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. 

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. 

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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.” 

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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

Holy Kailash 

Surely a drive across the Tibetan plateaus must count for one of the world’s most epic drives. Very sparse human habitation; too high for most plant life; and with just a few hardy animals you feel utterly alone at times. The dry plateau has a unique harsh beauty of its own with the strong sunlight catching the rocks, lichens and snow capped peaks. There are unexpected surprises too, like the fields of sand dunes near Saga, it looked like we had been transported to the Sahara. You never know what the weather will turn to even in the summer months and it’s so high it literally takes your breath away. Although the roads are now virtually all good tarmac, it still is one of the most truly epic drives we have done (and in the last 4 years we have done quite a few!) 


The good dirt back road between near Tingri and Saga shaved a whole day of our itinerary. With such tight restrictions in place for travelling in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), it gave us a little more wiggle room. The police checks and restrictions still chaffed but in this area they are more used to foreigners, so less paranoid about making mistakes and getting reprimanded for them as they were on our way to Lhasa. Each police area seemed to apply the restrictions in different ways and to different degrees but thankfully our guide was very experienced and knew all the quirks of each of the local constabularies. He worked hard to get them to let us sleep in the truck, we still had to park in a hotel car park and register with them (after usually registering with the police directly) but most of the time we didn’t have to take a room. He came up absolutely trumps at Lake Manosavar, when he told us there would be no problems sleeping at the campground on the holy lake’s shore. It turned out to be one of our best camping places in Asia, as we slept completely out on our own below the prayer flags. As no one else fancied camping in the occasional snow shower when there was a guesthouse nearby in the village. 

We had to go in in Saga as it must been for us as we saw no other foreigners for many days:

That evening we were snug and warm tucked up in the truck with big mugs of tea watching the failing light play on the distant mountains. Occasionally the odd pilgrim passed twirling a prayer wheel as they continued on their 110km kora (pilgrimage circuit) of the lake. As the evening cold moved in, we could see Indian Hindu pilgrims performing a puja further along the lakeshore, all dressed in matching coats. Views were stunning as the distant snow clouds periodically parted and we could see the ring of mountains around the lake. Holy Mount Kailash peeked its way through the surrounding clouds behind us. 


After a peaceful night, we went to explore the small monastery perched upon a high hill, with temples clinging to the cliff sides, like a fairytale castle in a children’s storybook. Beside the monastery, on a hilltop with a view of Mount Kailash in the distance we came across a circle of prayer wheels. Underneath them were thousand upon thousand of mani stones, each carved with a mantra. Fluttering above were streams of prayer flags blowing in the strong breeze. All sending their prayers of compassion and peace out towards Mount Kailash and the world beyond. Ingeniously recycled marble slabs from old pool tables were inscribed with longer mantras and piles of inscribed yak skulls were perched on the top. 


It’s not many places in the world that are holy to more than one religion but Mount Kailash is the home of Shiva and Parvati for Hindus; the abode of Demchok and others for Tibetan Buddhists; for the followers of the ancient Bön religion it is where their founder alighted from heaven; and the Jains believe it is where their saints enter nirvana. In fact legend spiritual texts have Kailash as the location of an epic battle between Buddhist and Bön deities, Buddhism won and therefore it became the dominant religion in Tibet. Four great rivers start here including the Indus; Brahmaputra; and even the river that feeds the Ganges. 


Walking the kora (pilgrimage circuit) around Kailash is one of the world’s greatest pilgrimage routes. And all Tibetans want to do it at least once in their lifetime. In fact it is said that if you complete 108 Kailash Koras that you be released from the circle of life and death and reach nirvana. The high altitude circuit is 55km, most of the path around the mountain is above 4800m but climbs high over a 5630m pass around the mountain. Most Hindus and non-Buddhists do the walk over 3 days, sleeping in tents overnight. Most Tibetans complete the circuit in a day, starting before dawn and returning in the late evening, muttering mantras and praying all the way. For many devout Buddhists it isn’t good enough just to walk the route, they fully prostrate every third step, touching their foreheads to the ground. At such high altitude the weather is never predictable and even in the early summer we experienced rain, sleet, snow and sunshine. These people’s faith is astounding especially as many journey to Kailash from far away in the same manner.


