A Stone’s Throw from Afghanistan

This past week we have been literally “a stone’s throw” from Afghanistan, to prove it we stopped the truck and tried it out at the river which represented the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Steve got his stone onto the opposite riverbank but the rest of us didn’t manage so far. We were just across the Pamir River, running into the Panj River, in Tajikistan. The Wakan Corridor is a narrow strip of Afganistan that was designed to separate British India from Imperial Russia during the “Great Game” era. The road continued along the starkly beautiful valley for another 640km with Afghanistan just across the raging river torrent. 


We left Kyrgyzstan earlier in the week at what must be one of the most remote border crossings we have done for a while. The road started off bad and got far worse as we crossed the Kyzyl-Art Pass between the countries. Washed out bridges, mud slides and huge potholes were hard to concentrate on as our eyes were constantly drawn upwards to the lofty peaks still shrouded in snow in the height of summer. We said goodbye to our last mountain sheep statue on a plinth, a frequent roadside attraction in Kyrgyzstan, and gingerly made our way down the other side. With so few people using the border the Tajik soldiers had to be roused from their beds to process the many documents we needed to get into the country. The contrast couldn’t have more different, while the Kyrgyz side was green, it felt like we had transited to the moon with the stark lunar landscape on the Tajik side. 


In a panorama with so few people it wasn’t hard to find a spot to camp in, however an hour or so after we had set up camp an almost impossible-to-break, soviet built, small UAZ truck approached us. They wanted to cross the river, swollen with melt water, to go to their summer camp but were concerned about getting stuck. Could we pull them out them out if it all went wrong? We were pleased to get back to our chicken stew on the fire, when they made it though. We were even more pleased for them, when washing up, to see them crossing back safely over heavily laden with yak dung patties for fuel waving triumphantly. 


The bazaar at Murghab was entirely constructed of old shipping containers, a motley collection in the middle of nowhere but filled with friendly souls many wearing the traditional Kygryz felt hats. The scenery as we drove through the valleys of the Pamir Mountains was otherworldly with screes slopes of every colour of the rainbow, I hadn’t even know that you could get purple rocks. Above these were the constant presence of high peaks cloaked in white. That night we took a detour a few kilometres off the road to sleep the night beside Lake Bulunkul. When we awoke in the morning, Steve and I snuck out while the girls slept on to climb the nearby hill and admire the still, mirror-like lake reflecting the surrounding mountains. 


Although the main road continued through Pamirs, we wanted to take a side route across the Kargush Pass towards the Tajik border overlooking the Wakan Corridor of Afganistan. It was a dramatic drive with just the odd marmot as company. We were hoping our special permit was valid at the rough two man army checkpoint on the other side, there had been some confusion at an earlier checkpoint with our half-forgotten Russian about whether we would be allowed onwards, we didn’t fancy the drive back over the pass. We were allowed to continue on the single lane dirt road which was often cut out of the sheer cliffs walls of the valley. Between the army post and the first village of Langar, there was a 70km section that was completely uninhabited. 


You know you have found a good camp spot when you stop for lunch somewhere and decide to spend the night. With no wind and bathed in sunshine, it was warm enough to sit outside and admire the stark walls of the canyon changing colour as the light shifted. Pulled off on an old section of the road, far above the rushing waters, we saw one other vehicle that whole afternoon. In the mountains the weather is always changeable and after a couple of hours we were snuggled inside listening to the wind howling.

The glimpses we got of Afghanistan, so tantalisingly close, were fascinating. Like the Tajik side, the villages were limited to patches of green clinging perilously to the impossible steep mountainsides. We’d been delighted to learn from the Kygyz herders we met that they use the word “caravan” for a group travelling together. Now here on the Afghan side we saw a caravan, just as how you would imagine it from the Silk Road days, with camels and horses laden with goods packing up at mud brick house. The road was pretty bad on the Tajik side, damaged by spring floods and geological activity, but at least it was continuous. On the Afghani side between a few small hamlets it was still being built, a few men chipping away at the sheer rock face with basic picks, and I assume some dynamite, but thankfully not when we were driving past. Compared with the mental image you get when you think of Afghanistan, it looked very serene and arcadian. 

Where’s the next bit of road!?!


