Kyrgyzstan # 4 – Lake Song Köl – August 2014

April 8, 2018

Leaving Kochkor, we filled our water tank at a street faucet. In these countries you need to fill every time you can. Once again, it was bucket time. We had purchased a large funnel to fit the fill tube on the camper back in Khorog, Tajikistan at their weekly open market.

At today's modern world, "highways" like this don't happen very often.

At today’s modern world, “highways” like this don’t happen very often.

Turning off the pavement, we aired down to 35psi to smooth the ride and prevent flats. As the road began to climb there were herds of yaks grazing peacefully. Never a fence in sight. No yaks wandering across the road. Maybe they have more sense than normal cows and horses. The rocky washboard twisted west and we could see the shimmering water of Lake Song-Köl in the distance. We turned into a multiple set of ruts, obviously a well-used track. The view was breathtaking, and it wasn’t the altitude, now 3,016 meters, (9,895 feet). Surrounded by mountains and rolling hills, it was the postcard picture of the Kyrgyz nomadic way of life, sprinkled with scattered yurts and herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. We could explore the lake shore in the morning. For the moment, it was so peaceful, we simply pulled off the two-track for a hundred yards and set up camp. Time to cook dinner. I pulled out our Weber Go-Anywhere barbeque and laid on some juicy lamb chops we had scored back in Kochkor. People often ask, “Well, what do cook on the road?” The answer, “Everything!”

Lake Song-Köl

At first glance we thought this was a statue, but it was actually a lone horseback rider checking his cell phone.

At first glance we thought this was a statue, but it was actually a lone horseback rider checking his cell phone.

The cozy-looking yurts were our neighbors’ summer homes where these nomadic people take advantage of the high-altitude grass for their herds of cattle, horses and flocks of sheep. Smoke from their cooking stoves gave the yurts a warm feeling as evening temperatures dropped. We momentarily wished we had a little stove in our camper, (yurt), but then, where would we store all the dried yak dung for the fire. We quickly abandoned the idea and turned on our Espar diesel-powered Airtronic heater. By early Fall the yurts would be folded up and taken to lower elevations. The area is covered in snow for 200 days a year, the lake is frozen over, and the road we drove up is most likely closed.

Except for the occasional distant baa-ing of a lonely lamb, the silence was magical. There were a few yurts used as home stays at the far end of the lake but no tourists in sight except for one British couple camped by the shore. We later joined them for an evening of travel talk and beer.

This small herd of horses preferred the narrow peninsula that jutted out into the lake. Maybe there were fewer flies out there.

Lake Song-Köl is the kind of wilderness gem that you drive thousands of miles on questionable roads just so you can sit in the glow of a setting sun and marvel at the immense beauty. After three days, China was calling and the last road sign we saw said, “Torugart, 396 kilometers”. We headed back out, but there was a T-junction where the ruts merged with the two-track. On a hunch, we turned right and followed it toward the horizon. This had to be the alternate way back to the blacktop, right? When you come to a fork in the road,—-take it.

At the edge of a deep valley, the road dropped precipitously through a dozen or more spectacular switchbacks to another junction and improved gravel. Road construction was ongoing. Vendors had set up along the sides of the “highway” selling mountain honey and balls of dried yoghurt, a popular snack calle

d Qurut (Kurut).

Whiffs of smoke drifting out of the yurt on the right, told us someone was already preparing dinner.

Whiffs of smoke drifting out of the yurt on the right, told us someone was already preparing dinner.

Our final stop before leaving Kyrgyzstan would be Tash Rabat, one of the most impressive caravanserais along the entire Silk Road. Half buried in a hillside overlooking a beautiful valley, 3,530 meters, (11,581 feet), above sea level, some say it is Kyrgyzstan’s most treasured monument.

A little update on the “Magic Girl of the Pamirs”, the young girl who waded out into the creek, took the brush from my hands, and proceeded to help wash our truck. (Along The Pamir Hwy – Tajikistan #8). For simplicity and to protect her privacy, her name is “Masha”. We were able to contact the director of The American Corner in the town of Khorog three hours from Masha’s village.

The innocent eyes of wonder we saw in this eleven year old girl said: "I don't know who you are but I want to talk to you."

The innocent eyes of wonder we saw in this eleven year old girl said: “I don’t know who you are but I want to talk to you.”

The American Corner is a free learning center sponsored by the American Embassy designed to promote mutual understanding between the United States and Tajikistan. They provide up-to-date information about U.S. history, society, education, culture, and teach English to visitors.

The director, Sheroz Naimov, volunteered to help us. Hitching a ride with a friend to Masha’s village, he spoke to her and her father and explained that we wanted to sponsor her in the prestigious Aga Khan Lycée private school in Khorog, Sheroz told us Masha had tears in her eyes. Her father called Sheroz the next day to ask in wonder, “Is this really going to happen?” Yes, Sheroz told him, but now the first problem would be to find a safe place for her to live in Khorog. Secondly, could she pass the entrance test with her very poor math and Russian? Dreams do come true. Stay tuned.

