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Panoramas of the remaining Stans (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan)

We’ve already shown you our favourite panoramas of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and below are the author’s selection from the remaining Stans on our trip. They are all very different, so the contrast between the panoramas of these neighbouring countries might surprise you as much as it did us.

Tajikistan is a country of rugged mountains, deserted valleys and roads, snow-covered peaks, crystal-clear raging mountain streams and incredible, often overwhelming hospitality.

Uzbekistan stands out with its famous trio of ancient silk road towns full of mosques, minarets, medrassas and mausoleums decorated with beautiful blue mosaic tiles. It also stood out with consistently serving the the worst food of the trip (somebody had to say it) even though we had our best breakfasts here, pretty decent drops of wine, fantastic handicrafts and is unfortunately the home of the biggest recent environmental disaster in the world. It was also the only country where we stayed in hotels more than we camped due to the old USSR registration rules.

Turkmenistan of all the former USSR states retains the strongest feel of a police state. You are not allowed to take photos of the brand new white marbled buildings in the capital and people are forced to leave their homes to make space for shiny, new apartment buildings, all of white marble of course. It is also home to the biggest campfire in the world, one of the world’s biggest deserts, the forefathers of the thoroughbreds of today and some seriously amazing carpets. It also knows how to make people feel incredibly welcome and people are genuinely friendly, generous and helpful.

Enjoy the contrasts!

Tajikistan – Lake Kara-kul

Tajikistan – Lake Kara-kul

A beautiful lake created by a meteor impact 10 million years ago, situated at 4000m altitude just across the border from Kyrgyzstan. Whilst we had beautiful weather everything froze overnight.

Tajikistan – Lake Kara-kul

Tajikistan – Lake Kara-kul

As it was a beautiful, sunny and wind still day at Lake Kara-kul, we couldn’t resist going out for a quick paddle enjoying the silence and snow capped peaks.

Tajikistan – Shor-kul lake

Tajikistan – Shor-kul lake

Another beautiful lake along the Pamir Highway. The snow covered peaks in the distance are in China. We set up camp right on its shores, amazed to see mosquitos at 3,750m. Later we were treated to a spectacular moon rise.

Tajikistan – Lake Yashil Kul

Tajikistan – Lake Yashil Kul

Yashil-Kul means ‘green lake’ and the contrast with the desert of the central Pamirs is striking. An exciting 4WD track leads to two ancient stone circles, estimated to be 4000 years old, where we had morning tea for Jude’s birthday.

Tajikistan – Zong

Tajikistan – Zong

After hiking up the hill to see the fortress (built in the 12th century to guard this branch of the Silk Road from Afghan and Chinese invaders) we were rewarded with this view across the Wakhan Valley. The mountains on the far side of the river are in Afghanistan.

Tajikistan – Khaaka Fortress

Tajikistan – Khaaka Fortress

The track to the impressive Khaaka Fortress went through this apricot orchard in beautiful autumn colours.

Tajikistan – Bartang Valley

Tajikistan – Bartang Valley

View upriver from the pulley bridge where we crossed to start our hike up the Gisev Valley, visible on the far right of the panorama. The clear waters of the Gisev stream are still visible before they mix in with the milky white waters in the Bartang Valley.

Tajikistan – Gisev Valley

Tajikistan – Gisev Valley

Our host village was hard at work in preparation for the coming winter months.

Tajikistan – Iskander Kul Lake

Tajikistan – Iskander Kul Lake

We sat on this tiny beach for a few hours, enjoying our lunch, the views, a wash and a good book. The President’s dacha (holiday house) is just along the shoreline.

Tajikistan – Penjakent

Tajikistan – Penjakent

This is ancient Penjakent, which made for an atmospheric campsite. New Penjakent, where we had Lara’s fuel tank welded, is located at the foot of this hill, invisible from the historic site.

Tajikistan – Seven Lakes

Tajikistan – Seven Lakes

This is the 7th lake of the chain of seven lakes in the eastern Fan Mountains, located furthest up the valley at the end of the steep 4WD track. From here only a small walking trail continues past the lake and into the next stunning valley.

Tajikistan – Alauddin Pass

Tajikistan – Alauddin Pass

The stunning blue Alauddin Lakes in the Fan Mountains are just visible from the pass (3850m) located a 1000m above. We had lunch at the pass before descending into the Kulikalon Valley.

Uzbekistan – Samarkand

Uzbekistan – Samarkand

The stunning Gur-e-Amir mausoleum in Samarkand is the final resting place of Timur the Great (also kown as Tamerlane), whose empire stretched from India to Turkey. He died in 1405 whilst invading China. This was our first blue mosaic tiled building and we fell in love with it.

Uzbekistan – Samarkand

Uzbekistan – Samarkand

The famous Registan in Samarkand, a beautiful square with 3 medrassas (Islamic schools) built around it between 1400 and 1600. The proportions of the buildings and overload of beautiful blue tiles make for a fitting centerpiece for such a famous city.

