The Pamir Highway itself is already considered a remote part of Tajikistan, but when we took a turnoff from the highway, heading south, we knew we were in for an even remoter area. It was a late afternoon, and the last stretch on the highway had been open and very windy. The guide we had picked up in Alichur had yet to prove his value, but for now, was a good companion to our driver who was happily chatting with him in Kyrgyz. We stopped shortly at a small building used as a base camp for hunters of Marco Polo sheep, with piles of skulls and horns of the poor beasts, but otherwise, did not see any settlements like we had sometimes seen in the main valley of the highway. Instead, the mountains around us were rugged, had different colours, and together with the sometimes barely visible track we were following, over gravel and through rivers, gave us a sense of driving to nowhere. The light was beautiful, life was an adventure, and beautiful. Eventually, we reached the end of the valley; at the foot of a mountain, where the valley seemed to split in two, we found a few yurts with some people scrambling around them. We knew we had arrived.
After a welcome tea, I could not resist but climb to the small snowfield I saw near the top of the hill behind the settlement. The altitude made me climb slower than normal, but when I reached the snow and turned around, I sat down and simply enjoyed the view I had conquered. The sun was now setting behind a crest on the other side of the valley, darkness was settling in the valleys below me, but I was high enough to be able to look far away onto mighty peaks. The next day was for exploring this area - and with that thought, I went down to our yurt. Very early next morning, before the sun squeezed the darkness out of our valley, I started walking the valley, found the small river behind our yurt partly frozen, understanding why I felt so cold. I walked up the low hill above the yurts, to find a small cemetery. While there, I saw the shepherds releasing their sheep and yaks and driving them into different directions for the day. After breakfast, I left with the driver and guide, driving up the eastern valley. We were out to hike, and hopefully see the famed Marco Polo sheep. When even our driver could not manage the sturdy Russian jeep any higher, we continued walking, but not for long. The guide was scanning the mountains around us for a sign of the Marco Polo sheep, and finally spotted them. Even using his binoculars, I had trouble seeing them - they are very well camouflaged. And fast: running along part of the mountain, I could see those big beasts disappear before i could really appreciate their beauty. We decided to try the other valley. We did not have to drive far: not long after passing a tiny lake, a small herd of Marco Polo sheep once again showed how fast the beasts were. Our jeep was bouncing over the rough terrain, and when we finally stopped, they had almost disappeared. The driver wanted to go back to camp - but I was under the firm impression that we were out for a hike. i ended up going alone. After a half hour hike, I reached another fork in the valley, and decided to go left, as there was less snow on the ground. I had forgotten one thing. In the mountains, the weather can change in a matter of seconds. And so it did.
Where just before the air seemed serene, and some innocent looking white clouds were floating in the otherwise blue sky, the heavens seemed to close upon the valley as if a giant grey lid was being put right on top of it. Moreover, that lid was being pressed down always more, drastically limiting my view. The wind was picking up, and when the sluices of the sky finally opened, whatever was coming out of it was white. The air was turning violent now, and snow was blowing almost horizontally between the mountains. I wore a jacket, but could feel the cold going straight through, and realized I must look for cover. I found a rock that offered some shelter, and ducked below it. Around me, pink mountain flowers were covered by a layer of snow, the landscape around me was converted into a winter scene, and I wondered how long I could wait here. But then, as sudden as it had started, the weather seemed to turn for the better and I decided to continue walking up. After all, I wanted to reach the top of the mountain pass, just to see what was on the other side. I reached the snow limit, and had to thread carefully to half melted, thick layers of snow and rocks, without an idea of what was lying below. I gradually made it to the top, when I realized that to reach it, I would have to traverse a serious stretch of snow. Moreover, the weather seemed to be worsening again, so I could only decide to return. My new strategy: try to stay as high as possible, to prevent the snow fields in the lower stretches. This, however, meant crossing several zones with big rocks and boulders, posing new obstacles on my way down. And then, from behind, it hit again. This time, a real snowstorm came down from the mountains, unleashing itself full force, and just as I was again taking shelter under one of the big rocks, the world around me was totally white. There was no more distinction between rock or snow, earth or cloud: there was only white in one shade. I started to shiver, and the only thing I could do for now, was to eat one of the chocolate bars I had taken with me. Fortunately, also this time it did not last for very long, and it helped to convince me that there was only one way I should go: down. After a hike of another few hours, I finally reached our yurt again. We left the next morning, and drove probably the wildest, remotest stretch we saw in the Pamirs that week. Chasing herds of Marco Polo sheep, ibexes, marveling at jagged mountains in various shades of grey, red, and green, driving through small streams coming from higher mountains - our driver claimed he had never taken anyone to this area, and we could even believe him. There were hardly any tracks anywhere here - even less, people. When we finally reached the Pamir Highway again, we felt regret for having to leave this area behind.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Keng Shiber (Tajikistan). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Keng Shiber.
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