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Pamir Highway 2016

Central Asia 2/2: Tajikistan

Story by Thomas Flensted October 18th 2016

Pamir Highway

This is part two of my trip to Central Asia. If you have not seen part one you can see it right here. This photo essay will show the most inhospitable, harsh, and barren place I have ever seen: The Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan; a mountain range dominated by sometimes lunar, sometimes martian landscapes. While rough and rugged, this is also some of the most scenic and stunning scenery I have seen. This is the story of two young Danes on an ATV with a tent and sleeping bags in one of the most secluded places on earth.

If you look at a map and see the Himalayas stretching through Nepal and India, you can see that it is the same range that becomes the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and further north the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan.


To add a little background information, we were unlucky that the region was closed for ten days due to a presidential visit (or that is at least what we were told - you never really know what is true and what is not in this part of the world), which meant that we had to enter later than we had anticipated in the first place. We initially wanted to hitchhike there but due to time limits we decided to team up with an Austrian guy named Wolfgang who assured us he - with a very strong Austrian accent - knew "more than 90% of the Kyrgyz people" and we felt we had found a guy who really knew the Pamirs. We quickly found out that was not the case. In fact, he had never been allowed into Tajikistan before.

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The Pamir Highway - or M41 as it is also known - is a highway varying considerably in state that runs through most of the "Stans" in Central Asia. It is part of what was once the ancient Silk Road, and today it is, unfortunately, one of the main arteries in the world for heroin smuggling from Afghanistan.

Back to our "guide" Wolfgang. Apart from the fact that he had never been to these places before and we were to rely on him, we quickly found out there was an even bigger problem. Wolfgang had decided to bring two brand new motorcycles on a trailer to some of the most bumpy and uncomfortable roads. The bikes had to be brought out of Kyrgyzstan for some bureaucratic reason. Because of the motorcycles, the Jeep we were driving alongside was only able to drive 15-20 km/h much of the way. I think it goes without saying, but this gets extremely frustrating in the long run. Good thing was that Jakob and I had an ATV to ourselves that we could play around on as much as we wanted. After a few days, the motorcycles were dropped off so we could pick up speed.

Below and above, you see our first camp spot in the Pamirs. It was an absolutely stunning place to camp for the night, and Jakob and I went up early next morning for sunrise. After sunrise, we took the ATV away from the road through a gorge. In the end, we found a few houses where the family you see below lived. I think it was the first time they saw Westerners.

The sun rising in the Pamirs.
Brewing coffee early morning. It was impossible for us to find ethanol to burn, so instead we used vodka which is ubiquitous.
In the morning we took the ATV and drove up a small canyon until we reached a few houses where this family lived very far from everything.
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After driving through high passes and mountains, we suddenly reached a big stretch of grassland from which you could see gigantic mountains all around you. Amongst these were the massive Lenin Peak (below, right) with its 7,134m. In this vast stretch of land lies the small town of Sary Tash (3,170m) from where some of the photos below were shot. Additionally, numerous nomadic families live in this flat area between the mountains. The children above come from such family. Meeting these people was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

These two boys were hanging out in a high pass we drove through.
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Jakob on our ATV in Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan.
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After crossing the Kyrgyz border post on the way to Tajikistan we entered this no-man's land that you see below where one family seemed to live (second photo). You are not allowed to sleep in this stretch of land, and as far as I understand you are not allowed to walk through it either. That is why we picked up two great Argentinians - Lucas and Ludmila - who have been traveling for the past 3 years. If you speak Spanish you can check out their blog here. Last two photos below are from Karakul.

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No-man's land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
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What you see above and below was probably the harshest and most inhospitable area we came through. Dust constantly swept over the ground and the road. This made it quite uncomfortable going through on an ATV (imagine having dust everywhere in your face, eyes, mouth). This was the very last road before we reached one of the biggest towns in the Pamirs - Murghab. Probably the most isolated town I have ever been to.

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The gate to Murghab.
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Murghab. Pop: 4,000, alt: 3,650m.
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Some portraits I shot in the Pamirs. Above are two sisters whom I met in Murghab. Below are children from a nomadic family living near Sary-Tash in yurts (a Kyrgyz type of hut) with their horses and yaks. I found it quite amazing how these people live so secluded from civilisation and live a life so fundamentally different from mine. I know there is one thing they do that I will never do again. Drinking their - sorry - awful "kymyz" which is fermented horse milk. I am generally very accepting of other ways of doing things and I am not picky at all with food. But apparently, fermented horse milk is where I draw the line.

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We slept for two nights by Lake Karakul (altitude: 3900m). The view when the sun had set was absolutely amazing. Never have I seen such vivid stars and never have I felt to such degree that I woke up on mars or the moon. Karakul - the village by the same name as the nearby lake - is also the village in which Jakob and I bought the driest and worst-tasting bread I have ever eaten. We are both pretty sure that it was made with gasoline instead of water - or at least that is how it tasted. We did without breakfast that morning. By the way, the animal below is a marmot - they were running around everywhere in the mountains.

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To round this up, I want to manifest that if you want a truly genuine, authentic, and wild experience in one of the world's most secluded and desolated areas, the Pamirs are the place to go. I am definitely coming back, and then I will have more time to roam around the magnificent mountains. However, it must be said that if you are a "rookie" traveler this might not yet be the place for you. It is difficult to get around and to communicate. Also, we did not dip below an altitude of 3000m during the trip, so if you know you have a hard time in high-altitude areas, remember to acclimatise!

As always, if you have any questions, you can just let me know in the comment section below or on my email thomasflensted@hotmail.com.

Footnote: Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 ART, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II
Pamir Mountains, Jirgatol, Districts of Republican Subordination, Tajikistan