Travel Stories

Autostop en el Tian Shan

Takjikistan

Hitchhiking the Silver, Grey and White

The Tian Shan mountain range turns into the Pamirs then the Karakoram and eventually the Himalayas resulting in a great wall of Ice and Rock.  Seperating the vast steppes and Khanates of Central Asia and the desert expanses of western China.  This geological rampart closes even its smallest gaps during the winter months filling them with metres of ice.  The high mountain passes vanish and travellers must be content with lower valleys where the last vestiges of warmth eek out a existence.

As the snow melts the most intrepid tentatively start again to move along

the trails that run along and across this fortress of rock.  Whilst normally motivated for military or economic reasons, some of these wayfarers are simply those more curious as to what lies along these seasonally forgotten paths. And this is what set us out across the high pastures of Kyrgyzstan and up across the Kyzyl Art Pass.

It was early spring and although the snow still coated the ground one could feel the winter was on the back foot and the sun shone hard as we

left on foot from the last settlement before the pass.  The solitary supply shop had nothing to offer in terms of supplies and on asking a local, they informed us that the border had opened only the day before.

The pass at 4280m would be a cold one, but there were other dangers up there too, the precipices held up by constant work by the soldiers to maintain their supply chains to the outposts along the border.  As well as

the topography the altitude leads to the potential for sickness and dizziness.  And a final barrier to transit could be border police that may or may not decide that our papers are in order.

Walking out of town mid afternoon, we hadn't seen a motor vehicle since the one that took us there and the hitchhiker's guide would ill advise leaving a town with minimal supplies down a deserted road. But given that there was a lack of people in the settlement, the choices were slim.

We spotted a military camp, with some heavy artillery and radar machinery on display and decided this may be our last hope for lunch.  Laura with her finest Russian gained us entry where we met the lone guard with wife and 1 year old manning the base.  They invited us in for

tea, jam and bread as is customary in these parts and we ate and drank deeply knowing that it was a long way up.

Disaster struck as we bid farewell to our new friends; we saw a truck lumber past the entrance to the base towards the pass.  Had we just missed our last ride?  We attempted to run but we became exhausted after only 30 seconds, the lack of air taking its toll.  With heavy feet started to walk up towards the pass in belief that providence would look after us,

and in the worst case we might reach Bor Dobo, a small village higher up.

A black speck appeared far in the distance on the road. The speck grew and became rectangular, its blackness contrasting with the white mountains and pale blue sky.  On reaching it, we identified it as the truck we had passed, now like us also exhausted from its climb.

A young teenager was clambering over the engine with a large spanner.

His father, the driver as it transpired,  and their two passengers had laid out a picnic rug and were working their way through a bottle of hooch and some round breads.  We knew this was our only chance for a lift today, and greeted them kindly.  Mesmerized by the appearance of two Europeans out of 50km radius of rugged mountain terrain and Laura's jaw dropping beauty they invited us with open arms, and unfortunately a second bottle of schnapps.  Laura not drinking, it was my responsibility to ensure that we didn't offend Arslan, the driver, and secure us passage.

Failure to do so would surely have led to sub-zero march into the mountains or back to Sary Tash.  I forged the necessary fellowship mainly by consuming the offerings to both myself and Laura, a form of bonding passed to the Kyrgyz by the Russians.  I hoped that the son, Almaz, would fix our truck before Arslan decided a third bottle was required to

consolidate the relationship.

Luckily Almaz succeeded without further distilled gifts and the six of us squeezed into the three available seats and slowly but surely ascended.

After some hours, we reached the first border, night had fallen but we were lucky to be bathed in silver light.  I danced around the military huts, the effects of the moonshine having intoxicated me in the thin air.  This mainly had two consequences, the border control were so amused that they didn't question us at all, and Laura supporting me a heavy hand to avoid falling off the mountain.  At the second border, the guards felt it necessary to make me a pot of tea before descending on the other side, or perhaps they made it for Arslan, whose lion qualities had now been depleted.

Almaz took over the controls, barely seeing over the wheel whilst Laura took the far window seat calling out when our wheels started to slip down the plates of rocks into the dark chasm littered only with fallen shards of the pyramids above.  The impossibly vertical scree slopes, so steep even the ice was forced to use all its might to cling on. The hair raising ordeal continued through the night, whilst I blissfully slept with Arslan.  On reaching Karakol, a small settlement on the edge of a salt lake of the same name, we all agreed to take rest whilst the terrain remained generally horizonal.

We decided that we would stay an extra night at the truck stop, for $2 including a steaming boil of noodles and goat meat for breakfast.  We thanked Almaz for his bravery and Arslan for his hospitality, and I thanked Laura for her sobriety.  We watched the old kamaz truck bounce and splutter away around the lake and up into the mountains again.

We spent the day walking and sitting looking out over the huge frozen salt lake.  This small plateau was covered in grey bolders and rock, the snow and ice couldn't form here as there was no rain.  The stark empty plain was interrupted by horns of great mountain sheep.  We rested and observed the sensation of the sub-zero air temperature mixed with the warm radiation of the sun.  This eerie almost lunar landscape seemed paused as the sporadic brown grass is frozen solid and there is no wind. The moon shares its silence with this place; no animal can be seen and the water is muted until mid-summer eventually cracks its defensive shell.

In the evening we take a sauna, a spin off from the first Russians to make roads across Pamirs.  It is a great way to warm oneself through before the night comes with its chilling qualities.  We return to our small lodge for more noodles and then to be layered in thick blankets, to defend against the night.

The morning breaks through and in high spirits and a with renewed vigour as the sunlight once against started it's fight against the receding winter, we found a lift with a 4x4 destined for the greener lower valley of Khorog, an oasis of green in this silver desert.

Traveller Note:  To any fellow hitchhikers taking this path, Bor Dobo the village marked on maps beyond Sary Tash near to the border does not actually exist, and it would be a bad idea to walk there expecting anything!