It’s freezing outside and it’s already after dark. There is nothing to see in the far distance. We are literally in the middle of nowhere. If there’s one place where we never wanted to get stuck, then it would be this place. The car just died on a small road, away from the main road, at the height of 4000m. Now we’re facing a really cold night in the car. Luckily, we can laugh about our own stupidities. The Pamir Highway is really testing our car to the max.
FIRST STOP: DUSHANBE
We arrived at Tajikistan in the middle of the night and we still needed to drive for one hour until we reached Dushanbe. The roads to Dushanbe were a big relief after all the potholes we had to avoid in Uzbekistan. We didn’t have a place to sleep yet, so we searched for a hostel that we found on our Maps.Me GPS. We searched for half an hour but couldn’t find anything. Eventually, we came across the ‘Lotus Hotel’, which looked way to nice to sleep at. Luckily they wanted to lower the price for us because it was already after midnight. The day after we managed to get the same price for one more night, because we needed a rest day before driving to the Pamirs. In the meantime, we brought the car to a mechanic to get it checked. While they were working on our car, we had some free time, so we first went to search an exchange booth. There are almost no banks that accept credit cards, and unlike Uzbekistan, there is no black market to exchange money.
After searching for Sumoni (no pun intended), we went to a local bazaar named ‘Shamansur market’, also known as the Green Bazaar. It’s in the heart of Dushanbe and is one of the main markets for trading and stocking up food before going into the mountains. There we strolled around all the stalls and tasted some local food like the Central Asian Samosas, also known as ‘Samsa’, a delicious sheep meat pastry. After a couple of hours, we went back to the mechanic to pick up the car. He put new brakes on it because ours were completely worn down and he added a new button in the car to operate the cooling system manually preventing it from overheating. The whole thing cost us 32 dollars.
ADVENTURES ON THE SECOND HIGHEST ROAD IN THE WORLD
The next day it was time to go towards the beginning of the Pamir Highway. There are two routes to get there. The Northern route looks quicker on the map but we heard from other teams that took this road, that they had to come back because it was too dangerous. So we opted for the Southern route which is a couple of hours longer but easier to do. Because we left Dushanbe far too late, we ended up right in construction works at nightfall. This part of the road took quite some time because it was very dangerous to drive when it became darker, and some parts were narrow when we went downhill the mountain. The roadworks ended around 9 o’clock. We drove further for an hour because we couldn’t find a good camping spot in the dark and after a while, we decided to go off the main road to put our tent 100m further. After being fully installed, two guys with guns scared the hell out of us. It appeared to be two soldiers from the Tajik border. They made us clear that it was not safe to camp over there because apparently, we were camping right next to the Afghan border (which we didn’t know). We had to pack everything back up and leave the property. Back at the main road, two other soldiers surprised us by jumping in front of the car. They stopped us, and we needed to hand over our passports. One of them was talking through his walkie-talkie for more than 15 minutes and he was asking stuff like ‘what are you doing here’ etc… Eventually, they commanded us to kill the lights of the car and to follow them. They were walking in front of the car and we couldn’t see anything in the darkness. Myrthe thought they wanted to kill us and Thomas wanted to text the location to his mom, but we didn’t have any service. After ten minutes of driving, not knowing what was going on, we arrived at something that looked like a small military base. They offered us to sleep on a bunk bed outside under the stars. We talked for a while, and they even gave us their jackets and sleeping bags in case it would become too cold. Before we went to sleep, they warned us that the guards from the Afghan border sometimes shoot at them. The guys stayed up all night, and we woke up a couple of times when they were reloading their guns. It was a very special night because of the situation, and on top of that, we never saw such an amazing sky full of bright stars.
