Day five: Dushanbe to Khostav
After escaping the clutches of Dushanbe’s crooked police force and with rumours of the northern road being closed due bridge issues we headed along the southern route via Kulob towards the border with Afghanistan. Descending further into the valley the pavement slowly deteriorates then eventually stops and the Chinese take over As with everywhere they’re investing millions in infrastructure in foreign countries in order to open up easier trade routes and access to natural resources. The views are spectacular, the truck drivers not so much, almost forcing us off the road several times. We did get a laugh out of watching one guy struggle to get his truck up hill, eventually being pushed along by a tractor.
Passing the mud brick Afghan villages as they cascade from valleys above the Panj River on the opposite bank, Arthur is totally stoked that one of his childhood dreams has come true. Seeing the mighty Amu Darya River (of which the Panj is a major tributary) on a map when he was 10 years old he was fascinated that the river didn’t flow out into the open ocean, instead emptying into the inland Aral Sea. He’d wanted to see it ever since.This section of the river forms a large part of the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and bridges are extremely limited. Locals wave as they bounce along the poorly dirt track on shaken up motorcycles, children play in the dirt and life goes by in a completely different world only a stone’s throw away, literally.
The late afternoon light has all but faded as we pass through our second military checkpoint of the day where Sarah is given a free pen and the thirst for a cold brew is taking hold. Passing through the tiny village of Khostav we’d all but given up hope of finding a place to sleep for the night when rounding a corner we’re blinded by disco lights bombarding the car. It’s a beacon, a sign that this is the place to pull in. With darkness surrounding us we make out that there’s a shop, a second floor hopefully with beds, a waterfall from a natural spring and a place to sit and watch cheesey music videos, right up our alley. Lucky for us there’s bargain dorm beds (about USD$1.50 each), food and best of all – cold beer straight out of the icy mountain spring.
Day six: Khostav to Khorog
Up early for the massive drive down to Khorog, weaving along the river the valley narrows and we spot bus stops in every village bu never actually see a bus. The scenery is breathtaking and we’ll just let the photos do the talking here.
Reaching the small town of Vahdat we spot a cafe behind yet another military checkpoint and decide to stop for some lunch. As Matt gets our passports registered a policeman sticks his head in the window and casually tries to set Sarah up with his military mate. Not happening. He then moves onto trying to ask Matt if we have any beer in the car (we don’t) before offering to share his vodka. Deciding that perhaps drinking with the cops before jumping back behind the wheel isn’t the smartest of ideas we share a plate of plov (except Arthur who the policeman told was too fat) and get back on the road.
As we get closer to Khorog we pass some kids playing football with a dramatic backdrop and spotting our cameras they all ditch the game to come say hi. As the afternoon passes we begin to notice men stumbling along village roads and cars doing way below the speed limit, unusual for these parts. Soon enough we realise it’s Friday, the Muslim weekend, and it becomes apparent that while the women still work the fields, the men are all getting shitfaced. We pass one car full of middle aged men all bleary eyed staring straight ahead as they chug along at a whole 5km, not daring to glance in our direction as we overtake incase we’re the police.
Arriving in Khorog and cutting laps of the upper side of the river we eventually find the Pamir Lodge. Full of backpackers, cyclists and overlanders the place has basic rooms, great bathrooms and a very social outdoor communal area in which we meet a bunch of others going either north or south in their own journeys, half of whom we’d been chatting with via forums before we left Osh. Hearing from just about everybody that there’s this Indian joint we MUST try, we take their recommendations and head to Delhi Darbar and we certainly were not disappointed. In Central Asia meat is king, here the vegetarian menu is the largest and some staff speak perfect English. Kind of nice after eating lagman soup after Lagman soup.
Day seven: Khorog to Ishkashem
The following morning it’s car troubles again. This time we have no idea as it’s one of fancy new ones with a stupid electronic systems designed to make the most simplest of issues mind boggling. Having been woken up at 2:30am to the sound of the car starting itself and cutting out time and time again, due to some ridiculous setting on the fancy electronic key remote, we figured the battery was flat, hence why the car was stalling every two meters. Wrong. Turns out the mechanics who randomly turned up on the roadside couldn’t figure out the key remote either. After a call to his buddy the settings are sorted and we’re off…a whole 100 meters…and stall. Our mechanic friend then proceeds to take the car into the red limit of the speedo through the centre of town several times, assuming the repeated starting last night had pushed too much of Tajikistan’s famous shitty fuel through the system. Bingo! Turns out our dodgy roadside purchase from a jerry can that afternoon was of the low quality kind and after mixing it up with some ‘good’ Tajik fuel we hit the road and yes, this time we made it out of town.
After two long days of driving we now had the chance to slow things down and take some side detours to a couple of sights and best of all hot springs. Three in the car had now become five as we collect an Austrian/Italian couple we’d met in Iran and Uzbekistan, making for some more company and a happy little German Arthur as the new folk spoke German too and were finally able to laugh at his German jokes.
