The Pamir Highway

After the Wakhan Valley we had one last adventure planned for Tajikistan. We wanted to go to Lake Bulunkul on the Pamir Highway and walk along the old road from there to Alichur, a nearby village.

Driving to Bulunkul

We started out in the morning in Khorog walking to the shared taxi stand. The first thing we were told was that there were no shared rides to Murghab (and thereby Lake Bulunkul) today so we would have to hire a full car (and thus pay for all seven seats). Luckily, we had now been in Central Asia long enough not to be fooled by taxi drivers putting up such statements, so we calmly put down our backpacks and told the driver that we would wait and see if some other passengers showed up. We think we actually earned some respect on that move 😉

After an hour five other passengers had materialised (physically or by phone) and the driver told us that we were ready to go. Thereafter, we spend another hour picking up passengers, buying some “gifts” for the police checkpoint, picking up goods and documents for Murghab — and the usual petrol stop were you have to pay for the ride in order for the driver to be able to pay for the petrol. Here, we made the huge mistake of not paying the driver the exact amount, and he of course tried to cheat us. Gitte had to find her best English and Russian accusations of cheating, and he agreed to give us our change back but did not find any money.

We decided to wait until we had to get off — but it all solved itself. After an hour of actual driving the car broke down in a small village, and the driver and one of the other passengers started to split the car into atoms to fix it. Meanwhile we were invited to use the toilet of one of the villagers, and invited for lunch with another family, who was represented in the car. Impressively the driver managed to fix the smoking gearbox, and straight after he came to us with all our change without us even asking for it, as if he thought the breakdown was caused by his bad karma for trying to cheat us 😜

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However, our success was double-sided: We were now really late. Also, it turned out that the family that had invited us for lunch was also supposed to join us in the car, so when leaving the village we were now the driver, 7 adults, one well-behaving kid, and two screaming 2-year-olds. Add to this that the stress of the stupid tourists, the bad karma, the car breakdown and what not made the driver smoke continuously for the next four hours while listening to incredibly loud music, and you will understand how much we just wanted to get out of the car. Soon after the road also turned from pretty bad to incredibly bad, and the following hours we moved on with an average of 30 km/h.

Finally, we reached the junction of the road to Bulunkul village and the lake we so badly wanted to see. On this, our most lucky day, it was of course stormy on top of the hill at 3950 meters altitude, and a few minutes after waving off our “great” ride it started snowing. With a 14 km walk to Bulunkul village in a snowstorm about three hours later than expected, we saw no chance of reaching the village in daylight, and it seemed like a night of camping in the wild 😉 

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However, we decided to see how close we could get in daylight, and finally our luck seemed to return! After some 15 minutes walking in the snow storm the sun broke through, and soon we had to take off gloves and hats, and could just enjoy the incredible landscape on our way to Bulunkul! 

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When we had walked some 7 km at a record breaking pace at an altitude of almost 4000 meters with all our gear, a new snow storm approached us. But then, out of nothing the biggest luck of all arrived: A car heading home to Bulunkul village! And even though it already carried five adults, two kids, a parabola antenna and a lot of luggage, they were more than willing to give us a ride for the last 7 km. So we secured our bags to the rail on the roof of the car and squeezed in at the backseat. It turned out that the family in the car owns one of the homestays in Bulunkul, so in less than 15 minutes we had driven the last 7 km, and were served tea and bread. Later we were served fresh fish caught in the Bulunkul Lake while we warmed ourself next to the peat-fired oven.

Trekking in the Pamirs

The next morning we started our three day camping trek along the “old road” from Bulunkul to Alichur with a few detours. Calling it a road is a bit of an exaggeration — we much preferred walking over having to pass the muddy/rocky/bumpy passages on four wheels. However, the views were amazing, and besides a few herdsmen either incredibly shy or eager to help us find the best drinking water spots along the Alichur river, we had the place all to ourselves, and we really got to test our wildlife camping gear and skills. It was amazing!

On our third day we arrived in Alichur which is a village in the middle of nowhere with about 2000 inhabitants. From the homestay in Bulunkul we had got the recommendation to use the homestay of the former English teacher in Alichur, so we went there. She did indeed speak very well English, and was keen to show us what life is like in Alichur. This was unavoidably anyway, as the homestay was not really open for the season yet, so we were all sleeping in the main house in two rooms separated by a tiny curtain.

In the evening the daughter of the house took us for a concert in the village’s community hall with young Kyrgyz people from another Pamiri village performing what we was told was Kyrgyz folk art music. Our young (Tajik) friend did not like it too much and was soon more engaged flirting with another local — we tried to meet it all with an open mind. However, after some 30 minutes even the local Kyrgyz seemed not to be satisfied with the performance, and when the electricity failed we ventured back to our homestay to go to bed.

The next morning our plan was to find a ride to Murghab, but as it was Sunday there was no shared taxis. Our homestay mom took us to the road and half-heartedly tried to get us a ride. As no trucks was visible we returned back and spent the morning baking bread in the tandoori oven. It is a crazy way of making bread! 

In the afternoon we went to the road again, and after waiting only about 20 minutes two huge trucks came by and they agreed to take us the 100 km to Murghab. First, though, they wanted lunch at a local eatery, so we started out with some 45 minutes chatting about their wives (they had respectively 2 and 3!), the wolves that apparently lives around Alichur (very dramatic illustrations of wolves eating us in our tent performed by Ulugbek, one of the truck drivers — no Russian needed), and long complaints from the driver hosting Ulrik in his truck as Ulrik does not speak Russian and therefore was not much fun. It helped when Ulrik promised to try fix his phone while driving. 😉

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After some three hours drive (trucks are incredibly slow on this road, even though the drivers assured us that this part of the road was amazing) we arrived in Murghab, and were reunited with Ibrahim and his family at his guesthouse.

Initially, Ibrahim promised to find passengers for his car and take us back to Osh the next day or the day after. However, his wife struggles with some heart problems and thus the altitude in Murghab is not good for her. During the night her condition worsened, and Ibrahim felt like he had to stay home and see if he needed to take her to the lower altitudes and better hospitals of Kyrgyzstan. We cross our fingers that she will make it until the planned operation in September, and that the family will raise enough money to pay for it!

Ibrahim found another ride for us, and with this we say goodbye to Tajikistan, Pamir, Murghab, Ibrahim and his family, and three weeks full of impressions from a world so different from everything we know and take for granted in Denmark.

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