Dream Journey to Central Asia: the Pamir Loop

Pamir march

Expedition to Pamir had been my dream for a long time. However, in recent years it was not easy to get there due to “hot” political situation in those places.

Finally, having decided that one should not walk among wolves in the woods, and choosing the most suitable time for the expedition as August-October, I set off to Central Asia in order to attempt to reach the Pamir-Tibet border.

My main objective was to gather information about the life of the mountain peoples inhabiting this region and how a few years of independence had changed that life. In addition, I wanted to add to my personal “dossier” on “Bigfoot” and if I was lucky, to meet him and take pictures of him.

One of the settlements on my way was the Kyrgyz town of Osh. From there I took the Osh-Khorog road, which was considered the highest mountain road in the former Soviet Union, to the Pamir; I took it in passing cars to continue my journey. The entire route was blocked off by Russian border guards, and only locals and military personnel were allowed in. I did not have permission to enter the border zone, but I still managed to cross a couple of checkpoints before I was detained at an outpost in the village of Sary-Tash.

The chief of their outpost kindly offered me to leave within 24 hours, so I did: however, he and I, apparently, understood “leave” in different ways. A few days later, after hiking along the mountain trails around another outpost, I was already where I wanted to be, in the Eastern Pamirs.

The Eastern Pamirs are mostly inhabited by mountain Kyrgyz tribes: in the summer they roam the vast expanses of high mountain pastures, and in the winter they return to their villages on the banks of rivers. Soon I came out to the jailo of one of the mountain Kyrgyz summer camps, where I was honored to live in the yurt of the oldest aksakal, Umbek. He was one of the few people in the jailo who spoke a little Russian; Umbek told me about the difficult life of the “independent” Pamiris today.

The only comparison of the climatic conditions with the Eastern Pamirs is the Arctic: in winter the temperature here drops below 40 degrees below zero, in summer it is certainly warmer, but the constant cold wind is fierce throughout the year, not allowing you to take off your jacket and hat even on the hottest July days. It is also the driest place in the CIS: less than 50 millimeters of precipitation fall out in some regions during a year (for comparison: in the Karakum desert the average annual precipitation is 150 millimeters). Therefore, there is almost no snow cover in winter and ice wind chopped off, like a sickle, any vegetation higher than 5-10 centimeters above the ground. One should not forget that the average altitude of the Eastern Pamirs is 4,000 meters, the air is very thin and the slightest physical effort is difficult to make.

It is clear that in such natural conditions, where almost nothing grows, the locals cannot fully provide themselves with food. Previously, the mountaineers were organized into collective farms, which were supplied with everything they needed from the center. Now Russia only provides food rations for its outposts, and all of the population of the Pamirs and the Altai, left to their own devices, are surviving in the most extreme conditions. Back to feudalism – that is, perhaps, the name of current situation in the Pamirs. Centralized management is practically absent here; former chairmen of village councils and kolkhozes have some power, the oldest aksakals have great authority, but they are in serious competition with newcomers and leaders of political opposition.

In the economy, barter in kind has all but superseded monetary relations, as there is almost no money or goods coming in from the center. There is no petrol or spare parts, so all the machinery left over from the old days has either rotted away or been disassembled into hoes, sickles, knives and other prehistoric implements. Flour has not been delivered for several years, and the nomads, who have never farmed before, started to grow their own barley and some types of wheat in the valleys. They harvest crops by hand and husk grain in the grandfather’s way as well: they lay sheaves on the road and drive a horse that drags a large stone rampart of threshing-floor behind it. Flour is ground by water mills. It turns out black and coarse and goes mainly for tortillas. Two liters of this brew is enough to knock out a stout. Sugar has not been seen in the Pamirs for a long time, either, and it is highly prized here.

