On our way to the Pamirs
After so long in the Hello Dushanbe hostel it is great to be back on the road. We left Dushanbe 30 May and headed off in the direction of the Pamirs. It is true to say that I had no idea what to expect. I was nervous about the heights we were supposed to climb with the car, on account of our slightly fragile health and feeling less confident about our Landy in spite of loads of work being done by Dilovar in Dushanbe.
We stocked up on cash and dollars before we left and made sure that the car was full of Gasprom diesel. (Apparently the best and after the black smoke in Iran we were taking no chances.)
We drove around 200kms on the first day and made it past the first signpost to Khorog.
We passed a police checkpoint on the route and I was amazed at how small the road beyond the checkpoint was. It looked like maybe it led to a field or farm, but no, this was the main M41 road to the Pamirs.
We had been following the valley along the route of a fast flowing swollen river and now we needed to get to the other side and head up into the mountains.
I was totally aghast when I saw our first bridge a few hundred metres up the track. It was a small suspension bridge that had ceased to be suspended a long time ago and was now a pile of metal planks balanced on a heap of rocks. One side was dipping precariously to the right towards the river and there were no edges to stop you slipping into the water but luckily it was not too far across.
I took a deep breath and thought we have to do this and hugging the left side of the bridge we did! I was so terrified that I did not even want to stop after we had crossed to photograph it, as I needed to put it out of my mind quickly. So no images of this horror! The bridge below was later on and much less scary.
Before long we wended our way up to a village just up the valley and I pointed out to Jim a totally collapsed bridge on our left and then we noticed a car in front of us had taken a sharp turn to the left and was fording the fast flowing, wide tributary.
Needless to say, Jim who was driving, had to put up with my shrieks as we plunged into the water in the wrong gear! I yelled don’t get too close to the left as there is a two foot drop with water gushing down. We got through fine, only to find the road ahead blocked by around a thousand sheep being herded by a nomadic family with horses, donkeys and a truck into which they threw the tiny lambs who could not keep pace.
Jim was nervous about ploughing through the sheep but luckily another car overtook us and forced a way through which we slipped behind. Jim was proud of his success and I by then, was shrieking about him driving into a bush to avoid sheep but putting Landy’s shiny paintwork at risk!
Our maps were not totally up to the job and late in the afternoon we were not sure when we were due to leave the riverside and start heading up the first high pass to Rushon which was due to rise to 3,300mtrs. We felt we needed to find the turning before pulling over for the night as the sun was now setting. The roads were narrow and cliff hanging and at every hairpin bend there was a gushing stream to be crossed. Eventually we pulled over in a relatively flat spot on a flood plain, close to the entrance to our newly found valley leading up over the pass.
We set up camp and prepared a simple supper, pausing only to speak to the two or three local cars that pulled over to pass the time of day. Our evening was punctuated by late night noises again of the nomadic passing herd of sheep which surrounded the car noisily as they continued their journey into the night, followed by a quieter herd of horses which decided to pause next to us for the night. (Gentle neighing).
The following day Jim woke having been bitten in bed and we wondered again about an infestation. This time we had the correct sprays and pulled everything out of our sleeping loft and sprayed it. I had not been bitten so we wondered about Jim’s sleeping bag. Who knows, we may never find out.
Once we packed camp and set off, we had not gone far up the new valley heading for the Pamirs before we found we recalled that we had omitted to fill up our water tank in Dushanbe and it had run out. Luckily all the little villages have had aid to supply fresh drinking water from a prominent tap. So it was not long before we were able to fill up our water sacks and decant it into the tank and we had our water filter system back up and running and access to a safe supply of drinking water in the car.
Unbelievably it was not long before we encountered the same huge flock of sheep and their minders who had passed us late the night before. This time the pass was too narrow for us to get through them again and they completely blocked the narrow road ahead, which had a precipitous drop to the right. (A situation that was to last for much of the day!) However up ahead beyond the flock, there was a digger actively removing debris from the road which had collapsed down from the steep cliffs to our left, (again a feature of much of the day). The horsemen with the sheep, rode back down to us and explained that the pass to Khorug up ahead was blocked and we would not get through with Landy. In sign language, they proposed another pass just back down the valley which was not visible on our maps or maps.me.
Being still the morning and in an adventurous frame of mind, we decided to try it out. And my, we now felt intrepid in the middle of nowhere and the snowy peaks that had been in the distance moved ever closer as Landy trundled up the steeper and steeper tracks. I could not call it a road, but it was clearly a track and great off road fun early in the day. I was again grateful for the training weekend we had had in Yorkshire before we left as we lurched down rutted tracks and heaved up massively steep paths ever skywards.
