The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Tajikistan

Pamir Passes

Kulma Pass, from the Tajik side

The Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan was finally opened to foreigners last year, so I seized the moment and took a road trip through from Kashgar to Murghab, then up through the high passes into Kyrgyzstan. There had been a little early snow, enough to make things scenic, but not enough to block any of the passes.

The Kulma Pass border crossing is at 4362 meters (14313 ft), on the Eastern edge of the Pamirs. I had transport pre-arranged on both sides. West China Expeditions took me from Tashkurgan to the main Chinese border post and also drove me the final 20 km up to the top border post, which was very helpful. On the Tajikistan side, Pamir Off-Road Adventure met me and took me down to Murghab.

The Chinese border post didn’t open until 12:00 Beijing time, but they then processed me out quite quickly. They X-rayed my bag, but didn’t ask to check inside, let alone review my laptop or phone. (But you shouldn’t rely on that – this border post is known for sometimes making very thorough searches.) At the top of the pass, the final Chinese review took only a couple of minutes and the Tajikistan entry took about 20 minutes.  I noticed a score or so trucks waiting on each side to go through, but I seemed to be the only foreign traveler.

After a day in Murghab, we headed up the Pamir Highway to Osh (Kyrgyzstan). After a quick stop at the scenic Kara Kul lake, we went up though the Ak Baital Pass (4655 meters = 15272 ft) and then through the Tajik-Kyrgyz border at the Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282 meters).


Ak Baital Pass (4655 meters)

North from Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282 meters)

We hit some shallow snow drifts on the road and got stuck a couple of times. But we eventually made it through. I was very glad to once again safely reach Osh, with its fine statue of Lenin and its excellent Hawaiian Pizza. 🙂

Khojand (aka Khujand) is a sleepy industrial town in Northern Tajikistan. In an earlier age it was Leninabad. And in an even earlier one, it was Alexandria-the-Furthest.

Yes, Big Alex was here, pursuing a Scythian army. In 329 b.c. he re-founded the existing city as Alexandria Eschate (“Alexandria the Farthest”) on the Jaxartes River. Unfortunately there isn’t much surviving from his visit.

There are the remains of a medieval mudbrick fortress, which is probably the latest descendent of fortresses on the same site from Alexander’s time. Nowadays there is a small Tajikistan army post on top, presumably a leftover from the Tajik civil war.
The Soviets left a giant polished metal statue of Lenin, which LonelyPlanet assures us is “the largest Lenin statue in all of Central Asia”. It’s on the North bank of the river and is a suitably impressive sight against the Tien Shan mountains.

Another Soviet relic

The Regional Museum is housed in a splendid building, modeled on a Medieval Castle. The basement rooms are beautifully decorated with heroic classical scenes in inlaid marble showing Alexander and other Gods. Unfortunately, the actual exhibits are relatively prosaic.

The following day I took a long-distance taxi over the long bumpy road from Khojand to Dushanbe. This is slowly being rebuilt by a Chinese construction team, but right now many sections are in extremely bad shape, especially on the Northern half. The section over the 11,500ft Shakhristan pass is basically a dirt track with many pot holes, cut into the side of steep slopes. The taxi driver, who appeared to know the road well, was veering from side to side to avoid the worst of them, while driving quite briskly, on the edge of long sheer drops. After some good road, we then took another long windy pot holed dirt road over the Anzob pass. I had been expecting us to use the Anzob tunnel, but I guess that is closed right now. We did see about a dozen short avalanche shelters being built over the main road. (We needed to detour around them.)

This disaster of a road is the only link between the (relatively) industrialized North of Tajikistan and the more agrarian South. Seeing the road helped me understand why the Northern factions were unable to intervene effectively in the civil war, which was mainly fought in the South around Dushanbe.

Of course, Big Alex led an army over that same route, long before there was any kind of paved road. Those Macedonians were a tough bunch.