 

 

Kyrgyzstan # 3 – Kochkor – August 2014

April 3, 2018

Leaving our camp on Ysyk-Köl, where we wished we could have spent a month, the pressure of our exact date to enter China was not to be ignored. We had kept tabs on the progress of our Chinese Visa back in Bishkek and all was going well. We needed to hurry now, but we didn’t need to rush. It was a short detour up to the beautiful Karakol Valley National Park. Great camp sites were everywhere and even a clear creek babbling by. Unfortunately, Kyrgyz picnickers, like their Russian counterparts, leave their trash behind. We took the time to set up our MSR backpacking tent that would be used by our Chinese guide. Coincidently, the color was “green”, our guide’s working English name. She chose it because she was born on Earth Day.

Little boys like their baseball caps.

Little boys like their baseball caps.

Not knowing what conditions lay ahead nor how much time we would have on the road in China, we did a full lube and oil change on The Turtle V, including our Dual Amsoil Oil Filter System, www.amsoil.com. With the filters, we needed 15 quarts of Amsoil 15W/40 Synthetic Heavy-Duty Diesel & Marine motor oil which we took from the 14-gallon oil reserve tank built into the rear of the camper. Years ago, we realized that finding quality lubricants in third world countries could be a problem.

A phone call confirmed that our Chinese Visa was ready to be picked up so we headed back to the town of Karakol to buy a few more supplies and empty my oil drain pan—a plastic bag in a cardboard box—containing 15 quarts of used oil and two used oil filters. That turned out to be somewhat of a comedy. We did not speak Kyrgyz and only broken Russian. There were no recycle places in town. At length, we were directed to a small shop that sold oil. The owner talked about $5. We thought that he wanted to charge us $5 to recycle the oil. After some debate, it turned out that he wanted to pay $5 to buy the used oil. Mystery solved, we gave it to him with an Amsoil hat.

We headed for Bishkek with a smile on our face. The road was familiar and traffic was normal; horses, sheep and goats. We quickly found a relatively quiet parking place on a side street a few blocks from the visa office. Was it safe? Well, looking around at the Range Rovers, Mercedes and BMWs parked all day on the same street, we made a calculated guess.

These beautiful felt carpets and hand-embroidered wall hangings are typically used in yurts but are also an attraction for tourists.

These beautiful felt carpets and hand-embroidered wall hangings are typically used in yurts but are also an attraction for tourists.

Back out of town with visa in hand, (YEAH!!!), we headed west again on A365 and took the turnoff onto A367 towards the historic Silk Road caravanserai, Tash Rabat and the Turugart Chinese border. At a junction, we stopped at the friendly village of Kochkor to visit their wonderful yet somewhat dated Regional Museum. The interesting displays gave us a good feeling about the traditional Kyrgyz way of life. One room contained a full-size yurt decorated as it might be used in the countryside. Nearby we also found the Altyn Kol Shop, (Golden Hands), a women’s co-operative showroom and shop selling beautiful handmade felt rugs called Shyrdak, (made from the fine wool the region is famous for), and hand embroidered tapestries traditionally hung in yurts. Proceeds of all sales go directly to the individual artists.

We still had a few days to explore this friendly country so we took the turn off to Song-Köl, at 3,016 meters, (9,895 feet), the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan. As we climbed into the mountains, hay was being harvested, mostly by hand. The evidence of human labor was amazing.

 

Kyrgyzstan # 2 – Lake Ysyk-Köl & Karakol – August 2014

March 24, 2018

Aside from a little road construction, our drive from our camp on Ysyk-Köl Lake was easy. Roadside Muslim graveyards were interesting with their elaborately decorated tombs. We took our time with stops near Tong and Tamga, carefully planning our arrival for Sunday morning and the start of the amazing Karakol Animal Market, the second largest in Central Asia. We didn’t want to miss this market, because our absolute date to cross the Chinese border was August 28, and that was a Thursday. We knew we would be tied up with Chinese bureaucratic paperwork most of the next two days in Turugart & Kashgar. Once we were connected with our mandatory Chinese, guide there would not be enough time to visit the even bigger animal market in Kashgar.

Gary couldn't pass up some smoked lake trout sold by this street vendor on Lake Ysyk-Köl.

Gary couldn’t pass up some smoked lake trout sold by this street vendor on Lake Ysyk-Köl.

For the moment at least, we did not need to hurry. Ysyk-Köl is the tenth largest lake in the world by volume (though not in surface area) and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Ysyk-Köl means “warm lake” in the Kyrgyz language. With an altitude of 1,608 meters, (5,276 ft.), it is also the second largest mountain lake in the world, just behind Lake Titicaca in South America. Its depth reaches 668 meters, (2,192 ft.). Our own beautiful Lake Tahoe, also surrounded by snow-capped peaks, is 507 meters deep, (1,664 ft.), with an altitude of 1,897 meters, (6,225 ft.), and most assuredly not warm.

We visited the second largest animal market in Central Asia in the Kygyz town of Karakol on Lake Yzyk Köl.

We visited the second largest Animal Market in Central Asia in the Kygyz town of Karakol on Lake Ysyk Köl.

One of the specialties the Ysyk-Köl Lake is famous for are its smoked lake trout. At a major intersection near the lake, vendors lined up with their catch and were joined by women selling buckets of fat apricots, apples and piles of berries.