We did not really know how Landy would do on each hairpin and whether we would get to the top at all, and as importantly without overheating! Needless to say she managed very well with a bit of encouragement and we were very impressed that on this occasion she did not overheat! (Thanks to Dilovar the mechanic in Dushanbe and careful handling).
I have to confess, that although it was fun, I did get a bit nervous as we ploughed on up in 4WD and the snow line was now clearly below us.
I just did not know when it would end or even where we would end up! I kept hearing Paul’s advice not to go off road on your own. Was this actually off road? Well there were no other cars and the track was really not what you would call a road and it was a vast wilderness with no people and fewer cars. Our detour is shown below on our GPS tracker!
As luck would have it, at around 2,500 metres we bumped and rocked through a tiny isolated village and they encouraged us to keep going up and confirmed that we would get through and on to Khorug up and over this mountainous route. We were amazed not only by the views around us of snow capped peaks but also how far we had come up in our own Landy. (I was also fretting quietly about the altitude as we were now over 3,000 metres and still had no idea how much further we needed to climb. Would we be adversly affected?)
Luckily the weather was fab. Alternately, cloudy and sunny. For once we were nice and cool. A welcome change. Jim wanted to leap out of the car when we reached the top of the pass (3365mtrs) to take photos of Landy in the snowy cutting. The drop away was massive and my only wish was to descend. I felt anxious. I do admit it.
We crept down in second gear rarely going above 25km/hr stopping occasionally to look at wild flowers and waterfalls.
After several hours of hairpin bends and fantastic views of the valleys below and the peaks in the distance and the fast flowing river which would find its way into the Oxus alongside our dusty rutted bumpy track, we arrived at Kalaikumb a busy little town with a homestay, a supermarket and a cafe with a balcony overlooking the river.
We wondered how other travellers that day had fared and how those without 4WD would have managed? Impossible they cry.
What was true was that most cars we did see on the road now were Landcruisers - not old like Landy, but newer Landcruisers were the vehicle of choice for those that could afford a car at all.
We had seen very few travellers like ourselves on the road so far and wondered how many would be in the Pamirs when we were?
We did see one English 4WD Toyota car parked in Kalaikumb. Although we did not see the occupants then, we did bump into them later and they passed us when we stopped for a detour up the Bhartang Valley the next day.
Kalaikumb, was also our first confirmation that the mountains on the other side of the river were now Afghanistan and we are now due to follow the border through the Pamirs along the Wakham Valley for the next few days.
Needless to say Jim was intrigued by the view of the opposite bank and watched curiously as people went about their daily life on motorbikes, cars and on foot.
Yes we were that close and were glad that our cliff hugging road was slightly wider and less scary looking than theirs - and that is not saying much.
I must confess to having had one small panic when we encountered an on-coming landcruiser on one of the worst stretches of narrow disappearing road alongside a cliff. I felt that every backward move would take me off the edge. I inched back and they slid passed confidently. I was mighty pleased to be moving forward again and not back and prayed that these narrow stretches would eventually cease.
I just could not believe that there were Chinese lorries, including articulated ones navigating their way down these tracks. No way would I ever ever try that!
I was already pretty terrified once every few kilometres by the narrowness of the road where falling rocks had nibbled away at the tracks.
In most parts the road had no tarmac and was just a dusty rutted track full of potholes with ample scatterings of fallen stones from the overhanging cliff face.
Jim was good enough to point out that we had at least another 1000 kilometres of this over the next two or three weeks. What is true is that however beautiful it is, these high scary tracks alongside cliff edges are relentless and sometimes quite scary!
As our long day drew to a close, we pulled up in a small village, had our tea overlooked by the village dogs and one of the youngest children and then we collapsed into bed pretty exhausted before 9pm. Tonight we are hoping that the bedbugs don’t bite - literally!
On the plus side, Landy is doing really well. In the morning we walked around our camping spot and looked across at Afghanistan.
At this point it was very similar to our side of the Oxus river except that their road track looked even more narrow than ours.
Just as we were packing away, we heard the first of three or four gunshots and saw a motorbike with three people scarper on the other side. After a few minutes a soldier sauntered into our village with his rifle swinging at his side. My guess is that he had been firing in the direction of the opposite bank to scare the Afghans.
We were told later that these occurances were quite common and that it rarely resulted in anyone being shot, but that they were just making sure that the other side knew they were there and watching. It did not sound totally cool to us and we felt slightly more nervous than hitherto.
Our plan for the rest of the day was to reach Rushon and get beyond it to the Bartang Valley.