Uzbekistan – Ellis Qala (50 forts)

Uzbekistan – Ellis Qala (50 forts)

We only visited 5 or 6 of the 50 forts. Ayaz Qala, from the 6th century was one of the most impressive ones. Amazing that, after 1500 years, the mud brick walls are still standing.

Uzbekistan – Khiva

Uzbekistan – Khiva

This historic silk road town, completely surrounded by fortified mud brick walls, reached its heyday in the 16th century. It was a delight to walk around in the inner area of the town filled with old houses, mosques, medrassas, museums and shops.

Uzbekistan – Khiva

Uzbekistan – Khiva

The Juma mosque in Khiva is unusual because its roof is supported by 218 wooden pillars, in a design more often seen in the Middle East, but not in Central Asia. Around 7 or so original wooden pillars are still standing after 1000 years.

Uzbekistan – Aral Sea

Uzbekistan – Aral Sea

Cows now venture into what once was a sea to find their food.

Uzbekistan – Aral Sea

Uzbekistan – Aral Sea

The wrong kind of ships of the desert…

Turkmenistan – Ashgabat

Turkmenistan – Ashgabat

Unfortunately we didn’t take many panoramas in Turkmenistan, but this one shows the new grandiose style of Ashgabat. Taken from the front steps of an enormous mosque, which can hold 10.000 people, you can see the tomb of Turkmenbasi (self-proclaimed father of the Turkmens) on the left. He was a mad dictator whose priority appeared to be renaming the months of the year and days of the week after members of his family. He built much of extravagant white marbled Ashgabat using precious gas revenues. Fortunately, his successor appears slightly less flamboyant.

Lost and Found in the Fan Mountains

The plan was to go hiking in the beautiful Fan Mountains and there are numerous options to go trekking here, from a day-hike to several weeks. Two of those had our interest: the 7 lakes and the Kulikalon Lakes, but when studying both options a bit more in detail we realised the hike along the 7 lakes follows a road all the way to the top. So, we decided to drive to the 7 lakes and walk to the Kulikalon lakes where there are no roads at all.

We first drove to the 7 lakes and just after the police checkpoint we spotted the first other Defender in Tajikistan standing outside a mosque. Of course we stopped. Not just to have a look, but we also wanted to find the owner to ask him where he would buy his spare parts. We needed new rear brake pads as they were wearing thin (all this driving on dodgy and dusty mountain roads) and only had front pads as spares. We were assured at the last service in Almaty that our brakes would be good for another 15 – 20.000km, enough to get us to Turkey…

The owner was called and Jon was handed the phone: “Stay where you are, I am coming” was the answer in English from Rashid. How amazing that the only other Defender owner in Tajikistan speaks English! Over tea, we talked Land Rovers, and he promised to look into it for us.

And he did. Before heading for the Uzbekistan border after our hike, we drove to Rashid’s house and spent an enjoyable day chatting with Rashid, his lovely wife Munavara and meeting some of their five daughters over a huge lunch. Rashid had very kindly organised for his local workshop to modify some locally available brake pads to fit, as he has done for his own car. Of course, he refused any payment and we left a few hours later enormously humbled by central Asian hospitality yet again. And Lara is now the proud owner of Lada rear brake pads!

Munavara with their 2 month-old daughter, Rifat, Rashid, Jon and Jude

Munavara with their 2 month-old daughter, Rifat, Rashid, Jon and Jude

Jon and Rashid and the Lada brakes for Lara!

Jon and Rashid and the Lada brakes for Lara!

We then drove on up the valley past the 7 lakes, each one higher and more beautiful than the last and all with crystal clear water. Nestled amongst the lakes were well-kept villages, with locals finishing the harvest, who would stop to give us a cheery wave as we passed. After about 60km and countless hairpin bends we arrived at the seventh lake, our campsite for the night, unfortunately a bit cold for a swim.

the track going past lake 1 of 7

the track going past lake 1 of 7

lovely track to the 7 lakes

lovely track to the 7 lakes

lake 2, they were all beautiful

lake 2, they were all beautiful

The next day we headed back down and turned back up the Artush Valley to start our trek. We found a campsite for the car near the start of the hike and packed our bags. The next morning Jon was not feeling very well (stomach upset), but we headed out anyway, as you do. We left our car securely parked in the Artush alpinist camp and started our hike up. We first headed over the very steep and difficult 3260m Zurmech Pass to the Kulikalon lakes and wanted to come back via the easier route through the valley.