The rest of the week was spent slowly, and very bumpily, making our way along the 640km of the Pamir Valley. To the left of us, the river gradually swelling from a grey gushing stream to a scary looking muddy brown torrent. As normal as it is for this time of year, as more meltwaters join from the mountains every kilometre. It must have been pretty high this year as the swirling waters crashed against the sides of the canyon, flooding the banks and we saw it had even washed away some of the road on the Afghan side. 


One of our favourite spots was in the widest part of the valley, where the river had spread out and slowed to a less alarming flow. We found a spot on the riverbank way off the road, surrounded by purple flowering bushes and a partially separated branch of the river that had warmed in the sun. Time for a family hair wash and a whole body dip for the bravest of us all (Lucy). Our hot water heater tank broke way back in Thailand and these last couple of months in the mountains have been painful at times, so we were thankful for the slightly warmer wash.


In Khorog, the pleasant main town of the Pamirs Steve went off to find a welder for our disc-brake covers, a reoccurring problem every 10,000 km. Asking some workmen demolishing a house, they took him to another building site and welded the 2 covers. They refused any payment at all, even money for cigarettes, with a “Welcome to Khorog. ” The next day Steve replayed the karma by helping a couple of local guys who were subjecting their poor tiny Chevrolet Spark to hundreds of kilometres of roads that were challenging for a hardcore 4×4, with only a screwdriver for a repair kit. Unsurprisingly their steering rods had gone awry. On a road like that, I’m not sure they were going to make their final destination without another roadside stop, hopefully someone else nearby will have more than a screwdriver. 


Driving up the narrow and steep Bartang Valley to the north, hoping to do a short trek, I lost my nerve and made Steve turn round when we were already 16 km in. The river took up the whole width of the valley, flooding any possible place where we might camp, and was lapping the edge of the low track. The fast flowing torrent wouldn’t look out of place in a disaster movie, especially in such a steep-sided, narrow canyon. Only the 3 villages we passed through, tiny pockets of green in the brown bare valley, seemed high enough out of the waters. The villagers were working hard in the short summer, planting and nurturing their crops in every inch of green. However, they didn’t seem at all perturbed by the amount of water, smiling and waving as we passed back through. I stuck with my overlanding mantra, “Always go with your instincts.” Seeing the floods, we decided that the trek didn’t look at all attractive. As it started with a valley crossing in a metal box suspended across the swollen river a bit like cable car, just big enough for 4 – definitely like a start of a disaster movie!


It was almost dark when we eventually found a spot off the road with no rock falls above and away from edge of the cliff dropping off into the river. In the end the only spot we could find was at an steep angle just a few metres off the road. We moved on early the next morning and drove for a couple of hours to find a flat spot for school, it’s hard to concentrate on your sums when your pencil keeps on rolling off the table. The temperature was rising as we finished school and lunch and we were set for the afternoon of bumping along the next few kilometres, when Steve heard the tell tale “hiss” – a slow puncture. The flat meadow away from the dusty road, isn’t a bad place to spend the afternoon getting all sweaty and dirty. It took a couple of hours to get back on the road. Thankfully a carload of friendly guys, happy to show off their masculinity, came along just at the right point. Helping us lift the 120kg tyre in its rack back onto position onto the back of the truck, a less than one minute job but the one thing the two of us can’t do on our own. 


Both the Pamirs and the Wakan Corridor amazed us with their stark natural beauty and sense of remoteness. The constant dichotomy at looking up in awe at the mountains and down in horror at the road and the rushing river below us, was thrilling. We loved being out in the wilds; camping properly again; cooking outside; and the joy of the open road. But suddenly and almost unexpectedly it was over, after hundreds of bone jarring and shock absorber breaking kilometres, we hit Chinese laid smooth tar 50 km before the last pass. We cruised our way through villages, rather than squeezing our way through avenues of mulberry trees, and easily passed the double-length China bound articulated lorries (I kid you not!) we had been praying not to meet on the tightest corners. The river then veered off to the left at the bottom of the pass, as we headed up and onwards to the hot dry hills of central Tajikistan. Pamirs – we will miss you. 