The Lake was a stopover on the Silk Road for travelers from the Far East to Europe. Many historians believe that it was the point of origin for the Black Death that devastated Europe and Asia during the early and mid-14th century. The area’s status as a byway for travelers allowed the Plague to spread across both continents via medieval merchants who unknowingly carried infested vermin along with them.

This gentleman with his festive Kalpak (felt hat) seemed very distinguished.

This gentleman with his festive Kalpak (felt hat) seemed very distinguished.

Early Sunday morning we found parking near the Animal Market in Karakol and were instantly enveloped by the smelly clatter and clamor of just about every saleable sheep, camel, horse, cow and donkey within 50km. Hundreds of horses, sheep and cattle, along with their owners and related vendors of ropes, saddles, and farming tools—and food— were spread out over several acres. There were some beautiful horses that reminded me of a good American Quarter Horse. The cows and bulls were not happy after their journey from outlying villages. The fat-tail sheep were mindless and uniquely humorous. Not often seen in the west, fat-tail sheep breeds comprise approximately 25% of the world’s sheep population. Their fatty tails are considered a delicacy, often preferred over leaner meat and their wool is supposedly the best for carpet weaving.

This local Kyrgyz was patiently waiting for someone to buy one of his fat tail sheep.

This local Kyrgyz was patiently waiting for someone to buy one of his fat tail sheep.

Testing horses was popular with potential buyers, and there was a while-you-wait farrier in one corner who made quick work replacing the shoes on customers’ rides. He used a unique system of lifting straps to stabilize the horse. It’s hard to kick when only three of the horse’s feet are just barely touching the ground and the fourth is tied to a post.

It was an exotic and exhilarating environment, a symphony of sounds and smells that make these Central Asian bazaars such a joy to visit. It was all exciting, but unless you’re looking for a horse or a fat-tail sheep, well, we had seen it in a few hours. The friendly locals were as interesting as the animals.

We couldn't forget that the Magic Girl of the Pamirs was ready to explore the world with us.

We couldn’t forget that the Magic Girl of the Pamirs was ready to explore the world with us.

Back in the town of Karakol, the local produce market was a good place to resupply.

By evening we were headed back to one of our favorite beach camps to munch on smoked trout and watch the sunset. Not far from our minds was the “Magic Girl of the Pamirs”. How could we help this young girl to get the education she so obviously wanted? There was a very prestigious private school in Khorog, the Aga Khan Lycée. Khorog was three hours from her village over a road that can be closed by rock falls or snow. Where would she live? She would need new clothes for a “city life”. She would need a cell phone, a computer & printer, none of which she had ever owned. Could she even pass the entrance test? In her local school she had had little math and no Russian nor English. We had an idea, and a dream, and we all know about the power of dreams!

 

 

Kyrgyzstan # 1 – July/August 2014

March 2, 2018

Leaving our scenic camp on Lake Karakul, Tajikistan, we climbed up to the Kyzyl-Art pass at 4,336 meters, (14,226 feet) and crossed into Kyrgyzstan. This friendly country did not require a visa for Swiss nor American citizens, so after a quick look at our camper and a stamp in our passports, we were on the road. By comparison to the countries we had been driving through for the past few months, (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), the paved highway to Osh was super. OK, there were a few rock-falls. No big deal. Somewhere near the top of Taldyk Pass, 3,615 meters, (11,860 feet), we stopped to help a Dutch couple who were trying to fix a broken fan belt with duct tape. It was not going to work. About that time a guy came on horseback and insisted that Monika take a short ride. It was snowing (July 30!) so she didn’t get far, but it was a beginning for what we came to realize: Kyrgyzstan is a horse country!

These two friends insisted to have their picture taken and of course, they wanted to see it in the camera.

These two friends insisted to have their picture taken and of course, they wanted to see it in the camera.

Remember, we were following the Silk Road, and aside from silk, gemstones, pottery, and spices, one of the important things that was traded along this historic route were horses. Kyrgyzstan horses were famous and probably led to the successful conquests made by Genghis Khan.

Were these the descendants of the famed ‘celestial horses’ sought after by the Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (July 30, 157 BC – March 29, 87 BC) in order to reinforce the Chinese army against northern nomadic tribes? Was this the horse breed in the Ferghana valley southwest of today’s Kyrgyzstan and southeast of today’s Uzbekistan, a horse known for sweating blood? Well, that could have been a phenomenon caused by a regional parasite, or, a better story, as Marco Polo told it, Genghis Khan’s warriors often had to ride for days without stopping. On such occasions, the rider would cut the horse’s veins and drink the blood that spurted out. Marco Polo reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, that a horseman could, by nourishing himself on his horse’s blood, “ride quite ten-day marches” without eating any cooked food and without lighting a fire.” Because their milk offered additional sustenance during extended military campaigns, a cavalryman usually preferred a few mares among his mounts. The milk was often fermented to produce kumiss, a potent alcoholic drink liberally consumed by the Mongols. In short, as one commander stated, “If the horse dies, I die; if it lives, I survive.” Well, after a good shot of kumiss or vodka.

I needed a hat so one of the boys loaned me his Ak Kalpak.

I needed a hat so one of the boys loaned me his Ak Kalpak.