I remember a story that happened a few years ago in the Amazon rainforest, where I was traveling at the time. The head of a Bolivian geological expedition, stumbling upon one of the wild Indian tribes, managed to trade a young native girl for a kilo of salt. In the Pamirs it did not happen to me, but still I successfully exchanged my stock of sugar for milk, tortillas, and other snacks. And Umbek, having received a box of saccharine from me as a present, was so happy that he slaughtered a ram. I must say, rams are not often slaughtered nowadays: most of the collective farm livestock has been appropriated by former chairmen of collective farms, who after perestroika turned into khans, and the commoners got only a few cattle in the sharing of livestock. Instead, horses are slaughtered more often than before because it is very difficult to prepare fodder for the winter without special equipment. Horsemeat is usually boiled, the entrails of horses are used to make sausages, and the blood is decanted into a bucket, then poured into a deep pan and fried without salt – a thick pancake, it is very nutritious and restores strength quickly. Yaks, which the Pamirs were famous for not so long ago, have almost all been eaten. For example, in the Alay village of Choi only three miraculously survived bull-calves are left of almost a thousand of them. The thick, fat milk of yaks is now in short supply, but there is still plenty of mare’s koumiss.

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One day I decided to take a walk to a nearby jaylo and almost died of a ruptured stomach. The owners of each yurt considered it their duty to treat me to a couple of liter pints of koumiss, which tasted like fermented kefir of beer strength. I liked the koumiss very much, but as there were eight yurts in a village, and since it was not a custom among highlanders to refuse a treat, I soon realized that drinking one more pial would be like dying. After scrambling to get out of the yurt, I literally crawled to my campsite, cursing all the surrounding mares.

Because of the lack of food, many mountaineers supplement their rations with meat from wild animals, and hunt for argali, marmots, Siberian buzzards, or oxen. Hunting, however, is associated with a great risk, because border guards in connection with the military situation take away all kinds of weapons from the population. And in recent years, wolves have reappeared near the villages. On the second night of my stay in the Umbekov djailo, predators mauled a foal literally within a hundred meters from the yurts.

The return to “feudalism” is also evident in the local “fashion. Residents of the mountains have long since stopped importing factory-made woolen jackets and vests; now they sew clothes from sheep skins, and they do it quite well. Although self-made pants and sheepskin coats look ugly and even frightening, they are strong and warm. The same can be said about yurts; looking modest in appearance, the construction from skins and cords is in fact very reliable and keeps warm even in the most frosty nights. I have learned it from my own experience, comparing overnight stays in my own tent and in the yurts. When you spend all night in the tent, beating your teeth with the cold, and occasionally warming yourself up with a sip of vodka, it is a real pleasure to sleep in the yurt, especially if you put on two or three woolen blankets, heavy and hard as a tree. Under them you feel like a “chicken of tobacco” on the griddle, but you don’t freeze.

Needless to say, they swear by “perestroika” in all the mountain villages, but they keep the best memories of the “stagnation years”, thinking that everybody lived then, not knowing it, under communism. They also berate the current regime, and some of them, having a very vague idea of what’s going on around them, talk and behave very strangely. Umbek, for example, asked me why the Russians have not yet overthrown Gorbachev. An interesting incident also took place in the village of Sary-Tash, where until recently there was a monument to Stalin. Local elders did not allow anyone to remove it, and only a few years ago a special commission from the center forced to remove the “leader of the peoples” from its pedestal. Then the elders solemnly took the sculpture to the cemetery, where it was buried with all due honor.

During the trip I managed to collect quite a lot of information about the Bigfoot. It was seen in the local area by many shepherds and hunters whom I met. His description is almost always the same: he is two meters tall, covered entirely with dark fur and walks slightly bent over. Hunters believe that he eats mostly animals: mountain goats, marmots, argali. It may also maul a wolf. The locals simply explain that they never find the bones of the dead Yeti: the Yeti have a secret cemetery in the mountains, and that is where they come to die, when they sense they are about to die.

