Silkroad travels Pamir - DOC

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					Silkroad travels: Pamir
Dietrich Meyer

The market in Murghab (Tajik Мурғоб ) is not the most colorful or rich in the world. But the
picture allows for some observations. The market stands are made up in part of Soviet
military equipment. The wares available are from China (even the baseball hat of the boy),
foodstuff from Osh /Kyrgyzia.

The Kyrgyz people make up about half of the 4'000 inhabitants, the other half are Tajiks from
Wakhan or other parts of Badakshan. Kyrgyz men often wear a kalpak. The women
reportedly don't cover their faces for religious reasons but to avoid the sun and the tan. There
are several languages spoken: Kyrgyz, Tajik, Wakhi, Shugni and Rushani. Ismailit Islam and
Kyrgyz Sunni Islam coexist peacefully and I believe that they use the same mosque (not
verified though). Interestingly there seem to be no tensions between different ethnies. People
are proud to learn English and even Chinese in school.

Public transportation is sporadic. You have to inquire on the market for the weekly
Marshrutka (a Russian-german word). New cars made in Urümqi/ China are passing here
every day, they are delivered for sale to Dushanbe and to Tashkent. But the vehicles available
in Murghab are all Soviet vintage. A problem for Murghab is the continuous and permanent
emigration of the most qualified people to Bishkek or to Dushanbe. Efforts are made to
increase the production of exportable idems like cheese or woollen garments. The traditional
milk produce are sir, kefir, kurut (= hard yoghurt balls; I bit a tooth out with one of them!)
and butter, all more or less unfit for exportation. Some Swiss and other guys try to encourage
the production of exportable Gruyère and Roblechon by giving seminars to women.

Murghab was founded as Pomirski Post at the end of the 19th century by Russia during the
power struggle with Great Britain in Central Asia. It was the highest permanent settlement
(3605 m asl) of the Soviet Union. The uniform pieces you see are Russian; Russian troups left
Tajikistan only in 2006/2007.

I gleaned some information from Wikipedia and from
entries/conradosc/tajikistan-2004/1096657500/tpod.html (thanks, Conrad!)

Silkroad travels: Pamir

In Murghab, the biggest village on the Pamir plateau, heating and cooking is with those
multiannual forbs or with dried Yak dung. Petrol, gas or electric current are rare and
expensive commodities, trees don't grow here. Those Salicornia or Astragalus (I have to
guess) are taken with the woody roots; the plants will regrow only over many decades. As a
consequence the scarce vegetation cover is overexploited. To these people it's either that or
leave the area.

One thought hit me: the Pamiri's may be overexploiting resources, but I am doing the same at
home on a much bigger scale.

Silkroad travels: Pamir
This is NOT our reception committee in Murghab but a group of businessmen in front of a
warehouse: modern Silkroad business going on! The smiling men are Kyrgyz, wearing the
traditional kalpak.

Our first contact in Murghab (3605 m alt.) was with the woman of the foreigner's police,
OVIR (by the way, it's on "Lenina ulitsa"). First she let us wait for over an hour, then she
asked three hundred dollars for each stamp in our passports. We had to raise hell and to
forcefully take our passports back from the screaming "Dragon with the Golden Teeth" as we
came to name the lady. We finally got away with paying a small fee for a stamp. The Soviet
Union has left a sulfurous trail in Tajikistan!

Silkroad travels: Pamir

After the Neizatash pass and a night at Mamazair, a herders settlement, we approached
Murghab (seen on the horizon). The river Murghab is flowing in our direction. It drains water
from the Little Pamir of Afghanistan and flows in a western direction through all of
Badakhshan, changing its name to Bartang. It ends some 500 km later in the Panj river.

I cite from Marco Polo's "Travels": "The plain, whose name is Pamir, extends fully twelve
days' journey. In all these twelve days there is no habitation or shelter, but travellers must take
their provisions with them."

As you can see, some things have changed. Murghab (3610 m alt.) is the biggest of the
permanent villages on the Pamir plateau today. During Soviet times it was primarily of
military importance due to the proximity of the Chinese border. Its vocation changes now into
supporting a modern Silkroad branch.

Silkroad travels: Pamir
In Alichur, our first village in the Pamir, we were hosted by the English teacher, Rachinda.
We were offered Shurba and Kefir, Non (=bread) and Yak butter at the dastarkhan (=family
table) .

I just learned from the readings of Marco Polo that at his time the lingua franca of the
Silkroad was Farsi. Tajik, the native language of our host in Alichur, is a language closely
related to Farsi. Along the ancient Silkroad network Farsi-related languages are indeed spoken
from the Turkish border on to the Pamir. Between Alichur and the border to China Tajik is
more and more replaced by Khyrgyz, a Turk language and in Western China only a small
minority speaks Tajik.