As we headed downhill, a manner of speaking, a road sign announced Kyrgyzstan with an elevation of 3,550 meters, (11,646 feet), reminding us that the average elevation of this country is 2,750 meters, (9,022 feet) with the Jengish Chokusu peak towering at 7,439 meters, (24,406 feet). The mountains in the distance said it all. Homes were a mix of yurts and Russian style block houses. Kids waved to us as we passed. Horses on the highway were more of a danger than the herds of fat-tail sheep.

We stopped for the night near a small village and were quickly surrounded by friendly boys, all excited about the strange truck. We had to give them a peek inside. One young boy insisted I needed a hat and loaned me his Ak Kalpak.

One of the things the area is famous for, aside from apricots, are their melons, and roadside stands offer more than we could eat. Crossing the wide valleys gave spectacular campsites. The only foreigners we met on this section were a couple of brave Germans on well-equipped road bikes doing the Silk Road the hard way.

This friendly melon vendor was happy to pose for a picture.

This friendly melon vendor was happy to pose for a picture.

Arriving in Osh there was the usual turmoil of city traffic. Following our trusted GPS and a tip from road friends, we headed toward a bridge that would take us through town. To our shock, and no doubt to others, the road narrowed and led us right into the backside of the local market. By the time we realized that we were driving into a can of worms, it was too late to turn around. Backing up would be a disaster. People were scrambling to get their awnings out of our way and helping us inch through the maze of fruit and hardware stands. Well, it could have been a great video, but as is often the case, we had no time to take pictures. Monika was walking ahead to clear the “land mines” and lift overhead ropes. Oh, and the bridge? It was closed to traffic.

Since Gary had owned a burro when he lived in Mexico as a young boy, he always has a soft spot for these work animals of the world.

Since Gary had owned a burro when he lived in Mexico as a young boy, he always has a soft spot for these work animals of the world.

Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, located in the Ferghana Valley. It is the oldest city in the country (estimated to be more than 3,000 years old). We could have come straight across from Uzbekistan, 5 km away, and bypassed Tajikistan, but that was out of the question. Osh is known for having one of the largest and most crowded outdoor market in Central Asia. It was a major stopping point along the Silk Road and has been named the Great Silk Road Bazar in reference to its historical importance.

No doubt we could have spent days wandering through the Osh bazar, but the clock was ticking. It was the end of July and we had to cross the border into China on August 28—etched in stone. We sped north on good roads toward Bishkek where we found safe but noisy overnight parking at the Togolok Moldo Park. It was close to shops where we could buy a sim card for our cell phone and have the passport photos made that were required for our Chinese visa. (A special size of course. This was China.) We had learned of a can-do visa specialist who assured us a Chinese visa was not a problem. What a relief!! Local busses made it easy to reach another amazing market, interestingly also called the Osh Bazar.

Very fresh chicken and even fresher lamb.

Very fresh chicken and even fresher lamb.

Like all of these sprawling markets, it was a spectacular place to see the local life and culture while shopping for everything from fruit, vegetables, clothing, carpets, cleaning products, bread, flour, seeds, meat, hardware. It didn’t take long to restock our pantry, including some fresh chicken and lamb. We even found a while-you-wait seamstress that sewed a cover for the pad on our third seat which we needed in our truck for our Chinese guide and a sidewalk shoe repair man who was happy to alter the seat belt strap we needed. Monika had fun selecting some silk scarves, unique because wool designs were worked into them. Gary had to buy a coffee cup with a map of the Silk Road on it.

Business taken care of, our Chinese visa would take several days to process, so we headed west to camp on the beautiful Ysyk-Köl lake and to attend the famous Sunday Animal Market in Karakol, the second largest in Central and Western Asia.

 

Along the Pamir Hwy 2 – Tajikistan # 9 – July 2014

February 17, 2018

Just as we were packing up and getting on the road to Khorog, a young girl and her brother came to invite us to visit their home just across the highway. We really wanted to move on, but how could we refuse? The mother was a delightful lady who insisted we stay for lunch. As we sat in their modest house, her three children gave us some great “I love you Mom” photos. Even grandma welcomed these strangers. The hostess was a talented knitter. Using a unique slip stitch crochet technique, she made beautiful traditional socks for sale. They are called “jurab”.

Our lovely hostess and her daughter in an intimate moment.

Our lovely hostess and her daughter in a tender moment.

Meanwhile, mom stoked the wood-burning stove that appeared to be their only source of heat and cooking. In this treeless land, wood was precious. We had seen one man carrying a load to the village. Fresh whole-wheat pasta was made, rolled and hand cut into noodles. It was cooked in a creamy sauce that was seasoned with goat cheese (we think). It may have been a special dish the way the kids dove into it. With cooking chores done, grandma was back at work spinning wool. Dishes were taken outside to wash. Their only source of water seemed to be a small spring out behind the house.

The experience reminded us that although Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, (GBAO) is the poorest in the country, these people were happy and generous. Obviously, “poverty” is often in the eyes of the beholder. We gave the kids little stuffed bears named Bertrand, the mascot of Eberspaecher, the company that manufactures our diesel-powered air and coolant heaters. Bertrand brought smiles to everyone.

