Stranded in No Man’s Land on the Pamirs

in #adventure3 years ago

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Central Asian countries aren’t exactly known for being well-developed, especially in the Pamirs region, which tends to have harsh weather conditions and hardly any roads. The borders close in the winter due to the roads getting buried under meters-thick blankets of snow. The locals in the Pamirs region 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.

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Just 11 days before, at the very end of October, I had crossed the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan merely a couple of hours before it closed until May. It was then that I realized that time waits for no one – 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 at a crossroads with one road leading to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and the other ascending to the Pamir mountains, among the world’s highest.

It has been 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 were none, all of them opting for the route to Dushanbe.

“The trucks never go in that direction,” an employee at the crossroads weigh station informs me.

Keeping an eye on trucks is literally what he does here, so I reckon he knows what he’s talking about. The passage promises to be difficult, but I keep my hopes up, waving a thumb at the rare landrover passing by and even at a random shepherd jogging by on his horse. 1.5 hours later I score a lucky lift in the car of one of the border guards heading to work. Traveling south by an old, cracked, arrow-straight road, he tells me we could observe Lenin Peak from where we are, but unfortunately, it’s obscured by the clouds.

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The Wasteland

We soon arrive at the border post and parted ways. Passing the customs is a breeze. The guards are friendly and polite, they soon 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 are vicious beasts, sometimes coming very close to our fences.” 18 km is not a reasonable walking distance in the afternoon with a 30 kg backpack on the shoulders, so I keep doing what generally I do in these cases – looking for a ride to hitch.

It takes the rest of the day.

I’m waiting on the side of the road, occasionally doing squats and pushups on the pavement to warm myself up as it gets colder and colder. The only cars passing are tightly-packed cargo taxis full of locals who are visibly surprised to see a foreign man with a weird hat and a humongous backpack all alone in the middle of nowhere. There are just two cargo taxis today and both are heading in the other direction, so no lift for me.

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4 hours have passed since I started my roadside vigil, and the sunlight is now touching the snow-covered mountains. Still, the cold is becoming a major concern.

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, which will probably be enough to keep me alive during the night. Wolves don’t concern me much; I travel with a huge Nepalese kukri – it boosts my confidence if nothing else. I’m sure I can make it through the night in one piece.

Nevertheless, 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. The snow around it is littered with canine footprints. That’s not a good sign.

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I decide to try my luck at the border post, maybe they will allow me to wait for a car in a warmer place for a couple of hours. Making my way back, I ask for permission to enter and am allowed to wait in the passport control booth. Still no cars for hours, though. As I’m about to leave and set up the tent before it’s completely dark, an old man comes over and invites me to stay in a warm room for the night. That’s more than had hoped for, so I gladly accept.

The night at the border post

My host turns out to be the veterinarian inspector of the post and a bit of a spiritual leader for the tiny isolated community of Kyrgyz soldiers. They are all quite friendly and welcoming. We share some food in a metal wagon with a hot burning stove, exchanging stories and strong drinks. In no time I make the acquaintance of almost everyone there. They come to chat with 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 performs 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.

A truck comes the next day and my new friends hitch that ride for me, convincing the driver to take me into a cabin with 4 people inside already. This is a rare occasion – the truck is carrying goods specifically to the Pamirs for Murghab and Khorog markets. 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.

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I bum around this post for a few hours as the Tajik guards show their own hospitality and treat me to berry tea with cookies. Finally, I get my last ride of the day to the town of Murghab which disappoints 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.

Internet connection is not a thing here and the electricity comes from a diesel generator for just a few hours in the evening. Rusty metal stoves burn inside the carpeted rooms, providing a little much-needed heat.

I still manage to get by with the money I have, even scoring 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.

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Vistas of Murghab

In this unlikely place, in the same homestay I stopped for the night, I meet a Portuguese traveler, João, who is 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 go our separate ways in Murghab, our paths will meet again in the next town on the Pamir Highway, Khorog. We later 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.

All in all, it took me about two days to cross the Kyrgyz-Tajik border

…including a one-night stay in the hospitable Kyrgyz checkpoint and then spending my last dime to pay for a homestay room on the following night.

That forgotten mountain land may seem immense, but in reality, it’s where I learned the meaning of the expression “Small World” via the communities and friends I came into contact with.

This story was written for a magazine publication and has been published a couple of days ago on Bootsnall, check it out!

If you liked this post, consider giving it an upvote or resteem. Make sure to follow me on steemit and instagram and all that. See you around...

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Stranded in No Man’s Land on the Pamirs
Golden Idol and Bloody Sacrifice above the Himalayan Clouds
9 amazing UNESCO World Heritage sites in Russia you must check out
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Dude, how do you communicate with people there? And how are things with checkpoints and them asking for documents? Are there any limitations? Or you go wherever you want? This is interesting stuff.

I happen to be from Russia, which means that the paperwork required to travel most of the Stans is quite easy. Also, most of the people in post-USSR countries speak Russian as well.

Cool story mate. Rather you than me though. I like travelling but none of this sounds appealing.

Dunno, sounds like fun to me. Now, not at that time, that is.

Hi nameless-berk,

This post has been upvoted by the Curie community curation project and associated vote trail as exceptional content (human curated and reviewed). Have a great day :)

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Looks like you are up to some bad-ass adventure traveling. I think I'm overdue for something of this nature. Enjoy brother. Up-voted and following!

Much appreciated, the organic following is pretty much nonexistent on this miserable parody of a social media.

Haha. I know what you mean. Maybe I am one of the lucky few. You as well. I never ever use those BS ridden pay for vote bots. By the way, I don't have time to see many people's posts, but I do have time to put you on auto vote at a percent that I can spare....that is what I just did.

Have a great day bro!

-Dan

Well, I wish I still had the stuff to post on this blog, but it's just about run out along with my money. Cheers man, you da real MVP

Haha. I'm sorry to here that. But thank you very much brother.

What a stunning landscape up there. I'm glad you didn't freeze to death or get eaten by wolves. ;)

Love the hat!

Heya, just swinging by to let you know you're being featured in our Daily Travel Digest!

Awesome how blue is your blue! I´m also in love with that skull ♥

Excelentes imagenes.

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@nameless-berk
scary but nonetheless life changing experiences!

Seems like you've had a nice adventure there. Good photos. I'm not sure about the wolves part, in Europe they are scared shitless at the sight of a human (maybe it's different in Pamirs because of the scarcity of food, I dunno).

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I was there 32 years ago :/

Long time, mate, I was there just half a year before

Waaawww. Nice bro. visit also my profile @fariskhan

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What an adventure! Burr, makes me cold just looking st the photos and even colder reading your post..Thanks for posting. I love your writing.