After our previous day, all in the convoy were determined to make up for lost time and keep to the right areas from now on. Our first day took us into the mountains and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. This is an autonomous region which spans 45% of Tajikistan but the population only makes up 3% of its people. The area borders a lot of Afghanistan from where we join all the way around the Wakhan Corridor which is a panel handle stretching out to China. It requires a special permit and in theory a 4×4 as the roads start paved and as smooth as the M1 but soon deteriorate into a gravel track which was more like our expectations for the Pamir Highway.
The smooth tarmac took us down into the valley of the Panj river. This river is the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Today we opted to not venture too close and decided against crossing over one of the few bridges that link the two countries. The whole area was beautiful with rivers of crystal blue water flowing down the sides of snow capped mountains into the river beneath. It was stunning. Naturally, we stopped multiple times to try to capture the moment but no photos could do the area justice. We travelled east across to join the M41 in Kalaikhum which is the official Pamir Highway. This gave a chance to stop for lunch where we found some rice and pasta combination in a restaurant over looking a ferocious tributary to the Panj. Vegetarian food, as one would imagine, is difficult to come by. We established that the dish had cow in it through a series of mooing noises and managed to order one without. They did their best to accommodate taking the meat out only leaving scrapings here and there.
As we went to set off, our car stopped starting. Guessing it was just a dead battery, a quick bump start got us going again. We drove further parallel to Afghanistan looking out across the river at the road on the other side which was still being built. There were men jack-hammering into the cliff face and a huge digger casually parked next to certain death as they carved through the rock like Lemmings. It was an impressive sight. Light began to fade, so an amazing campsite was found. There were a number of us set up here overlooking an Afghan settlement on the other side. Once the sun had set and before the full moon came out, there was a fantastic opportunity for stargazing and a moment to reflect on where we are. To add to this experience, countless shooting stars, some with tails, shot across the sky putting on a show for us.
The next day, our car wouldn’t start again. Our battery needed replacing. Of course, it couldn’t have died nearer civilisation (and of course, we didn’t get a service before leaving which would’ve picked this up). At least there were plenty of hills to park on if we couldn’t get a new one! Another quick bump start later, the road curved south towards the Wakhan Corridor. Along this road was an interesting sight where a lorry had slipped over the edge and was now precariously balancing just metres from the river. This shows how dangerous this road can be. One small decision and one wrong move could mean the end of our Pamir adventure. There was a small gap to squeeze by and soon the valley soon opened up and pools of water beside the river with locals swimming appeared. This was a prime opportunity to wash off the copious amounts of dust our skin had attracted and cool off from the heat.
The road continued as dirt track along the side of the river until Khorugh which is the capital of the GBAO. Finally there was some relief from the bumps as it became tarmac once more. When we arrived here, our priority was to find a battery. The last thing we wanted to do was to enter the wilderness without a fully functioning car. This turned out to be remarkably easy as a shop with all the car parts you could imagine. Heading into the mountains gives the impression that you are leaving civilisation however vehicles are the lifeline of the people here so within the hour a new battery was fitted. Luckily, we met a lovely girl who had taught herself English then perfected it at university and was able to translate everything for us. She called the owner of the shop who had closed and managed to get him to come and open the shop specially. Certainly not the kind of treatment that you’d get from Halfords! Next, we did the obvious thing to do when in rural Tajikistan which was to get an Indian curry then headed up to the Pamir Lodge for a night. This was a great spot where most backpackers appeared to go so we bumped into more ralliers here.
When we departed, we were presented with a decision of whether to continue south through the Wakhan Valley with an incredible view of the Hindu Kush or travel up into the mountains over our first mountain pass at 4200 metres. Given the rumours about the conditions of the road getting even worse and not wanting to destroy our cars totally before Mongolia, we opted to climb in the cold mountain air. Two of us failed to get up the ramp out of Pamir Lodge first time, fortunately succeeding on a second attempt. It didn’t bode well for what was to come.
The route started with a slow climb steadily and the road conditions were good. There was a river flowing down through the valley we were driving up which gave us an opportunity to pull over and test out the bridge building abilities of the Tajik and snap some shots of the scenery.
With a long distance to cover, we pushed on and towards Murghab until we hit our first mountain pass. It was at this point that the Ladateers started to notice the damage that their car had suffered. The 1.2 litre engine in the Lada simply couldn’t pull a car weighing over a tonne to the top. Being the resourceful pair that they are, they started to dismantle the carburetor to discover screws from a bodge job that a mechanic had done for them inside. This amongst other problems was taking its toll on the car so it was time for the Micras in the convoy to show their worth. With two tow cables attached and two 1 litre engines dragging the Lada, we managed to get it another 100 metres up the mountain before both our clutches died. Whilst we had been attempting all of this, two lorries with their drivers giggling at our misfortune casually strolled by on the soft shoulder without any fear of tumbling over the edge. As we stood scratching our heads about what to try next, a Tajik 4×4 drove by so we summoned them to help. There was no verbal communication but they understood what was going on given the unsuitable cars. Within minutes, the Lada was being pulled up the hill with Torjus holding onto the boot for dear life.