Driving the 6kms off the main road up to the Garam Chashma Hot Springs that once looked so picturesque it was a disappointment to find that a haphazardly erected green tin fence now stood in the way of what would have otherwise been a unique white mineral deposit in a spectacular setting. Not only this, the times (as we were well aware of) were separated into men’s and women’s and the boys had to settle for coffee while Sarah and Anna stripped off and joined the other naked women in the steaming pool. You can’t be shy here, nudity is NOT optional.
Reading about the chance to cross into Afghanistan for the morning to visit the Afghan market, held on an island in the middle of the Panj River, upon arriving in Ishakashem rumours are confirmed that it’s now closed, permanently (apparently due to increased Taliban activity across the border). Never the less we find the only decent accommodation, Hanis Guesthouse, where we run into plenty of other travellers who had made it here in hopes of the Saturday market being open. The place is also part of an aid and volunteer program which sees several backpackers stick around for the summer. Heading out to find some beers we discover that the local soccer tournament is underway on the dusty pitches next door and we watch the final as plumes of throat clogging dust sweeps over us. Interesting to note Sarah and Anna were the only girls in sight.
Day eight: Ishkashem to Bulunkul
Today we headed east into the Wakhan Valley proper and the views were spectacular, with the Hindu Kush mountains rising to the south and snow capped mountains appearing in the distance ahead. A nice detour along the way is the one that winds up the side of the valley to the ruins of Yamchun, a 12th century fort where the 6km of hairpin bends will pay off with great views along the valley on the way to the Bibi Fatima Hot Springs.
These hot springs, unlike Garam Chashma, has two houses separated into guys and girls and once again you’ll be going in naked. What could be a stunning natural location where moss and ferns drip down a sheer rock face and clear warm water washes forth has been tamed into a For Gabriel and Matt the other men in there ‘hung around’ to check out the white guys. A little weird yes though you can’t blame them for wanting to check out a pair of perfect human specimens. As soon as the boys jumped out so did the locals.
‘Sorry boys, show’s over’
Outside there’s a couple of restaurants and not much else to keep you here. The springs are a pleasant temperature and the water is emptied on the regular. This is a better experience that the ones of Garam Chashma.
Our destination for the night is the lakeside village of Bulunkul and we follow the river further into the valley. At times the river is so narrow we can’t resist pulling over to throw stones across to neighboring Afghanistan, potentially the closest we’ll ever get to visiting the war torn country. We stop for gas in the last village where a man fills our tank from plastic drums. Eventually the gravel road turns left and cuts uphill away from the border and we head into the mountains proper, trees disappearing in the valley below. We pass a rocky military checkpoint, hand over our passports and wonder how the hell these guys keep themselves entertained while posted here. The views get better and better and we pass a small lake before crossing the Pamir Highway and heading to isolated Bulunkul.
Driving along the dirt track that leads to the village we spot what appears to be a dog in the middle of the road but turns out to be a wolf and we watch as it saunters off as we approach, blending into the background. There appears to be just one homestay option in the village where we encounter the strangest language barrier interaction yet. The owner, who seemed like we liked a drink or two, was a strange man. Asking how much it cost to spend the night his answer was how much we’d like to pay. We tried, in vain, to convey that we didn’t want meals as we had food, only a bed and that we’d offer him TJS$60 each. He wanted TJS$100 (so why ask us?) and he couldn’t understand that we didn’t want meals, even though we got the point across in basic Russian. Anyhow he agrees to our price and sure enough we are given meals anyway, fried fish from the lake and in the morning a small bowl of yak milk and grain porridge with jam, yum. Feeling either sorry for the guy or generous we meet midway and shell out TJS$80 each and head off in search of yet another hot spring.
Up next Bulunkul via Murghab back to Osh. Also check out our Pamirs part 1 blog here!
Tips for Khorog to Bulunkul
- Entrance to the Garam Chashma Hot Springs costs less than USD$1.
- Want to extend your stay in the Pamirs? Volunteering at Hanis Guesthouse is one way to do this, contact them for details. Even though we didn’t do it we met several people that did. All you need is patience and a flexible timetable.
- Spending the night at Hanis costs about USD$15 per person including a filling local dinner and substantial breakfast.
- Be aware of driving distances and time. Remember the roads aren’t like western ones, though the Pamir Highway will soon enough become the ‘New Silk Road’ as the Chinese complete the massive overhaul of it. As for the road through the Wakhan Valley it’s gravel which for the most part is well maintained and in good condition. Remember though driving times will be extended. We met a Dutch couple that were driving from Bishkek to Bishkek, not via Dushanbe and only part of the Pamir Highway, in four days! Mental! At this kind of pace they were driving 18hr days and through the night, thus missing the essence of the journey and at very high speeds, hence the multiple (over USD$100 in total) fines they received. Yes, he was a crazy Rotterdamer!