One day, 30 years later… The Pamir tract. Part 1. Osh-Sary-Tash

It is an interesting psychological question: does a person want to be in his past – childhood, youth, in those places with which bright emotions, good memories are connected? After all, there is a chance not to see what you remember, not to recognize what was dear, to be disappointed, to be upset, to cry…

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For a long time those doubts made it difficult for me to decide whether or not to go on a photographic journey over the Pamir tract, where I had been more than 30 years before: I had driven from Dushanbe to Murghab and back in a ZIL, an UAZ truck, a GAZ-66, worked with geologists at Zarechnoe near Murghab, copied maps, cooked lunches, enjoyed the sun, stars and the rushing Murghab River whose icy waters I had tasted for the first time in my life. She visited the Northern Ak-Arkhar, a permanent year-round geological party, the most remote and remote out of all the parties of the Pamir Geological Exploration Expedition, where she marked core samples, went on routes, climbed with geophysicists, “loons”, on the humid slopes of the Pamir mountains. It was here, on Northern Ak-Arkhar, that I met my first love… It was difficult to make a decision…

But… my curiosity won and I found myself in a group of wonderful people who were ready for adventures, trials and shocks, in a word, “photographers”.

We had driven over 2,000 kilometers along the Pamir Tract: from Osh, a sunny and bright city, through the Kyrgyz village of Sary-Tash, crossed two borders – Kyrgyz and Tajik, and further on, through Tajik villages with Kyrgyz population of Karakul, Rangkul, through Murghab, Alichur, Bulunkul, Lyangar, Ishkashim, in Khorog we “looped” to Murgab and returned back to Osh.

Our route is highlighted in green:

The Pamir Road is a road that connects the cities of Osh (Kyrgyzstan), Khorog (Tajikistan) and Dushanbe with the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif and skirts the Pamir from the east, south and west. There are East Pamir Road (Osh – Khorog) and West Pamir Road (Khorog – Dushanbe). The Eastern Pamir Road, 701 km long, was built in 1931-1934, the Western Pamir Road was built in 1940. On the section from Osh to Khorog the road runs through three major mountain passes: Taldyk (3615 m), Kyzyl-Art (4280 m) and Ak-Baital (4655 m).

There are many roads in the world, but you will not find higher ones from the city of Khorog to the distant city of Osh.

Along the rocky steeps, don’t let your eyes fall off! Climbing cars are climbing up.

From Osh to Khorog – oh, the road is good… From Khorog to Osh – oh, the road is good! (Pamir Border Folklore).

The journey began in Osh, the main city in southern Kyrgyzstan and the second largest in the country. The city is located in the east of the Ferghana Valley, near the spurs of the Alay Range, more than 1,000 meters above sea level, and stretches around Mount Suleiman – Tahti Suleiman (“Solomon’s Throne”).

Osh is one of the oldest cities of Central Asia. However, its exact age is unknown. According to a very popular legend, the ancient Israelite King Solomon (Suleiman) brought his army here. At the same time in front were driven a pair of oxen with a plow. And when the oxen reached the now famous mountain, the king said: “Hosh!” (“Enough!”). Hence the name of the city that was then built. The first mention of the city in Arabic sources dates back to the IX century. Ancient agricultural settlements were found on the southern slope of Suleiman mountain, and people connect the three thousand years age of the city with them. Osh was a major trading center on the Great Silk Road and was famous for its bazaars and caravanserais.

The first day of any trip (especially taking into account the overnight flight from Moscow) for me is usually “foggy” – the time difference, to which I am very sensitive, often a fundamentally different climatic zone – summer instead of winter or vice versa, make themselves felt. Therefore, I am always grateful to the trip organizer, if he gives me the opportunity to come to myself that day, providing free time or inviting me to some light walking tour of local attractions.

Volodya Trofimov was just such a person. He gave us time to straighten our bones after the flight, to clean our feathers, to rest, and to be fresh and alert before the evening sunrise. Not staying in the hotel room too long, Tanya and I rushed to the market – despite the fact that it was the very beginning of summer, the market was already full of fruit! Sweet and sticky cherries oozing with juice like honey, glistening cherries, fragrant strawberries! But it was not the fruits that made the greatest impression on me, but the tortillas. As soon as I saw hot fried flatbread with crispy crust, my memory immediately threw me back 30 years.

