02-Aug-2006 -- 38N – 73E The Pamirs, Gorono-Badakshan, Tajikistan
Line Hunting Date: August 2, 2006
A Pointless 1,000 kilometer Journey !
We spend two weeks and made a grand circle of the Pamirs by bicycle but managed not to reach a single confluence point. This has been an absolutely wonderful trip but it is somewhat hard to admit that not a single confluence point was reached.
The Third Spika-Yip 3rd Silk Road Expedition
In keeping with our tradition of exploring part of the old silk road on bike during summer, we set our eye on the Pamir Region which made up the entire eastern part of Tajikistan. Like the Tibetan plateau, the Pamir region is also called the roof of the world. It is an area few able to visit until the last 5 years. Prior to that, Soviet military control and civil war made the area off limit. One good thing came out as the military frontier of Soviet union was the construction of the Pamir Highway which pretty much followed the historical silk road.
A harder journey than we planned
We had two weeks for the actual biking plus a few extra days to get in and out of the area from the capital Dushanbe about 500 km away. Half the route we took was on the Pamir highway, which connects Khorug, the regional capital of Gorono-Badakshan (the Pamirs), with Osh, the ancient city of Kyrgyzstan. We also biked part of the route connecting Afghanistan and northern part of Central Asia known as the Buddhist Silk Road which was the path for Buddhism spread from India to northern Asia. We only biked about two thirds of the route our chief planner, John had planned. This has to do with the fact that we had a few slow going days due to poor road condition and extreme remoteness made it hard to seek food and shelter. The net result was not enough time to take side trips for line hunting.
A new record for an incomplete confluence hunt ?
Our trip took was within striking distance from 3 confluence points and we only have time to make a serious attempt for this one. We grossly under estimated the degree of difficulties of hunting in an extremely remote and mountainous region and had to turn back 22 km short from the objective – perhaps set a new record of distance for an incomplete hunt. But it was a memorable hunt because of the 25 km we managed to do in an old Russian Jeep was by far the most incredible ride any of us ever experienced!
Getting there was half the fun
We met up in Dushanbe coming from opposite directions – John and Devon flew in from Copenhagen, and Ray flew in from Beijing. From there, we hired an old Russian military style van to transport us and the bikes. The driving took about 18 hours with multiple check points to deal with and later there was a 2 hours emergency nap for the driver around 3 am. We got dropped off at Vanch (elevation 2,200 meters) where we started on the bike. The first 400 km of the bike trip we followed the river separating Afghanistan and Tajikistan. We managed to traverse the Zorkul Lake Nature Reserve without the proper permit by buying a rough ruby from one of the solider guarding the check point. After exhausted the road between the two countries we cut north toward the Pamir Highway and pretty much stayed above 4,000 meters after that.
So close yet so far
Near late afternoon of day 11 of our bike trip, we reached the Pamir highway proper. The point where we entered the paved highway also put us very close to 38N-72E, about 5.6 km to the east. However, it was too late and we were too tired to try to reach this point. Early on that day we had progressed very well but very strong headwind started around noon time slowed us to a crawling speed of 5 km an hour for a good part of the afternoon. The headwind used up our time and energy, pretty much dashed our chance in reaching the nearby confluence point which would have taken about 2 hours by bike. Going west on the highway, we found a lone farm house to stay overnight.
One chance to hunt for a high altitude confluence point
Day 12 is the only day we had a short track – only 56 km on the well paved Parmir highway – enough time left for line hunting. We reached Alichur, a large village by the Pamir standard about 120 households, by late morning and found a home stay. This Confluence Point located 33 km GPS distance from Alichur and according to our topo map, there is a jeep trial can bring us within 2 km to it. The elevation of this confluence point is over 4,600 meters and we needed a jeep for this hunt. Finding a jeep became the priority.
