An Afgan caravan
Journey to the Tajik-Afghan border.
The Pamir Highway runs from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Khorog in Tajikistan. Osh, close to the jigsaw-designed border with Uzbekistan, was the site of a politically manipulated conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks earlier this year. Khorog, the capital of the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region that comprises eastern Tajikistan, is at the junction of the Gunt River and the Panj River. The latter defines the border with Afghanistan. We joined the Pamir Highway at Sary Tash in the Alay Valley of Kyrgyzstan having reached there from the Chinese border 50 miles away (the Irkeshtam pass.) The Russian built road from the border is a much eroded highway that is being reconstructed by Chinese road engineers (see Part I, previous blog). The road recapitulates the ancient Silk Road route that the Chinese followed to get heavenly horses from the Ferghana Valley.
Sari Tash, a junction village at the edge of the grassland, is at 10,400 ft; the Kyzel-Art Pass that is at the Tajik border is almost 4,000 ft higher (4,200m/14,042ft.) The road to the pass was in places challenging, as seen in the above photo. After the border rituals we transferred to a new pair of 4-wheel-drive vehicles and admired the distant representative herd of grazing yaks and the statue that marks the high point of the pass. I understood the statue to be a Marco Polo sheep. We passed a valley that is a sanctuary for such sheep the following day. We encoutered the horns of Marco Polo sheep (or ibex) at Zoroastrian fire shrines and in houses. However, we did not, in fact, see any Marco Polo sheep, though we may have eaten the flesh thereof. A commentator claims the statue is an ibex. We did not see any ibex. A picture on the web identifies the statue as a Marco Polo sheep. I look forward to further clarification of this important issue. From the pass we descended to the desolate ash-grey landscape of the Kara Kul Lake (12,841ft). This was formed by a meteor impact less than five million years ago. Lenin peak should have been visible in the distance but it was obscured by clouds. The lake is without an outlet. The outline of the 35 mile wide crater can be seen in satellite photographs. The desolation of the lake is matched by the desolation of the nearby settlement composed of the spaced white blocks that derive from its former role as a Russian military outposts close to the Chinese border. Many of the houses are unoccupied and it is hard to imagine that much goes on in the settelment beyond providing for passing travellers and border guards.
Wikipedia states that the lake was once named after Queen Victoria. Had she actually seen the lake she might not have been pleased that such an inhospitable place was named after her -- on the other hand it might have reminded her of Scotland. Presumably the locals ignored this and used its Kirgiz name.
The designation Lake Victoria is a puzzle. The noted mountaineer Bill Tillman, writing about the source of the Oxus in Two Mountians and a River, cites Captain John Wood's A Journey to the Source of the Oxus, and states that in 1838 he gave the name Victoria to lake Sir-i-col from which the Pamir River flows. However in Chapter XXI of the book Woods writes:
As “we had received the news of her gracious Majesty's accession to the throne, I was much tempted to apply the name of Victoria to this, if I may so term it, newly rediscovered lake; but on considering that by thus introducing a new name, however honoured, into our maps, great confusion in geography might arise, I deemed it better to retain the name of Sir-i-kol, the appellation given to it.by our guides.” Wood notes the lake fits Marco Polo's description, but the description could equally well fit the lake in the main Wakhan valley that is the source of the Murgab River. An editor's footnote in the 1872 edition reasons that as Sir i-col was a descriptor and not a name, future maps should use the name Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria in Africa was so named in 1858 by Speke who thought it was the source of the Nile (Stanley later confirmed it flowed into the White Nile.) My hypothesis is that the name Lake Victoria was used for the source of the Oxus on maps sometime after 1878. The Map given by Bill Tillman in Two Mountains and a River labels Sir-i-col Lake Victoria. Given the pressure of the Great Game, such an implied claim would be irresistible. Maps tend to be copied and at some point the name probably wandered to Kara Kul Lake which is much bigger. Clearly more research is called for.
To leave this basin a further high pass had to be crossed. The Ak Batel pass, was the highest on our route (4,655m /15,272 ft.) We made further wanderings through red tinged mountains until we reached the much lower town of Murgab (3,576 m /11,732 ft) where we stayed the night. Somewhere on the road to Murgab we crossed the thrust fault that separates the Northern Pamir and Central Pamir terrains. The fault is also a suture line. The Central Pamirs are being pushed under the Northern Pamirs, hence the Northern Pamirs are being pushed up from both north and south.
Murgab is an important junction point. According to Wikipedia it was once the highest town in the Soviet Union. It is situated on a river that rises in the eastern Wakhan corridor and ends up flowing westward to join the Panj river. Murgab was established as an advanced Russian military base as a part of the Great Game in 1893. The post helped establish the claim to the area and the Kulma Pass into China (4,363 m) was a potential route for a further Russian advance. In 2004 the Chinese established a restricted road link via this pass to the Karakoram Highway that is the linkage between Pakistan and Kashgar.
From Murgab we made a side trip on a dirt road to a near-desert valley with low rocky hills in order to see a petroglyph. We then crossed another pass and descended to the valley of the upper Gunt river. The Pamir Highway leaves and rejoins the Gunt River on its westward way to Khorog, where it joins the Pyanj River. but we turned south to cross a further range to reach the Afghan border (pass at 4344m.) To the south were the snow capped mountains of the Afghan Pamirs. The Pamir River defines the Afghan border that is the northern boundary of the bulge in the Wakhan corridor. We followed the river to its junction with the Wakhan River at which point their fusion become known as the Pyanj River. Both tributaries can be called the upper Oxus. At our first encounter the Pamir River was wandering through a near desert. It did not look as if crossing it by one means or another would be a serious problem.
As the Panj river junction was approached the river narrowed and became more turbulent and grass was at last visible. We did not know it at the time (August 11, 2010), but the turbulence of the river reflected the delay in summer snow melting. The levels of all the rivers were exceedingly high. This delay was a substantial factor in creating the floods in Pakistan which were just starting to take place. We learned about them later. The notion that something might be abnormal came to us suddenly as we rounded a curve in the road into a side valley.
We had survived one tire blowout and one puncture but there before us was a raging stream of melt water that crossed the road and plunging into the valley below. I expected we would have to overnight in the car and wait for the melt water to go down. Dilshod, our Tajik guide and driver, seemed greatly cheered by the challenge. He plunged into the stream and started throwing around rocks to make a ramp. Others helped. His heroic charge through the torrent is shown at the beginning of my previous blog. An Australian motorcyclist generously helped us ford the river. He was one of a group of four that had managed to push their bikes through the stream. They had to spend an entire day taking one of the bikes to pieces in order to dry it out. We had only to dry out our sneakers.
After this diversion we descended to the village of Langar (elevation about 2900m/9,504ft.) This pleasant village is just past the confluence of the Pamir and Wakhan rivers. Afghanistan is on the far side of the Pyanj River formed by this junction. Above the river rise the snow capped mountains of the Hindu Kush that are a western extension of the Karakoram. The above photograph was taken from the bank of the Panj River looking East, the Afghan Pamirs are to the left.
An important Pamir web site by Robert Middleton : link.
Middleton is a co-author of Tajikistan and the High Pamirs.