It seems nobody takes this difficult route, so there was no trail to follow, making it very difficult going in places. We followed little sections of goats’ trails where we could and on the way down even dropped into the rocky creek bed as it was easier than the steep slopes. Luckily we had found some water on the way down as we were running on empty after all the hard work going up.

walking down towards the K lakes

walking down towards the Kulikalon lakes

sensational views after crossing the first pass

sensational views after crossing the Zurmech pass

We arrived exhausted at the beautiful Kulikalon lakes. Camp was made at the edge of the lake and we had to endure a ridiculously spicy pasta sauce that night. The downside of not being able to read the labels when buying jars and tins… The days were still warm and sunny, but as soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains it dropped to freezing (literally) and we didn’t admire the stars for very long.

view from our first campsite - do you like it?

view from our first campsite – do you like it?

The next day our route took us over a 3850m pass. Having camped at 2800m it meant another steep hill up, but at least part of it had a trail from previous hikers and goats. We’d seen the trail from the top of yesterday’s pass and knew exactly where to go. So, with the arrogance of people who know it all, we set off to the start of the trail and started climbing. Parts of the slope had no trail and it was tough going until we reached the well-defined last section. Whilst the trail made it easier, it was still a pretty steep slog up the switchbacks.

day 2, on our way to the start of the Alauddin pass

day 2, on our way to the start of the Alauddin pass

view back over the valley with the K lakes

view back over the valley with the Kulikalon lakes

hiking up towards the pass we thought was Alauddin pass...

hiking up towards the pass we thought was Alauddin pass…

Elated we reached the top with high-fives and stopped for lunch, enjoying the views back down to the lake and of the 5490m Chimtarga Peak, with fresh snow on top. The way down looked less steep, but that proved deceptive. It took us hours to get down before we could start on the slightly gentler slope through the valley. At the end of the valley we would find the Alauddin Lakes to mark where we would ‘turn left’. The next day we had to hike all the way back to the car, so we wanted to continue a bit past the lakes, to make the final day a bit shorter.

Much to our surprise, we got to the end of the valley and there were no lakes. All we found was a deserted house that, on closer inspection, had the sign for a Community Based Tourism homestay on it. In true orienteering style, we made the surroundings ‘fit’ the map (which they clearly didn’t) and trudged off down a 4WD track.  It took us another half hour walking down the 4WD track before the light bulb went on – we had gone over the wrong pass!!! Doh! Having seen the trail the previous day had us head over to the start of that trail without really looking at the map and we paid the price…

day 2 should have finished coming down this valley...

day 2 should have finished coming down this valley…

Luckily for us, we had walked our intended return leg, planned for the last day. So we could now continue to complete the loop the other way around. Knowing where we really were and realising we had already made next day’s hike shorter by covering the entire valley after the wrong pass, made us feel a little better and we decided to camp right next to the beautiful stream coming down from the Alauddin lakes.

Then Jude’s tummy decided to play up, and in the middle of the night she was up, pouring the contents of her stomach into a bush. After a restless night sleep we decided to try to get back to the car regardless, as we were in a remote spot and it would take Jon at least 2 days to reach her by car.

But then luck was on our side. As we were finishing packing up camp, a car drove past and stopped. Which way we were headed was the question and when we pointed towards the Alauddin Lakes he told us to hop in. When we got to the camp a few kilometers up the valley, he parked and then walked ahead, showing us the way through the maze of forest trails to the spectacular Alauddin Lakes. He had just saved us 2 precious hours.

After a stop for morning tea at the lakes we started our ascent to the 3850m Alauddin pass, towering over 1000m above us. Again it was really steep, with lots of lose scree and sand through the many switchbacks and the slog up took us 3 hours. But we made it to the top in time for lunch. We were looking out for a snow leopard near the top as we had just seen many of its footprints, but that’s all we were to see.

morning tea at the Alauddin Lakes - finally

morning tea at the Alauddin Lakes – finally

Alauddin Lakes, spectacular colours - just amazing

Alauddin Lakes, spectacular colours – just amazing

view from Alauddin pass back to the Alauddin lakes, check out the switchbacks!

view from Alauddin pass back to the Alauddin lakes, check out the switchbacks!

on top of Alauddin pass looking towards K lakes

on top of Alauddin pass looking towards Kulikalon lakes

Going down was a lot easier as it was less steep and with a good trail this time we were making great times. In no time we made it back down to the Kulikalon lakes, more than 1000m below. The scenery was changing constantly and in the valley we were now back amongst sensational trees with twisted, gnarled trunks and branches making them appear thousands of years old (which maybe they were!).

We then realized we still had to descent yet another 600m after crossing the plateau with the Kulikalon lakes. After this flat-ish area the going got tougher again. With our legs and knees having turned to jelly many hours ago, we wobbled down the steep track of the last valley between us and our car. Heavily laden donkeys cruised effortlessly past and we were cursing the many lose and uneven sized rocks everywhere on the path making it impossible to get into a rhythm.

almost back in the valley with the K lakes, we then had to go down another 600m in the valley on the far side in the middle

almost back in the valley with the Kulikalon lakes, we then had to go down another 600m in the valley on the far side in the middle

Of course we did get there in the end, even though it felt like every meter took an hour. As dusk fell, we finally reached Lara, exhausted but very happy we did it. Jude was still feeling crook, so we pitched the tent and she went to bed. Jon joined a group of French and Dutch tourists in the alpinist camp for a hot shower, beer and some food.

