Pamir Highway Part 5: The Pamir Mountains

Day 7: August 22, 2021: The Pamir Highway

Leaving the village of Bulunkul we set out east along the Pamir Highway. This was the big day we were waiting for the entire trip: the day we actually cross the Pamir Mountains. 

Miraculously the road was paved. It was very bumpy due to a poor paving job, but it was paved. 

Surrounding the lunar landscape were peaks covered in snow. We stopped many times for photo breaks. 

Alichor in the distance along the Pamir Highway

1 hour in, we reached the bleak town of Alichor. Interestingly, this town had no cell coverage. I was hoping to connect with my family since I had been 2 days without coverage, but it was not meant to be. 

Past Alichor, the valley widened. Kyrgyz nomads with yurts were in the distance and behind them many snow-covered peaks. The sight was magnificent!

At a photo op at a lake, we saw two cyclists. Miranda recognized them as Swiss travelers whom she met a few weeks ago in Dushanbe. They caught up briefly in German.

They cycled here from Dushanbe

The road crested at a 4,200 meter “pass”. From here, we started along a gentle downhill through a canyon. The plants disappeared.

At the bottom of the canyon, we passed a police checkpoint and beyond that the city of Murghab. Murghab is the only town of significant size in the extreme east of Tajikistan. 7,000 hardy souls live here. Murghab is hideously cold. In the warmest month, July, the average temperature is just 8.7 °C (47.7 °F)! Somehow, Murghab also did not have cell coverage. 

Fez dropped us off at the local market. Instead of buildings, all the stores operated out of repurposed shipping containers. It felt apocalyptic. During this time, Fez attempted to find gas to fill up the car. Unfortunately, the entire town has been without gas for 3 days. 

Murghab market

Since Murghab was the only town in a 2 hour radius, we got an early lunch here at a hotel. The food was expensive but delicious. I was enamored by the many stickers left by travelers from epic overland journeys between Europe and Asia. Munich to Thailand, St. Tropez to Bali, Moscow to Beijing, Delhi to Mongolia and many more.

Stickers from the other insane travelers who have passed here.

As we were basically as far east as one can go in Tajikistan, we now continued north into the heart of the Pamir Mountains. The scenery became noticeably more rugged as we climbed. We stopped seeing cars and truck traffic. Perhaps because of this, the road was in surprisingly good condition. 

Eventually, the weather turned, and we were in a snowstorm….in August. Luckily the snow was not sticking, possibly because the wind was so strong. As we drove, Fez kept muttering “Pamir Highway. Dangerous road.”

The snow begins

The snowstorm was disorienting. I was unsure if we were going uphill or down. We were able to get a solid glimpse of a very secure fence. Fez said this fence designates the “neutral zone” with China. Tajikistan did not have neutral zones with other countries, so I am guessing that this is one way for China to exert power over its neighbors. Another explanation is that the actual border with China is atop a snowy mountain ridge, so it makes more sense for Tajikistan to seal its border at the base of the mountains where it could realistically maintain the fence. 

The border fence with China (taken after the storm)

After 30 minutes in the snowstorm, we reached a sign for Ak Baital Pass. At 4,655 meters (15,200 feet), this is the highest stretch of road in the former Soviet Union and reportedly the second highest paved highway in the world (after Pakistan´s Karakoram Highway). 

At the highest pass in the former Soviet Union 4655 meters (15,200 feet)

The sign was not placed at the actual pass, but rather denoted that the pass was near. Past the sign, the road changed to dirt and steepened considerably. It felt like we were dancing through the clouds.

At the actual pass, we stopped to take pictures of the dramatic scenery on the far side. 

Top of the pass

When Fez tried to restart the car to continue driving, the car did not turn on. Our battery had died.

Fez´s eyes turned to dread, and he desperately kept turning the key in vain. “Very bad. No hope” he said. While this road typically gets regular traffic, the closed border with Kyrgyzstan meant that all the international traffic had stopped. The only settlement in between us and the Kyrgyz border is the village of Karakul which apparently has just a few hundred people. With zero cell coverage, the only people who could save us (or so we thought) would be the minibus which runs once or twice a day depending on demand. We also had minimal food and water.