Tempting as it was for Steve and I to attempt to walk the Kora, it would be too much for the girls so we settled for doing the first bit to take in some of the views and experience a little of it. Mind you hiking 18km at 4800m is very impressive when you are 8 and 11 years old, especially if you tell stories all the way. 

Most of the Tibetans had left hours before us but we stopped at mani stone piles and prayer flags on the route. In a couple of weeks there is a huge religious ceremony at Kailash call Sewa Dawa and there was a big flat area covered with chortens, chimneys for burning juniper to create holy smoke and in the centre a huge decorated pole festooned with prayer flags. Here we caught up with several groups of prostrating pilgrims dressed in leather aprons, gloves and in some cases children’s slippers on their hands to protect themselves from the sharp stony ground. Not wanting to interrupt their devout progress we crept around them but amazingly they still had energy enough for a smile and “Tashi delek”, their faces lighting up when they saw our girls. It takes about 16 days circle Kailash this way, carrying everything they need with them. Carrying the stuff ahead then returning to their original spot to slowly make their way forward. 


We had been warned about the presence of ferocious dogs with a taste for human flesh. After Lucy’s run in with the dog last week, I had armed myself with the best I could find at short notice in a land of no trees, an aluminium tent pole, much to Steve’s amusement. Above the ceremonial grounds is a sky burial site, where bodies are returned to nature. The flesh is cut off and fed to the local vultures, the bones are ground up and mixed with flour for the birds. In my mind, an eminently sensible solution to body disposal given that Tibet has few trees for cremation and the ground it also frozen solid. Given Tibetans holistic view and love of animals, I guess that it gives back to nature. Unfortunately it also attracts wild dogs, thankfully the only dogs we saw all day were relaxing at nomads tents.


The people of Tibet mostly still wear their traditional dress, it’s been a real delight to see all the different outfits and at Kailash we saw lots of regional differences. The ladies long wrap dresses with multiple layers underneath to guard against the cold, married ones top this with a stripy apron. Jewellery is very important with coral, turquoise, amber and silver being worn by both men and women. We saw ladies with the most amazingly decorated huge silver belt buckles in the Tsang region. Blessed amulets and talismans are worn close to the skin. Some Tibetan women, especially those from Amdo wear their hair in 108 braids. Khama men wear their hair in a braid with a red or black tassel, which they wind around their head. A friendly lorry driver let me take a photo of his smart braid. The men wear long sleeved coats lined with sheepskin, that they wear off one shoulder when it is hot. It is closed with a belt which creates a pouch at the front in which they seem to carry all manner of things. It’s when they pull out a smart phone, that you do a double take and realise you haven’t in fact gone back centuries in time. 


We didn’t really get to see the best of the wild west town of Ali, the biggest town in western Tibet. Mostly Chinese, the whole town’s roads had been dug up for pipe works and the whole place seemed to be under construction. First we got to see the scruffy light industrial outskirts looking for a gas bottle, then we got to tour the whole town looking for a police station that registered foreigners. We had already checked in with the police on the way into town and the hotel where we were being made to stay in also had to register us with the police but between the two we needed to register again. At our fourth huge; brand new; completely empty police station we were told to wait…..the police were on their lunch break – at 2.45pm. Eventually our guide took all the documents back after 8pm, as without the registration stamp we couldn’t even leave town. 


Surely I’m not the only one confused by this: a statue of Chairman Mao in the entrance of the fanciest Chinese supermarket in town; wearing a prayer scarf; fronted by a Tibetan alter piece; and a can of red bull as an offering???