Maybe it had been a bit ambitious to cover this loop in 3 days, maybe we were just a little unlucky with both of us suffering from stomach upsets during the hike at different times. But we loved it. Highlight definitely being the spectacular Alauddin Lakes.  And our low? I think you probably guessed it already; not finding the Alauddin Lakes at the bottom of the valley where they were supposed to be (according to 2 arrogant hikers who hadn’t bothered looking at the map properly…).

Living life dangerously in Tajikistan

There are countless majestic valleys in the Pamir region and we wanted to explore at least one of them a little bit before leaving this beautiful region. We had read about homestay options in Geisev, a miniscule village in a small side valley of the Bartang Valley. To get there you must cross the wide, raging river on a pulley ‘bridge’ and then hike for 2-3 hours as there are no roads to the village itself. That sounded great.

Jizev Valley (seen from the Bartang Valley)

Geisev Valley (seen from the Bartang Valley)

But after we had parked the car and took a closer look at the pulley ‘bridge’ we realised that the last person who used it had also gone in the direction of Geisev and the little cabin was parked on the other side of the river. The only thing remaining on this side was a crude construction made of some wires slung around the cable with a few branches as a very uncomfortable make-shift seat. We have to cross the river on that?!

Jon wasn’t getting anywhere near the thing, so Jude decided to give it a go. Sitting on the ‘seat’ you need to heave your full weight along the 80m cable, shuffling the wire a few centimeters at the time. Pretty hard on the first half of the crossing, and almost impossible once you are already exhausted on the second half when the sag of the cable means you are pulling yourself uphill. Shaking from exhaustion and covered in bruises on arms and legs from the wire, Jude finally managed to crawl into the little pulley-driven cabin after about an hour, and Jon was hoarse from shouting encouragements over the raging river.

the very comfortable and secure way to cross a river...

the very comfortable and secure way to cross a river…

slightly going up makes it even harder on the second half

slightly going up makes it even harder on the second half

After recovering, Jude climbed into the little cabin and wound it back to Jon and the 2 bags. The cabin was big enough to carry everything, and we finally all crossed to start our hike. It was a short and beautiful hike, and a few hours later we walked into Geisev where we were invited to stay with Lola in her traditional Pamiri home. We enjoyed dinner underneath the big apricot tree and sat there drinking tea with the locals until long after the stars had come out. Then the party moved inside and the vodka came out. We managed to get away with drinking only a few cups before crashing onto our multiple matrasses that had come out from a pile in the corner. Thick blankets were added to make sure we had a perfect night’s sleep.

hiking up the Jizev Valley

hiking up the Jizev Valley

our homestay in the background, this was where we had tea, dinner and breakfast

our homestay in the background, this was where we had tea, dinner and breakfast

After breakfast the next day we walked around the tiny village and explored the local lake. It was interesting to see the villages preparing to hibernate for the long winter, stacking up the hay for the animals and preserving fruits. After saying our farewells, we headed back down the valley to the river to find yet again the little cabin was on the other side of the river! But luckily we had a trolley on a second cable that could be pulled across. Jon was the lucky one this time, and as it had wheels it took him only 5 minutes to haul himself across to safety.

Jon's turn to pick up the cabin, note the comfortable seat and wheels on his trolley

Jon’s turn to pick up the cabin, note the comfortable seat and wheels on his trolley

From the Bartang Valley it takes 2 days to drive to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, due to the bad roads. Our mission in Dushanbe was to pick up our last visa for the trip at the Turkmenistan embassy. First they told us it wasn’t open that day, but after some insisting (it was open according to their sign), we were allowed in. They still wouldn’t help us, but after some further negotiating they did tell us where the bank was we would have to use the next day to pay for our visas, saving us valuable time the next day. We returned in the morning, filled out yet more paperwork, waited, then we were finally given the receipt needed to go to the bank, battled traffic across the city, paid at the bank, drove back to the embassy all before it closed at midday… We were now the proud owners of all visas required to drive our originally planned route.

breakfast visitors, this time a bunch of kids spotted us before they had to go to school

breakfast visitors, this time a bunch of kids spotted us before they had to go to school

the road to Dushanbe from Khorog

the road to Dushanbe from Khorog

overtaking on the road to Dushanbe was a bit of a challenge

overtaking on the road to Dushanbe was a bit of a challenge

Afghans walking on the amazing trail, often hacked out in the rocks

Afghans walking on the amazing trail, often hacked out in the rocks

can you spot the hiking trail on the Afghan side?

