Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Pamirs - to Khorog

Heading out of Osh and gradually uphill towards the Irkeshtam Pass and China, the highway was being rebuilt - everything was trucks, cars, dust and fist sized rocks. Hot, dry, late afternoon. Not the very worst, but relatively awful. Xavier's voice back in Osh (he had just ridden in the opposite direction) was ringing in my ears: 'Over zose last 80 kilometres I was askeeng myself: Why do I bozer?'

Next thing I knew, I was riding past a Kamaz truck with a Kyrgyz standing in the back of the open container beckoning to me to put my bike inside. 50 metres on I stopped and thought, 'That's GOT to be a good idea.' Sure enough, they were going to Irkeshtam to China and were very happy to give me a lift across the worst of the highway repairs to Sary Tash.

The workings of the Kyrgyz GAI (traffic police) were soon revealed. Our 3 truck convoy was stopped and my driver pulled out roadworthy (out of date), driver's licence (valid) and permission from truck owner to drive this particular truck (in somebody else's name).
As it happened, each of the 3 drivers was missing at least one of these three.
Soon I was watching one of the other drivers trying to force 20 som ($0.60) into the cop's hand, with him pushing it away. There was a brief detente and my driver told me a bit anxiously, 'He won't take the bribe.' 20 som is the going rate, which you pay 3-4 times before Irkeshtam.

I couldn't believe it. Surely not an honourable traffic cop?

In the end it turned out he wanted 200 som for each truck but the guys bargained him down to 150! The cop hadn't noticed the owner's permit for my driver being in the wrong name - would it have made any difference?

We stopped frequently for the driver to do his regular Kamaz brake checks (no complaints there) and tinkerings, and from 11pm-1am stopped in a roadhouse for a relaxed feast of mutton, noodles, tea and flat bread. I dozed propped up on the wall. Then we headed on till 2.30am, when the driver decided on a nap. I rolled my sleeping bag out in the back. At 5.30am he woke me and we headed on (they prefer driving at night as the engines overheat less.) By 9 we were over a second pass and in Sary Tash. I jumped out.

From Sary Tash I went south across a sparsely grassed plateau towards Tajikistan. Virtually zero traffic. Yurts were dotted across the landscape still, with plenty of kymyz. Up over a barren, rocky pass, and down past the Tajik border post with lots of young Tajik boys strutting around in cammo gear, sun hats or balaclavas, and AK 47s. They delighted in making me wait at three separate checkpoints and didn't even look at my GBAO permit.

Down in the first valley, the only visible human life was a Swiss cyclist, Martin, who had just camped, so I joined him. He was going the other way.

Up onto the vast arid high Pamiri plateau, over the 4500m Ak-Baital Pass, and a long - 70 km - descent to Murghab, the very low key regional centre of Eastern Pamir, with a mixed Kyrgyz/Tajik population. By now there were no more horses - and no more kymyz. Not enough pasture, I was told. Damn. I went to OVIR to register (compulsory within 72 hours of arrival) and was sent to the bank to pay $15 plus 20 somoni. The friendly Pamiri boys at the bank immediately invited me back to their place.

It was fascinating running into the first Pamiris. Physically, you'd think you were somewhere in southeastern Europe. They are often fair, with blue eyes, generally dark haired but sometimes red/blonde. Sometimes they have strikingly aquiline (or just huge!) noses. They're also extremely warm and friendly, and tend to greet you with a hand on the heart, indicating respect.
Along with this, Pamiri people are generally the most hospitable I've ever moved amongst, despite being very poor. They'd share their last crust with you. On most days I am offered tea and a place to stay about 3-4 times from mid afternoon. Their staple is bread, which they bake themselves in little electric ovens, or in fuel- stoked ovens, if there's fuel. In the mornings everybody drinks 'shir chai', slightly salted milk tea, into which you break bread. This is good for old stale bread, none of which gets thrown out. They like meat, but eat very little, as it's too expensive. People have little garden plots but can't grow enough to be completely self sufficient.

Looking south into Afghanistan.

See the foot (or goat?) tracks on the Afghan side?

I also found out that Pamiris are proud of their individuality and keen to distinguish themselves from Tajiks. I found out that they are very poor. And I found out that they universally revere 'their Aga Khan', the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, whom I didn't know much about. This was soon to be corrected. The Aga Khan Foundation is very active in Tajikistan and does all kinds of good deeds, from building basic hydroelectric setups to bigger projects - which might be why they love him so much.

From Murghab I headed south. I met my last (the southernmost) Kyrgyz in Alichur, and got to try airan (tasty yak kefir). Off the Pamir highway and over a pass to the Wakhan valley, where the Pamir, and then the Pyanj rivers form the border with Afghanistan. Over a few hundred km, through Langar and Ishkashim, I was looking across 20-30m of grey glacial river at Afghanistan. Everything seems very peaceful over there.

Amongst other things there were two excellent hot springs to bathe in and also lots of good roadside mineral water springs, including the famous Narzan spring. Delicious apricots were just ripening in the Wakhan so I got to gorge on them in most villages! You can also split the seeds open to get to the delicious kernels.

You can't catch vitiligo or psoriasis, can you? This spring is famous over the former Soviet union for its curative properties...

Here in Khorog I'm staying with a Pamiri friend my age whom I met in Murghab. He makes a living - amongst other things - from smuggling rubies to Afghanistan (which, of course, is illegal.)

I went over my bike and found a snapped steel bracket which attaches to my front pack rack - luckily my host had a reasonable replacement. Everything else seemed fine. But looking again I found a crack 2cm long at the bottom of my seat tube (the near vertical one in which the seat post sits), across a dent caused by kids in Alice Springs who stole my bike and damaged the frame. BUGGER. (I only got to keep the bike cos they'd wrecked the rear wheel and weren't able to ride off on it.) It seemed to be holding up fine, so I had decided to just keep an eye on it. Clever Rob. If only I had got through the hassle of replacing the frame.

The ideal repair would be to replace the tube but it's the hardest one to get at - it'd have to be a professional job, and amongst other things I'd have to get the right diameter so that the seat post fits.

After quite a bit of hanging around I got my frame electric arc welded at the Pamir hydroelectric power station but it's one of the more primitive, dodgy jobs you can imagine - just have to pray that it holds up. No TIG welding (or whatever is best) here. I'm not sure that I'd find much better in Dushanbe or Tashkent. Bikes here tend to be very disposable Chinese or extremely rough Soviet single speeds, nothing any Western bike mechanic would want to go near. The nearest 'professional' bike mechanic? I might be looking at heading back to Sasha's in Almaty!
Anyway, rather a crack in the frame than a schmack in the cranium. Plus, 3700km so far touch wood and NO PUNCTURE!

Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all... where will I find another frame? India maybe?

Above the friendly Pamiri welder ('best in town') who refused payment and gifts for the repair.
525km left to Dushanbe.

Pamirs - the roof of the world

1 comment:

Otto said...

No puncture! As yet. You got to be shitting me. That has to defy the laws of physics.
And not to have been kidnapped of executed yet is also amazing. Just goes to show how little we know the world - Otto