Morghob, Capital of the Eastern Pamirs
As we arrived in Morghob from Alichur along the main Pamir Highway, we realised that our journey along one of the world’s highest roads, would soon be drawing to a close. We were now only one or two hops from the Kyrgyzstan border and thankfully the slightly lower altitude!
Morghob itself, with a population of 7,000 people is the capital of this District of Tajikistan (14,000 population total) and at 3,900 metres is surrounded by stunning mountains.
It is linked through to Khorog the administrative capital of Gorno-Badakhshan by the Pamir Highway built by the Soviets in the 1930’s and they had based their military HQ in Morghob. The expectations for prosperity arising from the road have never been met in this district.
As a town though, it comprises a loosely arranged set of scruffy white, mud brick built, flat roofed buildings and a few modern brick built administrative buildings such as a bank. The roads are dirt tracks weaving around buildings, apart from the main M41 Pamir route that passes through the centre of town.
Its Bazaar, the only shops in town, is centrally situated in an untidy arrangement of old scruffy metal shipping containers which are like a two sided street. This man was really making an effort in his tin shack.
Inside the containers you can find almost everything you need, but it looks very sad. We looked inside a few and found souvenirs (high quality local crafts), engine oil, envelopes, apricots and ice cream! One sold bread, another flour and another meat.
The light bulbs in the Bazaar containers were battery powered. Some of the containers had no lighting and were dark even in broad daylight. Heaven knows how it functions in winter with no heating, little lighting and the walkways deep in snow.
There was evidence of satellite TV but these satellites and the TVs were run off batteries with solar panels or a generator just like we found in the more remote villages in the Bartang Valley.
The Megafon office, with one member of staff, which supplied us and most people with SIM cards was in such a container, but with modern displays and lighting. They uniquely had power all day from a large array of solar panels situated next to our hotel.
We saw Yurts in the bazaar and randomly dotted around town (including outside the hotel). Some of the houses had yurts in the yard, I guess associated with an ability to take any livestock owned up to summer pastures. What is true is that the small villages in this area all had a few yurts scattered around family dwellings.
The streets leading up to the Bazaar had other businesses such as the welder who fixed the foot plate and lamp fitting on the rear of Landy.
Even the welder, whose children looked on, had an old Diesel engine which generated power for his welding equipment.
Things we take for granted like refuse collection probably do not exist. Rubbish is burnt and what cannot be burnt is taken to the tip outside town.
There were no car wash facilities to be found, and those few with cars, drive down to the Morghob river to wash their cars (as Jim and I did). Even the army brought their smart white Landcruiser down to the water’s edge to be cleaned.
There is massively less rubbish as much less is consumed and packaged. Broken fittings are fixed rather than replaced or left broken!
I cannot mention this area without describing the tall traditional Kyrgyz black and white felt hats that so many men wear on their heads. These are worn casually by men walking down the street, at work or sitting on a bench watching the world go by.
Women may wear traditional dress but the younger generation may equally be wearing more western style clothes.
Their lives here in particular, seem so hard. The temperatures drop to -32 degrees in winter and water has to be stored indoors for domestic use or it freezes hard. In summer it is rarely above 20 degrees and usually a lot less.
They do not really identify as Tajik but rather as Kyrgyz. They don’t speak the Pamiri language or the Whakani language nor Tajik. They mainly speak Kyrgyz.
They import their food from Kyrgyzstan rather than from say Khorog, the other side of the Pamirs, partly because it is closer, but also because they identify as Kyrgyz. Even the clocks are on Kyrgz time rather than Tajik time.
This district is poorer partly because they have less than half the precipitation enjoyed by the Western Pamirs, so arable farming is almost impossible and livestock scarce. The mountains are bare and reveal only the colour of their stone and the dusty earthy coatings.
The rivers flow at a quieter pace and many stream beds are dry. There are few plants and no trees. They don’t have a profusion of vegetables growing because there is very little water so much more has to come in and they cannot be self sufficient. Grass growing along the river bed is heavily grazed and the houses have no running water or plumbing.
Water pumps could be found down each street in town and even the soldiers in the barracks were pumping water into metal buckets.
I was struck by the poverty found here in this remote corner and it was evident in the faces and clothes of people including the young children.
We had checked in to the Pamir Hotel, which was the best the town had to offer. It was a very drab building which appeared not to have seen a lick of paint or plastering since the 1950’s. It was largely single glazed and more panes were cracked or broken than not.
Food preparation was handled in a series of out buildings to the rear that looked like a row of garden sheds. Cooking was done on ovens fired with solid fuel gathered from the neighbouring hills including scrub.
Bread had its own oven. (This will be the way throughout Murghob.)
Good soups and main courses were available all day from the drab restaurant.
Those on linen duty and changing the rooms, washed the sheets and towels by hand in water heated on solid fuel stoves.
There is currently no mains electricity supplied to the town and the hotel used a generator which was fired up between 7pm and midnight. That meant that the showers were only hot between these hours and there were no lights to illuminate the bathrooms in the night.
Not only was it dark in the night but also very chilly as outdoor temperatures fell to little above freezing.
The hotel did have running water but not from the mains and had a number of water tanks around the premises and large and small generators. All this equipment was untidy and scruffy.
What shone out was the receptionist who managed the facility and all the staff, who were linked to each other by walkie talkies. She spoke good English, knew how to access most things in town including guides and had great interpersonal skills with her team of older staff and was beautiful and only 19 years old! Needless to say she wanted to become qualified as a medic in Shanghai and then open her own cosmetic surgery clinic in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. I really think she will do it.
What was conspicuous, was the small number of smart Toyota Landcruisers arriving each day in the town with drivers and guides and tourists from around the world driving from one end to the other of the Pamir Highway.
In addition there were people like us, self driving and more on motorbikes and cyclists. Tourism seemed to be an important source of income but probably only for five months of the year when all the roads are passable. This income really reaches only a minority of people who can afford a car or to set up a proper homestay.
This beautiful but barren part of Tajikistan desperately needs a sponsor. So much was being done in the Western Pamirs by the Aga Khan charities, but this area seemed left behind in another age or time. With access to satellite TV where they see how the rest of the world live, it is not hard to imagine that some people here feel dissatisfaction with their lot in spite of the stunning beauty of their surroundings.