Hitchhiking through the Pamir mountains

Veröffentlicht: 16.06.2022

Before you start reading maybe get a cup of coffee and find your comfortable chair, this entry is going to be a bit lengthy.
Also, sorry for ending the last entry so abruptly, I only had a couple of last minutes with internet and decided to upload the unfinished entry with this short notice.

There is no internet in the entire Pamir region of Tajikistan because of recent military conflicts, the government decided to shut down the internet. For now the situation was calm and there was no sign of conflicts, just a couple of military check points which wanted to see our passports and travel permits for this area. But let me start where I stopped the last entry: In the capital of Dushanbe. I just met Mara again and we went shopping. The supermarket turned out to be surprisingly western-ish, we even found decent dark bread. Mara (and me) was excited!

We had an awesome breakfast the next morning! 
As you already know, our next destination was the Pamir region. 

It is a semi autonomous region in Tajikistan with a lot of mountains and very few people. We decided to hitchhike, knowing that the majority of the cars are shared 4 wheel drive taxis.

Starting in Dushanbe we left with public transport the urban district and got picked up pretty fast. The closer we got to Pamir, the fewer cars where on the road, at around seven in the evening we got dropped off a tiny town close to Pamir and had some food. The restaurant was about to close and while talking to the owner we got invited to sleep right there. But the evening was still young, we decided to try our luck and kept on hitchhiking towards Pamir. The next ride brought us closer but we got dropped off in the middle of nowhere without an invitation for a place to sleep. Lets just put it this way: There weren't many cars anymore. Did we make a mistake? Should we have taken the invitation from the kind restaurant owner? We started to doubt our decision to have rejected this offer. But after a while an ambulance stopped and took us in. Yes we hitchhiked in an ambulance, how cool is that? Here is some proof:
The ambulance didn't go into the Pamir tho and we left at the intersection to enter the region. We made it within the day! On that intersection was a police checkpoint and they were quite interested in us. Asked about our plans, wanted to see passports and permits and wondered if we really planned on hitchhiking there. Turns out the (only) road into the mountains is closed at night so we were stuck. The chief officer offered us some great water melons and cigarettes, Mara took that invitation wholeheartedly, I only had the melons. The chief really seemed to like us and told us to get into his cabin while his subordinates did whatever the job is they had to do there. Basically just telling cars not to go into Pamir at night I think? He had some Vodka, great cake, tea, cola and biscuits. Some time past midnight the vodka was empty, we got along great. Mara did the talking mainly, English is not the way to communicate here 😂The chief told us that he has a place to sleep for us and brought us to a mosque, 5 minutes walking distance. Besides the big area for praying it had a smaller room that looked like it was (among other things) prepared for cases like ours with traditional sleeping/sitting mats and some blankets.

We were super happy about that opportunity and found later out that it is appropriate to use a mosque as a shelter when you are in real need. Of course you aren't supposed to abuse this as a tourist, it's more like an emergency thing when you are out of options.

Someone woke us up super early in the next morning and started to make a fire on the oven that was in this small room. He made some chai and prepared the place for breakfast. 

You basically use a blanket surrounded by the sleeping/sitting mats (I really need the proper name for these mats) as your surface to eat, like a table. The dude offered us some dry, old bread which we declined. He then proceeded to dip the bread into the chai until it became really mushy. I don't mean to be disrespectful but we were kinda grossed out. The chai was good tho and we left when the dude was done with his breakfast. It didn't feel right to leave him there alone.

We said goodbye to the police officers working at the check point and walked a bit into along the road until we came to this bridge where we decided to wait for cars. 

There were even less cars.. another dude, young, speaking fluently English, told us that hitchhiking wont work well in Pamir. It's just too remote. He is a doctor and wanted to visit some friends and told us to walk with him. But our backpacks are heavy and we wanted to get farther then our feet could carry us, so we stayed stubborn and stayed at the bridge trying to hitchhike. The few cars that did pass were usually really full.. until one wasn't. Mara was so bored that she spent 45 Minutes walking this bridge up and down, I used the time to write the blog entry before this one. Eventually one car wasn't full and it took us about 25km into the mountains. It takes a while, it's a sloping dirt road. We overtook the doc who told us at the bridge that hitchhiking won't work here.

