PAMIR HIGHWAY/WAKHAN VALLEY ROUTE PART 3: AK BAITAL PASS TO MURGAB, TAJIKISTAN
Our driver is tired. He has every right to be; he was up at 4am. It’s now midday, and we’ve got another five hours to go. And it’s not like it’s easy driving. This route is treacherous; keeping on the road requires intense concentration.
I’ve seen him rubbing his eyes, yawning, winding down the window, turning on music, doing what he can to stay awake. I was impressed when he said he needed to pull over and take a nap. I’m glad he owned up to his fatigue, rather than trying to push on.
Now we are here. Nowheresville.
On the side of an empty road, close to 4000m altitude, somewhere in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan.
Waiting for our driver to wake up.
We’ve each taken turns exploring our locale on foot. We’ve looked at the river, looked up and down the road, looked at the distant mountains, looked at the purple, salt-tolerant flowers, watched the odd vintage truck labour past.
Jaan, our Dutch friend, suggests we build a little weir in the river. It’s fun, he says. It’s what he and his friends used to do as kids back in the Netherlands.
We try it out, piling rocks of all sizes in a narrowest part of the stream. But the water is coming through too swiftly. The job is too big for us; none of us can summon the enthusiasm required to finish it off.
An hour or two passes. The driver wakes up in due time. We cover some ground, claw our way across a few miles. Then we get a flat; our second for the day. It’s a good thing the first puncture was only a slow leak, because we have just the one spare. The slow leak tyre is going back on.
Not a great place to be changing a tyre. Just metres from the top of Ak Baital Pass, at 4655m altitude.
It’s pretty nippy up here. My fingers are starting to burn. Tempting to get back in the car with Ami, where it is warm, but it doesn’t feel right to leave the driver out here, changing the tyre, all by himself.
Clouds race up. It starts to snow. Puffy, rice-bubble-like sago snow at first. Then just snow; normal snow. It covers my shoulders, the hood of my jacket, our packs on the roof of the car.
Ak Baital Pass
We crest the pass. No one even mentions stopping. Snow’s too heavy. Plus, we’re driving on a tyre with a slow leak. The more we stop, the flatter it gets.
Just below the pass, pulled to the side of the road: a neat, new, city car. Four people standing in front of it, all facing a camera on a tripod, smiles on faces, snow swirling around. On the side of the car, a decal, reading: MONGOLIAN RALLY.
We’ve passed a few of these Mongolian Rally vehicles already. We saw them yesterday in Sary Tash; the day before in Osh.
The rally starts in London, and finishes up in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It’s only rule: that the cars used are cheap and rubbish. The fact these little city cars have made it this far, along these roads, is impressive; even our 4WD taxi has struggled at times.
The Mongolian Rally cars aren’t the only misplaced vehicles we’ve seen on the Pamir Highway. We’ve passed vintage ambulances, vintage luxury cars, enormous 4WD trucks more often seen competing in the Dakar Rally – with white flags flying and TOURIST decals stamped on the front, back, and sides – along with all sorts of flashy motor bikes. These vehicles have been taking part in challenges of their own design. London to Beijing seems the most popular Eurasian road trip. London to Vladivostok another. The multitude of highways and backways these adventurers use throughout Europe and Eastern Asia all seem to funnel down this route, the Pamir Highway, through Tajikistan, across the roof of the world.
We’ve finally made it.
We take rooms in Hotel Pamir, the only two-storey building in Murgab. It’s late in the afternoon; the temperature dropping. Not a pleasant time to be outdoors.
Dainéal, Jaan, and I go for a quick walk through town in the fading light. We pass squat, rectilinear dwellings with thick, mud brick walls. All have been whitewashed at some stage in the past; some are still a crisp white, others eggshell, a few a yellowish-grey. Red-faced kids chase one another through the streets. The odd Pajero or Landcruiser is parked conspicuously, nose poking out of the garage; hired, no doubt, by travellers such as ourselves for a trip through the Pamirs.
Amongst the dwellings, in a dusty, informal square, a game of volleyball is underway. At the end of the street, the sole tourist attraction of Murgab: the shipping container bazaar.
It’s late, and the bazaar has already closed for the day. An odd place at the best of times, the shipping container bazaar is truly bizarre after dark. Surreal. Like the setting for a movie; a pod city on Mars. Cold, blustering winds howl between the containers.
A few doors are open, light shining out. Smoke puffs merrily out of stovepipes, till being whisked away by the breeze. People live in these containers. Work there during the day; sleep there during the night.
A shortcut is taken between the containers, the rocky slope behind town scrambled up, breath grasped at, oxygen in short supply.
We reach the highway. Murgab seen from above; the Martian city quiet, subdued; it’s population already indoors for the night, sheltering from the harsh, alien environment.