A short distance down the road we spotted an interesting bridge crossing the roaring Gunt river. Of course, Swiss mountain goat Monika had to walk across and I watched from a safe distance, hoping it was stronger than it looked as it bowed under her weight. Was it really built for people, or maybe just for goats?

Obviously, the kids love their grandma.

Obviously, the kids love their grandma.

As we slowly dropped a little altitude, wide floodplains showed the path of winter storms. One section of the highway had been washed away by spring melt. We had seen very few foreign travelers since we left Uzbekistan, so it was a real treat to meet a Swiss couple in their Mercedes van, (now on their second transmission), two motorcycle adventure riders from Sweden and three Swiss mountain bikers all at once. We all dug our maps out to share information.

The traffic of Khorog was a shock after days on the Wakhan Corridor and the Pamir Highway. We made use of the great market to restock our supplies, including a little fresh yak meat. The internet was welcome at the American Corner and we even found a car wash and convinced the owner that we would rather do it ourselves.

Khorog is the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Situated 2,100 meters, (6,889 ft.), above sea level in the heart of the Pamir Mountains on the border with Afghanistan, it is a beautiful town with a clean river running down the center. Some have called it “the valley of trees” because groves of popular, alder and other deciduous varieties line the streets and walkways. With a population of 28,000, it is the center of the trekking and home-stay tourism, and not the easiest place to get to. Though there is an airport, flights are very dependent to weather coming from the capital of Dushanbe. A 14-hour 4X4 road trip is the alternative.

Swiss mountain goat Monika had to cross this bridge - twice.

Swiss mountain goat Monika had to cross this bridge – twice.

During our visit, and we don’t know why, half the town did not have running water.  Every morning and evening, people were lining up to fill their buckets from faucets along the main street. Sometimes the water was pretty sandy. The locals dressed traditionally but we were just as likely to see girls in California tight jeans and men with the standard baseball cap. Weather permitting, slip-off sandals were the norm. Most homes have a no-shoes tradition. With trucks coming in from China, the selection of cheap everything was interesting. I guess we can see the same collection in Dollar Stores or Walmart back home.

Clean and fully stocked, our last stop was at the gas station to top up all the tanks. At $4.60 a gallon it was a bite, but when you consider the cost of getting it to Khorog, well, it was a seller’s market! We had driven this route just a few days before, but the snowcapped mountains were equally impressive from a new direction. The highway had not changed. After crossing Koitezek Pass and the eastern turn-off for the Wakhan Corridor there were good parts and horrible potholes. In places the asphalt had been pushed up into a six-inch center ridge by the overloaded Chinese trucks. Villages were few, sometimes just a couple of yurts and a repair ramp where vehicles could drive up for an underside inspection.

Majestic scenes were changing at every bend in the road.

Majestic scenes were changing at every bend in the road.

The treeless land had its own stark beauty and finding places to stop for the night was easy. Clear running creeks were great places to refill our water tank, one bucket at a time and wash a few clothes before crossing the border. Some crazy Swiss guys saw our camp and joined us. We are still not sure how they all slept in their little van.

Crossing the Ak-Baytal Pass at 4,655 meters, (15,272 feet), we camped near Karakul Lake and prepared for our crossing into Kyrgyzstan on top of the Kyzyl-Art Pass at 4,336 meters, (14,226 feet). It would be all downhill from the Customs & Immigration post. We still needed to get our Chinese visa in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, over 1,000 miles away.

Along the Pamir Highway 1 – Tajikistan # 8 – July 2014

February 11, 2018

As we left the village of Morgh we had to wonder what would happen to Sheroz. This young boy, mute & deaf, was so intelligent but so handicapped. He knew how to write. What if he could learn brail and sign language? 

As you travel overland through third-world countries, you most likely don’t have hotel reservations and you have no idea which fast-food restaurant you will stop at for a burger. Using our standby motto, (from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie), “We don’t take the trip. The trip takes us”. A lot of that is about feeling, like, this is a good place to camp for tonight. Why? Because it feels right. That’s just how we felt one afternoon in the middle of the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan when we stopped where we did—or maybe it was convenience — or maybe it was something else beyond explanation. Maybe destiny?

The Pamir Highway was finally better so we could enjoy some of the majestic views.

The Pamir Highway was finally better so we could enjoy some of the majestic views.

The Pamir Highway was definitely better now and we could take time from concentrating on the road to marvel at the glacier clad peaks on both sides. As we entered a wide valley we saw the perfect place to have a late lunch on a grassy spot just off the road. No sooner had we stopped that some people from across the highway, (I use the term loosely), came over to see what we were doing. Everyone was very friendly and fascinated by the world map on our truck. It was afternoon and we decided to camp in this idyllic spot. There apparently was a village nearby and it felt safe. The shallow stream in front of our camp widened out, a perfect place to back into and wash off some of the dust from the Wakhan Corridor.

We had just started to wash the truck when this young girl walked into the water, took the brush from my hands and started to help. We were amazed.

We had just started to wash the truck when this young girl walked into the water, took the brush from my hands and started to help. We were amazed.

We had just started the process when one of the young girls who had been studying the map on our truck, walked out into the water, took the brush from my hands and started washing the truck with me. Monika and I looked at each other in amazement. What did this little girl think she was doing? We were total strangers from a strange country in a strange vehicle. We would later learn she was only 11 years old.

