Tajikistan – Dushanbe, the Pamirs and the Wakhan Corridor Part I
How we spent a lot of time in Khorog, Got very wet in the Pamirs and hatched a plan to re-new our 15 day import permit.
Prior to leaving, the Pamirs was big on my list for exploring. Alongside Georgia, for me, it was to be one of the highlights. Big mountain scenery, alpine landscapes, dirt roads and isolation. I managed to track down a full catalogue of old Soviet maps scanned in detail and saved as JPG’s thanks to the guys at Berkley University (US) and Google. Lots of things in the region have changed but the old maps gave the sites of ruined forts and numerous roads constructed for military use. I would spend hours on the laptop at home looking at potential roads and piecing together our plan for the Pamirs.
Tajikistan was one of the last countries in Central Asia to gain independence and does not have the natural resources or the mass appeal tourist sights to sustain itself economically. It got cut a raw deal losing Bukhara and Samarkand during the Soviet occupation and tucked away in the corner with China and Afghanistan is all but forgotten. Tajiks working outside the country send more money back home than the entire Tajik national budget! After independence came civil war as rival factions fought for control. The country was predominantly closed to foreigners as recently as 1999 and the Pamirs is still an Autonomous Region (Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast). The Pamiri people detest being called Tajik and to this day do not like being controlled by those in offices in Dushanbe. An outbreak of violence in the Summer of 2012 in Khorog between the Tajik Military and Pamiri Rebels is testament to that.
Getting into Tajikistan was not a problem, it was smiles all around. The only downside was the 15 day limit on your vehicle import. Even with a 45 day visa your only allowed to have your vehicle for 15 days. Rules are rules. We rolled into Dushanbe and made our way to the quite unspectacular Adventurers Inn to the north of town. List of priorities were: GBAO Permit to enter Pamirs, full service of the Land Rover, Re-supply food provisions, take out lots of local currency, do some washing, write some blogs and eat properly after our health issues in Uzbekistan. Luckily for us there is an awesome daily market 5 minutes from the Adventurers Inn so that was handy and we had no problems eating up all the food. I had read snippets of info on the Lonely Planet Forum that you could get your GBAO permit yourself in Dushanbe for a nominal fee. This would save us at least $50. So that is what we did, see here: Getting Your GBAO Permit in Dushanbe for $3.
On our return from the market one day I noticed Adam’s (www.shortwayround.co.uk) bike outside and him inside. He had just arrived in Dushanbe. So after a few days in Dushanbe we got everything done including some socialising with Adam. We both planned to leave the same day so said we would see each other later on or at the very least in Khorog.
We fuelled up on our way out of town and made our way north-east to take the ‘Summer’ route into the Pamirs. We didn’t know at the time that everyone was using the more southerly route avoiding the mountain pass. It was a few hundred kilometres longer so we overlooked it. As the day went on the asphalt finished quite early. We were on the M41, a National Highway but still the surface was gravel. We passed a few police checkpoints then had to register our GBAO permit (where we caught up with Adam) before being allowed into the Pamir Region. The sky darkened, the road turned to mud, it started to rain and afternoon became evening. We crossed a few rivers where the road had been washed away but couldn’t find anywhere to camp. It was a well populated area with nomads camped up between villages.
We got to a large river crossing where the whole village had turned out to see a Kamaz truck pull another truck through and watch the general saga that unfolds at these kind of places. Then we spotted Adam making his way out the other side of the muddy torrent, all eyes were now fixed on us. Nerves kicked in as this crossing was deeper than the others with a steep drop in and a steep climb out. Luckily for us it was short in length so the whole rig wouldn’t be subjected to the full flow of muddy water at once. We dropped in, crawled out, no drama. Had we been there a little earlier we would have seen Adam cross. He hit a submerged boulder which stopped him dead and being short in the legs promptly fell over in the river! I saw the video on a local mans 2MP Nokia phone, I’m sure it was Adam. We had all had enough that day so camped up on the edge of a lake as the storms rolled in.
It poured all night. We got shifting early and made our way on toward Khorog. The track got muddier and more and more stream crossings appeared. We stopped by a broken down Lada Niva where a local man pushed Lisa up onto the Cubby Box (We have no centre seat) and climbed in with innertube in hand. He wanted a lift to the next village (or the village after that?) so we drove on. He didn’t like my driving style of slow and steady looking nervously up the slopes and gesturing for me to drive faster. Rocks and mud slid down the slopes in front of us as we crawled on by. This guy lives in this place 24/7 surely he had seen it all before!? We finally got to his village and dropped him off. There was no way I was waiting for him to take him back down there. I didn’t want to drive that last 10 km three times. We made our way over the high pass and the sun broke through as we drove over a skim of snow and started our decent.
Mud and gravel gave way to asphalt and we stopped at a military checkpoint who were very surprised to see us. They asked were we had come from. Silly question really, there is only one road! AK47’s aside we filled in the paperwork required and went on our way down to Kala-I-Khum. Here the police approached us and wanted to know everything about the road, the pass, the landslides, the water, everything in detail. Pointing to someone’s Toyota Rav 4 asking ‘will it make it?’ At this point in time Adam rocked up behind us so it seemed like a good time to get some food, restock the fridge with beers and food and go camp somewhere. A few kilometers down the road the Pamir highway turns southeast following the Afghanistan border and we found a nice grassy spot alongside the Panj River to camp on as we waved to the Afghan villagers less than 100m away. We had only covered 90 km that day, we were destroyed. The rains came that evening and didn’t stop. We were still 200km from Khorog.
Leaving early we made good progress toward Khorog. Settled into narrow mountain road driving we chugged alongside the Panj River giving way to the swaythes of Chinese trucks. By midday the weather had brightened up and the road improved in places. I even managed 4th gear at times! We rolled into Khorog at 1900 looking for the Pamir Lodge where we found Adam. The next few days were spent organising kit, drying out, eating at the awesome Indian Restaurant in town and hatching a plan to re-new our 15 day import document. This however involved a small side-trip across the border into Afghanistan…