We arrived in Khorog at lunch time – hungry, dusty and ready for a bit of a break from the crazy roads.
Khorog is the capital of the Gorno-Badakhhan (GBAO) area and sits right on the Tajik/Afghan borderline. It is large and well stocked in comparison to the numerous tiny villages that we had driven through to get there.
We all parked up on the Northern side of the river at the entrance to the Botanical Gardens – interestingly the worlds second highest. We took a lazy walk through the gardens – such a massive contrast to what we had just been doing an hour before.
On the right of us sat manicured gardens, plants, a swimming pool, picnic areas and then the river; all overlooking the rugged mountains that provided the spectacular backdrop to Khorog. It was the only reminder of where you really were.
At the end of the gardens and down a few steps we came across a restaurant sat right over the river. The dining area was outside on a huge platform, all carpeted with raised seating areas and cushions to stretch out on and relax.
All through Central Asia the menu range remains almost unchanged: Shashlik (Skewered meat), Non (Flatbread), Plov (Rice, carrot and meat) and Laghmon (Noodle and mutton soup). The Chor Bagh restaurant was international and we all ditched the local food in favour of greek salads, burgers and chips washed down with Coke and coffee. I refuse to feel guilty for it!!! 3 salads, 4 burgers and chips, 7 cokes, a coffee and one last portion of chips worked out to be just $50.00 for four people – way worth it.
We found the Pamir Lodge guesthouse to stay the night in. Jerome and I slept in our car – as the bed is set up for Jerome and it’s easier than lugging it all inside for the night. The guesthouse is popular with travellers and just the best place for a break from it all. For the overlanders, you can park your bicycle, motorbike or car inside a gated compound. Just like us – most people were fixing up their vehicles/bikes on the grass shaded by tall trees. there was snail pace wifi and a terrible washing machine – but most importantly hot running water for showers. The owners spoke good English and after a bit of tinkering on the car we could relax and have a beer.
The next day we headed off to the only ATM in town and then on to the Bazaar for a stock up before our departure. We stopped at the California Cafe Shashlik bar for lunch and hit the bazaar at 4pm – just the wrong time to shop in a market. None-the-less it was well stocked with fresh produce (couldn’t find meat or flour) and as per usual it was much more fun and rewarding to wander around the stalls and boost local trade than to prowl the supermarket aisles.
Fuel is about $1.00 p/l and there was a good station jut after the Bazaar heading out of town towards Dushanbe. On our way out we passed Khorog airport. Or should I say, a rough strip of asphalt carefully governed by cows and weeds!
We managed a measly 26km out of town before finding a great little spot by the river to camp for what turned out to be an ill-fated night.
Our friend and convoy buddy Tim had bought a bottle of supposed soy sauce from the bazaar earlier. He popped the cap off it and took a little sip to taste. Unfortunately it turned out to be vinegar. 70% vinegar – so basically acid.
It started out to be a funny few minutes watching Tim choke and cough on the stuff until we realised he wasn’t well at all. There was only milk to help neutralise the acid and Tim spent an awful night awake suffering with an extremely burnt throat, worrying about his windpipe closing up. The next morning we made the decision to go back to Khorog so that Tim could see a doctor. He went back to the home-stay and it turned out that the wife running the place was a nurse. She took a look at the bottle and got very worried. Turns out that a local recently died after ingesting just two teaspoons of that vinegar without dilution. If it doesn’t burn your innards it can give you a heart attack. Tim went straight to hospital for blood tests and a camera down his throat. I fell ill with a touch of food poisoning so we stayed one last night at the guesthouse for a bit of recuperation. We owe the owners a lot – they really helped Tim out. A lucky escape.
The next day (armed with medicine for Tim) we were back on the road with almost 600km to go to Dushanbe.
