There are a few special places in this world that really excite my imagination, places that are so far off the geo-politcal world radar that they seem to resonate with adventure. These are the places where, when I look at a map, I let my imagination loose and feel that sense of wonder and excitement. My mind fills with curiosity, dreaming up remote untouched landscapes. I wonder about the people and cultures and all of the potentially enriching experiences that lie in waiting. The wilds of Siberia, the expanse of the Mongolian Steppes, the bushman on the rim of the Sahara Desert and the remote regions of Alaska and Patagonia are such places … just to name a few. But who’s heard of the Pamirs?
The Pamir Mountains are geologically wedged between the deserts of Western China in the east, the fabled Hindu Kush of modern-day Afghanistan/Pakistan in the south, the vast steppes of Kazakhstan/Mongolia in the north, and the lands of Persia in the west. I knew little about the area and it evoked that all too familiar boyish curiosity. Not having great expectations frees up my monkey mind to invite in that state of constant wonder.
The road through the Pamirs served as the outermost frontier of the former Soviet Empire. It feels like it hasn’t been touched much since then. The ‘highway’ passes through a semi autonomous region, far from anywhere and, at 4600 meters, it’s one of the world’s highest roads, let alone one of the world’s most deserted areas. It forms part of the ancient silk route and this road was home for the next month.
From Almaty, I headed south through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. There I found beautiful plains, nomadic people living in yurts, drunk drivers, plenty of fermented mares’ milk being sold on the side of the road (just to make sure those drunk drivers stayed drunk for the entire trip), stunning mountain passes and vivid snow-capped peaks never too far from sight. But it was the entrance to the Pamirs, in Osh, Kazakhstan that made the lasting impression.
There is a valley that stretches all the way from China through ‘The Stan’s’ thousands of kilometers to the ever shrinking Caspian Sea. It’s here, high up in the mountains where one of these great rivers starts. In a vast valley at an elevation of about 3100 meters, a wall rises up to greet those that venture here with a sign that could easy read something like “… just remember who is in charge here!” A six to seven thousand meter high wall of snow- capped peaks greets the curious traveler. It’s a wall of such a scale and such magnificence that it steals the very breath from the bottom of the lungs. Here lies the entrance to the Pamirs.
It was a slow climb along a washed out road to the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Past glacial deltas and along rocky roads, I climbed to about 4300 meters. The lush green valley disappeared and soon became a rocky windy landscape. I crossed the border without too much hassle, despite the guard who tried to confiscate my Swiss army knife because knives apparently weren’t allowed in Tajikistan (curious indeed). I reminded myself to hide anything that might tempt a lowly paid and bored guard at the next few border posts. There I met some people driving all sorts of cars through this remote region as part of the Mongol Rally. Starting in London, this race finishes several months later in Ulan Batar, Mongolia. The charity event used to donate old emergency vehicles to the authorities in Ulan Batar, Mongolia, but nowadays anyone with an old beaten up car is also welcome in the rally. People buy them, drive them halfway around the world and give them to the local fire department or hospital or sell them for parts and give the proceeds to charity. It was a nice idea and the best part was they usually had lots of spare western food, juices and biscuits lying around in their well stocked cars for the hungry cyclist.
And, while I could go on to describe the bouts of sickness, the headwinds, the altitude, the bad roads, the friendly locals and the difficult time I had trying to race through there so as not to get stuck in a cold winter in Turkey, I think the photos really speak for themselves.
I don’t think I could do the place any justice trying to describe the place anyway. Enjoy!