The Pamir Highway and Kulma Pass to China – Hitchhiking Around the World

Standing next to the sign telling me I was on the city limits of Dushanbe, I gazed ahead to the daunting white mountains which began the 1000km Pamir highway and my road to China – one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Gradually ascending to 4600m, traffic on this route would be incredibly thin. And I had an extra added difficulty: I couldn’t pay for transport. I knew what I was getting into, though.

I had rested well at a hostel from the grueling ride there; three days off were what I needed to recover for the challenge ahead.

I had just spent the night, after a 3-hour walk out of the city, camping in a large field, not realising it was private land. I was woken at 6am by a man telling me I couldn’t be there. At the beginning of this trip, the thought of getting spotted really scared me, but I didn’t seem to care anymore.

Tajikistan’s capital was quite a bit more developed than I had expected, having gone south from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital village. But the rest of the country was far behind its neighbour.

The apprehension to wave a car down had come back. Why? I wasn’t tired. The thought of putting out my thumb was followed by pictures of ‘talking’ with the driver, for about 5 minutes before he realised I couldn’t speak any Russian beyond the basics. Then we would sit in awkward silence for the duration of the lift. Either that, or he would throw a load of words at me, expecting me to understand, which was much worse. Walking, I had none of this, and I liked it that way. Unfortunately, to get around the world within the decade, I would need to hitch a ride at least a few times.

The first vehicle to pass, a truck, stopped. Could he be going all the way to China? Would I ride the whole way if he was? He only took me 30km. In the wrong direction.

The GPS on my phone had stopped working momentarily, and the road sneakily changed direction. I had to keep going straight, but he had turned right without me noticing.

It was a very quiet ride, and of course, awkward. I managed to hitch a ride to just a few kilometers where I began the day. Great start.

I reached the beginning of the Pamir Highway after a few more stop-and-start lifts. Ahead were dark mountains with thin, ghostly clouds snaking around them, licking them. Light rain added to my apprehension and replayed the voices of those who told me not to hitchhike this road. There was absolutely no traffic, as if this road had been abandoned years ago. If I were a man who believed in signs, I think that something was telling me to turn back – I kept seeing single magpies too.

I walked for an hour before perching myself on a boulder. A few cars passed me, but they were full of locals.

After two hours, I was scared. This road was going to become incredibly wild and remote. Settlements would be hundreds of kilometers apart, and it would exceed 4600m above the sea in one stretch.

I consulted my map for some comfort and found that there were airports every 200km, so if I was at risk of overstaying the remaining 3 weeks on my visa, I could walk to one and return to Kyrgyzstan.

I let my worries get the better of me, and I ended up sitting there with no will to put my thumb out, but a vehicle pulled in without me asking. It looked like a minibus, but it was being driven by a soldier. He offered me a ride for free, and I got in with four of his colleagues.

I had no idea how far they were taking me, but at least I was making distance. The first big settlement, Qalai Khumb, was 200km away. They tried to talk with me, and I with them, but we gave up after a few sentences.

We came to a police checkpoint. They approached the van and asked what this strange, blonde homeless man was doing with them. They responded with something like ‘we don’t know. He’s from England, heading to Qalai Khumb’. They inspected my passport and let me proceed.

The soldiers left me almost half way to the settlement. It was now 3 hours until sunset. I walked over the bridge to where the road became indistinguishable from the surrounding rocks. A villager pointed me in the right direction, because there were not even tyre tracks to guide me. This was not doing anything for my confidence in my route to China.

Now 1500m above sea level, I continued walking. It was raining lightly, but the damp had a drastic effect on my body temperature. I had to keep walking to stay warm. It was almost dark, so I began scouting for camping spots. Villagers I passed were warning me not to get caught here after nightfall. They made the mime for a wolf, putting their index fingers to depict their pointy ears. I thought I might be fine; I had pepper spay, and I knew to put my food outside my tent. I walked off the road, but before I could get far, a car pulled in going the other direction.

A police officer told me to get to the next village, 5km away, for my own safety. I followed his advice. An armoured military tank-jeep hybrid picked me up and took me there.