…August 1981. I was in Dushanbe for a few days after spending a month in the Pamirs in a geological party. Before entering the market, we (a group of Muscovites = students of the Moscow State Research Institute, I do not count) bought a hot flatbread for 20 kopeks and walked along the market paths sampling everything, peaches, grapes, melons, watermelons, cucumbers and tomatoes… One row equaled one flatbread. I had enough to eat, and the boys needed two tortillas. How young we were… how young we were. I dread to think how young I was then…

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But let me get back to reality. I couldn’t do the same thing now. I was either more cautious or older… Tanya and I simply bought fruit and had a gluttonous feast in the hotel room.

In the streets of Osh, for the first time since my youth, I saw a soda machine, the same one with the “silver faucet that spurted out soda pop with a noise. I got half a glass, but I would have liked a bucket” (S. Marshak). The soda was sold by a girl who didn’t understand a word of Russian. I had to communicate with her in gestures. Apparently, we were so vigorously trying to explain our desires to her that she interpreted them in her favor – poured all two glasses. We had to suffer – choking on water, not to waste the goodness!)

By sunset, we climbed the Babur trail up Mount Suleiman – it is attributed with the ability to heal ailments and infertility in women. It is said that an unfaithful wife will not be able to get to the top of the mountain on the trail leading there (by the way, Tanya and I got there without any problems!). There was a magnificent panorama of Osh. Alas, the city was obscured by haze, so it was not a great photo masterpiece.

View of Osh from Mount Suleiman:

The building with the red roof is Osh University:

In the morning we started our journey from Osh to the Alay Valley through the valley of the Gulcha River.

The Gulcha Valley was one of the centers of the Basmachi movement during the establishment of Soviet power in Central Asia. In the spring of 1920 here was formed “Army of Islam”, which brought together 6.5 thousand of the total number of 30 thousand Basmachi Ferghana. It was active near Andijan, Jalalabad, Osh, Kokand and Namangan. Only in 1924 the Fergana Valley was completely cleared of insurgents. Separate groups retreated into the mountains. Basmachi movement in Gulcha valley and other areas of Fergana and Alay valley resumed in 1930 during the campaign to eliminate kulaks. Frontier guards, party and Soviet officials, activists, and Komsomol members were killed. And only many years later under the Soviet regime was there a relative order.

Basmach is a person who suddenly attacked and attacked; from Turkic basmak – to suddenly attack, to raid. The name Basmachi was applied by Russians to both settled and nomadic peoples defending their territories – Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Turkmens – who acted independently of one another in many areas.

The road to the valley Gulcha goes through a low (height 2400 m) pass Chigirchik (Chyyrchik). Here appear the cliffs made of red-colored sedimentary rocks, characteristic of this region, framing the road on both sides. As if a green plush blanket is thrown over the slopes – it is the emerald of spring grass, washed and watered by rains, covered the mountains.

Further on, the road to the Alay valley passes through the Taldyk pass of 3,650 meters in the Alay ridge.

On the way to Taldyk Pass one can enjoy such mountains, colorful as a patchwork quilt:

The last twist of the serpentine before entering the Alai Valley:

As soon as we turned on the last turn of the serpentine, I was dumbfounded with surprise – the Zaalay Range appeared before us in all its power and beauty. The snowy peaks shining white against the blue sky made it look like a gigantic scenery, against which human houses look like toys:

So we arrived at Sary-Tash, a typical Kyrgyz highland village located in the Alai Valley.

Alai Valley. Sary-Mogol

The Alai valley is an intermountain trough separating the Pamirs (on the south) from Gissaro Alai (on the north), stretches from west to east for 150 kilometers between the Alai and Zaalai ridges, descending into the valley with soft grassy spurs. The width of the Alai valley is from 8 to 25 km, the area is about 1700 sq km.

map of the Alai valley:

There is reason to believe that Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant-traveler of the XIII century, knew about this valley, who described it as an area of fat pastures, where “the leanest cattle will get fat… in ten days. The first to explore the Alai valley was a famous Russian traveler AP Fedchenko, who visited it in 1871.

The word “Alai” in Jagatai Turkish, as defined by Professor A.A. Semenov, denotes a herd, flock, crowd, as well as a regiment, formation, detachment or battalion. The translation of this word is “paradise” – so plentiful and lush are the pastures here. And they also say that “al ay!” – means “keep the month!”, i.e., hurry up, the summer months are short in this high mountain valley!

