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Flirting With Kyrgyzstan's Pamir Highway

What begins as a dusty road out of Kyrgyzstan's second city Osh, quickly becomes a twisting mountain pass that marks the start of the Pamir Highway, taking us higher and higher into the Trans-Alay mountains. With each and every turn the mountains get steeper, the drop gets further, and the snow gets thicker. At the top we are deposited in the snowy plateau, where a seemingly vertical wall of white 7,000 m mountains lies directly ahead of the arrow straight road that dares to take them on.

We are not heading into the mountains and across the Pamir Highway though, due to ongoing border conflicts in the region resulting from, depending on your viewpoint, either the careless or the intentional international borders devised by Stalin 100 years ago. Before we hit the wall of white, we veer West along another road that runs towards the horizon and the sleepy town of Sary Mogul, which sits under the watchful eye of Lenin Peak at 7,134 m.

The meandering borders between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were believed to have been made so complex to ensure ethnic groups officially remained part of the same country, resulting in enclaves of ethnic Tajiks surrounded by Uzbeks, or Uzbeks surrounded by Kyrgyz. Some contest these were intentional 'divide and rule' tactics by the Soviet Union (read about this here from people far more knowledgeable than me) that have caused conflicts resulting in thousands of deaths and created ever-simmering tensions that require continuous peace-making from the Russians. In this case however, they have merely caused us to re-route our road trip, so everything should be put in perspective.

The epic road trip begins in Osh, which was itself the scene of protests and violent government crackdowns in 2010. Nowadays however, the peaceful city is brimming with young students, who frequently engage us in chatter to practice their English and marvel at our accents. One young man said I sounded like the commentator from the football computer games, which I decided to take as a compliment.

After going to the wrong bus station, then realising we were four hours too early for the marshrutka (min-bus), we then began a Central Asian right of passage, and negotiated a private taxi to take us on the 3h journey instead. All for the princely sum of £12.

It quickly became apparent that a private taxi was a good idea, as I clambered over ever single seat to marvel at the views in all directions. After the initial twisting road that took us up to 3,500 m, like a corkscrew threading deeper into the wine bottle, we finally popped out the other side for our visual reward. Rather than a large glass of Malbec though, we were treated to a vast flat plateau, flanked on both sides by a wall of giant white mountains.

As our road aimed straight for them, the mountains seemed to grow bigger and more fierce, making me feel like Leanardo DiCaprio (something I've never said before) in Inception, when the streets rose in all directions around him. The town of Sary Tash marked the end of our brief flirtation with the Pamir Highway, as it extended into the mountains beyond, all the way round Tajikistan, within a camel's spitting distance of Afghanistan, and back round to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe.

Despite peeling off the famous highway, the scenery for the final hour towards Sary Mogul didn't depreciate one bit. The long straight and immaculately tarmacked roads were lined with rustic wooden telephone pylons, wires dropping between each one, with the odd decrepit petrol station every now and then. It was all very reminiscent of mid-west USA, a place I've never actually been. The men on horses trotting through the plains, with the snow capped peaks behind, only enhanced this image. The key give-away was the lack of cowboy hat, replaced by the iconic white and black Kyrgyz Kalpak.

Eventually the dusty sprawling village of Sary Mogul came into view, and we turned onto the incredibly badly tarmacked local roads. The village was comprised of a vast grid of mostly single story buildings, with a town centre made up of shipping containers, which double up as the weekly market. The bumpy roads cut through gleaming green and white mosques, with the golden tips glinting in the sun, and drop us off at our guesthouse just as the sky is turning pink, and the call to prayer begins to echo across the plateau.

Up ahead lay Lenin Peak, with a wispy white cloud at its summit, a mammoth 4,000 vertical meters above us. With no foothills and no introduction, these peaks create an optical illusion that makes them look all too accessible. We would indeed get lured in by the majesty of the mountains, but that's for another day. Today was all about the simplicity of a road trip, window gazing and chasing the horizon.


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