Slicing through some of the world’s highest mountains, the Pamir Highway is Central Asia’s wildest road, a drive of awesome peaks, ancient art and warm Tajik hospitality
The mighty peak of 7,546m Muztagh Ata hovered across the nearby Chinese frontier as morning traders weaved between the metal container-trucks of Murghab’s windblown bazaar. Zigzagging through the crowds of wiry Tajiks and hard-drinking Kyrgyz men, I filled my pockets with brightly coloured boiled sweets and Chinese biscuits in preparation to continue my journey on the Pamir Highway – one of the world’s most audacious unpaved roads.
Up in the sunlit but cold Pamir Mountains, Murghab – Tajikistan’s highest town at a dizzying altitude of 3,650m – feels like the true bam-i-dunya (‘roof of the world’). A few other travellers, mainly trekkers and Silk Road buffs, also bartered for road-friendly snacks at this mid-way point of the highway, but we were a hardy minority. A small number of families live amid the desolate, lunar-like landscapes of eastern Tajikistan. They are devoted to the land – though they endure it rather than live off it. The Pamir Highway, or M41 as it’s officially known, is their link to the rest of the world.
Built by Soviet military engineers between 1931 and 1934, the Highway traverses the Central Asian ’stans, starting in Uzbekistan, looping through Tajikistan – from capital Dushanbe, along the Afghan border and on east to Murghab – before heading north into Kyrgyzstan. Driving this road is the epitome of adventure; the section between Khorog and Murghab alone has two passes above 4,000m as it weaves through the least visited mountain range in the world.
That night in Murghab, both temperature and darkness fell quickly. Fortunately, Pamiri comforts (such as they are) were on offer at Ibrahim’s three-bedroom homestay. I attempted to bathe (for an extra $2) in a sauna-style bathroom outside in the courtyard, flapping my arms like a bird to keep warm and grateful for the relatively steady hot-water supply, umuvalnik (hand basin) and clean toilet.
Feeling much fresher, I went back inside to find the house full of cooking, light and laughter. I sat down with my hosts to a feast of fresh bread, potato-and-noodle stew, dried mulberries and vodka. The women of the house, dressed in traditional velvet gowns, tended to me, exposing glittering gold teeth every time they smiled. At bedtime, slightly dazed by altitude, I dozed off on a tiny, rickety cot under a thick, garish velour rug. At my feet lay a pile of ornately decorated silver and pink Persian-style dowry boxes, a nod to the ancient heritage that links the Central Asian countries.
Many of these places, including Tajikistan’s southern neighbour Afghanistan, aren’t high on a Western traveller’s wish-list. But turbulent as it is, the history of the region (from Silk Road to Soviets) is fascinating. Nowhere is this more true than the fabled Wakhan Corridor – the finger of land that divides Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the setting for the Great Game of the 19th century. Today, the ‘Wakhan’ generally refers to the southern Afghan area; the northern part belongs to the neighbouring Gorno-Badakhshan province in Tajikistan – where I was headed.
Under a bright, cloudless sky the next morning, I helped my guides Nadi and Dilshot load up a heavy-duty 4WD jeep with our luggage and huge jerrycans of water, and we set to leave for the village of Langar. As we skidded off, two Kyrgyz children waved us goodbye, their faces shiny with mutton fat. During Soviet rule sunscreen was readily available but, since independence, locals have reverted to more traditional methods.
We drove southwards along the gravelly Highway but even as we did so, the snowcapped peaks of the Hindu Kush beckoned us off onto rougher, unmarked roads. The first vehicle we overtook was a weighed down Lada (car of choice in Central Asia), crammed with five adults, bulbous in layers of clothing despite the heat. Men in traditional kalpak hats and women in bright, paisley headscarves waved to us, their faces pressed against the dirty, cracked windows. We jolted by them, dodging an enormous, fluffy red marmot that bolted across the pebble-strewn plain into its hole.
It wasn’t until two hours later that we passed another vehicle – this time a belching truck. It was piled high with tersken, one of the few useful plants that grows in the eastern Pamirs – it is harvested to be burnt as fuel.
Bumping around another dusty mountain corner, Dilshot brought the car to an abrupt stop, exclaiming, “There! Do you see?”
Nadi and I squinted into the sun as he pointed to the sparkling Pamir River where a caravan of eight golden-brown bactrian camels were cautiously crossing over into Afghanistan. “They are making a run for it!”
According to Dilshot, the men we saw with the animals were Tajiks: “The population of Afghanistan is one-fifth Tajik, you know.” Pamiri journeys present tantalising snapshots of Afghan village life, but it’s far easier for camels to cross the rivers that make up much of Tajikistan’s 1,300km border with Afghanistan than it is for people.
