Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan – tackling the Kyrgyz/Tajik border


I’ve been in this taxi-van for hours. Many, many hours. And I’m not even talking about the four hours it took to drive to Sary Tash from Osh.

The road to Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan

The road from Osh to Sary Tash. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Three hours is my approximation. That’s how long I’ve been sitting idle in the back of the taxi-van – bringing my total time in the van to seven hours. I’ve got to sit here, inside the van, to keep an eye on our possessions while we, as a group, attempt to sort out the mess we’re in. The others are milling around outside the car, standing with hands on hips, stern expressions on faces. Much of the last three hours has been spent with the others standing outside the taxi, hands on hips, stern expressions on faces.

The locals who have stopped by to see what we’re doing here have listened politely to our plight. Some have spoken a little Russian and have gotten the gist of the situation. Others haven’t. Some have sympathised. Others haven’t. None are able to help us. None show all that much surprise either.

I get the impression that, of the few foreigners who end up in Sary Tash, being stranded is a pretty common predicament to be in. The taxi driver that brought us here is standing in the slim line of shade created by a nearby building. He’s not bothered; the longer we wait the more money he’s going to ask for.

Trans-Alay Mountains, Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan

Downtown Sary Tash. Photo credit: Ben White

If someone appears trustworthy, trust them, unless they’re a taxi driver.

That’s my take on this type of situation. And that’s the way I responded this morning, when we were discussing our transport options for the 14 hour journey between Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, and Murgab, in Tajikistan. My objection was noted by the others. But my concern was considered unwarranted. I was voted down.

The taxi driver we contacted agreed to arrange our transport connections to Murgab. He would drive us the first part, the easy part, in his two-wheel drive taxi-van, and when the road turns bad – which it does at Sary Tash – we would transfer into a four-wheel drive taxi. What could go wrong?

The trip to Sary Tash went as planned. But the transfer into the four-wheel drive taxi has not eventuated. The driver that was supposed to be picking us up is not here. His car is broken down, or he is unable to make the journey because of an impassable road, or he has changed his mind and taken on other passengers. We don’t know which of these excuses we are supposed to believe as the driver’s story is continually changing.

There never was four-wheel drive coming for us. That’s what I think.

But I’m in the minority. Ami and the others are still convinced a driver is on the way. They trust the taxi-van driver. Everyone is honest in Central Asia, they say. For the most part, they are right. But not when it comes to taxi drivers.

Close up of Trans-Alay Mountains, Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan

Photo credit: Ben White

Sary Tash

There’s not a whole lot going on in Sary Tash. The occasional truck trundles down the road, transiting between Tajikistan and China. And about once an hour a cyclist pulls into town. The Wakhan Valley, I have recently discovered, is a popular cycle route – popular is a relative term here, on average we pass two or three cyclists a day, mostly from France and Germany. The cyclists are traveling solo, but they all know each other, having periodically bumped into one another over the weeks it has taken them to complete their trip through the Pamirs. The cyclists are filthy, their hair matted, their bodies emaciated. They get off their bikes and waddle, saddle sore, into their comrades waiting arms; they hug, they cheer, they cry. The hardest part of their journey is over.

Not much else going on here. A couple of kids are playing outside a магазин (pronounced magazin; a small, very basic corner store). They appear to be having a great time, swinging to and fro on a disused petrol pump. Their cheeks are red, battered by the hard, dry wind that gusts across the high plateau.

Kids playing on petrol pump, Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan

Photo credit: Ben White

Time passes.

It’s not the worst place in the world to be sitting idle. Through the front window of the taxi-van: a view of the Trans-Alay mountain range, where the Pamirs and Tian Shan mountain ranges merge. The tallest of the peaks in view include Ibn Sina Peak (formerly Lenin Peak, and before that Mount Kaufmann – many of the peaks of the former Soviet Union have been through a suite of name changes), which reaches a height of 7,134m. Qullai Istiqlol (Independence Peak – formerly Revolution Peak, and before that Dreizpitz) reaches 6,940m.

Nearby – I’m not sure if this is one of the peaks in view or not – is Ismali Somoni Peak (formerly Communism Peak, and before that Stalin Peak) at 7,495m, the tallest mountain in Tajikistan. Sliding between the mountains is Fedchenko Glacier, which, at 77km in length, is the longest glacier in the world outside of the Polar Regions.

Downtown Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan

Photo credit: Ben White

A flock of goats surround the taxi-van, bleating shrilly as they clop their way down the highway. They’re replaced by a procession of sombre, plainly dressed, unspoken men; a funeral cortege moving toward the home of the departed.

There’s movement outside.

The taxi-van driver has a new plan. He wants to drop us off at the border, and then make his way back to Osh. The border is ten kilometres outside of Sary Tash, and infrequently trafficked. Beyond the border post is a 60 kilometre wide no-man’s land, which requires a crossing of Kyzyl-Art Pass, at 4250m. There will be no taxis waiting at the border to pick us up. There will be nothing at the border at all. We will have no option but to get back in the taxi-van and return to Sary Tash. I’m fairly sure the driver knows this.

Ami and the others are slowly coming to the realisation that we are stranded. Their conviction as to the integrity of this cab driver is waning; their demeanours are taking on a steely edge. This debacle has gone on too long. It’s cost us a day.

The taxi driver is coming at them again. They shake their heads gravely, walk away a few metres and convene. They look at the driver, wave him over. None are smiling.

This isn’t going to be pretty.

Continue reading the Pamir Highway/Wakhan Valley series:

Part 2:  Kyzyl-Art to Karakul, Tajikistan – the highest navigable lake in the world

Part 3: Ak Baital to Murgab, Tajikistan – breakdowns and snowy mountain passes

Part 4: The Neolithic cave paintings of Shakhty, Tajikistan

Part 5: Bash Gumbaz, Tajikistan – yaks, golden marmots, and a Chinese merchant’s tomb

Part 6: Arrival at the Afghan border, Tajikistan

Part 7: Langar, Tajikistan – petroglyphs and Pamiri spirit shrines

Part 8: Vrang, Tajikistan – apricot groves and a mysterious ziggurat

Part 9: Yamchun Fortress and Bibi Fatima Hot Springs, Tajikistan

Or search my Pamir Highway / Wakhan Valley page.

More on Kyrgyzstan:

Summer pastures and perfectly still lakes – the hike to Song Kul

Bishkek – the most Soviet of Central Asian capitals

More on Central Asia:


The Valley of Balls, and Lion’s Mountain, Mangistau

Karagiye Depression – 5th deepest depression in the world


Toprak Kala & Qyzyl Kala

Kurgashin-kala – desert fortress of Khorezm


Dushanbe – big flagpole, big library, and very big teahouse


Sarmish-say – 4,000 petroglyphs in dramatic gorge setting

Gur-e-Amir, Samarkand – Tomb of Timur

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