Where is Murgab-Tajikistan? (And why would you want to visit?)

Murgab Tajikistan is a small town in east of the Autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region,  just south of the Kyrgyz border.

Coming from the east on the Silk Road, it’s the gateway to the incredible Pamir mountains.

AT at 3,650 m above sea level, it’s the highest town in Tajikistan.

Want to know more about our experience crossing the Tajik border, an excellent day trip around the Murgab area, and our attempts to head east, with a rapidly deteriorating security situation, then read on…

Murgab Tajikistan – No Way OUT!

We got up at 5.30 to make sure we were ready at 7 am for the driver. One day we’ll learn that we are the only people in the world to be 100% on-time or early for everything! Of course, he was 30 minutes late, which wasn’t too bad we suppose. We were just thankful his car was as promised – A reasonably spacious Toyota Landcruiser. BUT he had bought an additional passenger which would mean we would still be quite cramped with all our luggage. He assured us the passenger was only going to the border 30km away. OK, maybe we could cope with that. Transport options were extremely limited in these parts so if we could help the locals out, we would.

We loaded the luggage and soon realized it would be more than squeezy with the extra body plus quite a bit of camera gear from our friends. I drew the long straw, mainly because I am the fattest and got the front seat, BUT I had to nurse a rather large tripod and a camera case weighing about 10kg. The rest were crammed in the back…thank goodness it was only 30kms…

Right away the scenery was spectacular and continued that way till the border. A wall of snow-laden rock stretched from east to west, rising above the cloud line and far into the heavens. It didn’t get any less spectacular for the rest of the trip.

The border crossing was relatively painless as our driver trotted our passports to the relevant offices on the Kyrgyz side. We then drove through the longest No Man’s land we have ever experienced. It must have been at least 20km between one side and the other and the landscape was quite barren. Every now and then we would see a small cluster of buildings, obviously inhabited by someone. What they did up here, especially in winter was totally outside my realm of understanding.

The Tajik check post is at about 4200m. The boys must have good lungs living up here in the clouds. The area itself looked like the leftovers of some aerial bombing raid with half-buried containers serving as offices and quarters. The driver then guided us through three checks and we only had to make a guest appearance at the last.

We actually think that was more so the guys could check out the Iranian lady we had traveling with us more than anything else. Her name means “Fresh” in Russian apparently and they thought that was most amusing. One of them actually asked for her email address!!! Cheeky! We were saved from the further flirtatious conversation by some motorcyclists and another car coming from the other direction and continued on unhindered.

As we headed towards Karakol, situated on the lake of the same name, we crossed fairly rugged terrain at about 4200-4300m. The road wasn’t too bad and we made fairly good time. Our first views of the lake were pretty spectacular with the aquamarine water surrounded by lofty peaks capped in snow.

The town of Murgab itself wasn’t much to look at. Seemingly derelict, squat, rectangular, mud-brick buildings set in small compounds clustered in a haphazard pattern beside the lake. Some had been painted white at some stage, others still the original plasterwork. It resembled a set from an early Clint Eastwood movie.

We were a bit sorry we hadn’t stopped for piccies at some of the higher viewpoints but didn’t quite have enough language to determine whether there would be more opportunities later. There was a bit of angst as our traveling partners tried to get the driver to drive up mountains and he was refusing as that wasn’t in the original plan. In the end, rather than upset the guy who was going to get us safely to our destination, Tim and I politely left the scene to scope out the lake ourselves. With 45minutes till lunch, there was plenty of time for us to walk out to the lakeside and get some awesome pictures. Any Ideas of staying near to the water’s edge were quickly dashed by swarms of ravenous midgies trying to gauge out our eyes, so we hi-tailed back to the village.

The drive onwards to Murgab saw us gradually increase our altitude to about 4655m. I can’t confirm that because the altimeter in the car appeared to top out at 4400m, but the sign said otherwise.

Once again the road wasn’t too bad except where it didn’t actually exist anymore. It seemed the small streams must have been raging rivers at some stage and washed it completely away. This meant we had to negotiate the river rubble to find a place to cross the small stream before rejoining the road about 500m further on. At this point, we were pretty happy being in the Landcruiser rather than one of the rattly Ladas we saw coming the other way.

Once over the pass, we continued along the plateau for a while before heading down to about 3900m. Not too long after that, we saw the rustic outpost of Murgab, a place that the world had truly forgotten.

Dotted around the moonscape were the same rectangular buildings we’d seen earlier. And there was a strange bazaar consisting entirely of shipping containers (which were the actual stores) lining a couple of the streets. We found out later that these containers had been rescued from trucks that had become victims of the roads in the areas. Waste not, want not!

