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  • Along the Pamir Highway

    Written by Levien van Zon

    More pictures with this story: https://goo.gl/photos/gGuSuEXRN6cQKNFR7

    Just months ago, I knew next to nothing about Central Asia. Probably like most people, I knew there was a group of countries just west of China, with names that all end in -stan. I was vaguely aware of a connection to the old Silk Routes, the former Soviet Union and a few acts of recent Muslim extremism. I had read something once on the near disappearance of the Aral Sea due to irrigation of cotton crops. That was about it.

    Flying from Moscow to Bishkek, one passes over empty steppes and deserts for hours on end. Kazakhstan is in the top-ten of biggest countries in the world, yet somehow I completely failed to notice it on the world map that has been hanging above my bed for over 5 years. The country is dry, flat and grassy, and most of it is covered by the vast steppes of Eurasia that are the evolutionary home of most grasses as well as grazers, both of which have been essential to humanity. These steppes are also the home of the Turkic languages that we currently associate mostly with Turkey, but which actually originated in current-day China and Mongolia. While seeming empty and lifeless from afar, up close the steppe is home to various kinds of birds, rodents and insects, as well as herds of animals and the occasional settlement or yurt. To the north of the steppes are the forests and tundras of Siberia. To the east, vast mountains separate the “Stans” from the steppes and deserts of China. South of Kazakhstan, the mountainous countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are a prelude to the Himalayas.

    My first acquaintance with Central Asia was the city of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan before the president decided to build a new capital city called Astana (Kazakh for “capital city”) at a more central location in the middle of nowhere. Almaty is a fairly pleasant city, although its many black SUVs and fancy shopping centres betray the fact that Kazakhstan is an oil producing country, and therefore among the wealthier of the Stans. We took a two-day trip to see some canyons and a lake with our guide and driver Sergey, a Cossack and former tank-driver in the Russian-Afghan war, who looks oddly like a Russian version of Sean Connery. After Almaty, our journey took us south, to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. But not before one of our party was held at the border when trying to leave Kazakhstan, had to go to trial the following morning for failing to register within five days with the proper authorities, and subsequently got deported from the country we were trying to leave anyway. Such bureaucratic weirdness is one of the more unfortunate leftovers from Soviet times.

    From Bishkek we decided to travel further south, a two-day trip over the mountains to the city of Osh, one of the oldest settlements in Central Asia. From Osh we would start a ten-day trip through the Pamir mountain range, a remote region with high snowy peaks and mountain passes, salt lakes, plains and high altitude deserts. The main road through the region is the aptly named Pamir Highway, apparently the second-highest altitude road in the world, which is only accessible during late spring and summer.

    As soon as you drive over the Taldyk Pass (3650 m) into the Alay Valley, you feel like you’ve arrived on another planet. While the grassy northern plains transition from winter to 30°C in a matter of days, the Alay Valley was still mostly covered in snow. To the south, “Peak Lenin” (7134 m) and the Alay range tower over the valley and separate it from Tajikistan. An abandoned Soviet “meteorological station” with two giant half-broken radar domes added to the otherworldly feeling, as did the dusty town of Sary Mogul where we spent the night. The town could easily feature in a Star Wars movie, if it weren’t for the constant sound of chickens and braying of donkeys (and of course the conspicuous lack of alien lifeforms).

    Apparently we were among the first tourists this year able to cross the Kizil Art Pass and the no man’s land beyond, into Tajikistan. In places the road was still covered in snow and ice, and a 4WD was certainly no luxury. Beyond the pass the road runs along the rusty “Systema” border fence for over a hundred kilometres. The fence marks the no man’s land between China and the former Soviet Union, although large parts of it have since fallen over or are now missing altogether, presumably used as firewood. Despite the snow and lack of vegetation, there were quite a few birds and marmots, and we could spot the occasional vulture circling high above. Once in Tajikistan, the road descends toward Toktokul, the “Black Lake”. Despite its name and high salt content, the lake was still completely frozen over, and therefore quite white. Beside the lake lies another dusty Star Wars town with low mud-brick houses and a small forest of disconnected telephone poles. There is no electricity supply here, but most houses do have a small Chinese solar panel on the roof, which is connected to a 12V lead-acid battery. This is sufficient to charge phones and power a few LED lightbulbs in the evening, and sometimes a small television. People cook meals and boil their tea water on stoves powered by animal dung and dry desert shrubs (which unsurprisingly are becoming increasingly rare around towns).