There were two main routes from Khorog to Dushanbe – the easier and longer Southern Route vs the shorter, harder (but reportedly much more scenic) Northern route. We chose the latter. The M41 Pamir road up to the turnoff was just as beautiful as before: Deep valleys peppered with timeless villages, and always following the river. Afghanistan was so close by that most of the day was taken up imagining what it would be like to hop over the river. In fact, the grass did literally look greener on the other side.
Mud houses lined the opposing river banks and flat green fields with stone wall edgings created a relieving contrast against all the shades of brown behind them.
We came to a checkpoint behind Nic and Tim, who had just passed it and rounded the next corner. All of a sudden our radio crackled and Tim’s voice blurted out: The bridge is down! We’re not going anywhere!
Those. Dreaded. Words.
So far we had been incredibly lucky with the road conditions: no landslides, border issues or erm, bridges down. We quickly finished up at the checkpoint and joined the boys. As we came around the corner you could see the problem.
The river below the bridge was pretty fast, and the middle supporting arch had fallen away from the structure, hanging there like a broken fingernail. The bridge also looked like it had cracked somewhere along it. You could hear it creaking. The suspension cables were still intact, and we could just make out a guy underneath welding plates onto the underbelly of the steel.
We had a quick glance at the map for alternative routes, but we already knew our fate. This road and bridge were the only was to get further through Tajikistan. There was literally no other option. It was go forwards or retreat over 500 back to Murgab and leave Tajikistan and the roof of the world altogether. A local was estimating the bridge would take up to a month to fix. It looked bleak.
As we were getting our heads around our show-stopper, a black hummer pulled up on the other side of the bridge. The driver jumped out and walked across for a word with the welder. It seemed that the welder had just finished his botch job. The hummer man dashed back to his car and to our horror and surprise – began driving across the bridge! It groaned and swayed slightly but the guy got across. Without a word of communication between our two cars – we all jumped back into our seats and drove up to the bridge. Bosun avec Nic and Tim were first up. The welder and some locals seemed confident enough to stay on the bridge whilst we crossed individually. We video’d the crossing and I have to say it was a brilliant feeling, kind of like a James Bond moment. Thrilling! Not want our mothers want to hear I’m sure. Anyways – we got across and sat on the other side whooping and swearing for a few minutes. What a quick adventure! We couldn’t see many more cars getting across that bridge before it gave way entirely so we felt pretty damn charmed. Onwards and upwards time.
Our next checkpoint was just past the town of Qalai Khum (meaning gateway) where the river changed direction and the road split into the Northern and Southern routes mentioned earlier. We were pretty excited as just past the checkpoint we were facing a 2km climb on a stretch of road less than 30km long. This is what our vehicles were here for!
Unfortunately the checkpoint took over an hour to get through. When Jerome and I applied for our Tajik visas the government had temporarily stopped issuing GBAO permits due to local conflicts in the area. We had the unusual task of obtaining our stamped permits on a piece of paper separate to our passports altogether. The paperwork was posted to Murgab so that we could collect them prior to our first checkpoint. Upon our arrival into Murgab we learnt that our permits had been delivered to the suggested guesthouse as planned – but the owner had accidentally popped them in his car and driven them to Dushanbe (incidentally the last checkpoint that we would require the permits for – useless!!). We had so far managed to get through every checkpoint on the Pamir Highway without anyone questioning our lack of GBAO paperwork. This checkpoint picked us but luckily I had a copy on email and a Russian speaking contact who managed to convince the guards after an hour or so to let us through over the phone. No bribes either. OK so back on the road. The Northern route meant it was 285km to Dushanbe. we were at an elevation of just over 1200m and the upcoming pass maxed out at about 3200m. The bumpy gravel road got tighter and the edges more precarious.
We wound our way up the mountains, passing the most clearest water I think we will ever see. It was so incredibly clear that it looked as if a pane of glass had been placed over the riverbed. When the water thundered past rocks it turned a fantastic aqua colour, it was like food dye had been added.