The two guys in the car were workers for a construction site. The place were they went was right at the road, it's probably an old Soviet recreational place, now they plan to build a hotel with a big pool. The pool already existed! 

We didn't really trust the water quality and decided against a swim but it was a nice looking place. Overall we waited 6 hours there for the next ride and this was just the first teeny tiny bit of the long Pamir highway. The workers had pitty with us and offered us some soup, it was surprisingly good! 

The doc came eventually along and we offered him some fresh water and bread and we had a nice chat. Again he told us that hitchhiking is really difficult and we should walk with him. A small town would be within a 90 minutes walk and from there would be public transport. We didn't feel like walking (again 🙄) and stayed stubborn.

We kept on hitchhiking but it was all just either locals or 4x4 taxis which came from Dushanbe and were completely full, they always had luggage on the roof and already more people then seats inside. These cars are expensive so they don't leave when there is some space. So we sticked with the locals but they never went far. But hey at least we overtook the doc again.

We kept on waiting and realized we wont make it anywhere interesting if we kept going at this slow speed. We already thought about using some 4x4 taxis that supposedly leave in some towns further along the road until this car stopped.

It was just one person and a lot of luggage inside!

Turns out it was a tour guide who accompanied three Russian motorbikers, carried their luggage and showed them around. We went way farther then we hoped to get during that day. He told us they are on a 8 day tour through the entire pamir region and we would be welcome to join - for free! The car was also super comfortable, the driver, his name is Aziz, skilled and fast. He was really nice and we just couldn't believe our luck. The shared taxis are always cramped and its not so comfortable. There are tours with a 4x4 but these ones cost about 1300€ (without food or accomodation). You split the costs between all participants but it's still pricy. This ride is like the pinnacle of hitchhiking - complete jackpot.In the end it turned out that Aziz had some weird thoughts on how a woman should be treated. Mara was always supposed to sit in the front seat in the car, he always insisted on paying for her, even tho she didn't want any of this. She got food first yet didn't want any special treatment. We decided to go with it since he wasn't strange in any other way and.. well because the ride would be otherwise pretty expensive. Oh and the three Russians on their motorcycles were also fun.They had one flat tyre right at the beginning but Aziz had spare tires on the roof of the car. 

Here are some pictures of the first day, there was a bus stop on the top of one hill.

We arrived in the late afternoon in Kalay Khumb in a lovely homestay. 

The town is close to the river that marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We will follow this river for two days, having great views at the Afghan mountains. This is the view from the homestays terrace at said mountains.
Everyone knows the prejudices about Russians drinking a lot. And probably also about motorbikers drinking a lot. Well, these guys confirmed both of them! There was plenty of beer, Vodka and Whiskey that evening. 

  Honestly when I heard how narrow and sloping the Pamir highway is, I thought it's worse. Is it a bumpy dirt road with huge whole and steep rocks where your car transforms into a spinning death machine when you get off the road? Hell yes! But it's not terrible narrow. For the most parts it's not an issue for one car to let another one pass. It's even frequented by proper trucks!

Here are some fotos from the day, more in foto section

We came across our first (!!) traffic light in the entire region. Thoughts that is note worthy 😂

In the evening we arrived to Khorug and slept in a more modern hotel style accomodation. There were 3 dutch people, probably well above 50 years traveling around with their bicycles. I didn't take foto but their bikes were really modern. Belt driven, instead of a chain and hydraulic brakes. Some of our accomodations offered dinner but this one didn't so we went for an Indian restaurant. Aziz knew a good place. I really appreciated some food that's not the local cuisine anymore and the food was goooood. Check out what a feast we had! 

It's not in the picture but again.. there was plenty of alcohol. These Russian (and Aziz) know no mercy on their livers.

We left in the following morning to some hot springs. You notice a pattern here by now right? Leaving early, many hours in the car and arriving late afternoon. But this region is just so big and vast there are no other options, especially if you have only 2 weeks allowance in the country (like us). We come across many artsy bus stops, usually we just drive by but we stopped at this one.

There was a spring with natural mineral water, according to Aziz the best you can do to your stomach. It tasted funny and we decided that our stomachs were alright.

