PAMIR HIGHWAY/WAKHAN VALLEY ROUTE
ARRIVAL AT THE AFGHAN BORDER
We arrive at the Afghan border.
We’re not crossing the border, just driving alongside it, remaining in Tajikistan at all times. A small stream – the headwaters of the Pamir River – acts as the natural frontier between the two nations.
That’s the border?
The stream is so narrow. And there’s no fence. I could burst free of the car, wade through the water, and be inside Afghanistan in less than a minute.
I’d be in big trouble probably.
There’s a guard station, a checkpoint for us to pass through. Not a Tajik/Afghan checkpoint; just a Tajik/Tajik checkpoint. Checkpoints are common in Tajikistan. Especially in GBAO (Gorno-Badakhšanskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast, or the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan).
We slide through the checkpoint, then… the car stalls. Satbai tries to reignite the engine. Nothing. It’s dead. We’re less than a hundred metres from the guard post, and still adjacent to the Afghan border. Satbai tries a rolling start. No good. He tries again. Again. Again. Nothing. We’ve rolled another hundred metres forward by this time. We’re at the bottom of a dip, and can roll no further.
The guards have come out of their post; they’re peering towards us. Satbai is out of the car, he waves at them, points to the car, has the hood flipped up in a jiffy. He bends over the engine.
The border guards wander down to the car, they peer in the windows, converse with Satbai. We smile, wave. They smile back. Friendly border guards.
Are they ethnic Kyrgyz? Tajik? Pamiri?
It’s hard to know; they could be from any part of Tajikistan. They’re young, no older than eighteen. I wonder if this is where the army sends their new recruits? Stick them out here in this remote outpost, the Afghan border, days of driving to get anywhere. Give them a couple of guns, a tiny box to live in, sit them next to an extremely porous border. That’ll put hair on your chest.
Camels. Bactrian camels. On the Afghan side of the river. They look out of place in this mountainous region. Shouldn’t they be in a desert?
The irony, of course, is that they are perfectly in place. This is Bactria, or close to it.
This is their home.
We have a long drive ahead of us. It’s not that late but already it’s dark, the lofty mountains on either side of us blocking out the light, casting us in a premature twilight.
These roads are hazardous; narrow, winding, hugging the sides of the mountains, a steep drop off into the valley below. And they’ve been made by hand.
How do you build a road, by hand, on the side of a mountain?
Easy. Get a pile of rocks, fashion them into a wall where you want the edge of your road to be, and backfill. Done. That’s all that’s holding these roads together. Something to keep in mind when you are forced onto the edge of the road to let a convoy of Chinese lorries past.
Yes, lorries. The closure of the Pamir Highway has forced all freight transport onto the Wakhan Valley road. You might think, well that’s okay, there can’t be many freight vehicles moving along those roads. But in fact it is a trade route, moving goods between the food-bowl of Central Asia, the fertile Ferghana Valley, and the buyer of those goods: China.
It’s sheer madness to drive these roads in a lorry. Steep, treacherous mountain passes, switchback after switchback, sections of the road washed away by snow melt. And the lorries have destroyed what’s left of the road, busting anything resembling a culvert into rubble, turning the surface of the gravel road into a layer of super-fine, ten-inch thick dust.
The lorry drivers travel in convoy, for company as much as for security. Satbai pulls as far off the road as possible when he sees a convoy approaching – which isn’t very far considering we’re driving along a narrow road on the edge of a mountain. The trucks rumble past, ten in a group, each moving agonisingly slowly, keeping in tight formation; drivers crawling forward in a cloud of dust, mindlessly following the tail lights of the truck in front.
We pull over for a quick break, our last of the day. One last opportunity to admire these mountains.
The defiant Hindu Kush mountain range, famous – and often romanticised – for the role they played in the Great Game between the Russian and British Empires. Tirich Mir, the Hindu Kush’s highest peak, reaches 7,708 metres, making it the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas.
This is our last brush at the mountaintops, our last moments at high altitude. From here we drop down into the Wakhan Valley.