The road north of Khorog, the busy little capital of the Pamir region, is terrible. It was once glorious asphalt I’m sure, but years of being bombarded by rockfall and extreme weather means it’s now strewn with holes and rubble. Even the big trucks and rented Land Cruisers slow down for this bit. But we didn’t mind going slowly, because the views continued to be amazing.
We dropped our new Spanish friends in Khorog to collect their belongings from their hostel and continue their own travels, and having resupplied and refuelled drove about 20km (one hour) out of town. Finding a nice little campsite by the river we were slightly alarmed when a military convoy drove past with lights flashing, but they weren’t there for us and we managed to relax and enjoy the view across the valley. I even managed a quick cast the next morning, but the fish proved elusive and it was porridge for breakfast once again. A bumpy morning drive took us to the Bartang Valley, an even more remote corner of the Pamirs which provides a rough, tough route all the way back to Lake Karakul near the border we had crossed from Kyrgyzstan. We were tempted to drive further up, but time didn’t permit and we stretched our legs hiking into the high village of Jizew for lunch. The forecast storm held off until we were halfway down again, at which point the heavens opened and we got soaked to the skin. A landslide 45 years ago filled the valley with rocks, so the powerful mountain river coming down from the lakes completely disappears underground for over a kilometre, reappearing in copper-blue streams and pools just before rejoining the main, cloudy torrent. The rivers here currently rise impressively from morning to evening as the snow melt increases through the day, falling again by a foot or more by the following morning. We had heard at our homestay south of Khorog that a local girl had just been found one week after throwing herself into the full-to-bursting Panj River, a sad reminder that some health issues are not so different the world over.
The campsite in the Bartang was pretty special – an oasis of green grass nestled in the steep sided rocky valley, shaded by an ancient looking Mulberry tree under which we cooked dinner. Driving out the next day we saw plenty of new and significant rockfall from the previous night, making the narrow dirt road feel even smaller as we navigated around the sharp stones. A spectacular day of driving between massive rock peaks, along teetering riverside roads and past a German family of five in a 55 year old fire truck took us, eventually, to a small field by the road just south of Qalai Khumb. Whilst we set about making dinner and jam (having acquired around 2kg of fresh apricots from a boy by the road for around 50p!) the local farmer came for a chat and to collect his tax of one fresh cucumber from our fridge. Another military truck full to bursting with onions rumbled by, towing a second truck which had obviously found the road too hard going, and a toot of the horn and a hello and wave from the cab told us that we were ok for the night.
Heavy rain greeted us the next morning as we drove through the small town of Qalai Khumb. Searching for a supermarket I misread the map and managed to navigate us to a school. The slightly surprised headmaster met us at the door, and after ascertaining we were not a threat invited us in for tea. Turning down his kind offer we continued on our way, keen to reach the fabled smooth tarmac which adorns the highway 20km out of town. It was indeed no myth – this section is brand new, with few potholes and huge concrete walls holding back the mountainside at high-risk areas. Though several of these immense walls have been completely destroyed by landslides, with the entire wall, road and everything downstream ending up in the Panj. Nature still very much has the upper hand. The super smooth road, with its 50kmh speed limit (we took the locals’ approach to this…) follows the river for another 100km before finally turning away from Afghanistan and heading north towards Dushanbe.
We were extremely sad to leave the Pamirs. It’s been the highlight of our trip, with its towering mountains, raging rivers and friendly people, welcoming and catering for tourism, but as yet unspoilt by it. And peeping across the river to Afghanistan has made us keen to also one day explore this wild and beautiful country…