    The strip of land between the town and the lake is covered with salt, rusting car parts and animal carcasses (or parts thereof). Several yaks graze in a marshy bit of land by the lakeside, slightly downhill from the town. I was surprised that such large animals can find sufficient food in such sparsely vegetated lands, but undoubtedly they have large fat reserves, and apparently the region is much greener in summer. Despite being dry and dusty (and sounding like a place in Mordor), Karakul is not a lifeless town. Everywhere were groups of children in colourful clothes, eager to practise their “Hello” and “Goodbye” on passing strangers. Walking to the lakeside, we were joined by a little girl called Fatima and (presumably) her two, somewhat over-active brothers. Fatima, with her purple dress, pink plastic boots and white flower in her hair, turned out to be a fairly good portrait photographer, once I had lent her my camera. I am now the proud owner of around forty group portraits, taken from the perspective of a six-year-old. Despite having no language in common with us, she was able to express very clearly who needed to be where in which picture, in the peculiar way that way only small children can.

    Night was not spent in Karakul but in Murghab, the largest town in the region, and the home-town of our driver Muhammad. Like most towns of the high Pamir, Murghab features mostly dusty streets, low buildings, telephone poles and rusty car parts. In theory there is an electricity supply, but it was out of order for an unknown period of time. As Murghab and many other towns cannot be reached for half the year, people have to stock up on food during the summer months. Even in summer the town is mostly supplied by container trucks that have to traverse hundreds of kilometres of unpaved roads through steep mountainous terrain, so this is not exactly the cheapest place to buy supplies. No wonder that many people keep a small herd of animals, that graze in the river valley and on the hills around town. Also no wonder that the food in this regions consists mostly of mutton, potatoes, onions, carrots and rice, as these ingredients are easily obtained and keep well through the year.

    After saying goodbye to our driver for the night, we decided to try and find a place where we could exchange some money. We rang the doorbell of a travel agency, as it seemed that they might speak English and may be able to help us. To our great surprise it was our driver Muhammad who opened the door of what turned out to be his family home, where we were promptly invited to tea with home-made pastry. Unknown to us at the time, Muhammad’s grandmother had died two weeks earlier, and the family was preparing a feast to mark the end of the mourning period. We were happy to have this opportunity to visit a local household, although we were also slightly embarrassed when we learnt of the occasion for the festivities. The next day, we were invited again to come and eat a meal and drink tea, while town elders gathered in the family home to eat and pray.

    Two more days of beautiful and otherworldly landscapes followed, including a visit to the Pshart Valley, a moonlit but very windy night in the remote town of Alichur and a visit to the even more remote Bulunkul town and lakes (reportedly the coldest place in Tajikistan). Then we crossed the Khargush Pass (4344 m) into the Wakhan Valley, the southernmost part of Tajikistan. The Pamir river flows through the valley, and further downstream becomes the Panj and then the Oxus (Amu Darya). The river also forms the border with a strange, narrow strip of Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor, created in the nineteenth century as a buffer zone between the British Empire (current-day Pakistan) and the Russian Empire (current-day Tajikistan). The eastern extremity of the Wakhan Valley is known as the Pamir Knot, the meeting point of several major mountain ranges: the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun and Hindu Kush. However, we travelled west along the river, toward the mighty Hindu Kush range (“Killer of Hindus”) which rose in the background and beyond which lies Pakistan.

    The Afghan side of the river has only a narrow dirt road running along the mountain side. There were few signs of habitation there, just some goats and the occasional Afghan on a horse or walking with a donkey. Our side was not much different however, there were only a few (abandoned) buildings along our dirt road, which sometimes ran along the river bank and sometimes along a steep crumbling cliff side with the river far below. We met only a single person, probably a soldier walking from the remote checkpoint at the pass, a good two-day walk to Ratm, the nearest village. Near Ratm, suddenly green fields appear in the rocky valley, plowed by farmers using oxen and old tractors. The dry soil was irrigated through a system of simple canals that divert water from nearby mountain streams. While the people of the high mountains were traditionally Kyrgyz shepherds, the people in the lower valleys speak Tajik (a Persian language) and look more Afghan in their features and clothing.