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An incredible, unbelievable spectacle is the towering snow-covered mass of the Zaalai range, rising to 3,000-3,500 meters above the valley. In the clear and transparent air you can see its tiny folds on the glaciers and snowfields. At different times of the day, the illumination of the Zaalai range and its offshoots constantly changes, shimmering with an infinite variety of shades. Huge blue sky above this eternity or absolutely clear, or filled with flocks of clouds, snow-white in the daytime and blazing at sunset and sunrise, breathes in this powerful and motionless beauty the dynamics of life.

Sary-Tash on the background of the Zaalay Range:

The village of Sary-Tash, where we stopped for the day, is the transportation center of the Alai Valley – the eastern part of the Pamir highway (the Osh-Khorog road) passes through it. I read in Wikipedia that the main population of the Alai Valley is Kyrgyz. However, the village of Sary-Mogol, located a few kilometers from Sary-Tash, which we will visit today, is populated by Pamiris, is administratively subordinate to the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and is supplied with food and consumer goods from Khorog.

Boniface’s Vacation

Toward evening we drove to the village of Sary-Mogol to take pictures of the Zaalai range in the setting sunlight. I must say that the organizer of this trip, Vladimir Trofimov, was here last year and photographed enough of the villagers. Now Volodya’s task was to distribute the photos to the owners. We walked around the village, passing out photographs to the villagers and finding out how to find the people depicted in them.

On the central square of the village we met the former local deputy Kamchybek Nurmamatov – he organized the search for the wanted people and invited us to his house for some tea. Kamchybek has a huge family: 7 children, 50 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren. What a family! Try to get them all together!

In the meantime the sun was slowly sinking toward sunset, flooding the entire valley with golden light. On our way to the end of the village, children appeared and posed with pleasure. The process of photographing was invariably accompanied by the distribution of candy to the “models:

Word of the candy spread through the village with cosmic speed: the children began to appear in front of us one by one. All were joyful, happy, radiant, ready to pose for as long as it took. The kids were being photographed one by one, two by two, three by three, in families, and finally, in homes:

After the photo they with obvious pleasure looked at their faces on the LCD screen of the camera.

Thanks to V.Trofimov for the photo!

I was immediately reminded of the cartoon “Boniface’s Vacation”. The goldfish for me was to go to the outskirts of the village where Sergey and Tanya had already set up their tripods in anticipation of a sunset miracle, and I still had no way to escape from the children’s company. Finally, it seemed to me that all the kids were happy and began to scatter to their urgent children’s affairs. And I started walking briskly toward the setting sun, when suddenly, unexpectedly, one more trio with shining faces appeared to me, stretching solemnly at “humbly” position. Passport photo)):

How many kids in this village! Already out of candy, and kids – no! :))

I can’t deny myself the pleasure of posting the happy faces of Sara the Mogul kids. I don’t regret at all that I gave so much time to these kids, because I got so much from them in return – an ocean of positivity, energy and joy! Except that no one from our team has been to those places. And how I would love to give out such fun photographs to grown-up kids!

Alas, the sunset miracle did not happen – darkness crept over the Zaalay Range from China, hiding all its beauty under its gray coverlet. The sun had hidden behind a cloud and quietly and imperceptibly rolled away over the Alay Ridge.

That concludes our walk today. And tomorrow…

Alay valley. Nomads. Sunset on the lake.

And tomorrow is today…

Generally speaking, our life is governed by a regime, or rather, “regime light”: getting up in the pre-dawn and early dawn hours, going to bed after a late, as a rule, dinner after sunset. This rigid schedule is associated with the most favorable hours for photography, when the sun is low, the shadows are soft, the colors are subtle… We are photographers)). The rest of the time we had free time. We spent it in different ways:

Yesterday we had a bad party – the mist from China was still reliably covering Zaalaysky Range and the shine of its glaciers and snowfields was completely extinguished! But Tanya and I still walked along the morning Sary-Tash!