The ordeal of finding a Jeep and trust worthy drivers
Arranging a jeep tuned out to be a complicated production. Our helpful hostess took us all over the village to see any of the jeep can take up the assignment. After we found a Kyrgyz fellow welling to go and gave him the down payment. On the way back, a friend of our hostess strongly advised against going with the driver because he seldom drive into the back country and only acquired his Jeep about 6 month ago. Later the husband of our home stay hostess found us two other Kyrgyz drivers whom everybody seemed to trust. All these dealings wasted almost two precious hours. We took off around 2 pm heading west toward a very large lake known as Yashilkul about 25 km away, from the lake shore we suppose to go 20 km north to reach the confluence point. We figured that it will take about an hour and half to get there by Jeep, and the walking part of the hunt will be an hour such we can make it back before dark. This probably was the most off-the-mark estimation of driving time ever.
The absolutely the most incredible Jeep ride of our life
Even though we already biked over 500 km and half was on unpaved road of varying condition, but we were not prepared for the condition of this “jeep road”. Shortly after we left Alichur, we started driving on dried river bed with good size but smooth stones. At times, we were partially in the swift river. The two Kyrgyz drivers were good natured and constantly chatting, as the trail became progressively more difficult they never skipped a beat of their constant chat . We stuck in sand for a while, and later went past narrow cliffs with rock piles which we never thought a car can go through. We were totally impressed by the toughness of the simple Russian Jeep as well as the nerve of steel of our friendly driver. The only problem was that, the speed was less than a third of our optimistic estimation.
Turning back at the half way point
By the time we reached the shore of Yashikul, it was already after 5 pm. We pushed a bit further up the hill and reached he start of the mountain trial with 22 km further to go and 1,500 meters of elevation to gain. It was clear that hunt was over. In fact, our main concern now became how to get back to Alichur in the dark knowing we have two and half hours drive on the most incredible road any of us ever experienced. Our drivers suggested that we can stay overnight with one of the Kyrgyz family by the lake and go after the point next morning. Unfortunately, that was not an option given the tight schedule we have to keep. We did make a stop for a quick soak in the hot spring by the lake shore. By the time we finished, it was dusk and we started the bone rattling return trip in the dark.
Repeat the most incredible ride in the dark
The darkness did not seem to bother our expert off road drivers, and once we stalled in a fast moving creek, but two of them restarted the car before we were adrift. We made it back to our Tajik home stay by 9.30 pm feeling totally exhausted. The drivers seem the least tired and were rather apologetic for not able to bring us to where we wished to go. Even though we did not come close to this confluence point, but we were able to experience a very different aspect of the Pamirs in contrast to the 1,000 km we did by bike.
Another eventful ride
Interestingly, our return trip back to Dushanbe after the bike trip tuned out to be another epic. The van we hired took over 28 hours to get us back, and we were stuck in the middle of a river near midnight. Shortly, after we got pulled out of the river by a tractor, we had to rescue a family in a small car stuck in the same spot. Our van swelled from the original four people to a peak of 13 people going down the mountain, including two unwanted passengers forced on us by a corrupt official at one of the check point. No matter how you travel in Tajikistan, there will be no dull moments !
Suggestion for the future hunter to 38N 73E
Alichur is the only jumping off point – communities are far and few in the Pamirs
Do stay in the same Tajik family we did – Photo 6 shows the daughters of this friendly family, and their mother knew who are the two Kyrgyz drivers took us to the lake. (we forgot to take their pictures)
Be sure to hire the same Kyrgyz drivers – we have total confidence in their skills and familiarity with the areas.
Reaching this confluence point from Alichur in one day could be a reach, plan on an overnight near Yashikul lake.
Rating of this hunt :
Degree of Challenge:
4 – the approach is not for the faint heart and over 6000 meters could be taxing (1= very easy - drive to the point; to 5= a death march – glad it is over)
4 – beautiful mountain, rivers and lake en route – classic Pamirs (Scale: 1= not interesting at all; 5= take your breath away)
4 – Alichur is a mixed Tajik and Kyrgyz community a good place to over night (Scale: 1=dull; 5= most stimulating)