    We spent two days in the lovely town of Langar. Spring had only just started in the valley, so fruit trees were flowering, green leaves just started to appear and everywhere we saw newborn lambs, calves and baby goats. On the lower slopes of Peak Karl Marx and Peak Engels we met two old shepherd ladies, guiding their flock among the rocky terrain. One of them was hand-spinning yarn from the wool of her animals. Trade routes ran through these valleys in ancient times, and the remains of several forts and temples can still be seen on the mountain slopes, overlooking the valley in strategic places. One of these forts is actually still used by the Tajik army to guard the border with Afghanistan, near the town of Ishkashim. However, the young border guards were very friendly and gladly showed us around the ruins, on the condition that we didn’t take any pictures of “military installations”. Apart from a small barrack, an outside cooking stove and an antenna array, we failed to see any military installations. There was one mysterious structure with lines on the ground, which we thought might be some kind of helicopter pad, but turned out to be a volleyball field.

    Our guesthouse in Ishkashim was next to a police station, which featured a large machine gun on the roof. As we found out later, there had been fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces several days earlier, some distance from the border. This is probably why Ishkashim has a strong army presence, and official buildings are well-guarded. We had hoped to visit the Afghan market on an island in the river, between both countries, but it turned out that the market was closed for safety reasons, and it had been for three years.

    The rest of our journey through the Pamir region followed the Panj-river northward, over increasingly bad roads as the amount of traffic increased. Large Chinese-built container trucks crawl up the hills from the capital Dushanbe over the narrow unpaved road to Khorog, and from there to Murghab and Ishkashim. The many trucks and frequent landslides don’t really contribute to the quality of the road, or the comfort of the journey. But at least there is a road. On the Afghan side of the river there were still few cars, and on some sections road workers were hacking out a path through the rocks with pneumatic hammers, a task that looked like it could take at least several years of hard work to complete. Toward Dushanbe, the Tajik roads at least get better. Road workers there were busy constructing concrete walls to protect against landslides. However, a few hundred meters beyond, large sections of the newly constructed wall had already been destroyed by said landslides. I guess in the end, the mountain always wins.

  • Blog
  • Bulgaria

    After landing in Bulgaria with Maremoto Jan, we decided to travel across the country to Sofia. Traveling with Jan makes always a difference.

    About

    Bulgaria is a Balkan country, the first of my RodTrip. As most of them, it is a melting pot of cultures and it’s full of history. Their language is heritage of the Slaves, with the Cyrillic alphabet. However, their folklore and gastronomy is more related with the Balkans. The majority of the country is Christian Orthodox, but there are still Muslims from the Ottoman Empire.

    Bulgaria is now a day is a member of the European Union, but still it is not part of the Schengen Zone nor the Euro. Europe requires them to end up with the corruption. As if we had no corruption back in Europe. Even though the quality of life I felt it was as good as the European standards. In terms of economy, it is a cheap country. Not as cheap as Ukraine, but approximately.

    Varna

    My journey in Bulgaria – I may say “our journey”, as I travelled with Jan – started after we disembark from the Black Sea Tall Ship Regatta 2016. I sailed on board of the Atyla Traing Ship and he controlled the Regatta communications from the Bulgarian vessel Royal Helena.

    About

    Varna is the mayor city of Bulgaria in the Black Sea. It is the summer destination not only of Bulgarians, but also of Russians and other Balkan citizens. As you may imagine, it is full of hotels, restaurants and activities for tourists. Varna, it is also a business and university centre, seaport, and headquarters of the Bulgarian Navy and merchant marine.

    Thanks to Jan travelling at the Royal Helena we made a good friendship with several citizens. Among them, the Captain of The Royal Helena, Stoil, and his engineer. Super gently people that let us stay on board of the vessel while we were in the city.

    After the regatta as I was saying in the previous post, few vessels rested in Varna with the Royal Helena and the Kaliakra. One was the Akela, which young sailors were about to rest a couple of weeks after their long journey from Saint Petersburg to the Black Sea. The second one was Pogoria from Poland. Pogoria, due to a problem in their engine had to rest to be repaired.

