A very nice try

Dushanbe, 19.07.2019

One of the memories of Eurasia2013 I have been thinking about most in the past years had been the Pamir highway. Six years ago I had passed one of the highest roads in the world, staring from Osh, straight up to the Ak Baital pass at 4.655m and returning through the Wakhan corridor. I remembered how I struggled with the altitude sickness kicking in suddenly, as the ascent was pretty steep. Also the car at the time had its issues. When I first thought about the trip for this summer, the Pamir highway was one of the first destinations that came up. Would I get there? Would the Mini make it up to the pass? How would the roads be this year? Lots of guesses, there was just one way to find out – get there and try it. And so I did. 65 days after leaving Barcelona, I got into the car early this morning and left Dushanbe, with a big question mark hanging over the road ahead. The first hours went surprisingly smooth. The roads were mostly perfect, deteriorating slightly the further I got from Tajikistan’s capital. After Kulob the adventure started. The “main” road got bumpy, then rocky, then destroyed. After climbing 1000m in about half an hour on a pretty rough stretch, I saw a white VW T4 parked on the side of the road – with a Berlin number plate. So far I didn’t see a lot of Western cars around here, and even the bikes I could count on two hands. The couple from Berlin and their Tajik guide were very friendly, and we chatted about where we came from and where we wanted to go – the usual traveller chat when you first meet.

Shortly after the first checkpoint for the Gorno-Badakhshan region awaited. First came the military, then the police. Less than an hour later (the road was perfect by now) the landscape changed, as I drove into the Panj river valley that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. In 2013 I had driven along it further upstream. Down here (altitude was about 1000m) the same steep canyons, the grey water and the small Afghan villages on the other side brought back many memories. You can find videos of the valley on Youtube. The contrast among the two countries was stark. Over here perfect roads, military patrols every now and then, clean villages, trucks and cars on the roads. Over there dirt tracks partially eaten by the swelling river, few people in sight, small villages with mud brick houses, women washing clothes and carpets in the grey river, men bathing on the shores, the occasional motorcycle was the only vehicle I saw. Suddenly a truck laid on the road, having fallen over while boarding from the valley below, heavily laden with white marble stones. An old man with a long white beard and white traditional dress was standing beside it. Gasoline ran over the tar, in 40C heat. I barely managed to drive around it, as the truck blocked the entire road. I felt bad as I left, thinking I should have helped somehow. I had briefly had eye contact with the old man as I drove by, he didn’t smile, and I could have done nothing for him probably. Half an hour later, at the next checkpoint, I told the police about the truck as they registered my data. Before taking off I asked about the road ahead to Khorog, where I had planned to stay at the wonderful Serena hotel for two days. “45km good road, then 300km not so good.” I sensed my road would end in 45km. I kept driving, the windows open, brutally hot air making my hair sticky with dust. A few villages passed, the kids waving behind me, the men staring at the Mini, the girls talking to each other while turning after the car as I passed. Avalanches had taken pieces of the road off, and I had to pass short stretches that had been cleaned of big stones but still were untarred. I passed a high waterfall that dropped it’s water on the road. A couple had parked their red car under the water and was standing next to it, the woman dancing on the road, enjoying the refreshment. Pretty much 45km after the checkpoint the good road ended suddenly, and a track of gravel and stones began. I didn’t want to give up straight away, and kept driving a few km until I reached a water fountain and a tree that offered shade for the mini, along the river. I stopped, opened the hood and all windows, and went to wash myself under the cold mountain water. In the heat this felt so wonderful, refreshing, relaxing. I got out my phone and Google maps. What should I do now?

As I weighted my options, the Berliners arrived and stopped to say hi. They had thought I was behind them. We chatted briefly, then I asked their guide about the road options ahead. “300km like this to Khorog.” “And how about the road through the other valley back to Dushanbe?” “It’s even worse, you have to cross a pass at 3.200m.” 300km of Mini destruction only to reach the beginning of the best part of the Pamir highway. I remembered that also back in 2013 I had turned around in Khorog as the road to Dushanbe was described by several drivers as “very bad”. 300km at an average of 25km/h is a long way, and I wouldn’t have reached Khorog before nightfall. And after Khorog, who knows what I would find. There was a good probability that I would have to turn around due to obstacles like rivers, bad roads etc. And then, another 300km of Mini destruction on the way back? As the Berliners left, I decided to call it off. Here the adventure ended, and the road back to Europe began. I was a little sad, but I had to listen to the reasonable Boris in me. I had 4 weeks to get to Greece, and the road ahead screamed Mini trouble all over the place. After having lost 11 days in Tashkent I’ve used all my buffer of days.

As I drove back I started to take pictures, as by now the time pressure was off. I knew the road ahead, and just needed to reach Dushanbe before darkness. At the waterfall I stopped, giving the Mini a good shower from all sides. After 10 minutes the temperature had dropped to 22C, the Mini was all clean, and I all wet. I had to laugh out loud, as I stood on the side of the road watching the free car wash, the hot wind from the river on one side, the cold breeze from the waterfall on the other. The truck was still blocking the highway as I passed again, nobody had come to help except another truck, that was standing nearby with a small rope connecting the two vehicles. The road back to Dushanbe felt significantly worse than in the morning, and towards the end of the day the Tajik drivers started to get nervous. As I drove onto the parking lot of the Serena hotel I felt tired. 13h later I was back where I started this morning.

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