We both knew immediately that there was something different about her. She had a look in her eyes that said, “No fear! I can do anything”, “Who are you?” Her angelic smile, full of wonder, was captivating. She wanted to talk to us, but we had no common language and yet, she had found a way to communicate without words. It worked!

Kids are crossing a crude bridge over the side creek.

Kids are crossing a crude bridge over the side creek.

Later we were invited to her family’s home for chai which in this country usually includes more than just tea. We crossed the bridge and wandered up the dirt path. Villagers were bringing the goats back from their daily grazing and some boys were playing soccer in a dirt field. The house of the girl’s family was very simple, an example of the classic style homes we saw throughout the Pamirs.

Monika was presented with a traditional pair of socks fashioned with a hook and not a set of needles.

Monika was presented with a traditional pair of socks fashioned with a hook and not a set of needles.

In case you wondered—I did—the Pamiris profess to the Nizari Ismaili Shia faith. They are followers of His Highness Prince Shah Karim al-Hussaini, Aga Khan IV. More about him later. Ismailis are seen as a reformist sect and more liberal in their interpretations of the Qur’an than other strains of Islam, guided in part by a tradition of tolerance embedded in the injunction of the Quran: There is no compulsion in religion. They have no mosques, minarets nor calls to prayer. Their house is the church. In 2015, His Highness, the Aga Khan IV, made it optional for women to cover their hair in public though many women still wear a beautiful scarf out of tradition, practicality and style.

The oldest sister studying to be a nurse insisted on a photo with Gary. He was flattered.

The oldest sister studying to be a nurse insisted on a photo with Gary. He was flattered.

The inside of their home was clean and tidy with beautiful carpets on the floor and built-in benches along the sides where people sat or slept. Two uncles showed up with a bottle of vodka to accompany the tea and plates of cookies, candies and fresh vegetables that were offered. Mom and the kids all joined in the party. Monika had brought her computer and some non-verbal children’s games and everyone was entertained. In the background the young daughter with the mysterious smile was still absorbing everything and wondering. (We have avoided using her name at this point to protect her security as you will understand later.) The next day we wandered across the highway to watch the father working on a small addition to his garage. His technique was similar to that we had seen in other villages along our way, basically one handful of mud at a time on a framework of sticks and rocks. Sorry, no Home Depot or Lowe’s home improvement centers nearby.

Monika’s laugh was contagious for mom and dad.

We took some family pictures outside the home and made prints with our portable printer back in the truck. (This is a wonderful way to share and repay kindness since country folks seldom have the opportunity for getting a photograph of them or their families.) It was interesting that these people, like in many parts of the world, don’t usually smile for pictures, but we managed to get everyone in the mood. Monika’s laugh is contagious. Now we were no longer strangers. We were connected in a strange way. Yes, it felt good. People are such an important part of overland travel.

There was no escaping the magic of this smile of wonder, of confidence and self-poise, and only 11 years old!

There was no escaping the magic of this smile of wonder, of confidence and self-poise, and only 11 years old!

This young girl had magic in her eyes. Only she, of all her family, wanted to sit in the truck. With a sly look, she seemed to know our hearts had been captured. As we drove away, the spirit of “The Magic Girl of the Pamirs” followed us. We had heard of a wonderful private school in the city of Khorog, three hours away on a road that is often closed by rock falls or snow. And even then, could her poor schooling to-date even allow her to pass the entrance test in math, writing skills, English and Russian? And where could she live for 10 or 11 months of the year so far from her family and friends? There were many problems to solve and we were thinking as we drove. There will be a lot more to this story.

 

Pamir Mountains – Tajikistan #7 – July 2014

February 1, 2018

The Wakhan Corridor had been an integral part of our dream to drive the Silk Road across Asia, and to this point, it had been nothing less than spectacular. Looking at our maps, the road we were on actually continued along questionable trails all the way to the Chinese border where it would intersect with the Karakorum Highway. It could have been an interesting adventure but we still had no Chinese visa and our mandatory Chinese guide would be waiting for us at the Turugart Pass border in Kyrgyzstan, two countries and 2,600 miles away. We knew we could not be late.

To get any higher we would need an airplane. 4,287 meters, (14,064 feet)

To get any higher we would need an airplane. 4,287 meters, (14,064 feet)

After crossing the Khargush Pass, 4,344m (14,251 ft.), we camped above a pretty lake for the night. We were now in the National Park of Tajikistan, home to over 400 lakes and three of the biggest glaciers in the region along with ten smaller glaciers.

In the morning the dirt road joined the pavement of the Pamir Highway, reported to be even more beautiful than parts of the Wakhan Corridor. It would take us back to Khorog along a route we would need to retrace on our way northeast to Kyrgyzstan. No matter. This was what we came to see.

We were following a track along Yashikul Lake.

We were following a track along Yashikul Lake.

The Roof of the World

In every new country one of the most fascinating elements are the people. We were now getting to know a little more about the Pamiris or Pamirian or Mountain Tajiks. Some live in Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan. The vast majority of Pamiris live in a semi-independent area inside Tajikistan called the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, (GBAO), in the high valleys of the western Pamirs known as the “Roof of the World” in Persian (Farsi). These mountains are the second highest in the world after the Himalayas with several peaks over 20,000 feet (7,000 meters).

