Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains: The Roof of the World

Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains: The Roof of the World

summer rays highlighted the craggy peaks surrounding
Tajikistan’s capital city. I’d just enjoyed a lovely, and
pleasantly forcible, massage by a middle-aged woman with a bashful
smile at the Dushanbe
Serena Hotel. Sipping a Russian lager by the rooftop pool, I
observed the neighbouring structures that form Dushanbe’s skyline.
The architectural variances were eminent, revealing the old, the
Soviet, and the transition into western modernity.

Although stripped of its USSR remnants and former city name of
Stalinabad, the Russian alphabet not only remains on every
storefront but also on the tongue of local residents. Yet despite
its turbulent history throughout the 20th century, Dushanbe
exhibits a dynamic melting pot of beliefs – including
Zoroastrianism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. And gracing the
bustling Rudaki Avenue is a diversity of styles from women in
traditional Tajik clothing to young men sporting 1960s attire and
Beatles mop tops – creating a sea of Central Asian Pauls, Johns,
Georges and Ringos. But while Dushanbe was a thrilling introduction
to Tajikistan’s culture, the real journey had just begun.

Organized through Advantour, a guide, a driver, four fellow
travellers and I spent the next ten days exploring the
Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region en route to the Pamir Mountains.
Starting at the lower altitudes of the region’s southern portion,
each village we visited shared the commonality of having some
particularly handsome locals. With chestnut hair, tanned skin and
piercing eyes of copper and hazel, their striking appearance is but
a lingering ode to Alexander the Great and his many conquests that
eventually led him here through the River Oxus.

We visited the town of Khorog, which is the region’s capital and
a vibrant metropolis compared to the other villages. As we perused
the central market a beautiful, peach-coloured silk caught my eye
and I told our guide that I’d always dreamt of having a garment
from the Silk Road. So I purchased a few metres and he escorted me
to a workshop of ornately clad seamstresses where I was measured
and promised a Tajik dress by sunrise. To finish an eventful day,
we went back to our guesthouse and all gathered on a tabchan
(traditional day bed) to have a nightcap of local vodka.

From there, we followed a scenic route that traces the country’s
southeastern border, leaving nothing more than a river between us
and Afghanistan. Amid striking views of the majestic Wakhan
Corridor, we found ourselves face to face with Afghani villages
nestled into the rocky mountainside. We even caught a wondrous
glimpse of a camel herder and his two-humped caravan travelling
across the barren terrain. The exhilarating landscape appeared to
be never-ending.

Our overnight stop in the tree-lined village of Ishkashim
bestowed us the last greenery we would see on the trip. While our
guesthouse staff prepared dinner, I took my camera up the road for
a view of the icy mountains ahead. I found a smooth boulder and sat
there for nearly an hour, entranced by the vivid scenery before me.
Then as dusk began to bleed mauve hues into the peripheral sky, one
by one, farmers filed out onto the road – each with a calf in tow
for what appeared to be their day’s end routine. I attempted not to
stare and continued snapping photos until I was startled by a
woman’s enthusiastic voice. I looked up to find a smile so wide it
revealed nearly all of her teeth. Smiling back in embarrassment, I
began to apologise for not understanding her when she placed three
green apples in my hands and nodded in a tender notion of

The next day we visited the 12th-century Yamchun Fort and then
took a dip in the sacred hot springs of Bibi Fatima. Named after
the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, the hot springs are a coveted
destination for Tajik women as its waters are believed to enhance
fertility. Full nudity is required so groups enter by gender and
photos are not permitted. Therefore, I can only describe with words
the utopian ambience of this intimate pool formed against a rock
face with mineral water springing from its cracks. It is like
something of Greek mythology with an impenetrable mist filling the
air as muses bask in every watery nook of the rock wall.

We then headed north to the Pamir Highway and made our ascent to
the arid plateau. Showcasing yurt tents, Kyrgyz felt hats and
rosy-cheeked faces, the distinction between the region’s north and
south was clear as day. We allowed ourselves a night to acclimatise
in the village of Murghab and then took a morning stroll at the
local bazaar. As the region’s crossroads for lorry trucks
delivering goods from nearby China, the open lot of converted
shipping containers flourished with locals loading up on fresh
fruit, briny cheese, textiles and other snacks.

Northbound from there, the air grew even thinner and our
surroundings became more desolate as we approached the Ak-Baital
(White Horse Pass). Marked by a sign indicating an elevation of
4,655m, this is the highest section of the Pamir Highway and the
original “Roof of the World” before sharing its nickname with the
Himalayas. But it was soon after that when we reached the prize of
our excursion at the dreamlike Karakul Lake. Flaunting cerulean
water brimmed with a vibrant layer of turquoise and ice-capped
ridges against the horizon, time stood still as I wandered the
lake’s mesmerising shore.

Later settling in at our homestay, the generator kicked on as we
sat on floor cushions gathered around the low table in the common
area. We sipped tea as the homestay mother and her adorable
children served us a simple dinner of broth-based soup, potatoes
and bread. When we finished eating, I went back to the lake to take
some long exposure shots of the Milky Way. As I breathed in the
mountain air and witnessed the starlight glistening across the
velvety sky, a euphoric feeling came over me as I relished the
absolute stillness of that perfect, final night.