Entering Tajikistan was a strange experience. First off was the border post leaving Kyrgyzstan followed by about 30 km of no mans land and a pass of 4320m before the Tajikistan border post. We had been told that the road here was notoriously bad because neither of the countries want to be responsible for the maintenance, on top of that we were headed for the highest pass yet on our trip. This sounded like it was going to be interesting. The slope was pretty gradual and road not so bad up until the last climb where The road switched back on its self about four times and there was evidence of recent land slides. Some of us were beginning to notice the effects altitude has on the performance of our rides not to mention breathing. Just to make things more eventful, As we reached the top of the pass it began to snow. A few kilometers on and we were at the Tajik border post.
This took a while as we had to get insurance on the vehicle as well as undergoing a quarantine process and the usual border/customs procedures. We had to pay $70 in total which was non negotiable. The snow was really starting to come down at this point. 90% of Tajikistan is mountains, it is one of the most mountainous countries of the world with Mt Ismoili Somoni the highest at 7495m. Due to the altitude many of these regions are very harsh, arid and uninhabitable. From the border it was not far to Karakol lake where we decided to camp for the night. Karakol lake is perched high in the Pamir’s at around 4000m. It is thought to be created by a meteor impact some 25 million years ago. As we got out the cars and started setting up camp some of us were really feeling light of breath, it’s an odd feeling, like you can never catch your breath no matter how fast or slow you breathe. It was incredibly windy at the lake -good for Simon as he had brought his kite surfing gear with the sole purpose of carving up Karakol lake. Not so good for us as the wind was taking all the dirt and sand with it creating almost a sandblasting effect. This made almost everything outside impossible. We decided to erect the Oztent leaving the rest of the crew in awe of how fast you can actually put it up (28 seconds). We spent the rest of the day 6 of us huddled up playing board games, card games, cooking up a storm and drinking our stocks dry. Simon the maniac actually hit the lake with his board regardless of the near zero temperatures, much credit to him. The next morn we woke to a fresh blanketing of snow which made the surrounding mountains look very picturesque.
We packed our gear and it was off to Murghab, nothing special here or even worth mentioning apart that we decided on a guesthouse for accommodation that night. The following day we were off again and looking forward to the up coming pass. It was to be the zenith, the highest pass on the second highest highway in the world. At 4655m we were ready for the big one. Well not really, since we were already at around 4000m it wasn’t really going to be all that drastic. None the less we geared up and took off. The climb was really not all that impressive but to crest the top of the pass still was not without it’s sense of achievement. It was all downhill from here, well not quite but anyway.
We stopped for lunch shortly after, it was to be our last with Simon and Georgie as they had to be at a wedding in London. They had a few things bugging them about their car so we used the opportunity to get our mobile workshop happening as did Tim and Nic. We got them all sorted for the road ahead.
After some farewells we turned off the M41 to take the more minor road which descends into the the Wakhan Corridor. The road follows the Panj river which is a geographic border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We stopped for lunch by the river, Nic thought he’d chuck a line in to test his luck and within 30 seconds he snagged a wonderful looking fish almost reminiscent of a trout. He was well stoked, something he would cherish, catching a fish in Afghan waters. We moved on from there enjoying the varied landscape and the views of the Hindu Kush as we followed the river.
We spotted a fallen power pole which looked like it had been sitting for years. Perfect fire wood, really the only firewood at an altitude of almost 4000m. It was also the prefect excuse to use the chainsaw. We got to work chopping up the log and slicing it down to smaller pieces with my Nepalese kukuri. It was a treat having a raging bonfire in such a setting, cooking a freshly caught fish on the fire with a few vodkas and some good company. The next day we began out descent into the Wakhan Corridor. The slow winding road, some times built into a cliff side eventually gave way to one of the most spectacular views of my life. A hidden valley amongst an ocean of mountains, patches of green where farmers cultivated their land, rows of trees creating boundaries between people’s plots and an ancient village forgotten by time. Descending into Langar was like a time warp and almost eerie, it seemed so quite, peaceful and rested. It felt kind of wrong driving through in our 4 tonne lumbering beast. There was so much that draws your eyes it makes it hard to focus on the road. It’s just so interesting to watch how people go about their daily life in a place so isolated not only by its natural boundaries but by the disconnection with the goings on of the outside world. There is no internet, mobile phones, we didn’t even see any tv antenna or satellite dishes. After dropping altitude by almost 2000m there was a huge change in scenery notably the amount of greenery that now surrounded us. We found a camp that night in a small green field with sleuths cut all around it like a moat. With in a few minutes of arriving we attracted the attention of some young kids. Before we knew it we had an audience of about 10 kids. Jess got out her iPad and began showing the pictures of back home they were however more interested in seeing pictures of where we had been in Tajikistan. After a few hours their older brothers came looking for them, hung around briefly, then shooed them off.
We followed the Panj river in the Wakhan corridor for the next few days watching how life went on so peacefully in Afghanistan despite the turmoil that has enveloped the rest of the country. One night we got a bit of a reality check, we asked some farmers if we could setup camp on their land which wasn’t a problem. It was a nice green field on the banks of the Panj. Later that night after dark we heard whispering coming from the bushes near our camp. It was a little disconcerting until Jess shone her torch in the general direction. We saw 3 army guys with AK’s checking us out from the bushes. That made our decision to leave pretty easy. We started packing up until 6 heavily armed army guys emerged from the dark. The officer demanded our passports as they began searching our car. We explained we were just tourists and had permission to camp there. Eventually they accepted this but told us to move on as people had been taking pop shots from the other side of the river. It really goes to show how volatile this part of the world is. We finished packing and drove through the night until we reached a town where we called it a night and crashed in the cars. The next morning we headed for the Garm Chasma hot springs, which supposedly have mystical healing properties. It had an impressive geological formation but had basically been surrounded by concrete and corrugated iron fencing. We were expecting a more natural experience rather than a concrete room with some luke warm water. Nic went in but it was male only on that particular day and lots of stairs so Jess and I gave it a miss. From there it was a short drive to Khorog and the first feeling of civilisation for a few weeks.