I must admit that I was a bit nervous in the lead up to our trek trough Tajikistan and the Pamir mountains. After all, both the NZ and UK government travel advisory web sites list this country as "high risk" and advise essential travel only. Furthermore a very large part of our trek was (literally) less than a stones throw from the Afghanistan border. Based on the reassuring words of our guides (Pamirguides, Murghab), we agreed to go ahead anyway promising ourselves we would bail at the first sight of any trouble.
The trip was a absolute blast; amazing scenery and very friendly and hospitable people we met on the way and in the various home stays.
Turns out we never saw any trouble and in fact we felt completely safe the whole trip. The only 'dodgy' bit seemed to be the many police stops around Dushanbe which our driver handled very well (even if I think he had to make a few extra "toll" payments by tucking in a few small banknotes in with the car registration papers.)
The first 4 days of the trek took us by 4WD from Dushanbe to Langar via Khalikum, Khorog and Yamg along the border with Afghanistan. This is one of the best, if not the best, mountain and canyon drives I have been on. The Panj and Whakhan river valleys are spectacular with some pretty impressive and sometimes scary mountain roads. Although the road is wide and paved in some areas, other parts are very narrow, steep and rocky. On top of that the road is part of a major trucking route between China and Tajikistan so there are many big 18wheeler trucks in both directions as well as lots of smaller old rickety local trucks.
Afghanistan is on the other side of the river and in fact most of the photos we took were from the Afghanistan villages that are dotted along this route. The Afghani side of the river has a little track also. It seems mostly constructed by hand - winding up and down the walls of the canyons and valleys and mostly used to move small herds of cattle with donkeys and the odd motor bike. If Afghanistan ever becomes safe enough that's the road I would like to bike!
From Langar we went north, over the Khargush Pass (4344m) and the Koitezek Pass (4271m) to Bachor into the Tajikistan Pamirs. This gave us the first taste of the altitude of the Pamirs and the Pamir highway. Most of the country is above 3000 meters and in this area it really shows. Trees are virtually non-existent and the scenery becomes almost desert like.
In Bachor we traded our trusted Toyota Land Cruiser in for a couple of donkeys to carry our bags for the first hiking part of our journey. The hike would take use along the Yashikul Lakes from an altitude of 3400 to 3800 meters. We coped well with the hiking at altitude but the river crossings were very very cold. We camped at a few pretty awesome places alongside the river and the lake with snow peaks all around.
We managed to create our first "yak-poo" fire. As was the case in Mongolia, people use dried yak poo as fuel for fires because there are no trees to provide firewood. Therefore it is common place to set up your tent or yurt and then roam the area to look for dried yak poo. After collecting a big pile we even used a flint to start the fire just to see if we could! The guide just couldn't believe we didn't want to use his bottle of petrol and box of matches; crazy tourists...
Clearly no bathrooms here and although we were already used to "finding a pile of rocks" to pee behind for some time, the close to freezing lake water for our hair wash and bath was a new frontier we had to over come (again the guide thought we were crazy not to wait for the hot water a few days away).
The final day of the hike presented us with a genuine sand storm which appeared out of nowhere to sand blast our lunch. The final river crossing was a real challenge with some of us opting for the donkeys to drag us across; pretty impressive how those donkeys can cross the river with two people or lots of bags on their backs. (Photo below shows Deborah crossing with the remainder of the sand storm in the back ground)
Our support vehicle wasn't so lucky: Our driver tried to be helpful by driving his car across the river the night before so we could use it to cross back. He under estimated the currents and didn't make it across. Although he got his car out of the water with the help of some local farmers and their old army truck, it took him several days to get it dry and running properly again.
Despite the spluttering engine the car did manage to get us back south from Alchor to the Belairyk valley where we stayed in a home stay for the night. It was snowing most of the afternoon which made us a bit nervous for the next day's hike which would take us over the 5015m Bel-Airik Pass! The weather gods were kind to us and the next morning we woke up to a beautiful clear sky. The hike up to the pass was beautiful. We used the car for the first bit and then used yaks to carry our luggage up the valley.
Hiking into the snow was pretty cool but unfortunately the final kilometre became quite steep with deep snow. Although the deep snow wasn't a problem for us, the heavy yaks sunk deep in the snow to the point where they couldn't go any further. Although we had our bag packs the other gear (tents, cooking gear, food, etc.) couldn't be easily carried without the yaks so we decided to leave the yaks and our gear behind and hike up to the top of the pass anyway. Although you do notice it's tougher to hike at this altitude, the hike is very doable and well worth it: a magnificent view at the top. Instead of crossing and going down on the other side we turned back to pick up the yaks and our gear and head back to the home stay.
The last few days of the trip we visited Zorkul Lake and went to the hot pools at Gartigumbez. Our driver and guide decided to stop by a small river between the lakes to do some fishing. We were pretty sceptical about their efforts to fish without any fishing gear until the driver put a sock on his hand and starting grabbing fish from under the rocks. He pulled out about 14 fish in no time! Yes we were impressed!
The next day we visited our tour organiser Saidali from Pamirguides in Murghab. There isn't a lot to see or do in Murghab but the Erali guest house was great and talking to Saidali was inspiring. He is really trying to lift the game of tourism in Tajikistan for the benefit of the local people. We are more than happy to recommend his services to intrepid travellers that want to visit this beautiful country.
The final leg of the trip took us via the Akbaitai pass (4655m), Karakul lake and the Kyzyl-art Pass (4282m) to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. In Karakul we caught up with a group of cyclists biking through the area. 4 guys from the Czech Republic doing a 'quick' three week trip along the Pamir highway, a Pakistan guy from Germany who was taking 6 months to bike from Germany to Pakistan whilst avoiding Afghanistan and a 67 (!) year old Japanese guy who was biking from Bukhara Uzbekistan to Dunhuang China. Although I missed my mountain bike often during this trip, I am not sure I would enjoy biking these roads. Some of these passes are an absolute killer. The photo below of the Japanese guy about 200 meter from the top of Akbaitai (4655m) says it all. If you want to do some soul searching, biking this area would certainly do it. Hats off to those that do it.
Absolute fantastic part of our journey.