Silkroad travels: Pamir
The salt lake on the horizon, Sasyk kul, is not far from Alichur. It is a typical steppe lake, it
might dry out completely when precipitation is not sufficient.

The Pamir has very little precipitation being situated very far from the Sea, the Monsoon
clouds from Pakistan rarely reach over the Hindukush chain. The lake is at 3820 m alt. At this
altitude the temperature during the day reaches about 20°C, ideal conditions for bicycle

The road is the Pamir highway again, it is of good quallity in this part despite old age and
neglect. No tanks, no landslides or falling rocks damaged it .
Silkroad travels: Pamir
Public transportation is almost non existant today in Kuhistoni Badakhshan. That this was not
always so is demonstrated by this Soviet vintage bus. It is stranded in Alichur. Those who
want to travel with motorized transport have to bring their own car or invest a lot of time and
patience to conquer a seat in one of the private vehicles. From what we heard from tourists,
water diluted petrol and frequent vehicle breakdowns are further worries. WE were on bikes!

Silkroad travels: Pamir
Life is based partially on self reliance in Alichur. But the inhabitants cannot produce the
wheat, potatoes and fruit needed for a living, these staples are offered on the market, NGO's
also help providing them.

Traditional lifestlyle has not disappeared during Soviet times since the Pamir was of no
strategic or economic importance to the Union. This Wakhi woman is an Ismailit muslim, she
allowed me to take the picture.

I show the milkman of Alichur in the workshop section

Silkroad travels: Pamir
This picture of the Pamir plain is different from my foregoing ones in the sense that a fertile
green plain and a village (Alichur) become apparent. The Alichur river is draining the valley,
salt deposits cannot form. The soils are frozen much of the year, trees cannot grow.

Alichur kishlak (=village), 3875 m alt., is a summer- but also a permanent settlement of Tajik
and Khyrgyz people. They speak Tajik, a language close to Persian Farsi and writing it with
the cyrillic alphabet or Kyrgyz, a Turk language, also written in cyrillic. The lingua franca is
Russian! We met the English teacher, Rachinda, that teaches the Tajik as well as the Khyrgyz
children: Silkroad lifestyle! The village people live from pasturing and services, some work in
the Bazar Dara mine.

The Pamir region is formed by a series of important mountain ranges that are more or less
east-west oriented. On our trip through the Wakhan valley and up the Pamir we followed the
Shakdara- Southern Alichur range (seen here); Karla Marksa pik is the the highest mountain
of this range (6723 m).

Silkroad travels: Pamir
We are still on our way to Alichur on the old Silkroad from the Wakhan valley. The landscape
at 4000 m altitude is spectacular and ever changing. This particular view is right is at the
junction with the Pamir highway seen to the left. We had left the Pamir higheway in Khorug
to make our trip through the Wakhan valley. Now we rejoin it and discover the pleasures of a
hard road. The small mountain peak to the left is a part of the Northern Alichur range, 5'612
m high.

The road from Wakhan is bad and there are no villages for days. The landscape is ever
changing. On the horizon are the Alichur mountains, at the foot of the mountain range will be
the village of Alichur. We were told by the Austrian bicyclist Günter passing us that we
should look for the English teacher there to ask for food and shelter.
Silkroad travels: Pamir
On our way to Alichur we encountered the dried lake bed. The Pamir plateau (around 4000 m
alt.) has been largely shaped by glaciers. But the plains on the picture presumably owe their
origin to liquid water.

Some plants grow in cushions like in the European high alpine zone. In the workshop section
I show a few examples here and here

On our way to Alichur we camped at 4200 m alt. not too far from Chukur kul, a salt lake. We
could be sure to be alone, undisturbed by curious bystanders or sheperds. According to the
books Snow leopards and wolves would be a problem. But to us the Pamir high plateau
appeared completely shot empty except for the Longtail marmots, hares and some small birds.

The salt lake is blue because devoid of algae. Lakes of cold steppes usually hold few living
organisms, being frozen completely in winter.

Silkroad travels: Kargush pass

We are there! We are on top of Kargush pass, 4344 m alt. At the same time we have reached
the Pamir plateau. To the left you see the Hausibek freshwater lake. The horn is of Marco
Polo wild sheep, Ovis ammon polii , a distinct race of the Argali (information from High altitude forces us to bicycle slowly but due to a
gradual adaptation we have no other problems.

