Crossing the pass / The trek

Approaching the high plateau

Last weekend three of us left Garm for a long-planned trek across the mountains to the south.  My colleague Janice had been mapping the route for months and talking about it for at least as long.  The days preceding our departure made us wonder if the timing was right – a cold rain had fallen for three days, with snow at the higher elevations where we planned to be.  The sky had cleared on the morning of our departure, although cold temperatures were still with us.  We spent our first morning making our way north and east to our jumping-off point in the district of Jirgatol.  Along the way we took breakfast at the house of Mirzobek, our fourth trekker, stopped at two farms to check out horses (Janice is a horse-whisperer or something like that), and picked up our two guides, Hamrobek and Yusuf.  Both guides work for the Tajik park service, one in Park Jirgatol and one in Park Tavildara.  The guiding business is very slow compared to the days when hundreds of hikers followed these routes and just as many attempted to scale Peak Communism.  Their only recent work was taking two Englishwomen across these mountains over eight days, fuel and gear carried on horses.

With our whole team assembled, we debated several routes with maps spread on the wooden “tapchan” of a house in village Minboloq.  Decision reached, we headed up the switchback road towards  the high “iloks” (pastures), arriving at a small shepherd’s camp after sunset.  Temps were below freezing, snow covered most of the ground, and we glimpsed the large masses of sleeping cows scattered around a handful of yurts as we approached.  My first night in a yurt!  Two thin wooden doors swung out at the entrance, and an iron “pechka” (stove) generated both heat and smoke just inside the door.  A metal chimney poured smoke into the air above the yurt from the burning cow dung mixture in the pechka, but enough stayed inside to create a constant smoky haze.  I was reminded of the mud huts I had often visited in African villages. Our first night on the plateau was a slumber party, with all six of us sleeping on a rough mat stuffed with hay in the center of the yurt – except for Janice, who wanted to “test” her sleeping bag on the cold mud floor (she survived).  Before turning in, I asked one of our guides where to find the latrine.  He made an all-encompassing gesture with his hands and said: “Hama Jo!” (Everywhere).  Thus trips to relieve oneself meant strolling out past the cows and over the crest of the hill.  Digging a hole in the frozen ground was out of the question.  At night the walk was cold but just enough moonlight reflected off the snow to avoid the ubiquitous piles of dung.

Packs on, Two Rivers – Day One

In the morning we stumbled out of the yurt into the clear, cold air.   The first walk to the edge of the camp held a special reward – a stunning

Sunrise from the yurt

view of the sun on the tops of the mountains to the east.  The bounty of all those cows filled our breakfast table:  steaming bowls of fresh milk and freshly whipped butter.  As we packed our gear, took a few photos and said thank you, the shy daughters of the household giggled and stole glimpses around the sides of the yurt.   One guide stuffed in the back of the Landcruiser, we drove past a crystal blue lake, beautiful but

The "ilok"

fishless.  Descending a small incline, we entered a high mountain valley that stretched away in all directions.  The scale of the landscape made us feel like visitors to a very foreign place.  At the very center of the valley a herd of about thirty mares grazed.  Apart from them, the valley appeared empty.  We passed another shepherd’s settlement, this one recently abandoned after the season’s first snow.  Simple mud brick structures and a few pieces of fence were surrounded by the still-black soil that had been turned by many animals.  As we descended towards the river that separated us from the next plateau, we passed along a stream whose water had crystallized into small forests of icicles.  It seemed as something from Lord of the Rings.  Down we went, reaching the river plain and encountering twoKyrgyz shepherds and their dogs.  We stopped and piled out to greet them, and discovered that one of our guides knew them.  Very quickly one of them had agreed to bring his horse to help us carry some of our packs up a steep incline on the opposite side of the river.  A few minutes later our party of seven people, two horses and two dogs set off bade farewell to our driver and set off through the dry terrain covered by brown grass.

We each had a range of mountain experiences.  Janice, who had schemed to make this trip happen since arriving since arriving in Garm three years ago, had completed several multi-day treks in the mountains and high pastures of Tajikistan.  Josephine, our finance guru, had recently spent ten days in the Pamir Mountains in the east of the country.  My last long backpacking trip had been in the Denali region of Alaska.  Our fourth companion, Mirzobek, lives in the hills of Rasht District and like any Tajik from this region knows the mountains.  Despite our experience, all of us were a bit wary about what awaited us.  We crossed our first river on a wooden bridge, then it was up and up, returning to the high plateau (elevation ~ 10,000 feet).  Lunch was next to a perfectly clear pond set into a steep hillside as we descended for our second river crossing.  This one was all about the horse – over and over, our one full-grown horse ferried people and packs across a rushing, milky-white glacial river.  The dogs were much less eager to cross, and waited to the last possible moment before plunging in and paddling furiously to reach the other side.  By the time we reached the plateau again, the sun was fast setting as Alijon and our horses turned around and headed back.  We learned there was only one suitable place to camp (with water and wood), and it was over an hour away…not a situation we wanted to be in, but our options were limited.  Yusuf and I set off at a fast pace to get camp set up before the

