Road stories #29: Hitchhiking the Pamir Highway and shooting on the Afghan border
Hitchhiking the Pamir Highway and our encounter with armed Afghans
Whoever named the Pamir Highway has either never travelled the road or had a hilarious sense of humour. It doesn’t even remotely resemble a country road, let alone a highway! In many parts it is a narrow, winding gravel or dirt road going along a side of a cliff with a sharp drop and a fast flowing river on the other side. At times it was just like a mountain path, suitable for walking but in no way appropriate for vehicle traffic, not to mention heavy 30 or 40 tones trucks overtaking each other. We were speeding 25-40 km/h in our Chinese monster of a lorry, fearing for our lives every time there was another vehicle coming from the opposite direction and we had to drive millimetres from the edge.
The Panj River goes along the Tajik-Afghan border dividing the two countries for about 350 kilometres. It is not very wide so at times you can see on the other side Afghan villages, kids playing, people walking with their sheep or even people holding guns…
It was getting dark when we heard a loud bang. At first we thought we’d got a puncture. Our driver had stopped the truck and looked in one of his side mirrors. There was silence for a while and we couldn’t see much as it was already getting dark. Then we heard another bang and another, and we soon came to understand that the noise was produced by guns shooting not far away from us and echoed in the deep ravine we were trapped in.
We both looked at our Chinese driver but he seemed completely perplexed. I wanted to tell him to start the engine so we could get out of there as soon as possible, but we shared no language in common, so I had to trust he knew what he was doing.
He slowly started the truck and after a couple of minutes we heard the shooting again and this time we saw rocks falling in the water and smoke coming from the place where the bullet hit the cliff. Then, on the other side of the river, barely 100 metres away from us, we saw a group of men holding guns.
We looked at them from the cabin of our Chinese truck, they looked at us and we drove away…
When darkness fell and we had been driving for a while using only the headlights (as you can imagine, there are no street lights on the Pamir Highway), we stopped after reaching a small village.
Villages along this end of the Pamir Highway are just a few houses squeezed here and there between the rocky hill and the road. There is not much space, so the villages tend to be longer rather than wider.
We stopped at a truck driver’s resting place where a local family run a cheap eatery, shop and guest house, where we found a cheap room for 20 somoni (2 pounds) between us.
Hitchhiking the Pamir Highway and our big disappointment
The next morning we were woken up by our driver banging at our door. It was 5.30 a.m. and we hadn’t been awake that early for ages. But we didn’t want the driver to leave us there, remembering the previous night shooting, so we washed our faces, got dressed and jumped in the truck.
The previous day’s hitchhike amounted to 12h of a bumpy nightmare, interrupted by sweat and fear of disappearing into the precipice. Today was going to be even worse.
Not even 30 minutes after setting off, the truck broke down and we had to get out and pray the driver had had a course on how to repair it, as there was no highway service to help. One hour passed, then another one and during this time we saw a few empty 4x4s. It was a hard decision to make, we could have abandoned our driver and got to Khorog much faster, but we didn’t want to be dicks leaving him in crisis at the side of an empty road. We stayed, passing him tools and playing stone football, for over 3 hours. After that time the truck was good to go, but not for long. At around 2 p.m. we got a puncture and it took us a hour and a half to change the wheel. And again, some cars went past, one of them even stopped and offered us a lift, but we rejected it and stayed with our Chinese driver like a couple of old loyal dogs.
We stopped over for food twice and the 200 km journey we had planned for the day turned into 18 long hours!
We got to Khorog at midnight. The streets were completely empty and we didn’t know how we would find a place to stay but our driver said he wanted to get us there that day, so we were grateful. After piling our stuff onto the road, we gave him our postcard, thanking him for the journey and wishing him good luck on his way to China, when his facial expression suddenly changed and he sternly looked at us. Then he rubbed his thumb against his index and middle fingers in the worldwide recognisable gesture meaning ‘money’. We were shocked. ‘Come on, mate, we are hitchhiking’. We’d heard that Chinese people knew what it meant and didn’t demand money. If we had been with a Tajik guy, the situation would have been obvious from the start as we always explain in Russian we are not willing to pay and if that fails, we give them our Tajik letter. With the Chinese driver we had no means of communication but we assumed he knew what we were doing. That was our bad. We handed him our Tajik letter as we’d heard him speak Tajik, but he didn’t even look at it. He turned it over and wrote ‘100’ on the other side.
‘Piss’, he wants 100 somini, we thought. In the grand scheme of things 10 pounds for 400 km journey is not the end of the world, but it would be the most we’d had to pay for transport so far. Jon looked in his wallet, but all there was were 100 somoni notes. No small change.
‘Ok, just give him a 100 and let’s go’, I said. I really didn’t want to get into a fight over 10 pounds. It was our mistake for not making it clear from the start. Jon gave him the note and the driver said ‘dollar’.
“You must be joking, right?’, said Jon in English and laughed, ‘We don’t have a 100 dollars‘. He jumped out and we decided to leg it before he thought up a plan on how to get his 100 dollars.
We walked back in the direction we had come from in complete darkness and the driver beeped heatedly, still sitting in his cabin. After 20 seconds he drove off and we just stood there, confused, angry and disappointed. Our first Chinese driver turned out to be a dick and we felt like fools about our misplaced loyalty and the fact that we could have got to Khorog much earlier, in much more comfortable conditions with a Tajik driver who wouldn’t ask for money and would have probably invited us to stay at his house at the end.
We heard some footsteps and thought the driver could have parked the truck further along the road and was now coming back in the dark to extract some money from us. We didn’t have much time to think, so we decided to hide behind a billboard. Not the cleverest idea ever, but the only one we had at the time. The footsteps stopped. We held our breaths, aware that the person on the other side could probably see our legs. Then a guy with a torch came out from the dark and asked us in Russian if we needed a place to stay.
He looked like a soldier patrolling the streets and after a brief conversation he showed us the way. The guest house was right behind us but it was very late and there was nobody in the reception, so we had to call the woman and wait 1 hour for her to arrive and give us the room. We slept like logs that night. The thirty hour hitchhike over two days completely drained us of energy and the pleasant time we had spent in Dushanbe seemed so long ago…
written by: Ania