In the treeless valleys, yak dung was saved for cooking and winter fuel.

In the treeless valleys, yak dung was saved for cooking and winter fuel.

Pamiris live close to one another in small remote villages. Perhaps because of the extreme climate, often over 12,000 feet (3,900 meters), and the harshness of life, they seemed to have an openness towards strangers. Few places in the entire former Soviet Union are as remote as this. It was just a feeling.

Hitting the blacktop of the Pamir Highway, the overloaded Chinese trucks that now follow this route had pretty much destroyed parts of the pavement. On a tip from a traveler we had met in Uzbekistan, we turned off on a side road to search for a hot spring. We did find herds of yaks in a beautiful valley. Women from scattered yurts were making fresh yogurt or cheese. The obvious river crossing leading to the hot springs was a little too deep and swift to try alone. It took all of low range 4X4 with our ARB front differential locker engaged and the TruTrac limited slip on the rear to climb back up the 45° ball-bearing slope to the barren top.

The People of the Pamir Mountains

Sheroz and his cousins posed with Gary for a photo.

Sheroz (far right) and his cousins posed with Gary for a photo .

Back on the Pamir highway, heading downhill towards Khorog, we came to the village of Morgh (or Morj) and had just waited for a herd of goats to cross when we were waved down by a young boy who was jumping up and down with excitement and motioning us to stop. OK. The boy insisted we come to his home for chai, (tea). He did not speak a word of English. In fact, he was mute and deaf, yet extremely intelligent and an amazing communicator. We met his family and he proudly showed us a diploma of excellence he had received from a special school he attended in Dushanbe. The boy showed us his swing and we compared kitchens in our camper. His name was Sheroz, a name of another person that would play an important part of our lives during the coming years.

A lady from the village and her granddaughter were visiting Sheroz's grandmother.

A lady from the village and her granddaughter were visiting Sheroz’s grandmother.

At his grandma’s house, we enjoyed hot tea with cookies, bread and fresh yak butter. Her home and that of his aunt were simple, built of rock and mud, but immaculately neat and clean inside. A cousin was working outside making repairs to the mud walls, one handful at a time. Grandma was later busy in the garden cutting grass with a sickle. Firewood was neatly stacked and ready for winter.

As we left, Sheroz was waving and playing with his own handmade two-wheeled “truck”. Into the next valley there was a surprise waiting for us, one that would change our lives forever. There she was, with a knowing look as if she had been waiting for us, like “What took you so long?” “The Magic Girl of the Pamirs”.

The Magic Girl of the Pamirs

Little did we know that we would soon meet “The Magic Girl of the Pamirs”.

Little did we know that we would soon meet “The Magic Girl of the Pamirs”.

 

Wakhan Corridor – Tajikistan #6 – July 2014

January 6, 2018

Ever since we began planning our adventure along the Silk Road, the Wakhan Corridor had been an intermediate goal. It was part of the route that Marco Polo took on his journey across Central Asia in the 13th century. The Corridor itself was created during the Great Game era (1800’s) by the Russian and British who decided their empires should not have a joint border in order to avoid conflicts, so they created this buffer zone, an artificial finger sticking towards China.

Wakhan Corridor – Afghanistan Border

Wakhan Corridor Tajikistan #5 08While we expected the mostly unpaved route through the Wakhan Corridor could be difficult, it seldom required four-wheel drive. We had previously obtained the special permit required to enter the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.

The attraction of this route along the Afghan border was the beautiful mountains, some of the highest in the world. As we followed the Panj River and the later the Pamir, always along the Afghan border, the mountain ranges around us have been called the “Roof of the World”. On the southern border of the Wakhan Corridor, the Hindu Kush Mountains could be seen in Pakistan.

Passing the occasional village, simple homes were built of rocks and one handful of mud at a time. Patches of potatoes, wheat and other grains were cultivated by hand. People were very busy working in their fields and gardens. We couldn’t resist another half bucket of beautiful apricots at 10 or 20 cents a pound, picked ripe right off the tree. We learned that there are some 160 varieties throughout Central Asia including these delicious high altitude ones. Children, men and women waved as we passed. We sometimes stopped to give the kids balloons or stickers from our sponsors, or buy a handicraft from a lady to help supports the local economy. Our camps were often near a village and occasionally, people would invite us for chai (tea) that we usually politely declined, knowing times were tough and they often serve much more than tea.

Searching for Marco Polo Bighorn Sheep 

A Marco Polo big horn sheep skull offering on a road side shrine.

A Marco Polo Bighorn Sheep skull offering on a road side shrine.

While everyone has a cell phone, (or so it seemed), and many have satellite dishes, none of them have running water and sanitation conditions are very third world. We had hoped to see a few of the endangered Marco Polo Bighorn Sheep but all we saw were marmots in the higher altitudes scurrying around and the occasional shrine with Ibex and Marco Polo sheep horns. One of our maps showed several locations of ancient settlements or fortresses or caravanseries, but we only spotted one well off the road. Did Marco Polo stay there??? Of course, the valleys would be the natural path for trading caravans.