What Marco Polo said in his "Travels", written around 1299:
" ... And when he (the traveller, red.) is in this high place, he finds a plain between two
mountains, with a lake from which flows a very fine river....There are great quantities of wild
sheep of huge size. Their horns grow as much as six palms in length...This plain, whose name
is Pamir, extends fully twelve day's journey. In all these twelve days there is no habitation or

You can check with "Map:View" how right Marco Polo is!

Technical stuff: On Pamir I used a UV filter with my Olympus compact camera. The picture
was taken in JPG format, I increased contrast, reduced the picture size and sharpened in PS.

Silkroad travels: Khargush pass
After a night at the Mats bridge (see Workshop picture) we continued to climb up the
Khargush pass in Southern Badkhshan , still hugging the Pamir river and the Afghanistan
border. The valley widened and the Kyzyldong (5704 m) glacier came into view. We have
still 600 m to climb.

Silk road travels:

Leaving Ishashim we enter the mythic* Wakhan valley. Although we still followed the Panj
river valley upstream the valley changes its name, widens and opens the view to a series of
high mountains of the Wakhan range to the North, the Hindukush range to the South.

The picture is taken on he outskirts of Ishkashim (2540 m alt.), where a lateral mountain
stream brings at times of heavy rains a lot of gravel. The direction is upstream Panj, to the
right Qullai Noshaq is pointing into the clouds (7485 m alt.). The mountain to the left and
behind (7340 m) is not even named for cartography, they have many of them in the

*"Mythic" because the Wakhan valley is so tucked away in the mountains that few people
ever go to see it (a reported 500 or so tourists a year). George Curzon discovered the source of
the Oxus at the valley's head during his Pamir expedition in 1894. And the "Wakhan corridor"
was the agreed-on buffer zone between Britain and czarist Russia at the end of the 19th
century. (I imagine that both empires were relieved to arrange it so that they did not have to
occupy these mountains militarily!).

A last note: the Wakhan valley was always a little frequented part of the Silk Road network. It
is not sure whether Marco Polo passed through here although he describes the valley in his

I had to process the JPG picture in PS, increase contrast by 15%, mark and change colour
temperature for the sky, remove an ugly wall in front by stamping, crop, resize, sharpen
Silk road travel:
Ishkashim (2540 m alt.) is the most important village between Khorog and Murghab. It may
have 2'000 residents, there is a gymnasium and the only guest house, Hanis Mechmonchona,
is presented in the picture and the road sign in the workshop area. The Panj valley opens up
from here on upstream, bringing the high mountains into view. But most important, Ishkashim
has a new bridge over the Panj river which leads to Sultan Ishkashim in Afghanistan. The
bridge was paid by the Aga Khan foundation together with Germany. The local people cross
the bridge to visit the market in Sultan Ishkashim and Afghans come over to the Tajik side to
visit the mosque.
In "Map:View" I indicate the place of the guest house, the bridge had not been built at the
time of the satellite photography. Note that the connection of Sultan Ishkashim to Faizabad
(capital of the Badakshan province in Afghanistan) is difficult.

Silk road travel:
On our way to the Wakhan corridor, south of Khorog in the Panj gorge, the road is in much
better condition than the Pamir highway is. It dates from the Fifties but no tanks have ever
churned up the pavement and the traffic is limited to a few vehicles a day.

The two workers presented here are checking the road for rocks falling down the slopes. We
always asked the persons for permission before taking their picture. In this case the man to the
left was embarassed. I should have told him: "don't be embarassed, a workers clothes, even
when ragged and dirty, honor their owner". This nugget of wisdom I had learned in my Swiss
school almost 60 years ago. We cyclists did'nt look much better!

Silk road travel:
After a day's rest in Khorog we continued our trip up the Panj valley in the direction of the
Wakhan corridor (we left the Pamir highway for a while). Soon the wild, dry and hot
landscape had us back. You look at the village of Pish (2150 m alt.) in the background. To the
left you have the Afghan goat's path again. The upper Panj river carries less water now. In the
foreground you see two bushels of collected Salvia plants. They make an excellent tea. But
we were usually served black tea, a luxury idem here. Black tea is brought here by merchants
in the bulk form of pressed cubes.
I present you the pharmacy of Khorog, principal town of Kuhiston-i-Badakshan. The
pharmacy is well stocked, prices are low from my viewpoint. I just needed some bandages
and a disinfectant, but there were also antibiotics and special medication available. The
products are imported as far as I saw from Russia, Bielorussia, the US. The hospital of
Khorog is just on the opposite side of the court (see picture in workshop area).

