I wouldn't dare put fuel of unknown quality in the car, but the heater is less picky over fuel quality. Of course by this time I was fully aware of how altitude was affecting the heater, but to the extent I could keep it operational it would need diesel. On our route through the Pamirs in particular the long range fuel tank fitted to the Pajero proved its worth, enabling us to drive the entire Pamirs and Wakhan Valley without needing to refill.
There's more to the area surrounding Murghab than initially seems apparent and a side trip up the nearby Madiyan Valley proved a great way to deepen our experience of this unique area. A major attraction of heading up the Madiyan Valley was to bathe in a natural hot spring that I knew existed somewhere up there, even if described by Lonely Planet as 'barely accessible' by 4wd. The drive up the main part of the valley was stunning, set against incredible rock walled mountains and following pastures alongside the beautiful clear river. I can imagine that earlier in the season this area would be greener and more fertile relative to the terrain directly surrounding Murghab. The rugged part of the 4wd access began across the river from the micro sized village of Ak-Tal and involved some cliff edge driving on narrow rocky tracks, though nothing out of the ordinary for us. Seemingly defying its fully laden touring weight, the Pajero navigates such tracks like an agile mountain goat.
In the photos above Sylwia points out where the hot water naturally bubbles up, though the actual hot pool is enclosed in the old building with the blue door. There is no one to pay to bathe here - this pool has long existed in this isolated location and is freely accessible to locals and visitors alike.
Our Coldest Night!
The next night would prove to be our coldest, with the readout on the Pajero’s dash showing minus 11 degrees Celsius early the following morning. The heater kept us cosy into the evening, before failing around bedtime, but of course I wasn't at all surprised anymore and all our warm clothes were within arms reach ready to put on. Fortunately, again, the morning sun proved powerful and the chilly morning warmed quickly to a pleasant day.
We ventured through the small settlements of Alichur and Bulunkul before pausing for brunch on a cliff above nearby Lake Yashikul at 3,976 metres. Bulunkul is known as one of the coldest inhabited places in the former Soviet Union, though it was pleasant enough on the sunny October day we visited.
Above: Drawing attention in the centre of tiny Bulunkul while pausing to use the village well
We were determined that our next night's wild camp would be situated below 3,000 metres so that we could go back to relying on the heater again... which I might add was stripped, cleaned and rebuilt for the third time on that cliff above Lake Yashikul in eager anticipation!
Coming Up Next
When I continue this article in Part Two we leave the Pamir Highway behind and travel via the Khargush Pass to the incredible Wakhan Valley, separated by a narrow strip of a river from Afghanistan - we could see the Afghan villages on the other side. We are shown wonderful hospitality by a local Tajik family and have opportunity to experience first-hand how they live. We explore a large 12th Century fortress in the mountains before moving on to Khorog; the capital of the Pamirs. We then loop back into the high Pamirs via what I refer to as the ‘middle route’ - refer the GPS track map further up. Images that I will share in Part 2 will reveal that the Western Pamirs has an entirely different appearance and climate at lower altitudes, between 2,000 and 3,000 metres.
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