PAMIR HIGHWAY/WAKHAN VALLEY ROUTE
The headache is ebbing, the adverse effects of a night passed with insufficient oxygen slowly easing. Murgab sits at 3,618m elevation. It’s not that high, but high enough, it seems, to give me a mild case of altitude sickness.
The others in the group complain of a similarly troubled night. Jaan tells us how he pulled himself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning after waking up gasping for breath.
‘I had to climb over a sleeping Sophie to open the window,’ he says, shaking his head solemnly. ‘I was scared she would wake while I was leaning over her bed, and she would naturally think I am about to rape her, and probably knee me in the groin, or scratch me in the face. But I had to do it anyway. There was no air left in the room.’
‘Was the air outside any better,’ I ask, understanding how he felt.
We could have all done with a little more time to adjust to the altitude. Not that it matters now. Today will be a gradual descent into the Wakhan Valley. Lower altitudes. More air.
Bad news! The Pamir Highway is closed past Murgab. A two kilometre wide landslide, a common occurrence in these parts, has completely blocked it off. A few mad cyclists have managed to traverse the landslip, but it is impassable to motor vehicles.
That’s derailed us. We’d planned to explore both the Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley routes in the upcoming week, as we make our way across the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan. Looks like the Pamir Highway section will have to be abandoned. There is naught to be done.
The Kurteskei Valley is a volatile place. High altitude, highly erodible soils, prone to earthquakes and landslips, prone to sudden, violent changes in the weather.
And what is the weather going to do today?
It seems to be of two minds. Giving us bright blue sky and dark ominous clouds at the same time; simultaneously perfect and disturbing. Good weather to be out here in? Better than snow, I guess. Better than rain.
We’re searching the valley for a small overhang containing a few Neolithic cave paintings, known locally as Shakhty. We’re basing our search on a set of vague verbal instructions received from a local guide we ran into yesterday in Murgab. We have no map. We have no concrete directions. There aren’t any signs to follow out here in the valley. There isn’t even a road.
Arid, alpine plateau. Wheel tracks running this way and that. Our driver, Satbai, has been following a dry river channel for the convenience it offers; it’s smoother, flatter, softer than the surrounding plains, and it’s heading in roughly the right direction. But is this really the right direction? Who knows? A V-shaped valley is what we are looking for. But guess what? All the valleys here are V-shaped. There are dozens of V-shaped valleys coming off the mountain ridges on either side of us. Any of them could be the one we are after.
Satbai tries one of the valleys. He looks hopeful, that alone fills us with encouragement.
But no. A false hope. A dead duck.
Turn around. Drive back a kilometre. Look around. Maybe the V-shaped valley is that one over there? Let’s give it a try.
Also wrong. Another ten minutes wasted.
We retreat to a confluence of valleys, a large, flat, barren place; the ground hard-baked, stony; hostile to human life.
In the distance: a cloud of dust. Another vehicle!
It’s coming towards us, but heading at an angle that will ultimately miss us by a kilometre or more. Satbai knows what to do. He plants his foot on the accelerator and we go charging across the hard-baked valley, bouncing out of our seats, bracing ourselves against the car roof, the doors, each other. That vehicle might be going to or coming from Shakhty. What else would they be doing out here? This might be our only chance. We can’t let them get away.
The driver of the distant vehicle spots us racing towards them and comes to a stop, giving us the chance to pull up alongside. There’s a decal on the side of their 4WD; the name of a tour company. Two mature Dutch tourists sit in the back of the vehicle. They’ve done this properly; engaged the services of a tour company with intimate knowledge of the area. We wave. They wave back. A conversation between the two of them and the two Dutch in our car ensues. It turns out they are also on their way to Shakhty, as suspected. Their driver and guide know exactly which V-shaped valley it is in.
Fifteen minutes later we are there. We never would have found this place on our own. Like looking for a needle in a haystack, a fleck of gold dust at a beach, a diamond ring in a sewer.
We let the Dutch couple and their guide proceed to the cave paintings by themselves ahead of us. No need to crowd here. When they’re done we climb the steep, crumbly slope to the inconspicuous rock shelter. Painted on the back of the cave in rust-red mineral paint: a crude sketch of a boar hunt, and nearby, a strange birdman figure. There’s a theory that it could be a man dressed as an ostrich. Odd. Beguiling. Made during the Mesolithic or early Neolithic age, as long as 10,000 years back. Perhaps the stretch of time has rendered it indecipherable.
How was this place found?
Two Soviet archaeologists made a late night camp here during a storm in 1958, so the rumour goes. They woke up in the morning, and voila, there it was. How else would you find this place?
Little is known about the people who made these drawings. Little archaeology money finds its way here. I’m sure there are other archaeological sites around. Petroglyphs abound in Central Asia; they’re all over Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. There are at least 50 known sites in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan alone. There could be petroglyphs around this site. There could be other cave paintings too. There could be dozens of them. Hundreds of them. Thousands. How would we know? No one is looking.