The High Road to Kyrgyzstan
Discovery Channel Magazine, March 2012
It is two in the morning when we blow a tyre, four thousand metres up in the Pamir Mountains and 90 kilometres from the nearest village. It is minus ten degrees and we are driving through a blizzard. As the driver sets to changing the wheel in the freezing snow, he hands me a torch and tells me to keep walking in circles around the car. “Watch for wolves,” he says.
I could have flown. But where’s the fun in that? When a colleague at the World Bank invited me to come to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to write about how microfinance works in some of the poorest and most obscure nations on earth, it quickly occurred to us that there was an alternative to the glued-together certain-death turboprop flights that bob and wobble between the mountains that separate the two capitals, Dushanbe and Bishkek. We could drive. Doing so would take us over the legendary Pamir Highway – a remote, mountain-top route built by the Soviets in the 1930s and until recently closed to civilian traffic. We would need to make it between the two in 72 hours, far too little for comfort; but still, who could refuse?
Our trip starts in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe, after a hefty delay on landing caused by a roaring Afghan dust storm. There are few countries that fewer people could find on a map, so here’s a few things you may not have known: it is arguably the poorest of the 15 nations that the Soviet Union dissolved into in 1991, and was crippled further by a catastrophic civil war. Like so many Asian nations, it is a bizarre shape without much logic to its borders; it brings together not only Tajiks (and not nearly all of them) but other races such as the Pamirs. Two days of meetings tells me something else: increasingly, women are the future of the place.
With tens of thousands of working age men dead in the civil war and so many more having gone to Russia for work, often never to come back, the burden of moving out of poverty has fallen to the women. I meet Mastura Asoeva, who started out making baskets from home, got a microfinance loan and built a business not only making baskets but teaching others to do so. I meet Khakifa Sobirova, who has built a family bakery business into something that supports her daughter’s burgeoning embroidery enterprise. I meet Burigul Kholova, who runs a farm, and Nazovat Hafizova, who has used microfinance to open a beauty parlour. Every microfinance bank head I meet is a woman. The chair of the association of microfinance lenders is a woman. The president of Kyrgyzstan, where our journey will end, is a woman. In this conservative and patriarchal society, it is magnificent to see.
Driving out of Dushanbe is dull at first; flat and dusty amid the cotton fields. We have left far too late and it is quickly dark. It is a mistake, as further south it becomes a hopeless road, built by forced German labour under the Soviets during the second world war, and apparently barely maintained ever since. We lose our way in riverbeds, a bouncing and slamming of axles in the dark. But the mood is enlivened when the driver points across a river at hills in the darkness on the other side and says: “Afghanistan.”
We hadn’t known we were taking a route this far south; in fact, we will follow the Pyanj river – Tajikistan one side, Afghanistan the other, sometimes just 30 metres away – for several hundred kilometers. At first we travel it at night, catching glimpses of village lights across the river, and sometimes motorbikes, flashing lights mischievously across at us, alarming the hell out of the drivers. Occasionally we pass a troop of local soldiers, staring across the river – in groups of four they face the blackness, looking for opium smugglers. Big trucks from China plough by. We pass a car, broken down; we’re not allowed to stop, the drivers say. A goat herder appears in the darkness, shoving hundreds of sheep up a road on this barren hillside; it’s hard to think what they could possibly eat. The road declines again, to rubble, like a wadi. Cows and dogs appear in the way. A steady stream of remotely located police flag us down and administer curious shakedowns around our visas.
Progress is slow and it is 3 a.m. before we get to Kalaikhum, an Afghan border town about 500 kilometres from Dushanbe. It seems to be a guest house and Lotte, my travelling companion, emerges with high expectations.
“We need separate rooms.”
“There is one room.”
She looks alarmed. “Oh. Well we’ll need separate beds.”
There is an uncomfortable silence. “Beds? There are no beds.”
It hardly matters: we unroll our sleeping bags on the carpeted floor of the modest wooden house and are quickly asleep.
A few hours later we are up to the smiles of local young women with lines of golden teeth. On the road we have our clearest view of Afghanistan, as life goes on as normal across the river, following a track in parallel to the road we drive on. It looks good. Passing the footbridges, which don’t look to be marshalled with particular vigour, it is tempting to cross and see what looks so ordinary from a distance: people panning for gold on river beaches, women carrying their loads on their heads, bikes and donkeys navigating the cliff-hewn path. There’s no sense of threat from them, but stories abound of gunshots fired across the river; the worst we get is a boy with a slingshot aiming rocks at our land cruiser.