Silk Road travel:
we finally arrived at the town of Khorog or Khorug, the capital of Kuhiston-i Badakhshan
autonomous province ( the province has a size of 63'000 km2 and 200'000 inhabitants). The
town has a population of 30'000 and is situated 2,200 m above sea level at the confluence of
the Gunt with the Panj River near the border with Afghanistan. It has a tiny airport and the
Pamir highway passes through it (info from Wikipedia).

The bus stop speaks of times bygone, when the local people were still identifying with the
Soviet Union and were proud of the nation's accomplishments to which they were a part. It's
the stop besides the hospital and the inscription in Russian to the left translates as: "Your
health is in your hands" (thanks Roland for translating).

Today no bus stops here, public service is wanting. The town had already been neglected
during Soviet times, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union it became evident how much
the remote, mountaineous Badakhshan depends on subsidies. Today foreign aid, mainly from
the Aga Khan foundation, helps to build schools, roads, hospitals, sewers. The original "raison
d'être" for Khorog was military: two opposite imperial ambitions, that of Britain and that of
zsarist Russia were clashing in the Pamir region. By negotiation in 1873 it was agreed that a
demarchation line would follow the Panj river where Khorog is situated. Today this line
separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan. I put Khorog on "Map:View" so you can (like me) try
to track the geostrategic nonsense of three empires!

Silk Road travel:
On our way to Khorog in Kuhistoni Badakhshan we were joined by this nice Tajik Taxidriver
in a chaikhana for lunch. If he looks like an Afghan to you, be told that Northern Afghanistan
is inhabited by Tajik Afghans. We had a discussion in Pantomimic with him. In his back you
see his taxi, a Russian-built "Kamas" (Abkürzung für Kamski awtomobilny sawod) with the
licence plate of Dushanbe. While he had plov and Tajik bread we had dumplings (in Tajik
called Manta) as you can see on another picture in the workshop area. Why talk about food
here on TE: well, we bicyclists were often hungry!

Silk Road travel:
this stretch of the "Pamir Highway" may not look like the Silk Road. Destructed stretches of
this road alternate with parts left intact since the fifties. The picture is taken near Lyaksh.
Indeed, the ancient Silk road never passed in the Panj valley and through the Pamir
mountains. But in the last months a direct passage between China and Kuhistoni Badakhshan
(Tajikistan) in the Pamir mountains has opened. New cars made in China are imported to
Central Asia on this very road: it has become a Silk Road of modern times. See a workshop
shot for evidence.

Silk Road travel:
The so-called Pamir highway leads from Dushanbe to Khorog along the Panj river. The river
separates the Afghan and the Tajik sides of Badakhstan. Both sides are inhabited by Tajik
speaking people. Since Tajik Badakhshan was part of the Soviet empire, a military road was
built, mainly for border control. Today it is in need of reconstruction; tanks, freezes and
landslides have been demolishing many stretches . On the Afghan side the inhabitants have to
contend with the small footpath you see above the water line. Not even cyclists could travel
there. We even saw docile donkeys refusing to advance any further.
The picture has been taken South of Dekh kishlak (=village), 1715 m alt. (see "Map: View").

It's hard to believe but we met another cyclist on our way to Khorog: Günther from Austria. I
present him in a workshop.

Travels on the Silk Road:
The three girls from Vanj kept a Chaikana going at the bifurcation of the Vanj road that leads
into the "Academy of Science" mountains of the Pamirs (see Map:View). There the Ismail
Somoni peak reaches 7495 m alt. and the 50 km long Fedchenko glacier forms a barrier. The
girls fed us and even conversed with us in (rudimentary) English! It turned out that the village
teacher had made an effort to teach them a few phrases

Silk Road travel:
Coming down from Saghirdasht pass we finally arrived at the Panji river, seen here. The river
carries a lot of water and fine sediments in summer from the big glaciers. The river separates
the Pamir and the Hindukush mountains, it also separates two states, Tajikistan to the left and
Afghanistan to the right. The only road along the river is on the Tajik side, there are no
bridges over the river between Kala-i-Kumb and Khorog. The only connection to the outside
world for many Afghani in the Panji valley is the path you see to the right!

The Panji river is called Amu Darya further down, in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The river
crosses the Kara kum desert and finally flows into the Aral sea. The Macedonian Alexander
and his army crossed the river, called Oxus then, near today's Termiz. In Termiz German
troups are garrisoned to help pacify Afghanistan. This river spoke to us of history!

Silk Road travel:
A last picture of the Saghirdasht pass, this time during downhill. In the valley the Panj river
(=Amu Darya later on) awaits us, the Oxus of Alexander's time!

