Off Road in the Pamirs

Rankul valley (Kirgizstan), 10.06.2013

We spent the last two days touring the mountains and valleys from the Wakhan to the Pamir Highway. Since we have time to spend before we enter China on the 19.06. the area is great to discover. From our campsite yesterday morning in the Wakhan valley at 3100m, overlooking the river, we enjoyed a quick breakfast and outdoor shower as the sun rose. We later found out that the friend we wanted to visit in Afghanistan is based in a village right behind the ridge on the other side of the valley. There is even a bridge connecting the two countries, but the border is closed. It would have been a 20 mins drive down the valley, across the bridge and around the mountain.

DSC_0171We hit the road early and there was no way to speed up. Slowly we drove up into the mountains, over gravel tracks and stones. The Range Rover lost power again as we reached 3600m, but kept driving. Along the way we stopped two times to collect wood. At these heights there are no trees, just bushes of different sizes, and it was difficult to find some bigger firewood. The road got worse and worse and we started doubting if we were on the right track. Our sat phone gave us GPS coordinates, but on our map there was nothing in the exact locations. But from one coordinate check to the next we saw how we were moving and the direction was right. The valleys are arid up here, there are only shepherds, no villages. The sun burned merciless, the wind made us forget about the heat and we both got burned.

Before lunchtime we passed a military checkpoint at an army base on the border. These guys even had a tank up there, no idea how they managed to bring it into this place with no roads. Past the checkpoint we started to look for a place for lunch, and we found it at a mountain lake with ice blocks still on it. Overlooking a fantastic valley, with the opposite mountain peak mirroring in the crystal clear water of the lake we ate a chopan salat and made coffee, enjoying the sun and fresh air.

DSC_0196 DSC_0182After lunch the “guess where we are” and “the main road is behind the next ridge for sure” program continued and we started to get a bit nervous. Also because if the car broke down here we were in quite some trouble. Hours passed, average speed was 15 km/h and every meter a fight with the road. The one track we followed divided into several ones running in parallel, and finally we found the main road as an amazing valley with around the Sasyk Lake opened up in front of us. The blue lake had a white salt crust border that made it stand out from the green pastures of the sheep and yaks, and the brown-yellow mountains all around.

We took the main road for five minutes back towards Khorog, but then drove off road again to the right to look for another lake that promised to be even more beautiful, according to our LP guide. This time the track was very comfortable, all sand and grass. No bumps, clear view, and soon after the Bulum Kul lake appeared. And indeed it is beautiful, deeper blue then the previous one, a fantastic place! We have tons of videos to upload once we’re online again.

DSC_0267 DSC_0231On our map it showed a geyser in the area, so we took off to find it. A couple of hills later we drove past an old yellow Toyota Land Cruiser from Germany, parked on a spot of green grass surrounded by the river. The guys told us the road ahead of us was a dead end, but we didn’t understand what they meant since the track seemed to lead in the right direction, so we drove on.

A couple of hills later we stood in front of a dry lake, and the track ended there. Since the water of the lake had converted into a small river very far away we decided to keep driving, on the border of the former lake. What a mistake. Within 10m from the border of the lake the ground converted from hard terrain into mud covered with light yellow dried grass, and we got stuck. There was no way to move the car, so we got out our spade and started digging to free the wheels from the mud. We also found some gravel on the border of the lake that we put in the tracks of the wheels. Several attempts to move the car failed. We couldn’t get the Range Rover out of there alone. So I walked back to find the Land Cruiser, hoping the German couple was still chilling on their spot on the river and hadn’t moved on by now.

IMG_5898Luckily they were still there and willing to help. We all got into their car and drove back to the lake. Nico and Diana had not only a powerful Land Cruiser, but also all kinds of equipment on board like snow chains and super robust long ropes. Also, they had to get themselves out of Lake Aral some weeks before and knew what needed to be done. In an hour we were saved and so grateful! We’ll upload the videos ASAP. We all drove back to the river and camped there. With the wood from the Wakhan valley we made fire and cooked some hot pasta that took ages to prepare. What a day full of adventure!

IMG_5910The next morning some donkeys inspecting our tent woke us up. At breakfast we found out Diana and Nico would pretty much do the same route like us, so when they took off we said “see you at the geyser” instead of goodbye. They had left for only a few minutes when a jeep with four locals came towards us and parked in front of our car. These people presented themselves with “hello friend, we have beer”, blasted cheap folk music through the valley, started smoking dope and sat at two meters distance from our car checking it out from all sides. They asked if we had caught fish and if we had motor oil. ??? We wanted to take a bath in the river and pack our car properly, but these men were very suspicious so we got all our things in the car and just left in a rush. As we drove away quickly we saw in the mirror that they followed us. We drove faster, but the Range Rover was still at half engine power due to the altitude. This sucks!

IMG_5937We finally managed to loose them, but our morning was ruined, we didn’t wash, and were in a strange mood. We drove for another half hour through pretty rough terrain, stone and sand tracks mostly. As we were about to give up, a road sign appeared in front of us indicating the directions to the geyser we were looking for since yesterday. But what a disappointment to find a small source of mineral water in the desert! Hmmm, it seemed not a good start of the day. But then the Land Cruiser appeared on the main road and came towards us. We filled some bottles of water with Nico and Diana, put purification tablets in them and spent some time chatting under the sun.

DSC_0032Enough dead geyser for the day! Both cars took off to find the main road to drive towards Murghab and some lakes further on to camp. It took us several hours of tough terrain driving, over endless kms of stone tracks, crossing several rivers and adjacent mud fields. The previous day the Range Rover had surprised us with his sturdiness, resisting the worst stone stone tracks we had met so far, today it got even worse. The Georgian guide we met in Turkey had called it a plastic jeep, in Baku they called it a ladies’ car. Out here fighting from stone to stone, I was tempted to baptize it “panzer” but it is a British car s0 this name didn’t seem too appropriate. Also, the Pamir Highway is just the warm up for the Karakoram Highway that we will drive through in 10 days, so it’s early to distribute laurels. Especially since the engine power failure started to give us problems not just in escaping strange locals, but also in driving up hills and managing tough roads. Helena had to push us up one hill since the engine alone wouldn’t make it, and we had to abandon the last one right before the main road because the engine wouldn’t get us over it.

IMG_6010DSC_0050 DSC_0045At Alichur we got back on the highway, and a little later stopped to eat Ak Balik, white fish. Expectations were quite high, and the small plate of cold, fried fish was a “surprise” (aka disappointment). Also because we didn’t understand the strange sweet cream and sour yogurt that came with it. But it was a change of diet at least, we didn’t have fish in weeks.

CIMG0004DSC_0070 DSC_0120We met the Land Cruiser several times on the road and in Murghab, where we bought food, water and some local handicraft (socks from sheep wool and carpets to sleep on, to make the nights in the tent more bearable). And then we left to find the camping spot for the night and finally take a bath in a lake. We reached the valley leading to Rankul at 18:00 and the two lakes looked nice from afar, but muddy at closer inspection. So we opted for the river connecting them, where the water was clear. It was very windy and we had to pitch our tent close to a shepherd’s house. The two cars provided additional wind protection. And after two tough days on the road, or better off road, we closed the night with a great dinner cooked by Diana.

DSC_0129 DSC_0172 IMG_6305

Trip data for the day 09.06.

– Km driven: 120

– Hrs on the road: approx 10h

– Diesel l/100km: 12,

Trip data for the day 10.06.

– Km driven: 200

– Hrs on the road: approx 10h

– Diesel l/100km: 9,5

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