A drive along this distance of border brings renewed sympathy for any attempt to control the drug trade. Tajikistan is at the heart of it, with nothing like the resources to do much about it; a few people policing the river is nothing compared to the apparent ease of crossing it. There are places where it looks calm enough to cross on foot, and countless places where a row boat would do the job.
This is a poor and fairly desolate place, yet there is evidence of skill forgotten in so many other places in the world. The dry stone walling is immaculate, truly perfect: you simply could not see it in Britain anymore. The roads are nothing like so consistent, though a variety of nationalities of road crews – Italian, Iranian, Turkish – are doing their best to alleviate it, with mixed results.
We continue among the cows and the doctors, the A-frame wooden electricity pylons, to the town of Khorog. This is the capital of the GBAO: a separately administered part of the country which requires separate permits beyond the original visa, a perennial cause of delay for foreigners who hope to visit the region. This is Aga Khan territory: a place where he is revered not as just a leader, not just as a prophet, but as a living god. Here, in a place where things got so bad during the civil war that money ceased to exist and the whole economy shifted to a barter system, we can now see the impact of the Aga Kahn’s money: a new Central Asian university. For our part, we meet with friends of the drivers and head to a local bar for a dinner involving an inevitable amount of sheep. It is delicious, and the Baltika 3 Russian beer is going down a treat, and the old men start dancing a slow and arms-raised little tango with an expression of great hope that they will be joined by us, but we have agreed that we should press on tonight, to Murgab.
This puts us on the Pamir Highway itself, marked by the first car ever to make the journey from Osh to Khorog, now mounted on a plinth. This road is truly an engineering triumph: driven over a host of more than 4000-metre passes across Tibetan plains, in isolated land near hostile borders; it also has a troubled history as a supply route for Soviet military, not least into Afghanistan. Our initial progress is short: within minutes we’ve hit a roadblock that delays us for an hour while we argue, again, about visas and permits.
It is once again dark and within an hour it starts to snow. We all agree to stop several hundred kilometers earlier than planned, at a town called Jelandy, early along the Pamir Highway, but driving in what is becoming a blizzard, we just can’t find it, a whole village lost in the weather. We could turn back; we press on. And that’s when the tyre blows.
Standing there, looking for wolves in the moonlight, is something of a low moment, while also being exactly what we drove for in the first place. We change the wheel twice, as the first won’t lock to the four wheel drive; it’s seriously cold, although in early October, that’s apparently nothing. Later, a guesthouse worker will tell us it gets down to minus 45 in mid-winter.
We make the guesthouse at first light, at 5a.m., and are up again at 8 to get ready to move on again. The drivers can’t be roused and there’s little sense in them being exhausted so I head outside to look around Murgab. Despite a glamorous location of craggy peaks around it, there’s little to the place itself; until recently electricity alternated between one half of the town and the other, never simultaneously, no matter how cold. I watch a stream of children come to a Japanese-funded well near to the guesthouse. They pump with great gusto, often working in pairs, sometimes as young as four or five, pumping the water into silver pails and staggering off lop-sided with it to their homes. Smoke starts to rise from the houses; people in big Kyrgyz hats say hello. We can’t be far from the border.
Pamiris, or Ismailis, consider themselves altogether separate from the rest of the country, and pretty much the world. They took the losing side in the civil war; little surprise that not much development spending makes its way up here.
It’s a morning of confusion as the drivers hunt new tyres and we go to a local home for a breakfast that never appears. Inside the local children watch Russian reality TV, beamed through an incongruous satellite dish between the yaks and the yurts. “Miami, you’re my bitch!” says the TV. A youth in the living room, with Russia written on the back of a baseball jacket, nods appreciatively.
We hit the road and are finally seeing the Pamir Highway in daylight. It is a revelation. Who knows this place is here? Who gets to see this? We do, and what we see is, initially, rather reminiscent of Tatooin, Luke Skywalker’s home planet: a clay-red desolation. There is no traffic, on this generally excellent road, as the hills turn to mountains and a glacier appears to the west of the road, a sluggish slide of white and grey down the mountainside. After the first pass, 4,600 metres, we are alongside the Chinese border fence which runs just metres from the road. It never used to be Chinese territory, and on most maps, the border is nowhere near here; but Tajikistan surrendered territory in return for assistance in road building, another concession to getting off the bottom rung of economic development. China’s not doing anything with the extra territory. It doesn’t need it. But it’s there, a statement of relative strength.
