We were ready to leave Langar and we popped back to Vrang passing children en route, to find a Buddhist Stupa with amazing views of cave houses and another fort as well as the Stupa itself.
There is evidence of early Buddhism in the Wakham Valley in 5-6th Century before a later Arab invasion introduced the Muslim faith which largely replaced Zoroastrian and Buddhism.
We then took the very steep climb out of Langar along the Wakham Valley still following the Panj River and then took the highest pass so far on the trip at 4,344 metres. It was a bit of an anticlimax as most of the height had already been achieved in the first 10k. As we had picked up a couple of backpackers we headed towards Balunkul Lake so we could drop them off on the M41 Pamir Highway.
We then headed off for the small hamlet of Balunkul and the two Lakes and thought we might camp on the shores of one of the lakes overnight.
We picked up bread 🍞 from Balunkul which comprised a scattering of small mud huts and yurts.
We then took off to find a spot to camp with an Australian couple who have been travelling for many years and now have a very comfortable Izusu residential vehicle.
The lakeside was an Aga Khan protected area and we had to pay to go beyond a couple of Yurts. The occupants were stripping down a VW camper whose parts were strewn on the ground outside the door.
Much to our astonishment we then drove through the middle of a herd of what turned out to be Yaks.
The lake was huge, nearly 4000 metres above sea level and surrounded by mountains, many still snow capped. Our route to the end of the lake afforded many staggering views down onto the water.
The water colours were really bright and quite spectacular.
We had a slow start to the following day after tea and chat with the Aussies who filled our heads with new ideas for future trips!
Jim still had a hankering to take off down the remainder of the Wakham Valley so we headed back off towards Langar through the Khargush pass, picking up a hitchhiker carrying the remains of a Marco Polo sheep’s skull.
Having dropped our hitchhiker off, Jim then persuaded the army to let us pass up along the river valley. And we had been warned that over the next 130 kilometres we would face many boggy stretches and difficult driving conditions.
We set off promising each other that we would turn back if it looked too dodgy. However, it was a bit like a computer game. Each hazard overcome, drew us in to the next level.
At first the road surface immediately deteriorated but the track was entirely visible. As time went by, there were times when we could not even trace the track and had to hunt around for the next stretch.
There were fast flowing streams to ford and boggy stretches to steer around but we were becoming quite brave and confident.
The Afghan border was becoming ever closer as the river narrowed and now only a stones throw away we spied Bactrian camels 🐫 grazing on the shores.
There were many yurts scattered along the river bank on The Afghan side and large herds of grazing sheep and goats.
Then our eye was caught by a very large dog which looked distinctly like a wolf. Not the the timber wolves, but a bit like a muscular Alsatian. We then saw another which was snarling and tucking into a kill at the side of the track.
No wonder the shepherds had massive dogs to keep the roving wolves at bay!
Before long we thought that our plan to get to Karikul Lake (also known as Lake Victoria as the British thought it was the headwaters of the Oxus) and beyond to Darty Gumbez a hamlet comprised of one house and a hot spring was foiled by a collapsed bridge over a fast flowing tributary. However, there was a track up the stream and we thought we would follow it to see if there was a passable Ford higher up. The track did indeed eventually turn in to the stream and it was really a very scary prospect. It was fast and deep and steep on the exit.
We then noticed another wolf charging down the track on the far side of the stream and it looked as if it was waiting for us to try to cross.
We thought we should just go for it. So rammed the car into L4 gear and pushed forward. The wolf watched carefully to see if we were going to make it but once it saw we were across, it slunk off with a disappointed air. We surged through and up the other side like old pros.
We sincerely hoped never to see the likes of it again and granted, there were many fords to cross and some quite deep and rocky but none like that.
The evening wore on and the track turned up the valley towards our destination and we had only 30kms to go and although the track was now barely visible we plodded on. We suddenly found ourselves above another lake and on a grassy plateau surrounded by snow capped peaks which appeared to be very boggy.
We were over-confident by now with our destination within our grasp and many successful ford crossings under our belt, and at that point we bounced over another boggy stream and ground to a halt.