can you spot the hiking trail on the Afghan side?

cool rock formations for the geologists amongst you

cool rock formations for the geologists amongst you

our last visas needed for the trip! (we think)

our last visas needed for the trip! (we think)

We decided to push on, as Dushanbe is not really a city to linger in, despite our excellent camp-site at the 5-star Serena Inn. We stopped at the market and replaced the bits which had been stolen in Murgab, stocked-up on food and drove straight out to the Hissar fortress. The fort, the medrassas and the old bathhouse were very impressive and looked stunning with the last rays of sunshine on them. But being there at this beautiful time of the day also meant we were leaving as it was getting dark. That, plus a chaotic traffic jam meant we were trying to find a campsite amongst the lavish mansions of the rich in the Varzob Valley just north of Dushanbe in the dark. Not the best time and place to look for a campsite… We found one in the end on a little side road, next to a fast-flowing stream that drowned the sound of trucks and buses thundering past through the night. Their headlights just reached the tent when passing, so we had a complete sound and light show.

gate of the old fort, one of the medrassas and the old bathhouse in the background

gate of the old fort, one of the medrassas and the old bathhouse in the background

traffic jam Tajik style - it was utter chaos!

traffic jam Tajik style – it was utter chaos!

In contrast to the road into Dushanbe, this road is brand new, built by the Chinese and paid for by the Germans, and we were flying along when we got to a tunnel. This tunnel had been built so vehicles wouldn’t have to go over the dangerous 3,372m Anzob pass anymore. But we would take the pass any time. Oh My God, this is no doubt the most dangerous tunnel in the world. It’s about 6-7km long, without lights, reflectors or fans. Its surface has completely disintegrated, with massive potholes everywhere and has flooded in most areas making the potholes invisible under a layer of water… It’s just wide enough for 2 vehicles, but they planted 2 massive – but not working – fans in the middle of the road. Then, to top it all off, part of the ceiling had collapsed in one area, leaving a ginormous piece of rock blocking one of the lanes too.

the start of the tunnel of death - looks like any other tunnel

the start of the tunnel of death – looks like any other tunnel

until you get inside! (can you see the taillights of the car in front of us?!)

until you get inside! (can you see the taillights of the car in front of us?!)

Due to the lack of ventilation and the clouds of fumes coming out of ancient trucks you can imagine the visibility and quality of air. About halfway through we were getting nauseous and were feeling light-headed. And then we spotted one little reflector which turned out to be 2 men sitting next to an enormous puddle. Their job? Helping people safely through the submerged potholes…

We’ve never been so happy to see the light at the end of a tunnel, which by the way only became visible about 200m before we popped out into the fresh air so thick is the cloud of smoke hanging in the tunnel.

Soon we were sitting next to vibrant blue Iskander Kul lake, enjoying fresh air, lunch, a wash, watching a large bird of prey circling the rocks and some reading. It felt like a little holiday, until it was time to continue our journey to Penjakent and the Fan Mountains. Unfortunately this also meant turning off the smooth main road and turning onto yet another severely potholed dirt road. Jon was not happy.

Iskander Kul lake - the colour is just amazing

Iskander Kul lake – the colour is just amazing

huge bird of prey circling the rocks

huge bird of prey circling the rocks

When we finally reached Penjakent, we had to look after Lara again. Over the past few days we had seen she was leaking a little bit from the diesel tank and with the bad roads continuing plus the fact there is hardly any diesel for sale in Uzbekistan, we wanted to fix it now. We found a garage with the help of the fantastic tourist information centre and they were soon removing the tank to have it welded. They also noticed the rear brake pads were virtually worn out and needed replacement, contrary to advice received by Land Rover in Almaty… We would need to find new pads somewhere, as they don’t sell Land Rovers in Tajikistan, or any other countries we were going to visit until Turkey.

We left Lara and took the bikes out for a spin to the ruins of ancient Penjakent, which we decided would make a perfect campsite for that night We had dinner in a great local shashlyk restaurant where they showed us all the salad dishes they had on a big plate so we could choose – perfect for Jude – and Jon was invited up to the shashlyk bbq to make his selection. When we had finished dinner we rode back to the garage and still had to wait another hour before they were finished. Again the garage had to stay open late for us, but that night we had our non-leaky Lara back, ready for Uzbekistan.

wheel-sized breads - delicious

wheel-sized breads – delicious

melon anyone?

melon anyone?

camping in the middle of the ruins of ancient Penjakent

camping in the middle of the ruins of ancient Penjakent

We drove further towards the closed Uzbek border the next day as we were told there were some more ruins 15km west of Penjakent. Sarazm didn’t disappoint. The ruins of houses, shops, workshops and graves here are 5500 years old. Yep, that’s right, that is older than the Egyptian pyramids and nobody has ever heard of them. In fact, they don’t even get a mention in the Lonely Planet! They even found a mummy – ‘the queen of Sarazm’ – in one of the graves, complete with jewelry and pottery by her side. She is of course no longer there, but the sight was nonetheless very impressive.

