Osh to beyond Gulcho, Day 15 (90km)
Pamir Highway Day 1
I found myself winding my way out of Osh at the head of the Pamir highway on a hot and sunny spring day. I’d spent too many days in the Uzbek dominated city and started to feel the itch which is either a lack of personal hygiene or more likely an indicator of a longing to get back on with the journey. Passing the long neglected rail terminal on the edge of town, it’s hard to believe that it once connected this last outpost city to the rest of the USSR. The only sign of life in the terminal is an informal market of shabby rural men, who sit squatted on the rails selling watermelons. Powerful and industrial looking engines sit menacingly in their sheds neglected and still emblazoned with the powerful symbols of the CCCP, while rolling stock sits rusting around the depot on randomly placed pieces of rail. These are the last watermelons for hundreds of kilometres. This might be the end of the railway, but the road leads off into and over the high Pamir, bordering the Hindu Kush range, which runs into the Karakorum; the range which will become the great Himalaya. From this point onwards you could wonder (evading soldiers all the way!) for thousands of kilometres in high altitude, deserted and isolated mountains all the way to Kathmandu or Lhasa. I am laden with fresh supplies from Osh, my bags give off the smell of smoked cheese and Russian salamis; the Lonely Planet seems to think I won’t find fresh food for well over a week!
There is no big sign which marks the start of the highway, and as usual I feel slightly aggrieved at the lack of fanfare for the start of my big stunt and struggle to find a good place to pose for a victorious photo. All that happens is the largely paved road slowly becomes less busy, with only an occasional Kamaz truck for company on its way to the Chinese border at Sary-Tash and the asphalt slowly peters out into a mixture of gravel, soviet concrete and newly refurbished ‘ke-taiski’ or Chinese road. The start of the highway tacks its way through yellowed grazing fields contained in sun burnt wide valleys, encased by low lying gravelled hills.
The ride is easy despite the slow gradient and I even muster the energy to shout ‘Ne Hao’ (hello) at every group of Chinese engineers I see and humour the request of every third Krygyz (or are they Uzbeks? This is a confusing part of the world demographically, and it’s better not to get involved less you start another civil war) to take their photographs. Children run after the bike with armfuls of apples on several occasions, and I humour them as well by polishing off the lot. I could get used to my new role as a responsible tourist.
Suddenly as if a line was drawn across the road the landscape changes and I find myself climbing up the first of three passes to the top of the Pamir plateau. The first mountain pass pass sits at around 2300m and I struggle up it without using the c-word once which I feel is quite a good achievement. The top of the pass is marked with another soviet looking monument to the comradeship of the (mainly forced) labourers who patriotically built these killer roads. The Jailoo at the top of the pass seems largely unaffected by the monstrous clouds of dust thrown up by the Chinese engineers and their machines which are laying a European quality road through the middle of their historic grazing grounds, and young boys gallop around on horseback enthusiastically to display their skills to the ‘velocipede turista’.
Around 80km outside Osh I reach Gulcho, where the heavens open and it starts to rain. The town is full of drunks, and one shitty cafe which serves meat dumplings known locally as manti for two or three times the going rate. The town boasts a number of soviet era concrete apartment blocks, whose inhabitants no longer have running water, having failed to maintain any of the roads and the place stinks of decay and neglect. The buildings could well have been lifted from Moscow, St.Petersberg, Warsaw or East Germany, yet these ones are inhabited by people who only sixty years previously had probably never even heard of the Soviet Union.
Despite struggling on for another 10km the man upstairs is definitely telling me to go to rest up and so I commence my search for the perfect camp. I pitch up for the day in a small valley which seems to be perfectly secluded and hidden from the road; perfect for a good night’s sleep and away from any prying eyes. I’m just cooking my first plate of instant noodles when I realise I’ve parked up almost on top of what is in fact a road to a nearby village. Sigh. The first locals arrive whooping with delight with their donkeys five minutes later. Oh the joy.