We took off our sandtracks, dug a bit under the wheels which were all spinning to no avail. We had a bit of a Titanic list and we were well and truly grounded at 4288 metres. This was above the fast melting snow line and the forecast temperatures at night were minus 2 and rising to 8 degrees in the day.
We had no phone signal or Wifi and night was falling. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we would be stuck there in the watery bog for the night and would have to try and sleep in the listing but apparently stable car. Jim had a fantasy that there would be passing traffic or at least one traveler in 24 hours but the place looked so remote that I was thinking a 4WD once a week if we were lucky. Imagine people, we are stuck in a vast boggy meadow at two or three times the height of Snowdon, with nothing for company but strong winds, the odd Yak and potentially a few hungry wolves. 🐺
To make matters worse, any exertion results in us both panting as we are not accustomed to the high altitude.
Then we remembered the Garmin. At least that had an SOS button and they should coordinate a rescue. Jim was pretty sceptical about this but they jumped to it and we were able to communicate with them by GPS text. At our request, they contacted PECTA the local Pamir Eco Tourism association in Khorog, to see if they would coordinate a rescue. It was never going to be quick because the track was so remote and high up in the mountains.
But by the following day we watched a herd of Yaks amble past, but still had no rescue plan as such, and we were feeling a little despondent at the thought of another cold night in inhospitable terrain.
(It is beautiful in the day time when the sun is shining.) It is also quite frustrating not knowing quite what is happening, although we did get partial updates from Garmin, to be fair.
They contacted Jess and Nora to say we were stuck and we started to get messages from home which cheered us up. We did not want to alarm people but Garmin automatically notified a few people and we were in a bit of a bind! (And as I write we still are).
Nora made contact with PECTA and was able to report that we should have help within 3 hours, so before sunset. This was at 1pm and so we hoped they would arrive at 4.30pm.
Just before the news of our rescue, three French guys appeared out of nowhere, on bicycles and offered to help. However, no amount of digging was going to work as we were well and truly stuck.
4.30pm came and went and no rescue had appeared. By 7pm the sun had dropped behind the mountain and it was well and truly dusk and no help had arrived. We were resigned to another night in the listing car in the cold. (Our bog was iced over in the morning). Also we feared driving out of the valley in the dark if they actually did arrive.
By now we were in touch with Nora who was liaising directly with PECTA and Nora advised that help was still on its way but that they were struggling to locate us as they don’t use GPS and coordinates. We thought they might give up tonight as it was now almost dark. We sat with our knees touching in the back of the car straining to hear any sound of an approaching vehicle in the gloaming.
Suddenly we spied them on the horizon and we leapt out of the car and tried to put away all our bedding on the assumption that they would dig us out. Their car (a Landy) had strong headlights and Mahan and his three helpers immediately set to it. They jacked up each wheel and rammed rocks underneath using our head torches and lanterns to illuminate the task. The rear back wheels were very deep in the mud and proved very hard to jack up and ram rocks underneath. In the event the jack was propped on our sand tracks. After an hour and a quarter of extremely hard work in the freezing water they were ready to try and attach a tow rope, put both vehicles into reverse and see what happened. A huge cheer went up as the car came out first time and all the preparation paid off. We asked them to drive our car back to the village and Sherali agreed. And boy were we glad that we were not driving as it took nearly 6 hours to drive back on horrendous roads. Every two hours they all leapt out of the vehicles to have a smoke and to celebrate having got through a pretty tricky drive.
We arrived in their village, Alichur, at 2.40am and fell into our bed fully clothed and absolutely exhausted but safe in a level bed. In the morning, after a massive clear up, removing stinky mud from the inside of the car, we were given a celebratory breakfast by Mahan whose team had come to our rescue.
It was explained that we were now in the Kyrgyz part of Tajikistan and that these people and the village were ethnic Kyrgs. They were heavily oriented towards Kyrgyzstan and even the eggs we ate for breakfast came over the border from Kyrgyzstan.
After this we continued with our journey on a paved road, the Pamir Highway in the direction of the Kyrgyz border.