Silk Road travel:
As we finally made it on the Kotali Saghirdasht (=Khaburabot pereval) the vista to the high
Pamir opened to us for the first time: still far away and hidden in the clouds is Qullai
Somonyan (formerly called pik Kommunizma), 7495 m alt. Maybe you find it on satellite
photo with "Map:view" by zooming out.

The lonely busstop speaks of times long bygone where all-terrain vehicles were used to
establish regular bus services for sheperds. Today the link between the capital Dushanbe and
the province Kuhistoni Badakhshon is either by private vehicles over this pass or by a much
longer, difficult route southward from Dushanbe. Tourists often use the daily flight of the
domestic "Tajik Air" to go directly to Khorog.
Silk Road travels:
Almost on top of the Kotali Saghirdasht (=Khaburabot pass, 3252 m alt.) ! This is one hell of a
mountaineous area, just what we were looking for. We have arrived in Badakhshan!

Under "Map: View" I put the red sign on the pass.
Silk Road travel:
On our way to the Saghirdasht pass we encountered this welcome committee of T-62 tanks.
Being destroyed, they are no longer menacing though.

Before these tanks engaged in a civil war in the 90ties they churned up the roads with their
wheeltracks. Many roads have not been repaired since. The good news: today Tajikistan is
safe for travel, the still remaining mine fields are marked; a Swiss NGO, the "Société suisse
de déminage", is demining the zones. The Tajik army today presents itself to the tourist as
"friend and helper"; we saw only light equipment.

Road reconstruction is under way only around the capital, in Dushanbe province and in the
plains; mountaineous provinces are not so fortunate, costs will be staggering there. This state
of things paradoxically brings Tajikistan a bicycle tourism.

Silk Road travel:
The Saghirdasht pass is hard on any vehicle but more so to the old ones of Soviet vintage.
This truck lost a wheel and the mechanic is trying to get a thread to the axle back on---
freehanded! The Ladas are called "Russian samovars" here because they loose a lot of hot
water. Where landslides or a broken down truck blocked the traffic we carried our bikes over
and continued our trip shortly after.

Silk Road travel from Toshkent to Kashgar:

The road towards the Saghirdasht pass winds through a thinly populated but very scenic
mountain area. Road maintenance is nil, few vehicles are passing. The chaikana (Oshkona in
Tajik) are sparse, the meals offered simple but good. Here we got some plov, the obligatory
tea, honey as sweetener and kefir. Note the Soviet-style aluminum spoon and the plastic table
You can look up the location of the Oshkona in Map:view.

Silk Road from Toshkent to Kashgar:
Right after the crossing of the border between the two wilayati (provinces) of Dushanbe and
Kuhistoni Badakhshon, and still on our way up the Saghirdasht pass we saw this settlement,
Aghilgara. It is situated at 1750 m. alt. near the river Obikhingou. The timid but at the same
time curious ladies accepted my taking a picture.

Silk Road travel:
From Dushanbe we went in a western direction to the second important pass on our way to the
Pamir: Saghirdasht (formerly called Kaburabot pass; 3255 m). The military road built in the
thirties has not seen much repair ever since. Recently, a new branch of the Silk road opened
from Dushanbe to Kashgar (China), bringing some traffic (mainly new cars imported from
China). The local vehicles are generally of Russian manufacture, sturdy but ages old (here a
VAZ truck made in Togliatti).
The picture is taken not far from the Obikhingou river near the village of Childara. You can
llok it up on Google earth with "Map: view"

Market scene in Dushanbe. Several ethnies live in Dushanbe, the capital is after all close to
Afghanistan, Khyrgyzia and Uzbekistan. During Stalin's reign people were forcibly shoved
around in the whole Soviet Union by the millions, so Russians arrived here as well. Because
of this, today's remote Dushanbe has an international flair.

In countries where many people don't have refrigerators, dried fruit and nuts are important
food items during winter time. (I remember that my parents dried apple slices during WW II
in Switzerand).

After mastering the Anzob pass we arrived in the pleasant city of Dushanbe, the capital of
Tajikistan. To the right you see our "Gostinitsa Dushanbe". It is a hotel in the good-old Soviet
style, with a huge number of unqualified personnel who sit around watching TV. 4 people
guarded the entrance but were not helpful. Most rooms stayed empty. Here we met other
cyclists, English Dutch and Swiss, willing to travel in the Pamir.

In the center you see the monument of Sadriddin Aini (1878-1954), a Tajik intellectual
engaged in writing, journalism, history. At the time of his birth Tajikistan was part of the
Emirate of Bukhara. He helped to propagate the Russian Revolution in the Emirate, but also
instilled a sense of Tajik nationalism that survived the Soviet Union. Some characters of his
novels are immortalized to the left. (Gleaned from WIikipedia).