The right was good, here are some pictures from the road
After checking in we had an hour or so to rest until Aziz told us to come immediately, he had some sort of arrangement with the owners of the spring so we could have the original, natural part for ourselves.

Later that day we still had some time before sundown and Mara and I decided to go for a walk. There was an old fortress on the next hill. The fortress itself didn't prove to be very interesting but the views from here were (as always) worth the walk.

Two Americans arrived this evening with their smaller motorcycles. They rented them from Aziz' company and knew him already. And since they were totally up for drinks and the Russians eager to share, it became a drinking-orgy. I'm not sure how many bottles of liquor they emptied but it's at least four. With six people?! Mara and I went sober to bed this night, we wanted to get some (good) sleep.

I felt splendid the next morning but one of the Russians (their names are Alexandre, Alexandre and Alexeji, so it's usually just the Russians) caught a fever. In the end he continued riding motorcycle (we discussed if I wanted to ride his bike and he relaxes in the car, I would have loved to!) but our departure was delayed. Tom & Allan also weren't in a rush due to their hangover and I could take Toms machine for a short ride! I was so happy 🤩😍

By the way, this is them

They left a good hour before us but we met Allan soon on the road again, his bike didn't really worked well anymore. Since it was Aziz' company renting it to him it was somehow within his responsibility to get it fixed. The problem was mainly the altitude, we were already at around 3700m. Basically the machine had not enough power the higher we got (Aziz was following Allan) and sometimes the motor just died in second gear with minimal inclination. In the end Aziz took something apart, cleaned it and put it back together and the bike was buzzing like a bee in the summer. Well like a bee at 4000m but it was buzzing 👌Here are some pictures of the road, the Alexes found a guy with a motorcycle and this additional side-cart (sorry, no clue how that's really called) and found a new friend 😂
Due to the delay with fixing the bike of Allan we arrived late in Murgab but we made it. Our new home was heated with these traditional oven, they are always built in a wall between two rooms so both would get some warmth.

Aziz had this for breakfast

It's chai with milk and salt in which you put stale bread. It's ok but I'd prefer some porridge, egg or bread.
As you know we followed the border of Afghanistan for quite a while, there was even one point where you could see Afghanistan and Pakistan at the same time without moving your head but as we went north we came close to the border of China. It's just a fence and sometimes it has holes.. one was so close to the road that we visited China for a second!

As we made our way deeper and deeper into the region we also passed the highest point of our journey, 4623 meters. Aziz called it the "Mekka for bikers". We took our time and enjoyed the moment, the russians were really happy to be there!

Maybe they were a bit too happy because on that day the disaster should happen. Sasha (it's a nickname for people called Alex and refers here to the oldest of the Russians) decided to leave the road and drive close to the Karakul lake. It had some puddles but if it were normal puddles his bike should have no big issues with them. But the whole shore was kinda like a swamp. The more you stayed at one place the muddier and softer it got. Really terrible conditions for a 280kg motorcycle.

We had huge issues getting it out because you easily sank 10cm into the ground and neither Mara, Aziz nor me had shoes for that. They persuaded Aziz to get closer with his car since he has a winch (German: Seilwinde) on the truck but that didn't really help because the rope he had wasn't up to the task, it snapped in two pieces..

In the end we got the bike out of there by human force but it took us quite a while. We thought the motorbike was a big issue, turns out the car got stuck!

I know it doesn't look too bad for a 4x4 but the ground was super soft and muddy, the wheels had zero grip. Aziz called some people he called professionals (I'm not too sure about their professionalism tho..) and they tried to tow the car without success. Quite the opposite: Jolting the car back and forth softened the ground and dug it deeper in.

They left to get more tools which was a huge metal bar and some wood to lift the car wheel by wheel up and pushing wood under there. 

But all the people and all the pushing on the ground led to the same result than before: The mud became more soft (see how wet the ground is by now). 

I already thought ok, fuck it that's it, we need some serious help here. But then we made it to stop a huge modern 4x4 truck with even bigger tires than us and there was a glimpse of hope again!

It was just that. A glimpse of hope, the truck wasn't able to pull our car out. I gotta be honest with you guys, I already spoke with Mara if we should get our backbacks and start hitchhiking again. The truck was huge and it wasn't even close to get Aziz' car out. Mara remained resilient and convinced me to stay with these guys.The professionals didn't give up, they left again and came back with 10 people and 10 shovels, a long tree trunk and lots of stones. They tried again to lift the car wheel by wheel and putting stones under it. 

