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Pamir Highway

There is just no other road in the world
that really does the word Highway justice.

Across the Himalayas' region of Badakhschan runs a highway on one of the highest international roads on earth. This past Summer I rode my bike along the Himalayas region of Pamir, Hindu Kush and Tian Shan right on the border between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China.

A story by Fabian Nawrath
A Story By Fabian Nawrath

The highest road in the world

It's a pretty even and straight road with no real obstacle. The road cuts through Betpak-Dala, a steppe between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, like an enigmatic straight line. The landscape remains the same. Every single kilometer is tinted by brown patches of grass that stretch passed the horizon to the Western Ural, where Europe starts, four time zones away.

A few days later the landscape changed drastically and a grey wall of rock and stones emerged in the smoky horizon. As far as the naked eye could see from East to West stood the massive Himalayas right there, in front of me. The mountain peak protruded from the steppe, eight thousand meters high, above the muggy dusty air into the clear, cold, deep black atmosphere.

And then, at about two hundred meters above sea level, the slope up to the highest highway on earth began subtly; five thousand meter high to the that mountain pass with nothing but my bike and twenty-kilos of backpack. Suddenly it was like the sun dropped from the sky. Pitch-black darkness swallowed me whole. But as the air got thinner and thinner the higher I climbed, the clearer and stronger the light became from the shining stars above me.

Three days after I rode my bike uphill, I finally stood on the first mountain pass. By this time I only had two snicker bars left in my bike bag and half-a-liter of water. I knew that I had to get to a town, any town, by that afternoon. The Russian military map that I was carrying indicated a river an hour away. There I would refill my water bottle. After fighting my way to the top for nearly two hours I was already on the other side of the mountain heading down. I now found myself in the middle of the mountain world of Tajikistan. It seemed like there was no flat land anywhere. After a century worth of construction work towns, streets and fields vertically fill the hillside from top to bottom.

Unlike the flat steppe, there is no sign of a long straight road anymore. The route matches its surrounding. It meanders at the butte and around the mountainside and follows the winding streams. I keep riding deeper and deeper South until I few days later the only thing separating me from Afghanistan was the cordillera.

As a reminder, that this wasn't Disneyland, a crashed tank stood next to a bridge.

Checkpoint

I always make sure to carry ten copies of my passport in case I have to hand it over to corrupt officials because it'll cost me more to try to get that one copy back from them than the ten cents I paid to make it.

The Hindu Kush Mountain tipped with snow stood in all of its austere beauty under the setting sun as I rode to the border river. I have passed many borders and noticed that nothing really changes once you're on the other side. It wasn't any different reaching the border of Afghanistan. The German armed forces was stationed in Kondon; a guesstimate of about 80 kilometers south of where I was. The actual country border is a natural one: the Hindu Kush with its 7000 meter-high summit separates the bewildering danger zone from the almost idyllic mountain villages on the north mountainside. And yet this peacefulness is only an illusion.

A large part of the Opium export from Afghanistan passes through the Tajikistan border. Old Ladas are loaded up with raw opium and then jolt to Moscow, where it will then be distributed to the rest of Europe. One particular route, once part of the famous historical trade network known as the Silk Road, now runs along the present day border. This route is known as the Opium highway. Somehow everyone seemed to be involved in the smuggling business, one way or another. The soldier standing at the police roadblock wants my passport for control. I hand it over. It'll cost me money to get it back. Luckily for me it's a copy. Little does he know that my original passport is buried deep down in my backpack. I always make sure to carry ten copies of my passport in case I have to hand it over to corrupt officials like this one, because it'll cost me more to try to get that one copy back from them than the ten cents I paid to make it.

On the side of the road, a man about my age asks while drinking his nice Chai: What's so bad about drugs anyway? They bring us wealth. We can now build new houses and buy new cars...

The next day politics takes over this otherwise secluded world. What really happened and why is still to this day very difficult to depict. I left the east Tajikistan city of Chorog and just a few hours later a massive conflict erupted. Armed government forces charg against various social groups and clans. Nobody knows if it is about the Opium smuggling or what is it really about. Gradually rumors crystallize themselves and becomes stories. Apparently the government left Dushanbe and invaded this autonomous region because a loyal General got stabbed there. The Army blocked all the connecting roads and turned off all modes of communication including Internet and cell phones. There are no landlines. I was only a few hours and a few kilometers away from the combat site and was desperate to reach the Afghan border and get out.

Let's get the hell out of here

The friendly hand-extending gesture was quickly diminished
by the sight of the gun barrel.

The only way out led to the high plateau of Pamir. Roadblocks obstructed the roads. Traffic couldn't move. The usual Ladas and Toyotas, the Chinese trucks and buses weren't driving. As I carefully walked my bike to one of these Checkpoints, a head looked up from behind the light wheel tank secured with sandbags. The soldier signals for me to go up to him. A taxi driver, who just wanted to help with translation, was harshly commanded to stay back. Before I could reach the barricade, the soldier extends his hand to me. At that exact moment I spot four other men, who during an attack with Kalashnikovs would back him up.

The friendly hand-extending gesture was quickly diminished by the sight of the gun barrel. The soldier tried to win over my trust with a bit of small talk. He then escorts me to another person, who didn't even introduce himself. I deducted he was a KGB agent.

He spoke much better English than I spoke Russian. As he spoke I could see my fear reflected in his fake designer sunglasses. The cigarette butt dangling from the corner of his mouth and the huge walkie-talkie tucked in his worn-out Kevla vest made him look like a villain out of a James Bond movie. The earlier movies, that is, when the East was still the enemy. The general political climate has since then shifted and one cannot pinpoint "Good" and "Bad" just based on appearances anymore. Just a few short questions later, he had noted my passport number down and I finally found myself behind the battle lines. No cars were allowed to go through, so that I was able to ride my bike to the border. In the horizon I could see a whirlwind of dust catching speed. A fascinating sight. I stand still. Suddenly the tornado gets closer and closer and I: R-U-N!

We engage in a strange kind of dance. The tornado was definitely leading. I tried to predict its path and avoid crossing it at all costs. "Does a baby tornado actually have the funnel power to throw me up in the air?". My thought was propelled by the collision that laid directly ahead. The one unexpected whirl of wind knocked me over. My jaw slammed on the warm cracked asphalt. A moment later the tornado had changed directions. Debris, sand, earth and grass whirled around me. The wind tugged at my shirt but didn't have the strength to pull me in. And without warning, the horror was over. I'm flat on the floor as warm tears fill my eyes. I gaze at the now rather fuzzy long road ahead of me. Still even and straight. The Himalayas stood behind me.

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