Green and Pleasant Land

The roar of the river as the white water crashed down the mountainside almost kept us awake, we had to shut the windows on one side of the truck to keep the noise to a manageable level. As we looked out of those windows though we could see green meadows covering the hills and further up snow still lay on the mountain tops.

.
This description could cover a number of our camping spots here in Kyrgyzstan over the last week. Wild camping is easy and each night we found a beautiful spot to set up camp. It’s been good to get back into camping wild and cooking outside again.


We needed to head back to Bishkek however, to pick up our Uzbekistan visas. Mind you this didn’t mean we had to stay in Bishkek. Just south of the city and only 30kms from the Uzbek Embassy, was a National Park preserving a lovely valley leading up into the mountains. This meant we could camp up in the hills and head down into the city to pick up our visas and get some other jobs done.

.
Once in Bishkek after collecting the visas we thought it would be remiss not to see the sights of the city. Not that there really are that many sights. Kyrgyzstan is much more about its natural beauty than the beauty of its towns and cities. Still the Lonely Planet described the main square as being architecturally “neo-brutalist in style”. Intrigued as to what this meant we headed there. In reality, I would describe it as more classical Soviet. Apart from the square and the obligatory statue of Lenin, now tucked away in a back park, there was not a lot to see but it was a pleasant enough city to while away a few hours.




As we enjoyed dinner of shashlik (kebabs) and pelmeni in the gardens of a tea house, Gilly and I were reminiscing just how familiar everything felt in a comforting way and how so much reminded us of our time living in Moscow. Bishkek was very different to Moscow and in fact reminded me more of Almaty but the language, customs and food were familiar. Unfortunately the GAI (traffic police) were also just as familiar, sitting extorting bribes from the passing traffic in lieu of issuing tickets but other than this we were really enjoying our time in Kyrgyzstan.


After dinner we headed back out to the hills. It was amazing how quickly the big city melted away to be replaced by small villages and then the mountains. The next morning we thought we would get a bit closer to the mountains so hiked up the valley to a waterfall. It was a pleasant walk with lovely views along the way. Being much lower than the Tibetan plateau we were amazed at just how green everything was.



We have still had to drive some fair distances. When looking at a map it may not seem far between places but because of all the mountain ranges the road skirts round it ends up been a fair old drive. Heading out of Bishkek we headed back up into the mountains. As we climbed we could see more and more of the nomadic people with their yurts and horses near the side of the road. There was lush green pasture along the road to feed the horses and the people were busy selling fermented mares milk and other such things to the passing traffic.

As we reached the top of one mountain range the road entered a tunnel. It was the darkest, murkiest tunnel we have been in and has seen people asphyxiated in the past. It was a relief to come out of the gloom to more stunning views.
That night we made camp on a hilltop overlooking a reservoir. As usual we had the place to ourselves and could enjoy the view in peace.


Leaving the reservoir we travelled along a spectacular gorge. All along the way we could see great places to camp by the water but we decided to push on. As we did the topography changed and we had entered the flat arable land close to the Uzbek border. The people here were closer to the Uzbeks and it had a much more Central Asian feel. It had also got hot now we were in the lowlands.  


We turned off the main road and headed up a valley. All along the road people were selling fruit and vegetables. We again found a lovely spot by a rushing river to camp. It was a wide grassy spot that had been cut out of the mountainside by the water that came from the mountains and made a great spot to camp. The only disturbance was the odd lorry picking up stones from the river bed.

.

The next morning we headed into Arslanbob. The village is famous for supposedly having the worlds largest walnut grove. It’s a traditional Kirghiz village in a lovely setting with the mountains towering behind it. It is supposedly a tourist hotspot but we didn’t see another tourist all day. Mind you there were lots of locals around heading to the nearby waterfalls which had the atmosphere of a local fair. They were packed. Whilst we too ended up at the small waterfalls, which were not that special, we had instead enjoyed a much more pleasant walk around the village and down the country lanes. Excited children wanted to say hello and have us take their photos.



We returned for a late lunch and stopped at the local cafe. The menu was samsa ( a lamb mince and onion pasty) or ……samsa. So we had samsa with a pot of green tea. A bargain at $3 for all of us. Whilst the village was nice we decided to return to our riverside spot to enjoy the peace and quiet. Or at least so we thought. We were settled in for the night and eating dinner when first a herd of cows were brought down to the pasture followed by 300 sheep. The friendly herders came over for a chat and through our bad Russian we were able to learn that they were taking the animals up to the snow line to feed on the fresh grass. It was nice to meet and talk to some genuine nomads.