Over the centuries though, many merchants, agents, spies and explorers have traversed routes through these mountains. It wasn’t long before we met their unmistakable modern counterpart: two Lycra-clad cyclists. The red-faced Westerners waved at us to stop and, once they’d caught their breath, asked if they were far from Langar. Refusing a ride, they wobbled off again, looking vulnerable against the precipitous drops and unforgivingly pockmarked road.
We reached Langar just as the sun gilded the top of the mountains for the last time that day. The village, built at the confluence of the Pamir and Wakhan rivers, was a welcome contrast to the lifeless plains of Murghab and the rugged eastern Pamirs.
Leafy trees, grazing goats and the sounds of rushing water and playing children were everywhere. I hoped the cyclists had made it. I stayed with Yogdor, the proprietor of the finest homestay in the village (equipped, to my relief, with a working shower, large garden and Western-style toilet). He spoke a little English along with Russian, Tajik and his native Wakhi, of which there is traditionally no written form.
“Tonight, Badakhshani songs. We play for you, from the heart,” Yogdor promised, spinning on his stacked, black-leather heels and returning into the house before I could thank him. One of his daughters, dressed in a gold brocade salwar kameez with her black hair in two thick knee-length braids, handed out china cups of green tea in welcome.
As evening tinted the sky pink, Nadi, Dilshot and I took our places on a tapchan (tea bed) out in Yogdor’s fruit-filled garden. Our host – now dressed in a light safari suit and an embroidered tubeteika skull cap – and his friends picked up their rubob lutes and daf drums and began singing, as promised.
“Love songs,” Nadi said, with a glint in her eye, before adding, “about Badakhshan. These songs are for their villages.”
The songs were heartfelt and sung with closed eyes and swaying bodies. A little girl of three or four, dressed in a velvet robe dress, danced non-stop, her hands elegantly turning in the hot night air.
In a place devoid of televisions, shops and even radios, performances like this, Nadi told me, are a routine leisure activity for the hard-working Wakhi people, most of whom are wedded to the mountains.
As the music played we ate melons the size of horses heads, spongy apricots, thin soup-like plov and non bread, which is treated with great respect. Non, a kind of leavened flatbread that is flavoured with a sprinkling of salt and baked in a tandoor oven, much like naan, should never be placed face down or be allowed to fall to the ground. So important is it that a popular local proverb translates loosely as ‘the bread is in the basket, the key is in heaven’. Vodka followed and flowed freely into tiny, cracked shot glasses.
It was clear the locals’ devotion was to their homeland and traditions. A very different type of Islam is practised in the Pamirs than in the fundamentalist regions further south. Interlaced with Russian traditions leftover from Soviet rule, most Pamiris profess the Ismaili faith and follow the Aga Khan, who is revered as a living god.
The main reason to visit Langar is a series of hard-to-reach petroglyphs, some dating back to the Bronze Age. After breakfasting on semolina, we set out on the steep paths that surround the village to look for them, the sharp, clean air clearing our heads from the evening before. We found just 20 or so of the 6,000 carvings that are reputedly hidden in the hills – depictions of mountain goats, yaks, deer, hunters and (in keeping with village traditions) a few musical instruments dotted among the recent Russian grati.
That afternoon, Dilshot promised he’d show me a little-known museum dedicated to the life of the Sufi mystic Mubarak-i Wakhani (1839-1903), a much-loved local astronomer and theologist. After a short drive through willow and birch trees, we pulled up at a rock-strewn hill. Dilshot pointed to the slender branches and explained that willow is very important in Tajik culture: “We use it to draw with during Navrouz [Persian New Year]. It is the symbol of new life because in spring it is the first tree that comes alive after a long sleep.”
As part of a wider post-Soviet revival in Tajik culture, there has been a concerted effort by the villagers to maintain traditions such as this; the Wakhani Museum – housed in a wonderful Pamiri house once owned by the mystic and flanked by huge Marco Polo sheep horns – celebrates this.
Inside, there were piles of dog-eared manuscripts – lacking any paper, Wakhani made his own parchment from the bark of apricot trees and wrote more than 26 books. There were also clay jugs from Bukhara, an imam’s robes and all manner of lutes and stringed instruments; one contraption, crafted by the mystic himself, was ‘only ever to be played for God’.
Further on our journey, Dilshot drew my attention to some hermit caves that had been carved into the mountainside, above a cliff-top graveyard. “Wakhani would meditate there,” he told me, “but, before him, Buddhist ascetics lived there and, after, during the civil war in the 1990s, guerrilla fighters.”
“Quite a history,” I mused.
Dilshot nodded, “We’ve had our fair share of trouble, but now we hope peace will last and that more travellers will come.”
He raised his eyes to the mighty mountains; I took in the epic, empty scene, and thought to myself, yes, more travellers really should.
Caroline Eden is a travel writer specialising in South and Central Asia, writing on the subject for The Independent and The Times, and is author of the Hedonist's Guide To Mumbai
The author travelled part-independent/partly with Central Asian specalists MIR, who offer a range of tours to Tajikistan and its neighbours