But honestly I had lost all hope there was. When I asked Alexeji about his opinion he responded that "at this point he just finds it funny". 

Our professionals tried lifting the car for about 45 minutes, realizing that they created a swamp with 2m radius around the car by moving the ground so much. Compare this picture to the first one of the stuck car. It did not rain, the ground transformed like that just by applying force to it!

Bottom line of the day: This car is as stuck as it possibly gets. Aziz and the Russians weren't really keen on staying longer than necessary (Mara and me neither but we haven't really had a say in all of them this) and decided to get an excavator. The problem was the remoteness of the area. The closest town has no heavy machinery, just big trucks. Aziz actually left in the evening and two big trucks trying to tow the car out again but it remained stuck. The closest excavator was 140km away. Aziz made some calls and at 22:00 on a sunday evening this excavator started it's journey through the mountains at 4000m altitude with 30km/h driving through the night. We got a call at 2:45 in the morning that the excavator arrived and went to meet our savior. I had no reason to get up and join except curiosity so I got up and checked it out!

It was really impressive and it took more force and effort than I believed but in the end we got the car out of there! The journey continued and Mara taught me a lesson in not giving up hope so fast 😌Here are some pictures of the destination, Karakol lake, where the car got stuck

Don't mistake the white stuff in the pictures above with snow, it's actually salt!

We went during the next day to a really remote area in the very south-west of the country. Here are some pictures of the way, it looked fantastic. I imagine that this is how Mars could look like.

The accommodation for this night had two pools which were (again) heated by natural hot springs. The first pool was so hot we couldn't take it longer than 10 minutes and the second one was even hotter! They also had a nice winter garden by the river, I had a great view on a herd of goats just across the river

This was their water distribution system. 

There is so much hot water that some loss doesn't really matter, I guess 🤷‍♂️ we also found Yaks again! 

But I guess they are as common as cows once you make it over 4000m Altitude here. As great as this place looks, as terrible was my sleep. There were heaters in every room, also fueled with the hot water from the springs. I barely slept due to the high temperature and extremely dry air.

We left again early in the morning, this time to Khorug to the same place where we have been before. On the road we stopped as usual between 12 and 1 o clock for some lunch. Mara decided for this, I had some instant soup I bought in advance.

Food in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan wasn't a highlight but in Pamir region it's only these dishes and usually they only have 2 of them, 3 if you are lucky:
- Lagman soup (soup with meat and some noodles, no veggies)- Meat soup (no veggies)- Rice soup (soup with meat and rice, no veggies)- Borscht (soup with a little meat and lots of cabbage, my favourite dish here)- Chicken (1/4 chicken with french fries)- Manti (dumplings, only filled with meat)- Plov (fried rice with meat, sometimes with a hard-boiled egg and sweet peppers)
Usually they also have salad which is tomato and cucumber. But sometimes they are out of one of these two or don't offer salad at all.. in big cities you can find also proper restaurants with other food but not on the road, in homestays or cheaper hotels. And there are not many cities in these mountains.. I'm really craving different food by now. I observed a conversation that sums the food here up pretty well: A guide was asked by his clients what there was for dinner and his response was that he doesn't know what meat they had. So yeah it's always meat or salad. And salad means tomato, cucumber and (if you are lucky) onions.
As we arrived in Khurog (a bigger city 😍🙃🤩) I went to get some Shawarma and Samsa and went straight to sleep. I slept almost from 8 to 8, I've been really tired that day..The next and last stop for us in Pamir was Kalay Khumb again - we left the mountains by the same road we came from since it is the only one. Here are again some pictures of the road. 

Our place for lunch had this lovely pool in it's center and I had some chicken, this time with raw onions instead of fries 👌

We went during the next day to Dushanbe again, we are planning to go to a good restaurant together and need to fix Maras iPhone (while typing these last lines I actually just received message that the phone is fixed). Tomorrow morning we'll go to the "seven lakes" more north, slowly going towards Uzbekistan again.

Until next time, I'm already looking forward to come back home again 🤩