Sarazm - nearly 5000 year old ruins

Sarazm – 5500 year old ruins

Jon and Jude find the real Shangri-La

After we left the Pamir Highway we drove south into the Wakhan Valley, straight down to the Pamir River. After another passport check at a remote army post the gate was opened and we were now driving next to Afghanistan, with just the river separating the 2 countries.

remote border post making sure no drugs cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan

remote Tajik army post trying to stop drugs cross the border from Afghanistan into Tajikistan

A little further we spotted some Bactrian camels on the Afghan side and decided it would make a great place to camp, an early stop for a change. Of course with Afghanistan only a river crossing away we got out the walking poles and headed across. The clear water was freezing, fast-flowing and deep in a few spots, but it definitely made it a birthday never to forget for Jude. We prepared a nice curry, uncorked a bottle of Vasse Felix cab sav (which had cellared pretty well in the back of Lara for 7 months) and celebrated whilst gazing at the stars.

camels on the Afghan side of the Wakhan Valley

camels on the Afghan side of the Wakhan Valley

wading across the Pamir river

wading across the Pamir river

getting the corkscrew out to celebrate, aging goes really well for 7 months in the back of a Land Rover

getting the corkscrew out to celebrate, 7 months of bouncing around in the back of Lara seems to help the aging process

This area is so remote we didn’t see another car during the entire afternoon, evening and next morning until we reached the small settlement of Ratm where Jon walked to an old fort. Jude stayed with the car to protect it from thieves.

amazing scenery

the beautiful Wakhan Valley

It’s hard to describe how beautiful the Wakhan Valley is. Life is tough for the people living here, but those living in the small, nicely kept villages who grow their own crops appear to have everything they need. The pace of life is low, people have time for a chat, a smile and of course a handshake. Harvesting is a very social affair and, although hard work as most things are done by hand, is done by young and old together. Grandfathers working next to their grandchildren and every age in between.

harvest time in Langar

harvest time in Langar

Houses are immaculately kept, gardens blooming with all sorts of flowers, perfectly made rock walls divide gardens and line the roads, trees everywhere providing much needed shade and the abundant mountain streams are freezing cold and crystal clear. And on top of this visual paradise, the people here are extremely friendly, always wanting to help you with nothing in return except for a smile, a handshake and a ‘cologh’ (thank you).

where there is water there is life...

where there is water there is life…

sensational, on the right Tajikistan, on the left Afghanistan

sensational, on the right Tajikistan, on the left Afghanistan only 20m apart

filling the tanks with water from the local pump

filling the tanks with water from the local pump

We were told to park our car inside somebody’s garden when we visited the amazing petroglyphs of Langar, we were given potatoes and apples when camping next to a village, and were not allowed to pay for the bread we were given after we asked for some in a shop (the shop didn’t have any, but the owner did and he wouldn’t except any money for it) and so on, and so on.

petroglyphs at Langar

petroglyphs at Langar

Everywhere we went we were given smiles, enthusiastic waves and right hands were moved to the heart area with a nod when we drove past (a polite way of saying ‘asalam aleykum’ or hello). We felt so welcome here and we were very happy to tell them about our journey, time and time again, using the map on our car. The map made it so easy to tell the story, and after hearing it, they all wanted to know if we liked the Pamirs and the Wakhan Valley, how many kilometers we had driven so far, where we were going and how long we had been on our way.

camping in a village means visitors for breakfast, they loved our chairs

camping in a village means visitors for breakfast, they loved our chairs

The Bibi Fatima hot springs and the Yamchun fort are right next to each other and are reached via a 6km steep and narrow track straight up the mountain. We ran around the fort for a while, built in the 12th century but also used during the Great Game in the 19th century when the British Empire and the Russians were involved in a regional struggle for power and land. This is the reason the Wakhan corridor was created, as it served as a neutral strip of land between the British Empire in the south and the Russians in the north. Both sides of the Wakhan Valley have ruins of forts remaining from that era.

yamchun fort - spectacular location

12th century Yamchun Fort with a spectacular setting

When we came back from the fort we saw another car parked behind ours, another Defender it turned out! They were the first overlanders we meet in a Defender. We sat down for lunch and a long chat. Linda and Silvan were heading the other way with their Swiss poptop Defender (looked great), so we exchanged information about the countries we had been to and were going to, before we had to say our goodbyes. Our next stop was the Bibi Fatima hot springs.