Walking into the village, two men crossed my path, one who was an English teacher. He told me that the sun was going down soon, and that I should rest at his house tonight. There was no hesitation from me.

My socks were sodden, my trousers damp, but my upper-body dry, thanks to my Rab raincoat. I had washed some clothes in Dushanbe, but they were not yet dry and for the coming days my feet would be constantly wet, sandy and cold, apart from when I put my tent up, when they were just cold in the sleeping bag.

Wet socks exasperate a bad smell, and I did my best to conceal it from my host. I strongly suspect I failed, though.

He was very happy that I had gone with him, as he kept telling me in an enthusiastic Borat voice, and he made sure I was more than full before letting me leave the next day. He would not take any money from me, and I did try very hard to make him accept it. But it is the Muslim way – help travellers as much as you can, even if you don’t want to, and never take anything in return. The remainder of the Pamir highway would present me with even more of this kindness.

He had even tried to find me a lift to the next settlement, Khorog, 200km away, but had not been successful. He felt guilty, but wished me luck for the road ahead.

The dirt turned to compressed stones and sand and rivers were running over it. The road’s glaring fragility was a reminder that nature will always win. Throughout the highway, I saw 5 or 6 roads which were built around old collapsed ones. The one ahead of me now had bunches of sticks worked into the rocky undersurface, to delay the inevitable. The Pamir highway can be closed unexpectedly, I just had to hoped I wouldn’t get stuck.

The road surface quickly turned from rock and sand to just sand, and the puddles occupied the path so much that I had to just walk through them. The cold water was refreshing.

Today, there really were no cars. I walked to keep warm, and to give myself the illusion of making progress. I thought I was hallucinating car sounds behind me because whenever I turned a corner, the sound of the river would get louder. I gave up turning my head after a while.

Two hours went by. Then another, and one more. Four hours in, I was cold, wet, and seriously thinking I had made a mistake in taking this road. Could I walk to China if I had to? I worked it out – 35km a day with a lot of elevation. But even if I did, if I saw no traffic, then there would be nothing on the other side of the border. I had been in Almaty, a couple of hours from the border with loads of traffic, why did I choose to go this way?

I knew vehicles would come eventually, but I also knew they would most likely ask for money. Could I wait for hours and hours, just to turn down a lift because it went against my rules? No, I would just play dumb and argue with the driver – that was much easier.

Before the fifth hour began, the stillness of the view was broken by a jeep. Another one followed it. Were all the cars coming at once now?

I watched it cover the distance I had trudged though over a couple of hours in just 5 minutes. The car stopped for me and I got in.

The man spoke English perfectly and even understood the concept of hitchhiking. He and three other women, who were nurses, were going to Qalai Khumb, the first big settlement. I had waited and struggled, and it had paid off – for now anyway.

I rested for one night in a guesthouse before walking back to the main road the following morning; the day began just as so many others had, but today was different. To my right was a mighty river, dividing me and Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The name of that country carries with it so many negative images, and it is talked about in such a way that it doesn’t seem real. But there it was ahead of me. I waved to some children playing football and saw their parents tending to the washing. Motorbikes trailed the road behind.

Afghanistan

I would be riding adjacent to this forbidden country for the next few days, all the way to the next settlement. Traffic was now a bit healthier and a truck driver even picked me up within the first hour.

The road changed from wide, puddle-laden sand to a thin, snakey lane with hairpin turns and a sheer drop to the right. The road was in such poor condition that it took an hour to travel 15km. My driver had a bit too much confidence in himself and took the corners quite aggressively. I’m a calm person, but on multiple occasions in his passenger seat, my hands went cold, my heart went up into my mouth and I had to just look away from what was happening on the other side of the windscreen. On two occasions, the wheel even went over the edge, causing the dirt to scatter down into the river.

We passed a truck which had its front caved in from one of the car-sized boulders which had fallen from the cliff hanging over our heads. Many more lay on the roadside, pushed away to allow the flow of traffic to continue. The frame had not gone in so far that it would have caused injury, which was some comfort to me, as I shrunk down in my seat.