First bridge

rest of the party arrived.  Even so, darkness caught us as we reached a section of loose rocks that made the going difficult.  While we moved fast, I had to pause a few times to admire the snaking river glowing in the ¾ moon far below us.  Fortunately our tired party all reached safely and soon were huddled around a fire attempting to stay warm, though a persistent wind tried to suck away any warmth we could generate.

The Ascent – Day Two

Morning light revealed that we had camped among massive boulders near the head of a narrow gorge, just before it split and climbed towards higher ice and snow.  Descending steeply, we headed towards an ice bridge over the rushing river.  The ice bridge had formed where an avalanche had fallen and a path had been hollowed out beneath by the river.  It felt very solid in the middle but I would not have ventured to the edges.  As we crossed we noticed the paw marks of a large bear that had preceded us.  Once across we began our long ascent towards the pass that would take us into the Tavildara Valley.  After endless switchbacks over loose rocks, we reached a spring at the edge of the “saddle” and stopped for lunch.  The panorama around us of mountains and glaciers above the winding river valley was stunning.  We looked back and the large ice bridge was already a speck.  We spied what appeared to be the easiest and quickest way up, but were soon informed that we needed to move up and across the snow.  At this point, we thought the pass was not far above us, and did not realize just how much snow was ahead of us.

High valley

As we climbed above the snow line, the combination of altitude, steep slopes, and soft snow slowed our pace.  Higher up, winds began to funnel down from the pass, creating wave patterns in the pristine snow.  All around us, it sculpted the snow into graceful curves and overhangs.  Apart from the wind, all was silence.  Much of our afternoon was painfully slow –  step-by-step progress across the north face of the mountains towards a pass that remained elusive each time we reached a false summit.  The tracks of a wolf went straight up the final slope, but our guides insisted that we follow a switchback path to conserve energy.  In one direction of walking, all was shadow and the wind felt that much colder.

Snow Sculptures

In the other, the setting sun cast long, long shadows on the snowy slope each time we crossed into its rays.  Each one of us focused on taking the next step through snow that was close to a meter deep in places.  At last, we stepped into bright sunlight and the expanse of the Tavildara Valley spread out beneath us, framed by mountains on either side.  Despite the whipping wind, it was a spectacular view.  After a few photos, the low sun reminded us of the need to get down and find a campsite.  Descending the south-facing slope in the relative warmth of the sun was far easier than the climb, though we knew temperatures would be dropping as soon as the sun disappeared.  Our destination was a shepherd’s

Land of snow and rock

hut that might have wood nearby, but it proved too far to reach and we pitched our tents along an old road near a small spring.  Without any hope of a fire, we all dove into our tents to keep warm.  The scene was cold but beautiful – a full moon lit up the snowscape, and we drifted off to the steady roar of the river a hundred meters away.

Descent to Langar – Day Three

Our final day on the trail dawned bright and clear and quickly we were moving again.  The sun warmed the dirt trail, and the smell of mountain herbs filled the air.  Late in the morning we encountered the first resident of Tavildara, a shepherd who had been sent up to check on our progress.  He and his two donkeys were waiting by a spring as we wound down the center of the valley.  Having skipped dinner and breakfast, we were ready for a warm meal.  Using alcohol and a bit of firewood we soon had hot tea and noodles to go with the last of our cheese, sausage and tuna.  Renergized, we placed a few of the packs on the donkey and climbed down the long ridge that separates the villages of Nusoni and Langar.  To the west we could see the winding path of an irrigation canal that hugged the steep hillside like a narrow set of

Climb to the pass

railroad tracks.  Below us a few young boys shouted from a pasture where they watched over a herd of goats, individual houses began to appear, and the sound of roosters told us we were close to civilization.  Eventually we entered the orchards and farmland above Langar and rounding a bend the village spread out beneath us, homesteads set among large trees and farmland on a flat expanse perched above the Inghob River gorge.  At the base of a final steep trail we found our driver Abdurahmon and our friend Saimuddin waiting to give us a big welcome.  Together we walked along a narrow, rocky track along tall, sun-dappled poplar trees into the village and the Tajik hospitality that awaited us.

Looking down on Tavildara

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