We huddled and discussed our options. Rajiv mentioned that he remembered seeing a hut with children at the sign marking the start of the pass. We determined that if there were children, then there might also be an adult could maybe help us. Since Fez was the only one who spoke the local language, he would go. Fez didn´t have a winter coat, so I leant him mine. Miranda also volunteered to go with Fez. That meant that Rajiv and I would watch the car. 

Rajiv and I waited in the freezing car and discussed possible outcomes of our predicament. We figured that the best-case scenario would be having a car stop by in a few hours. That car could take us back to Murghab where we could buy a spare battery. The worst-case scenario would be that nobody would come and we would have to spend the night either in the car or in the hut. The next morning, the daily minibus would arrive. It was nice to know that, despite being stuck in the absolute middle of nowhere, this was not really a life-or-death situation. 

After waiting somewhere around 2 hours, Fez and Miranda returned…WITH A CAR BATTERY!!! How on earth did this happen?!?!?! 

Fixing the car with the spare battery leant to us by the nomads

It turns out that there were nomads staying in the hut to wait out the storm. They use car batteries to recharge their walkie talkies. We used the spare battery to jump our car. Then we drove down to return the battery to the nomads. 

We then had to decide what to do next. Our choices were to keep going to Karakul or to return to Murghab. I was adamant on returning to Murghab. I felt that we were tempting fate by driving on this lonely road without proper backups. Our next breakdown might not work out so fortuitously. Miranda was adamant on continuing to Karakul. She said she had paid to see the rest of the Pamir Highway and felt that the chance of another breakdown was miniscule. 

Fez left the choice up to us. Rajiv ended up voting to continue to Karakul. With 2 votes to 1, the decision was made. I was fuming, but there was nothing I could do. 

Honestly, Fez should have been the one to make the call. This seemed like too important a decision to leave to the customers. If he felt that the car was safe to drive, then he should have said so. But his silence made the decision agonizing and emotional. I also felt that the tour company put us in a bad situation by taking us here in the first place. In a typical year, this road is fine, but because of the border closing, the risks associated with a breakdown here greatly increase. I hope that there were backup plans to deal with this type of situation. For example, it would be nice if Fez was forced to call Khudoguy, the owner every day.

The final 60 kilometers down to Karakul were smooth and snow-free. The road was in perfect shape.

As we cruised into town, we caught our glimpse of the famous meteor-formed lake. Karakul is one of the highest navigable lakes on earth and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Tajik National Park. 

We made it to Karakul!!!

The town of Karakul is right on the lake, so we walked over and took a ceremonial hand dip into the icy water. This was the end. We had finished the Pamir Highway. 

We then checked into our homestay, which was run by a Kyrgyz family. The bread was delicious, but the meal was lousy. There was also no cell coverage here in Karakul. 

With the longest driving day ahead, Fez couldn´t pick a time to leave and left it to us. Miranda wanted to leave late to allow for time to take pictures. I wanted to leave early to avoid driving in the dark. We settled on a 7:00 departure. 

Day 8: August 23, 2021: The Longest Day

The trip home begins!

Typically, the Pamir Highway trips continue to Kyrgyzstan and finish in the town of Osh 4 easy hours to the north of Karakul. However, due to the closed border, we had to head all the way back to Dushanbe. While it took us a week to get out here, our plan was to drive back to Dushanbe in 3 days. First to Khorog (bypassing the Wakhan), then Khalai Khum and then finally Dushanbe. 

Miranda, Rajiv, Fez and I woke up to a beautiful day at Karakul Lake! The storm was gone. We walked over to the lake for pictures and then got breakfast while Fez checked the car. We were apparently going to cut it close on fuel getting back to Murghab. 

At 7:30, we set off. With the sun shining, the scenery looked completely different. The mountains were so beautiful with all the snow. Near the pass, we saw the shepherd from yesterday with his sons and goats. 

This places much prettier when its not storming

We took many pictures along the way. 

At one stop, Fez mentioned we had a tire issue, but said we should be okay. I was worried given the events of yesterday but there was nothing to do except trust him. 

Eventually we made it back to Ak Baital pass where the battery died. We did stop again for pictures, but this time Fez kept the car running. 

