PAMIR HIGHWAY/WAKHAN VALLEY ROUTE PART 2: KYZYL-ART TO KARAKUL, TAJIKISTAN
Dry, desolate Kyzyl-Art Pass. Sitting at 4280m above sea level. Midway along the 60km gravel trail that traverses the no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This part of the Pamir Highway is stark, volatile, continually eroding, prone to earthquakes.
The four-wheel drive taxi slows, stops, judders as the engine is switched off. We’ve earned a five-minute break.
Outside the car the air is brisk, even at this time of year. Snow-capped mountains in every direction, glaciers hugging the upper slopes of some.
Marking the border, set on a high plinth, on the very crest of the pass, is a life-size statue of a Marco Polo Sheep, a symbol for the region. Marco Polo Sheep, which live between elevations of 3800m and 4800m, are the largest of the argali, or wild mountain sheep, that inhabit Central Asia.
These legendary animals, with their cumbersome, outwardly-curving horns, were named after the illustrious 13th Century traveller, Marco Polo, who introduced the sheep to the western world in his text: The Travels of Marco Polo.
“There are great numbers of all kinds of wild beasts; among others, wild sheep of great size, whose horns are good six palms in length. From these horns the shepherds make great bowls to eat from, and they use the horns also to enclose folds for their cattle at night.”
Marco Polo Sheep live in the mountain ranges of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China; the highest concentration of the species, however, is in Tajikistan. Their horns, along with those of their fellow mountain dweller, the Himalayan Ibex, have become much coveted hunting trophies. Hunters, and the agencies that run hunting expeditions in Tajikistan, claim the hunting industry is beneficial to wild sheep numbers as the financial incentive – a seven day hunting trip costs around US$50,000 – is prompting efforts to protect the species. There is probably some basis to this statement, but who, exactly, is overseeing these efforts to protect the Marco Polo Sheep? The hunters? The government?
Seeing as there have been no comprehensive population studies undertaken to date, I don’t see how anyone can make definitive statements as to the impacts, positive or negative, that commercial hunting may have on the species.
Gorno-Badakhšanskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast – GBAO
Just past the statue of the Marco Polo Sheep is a large, stately sign announcing our arrival in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan, known as GBAO (from the Russian Gorno-Badakhšanskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast, or Горно-Бадахшанская автономная область). GBAO makes up almost half of the land area of Tajikistan, but accounts for just a fraction of the population. It, accordingly, receives little love from the government, and the locals, in turn, feel little love for the government. There is a long history of anti-government resistance in GBAO, which persists today.
To enter GBAO as a tourist you need a special permit, which can only be obtained at one of Tajikistan’s international embassies, or in Dushanbe, the capital. Not all Tajik embassies dispense these permits however. And there are not that many Tajik embassies to begin with. So plan ahead.
GBAO is sporadically closed to tourists. The most recent closure occurred a few months ago in May/June 2015, following to a shooting incident in one of towns on the Afghan border, and, purportedly, because of increased fighting in northern Afghanistan. Which means we are fortunate to be getting into GBAO at all.
Five minute break completed, we return to our four-wheel drive taxi, and commence our descent from Kyzyl-Art Pass. The mountain streams that we pass all need to be forded, as the culverts and bridges that once spanned their banks have long since collapsed or been destroyed. The surrounding landscape is never any less arid, despite the presence of the odd lake or river. Water passes through this country, but does not nourish it.
Running alongside the road is a tall fence topped with barbed wire. It’s the border with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The fence, as far as I can tell, runs the entire length of the border between the two countries, preventing the population of nil that live on this side of the fence, from mixing with the population of nil that live on that side of the fence.
No, that isn’t quite true.
Here and there the fence has fallen to the ground. And in those spots where the fence has slumped to the ground?
Whose wheel tracks?
No idea. But the Afghan/Tajik border is unfenced. The lands on either side are wild and lawless, making them a perfect corridor for drug-running. Which means it could be drug-runners that are taking advantage of these gaps in the fence. Or it could just be a local yak farmer taking a short cut home.
Our four-wheel drive taxi, I suddenly notice, is listing to one side.
We have a flat!
Our driver, visibly exhausted – he has been driving since 4am – shows no surprise at the discovery; just a heightened state of weary acceptance. One look at the tyres and I understand why.
His tyres are all threadbare. The internal wire reinforcement is even visible on some, poking through the folds of rubber. The spare is no better. How long till our next flat? And what do we do when that happens? We’ll find out, I guess. There’s always a way.
On the horizon, glimpsed between low gravel ridges, backed by squat, snow-covered mountain peaks, is Lake Karakul. It fills the base of an impact crater made by a meteor that came crashing to Earth between 5 and 25 million years ago (the date of impact is contested), and sits at 3960m altitude, making it one of the highest lakes in the world navigable by boats. It’s higher than Lake Titicaca in Bolivia (3812m), which is commonly touted to hold this title.
On the southern side of Lake Karakul is a small, lean town that bears the lake’s name. Karakul is a remote place, a hard, lonely, isolated place.
What do people do In Karakul? Scrape a meagre living of the passing through trade, I guess. A little bit of yak farming here and there.
A couple of the cubic, mud brick dwellings in Karakul offer tea and snacks for tired drivers. One place has Homestay written in four-foot high letters on its fence.
Apart from the crude, mud-brick shacks, and the odd radio antenna, there is nothing. No people in sight. No personal effects left outdoors. Karakul feels like a ghost town, abandoned by its inhabitants due to its bleakness, its hopelessness, its futility. But this is not the case. There are people here. Many of them. Inside every one of these seemingly abandoned buildings. It’s just too cold, too windy, too blustery, to be outdoors. Time spent outside the house is minimised. Even in sunny conditions during the height of summer. I can’t imagine what this place is like in winter.
A walk through Karakul finds a collection of randomly scattered shacks, no need for a grid of streets and city blocks here. There’s no overcrowding. No queues for the bus. No overflowing sidewalks. A ubiquitous, broken-down Lada perfectly complements the scene.
Practical information and how to reach Karakul:
The Pamir Highway / Wakhan Valley is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, in particular cyclists, and deservedly so. Tourism in the region is still in its most nascent of stages though, so don’t arrive ill-prepared.
A basic level of Russian is highly recommended (it isn’t the local tongue but it is a handy second language spoken by a reasonable proportion of the population). There is no public transport, although you may be lucky and find a share taxi going in the direction you’re headed. Otherwise you’ll have to arrange your own transportation.
More transport info here.