Lara and the Swiss poptop Defender

Lara and the Swiss Defender

Jon went inside as the men were in the springs when we arrived and Jude joined the ladies waiting outside, chatting to Donahoss who spoke perfect English, how lucky. Jon emerged very clean and with a red face and then it was Jude’s turn. As this is a place where women come who have problems having children, it is mostly a hot springs for women. It is probably one of the most interesting of the hot springs we have ever seen, with the hot water pouring straight out of the stalactites and holes in the beautiful natural walls. It’s small, only 6-8 people can fit, and it has an even smaller cave where women climb in and say their prayers for babies. They dig up a grain of sand from the bottom and some even eat it for, probably, more babies. It was fantastic to be completely clean again after all the dust in the past days.

natural hot springs, hot water pouring straight from the stalactites

Bibi Fatima natural hot springs, with hot water pouring straight from the stalactites

A little further on, in another tiny village called Vrang, we stopped to look at an ancient Buddhist stupa and some of the meditation caves around it, when we bumped into 16 year old Ruslan who again spoke perfect English. He invited us into his traditional Pamir house where his mum made us tea and we admired the inside of these fascinating houses. The main room is built around 5 pillars which is symbolic for the 5 pillars of islam, the skylight has 4 concentric levels representing (from top to bottom) air, fire, water and earth (there are no windows in the room). Around the walls are permanent platforms where you sit, eat and sleep. Both the walls and platforms are covered in colourful cloths. We loved the colourful smaller sitting mats which look like long, thin mattresses.

buddhist stupa in Vrang

4th century buddhist stupa in Vrang

Ruslan then showed us his grandparents’ house around the corner, much bigger but still built according to the same principals. He even gave us a performance on the rubob, a 2-stringed instrument played like a guitar. We’d already walked to the waterfall in the village, but on our way back to the car he showed us the communal waterwheel mills, in full swing during harvest time, and Jon got to dig out some potatoes so an old lady could have a break. Ruslan was really keen for a book in English and as we had finished one we gave it to him, good practice for him.

inside a large traditional Pamir home with Ruslan and his grandmother

inside a large traditional Pamiri home with Ruslan and his grandmother

the waterwheel mill in full swing

the waterwheel powered mill in full swing during harvest time

Jon digging out potatoes

Jon digging out potatoes

Every night in the Wakhan Valley we had a fantastic campsite, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, sometimes in the middle of a village and once, at the end of the Wakhan Valley in Khorog, in the gardens of a 5-star resort called Serena Inn. This hotel was built by the Aga Khan foundation, the Aga Khan being the spiritual leader of the Ismailis who live in this area. They are Shiite muslims, but don’t use a mosque to pray and don’t have a specific religious day of the week. Instead they use a ‘jamoat khana’ which is also used as a community hall, and both men and women pray together. Women on the left as the Qoran says the women came from the men’s left knee. They also value education a lot, including for women. We only discovered a little about this religion, and certainly liked what we learned.

relaxing in the gardens of Serena Inn

hard at work in the gardens of Serena Inn

In Khorog we had one main job: getting an original form for the car import papers, instead of the blank piece of paper we were given on entry. This became a classical run-around town scenario. Officials in each government department we visited sending us on to another building, usually right on the other side of town of course. We drove up and down the main drag a few times, sometimes accompanied by a police officer, sometimes on our own, until we were sent even further out of town to the actual border control post with Afghanistan (right next to the Serena Inn where we had stayed, of course!).

And that’s where we were finally given an original form, of course he wanted his reward for handing over an original form and we parted with $5. We were just happy we finally had the correct paperwork for the car with the right dates on it so we could continue our journey through Tajikistan…

this is where we needed to be, very obvious isn't it?

this is where we needed to be, obvious isn’t it?

The Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway covers 750 km from Osh (in Kyrgyzstan) to Khorog in Tajikistan. This was another part of the trip we were both very much looking forward to. The plan was to partly drive the Pamir Highway, as we were keen to drive through the Wakhan Valley which borders Afghanistan along the Pamir and Gunt Rivers, and for that we had to detour south from the Pamir Highway at some point.

The Pamir Highway was built by the Russian military in the 1930’s to facilitate troop movements in the furthest reaches of their empire. We were surprised it was pretty much all tarmac (asfalt) in good condition, but didn’t mind when driving over the highest pass on our trip at 4655m. A test Lara passed easily, we were struggling a bit due to the rapid altitude gain in the last few hours.

highest point on the trip at 4655m!

highest point of the trip at 4655m!

This road has only recently been opened up to foreigners and last year it was even closed due to some unrest in Khorog. We were very lucky to be able to drive it.

Driving down from Osh we bumped into Christine and Guillaume in their Land Cruiser. We had met them in Mongolia and spent an hour or so catching up on news alongside the road to the border with magnificent views of the Tajik Mountains in the background. Given they were heading in the opposite direction we exchanged notes and currencies.

driving towards Tajikistan, Pamir Highway here we come!

driving towards Tajikistan, already on the Pamir Highway!

