I’m writing this blog by lantern by lantern sitting in a yurt on Lake Karakol in the Pamir Mountains in central Tajikistan. It’s spacious and warm inside and the bowl of water placed next to this lantern is an ingenious solution to the moth problem we were having. We’ve just finished a few games of cards after enjoying a fantastic dinner from our extremely hospitable hosts and bed looks rather inviting.
(The people have been incredibly friendly throughout the country – always happy to help with directions, curious about both us and the car and excited when they hear Anglia, Australia and South Africa. There is also often confusion and a wide grin when they hear Africa – Africa?? But you’re white, Africa??!!)
Dinner as I said was divine – we had bread to start which we were shown to dip in local yoghurt and sugar. That was followed by a delicious beef and potato soup and then plov – the local rice and beef dish we first enjoyed in Uzbekistan. As is customary in central Asia, the meal was accompanied by many cups of tea and conversation by hand signals and gestures.
Our location is simply stunning: Lake Karakol is a large deep-blue lake that sits some 3,900m above sea level and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. To add to the scene, the sun was setting over the lake as we approached and it capped off a fantastic two days of driving along the Pamir Highway.
Tajikistan is a country blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and we were fortunate to enjoy some of the country’s finest scenery. On our first day, we drove into the Fan Mountains and traversed through a canyon to camp at the beautiful Lake Iskander-kul, which is wedged between mountains. Nature had ripped away parts of the canyon which left jagged edges, sharp cliffs and steep roads.
After another day’s driving that took us via the capital and then through lush countryside to camp on a plain alongside a river, we continued east on day three with mountains on our one side and a river on the other, across which lay Afghanistan. It was a tough 14 hour day as we covered only 200 kms on terrible roads that were windy, unpaved and pothole ridden.
That evening brought with it one of those unfortunate incidents that happen occasionally on the travels. I won’t go into detail here as we’ll be blogging about it separately but it necessitated a change in plan that took us to the town of Khorog. Leaving the next morning after a much-needed shower, we headed off on the famous Pamir Highway – a 1,300km road from Khorag to Osh in Kyrgyzstan.
The highway was built by Soviet military engineers between 1931 and 1934 to facilitate troops, supplies and as a means of transport to one of the remotest parts of the Soviet empire. As we headed off, it was surreal to think that Marco Polo traveled this way some 700 years ago in 1274.
The almost petulant weather only added to the scene – dark and stormy clouds hung over the brown, dusty mountains with intermittent patches of sun occasionally breaking through. The roads were better than expected and we made steady progress as we kept climbing for most of the day before heading over the Koi-Tezel pass at over 4,000m.
Heading down the pass, we were greeted by a lunar-like landscape as dusty, desert mountains dotted the horizon amongst which lay two spectacular lakes. That night we enjoyed our first home-stay at reportedly the coldest place in the country – Bulunkul – after enjoying our first bit of exercise walking some 3 hours to enjoy sunset on the lake.
Another day’s driving through similar terrain of dusty, brown mountains brought us to Karakol, snow-capped peaks and the yurt I find myself in now.
Before our time here, we had made our way from Turkmenistan and explored two fantastic ancient cities in Uzbekistan – Bukhara and Samarkand. We wandered around beautiful mosques, madrassas and stunning architecture on a whistle-stop visit through the country. The food was once again brilliant and we lost count of the number of shashlyk (kebabs of marinated beef or mutton) and somsas (pastry filled with onions and meat) we ate!