Status Update:

Current location: Bochum / Germany

50 countries, 1226 days, trip mileage: 124200 km

24 Aug 2008

Tajikistan – Pamir Highway (2)

37_Abdim, one of the Iranian bikers I met on the Pamir Highway. They'd tried to get into China but didn't succeed... so on the way back to Iran now.(Aug2008)

I wake up feeling cold & dizzy. No, not a hangover – it’s the altitude that’s getting to me, albeit very slowly and thankfully not a real altitude sickness. I walk down to Lake Sassyk-Kul (the ‘Stinking Lake’) for some photographs of the lake and valley and notice quite a lot of salination – a sign for the abundance of minerals in the Pamirs and the lake in particular. The lake’s shoreline is a feast of colours in earth tones & green, and would probably be a dream for biologists who are studying micro-organisms.

Back at the campsite, Len’s already half-way finished packing his panniers and tells me that the local sheppherd’s dog has just eaten all our bread from the plastic bag I had put it in. But the problem isn’t so much the bread – it’s more my motorcycle which doesn’t want to start up. At first, Len and I think that I might have left the light switched on or the GPS plugged in. Then Len tries to start up HIS bike, and he’s got the same problem: the engine struggles to turn over and refuses to start up. Too much of a coincidence. Probably the engine oil back in Dushanbe wasn’t quite what it said on the box (“Shell Super Helix 15w40”), but only a Chinese fake. We take off the luggage and push the bikes up a little slope – not much fun at 3700m in the cold. And with a bit of luck we manage to jump-start the bikes down the little gravel track. Great – so it really WAS the engine oil… and it’s not gonna get much warmer for the next few weeks.

Len sets off before me, whilst I’m riding back to a view point to get a shot of the lake and surrounding scenery. On my way back I meet some motorcyclists from Iran 2-up on a Suzuki GS1000, a plastic bag wrapped around their hands for wind/cold protection. Hang on – a 1000cc bike from Iran? It’s illegal to ride bikes over 250cc in Iran, no? They explain to me that they somehow got the bike on the black market & rode it from their home to the Turkmenistan border during night-time, so they wouldn’t get caught by the local authorities. Since then, they’ve been touring around Central Asia, trying to get to Beijing. But with the Chinese border closed, they had to turn around at Irkeshtam Pass and are now heading back into Iran.

43_Teatime in the yurt, near Alichur(Aug2008)

I continue East on the empty Pamir Highway. The only vehicles I would see on this day are a convoy of mini-vans loaded up with toilet paper from China. Seriously - I mean: toilet paper!? Even if everyone in Khorog had the runs at the same time: Who on earth needs this much toilet paper? And above all: Wouldn’t it be easier to recycle local paper-trash into toilet paper? Shortly after Alichur Len’s bike is parked up next to a yurt. Chai-time it seems. The yurt-owners are from Alichur but of Kyrgyz descendence. They feed us with plenty of tea, home-made bread, fried noodles, yak butter and yak yoghurt. Once again we realize that sign-language goes a long way, and we would have loved to stay longer. But if we want to get to Murghab in time, we better move on. Weather and road conditions can change all too quickly up here in the mountains, and after last night’s late arrival we better play it safe this time.

Since crossing the 1st pass on the highway, I haven’t seen any trees or bushes whatsoever. The whole landscape looks barren, yet beautiful, and the only vegetation are dry steppe grass and some green bits of grass around the river beds and lakes. We comfortably make it to Murghab on very good roads, with only the occasional hump on the road and hardly any potholes at all. Finally, the Pamir Highway (or “M41”) is true to its name ‘highway’.

51_Herd of goats, Murghab valley(Aug2008)

Murghab is a small mountain town with a wild-west feeling to it, nicely located near a lush green valley full of sheep, goats and yaks. At the end of the town we quickly find the eco-tourism office who provide local home-stays in the area. Gulnamo’s place is basic but well-kept, overlooking the local market suqare. She’s got two rooms for visitors, an outside squat toilet and shower facilities.
Although it’s the second biggest town on the Pamir Highway, Murghab is a lot more basic than Khorog. Whilst Khorog offers all sorts of facilities like cash machine, restaurants, internet cafes and even a university, Murghab is quite the opposite: electricity is available only in the evenings, and even then it’s just about good enough to charge up camera batteries – looking at the lightbulb during dinner-time I’d say there’s just about 5-10 volts coming through the cables, and whenever I try to charge up my laptop, the fuse blows within a few seconds. Water is supplied twice a week with a truck, from which the locals fill up buckets of water to take inside their homes. And with winter-time approaching quickly but no forest nearby, people mix yak-dung with earth and water to shape little ‘cookies’, dry them in the sun and then use them for firing their stoves. (Winter here means temperatures down to -30 degrees)

Within this basic environment, Gulnamo is doing the best she can to provide a little comfort zone for us travellers: food is basic but very tasty, with different kinds of vegetable each day (whatever is available on the market in the mornings), and the shower is actually better than the one we had in Khorog: Inside the bathroom is a little stove, which is accessed from outside the bathroom. On top of that stove is a huge metal bowl full of water. Every day, an hour before shower-time, Gulnamo fires up the stove to heat up the water. Next to the hot water is a bucket full of cold water – and an empty bowl to mix hot & cold water to the desired temperature. Very basic – but it works!

57_Pamir Mountains near Murghab(Aug2008)

As we meet a group of travellers from France, we decide to prolong our stay in Murghab for another day. Len’s more than happy to chill out for a bit longer and catch up with some emails and blog-writing, and I join in with the others for a day of trekking in the mountains. We share the costs for the guide between the 6 of us, and seeing the ‘roof of the world’ from a 5000m viewpoint is hard to beat and shows the Pamir plateau from a different perspective than a bike ever could.
Something I wasn’t sure about when preparing for this trip is fuel availability in the Pamirs. There’s certainly no petrol stations around, and if anything, fuel is sold from local homes. As I’m taking a stroll around town, I encounter a group of motorcyclists from Poland who also need to fill up. They’ve been in this area a few times before and they speak Russian. One of the guys introduces himself as Sambor – and suddenly that rings a bell. Whilst researching fuel availability through one of the web forums back in England, I had been in touch with Sambor. And now we actually meet in person & he shows me where to get fuel… what a small world! As expected, the fuel comes straight from the bucket and by the sound of the bike engine it probably WAS 80 octane fuel – before someone diluted it with water & a good dose of yak-piss.