A little later we left the plains of Kyrgyzstan and entered the Pamir Mountains with our climb towards the border (you can read about the Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan border on the Tajikistan page), followed by more climbing until we finally reached Lake Karakol at 4000m altitude. It was late and we decided to camp there, admiring the sunset over the lake as we set up the tent. We had to quickly add layers of clothing, as the temperature plummeted as soon as the sun dropped behind the horizon. Beanies, gloves, thermals and even the sleeping bags all got a good workout that night. Perhaps a taste of what awaits us in Europe in a few months?

full moon at our campsite next to Lake Karakol at 3938m

full moon at our campsite next to Lake Karakol at 3938m

breakfast at Lake Karakol

breakfast at Lake Karakol

The next morning Lara refused to start at the first attempt for the first time on the trip, today she took 2 or 3 goes before she started purring. Her temperature gauge read ‘less than zero’ and gave an error message before she slowly warmed up. Our water pump and water bottle up in the tent had also frozen solid during the night. Luckily we had some bottles of water in the fridge we could use for our cuppa! (kopje thee)

poor Lara was struggling with the temperatures (and so were we)

poor Lara was struggling with the temperatures (and so were we)

As soon as the sun reached us from behind the mountains it warmed up quickly, and we couldn’t resist getting our kayak out for a paddle on the lake. It’s not often you can paddle on a crystal-clear high-altitude lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The water along the edge was still frozen when we launched, but on the water it was gorgeous.

kayaking on Lake Karakol

kayaking on Lake Karakol

As you drive through the Pamirs, surrounded by towering peaks, you soon forget you are driving at over 3,500m altitude. Instead, you notice how dry and desolate this place is, essentially a high-altitude desert. Nothing grows here, and the locals appear to eek out a living with goat herding.

filling up with diesel on the Pamir Highway, this was our change...

filling up with diesel on the Pamir Highway, this was our change…

yaks on the plains of the Pamir Highway

yaks on the plains of the Pamir Highway

the Pamir Highway, tarmac almost everywhere but not always in good condition

the Pamir Highway, tarmac almost everywhere but not always in good condition

just beautiful!

just beautiful!

Lara cruisin' on the Pamir Highway

Lara cruisin’ on the Pamir Highway

moonrise over Shor-Kul lake, another awesome caampsite

moonrise over Shor-Kul lake, another awesome campsite

The next day, after camping at another pretty lake overnight, we arrived in Murghab, the main town in the eastern Pamirs. The Tajik border guards had run-out of vehicle import forms, so had scribbled our details on a blank piece of paper, and added their stamp at the bottom for a bit of official-ness. This meant we needed to have this transcribed onto an official form, and also apply to extend our car import papers (we were given 30 days at the border, but for some unknown reason cars only get 15 days). No such luck in Murghab. The customs official did scribble a new exit date on our blank bit of paper, but we think he said he was also out of original forms and didn’t have a stamp. We’ll have to try again in Khorog…

Our confidence in people and our security received a bit of a dent when we returned to our car from the customs office: they had stolen our ‘blind spot’ mirrors and 3 of the 4 valve caps off the car (had we interrupted them or is 4 an unlucky number for thieves?) in the 20 minutes or so we had left her alone, in front of the information office in the middle of town.

It wasn’t so much the value of the things they had taken, it was the loss of our feeling of security that hit hardest. Leaving Lara anywhere had turned from a routine matter (which we never even thought about) to a worry. What if they break in and take more valuable things? It was a thought that crept into our heads, but luckily we were in the Pamirs now. The people in this region are incredibly open and welcoming to strangers. And soon we were confident to leave Lara again wherever we wanted and started to enjoy the hospitality of this amazing region again.

It wasn’t far from Murghab (which we had left in a bit of an angry hurry) to our turn-off point and soon we were driving towards Yashil-Kul lake. It was already getting late, but as it was Jude’s birthday the next day we wanted to push on to the lake before dark. We failed miserably as track after track turned out to be dead-ends and we were getting pretty frustrated. Soon we were driving in the dark, wondering if we were ever going to find this lake, when we bumped into a tiny little sign for a geyser (the nearest village is probably more than hundred kilometers away, so this sign was quite remarkable). That would do for the night. We parked up and quickly prepared dinner in the dark.

losing daylight rapidly in this remote valley with lots of dead-end tracks

losing daylight rapidly in this remote valley with lots of dead-end tracks

The next day we quickly covered the remaining kilometers to the lake and headed for the ancient stone circles on the north shore. Archeologists have not yet discovered what they are for and why they are there, but some think it is a sort of primitive Stonehenge. For us it was a fantastic birthday morning tea stop, and a great 4WD track to get there too.

After morning tea we drove back towards the Pamir Highway, to spend a few last kilometers on this amazing road as we were taking the alternate route to Khorog from here through the Wakhan Valley.

ancient stone circles near lake Yashil-Kul

ancient stone circles near lake Yashil-Kul