You can watch the highlights of our second day on the Pamir Highway here.
We both woke early around 4:30 AM. Jesse set off for Peak Lenin base camp. Peak Lenin is known as the worlds most accessible 7000er, but notorious for highly volatile weather. We were lucky to be there on a clear two days with unblocked views of the Peak. Leaving at 4:45 AM and because base camp is only about a one hour hike away, the entire hike to camp was in the dark and the most difficult part was navigating the way, including where to head down to the river (Jesse couldn’t see the bridge in the dark until he got down to the river). But because of the bright moon, the snow capped Peak Lenin was in full view and Jesse walked the entire way without seeing a single other person (but did see some cows and a horse who stared him down).
There were about 3 locations near the bottom of Peak Lenin that looked like base camp, but closest to the mountain was clearly Base Camp, it wasn’t clear that anyone was there but Jesse arrived around 5:45 AM and walked in quietly, snapped some pictures and walked out.
Quan opted to spend the morning at the yurt camp and walked over to Lake Tolpur to watch the sun rise.
As she was leaving the yurt camp she ran into a different tour group’s driver as he was finishing his morning prayers. Despite the language barrier they struck up a conversation and ended up spending the next two hours signing and “talking” along with the ladies of the yurt camp. With hand signals and very limited English, Soylebo, the driver, explained to Quan that he had 4 kids, practiced Islam, and thought that she shouldn’t drink so much coffee because it leads to sex addiction or cold water because it causes stomach problems.
Despite the language barrier there was a great deal of laughter joined in by Dinara, Sanja, and Dinurha the ladies who cooked for the yurt stay.
They gathered to give us a warm send off as we set off a little after 8.
We then found a bank for him to exchange money before returning to Sary Tash for him to get gas. Enroute he spotted his brother pulled over on the side of the road and stopped to say hello. We weren’t bothered by these pitstops as we took them as opportunities to explore the villages and roadside. We got some pretty amazing photos in a field of wild flowers as Abdi chatted with his brother.
Our biggest tip for other Pamir Highway adventurers is that it’s the journey not the destination. None of these stops were in the guidebooks but each gave us unique glimpses into life along the Pamir.
Once errands were done we set off for the Kyrgystan / Tajikistan border crossing. While Kyrgystan has no visa requirements, Tajikistan does. In recent years this has become greatly simplified with an e visa process which includes the GBAO permit for crossing the Pamir Highway. We had also read that bribes are typical at these border crossings with bogus taxes that suddenly crop up. We had negotiated before hand with Osh guest house that our fees would cover any bribes which Abdi would take care of. The Kyrgystan border took about an hour minutes.
We first went through a car registration and then each walked up for passport clearance. Jesse made a friend with the passport checkpoint guard who struck up a long conversation with him about all the American music he loved including Jon Bon Jovi, Metallica, Guns and Roses, Vanilla Ice, and MC Hammer.
Abdi went into three separate trailers to get clearance and later told us he paid about $30 worth of bribes for us to pass. There is a desolate stretch between the two border check points that is a military zone. It was beautiful 15 minute drive across rugged desolate land.
The Tajikistan border took much longer with about an hour and a half of waiting. Unlike Kyrgystan where we each went up to the passport office and for stamped to exit, we never had exit the car. Abdi took care of the whole process for us across the 4 checkpoints: Visa where our passport got stamped, car registration, narcotics checks, and finally customs. We saw him take cash out several times and at one point brought a trucker hat into one of the trailers – perhaps a unique bribe?
At both borders we saw a large group of motorcyclists from the Czech Republic who were riding across Central Asia. We unfortunately arrived after they which slowed down the process for us. We had to wait while each motorcyclist got their passport and then vehicle individually verified. The entire border crossing took 3 hours, Abdi told us it normally takes 1 hour.
We also met a man from Estonia who was driving the smallest car in the world. He had a Europe/ Central Asia map painted on to his hood which he updated with his journey on a black marker. He had started his trip in July and had made his way from Estonia across Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgystan and was now entering Tajikistan. Thus far we had mainly seen 4x4s and Abdi was highly suspect that his little car would make it through Tajikistan where the roads were much rougher.
With the time lost at the border crossing and the time from the morning errands, we were already late afternoon with a few more hours of driving ahead of us. We had a stop at Karakol for lunch but all they could offer us was eggs as we were so late after lunch hour. We dug into our Osh bag of groceries and hobbled a lunch of instant noodles to go along with the eggs.
We proceeded towards Murgab, our stop for the night. On the way we reached Ak Bantan, the highest point of the Pamir at 4,655M. Here we stopped for a while to stretch our legs and were quickly winded by the elevation.
We had originally planned to stop by Lake Rangkul before setting camp in Murgab but decided to postpone the trip for the way back due to the late hour. Murgab as a town is not much to speak of, as described by Lonely Planet “utterly isolated the wild east town of Murgab is a logical base from which to explore the eastern Pamirs.” The town itself is a pathwork of box homes, a majority of which look inhabitable with only crumbling walls remaining. The most dominant views are the criss crossing power lines that run across the town- despite this the town is notorious for electricity outages. It’s perimeters is where Murgab shines. You look around and see rocky ridges framing the town, the snow capped 7546m Mutztagh Ata looming above, a river valley that runs along its main road.
This would be our base for two nights as we planned to hike the Pshart mountain the next day. We had the option of a home stay called Filura or the local hotel (hotel is perhaps too liberal of a word, it was more of a dorm in the facade of a hotel). We opted for Filura run by a group of friendly ladies who gave us our own room which was beautifully decorated with the local rugs. $15 covered the room, dinner and breakfast. They even did our laundry for $4.
We went to bed hoping tomorrow would be much smoother. We had expected that our 10 days on the Pamir Highway would come with its highs and lows and hoped that today’s delays at the border crossing could be the “low” for the trip.