Monday, October 16, 2017

Cycling the Pamir Highway of Tajikistan

'Twixt northern range that proudly shrouds
Its snowy peaks in th' ambient clouds
And southern vale 'neath azure sky
The Pamir road's long windings lie.

The Pamir Mountains, known historically as "The Roof of the World," stand at the crossroads of the tallest mountain ranges in the world. They stretch from Kyrgyzstan and the dramatic Tien Shan Mountains in the north to the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan in the south, where they meet the Hindu Kush range. To the east, they extend across the Chinese border and toward the Karakoram, Kunlun and Himalayan Mountains, which frame the Tibetan Plateau. The lion's share of the Pamir range, however, resides in Tajikistan's northeast Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.

This isolated region boasts a natural diversity and beauty that are oblivious to the ascendancy of humankind in other parts of the globe. The high-altitude northern wastes occupy a harsh and barren plateau surrounded by indomitable peaks. The soil is fine as sand, but with a salty crust that only a few weeds can penetrate. Scattered pools of water can be found north of the 3,960-meter Lake Karakul, the largest body of water in the region, but all of them are poisoned with salt. Descending toward the south, the peaks begin to shed their white crowns, but the inhospitable desolation of the land persists in the steep mesas and vast deserts where clouds abjure the sky. The route west is an exhalation of rugged trees and twisting streams that gradually give way to swaths of green and lush river valleys as you descend from the unforgiving and oxygen-starved heights.

Few animals dwell on the craggy plateau where food and fresh water are hard to come by. Herds of yaks and goats follow their nomadic owners to wherever the grass is, and gregarious marmots poke their heads up from their hidden burrows along even the harshest stretches of road. Yet more formidable creatures like wolves, brown bears, snow leopards and Marco Polo sheep shun the route plied nightly by semi-trucks and make their abodes in the trackless reaches beneath the peaks.

The road that sustains this remote corner of the world is the second highest international highway in the world. Beginning in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, the Pamir highway weaves south through the rugged hinterlands of the Gorno-Badakhshan region, where it climbs up to 4,655 meters at Ak-Baital Pass before snaking down to the villages of the Ghund River Valley and terminating in Khorog, Tajikistan. This was the 707-kilometer (440-mile) route my companions and I resolved to cover on bicycle. Since we'd opted to cart our food and equipment in a car rather than carry it on our bikes, we managed to complete the journey Osh to Khorog in only twelve grueling days.

The Pamir highway can trace its origins back to the Silk Road, which connected the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an with the Parthian Empire. Its modern iteration was laid out in the 1930's, when the Soviets resolved to bring the furthest bounds of their empire into the fold with an ambitious dirt road. Two periods of paving following, the first in 1966 and the second in 1983, but since then the road has been left to slip into disrepair. The condition of the asphalt today varies; sometimes it reasonably smooth, and at other times it yields to bumpy washboard corrugations that can rattle a car or your sanity to pieces. Other parts of the road have suffered on account of erosion, landslides and collapsed bridges, but road crews typically only addresses sections that have become completely impassable. The cost of preventative maintenance in such a poor country simply cannot be justified.

Earthquakes are another source of the Pamir highway's decay, and in 2015 a magnitude-7.2 quake rocked the furthest stretches of the Gorno-Badakhshan region. Abandoned homes here look as though they'd been struck with a thousand sledgehammers, and twisted heaps of metal wreckage form sculptures alongside the road. Other ruins date back much further in time and comprise the remnants of Silk Road caravanserai. They survive to this day in good enough condition that you can almost imagine a team of camels resting the night in one of their courtyards. For the weary traveler, such deserted structures can provide a secure place to pass the frigid nights, though we more frequently camped outside or sought refuge in a village guest house.

Seasonal farmhouses and moveable yurts are the preferred abodes of the northern heath in the extreme highlands, though few choose the challenges of this life. Above the tree line wood is precious, and dried animal dung and small shrubs are used to build fires. In some places, locals must hike several hours in the driving snow just to get clean water to drink. Most of the population of the Pamirs is concentrated in milder climes, where the favored dwellings are constructed of dried mud and are sometimes covered in white plaster for insulation. Flat roofs are easy to construct and are the best for shrugging off the fierce winter winds on the plains. A sea of such roofs can be found in the largest town of Tajikistan's high regions, Murgab, home to an ethnically Kyrgyz community that speaks Kyrgyz, sets their clocks to Kyrgyz time and laments the use of the alien Tajik language on monuments and signs. Down in the green valleys that lead to Khorog, sloped roofs better suit the threat of heavy snowfall. Here and there, signs of wealth can be spied in the form of tall homes built of modern materials. These have almost all been built with the foreign money that pours into the country when sons and daughters, frustrated by the limited opportunities for employment in their own country and the meager pay, leave to work in Russia. European investment has also enabled the construction of water supply networks and earthquake warning systems. Perhaps the most visible sign of foreign aid in the region is the upgrade of local footbridges, built out of rope or bundles of sticks, to much more stable constructions.

The exodus of Tajikistan's youth to wealthier Russia has had a noticeable impact on the poor villages of the Pamirs. Children populate the roadsides where the elderly fetch water and women work the fields, but the only men to be found belong to roadwork crews or manage the occasional herd. Foreigners are so rare in these parts that their arrival is a dramatic event. Kids shout "hello" and stretch their arms out for high-fives or a small candy, the wrapper of which is promptly thrown to the ground without a second thought. Some of the kids possess enough English to ask "how are you?," but when asked the same question in response, their blank stares clearly belie the fact that they didn't grasp the meaning of their own words. Adults, too, are unsurpassed in their friendliness and often invite weary travelers in for "tea." Tea is a crucial part of Central Asian culture, and a whole subset of mores oversees its preparation, distribution and consumption. It is the host's job to pour the tea into little bowls, the first two or three of which are always poured back into the pot to ensure that the tea isn't too weak. The next bowls the host will pass to guests with a hand over the heart to show respect. Typically these bowls are only filled about halfway to encourage the guest to stay and chat. When the host wants to politely signal that the time for palaver is over, a final full cup of tea will be poured. Green tea is the tea of hospitality, but the Tajik tea of choice is black tea mixed with milk and salt. That said, this harsh land breeds exceptionally warm people, and an invitation to "tea" never ends at tea. Soon soups and local fruits are spread before the guests. Fresh flat bread is always present, and it is served alongside kymyz (fermented mare's milk), ayran (salty yogurt), sary mai (a kind of butter) and kaymak (cream). The laws of hospitality to a stranger are sacrosanct, and attempting to pay for such gestures only causes offense and conveys disdain for their generosity. Gifts, such as candy or drinks, are warmly received, though.

photo from Talant Abdyldaev
July 17, 2017


  1. These are awesome photos that capture not only the dramatic landscapes, but also the warmth and hospitality of the people. Looking forward to seeing your next set of photos. KB.