Our first two choices for homestay were booked up. It was obviously the high season. Lucky for us, the driver took us to one he knew and it was lovely. Sary-kol Lodge had lovely clean rooms, a warm welcoming common area, and a clean western loo out the back. Added to that, our lovely hostess spoke perfect English. Awesome.

We sat down to dinner and chatted with the cyclists already here. Two Spaniards (Catalans) on summer holiday, two Swiss guys almost at the end of their trip, and a French guy who had been cycling around the world for 18years!! Boy did he have some stories! (We were to meet Jacques again a few years later on Australia’s Great Ocean Road as we completed our trans-Australian cycling tour!)

We got up for breakfast at 8.30 and waited for our driver. Unfortunately, we had a slight problem and the hitchhiker from yesterday arrived instead. Our original guy’s mother had died overnight and he could no longer take us. Hmmm… But, not all was lost, the new guy could take us instead. As we ummed and aaaaghed about what to do he gave our deposit back and said he’d return in half an hour when he’d sorted a few things. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak much Tajik so we had lost that advantage.

By the time he’d got back we had decided to clarify a few of the questions about the route. Number one being could we get from Bulynkul to Zorkul and on to Langar in one day. He said we could so, but the next issue was how to could get the necessary permit. But he said he would help us. The end result was that we would try to continue on as planned with the new guy.

So we set off to sort the administrivia first. Change money…no problems. SIM cards….that was a problem. None of the networks were working. All we could understand was there was a problem in Khorog, the other side of the Pamir Highway. Of course, we thought it was technical so didn’t bother to buy a SIM until they could sort it out. Next, we stocked up on food as there would be none at Maidien, where we were headed for the day.

Finally, we set off on our day trip to explore the areas. As we headed west of Murgab we entered a green valley with a small stream running down its center. The contrast of the green valley floor with the tall, red-brown mountains was a sight to behold. The road wasn’t in too bad a condition as we headed up one side and passed through a small village. Just after here, we crossed a bridge and the stream was now a small swiftly flowing river. About an hour into the trip we started to climb and the road deteriorated rapidly. Around every corner was a new magnificent viewpoint. The 4WD was proving its worth as we ground our way up the rough track, a steep drop to one side and the possibility of a landslide on the other. Eventually, we could go no further, perched precariously on a narrow outcrop of rock 100m above an idyllic, green gorge with a turquoise stream gushing through its center. As we looked over the side we spied some rustic buildings, what looked to be two greenhouses, and two rickety bridges that had “Accident waiting to happen” written all over them.

We scrambled down the steep, narrow path, me slipping and sliding with only my sandals to give me grip. As we arrived at the bottom we were greeted by three kids, obviously inhabitants of the house, who had been fishing in the stream. One sported a small fish about 8 inches of which he was so proud.

We started towards the first bridge and realized that over about 10m there were only about 5 crossbars plus a rock. I am notoriously unbalanced when it comes to things like that and Tim has lost one too many cameras to a fall into the water so we declined the offer to cross. Undeterred the kids went and got another four blocks of wood to insert into the gaps and deftly crossed to and from the other side to demonstrate how easy it was. We weighed it up, sorely tempted but in the end, we decided not to risk it. As well as the camera we had our passports plus several thousand in cash around our waists.

Much to the disappointment of the kids and the driver we set up our picnic lunch on the bank and watched as our two traveling companions clambered over the other side sporting some extremely expensive camera equipment. Thankfully they made it in one piece and they went off to enjoy the hot springs. We spread out my shawl and lay in the sun soaking up the isolation and sheer beauty of the area. It wasn’t long before curiosity got the better of the kids and they came back to share our lunch. Amazingly the young girl spoke a little English and we chatted a while. Once more they tried to get us to cross and once more we declined. Disappointed they wandered off to play at whatever they were doing before our arrival.

It wasn’t long before the temperamental mountain weather showed a darker face. Rain clouds gathered and began to spit icy drops on us. We had thought to bring our rain jackets and put them on. Unsure as to how much wetter we would get, and not wanting to be sitting on the banks of a stream should it rain heavily, we started the climb back up. To the east we could see snow clouds on the mountains, Of course, by the time we reached the top, the sun reappeared. The weather oscillated between sunny and cloud for the next two hours as we waited for the others to return. It was quite something to watch how quickly things changed.

The driver finally returned and promptly did a 6 point turn to swing the car about. I gave him a big clap when he finished as he had deftly avoided the tires going over the side of the cliff several times by about 2 inches. We all piled in and spent the next three hours on a photo expedition of the valley. I thought Tim was a photo buff but our traveling companion was that times ten. Each shot required a tripod, a myriad of adjustments to the camera, and studied precision. Interesting the first one or two times, but painfully boring by the time we got back. I would never get annoyed at Tim taking 5 minutes out to take some snaps ever again.

