Tajikistan: Following the Ancient Silk Road
Tajikistan: Following the Ancient Silk Road
By David Rich
My assignment, if I chose to accept it, required penetration of the Tajikistan Pamirs, a helter-skelter chain of the world’s highest mountains. The kicker: I was on my own without collaboration of embedded agents.
The mission additionally required finding the killer of Hindus in an area not far distant from Bin Ladin’s cave and the turmoil of Pakistani Kashmir, both spatially near but the least of my worries.
The immensity of the quest was easily illustrated by simple comparison: the highest mountain in the Americas, including north, south and central, is Aconcagua, a mere 22,834 feet (6,959meters) high on the border between Chile and Argentina. McKinley, pride of North America, is only 20,320 feet, or 6,194 meters.
The World’s Most Scenic Highway
Many of the Pamirs and associated peaks are quantitatively higher, above 7000 meters ranging to 24,000 feet.
Though it cost a sizeable personal fortune, I persevered, discovering the world’s most scenic 300-mile (500 kilometer) highway, a vast region chocked with sparkling glaciers stretching from Tajikistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan, the safe parts of the latter two oft-time problematical countries.
The Pamirs are entered from the Silk Road through Osh, Kyrgyzstan, south to Sary Tash where the Pamirs slash a curtain of ice across the entire southern horizon, glistening behemoths crowned by hundreds of miles of glaciers.
I huddled in the posh Mitsubishi van while the combination valet/driver cleared my passport through Kyrgyz immigration and scooted my frigid carcass to Kyzyl-Art Pass.
I was reminded of Agent Polo’s first experience with the Pamirs: “The region is so lofty and cold that you can not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out so much heat as usual.”
Befitting Tajik tradition I drank a warm vodka toast to agent Marco’s erudition in his Description of the World, written in the early 1300s, the inspiration for Chris Columbus.
Tajik border officials atop the frosty pass put their hands out in numerous creative positions; forthright, backhandedly, and surreptitiously, not necessarily in that order. What part of agent on a mission could they possibly fail to understand? I successfully pretended to speak nary a word of Russian or Tajik, affecting a narrow escape from extortionate bribery.
The valet hustled up tea on the shores of windy Lake Karakul and delivered my luggage to remote Murgab, where the mission truly began. For security reasons I switched drivers in Murgab, employing a nondescript Lada sedan to whisk me closer to the mysterious Hindu Kush (killer of Hindus).
Interestingly the new driver had observed Ramadan all night long and was too sleepy to drive. Thus I was compelled to personally take the wheel of the Lada, swerving to avoid perpetual potholes and the occasional yak, finally catching the scent of the killer upon entry into the special permit region at the sprawling secret army base near the base of Khargush Pass.
Three Days of Sleuthing
There the mighty Pamir River (Pyanj River on the Afghan side) begins, cascading to form the lengthy border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which I’d resolved to follow for 300 miles, three full days of sleuthing.
On several fleeting occasions before nightfall in romantic Langar at the sprawling delta region that began the broad Wakhan Valley, I glimpsed the killer of Hindus, failing to realize the killer was right in front of me.
Then I thought back to agency training and people I’d known of, such as the mysterious Coach Frank Kush, who was sacked from Arizona State University for actually shoving a football player under his command. Of course in a State as sensitive as Arizona, a brutal coach of that ilk is immediately branded a killer, and precipitously fired. I’d made the essential connection between Kush and killer.
The Glacial Border Spine
My quarry was the Hindu Kush, the mighty mountain range famous for killing Hindus throughout the centuries, forming the glacial border spine between Pakistan and Afghanistan, clearly visible across the diminutive twelve mile (20 kilometer) width of Afghanistan from my vantage point in Tajikistan.
For three incredible days I explored ancient Silk Road Forts, Buddhist ruins and a hot spa full of naked Tajik men (truly the most dangerous moment of my mission), in all intervals viewing with awe the incredible killers of Hindus, the mighty peaks in close-by Pakistan and Afghanistan: peaks unnamed on my top-secret map, ranging from 7019 to 7340 and finally 7485 meters, which is many feet, the last totaling 24,557.
Truly this road constitutes the world’s most scenic 300 miles, rivaling and perhaps eclipsing my former nominee: the 300 miles from Gilgit, Pakistan (begin a few miles south at the base of Nanga Parbat, the world’s 9th highest peak) near six of the world’s 14 highest peaks (all those over 8000 meters), through Karimibad and Soss, over the Chinese border through Tashkurgan past Muztagata and Kongur Shan (both over 7500 meters) to Kashgar.
The Challenge Remains
Essentially either adventure is relatively tame but I espied a much more interesting quest and hereby challenge the reader to undertake the mission.
Immediately across the Pamir River in Afghanistan lurks a continuous trail paralleling the Tajik Road I followed for 300 miles. This trail is often carved into solid bedrock, angling up cliffy granite peaks. It appears navigable by camel or motorcycle in most places, and for the entire length by foot.
Thus for those truly adventurous souls this challenge remains: the Afghan trail, winding through quaint Afghan villages seldom visited by Westerners, or by agents of foreign powers, or even elusive Bin Ladin.
Those seeking less adventure can hike a string of seven turquoise lakes in the Fan Mountains north of Dushanbe. Heartily hospitable home-stays are available in little villages where bearded patriarchs select an additional spouse each decade, keeping a stock of at least one 18-year old among the usual coterie of four wives.
The trekking along the Marguzor Lakes makes for interesting home-stays, where potential jealousies rival the Great Game of nations that historically exploited the Pamirs, the wholesale killers of Hindus and the occasional gringo who may be tempted to cast his gaze on the patriarch’s youngest wife.
When You Go:
Access to the sensitive border region with Afghanistan requires a special permit, easily obtained through Stantours (email@example.com; say hi to David) for $40 or directly from any Tajikistan Embassy, often gratis.
Drivers for $.55 a kilometer (see endnote) are easily found in Osh, Kyrgyzstan or in Murgab, Dushanbe, Penjikent or Khorog, Tajikistan.
The nicest B&Bs are Ibrahim’s in Murgab (Ibrahim is also a driver) for $8 a person with nice hot showers an extra $3 and Nematov Miyozkul’s in Penjikent for $10 a night, including an appreciated hot breakfast.
There is no public transportation in the remote regions of Tajikistan. The only available transport is private, costing $.55 a kilometer (about $1 a mile), plus the distance from the destination for the driver’s return home. The Pamir trip cost $950 for transport alone.
has been an international traveler, writer, and photographer for the last 16 years, living in 140 countries to date. He is a full-time international traveler, an occupation he finds far preferable to his former professions of law professor and trial lawyer, from which he says he’s now “mostly recovered.”