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In the bright sun not far from the house where we lived, a koshmap was “warm” – warm, beautiful, and wind-proof. In the Eastern Pamirs such carpets are made of yak wool. This kind of felted carpet is made for a long time, and the pattern that puts the master is ancient, the semantics is complex and intricate over the centuries – it speaks of eternity, the indestructibility of life, that the summer will be again, and the pastures will be rich and full of yaks, and the house will be blessed.

Toward evening, having slept and eaten enough, we set out on a photo hunt. Winding between the spurs of the Alai Range, lined with green plush young grass, the road took us further and further into the valley where we met up with a family of nomadic Kyrgyz:

The Kirghiz… Who are they? (The information about these people was taken mostly from the Internet. I cannot guarantee its reliability, accordingly).

The Kyrgyz people have a very ancient and interesting history, known to us from the legends of the Chinese.

In ancient times, the Kyrgyz were an independent state Gyan-gun, but in the II and I centuries BC were subjugated by the Huns and formed the western part of the Hun’s possessions (Huns were a small people, formed in the IV century BC in the territory of Mongolia). Being under the power of the Huns, gyan-guns mixed with Dinlins, a people, according to some reports, of Tungus, and according to others, of Mongolian origin, who lived in the south of the present Yenisei province.

The Chinese describe the Hagas of that time as a people of stature, with red hair, a ruddy face, and blue eyes, standing at a considerable degree of civilization. They were engaged in farming and cattle breeding; they were able to mine gold, iron, and tin. Politically, by the end of the 6th century, the Haghas formed a strong state that was the second largest in all of northeast Asia. In the east it stretched as far as Lake Baikal, in the south as far as Tibet or, more likely, Eastern Turkestan.

The northern or Yenisei Kirghiz were confronted in Siberia by the Russians, first and foremost by the Krasnoyarsk voevods. They forced the Kirghiz to pay tribute, after which the latter scattered throughout the Sagai steppe and mingled with other Tatar hordes.

The process of the formation of the Kyrgyz had been going on since the beginning of the 2nd millennium and ended at the turn of the 15th-16th centuries. The Yenisei Kirghiz, who migrated to the Tian Shan in the ninth and tenth centuries (partially later in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), constituted the main core in the formation of the Kirghiz.

The traditional occupation of the Kyrgyz was nomadic and semi-nomadic cattle breeding of the extensive type. The cattle breeders made the centuries-old year-round nomadic cycle, moving with their cattle from one seasonal pasture to another (in winter in the valleys, in summer in the mountains).

Hunting, including hunting with the help of hunting birds, was one of the most ancient occupations of the Kyrgyz. The production of woolen fabrics, weaving of carpets and felt, production of mats, leather crockery, leather embossing were developed as well.

Until 50-60s of the XIX century the Kyrgyzs lived in nomadic communities-ayils (aiyl) with 100-200 yurts and more united mainly by genealogical criteria. After the emergence of sedentary settlements (kyshtaks), the majority of the Kyrgyz continued to live in nomadic and semi-nomadic settlements. The predominant type of dwelling was the yurt, which was divided into men’s and women’s halves. During the Soviet period, the living conditions of the Kyrgyz have fundamentally changed. The yurt was preserved only by some Kyrgyz as a summer dwelling, as well as by herders and shepherds on distant pastures.

In Soviet times, the Kyrgyz began to live mostly sedentary lives, leaving their permanent homes only in summer and migrating from pasture to pasture with their cattle. The traditional food is mainly dairy (in the warm season) and meat (in late autumn and winter). Dairy dishes are koumiss, ayran, kurut (kind of sour cheese prepared for winter and eaten dry or grinded and diluted with water), clarified butter, boiled cream (kaimak) and others. Flour is used also for making boorsok, dough pieces fried in a cauldron on mutton fat and bread baked in ash, etc. The use of horsemeat is characteristic. Favorite drink – tea (in the south, mainly green, in the north – black, in some places – with milk).

Characteristic features of the Kyrgyz are hospitality, respect for old age, love of poetry, and indifference to religion.

The language of the Kirghiz retained its original, purely Turkic character.

All children (and there was a small crowd of them!) – with tanned faces and red, as from frost, flaming cheeks, very active and sociable:

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