We got dropped back at the homestay and the driver went off to investigate how we could get permits to Zorkul. When he returned the news was all bad. The problems we had been hearing about in Khorog weren’t in fact technical issues with the phone. Apparently, a civil war of sorts had broken out and all roads had been blocked. At first reports, there were 80 dead and 60 badly injured. The Army was fighting the local Pamiri people and somewhere in the mix were the Afghanis. To make matters worse there were no communications channels out so no one really knew what was going on. Apparently, the conflict had started the day before, which made us worried about how much had made the international news. There was no way we could get the word out that we were OK if our family and friends were worried. The area we were in was totally Kyrgyz and they had not been involved even at the heights of the civil war.

The next news installment we got was after our traveling companions had returned from the home of the hostel owners where they’d been able to watch the Kyrgyz news by satellite. Apparently, there were now 200 dead so this didn’t sound like any small altercation. The good news was that Kyrgyzstan had dropped the requirement for visas for foreign nationals which hopefully meant we had an escape route. Our previous visa was only single entry and there was no way we could get to Dushanbe for another one, as the only road through was via Khorog where all the trouble was. The main thing on our mind besides getting the word out we were fine was to get Tim to reliable internet access by the time the Big Sound conference booklet was due to be done in two week’s time.

We discussed many different options and decided there was nothing more to be achieved without more, hopefully, official information. Tomorrow was another day…

It was a fitful night’s sleep as the various scenarios ran through my head. I was trying not to be selfish. An outbreak of war, in this already poor country, would affect so many others more than us. For us, it was merely an inconvenience on our planned agenda. For the people involved it was life or death.

We set off just before 10 the next morning to seek as much information as we could. I think we found every other traveler in town doing exactly the same thing. Thankfully all the stories were lining up re visas etc. The additional information gained was that the whole incident had started off with the assassination of the Head of Security for the Tajik government. The Tajik Army was now fighting the people of Khorog and people from Afghanistan were also involved. We also heard that all foreigners had been evacuated from Khorog so at least there was some thought for our well-being. We also ascertained that our driver would not take us any further in that direction even if the roads were open. One of his mates had been shot at doing the same thing and now no one was prepared to venture that way.

In the end, some Swiss guys had managed to get one of the local ladies who spoke excellent English to have a meeting with one of the police officials that afternoon. Hopefully, by mid-afternoon, we would have the official word on things. There really was nothing else to do but wait.

Later that evening we were given the news that the Kyrgyz border was apparently open and we should go to the Police station the next day at 9 am to get a letter to say we should be let back in over the northern border. We made arrangements to meet a German guy (Helge) who was desperate to make his plane in Tashkent in less than a week and an American guy, (Eric) to sort the paperwork and then find a car to take us back over the border. Seemingly sorted, we had an early night in preparation for the next day.

Well, the best-laid plans…..On arrival at the Police station, they refused to give us any paperwork for the border. A translator informed us that even if they did, it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on. And anyway…everything was fine in Khorog so we could continue on our way. Excellent. Let’s go find a car. That was easy. We weren’t at the taxi area more than 2 seconds before a guy with a 7 seater 4WD offered us a ride to Khorog for about $50 each. Awesome. We drove back to our home-stay, offered the other two seats to the Kiwi guy and Iranian girl, and quickly packed our gear while Helge and Eric went back to get their stuff.

About an hour later we were all stacked in the car and on our way. “The Murgab Six” had escaped…Well for at least 15 minutes. The first checkpoint about 5 km out of town absolutely, point blank refused to let us through. Apparently, it was still dangerous in Khorog, and foreigners were not allowed in the area. Bugger….U-turn and back to the military post to try and get permission to get through. ‘Not today sunshine,’ was basically the answer. ‘Maybe tomorrow.’ Tail between our legs we all went back to the guesthouse. The driver promised to survey the situation the following morning before coming to tell us what was possible. There was nothing else to do but wander into town at lunchtime, grab some beers, drown our sorrows, and hope for better news tomorrow. We had plenty of time to wait it out but our German friend was getting very nervous about making his plane.

Private Transport from Murgab Tajikistan
The Murgab 6 escape

The next morning the driver turned up and told us that the Chief of Security would sign a piece of paper to ensure we were let through the checkpoints. We presumed that this meant all was clear. Hooray! The “Murgab Six” were finally getting away. We should have known by then that one should never assume anything in this part of the world!