This had burnt a lot of time so once at the top, we all celebrated then sped off perhaps a little too fast. With a road constantly trying to destroy our cars, it succeeded in removing the exhaust of the Lada. This meant another pit stop for the convoy whilst it was reattached. It gave us a moment to appreciate how remote and desolate the area that we had entered was. There were few passing cars, next to no civilisation and a road with maintenance long forgotten about throwing us around like a rollercoaster. It was not an ideal place to break down but soon they were back up and running. This time driving more carefully hoping to minimise trouble with the car. Alas, this was a Lada, there was always going to be more trouble with the car. Later on as we had found an improved road, the exhaust went again and the engine struggled again. It is with great sadness that we left the Norwegians in order to push for Murghab. We were already behind Jeremy’s worst case scenario. Night fell and in the darkness, we attempted to avoid every hole in the road we could (often failing) before finally reaching our home for the night. This turned out to be a Yurt as the hostel had no rooms available with many ralliers, hitchhikers and travellers converging on the one hotel in the area. To our surprise, the Ladateers showed up half an hour after us at the hotel. It turned out that they had pushed their car the last 2km as it totally died. This made us feel even worse. With everybody tired, we ate and slept.
In the morning, the car park was a hive of activity as multiple rally cars had issues starting. The Lada was fixed through some magic of the locals at the same time as an original Micra from the 1980s was slowly brought back to life too. During this time, our Micra was discovered to be suffering some damage to the body as the weld holding our roof rack on had starting to work its way into the cabin. This was the final straw for our roof box which had been limping along since the Gates to Hell. The fact that we had been overloading it this whole time and the bumps putting increased stress on the roof rack had begun to show. It was time to donate it to the people of Tajikistan. We unscrewed a couple of panels and built a spoiler for that (much needed) extra down force. This took quite a while due to the incredible build quality of the roof box. It was never going to fall apart with the number of screws that Chris at eCube Solutions had put in. Our roof box debacle had also given us time to finally deal with the mess that the car had become too.
Now with our new streamlined look, a tidy car and a functioning Lada, the convoy set off again. This time pushing to complete the Pamir Highway in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The road conditions were variable encompassing river (read: streams) crossings, mountain passes and smooth tarmac in places. Our first challenge was to conquer the mountain pass at 4655m. Here we met a lone Dutchman doing the rally in an original Fiat Panda. After his third attempt, we all made it to the top of the pass and successfully reached the highest point of the second highest road in the world.
As we dropped away, the road soon became an insufferable rumble strip which we took far too fast luckily only damaging our undercarriage and not the cars. Deciding to race the Lada which barely had brakes was probably unwise in hindsight. This soon became smooth again and we pushed on towards the Chinese border. We can neither confirm or deny if either we or our vehicles crossed said border but it can be said that the Chinese border fence with Tajikistan is abysmal. A beautiful lake overlooked by snow capped mountains appeared further down the road and if it were possible, setting up camp and spending a night or more here would’ve been perfect. With these views by day and no light pollution by night bringing out the stars, it could’ve rivaled our Afghan border campsite. Instead as it was the middle of the day, we pressed on towards the border. The road had been washed away in places but this was no match for a mighty Micra which conquered the rivers (streams). Eventually the road became a gravel track and worse as we climbed to the Tajikistan border. After paying the traffic police a made up charge for a piece of paper that we didn’t have, we got out and headed for Kyrgyzstan 20km away.
Between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, there is no road. It’s just a mud track that no one cares about. Eventually, after a number of sump guard scrapes and hand brake turns around the hairpins, we hit the border. The border crossing (including trying to barter with the customs agent a set tax) took long enough for the light to disappear and so we found a guesthouse in Sary-Tash for the night. It was lovely to be in the Tajik countryside and embracing local food and lifestyles. What was less lovely was that up at 3200m, there wasn’t any running water so a western toilet was out the question. There was a toilet of sorts in the outhouse. It was a hole in the ground with the previous user’s splatterings around it.
Come morning, we dropped quickly out of the mountains down into Osh on a smooth tarmac road. This is the official end of the Pamir Highway so we congratulated ourselves with a Chinese meal before taking the rest of the day off at Tes guesthouse. We had completed the second highest road in the world in a tiny Micra without even so much as a whimper.
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