Following the path of Marco Polo

When the broken pavement ended in the Panj Valley outside Langar, the last village of the agricultural area, we switched to low range and 4×4 to negotiate the difficult sections more easily. But in fact, to our surprise, much of the road was quite passable although very bumpy and extremely dusty. Traffic was almost nonexistent and thankfully, the big Chinese trucks were no longer able to follow this route. Small Chinese micro vans and burros seem to be the modes of transportation in the valley. 4×4 SUV’s in the higher, uninhabited altitudes worked better. Goats and sheep occasionally crossed in front of us and we did see a small herd of camels.

Villagers along the roadside were always friendly and excited that we had come all the way from California to see them.

Villagers along the roadside were always friendly and excited that we had come all the way from California to see them.

Even at camps above 13,000 ft. we were still able to enjoy hot water and even a nice shower thanks to the new high altitude compensation kit installed on our Espar D5 Hydronic coolant heater (installed in Istanbul) that feeds our FlatPlate heat exchanger.

As we left the narrowing valley and climbed into the Southern Alichur Range towards Khargush Pass, the scenery was shockingly beautiful despite its lack of vegetation. Where sparkling creeks cascaded down from glacier-clad peaks, grass and small shrubs were growing. Even at this elevation a few flowers survived.

One afternoon we were able to assist a couple with a dead fuel pump. They had been sitting on the side of the road for hours with no vehicle passing. Temperatures were down to 5 °C / 41 °F and evening was approaching quickly. Gary had the wire and connectors needed to jury-rig their fuel pump and after an hour, they were gratefully on their way. They presented us with a fresh loaf of Nan (flat bread) and some curiously tasting mothball size yoghurt/salt balls. They were hard as a rock. Later we learned one needs to suck on these balls and it is supposed to help quench the thirst.

While there is much more to be said about this amazing section of the famous Silk Road, we hope these pictures will give you an impression of our experience. Despite the rumors of border conflicts, we encountered no problems of any kind and even the Afghanis across the river sometimes waved back to us. The biggest surprise of our entire Silk Road/Trans Eurasian Expedition was waiting for us just over the next 14,000 foot pass. We will soon introduce you to “The Magic Girl of the Pamirs”.

We posted a video on our Wakhan Corridor Travels with YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr., reddit and others. When we uploaded the YouTube link into this blog, YouTube added a bunch more videos to watch so we had to delete it for safety reasons.

To find it go to YouTube.com and type: turtle expedition wakhan corridor

 

 

 

Happy New Year 2018

December 31, 2017

May 2018 bring you Happiness, Health and Peace.
Gary and Monika

THOUGHTS TO PONDER AS WE ENTER THE NEW YEAR

Ask less – listen more
Consume less – enjoy more
Expect less – receive more
Brood less – trust more
Criticize less – wonder more
Do less – be more
Less me – more you

Impressions from Laos, April 2017

………life in a slower lane……..

 

 

Arriving in Khorog – Tajikistan #5 – July 2014

December 29, 2017

From our view on the hillside we watched the big semi tractor-trailers inching along the side of the cliff above the river and wondered how they passed each other. The bridge over the silt-laden Vanj had definitely seen better days, but we figured since these monsters could go over it we could too—like there was a choice? The occasional turnout made it possible to squeeze past the big trucks. Glacial melt from the surrounding peaks fed tributaries to the main river, the Panj.

Check out the center support!

Check out the center support!

Whenever the valley widened we saw more agriculture. Wheat and barley had already been harvested. Bundles of straw and hay were stacked on roofs. Perhaps because of the better soil there was an abundance of wild flowers along the road. The region is famous for their apricots and we were hitting the season at its peak. Young children were selling buckets of ripe fruit on the road side.

The rule for overland travelers in these countries is, “never pass up a water source”. Most homes did not have running water. Often a pipe coming from a spring or a deep well is the communal watering hole. Using a “water thief” adapter we were able to use one of our collapsible hoses to fill up. All of our water, no matter where we get it; river, creek, lake, irrigation ditch or spring; is treated with chlorine and filtered with the dual Everpure system that removes dirt, bacteria and other contaminants and the chlorine, which has killed any remaining cysts and most importantly, viruses. It is the water “purification” system we have used for years.

Tajikistan #4 25

Everyone we encountered was extremely friendly. Guys and men alike always like cool trucks and the girls and women had a smile for the camera. The road was better now so we made good time and arrived in Khorog just before dark to find a parking place near the airport.

The next morning, we headed into town, and by chance, it was Market Day! No question about that when we saw the traffic. As with all of the markets we had been to in the last couple of months, the selection of products was overwhelming. Hardware, dry goods, clothing, vegetables, fruit, meat and everything in-between. The young girl at the tourist office/gift shop had a captivating smile. She had been an exchange student in the US and wanted to study law.

After a busy day of shopping, we retired to a relaxing tea house in the park next to the Gunt river that divides the city. Returning to our truck, a young boy approached us and invited us to his family home for dinner. Payran had learned English at the American Corner, a center, like a library, for young people to meet and practice English. As you will learn soon, the American Corner will play an important role in our visit to Tajikistan and the “Magic Girl of the Pamirs”. We were starting to like this town in the middle of nowhere.