The following day was a long days driving. First to Osh to stock up with provisions. As again there was nothing to really see in town we decided it was not worth stopping and so headed out of town and back up into the high mountains. As we left Osh we started to climb into the hills again passing herders herding their sheep to the higher pastures for the summer. When we left Osh it was 38 degrees, by the time we reached our camping spot overlooking the mighty Pamirs it had dropped to 16 degrees. Mind you we were now at 3,300m.



Next we would be heading to Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway.

Welcome to Kyrgyzstan 

Alisha spent the first three years of her life in Russia. Almost every day during that time I was told by some kindly soul to “Make sure that child is properly wrapped up,” irrespective of the actual weather. It is a national obsession, very understandable given the climate, and everyone from Babushkas (grannies) in the park to the scary looking security guards of our apartment had an opinion. Poor child, even if she couldn’t actually move for the number of layers, it was never enough. It felt comfortably familiar then when the first thing I heard in Russian on our entry into Kyrgyzstan, our first country in Central Asia, was “Make sure those children are well wrapped up,” from the huge, warmly camouflage-clad Kyrgyz border guard. I smiled at its familiarity, even after all these years. .

Leaving Kashgar many hours earlier, we knew we would have a hell of a day getting out of China. It was the waiting that was frustrating, even with an almost empty border post and a guide, everything took an age and had to be checked and double checked. It was when we got to the second border post, nearly 100km for the first and learnt that the border guards were on their lunch and nap break. 2 hours later they were still snoozing away, while we slowly went crazy. What are they soldiers or toddlers?! It’s not like the border is open 24 hours, they had only been open a few hours before and for 2 hours after. 

.

Coming down from the the pass, the scenery couldn’t have been more different from the dry sandy cliffs on the other side with green, gently undulating, mountains. The Kyrgyz border, although scarily slightly soviet looking, couldn’t have been easier. With no town for many miles and lots of leftover Chinese Yuan, they even let Steve pay the Eco-tax in Yuan. Asking around the office, they let him change a bit more knowing we would need some before Bishkek “…because it is Ramadan and we want to help.” 

.

It was getting late when we pulled off the main road a 17km detour up a narrow green valley to Tash Raban. A 15th century caravanasi built strongly of stone in what is now the middle of nowhere but during the Silk Road’s heyday an important stop. It felt wonderful to park up where we wanted to and sleep somewhere without needing permission and registration from the police.


It was a long drive the following day to Bishkek, we enjoying the vistas of snow capped peaks with rolling green hills in front, dotted with yurts. 

“What do you want to eat for tea?” We asked the girls in town. 

“Chips, burgers or pizza.” Was the instant reply. 

We all enjoyed the food in China and by the end even eating our breakfast roasted peanuts individually very easily with chopsticks but they were ready for a change. The multinationals haven’t made it to Bishkek but we found a classy burger cafe, where we all ate royally for a few dollars. The following morning we put our applications in at the Uzbek embassy. As they didn’t need the passports we were then free to do some exploring while they checked out our credentials. 
Lake Issyk-Köl is the second biggest alpine lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca. On the southern side we found an idillic camping spot just metres away from its chilly azure shoreline with snow covered mountains as a background on both sides. It was great to have a few days to stop, relax and sort everything out. There was plenty of time to play outside, cook over a fire and generally get back into the swing of our “normal” overlanding life. China and Tibet were an epic part of our drive around the world but it was pretty full on and very regimented. It was also time to get the girls back into proper school routine again, on the road in China they did a good job trying to work while driving with the odd half an hour desk work when we could but it wasn’t the same. 


After a couple of days we felt like moving on and found another pretty spot further east on a little peninsula. There wasn’t much around just scrubby bush and gravel and beautiful views of the mountains and lake and the peace was sublime. We had an afternoon of exploring the multihued sandy valley away from the lake on the way. The vertical sedimentary rock layers made us think of stegosaurus skeletons.

 
Feeling renewed and refreshed we headed back to Bishkek to find out about our Uzbek visas