Driving down M41 (the Pamir highway)
After our Engels Peak hike and reuniting on day 3 with David and Stefano, we left the Wakhan valley and headed towards the actual M41! The road climbed higher and the landscape accordingly turned more barren – from the yellow and green in the Wakhan valley to the greyish and blue hues of the Tajik highlands.
We made stop for the night at two lakes, Bulunkul and Yachikul (Kul is the Tajik word for lake). The landscape around the lake looked almost moonlike and the blue and turquoise of the lakes were so clear in contrast that they were almost painful to look at. On that day, we also saw an eagle for the first time of our trip! Unfortunately, the eagle flew away way too fast for our cameras to capture the bird in close-up.
We started the next day with a short but beautiful walk to lake Bulunkul. But the fourth day also saw some serious problems with our car. Apparently, the fuel in Tajikistan is of very low quality and led to an almost motor breakdown in the cold of Bulunkul. It took us some concentrated effort and almost two hours to get the car going! There was not too much driving to do though and we arrived in Murgab, the “largest” town in Eastern Tajikistan well before sunset.
Just like Khorog, Murgab was a hub for travelers coming up and down the Pamir and we did have an unlikely reunion there! Strolling around the bazaar in Murgab, we suddenly spotted Jan, a German we met first in Tehran who biked all the way through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the Pamir.
Murgab bazaar itself may also be the biggest attraction of the town (apart from the hot shower in our hostel!) and was also one of the strangest markets we have seen this far. Maybe because of the cold, traders were not selling their stuff under open air but rather operated out of colorful ship containers. In any case, we were able to restock with fruits, snickers and really nice and fresh bread. Since Murgab was the first place with an actual shop after Khorog, we were running low in supply.
The way to Kyrgyzstan
With a new driver and another car, we left the pleasantries of Murgab on the next morning and drove through the ever changing Pamir landscape. We were climbing higher still with our Toyota Landcruiser and soon snow started popping out left and right to us. We stopped at the highest point of the M41, the Ak-Baital pass before going down slightly towards Karakul. Karakul, literally the ‘black lake’, is by far the largest of all the lakes we have passed. According to the Lonely Planet, the Murgab region had plans to make the lake navigable for ships. But by the time we were there, we were the only living things apart from three other tourists with whom we shared pasta (!) at our homestay.
Karakul would also be our first attempt at night photography. Unfortunately, the moon was quite bright that night. But we think that the result is not that bad with our amateurish camera!
On day 6, we left Karakul early morning to cross the border to Kyrgyzstan. The two borders are separated by 25 kilometers of no-man’s-land with another spectacular mountain pass in between.
The Tajik side of the border was probably the funniest checkpoint we have seen (and we have seen a lot on this journey): It basically contained of a couple of containers and one large, unfinished house. When we arrived at the checkpoint (only recognizable by a A4 paper glued to the window that said “passport control”, the guard on duty seemed to be still sleeping. In any case, he went into his office in Pajamas and quickly stamped us out of Tajikistan, without even looking at our face!
The Kyrgyz side went smooth as well. Situated in front of huge snow-capped mountains, the guards let us into the country without any real hassle. (They seemed to be kind of afraid of books, but didn’t take anything).
In Kyrgyzstan, the landscape changed again: On our right side were now open grass fields and on our left side, even more gigantic mountains emerged from the ground. The most recognizable change however happened under us. Our driver has already told us that roads in Kyrgyzstan are much better than in Tajikistan and so it happened! You can’t imagine the beauty of not having a constant bumping while sitting in a car.
We ended the day in Sary Mogol and decided to stay the night there, as Nicole (again…) faced some stomach problems. The biggest draw in this otherwise windy and dusty city was definitely the (quite well!) WiFi connection in the CBT guesthouse.
Peak Lenin – basecamp and beyond
The actual reason to spend the night in Sary Mogol however, is the fact that it is the village sitting next to the impressive Lenin Peak, with 7134 meters the highest mountain of the Alay-range. It is actually considered to be one of the easiest 7000+m mountains to climb. We were obviously off-season (and because of all the stomach drama in Central Asia also definitively off-shape) to summit the peak and opted to do a day hike towards the basecamp of the mountain and beyond.
We had arranged transport to the starting point of the trail beforehand, the CBT run Yurtcamp at Turpa-Kul. Still at the end of September, it would have been possible to sleep at the really beautiful Yurtcamp sitting next to turquoise and crystal clear lake Turpa-Kul. The trail crosses a river quite in the beginning and then leads up to the basecamp of Peak Lenin. It was now closed down for winter, but the amount of permanent houses show that it is probably a really busy camp during summer. Maybe that is also the reason why permits are needed to enter the area during high-season. But since we were traveling end of September, that was no concern for us.
At the basecamp, we already got the first, pretty amazing view towards Peak Lenin! And because we were off-season, we had the view all to ourselves. To be honest, Peak Lenin is definitively not the most beautiful of peaks: It’s rather flat and misses the iconic shape of the Engels Peak we had seen before. But the weather-gods again gave us the clearest of sky after some cloudiness the day before. Karma is good with us it seems (forget about the stomach though).
The coordinator at CBT predicted that it would take us 1h to 1h30m to get to Peak Lenin basecamp, but we arrived there after merely 45 minutes. So quite naturally, we decided to hike on. After the basecamp, there are actually two trails leading further, to the left and to the right of the river gorge. Stefano and David took the left trail, basically walking on a plain grass field, while Kevin and Nicole walked right, switching back and forth on the steep side of the gorge (note to self: take the left side after basecamp).
After another 1h30m, we reached the top of a mountain pass called the traveler’s pass, honoring some of the climbers that died attempting the Peak Lenin. We had a nice long rest up there, eating up the last of our supplies (biscuits and bars) before ending the Pamir. Walking slowly, it took us the same time, two and a half hours, back to lake Turpa-Kul, swallowing up the views, knowing that it would be the last for quite a while!
We drove back to Sary-Mogol, loaded our backpacks and headed with our 4WD towards Osh, the final destination of our roadtrip. On the way, we were already reminiscing the good (and some of the bad) experiences we had on the Pamir Highway. We were definitely looking forward towards the warm shower and civilized facilities of Osh and the adventures to come, but massively sad that the Pamir was already over. It has been the literal highlight of our backpacking through Central Asia so far and there is for sure room for more explorations! Maybe next time, we will do the Pamir by bike!
Kevin and Nicole, written in Sary-Mogol and Osh
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