1 hour later we reached Murghab. This time, the market was bustling with people this time. Lots of men were wearing traditional Kyrgyz-style hats. I bought one in the market and got lots of positive reactions from the Kyrgyz people- especially the ladies. 

Fez then drove us to a tire shop. It took an hour, but the mechanic was able to diagnose the problem. It wasn´t a leak, but the tire itself was damaged. Somehow, the tire man was able to fix it. I am convinced that mechanics in developing countries are magicians. They always seem to find a way to keep the car running no matter how damaged the car might be. 

Fixing the tire

Then we had to look for gas. The rumor was that one gas station did receive fuel yesterday. After a couple tries, we found it on the outskirts of town. The place looked more like a hut than a gas station. Attendants filled up large plastic containers of gasoline from barrels and siphoned it into our tank using a metal funnel. We got our fuel!

Tajik gas station

With that all car issues sorted out, and I could breathe a sigh of relief! It was almost noon, but we wanted to keep pushing since we still had 6 hours of driving ahead. 

It took us 2 hours to reach a restaurant called Goldfish in the middle of nowhere. Somehow, it was packed. They were out of everything except soup. Rajiv said this restaurant reminded him of a scene in the Hitchhiker´s Guide to the Galaxy. 

A simple lunch

Further along, we passed the turnoff to Bulunkul. The people there were probably recovering from the wedding. Then we drove over a horribly rough road to reach a 4,200-meter pass. On the other side it was an easy 3 hours into Khorog along a paved road. 

We stayed in the homestay from the 4th day of the trip. However, instead of the lady there was this older guy as our host. He gave us the worst food: minestrone soup most likely made from a mix. I guess this proves that men in Tajikistan cannot cook.

Day 9: August 24, 2021: A Largely Forgettable Day

After a terrible breakfast, we walked around Khorog. Miranda had not visited the town, so we took another trip together to see the market and the Ismaili Center. We left at 10:00. 

Our route today is the reverse of the 2nd day where we drove by the many Afghan border villages and saw the Taliban. Since we were repeating a previous day, we were all less enthused to be driving here. That said, the scenery was just as spectacular going in the reverse direction. 

An hour in, we reached Fez´s home! He said he needed to drop off some clothing to get washed, but we asked if we could visit. He said yes. After a short walk from the road, we reached the enormous house! There, we hung out on the topchan with his parents (who are both Russian literature teachers), wife and 11-month-old daughter. 

Fez and his family

They fed us dried mulberries and tea. Everyone was so sweet! 

Fields outside Fez´s house

30 minutes driving later, we reached lunch where I got some lagman noodles. Then it was a 4-hour bumpy ride back to Khalai Khum. I was pretty checked out by this point since it was a repeat of the 2nd day of the trip. The one highlight was seeing the Dutch cyclists from Dushanbe. “Fancy seeing you here” I proclaimed as I slammed the jeep door and walked over to them. We chatted for about 5 minutes about the road and various towns that await them. Then we both said farewell and headed out. 

In Khalai Khum, I visited a random amusement park with a fake Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and Leaning Tower of Pisa. I have no idea why this is here, but it was certainly amusing to visit. 

The strange amusement park in Khalai Khum. The mountains on the left are in Afghanistan

Day 10: August 25, 2021: Return of the 4-Runner

We left Khalai Khum over a different road than when we first arrived on our first day of the Pamir Highway. This road cut away from the Afghan border and up a 3,200-meter pass. The rough dirt road reminded me of the fire roads in my native Santa Monica Mountains. The scenery was certainly pretty, but nothing compared to what we have seen. 

On the backside, the road became even rougher as we navigated canyons and mudslide detours. In total, it took us 4 hours on this insane road to reach pavement. 

From here it was just 3.5 hours to Dushanbe. Along the way, we stopped for lunch in a very religious area. All the women were covered and they were not allowed to eat lunch outside or with men. The locals want to close all schools so they can educate the men in Islamic schools (and not educate the women), but the government is not letting them. It was shocking to see such conservative people after spending so much time with the liberal Pamiris. 

The conservative town where we got lunch

Then it was an easy drive back to Dushanbe. Fez dropped us off at our hotel and quickly said goodbye. Just like that our Pamir Highway road trip was complete. 

Dushanbe at last
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