If you do ever decide to put your thumb out in Tajikistan, I highly recommend you take headphones with you. Long journeys with truck drives involve just one CD usually, with about 8 tracks on it, and their local music is just someone making noise for the sake of it. I do not like to slag off the people who have been so kind to me, but there is a reason Western music plays on their radio stations. The sound of radio static overtook one driver’s torture after countless hours, and I felt relief in hearing a more pleasing sound.

I was lucky I suppose, because after 12 hours together, he couldn’t deal with the awkward absence of conversation caused by the lack of common language. Even though he had two beds in his cabin, he told me I should stay at the guest house nearby. I took the hint.

I found an excellent camping spot, enclosed in a small three-sided concrete shelter which hid my tent completely and sheltered me from the wind.

I saw more traffic this day and I felt a bit more confident with my chance of finishing this road to China. I was more relaxed about getting up early, so Peep Show occupied the next morning as I breakfasted with bread and coffee. At midday, I finally packed away and got moving.

I was 2500m up in the mountains and the scenery was breathtaking (literally). I didn’t want to remove myself from the experience by getting into a car with the windows up, so I walked for a couple of hours.

Everyone I passed said ‘hello’. Everyone. Apart from the confused and suspicious old men. Some even followed with ‘what is your name?’ This may not sound like anything worth writing about, but through all of the former Soviet countries, people have either kept to themselves, or greeted me in Russian. Even the more modern part of this country was like this. So why, on the Pamir highway, were things different?

That evening, after getting taken all the way to Khorog, I met a young English teacher. He told me that everyone in the GBAO region wants to learn the language, to have more opportunities in the world. I went with him to one of his lessons. People of all ages were there, learning (incorrectly) how to greet people. He put me up for the night, and of course, he and his family fed me to bursting point.

He was terribly excited the next morning to offer me the “delicacy of the village” – milk tea. When I told him that everyone in the UK drinks this, he was surprised. But his tea was different. It had salt instead of sugar. I played a prank on someone at my old job once by putting salt in place of sugar, and seeing them spit it out in shock was hilarious. But here I was now, drinking it as a norm. Karma works in mysterious ways, I suppose.

Now 3000m up, my host took me with his father to the truck stop on the outside of his village. He secured me a lift with the first man he spoke to.

The road condition had improved now and we were no longer snaking along a sheer drop. We travelled two-three times faster than before and made it to Murgab, the final settlement before the push to China, in just 15 hours.

The views became like those of another planet. People and settlements disappeared completely, and I felt that (apart from the road underneath us) we could be anywhere in time.

We ascended to a long stretch at 4300m and I felt fine until we stopped for dinner. I stepped out the truck and began to feel drunk. At this altitude, I was only breathing in 50% of the amount of oxygen I am used to. I found myself having to walk at half my usual speed, otherwise I would began wheezing as if I had just run a marathon. When I ate my food, my hands and legs went tingly because the blood had to go to my stomach. I felt terrible, not just drunk anymore, but ill. I sat there with a half-eaten meal taking deep breaths just to try and feel normal. My driver was absolutely fine.

I was both exhausted from the road and suffering from altitude sickness, so when my driver said that I needed to pay him for the ride, I really didn’t have the energy for the coming argument.

I just said, in my own language, that I cannot pay, that he should have agreed a price when I got in 15 hours ago, not 2 hours from the destination. He wasn’t having it, so I began to pack my things, telling him I would walk the remainder of the distance. I was serious and he could see it. He gave in and agreed to take me for free. I felt a bit bad because he needed the $25 more than me, but paying for this ride would mean failure for my expedition. I bought his dinner as a thanks.

We descended, thankfully, by about 300m and I felt a bit better when we arrived to Murgab.

I spent the following two days doing very little apart from resting for the long road ahead through China. The altitude suffering seemed to settle into a headache for the time there, and general tiredness.

I failed to change my Tajik currency, $140 equivalent, and any of the three banks there, which were all closed in the middle of the day.

