The first leg of the Pamir highway led from Osh to Murghab. On the day of our departure, a car picked us up at the guesthouse in Osh and from there we drove around the city to collect other passengers, cargo and even letters. After several hours we finally left and it wasn’t until well in the afternoon that we arrived at Sary-Tash, which is at the junction where the road splits into the one to Chinese Turkestan, over the Irkeshtam pass, to Kashgar, and the other one leading into Tajikistan. It was here that we had lunch with soup and bread.
soup with animal parts
When we wanted to pay the bill, the proprietor tried to find out where we came from.
Korea? He asked my Japanese companions.
No, separate please…, they said.
They are from Japan, I explained.
We paid and resumed our journey to the border of Tajikistan. It kept snowing but it wasn’t too bad. The crossing of the borders, separated by many kilometres of no man’s land, was comparatively straight forward. We got our passports stamped and after that I asked if I could use the toilet (tuvalet in Russian, which is easy to remember). A guard gestured towards some decrepit building. The toilet was, as expected, a primitive affair, and when I was done, I washed my hands with a handful of fresh snow..
The road on the Tajik side was in a bad state of repair, but there was considerably less snow on this side of the border. After dark it got very cold and we had some stretches with washboard road which added greatly to our discomfort. We stopped to check if a car that stood still was alright, and when we found that this was so, we got out for a short break. I looked at the night sky which was so bright that I had problems finding the familiar constellation of Orion. This is because all the stars were so dazzling that it was difficult to recognise a pattern. There was a strong breeze and it was exceedingly cold.
Western toilet in Murghab
When we finally arrived in Murghab (3600 m), the driver brought us to a hostel. Our host served us tea, bread, butter, cookies and even some potato mash. It was delicious. The toilet was the customary hole in the ground in a small outhouse, but that was ingeniously concealed with a locally made sit down toilet.
Bazaar in Murghab
The next day we woke up and I had a light headache because of the altitude (at 3600 m there is roughly 40% less oxygen in the air), but after some deep breathing that went away. After breakfast we tried to find a vehicle to Khorugh and so we walked to the bazaar. The sun was shining but it was still very cold. The bazaar was not like anything you might expect from a market place on the Silk Road. It was just a collection of metal containers and only a few were open. The lot next to the bazaar, where vehicles with various destinations congregate, was nearly empty and no cars seemed to be leaving for Khorugh anytime soon. Discouraged we walked back to the hostel.
salt lake along the Pamir Highway
It then appeared that our host happened to be the owner of an old Land Cruiser. We negotiated a price and after jump-starting the car we were on our way with his son, who was the driver.
Marco Polo: The plain is called PAMIER, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you do not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so brightly, nor give out so much heat as usual, nor does it cook food so effectually.
We followed the river Panj and when we descended trees started to appear, garbed in their autumnal colours. Not far from Khorugh, we passed a flock of sheep. The driver slowed down but unfortunately one of the sheep bolted and found itself miraculously under our right rear wheel. Our driver got out of the car and I feared a big brawl and outrageous requests for money, but none of this happened. Several men got their knives out, but only to help the spasmodic moving sheep out of its misery. We got back in the car and continued our way.
Khorugh is spelled Xopyf in Cyrillic, although later I found out that the last letter is not an f, but the Cyrillic capital G with a bar. The town was very pleasant and at an altitude of just over 2000 metres, it was considerably warmer than Murghab.
The Tajik currency is the Somoni, which seems a variety on the Kyrghyz som, but is actually named after Ismail Samani, the father the Tajik nation. Adopting this man as the father of the Tajik nation, seems rather arbitrary, as he is the founder of the Samanid dynasty and mainly ruled from Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan.
It was not until several days later that I found out that there were also coins in circulation, called dirams, which, similarly to the dirham, seemed to actually have derived, via Persian, from the Greek drachme.
Curiously, there was a note of 3 somoni, another example of the 1-3-5 series of denominations that I now know stems from the Soviet era ruble.
The Tajik language is not a Turkic language (as Kyrgyz, Uzbek or Kazakh), but a Persian language, and, for that reason, Indo-European. A quick glance at a Tajik vocabulary shows many cognates for numbers, family members and animals. Daughter is ‘duchtari’ in Tajik and brother is ‘barodari’.
There were several ATM’s in Khorugh, but none of them seemed to work. When I asked at the bank, a woman told me: no money. It seemed to me that money would be a rather critical commodity for a bank, but there was nothing else to do but wait. The next day there was a queue at the ATM, but when I was getting nearer to the dispenser, another line started to form at the other side of the machine. Irked by this I told them not to do that and to my surprised they came (joking and smiling) over to my side to get behind me in line. When it was my turn I found it had been a fortunate provision that I had taken a visa card as a backup for my maestro debit card as the latter was not excepted. I took enough somonis out to last me until Dushanbe.
When I left the ATM I noticed that the line had dissolved into a loose crowd with people chatting away and seemingly unconcerned with ever getting any money. Later that afternoon, the maximum amount one could withdraw had shrunk to only a few dollars and soon after that it was empty again.
From Khorugh I took a shared taxi to Dushanbe and it was only then that I found out that Tajikistan has a different time zone from Kyrgyzstan, but fortunately it meant I had arrived too early, rather than too late. The road follows the Panj river, that marks the Afghan border. From my seat in the back of the car I watched famers in Afghanistan ploughing their fields with oxen as they had done for over 3000 years. Carpets were drying on the flat roofs (which indicated sparse rainfall) and on several occasions I saw Afghan flags fluttering in the wind.
The woman in the front had a sack with apples from which she shared liberally with the other passengers. Most of the time she slept, her head dangling in an awkward angle to the left.
We had dinner at a roadside restaurant and travellers that needed the toilet could use the one in the boxing school in the adjacent building. A woman asked me for one somoni. Presumably for using the toilet, though I wasn’t sure, but I gave it to her anyway.
We arrived in Dushanbe at around ten in the evening.