    Pavel, the engineer of the Royal Helena, in his great generosity helped the crew from Pogoria to get ready to depart in a couple of days. Meanwhile, we had the chance to meet and eat with their crew. I must say that Krzysztof, Captain of Pogoria, was a storyteller worth meeting. Pilot and now captain of the Polish training ship he told us about the discipline on board and about many anecdotes in his adventurous life. He made us laugh in every dinner and drink. In his generosity, Kryzstof, even offered me to travel with them on board. Unfortunately, they were going to Poland and I was supposed to be heading East.

    We shared many moments all together as a big gang until Pogoria left Varna back to Poland and we left to Veliko Tanovo. I felt so comfortable with all of them, the captains, the crew and the liesson people that helped us while we were in town.

    Bye bye Pogoria

    I visited Varna on my free day while I was on board of Atyla. Among the interests of the city I might highlight the monument at Park-pametnik na balgaro-savetskata druzhba, the Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral, and my favourite, the Primorsky Park.

    The Primorsky Park is a long park in the coast that separates the city from the sea. It is a garden dense of vegetation with an open-air theatre, a dolphinarium and several monuments. As it is next to the seaside but elevated from it, there are several point of views with nice panoramas of the Black Sea. The long alleys and the zig-zagging paths are perfect to have a walk or some workouts. In the weekends and sunny days, it is full of people. Still I think that what I liked the most of the park is how a green open space separates the city from the beach.

     

    Primosky Park

    With Jan I visited again most of the sightseeings in the city centre and some other places we found in our way like the puppets or the marine museum. We also liked to get lost in the city around the residential areas looking for good places to eat or have a drink, on our own or with our new polish friend Marta.

    Marine Museum

    Puppets museum

    Veliko Tarnovo

    About

    Known as “the city of the Tsars”, it is a small city among three hills capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Thanks to his history and the architecture it attracts many tourists. Even though, there are only few hostels in the old town and few restaurants.

    It took us a while until we finally remembered the name of the city. For some reason since Varna, until we were in Veliko Tarnovo we weren’t able to say where we where travelling to. Thanks to the walking tour we not only learned about the city history, but also that the name came from “Terranova” and to distinguish from another Tarnovo was added the Bulgarian prefix “Veliko” that means “Great” attending to it’s relevance during the Second Empire.

    The old town is located among the three hills what means that walking in the city is going up and down steep streets and stairs. As well there are nice panoramas of the city from the top and of the city from bellow.

    Panoramas

    In the old town there are magnificent architectural remains of the old capital, Orthodox churches, patios, houses and streets.

    City centre

    But the main sightseeing is the Tsarevets. It is a Citadel in one of the hills where is the Palace of the Bulgarian Emperors and the Patriarchal Church.

    Tsarevets

    Here we also learned about the Baldwin I. It happened that the first Latin Emperor Baldwin I and count of Flanders died in one of the towers of the Tsarevts after being captured by the Tsar Kaloyan. According to the legend, the wife of the Tsar felt in love with Baldwin. He rejected her several times not to betray his marriage. In revenge, the Tsar’s wife accused him of raping her for what he was hanged in the tower. Now the tower where he was prisoner is named after him.

    The other main sightseen of the city is the Monument Asenevtsi. It is in the other side of the river and it represents the four emperors of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

    Monument Asenevtsi

    As it started to be usual in our journey, Jan and I, in between visits we liked to try the local gastronomy. As Bulgaria wasn’t an expensive country we didn’t mind to visit the three main restaurants of the city. We really enjoyed eating and drinking well. In one of our romantic dinners we get to try a local wine called “No man land” according to Jan it was our place to be.

    Plovdiv

    About

    It is considered one of the oldest cities of the world with remains from the 6th millennia BC. The city has known Persians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Huns, Bulgarians, Slav-Vikings, Crusaders and Turks. All of them left behind a trace of their culture and architecture.

    Plovdiv is crossroad in the Balkans and a commercial city from it’s very origins. Plovdiv, as Rome was settle among seven hills. However, only 6 of theme remain. In difference to Rome, it is located in a great fertile esplanade where the hills that reach even 250 metres are the landmarks that makes a difference with the environment.