We carried on inching our way up the pass, with the distinct lack of oncoming traffic being a relief. The Northern route is actually the true Pamir M41 but the easier Southern route (an extra 100km to Dushanbe) was the obvious choice for local traffic. The rock-face that had been carved away for the road was hanging over us, and in places had given way to landslide – leaving us with just enough gravel to skirt around on.
About 3/4 of the way up we came across a few families and their herd of livestock living in a small clearing between the rocks. None of us could think why they would choose to live in such a comparatively uninhabitable area. Why wouldn’t they live in the fertile spacious valleys that we had just passed through?
Our Troopy is the opposite to Nic and Tims’ one. When attempting steep inclines we have to keep the revs high and go hard right up until the top to prevent overheating. Bosun prefers to inch up the hills slowly and steadily, so the radio names Tortoise and Hare have been penned! Jerome and I therefore reached the top of the pass about 25 minutes before Nic and Tim. The air was cold and a gentle mist had folded itself into the eerie mountain-tops surrounding us. In the distance we could hear a local kid hollering out towards his herd of sheep. A sign in the foreground gently reminded us of our location: ‘This area has been cleared of landmines’.
On a side note, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and left swathes of Tajikistan covered in land-mines. These land-mines have moved around the country due to numerous landslides and ferocious springtime rivers. Our 2013 Bradt Tajik guidebook actually warned against camping or walking beside the rivers. The land-mines are supposedly marked out by locals using small piles of stones painted red. If in doubt – ask a local if you can camp on a riverside patch – which we always did anyway.
In no time at all Bosun was back with us and we breaked for lunch – excitedly relaying how the cars had performed during the climb to get there.
To me, the best part of the climb was coming down. The views were spectacular. The mountains and hills turned into a fluffy patchwork of cultivated greens – giving the area a much softer feel.
We reached the bottom of the pass and found our last camp of the Pamirs, just under 200km away from Dushanbe. Nic and Tim still had a large piece of chainsawed wood in their car so Nic got to work splitting it and making our best campfire yet.
Jerome had to pop the front wheel off the Troopy and check the brass spindle bush so I made dinner. That night we dined by the campfire around a table with tablecloth, candles and serviettes. After dinner we sat around the fire listening to Tim tell us fantastic stories about his first travel adventures (3 years on a motorbike from the UK to Australia back in the eighties).
The next day we were back on the road – destination Dushanbe. We passed our last Pamir checkpoint where the M41 met with another road coming in from the East. The road conditions had got shocking. It was far better to have gravel roads than the heavily pitted and potholed sections of tarmac that we had been working our way through.
It turned out that our home run to Dushanbe would be mainly on beautiful tarmac roads (bar the windy uphill sections which were graded gravel). It was a glorious cruise and the car felt like it was gliding in comparison to the past few weeks on the Pamirs. Speeds crept up from the usual 30-50 into the 80-90 range which felt like rocket speed to us. It was a pleasure to complete that drive on those roads. The scenery was still stunning and as the roads were so good you could pop your favorite
band on and belt out the lyrics in a very off-key fashion whilst blazing through the countryside.
As the city got closer, we passed through it’s satellite towns. Civilization hit us fast and once again we were negotiating our way through town centers on market days with cars zipping around us. It felt alien and took a bit of getting your head around.
In the last town before Dushanbe the road unexpectedly forked in two, with no warning and no signs. I carried on driving straight – oblivious to the fact that the road had turned one way against us. I drove straight into three lanes of oncoming rush hour traffic. Luckily we pulled over and turned around without any accidents. Later we heard that Tim and Nic and done the exact same thing. How could anyone (bar a local) figure out that that road was one-way???
Anyways – we finally hit Dushanbe just before 5pm. Tim and Nic found a hotel whilst Jerome and I had an AirBnB flat booked. Hot water, washing machines and rest were upon us. We parted company and headed for solace. What an amazing 2 weeks it had been traversing the second highest road in the world, the planned highlight of our combined trips. So many crazy little tales to regale. A real life-changing experience, something that we had all been searching for in our own little ways.
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