We reach Lake Kara-Kul, formed by a meteorite 10 million years ago, and then a second pass, upon which sits the border. Is there anything quite like a Central Asian border crossing to fortify the soul, to enforce a vast improvement in your patience? A first round asks us to disclose all our funds in any currency; if it’s found to be wrong on the Kyrgyz side, they will pocket the difference. A second round inspects everything we own. Everything. Sleeping pills take some explanation, as do Lotte’s long-forgotten vitamins. An army man leafs through my wallet and taps a $100 bill with a raised eyebrow and a smile. “Dollarov!” I explain, helpfully, with an intensely moronic expression on my face. He does not take the money. Third is immigration and passport control. Every single step involves a fine or a fee. And that’s just the Tajik side. But they do bring a friendly warning. “On the Kyrgyz side, they’re drunk already.”
Next comes a 20 kilometre no-man’s-land, already greener than Tajikistan; like Scotland or Mongolia, a tight-clipped scrub on rolling hills. In this gap, nobody maintains the highway, and at one stage it has disintegrated under flooding. Then the Kyrgyz side, where mercifully they’re not drunk, but they do delight in exactly the same process.
We press on into Kyrgyzstan, greener by the moment, with golden crops appearing with the backdrop of the white peaks. The road here is immeasurably better; in places the country looks European, with tall cypress trees that wouldn’t look out of place in Tuscany or Provence. It seems far wealthier, though statistically, that’s hardly true. We’ve missed dinner again, but eat yak meat and boiled potatoes out of a plastic bag the drivers brought.
Up here we’re amid the patchwork of borders that date from Stalin. They are fabulously irrational: they divide tribes, races, valleys, roads. Should you choose to drive from Osh to Khojand, which it’s perfectly sensible to do, you start in Kyrgyzstan, enter Uzbekistan, then Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan again, Kyrgyzstan again and Tajikistan, without ever having turned left or right off the road.
Originally we’d planned to reach Bishkek tonight but that’s plainly ludicrous; we settle for spending the night at Osh. It’s barely a year ago that ethnic cleansing was taking place here, and there is still an edge. A police officer has been killed the night we arrive. In the short term, though, our priorities are fairly mundane: a shower, a separate room. Finding both, we toast our good fortune with too much Moldovan red wine.
We are on the road at six, believing we will be in Bishkek by lunchtime; we have an afternoon of interviews and it appears we might meet the President of Kyrgyzstan. But it’s clear within an hour how late we’re going to be. Partly it’s the sheer wealth of livestock on the road: donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, yaks. Partly it’s the majesty of the scenery: first a reservoir amid jagged rock reminiscent of the Hoover Dam and its surroundings; then a stunning, mountain-fringed lake; then two passes amid vivid white peaks, the green foothills like piles of folded blankets punctuated by railway carriages used as houses, shops, schools.
But mainly it’s the shake-downs. We are stopped seven times in seven hours in Kyrgyzstan and fined every time. At one stage the policeman, immaculate in his uniform, finds Lotte’s camera and tells her it is illegal to photograph a gas station. He checks through her photos laboriously; there are no photos of gas stations, so he fines us anyway. We have IFC plates on the front of the car, referring to the World Bank’s financing arm; we bang on about seeing the President. It doesn’t work. And by the time we take the wrong way down a one way street in the outskirts of Bishkek it’s clear that we’re going straight to an interview, shower or no shower, shave or no shave. I change into a suit in the back of the car, remembering at the last moment that hiking boots don’t really go with the look. And a mere 75 hours after leaving, almost all of them in the car, we have made it; not for the president, who has cancelled, but a bank CEO, who welcomes our disheveled appearance with remarkable savoir-faire.
Lotte alerts Facebook with some statistics. Time: 75 hours; showers: one; sleep: 11 hours; out of focus photos taken from back of speeding car with power cables obscuring mountain wildernesses: about 6,000; traveling companions lost to wolves: zero. Our colleagues who flew look fit and refreshed. But they lack the fortification that comes from looking for wolves in a high-altitude blizzard. You can’t put a price on that.