    Our next stop in the way to Sofia was this historic city that we didn’t get to find so interesting. The little cheap hotel where we stayed didn’t help so much, but we overcame that fact by meeting new people. In this case other travellers.

    To visit the city as it came to be common in our travel we take advantage of the Free Walking Tour. With it we visit the remains of the romans in the city centre, the main street, the old town, the area of Kapana and walked up one of the hills of the city. By our own we visited two other hills. The clock and the big monument.

    Plovdiv

     

     

    We stayed in Plovdiv two nights, more than enough. Unfortunately, we left before the fest in Kapana It looked great. That was the area of the city where we used to eat at. It is kind of an alternative square with plenty commerce. Just note that the service in the Balkans is not like in Europe.

    IT was in Plovdiv where I visited my first Mosque in this trip. We were already in a former Ottoman region and getting closer to the Middle East.

    Mosque

    Sofia

    About

    Sofia is the mayor city of Bulgaria and its capital city. It is as well one of the cosmopolitan cities of the country with Varna. Among its population there are many Muslims, Jews and Catholics even if the majoritarian religion in the country is the Orthodox Christianism.

    The experience

    We get to Sofia by bus as we used to travel all around Bulgaria. The station was as always far away from the city centre, and we walked to our hostel having a preview of the Bulgarian capital city. In our hostel we slept in a 20 beds dorm to save money. It was a dark mansard turned into a room on the top of the building. There were 10 beds in each side and ours where at the end of the room. The roof was low and as it seems common to me and Jan found out fast, I like to hit my head daily. At the room, I increased my average. The good thing is that the lobby of the hostel was always full of life but not all the staff were nice.

    The time we stayed in Sofia the weather was rainy and a bit cold. Winter was coming. Between rain and storm, we visited the city. It is not a big city and the old town is easy to visit it in one or two days.

    The first day there, after the rain we catch the Free walking tour of the afternoon. We ended it frozen. With the Free tour we learnt about the Romans visiting the roman remains and walked the “Cardos” of the former settlement. We crossed the Byzantine walls and visited the cathedral. Also, we passed by several Ottoman mosques and the Communist political headquarters.





    Among the particularities of Sofia my favourite is that you can find a temple for the different monotheistic religions around the main square, must of them preserved by the communist as cultural buildings.

    After such an overview of the city we visited some museums and the more urban areas looking for nice places to eat, chat and hang out. As we had three days in Sofia we had plenty nice meals together and we even share some of them with people we met on Couchsurfing, Tinder or just in the bars.

    Anecdote

    Bulgaria is a country with a nice wine region in the south. We didn’t visit although we thought about it. We hadn’t the time to visit all. But we knew to taste it there was no need for it. We found a nice-looking wine bar next to the city centre. We tried to take a wine there every night but there was always an event there. Hopefully the last night we slept in Sofia the event was a Wine tasting that we could join even if we get there late.

    We get to taste 5 Bulgarian wines for less than what we expected to spend. After everyone from the event left, we stayed at the bar talking with two American girls from next table talking with the waiter and a girl that came to meet us there.

    That was the beginning of a crazy night that will end up with Jan missing his next-day morning flight after several Raki.

    Raki is a strong alcohol that in Bulgaria is made from grapes and is not sweet at all. It’s about 70% and Bulgarians say won’t cause you a headache. Not true!

    Even though, the night was kind of magical and special. Unfortunately, I had to sleep in the couch as when we finally manage to get home Jan’s bed was taken by someone else so I put him into my bed.

    Living in a rush after waking up, Jan get it to the next plane back home, unfortunately for him, he owes me a great big hug plus the interests. ;P

     

    That same day after visiting all the temples in the main square, I left Bulgaria.

    Thanks again Jan fur such a magical experience with you in Bulgaria.

    Travelling Bulgaria

    The best way to travel in Bulgaria might be by bus. It is a cheap way and connects almost every city. However, do pay attention at the schedules and that the bus stations are rarely next to the city centre.

    Regarding safety, it is a safe country were you just need to pay attention to pickpockets and some scams for tourist, mainly by taxi drivers next to the airport, bus or train stations.

    Food is great in Bulgaria, really tasty and perfect to marriage with local wines, and generally is cheap.