Beneath the frozen mountains, plateaus of rolling meadows lie bear and lifeless. Life is unsustainable in this challenging environment. It is too high for anything to survive year round and it is no surprise that the landscape resembles more of a moonscape. Unlike other mountain ranges, the Pamir’s receive little rain and greenery is nearly as hard to come by as a sign of life. The Manichean colour scheme is only softened by the outline of deep blue curling above and over the mountains. Breathing here is like receiving moisture from a mouthful of cinnamon as drinking frequently is essential to stop parched lips bleeding and your mouth drying out completely against the wind and sun. Such is the price of visiting ‘The Roof of the World’.
The climb to the higher clutches of the range along the Gulcha River was at least one frequented with shade as trees clung to the river’s edge sapping up the dwindling snow melt running down the valley. With this fertility came small villages like the unpronounceable Uch-Dobe and Archalunn as children with their bikes, raced us up the slopes approaching the Taldyk Pass. As we edged above 3000 metres, the thirty kilometre wide plain at Sary-Tash did not end with the curvature of the horizon but with a panorama of 6,000 metre peaks, proudly wearing their white capes of snow.
The millennia old Silk Road settlement of Sary Tash, placed at the cross roads of China, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, survey’s the scene like a 19thcentury explorer. In the centre of the range is the over 7,000 metre Peak of Lenin, glaring down at his tripartite of failed socialist states.
Due to the altitude, which unlike me Will copes very well with, we stopped at this plain for the day to acclimatise. Neither did he need Diamox, nor heavy chested had to walk over the 4,000 metre plus passes where just fallen snow crystals vanished like fairy dust in the light of summer. It is recommended that above 3,500 metres, which is considered high altitude, for every 300 metres you go up you should stop for the day to acclimatise. This drill to combat AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) reminded me of the climbing expedition we met back in Osh. They were attempting to climb the Peak of Lenin. Though it has been successfully summited, many more have tried and many still lie on its slopes.
It was also in Osh, in return for a generous charitable donation, we both ‘hedgehoged’ our heads to take on the appearance of young monks travelling west on pilgrimage. It was a steep learning curve as the necessity for sun cream in the thinning air refashioned us with bright red streaks running through the prickly remains of our hair rounded like the fluff on a tennis ball. It gave us the appearance of Klingons, as the rest of my face turned red with the recognition of this new appearance.
After the plain came the endorheic Lake Karakul in Tajikistan sitting viscous like the running yoke of an egg surrounded by the whites of the mountains. It was formed twenty-five million years ago by a meteor impact. The debris from this impact were largely dispersed or vaporised but some remained in the form of an island in the lakes centre. This formation was just as uncompromising as the fates of German POWs who were kept prisoners on this island during WWII and remained there for years after the war ended detached from any semblance of hope.
This lake sits at 4000 metres as the drum beat of altitude in between my temples grew louder drawing me higher just as the drum beat from Jumanjipulls you in. Having been climbing with my father in the Himalayas and the Andes I knew my limitations at height. At a mountain, the name of which escapes me, near the Inca Trail, I was violently sick and passed out in the middle of the day due to ascending too fast. I was keen to avoid this experience and fortunately I did not suffer any major issues despite considerable concern that I would.
The Ak-Baital Pass was our highest at 4,655 metres; a height similar to ‘Dead Women’s Pass’, a name with less than gender neutral connotations on the Inca Trail. It is also a height just short of Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc. Whilst I rested the day before the final climb, Will went hunting for the rare Marco Polo sheep that sometimes can be found in the area. They live high and remote so he climbed upwards from camp into the speckle of the scree to just below the snow line at 5,000 metres to try and locate them. It is somewhat appropriate that he didn’t as it is thought that the Venetian traveller himself also didn’t despite it being named after him. Whilst he was doing this I was quite happy drinking ‘chai’ with the locals.
It was a tough heaving climb to the top of the pass as we started in the sub-zero prickle of the valley. At the top our victory was not marked by any sign or cairn. It is not touristy enough for anything to be marked and for some of the nomadic locals getting over this pass is another difficult fact of life which they endure. Thumbs up from some western motorcyclists however did produce both a degree of satisfaction and envy as they shot away. Psychologically, once over the highest point of a mountain range it is easy to presume it is all downhill. The following seven days came pre-packaged with close to 10,000 metres of ascent before we exited the Pamir’s.
Part of this ‘descent’ was through over 300 kilometres of rolling canyon which dropped roughly 400 metres for every 100 kilometres traversed. It was never more than a kilometre across as patchworks of fields filled all available space on the valley sides. It ran northwards of the Wakhan Corridor; the dividing zone between the Russian and British Empire’s during The Great Game. In the middle of this corridor as well as this canyon runs the Punj River, which acts as the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, we spent our days on the Tajik side a stone’s throw away from what Rory Stewart calls the ‘Place in Between’ – Afghanistan.
It is a country much discussed but little discovered in the western world and such proximity led to a longing to explore it. Our interaction through the telescope of distance was, though limited, very positive. Machine guns and the whistle of Stinger missiles did not echo across the valley but instead waving women and the shouting of greetings from unpaved roads and flat roofed mud houses. The only sound of violence we heard was that of an explosives team detonating a mine planted on the hills above the road on the Tajik side. After the Soviet-Afghan War the Russian mined the hill to cover their retreat as the surrounding beauty covered this sad truth.
Afghanistan is of course a country with significant dangers and it would be youthfully naïve to think differently. The recent attack on the tourist company in the country only helps to affirm this. However, political and religious conflicts do not preoccupy all peoples as human kindness was what emanated strongest from across the divide; as it does so often from more intimate interactions.
The border is not impermeable as visas allow visits and several ‘Friendship Bridges’ facilitate more impromptu economic interaction in the form of a Saturday market on the Tajik side. In Khorog, we visited such a market and had some enjoyable chats with kind and generous white robed Afghans.
However, with the 'Roof of the World' now behind us we can breathe a little easier, sleep a little deeper and watch the minarets and monuments of Samarkand and Bukhara grow steadily towards us.