Road stories #30: Hitchhiking in the Pamirs and being trapped in a snow storm (+VIDEO)
Hitchhiking in the Pamirs – from Khorog to Jelondi
We got up early but even so we didn’t expect to get to Murghab in one day. The distance from Khorog to the highest elevated town of the former Soviet Union is only about 300 km but given the state of the Pamir ‘Highway’ we didn’t delude ourselves, we wouldn’t get there on the same day.
We took a marshrutka to the edge of town and positioned ourselves on the road. The first person to pick us up was a guy and his companion in a minivan. We learnt they both used to live in the Pamirs and had been classmates in their school years, but while the driver stayed in Khorog, his friend moved to Dushanbe and by the looks of things was much better off. After driving for about an hour they stopped and their female companion got in. They were all going to Jelondi, a tiny village with a hot spring, to spend a day soaking in hot water. While driving through another mountainous settlement, they stopped by a young boy with a bunch of reddish stems in his hand. They gave him some money and treated us to what they called ‘misk’, a type of mountain rhubarb which you have to peel first and it leaves a sour refreshing taste in your mouth. As we were driving along, the landscape had slowly changed. Khorog and the surrounding area was green and warm but we were now entering very high altitudes where there were no plants at all and the mountains were covered by snow.
Jelondi was not much of a village as there were only three houses, where two of them were a road-side restaurant and a hot spring guest house. The guys we were travelling with had invited us for lunch and we were debating whether to stay with them and enjoy the hot spring, but while we were eating, a truck driver turned up and ordered some food. They asked him where he was going and upon learning that his destination was also Murghab they asked if we could go with him. As there was not that much traffic, it was a great opportunity, so we finished our food, said our goodbyes and piled onto the truck. Little did we know that it would be one of the most terrifying hitchhiking experience in the whole of our lives.
Hitchhiking in the Pamirs and being trapped in a snow storm
Our driver was an old Tajik guy in a traditional Tajik hat and his lorry must have seen the days of his youth. It was old and creaky and the roads progressively got worse and worse. Only a few kilometres after Jelondi the asphalt disappeared completely and was replaced by gravel and mud. There were huge holes and ruts in the road which made us rattle around the whole cabin. At some points we were jumping up in our seats so high that I started laughing hysterically and couldn’t calm myself down. We felt sick, our backs and necks hurt from the constant banging up and down, but I just couldn’t stop cackling.
We crossed a mountain pass at the elevation of 4271 metres and saw more and more snow. Now not only the mountain tops were snow-capped, but the whole side of the road was white. After crossing one more pass we stopped for dinner at the town of Alichur. It was the vastness of nothingness that struck me most. No trees, no grass, just sand, electricity poles standing along the road and wind howling between the very few houses. As the evening was falling, in the distance we could make out snow clouds coming towards us. We munched on some fried spiky fish and were ready to hit the road again.
It soon got dark and the road ahead got even worse. As we were going across another mountain pass perched at over 4000 metres, a snow storm started… At first it was just a few snowflakes, which reflected off the lorry’s headlights and looked quite pretty.
‘It’s the end of May’, I thought ‘and it’s snowing, how exciting!’.
But the few snowflakes soon turned into huge billows of whiteness. The windscreen wipers were working incessantly but the masses of white fluff didn’t stop charging at us. Soon we couldn’t see the road at all and the prospect of falling into one of the precipices running along both sides of the road was closer than ever before.
‘He is an old Tajik driver, it’s not the first time he’s been driving on a bad Pamir road and it’s not the first snow storm he’s seen in his life. If he’s managed to live this long he must be an experienced driver. He knows what he’s doing. He is an old Tajik driver, it’s not the first time he’s been driving on a bad Pamir road…‘, I kept this matra in my head for the whole duration of the storm because otherwise I would be crying and asking the driver to stop right this second. But that option wasn’t really an option. What would we do at the elevation of 4000 metres deep into the night in the snow storm? Freeze to death? The only way out of this situation was to drive on… The wind was entering the cabin through the badly sealed window of the truck and I could just about imagine how cold was outside. There were no street lamps at all, so the only light we had was from the lorry headlights but the heavy snowfall considerably impeded the visibility. ‘We’re all gonna die here!’, I thought, but then my mantra came back and I put all my trust into our experienced Tajik driver.
A few hours later we reached a police check point. ‘We’re saved!’, Murghab was only a few kilometres from there. We walked into the police booth where we saw several policemen playing cards on their bunk beds. They were quite surprised to see foreign tourists in the middle of the night, amidst a snowstorm and even more so to see a woman. They examined our passports and we were free to go. We got to Murghab past midnight and went into the first guesthouse we saw to get some food, beer and some sleep. At last!
Check out our video showing our experience of hitchhiking the Pamir Highway!
Staying in the roof of the Pamirs
Murghab, being the highest elevated town of the Pamirs, was, as you might expect, piercingly cold. It was very different to Khorog in terms of landscape, architecture and culture. The surrounding mountains always attracted thick low-lying clouds and snow or rain was never too far away.
The most interesting part of the town was its market where the stalls were either yurts or were built out of old Chinese lorry transporters. We have never seen anything like that in our lives, the entire street was just full of metal prefabs!
We spent our days in Murghab on taking photos of the ever changing mountains (as the light and clouds were different every day), streets, kids that approached us and Kyrgyz people in their unique hats. Besides that, we frequented to the Centre of the American Culture, a strange place that offered free internet and was full of English language books, paid for by the American tax payers, that no one ever read. And lastly, we spoke for hours either with our Tajik host (an old guesthouse owner) or with an old Ukrainian scientist who came to Murghab to do some research and was craving for company.
Finally, it was time to say goodbye to Tajikistan and leave for Kyrgyzstan in a paid car, as there was absolutely no way of getting through the mountains by thumb.
written by: Ania