Despite the desolation, our room is actually kind of cosy. We’re staying in Tulfabek’s guesthouse and a kind faced gent who I assume is the man himself settles us into our room, which mainly involves feeding alot of coal to the stove, and repeatedly emphasising to us the importance of closing the top hatch so we don’t gas ourselves to death. (Possibly the only safety warning I’ve yet been given in central Asia…). I ask him if he was born in Murghab and he says no, near Khorog. Which means something brought him to this end of the world place – I’d love to know what that was but enquiring *why* anyone would choose to move here seems rather rude!
In the morning we head down to the bazaar at 8am which is apparently our only chance of making it out of Murghab that day (and a slim one at that). The only signs of life are the stray dogs and the bazaar itself – a row of shipping containers – is still all shut up. We wander a bit more, looking for any vehicle, anyone to ask and luckily the second person we come across speaks English (he’s a Kyrgyz man who guides in Khorog during the summer). He calls up a driver and arranges something and then gets us a lift to the guesthouse (not our own) where the driver is. We have some breakfast there anywhere which we have to finish in a hurry when the driver bellows firmly ‘go!’
Picking up our rucksacks from Tulfabek on the way, then more passengers, it transpires that we will be four squeezed onto the back seat – which unfortunately is standard for Tajikistan. Not sure what I was complaining about in Uzbekistan with its comparatively spacious rides! The man with the biggest hat is in the front, and two other men sit with their knees under their chins in the tiny weird seats at the very back ie boot.
It’s a stunning 12 hour journey, continuing through high altitude plateau (Murghab is at over 3500m elevation, and we travel over the highest point on the entire highway today – the Ak-Baital pass, 4655m!) – with the undulating landscape ranging in colour from stale digestive biscuit to rusty Lada to chocolate truffle. Further in the distance we can see spiky white peaks for some of the way – near to the road are just occasional patches and dustings of snow. We pass lake Karakol (it means Black lake and there are several with that name across central Asia) which looks like a rather more appealing place to spend the night than Murghab (there’s a village on the lakeshore and we see homestay signs – though at 4000m the air is even thinner). Probably only viable with your own transport though. Other than that there are barely any hints of human existence along the way apart from a handful of highly unlikely looking buildings and a couple of signs to places that I think might be essentially yurt camps.
We exit Tajikistan painlessly (I’m sure it’s only painless due to the driver dealing with it for us) at the Kizil Art pass, 4280m – I promise I’ll stop listing the elevations now – and then almost immediately as we head towards the Kyrgyz border through 25kms of no man’s land the scenery is totally blanketed with snow.
Entering Kyrgyz is a bit tedious as all the luggage has to be removed from our roof rack and given a cursory search though as this takes place in the open air the guards don’t have the inclination to prolong it too much. I also discover that as of the day before Kyrgyzstan has introduced the requirement for foreigners to register with the migration police within 5 days of arrival. (I’m only staying 3 nights so I can avoid it). In recent years Kyrgyzstan has seemed the most enlightened of the 5 post-soviet stans – this regressive step would suggest otherwise though, and will shoot their ‘welcome all ye tourists’ 2 month visa-free policy in the foot because a trip to the migration police is a PITA. [In fact I’ve read a couple of other things that suggest their current leadership is determined to put them back in the bad stan gang – eg harsh anti LGBT laws being drafted and human rights groups being cracked down on].
Not long after the border we diverge a bit from the route for a tea stop in a village (probably Sary Mogul) – sitting on the floor we have tea, bread, something called kaymak (like fluffy butter/clotted cream) and very runny jam which I think is made from seabuckthorn. Only after we don’t have to pay anything for it and we leave two of the passengers behind do I realise that they had hosted us in their home, oops. Back on the road we soon have our ‘official’ food break in Sary Tash – despite also being a high altitude frontier town it seems well set up for tourists and would be worth a stopover as well.
Then it’s onwards and downwards – some stretches of road are clear but others have snow or ice on them. This combined with the gradient seems to prove especially punishing for the mostly truck traffic and we see plenty of breakdowns.
(Actually at various points our vehicle’s gearbox is having problems but thankfully pulls through..). I’m very relieved that the driving by our driver is the most safety conscious I have yet experienced in Central Asia. When we eventually reach Osh he drops us at our hostel but asks for more money than we had agreed (250 somoni rather than 200) – we’re too tired to argue and in a weak spot as we didn’t agree the price with the driver directly in the first place, plus it was a gruelling drive for him and we’re happy to have made it with no extra *interestingness*!