Murgab was cold, sandy, windy and desolate. The mud houses sheltered a few, but were partially empty. The bazar was relatively busy, but by Asian standards, it was like the last signs of life in the coma victim which was the settlement.

I lazily left my final guesthouse in Tajikistan at 9am, which was just after the early-morning trucks had all gone by. I walked down the main road and tried to wave down three stragglers which passed by, but I had no success. I walked on to the outside of the settlement and waited until 11.30am, by which time it was too late to catch a lift because the border would be closing by the time I reached it.

I walked off the road and made the decision to camp behind some boulders and wake up very early the next day.

Two or three vehicles passed me throughout the rest of the day, which was not great for my confidence in my idea to get to China taking this route.

I was now 8km away from the nearest shop and I had used up most of my food and water. For the first time in the trip, I had to ration. I had the opportunity to get more of both, but I didn’t seem to want to. I knew that ahead was very challenging land, and on the Chinese side the road showed no settlement for hundreds of kilometers. Nor was there anything on the way there. This was my last chance to get food if I didn’t want to starve, but still I didn’t move. I realised that deep down, this struggle was what I wanted from my adventure.

And a struggle it was.

It was a cold night, but a warm one for me inside my sleeping bag, which I had put inside a second, borrowed one, while wearing three puffy charity shop coats.

Thin sheets of ice were coated on the inside of my tent when I woke up at 5am, much like on car windows on the first frost of the English winter. I packed away promptly, to be waiting before 6am when the first truckers began their day.

I sat against my pack in the moon-like landscape for four-and-a-half hours before deciding to walk back towards the guesthouse, lest I don’t get picked up before 11.30 again. But, just after starting to walk, a truck came around the corner and agreed to take me to the border.

This man was mad – He was beeping his various modified horn sounds throughout the entire 3 hour ride. He was honking at farmers, their animals, children, drivers and more. He kept singing to himself too, which kept the awkward silence away.

I ignored my rumbling stomach, but my driver didn’t. He forced me to eat bread and canned meat, with little chocolates in-between. He could see I needed it, and I was full for the rest of the day.

We ascended gradually to the Kulma pass at 4360m where a light snowstorm made us move quickly between the vehicle and the buildings needed for the various checks.

I had only read one report online from earlier this year of this border being open to foreigners; before that had only been reports of them being turned away.

The Tajik side stamped my visa, making meaning I could no longer turn back. The Chinese seemed friendly, and separated themselves from the job they were required to do of searching me and my things thoroughly. They even filled my water bottle up, seeing as I now had only one which was empty.

It was the first time my whole body had been x-rayed, and seeing my organs and bones was a strange feeling. One of the guards pointed something out in my stomach. What it was, I will never know.

My bag was x-rayed too, and I was simply asked to show them my gas bottle, survival kit and hip flask. They checked my phone, camera and tablet, finding the naughty images downloaded for private time.

Three officials gathered around my passport, trying to decipher the Latin alphabet which none of them were able to read. It is advisable to learn how to say the name of your country in Chinese, and after I said “Engwen” (England in a Chinese accent), they were satisfied. The official at the stamp desk poured over it for 15 minutes, purely out of curiosity it seemed, as it was likely the first time he had seen a British passport.

After learning a few Chinese phrases while I waited with the other officials, I was stamped in and free to enter China.

The road to the first city, Kashgar, had more traffic than I had anticipated and I caught a lift with a truck within the first hour. He left me at a police checkpoint though, which there would be very many of throughout this first region.

I was now on the Karakhorum highway, the highest road in the world. It was late and I knew I wouldn’t arrive to the city until midnight. I had no food or local currency, but luckily, a litre of water. So, uncomfortably, I put my tent up under a small bridge designed to divert the water from the river under the road. It was like a wind tunnel, concentrating the wind from the mountains into a small area, and through the night it was like sleeping at the top of a flag pole. The canvas slapped me continuously, and the next morning I forgot I had not put pegs down (being on concrete) and the whole thing blew away from me.

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