I watched the Sun crawl behind the snowy peaks that belong to no country and are ruled only by wolves that roam the wasteland at night. Now, how am I going to survive through it?
Central Asian countries aren’t exactly known for being well-developed, especially the Pamirs region, with harsh weather conditions and hardly any roads. When the Winter comes the borders are closing, the roads are getting buried under the meters-thick blankets of snow, and the locals are habitually bracing themselves for the hard months ahead.
I was making my way south through this boundless land in November, which is pretty much the last minute before everything freezes still. Just 11 days ago, at the very end of October, I crossed the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan merely a couple of hours before it closed until May. It was then when I realized that time waits for no one and the next close call might leave me in front of a barred gate over some other line in the snow. So I hurried across the country and soon found myself on the crossroad – one way leads to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and the other ascends to the Pamir mountains that are among the world’s highest.
It was my goal to visit the Pamirs, I even went to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, in order to acquire a permit to enter Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). So here I am trying to hitch a vehicle going south. But there are none, all of them opt for the route to Dushanbe.
“The trucks never go in that direction”, says an employee on a weigh station that stands on the crossroad.
Keeping an eye on trucks is literally what he does here, so I reckon he knows what he’s talking about. The passage is promising to be difficult, but I keep my hopes up, waiving a thumb at the rare landrover passing by and even at a random shepherd jogging by on his horse. 1.5 hours later I get a lucky lift in the car of one of the border guards heading to work. While we’re going south by an old, cracked but arrow-straight road, he tells me we could observe Lenin Peak from where we are, but unfortunately, it’s obscured by the clouds.
Soon we arrive at the border post and part our ways. Passing the customs is a breeze, guards are friendly and polite, soon they open the gates and tell me that beyond lies the neutral strip of land of about 18 km until the next border post that belongs to Tajikistan.
“Beware of wolves”, says the guard, closing the gates after me, “they’re vicious beasts, sometimes coming very close to our fences”
18 km is not a walking distance in the afternoon with 30 kg backpack on the shoulders, so I keep doing what I do in these cases – trying to hitch a ride. I’ve been doing just that for the rest of the day, waiting on the side of the road, occasionally doing squats and pushups on the pavement to warm myself up as it was getting colder and colder. The only cars passing there were tightly-packed cargo taxis full of locals, who were visibly surprised to see a man with a weird hat and a humongous backpack all alone in the middle of nowhere. There were just two of them that day and both were heading in the other direction, so no lift for me.
4 hours have passed since I started the roadside vigil, and the Sun is now touching the snow-covered mountains, as the cold is becoming a major concern, and all of my warm clothes just aren’t enough to ward off the icy caresses of the wind. I have the camping gear and the tent with me, that probably will be enough to keep me alive during the night. Wolves don’t concern me much, I travel with a huge Nepalese kukri, to boost my confidence if nothing else. I’m sure I can make it through the night in one piece.
Nonetheless, I have no idea just how cold it gets here, and the wind is gaining strength, so I really would prefer not to sleep out in the open. I start looking for alternatives, one of which is squatting in the only building around, an abandoned old house on the side of the road. I go to investigate and it turns out to be locked. Around it, the snow is littered with the canine footprints, that’s not a good sign.
I decided to try my luck on the border post, maybe they will allow me to wait for a car in a warmer place for a couple of hours at least. Making my way back, I ask the permission to enter and get to wait in the passport control booth. Still no cars for hours, though. As I am about to leave and set up the tent while it’s not completely dark, an old man comes over and invites me to stay in the warm room for the night. That’s more than I could hope for, so I gladly accept.
The night at the border post
My host turns out to be the veterinarian inspector of the post and kind of a spiritual leader for the tiny isolated community of Kyrgyz soldiers. They all were very friendly and welcoming, we shared some food in a metal wagon with a hot burning stove, exchanging stories and strong drinks. In no time I made an acquaintance with almost everybody there, as they were coming to meet me, one by one. It’s not every day they receive visitors there, I wasn’t supposed to be inside the post territory at all. But here I am, treated as a guest, and in this part of the world, the traditions of hospitality are still strong.
After my host performed the last namaz of the day, I can finally get some rest on the floor of his modest but warm cabin. Thus I cozily spend that night on the Kyrgyz border post, instead of being frozen, devoured, and whatnot in the unwelcoming wilderness. Next day a truck comes and my new friends hitch that ride for me, convincing the driver to take me into the cabin with 4 people inside already. This is a rare occasion as the truck is carrying goods specifically to the Pamirs – for Murghab and Khorog markets, and later I will end up accompanying those wares again, but all I need right now is a ride across the no man’s land. So I arrive at the Tajik side located on the Kyzyl-Art pass with the altitude of ~4300 m, where the guards check my GBAO permit and lazily inquire whether I’m carrying any drugs or weapons. Somehow I forget to mention the kukri and they let me through without a problem.
I bum around this post for a few hours, as the Tajik guards show their own hospitality and treat me berry tea with cookies. Finally, I get my last ride of the day to the town of Murghab which disappoint me immensely, even with my humble expectations. The town doesn’t have a single ATM, and the only bank is closed for the weekend. I never bothered to acquire the Tajik somoni before and that’s left me with 4$ and 1080 Kyrgyz som (~16$).
To add insult to injury, local “hotels” don’t have any showers, and I desperately need one. The Internet connection is not a thing here, the electricity comes from a diesel generator for a few hours in the evening. Rusty metal stoves burn inside the carpeted rooms, providing the much-needed heat.
I still manage to get by with the money I have, even to get a ride to the only open bathhouse of the town, also diesel-powered. Trees simply don’t grow at this altitude and the combustible fuel delivered from afar is the only option here.
In this unlikely place, in the same homestay I stopped for the night, I met a Portuguese traveler João exploring the world with his wife and little son in a van. The van’s heating system broke and they ended up in the same place that I did. Although we went our separate ways in Murghab, our paths crossed again in the next town on the Pamir Highway, Khorog. We met by pure chance in a restaurant and then again in the homestay I used. Occasions like this make the immense Pamirs look tiny and cramped.
So, It took me about two days to cross the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, staying for a night in the hospitable Kyrgyz checkpoint and spending the last dime to pay for a homestay room on the following night. It was there in that forgotten mountain land where I learned the meaning of the expression “Small World”.