The next morning, we left early to win some time towards the Pamir. We drove to Qal’ai Khumb, where the northern and southern route come together, for some gas, food and water. From here on, there were A LOT of kids running towards us on the streets, waving to us and doing high fives. The road itself was pretty challenging but really cool! We drove all the time on dusty roads, going along the Panj River which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The road took longer than it looked on the map because the roads aren’t paved, and we drove in a small Lada, not a 4×4. We slept somewhere at the river together with an other team, an hour before Khorog. When we arrived in Khorog the next day, we needed to decide which road we wanted to take. The traditional M41 Highway (the original Pamir Highway) or the more dangerous and difficult road that keeps going along the Afghan border. We opted for the original Pamir Highway because we still wanted to reach Mongolia and didn’t want to ask to much from the car. Maybe that was the best choice because this road was already hard enough for our small car!
HOW TO GET STUCK IN THE PAMIRS
We encountered Genghis’ Panda, some Italians that we’ve met on the ferry across the Caspian Sea, and we drove together almost all the time. Getting to the peak was very difficult for the cars. Both cars had a hard time because of the height (4655 meters). The Panda, the car of the Italians, couldn’t get up the last steep hill, so we had to give it an extra push. We both were a little bit sick because of altitude sickness that day so as you already can imagine; this was not the best timing. Once up there, we enjoyed the view and captured the moment. When we wanted to move on, our car didn’t want to start (again). But this time it was probably because of the height. After a push start, we could go on. The roads after the peak were even worse than before. It was almost all the time washboard roads, full of bumps and ripples. It was so bad that we had to take a side dirt track next to the main road. It was here where the Italians hit their exhaust with a sharp rock, right behind their sump guard. Their small Fiat Panda now sounded like a Ferrari. Because they needed to fix this as quick as possible, we stopped at the next ‘big’ town at Karakul Lake. The mechanic said that it was going to take a while to fix it, so we decided to move further on for a bit, and they would sleep in the town. After a while, we took a small off-road track from the main road, because we wanted to camp next to a lake. I think that this was the worst that we could have done. There was so much wind and because the night before was freezing cold (with temperatures underneath zero), we decided to go back to the last town and sleep over there in a guesthouse. We wanted to start driving, but suddenly out of nothing, the car just died. We tried to get it back running again, but nothing worked and it was already dark. We were doomed to sleep in the car in the middle of nowhere with nothing around us for at least 20km.
As you expected, the night was hell. The day after even more. We tried to turn the car around so we could push start him downhill. To do this, we needed to dig him out of the sand with our shovel every time we pushed him for not even 2 meters. This we had to do on an altitude of 4000m high with the burning sun upon us. In the meantime, we saw the Italians passing by on the main road. We waved like crazy but unfortunately they didn’t see us. Push starting the vehicle was our only option. When we finally turned the car and tried it, it failed. We were now stuck, and we couldn’t get the car running again, great! We just had one more option; going to the main road and wait until someone passes by to help us. It took us 45 minutes to walk over there. We waited and waited. Ten minutes passed by, no car. 30 minutes passed by, still no car. Until eventually after more than 1 hour, we saw in the distance that a car was coming our way! So we just jumped in the middle of the road to flag him down. Luckily, he understood a little bit of English and was willing to drive to our car and help us out. He kickstarted the car with the car cables, et voila! We were back on track, but a little bit scared that the car would die again.
SPOT THE BEAVER
It was an hour driving until we reached the border. The first checkpoint was high up the mountains. It was even snowing up there! We had to do a small river crossing and go up a steep muddy hill to reach it. After the usual passport checks, we needed to go back down the mountain to the second checkpoint. The car usually gets checked here, but we could just drive further on. Between this checkpoint and the border of Kyrgyzstan, we had to drive through 20 km of no-mans land (what we called Beaverland). We’ve never seen so many curious beavers in such a short timeframe. So we just started a contest between us two, called ‘Spot The Beaver’. Who saw the most beavers when we arrived at the border of Kyrgyzstan won. Obviously, Myrthe saw the most, with a total of 21! Thomas was too busy with concentrating on the road.
Let us know when you saw more beavers than us!
Thanks to Genghis’ Panda for some of the pictures.
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