We woke up to the sound of kids washing our ambulance, thanks boys, and headed into the border. 8 Stops or so later and we were through into our next country. One of the soldiers asked the usual question “Do you have any guns?” and make guns with his fingers he made pew pew noises with his mouth.
“No, of course not!” I said. “You should…” and turned away without any explanation. 47 degrees again and hot, hot, hot. A quick stop for lunch and we headed into Dushanbe and onto the Kyrgyzstan embassy. My visa was wrong and we wouldn’t be able to travel along all of the Pamir without it.
The police pulled us over in Dushanbe as we turned left illegally. It’s so funny because I knew what I did wrong. None of us really knew what the other was saying and they all got together to work out what to do with me. They had my license and marvelled at the NSW colours and had a bit of a chat. The ‘protocol’ as they kept saying is to keep my license and fine me. But just act dumb…not too hard! And they finally realized that they didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with me and ended up letting me go! Hand-shakes and smiles all round and away we went to the embassy. Unfortunately the consul wasn’t there and I had to wait for a couple of hours for her. After a quick conversation and an apology for my appearance (dirty, sweaty and disgusting) oh, and of course some cash – ($50 for 3 day wait or $100 for now – bitch) $100 and we were on our way. Oh and the Police got me again, seriously to just sate his curiosity. He came up to the window and in broken English said “no problem”… I ventured “you’re just busting my balls aren’t you?” he smiled and nodded, no idea what I said. A can of red Fanta for him and we were once again on our way.
Now this road is amazing. It’s supposed to be a highway but really is a dirt track with trucks on it. Through amazing mountain views, winding, twisting, turning back and forth through dirt and tarmac. A constant awareness of the road and anything that will end our rally. Rocks and potholes and roads barely wide enough for the trucks and cars that careened past us. The mountains and valleys separated by a rushing, crashing, roaring grey river, carving its way through the mountains and valleys. We picked up some hitchhikers and took them through to Boruhk. They bought us some lunch and thanked us. When you’re out here a little kindness goes a long way and we just thought that maybe we might be in the same situation one day. Through layered mountains, past crystal blue streams we drove on and on. At one turn noticing a rally ending oil slick in the dust, some poor traveler had hit a rock and flushed its oil onto the road. A few turns later and another rallier – Halleys Comix were on the side of the road at a mechanics and we stopped to find out if there was anything we could do. Swapped some stories, got our spare tire fixed and off again. At one check point a large happy policeman wanted to drive our car and jumped in to have a go. We also met a Mongolian riding around the world on his motorbike. Which of course the policeman also had a go on. And finally to Boruhk where we dropped our passengers and slept in the town.
The next morning we went down by the river for a bit of fun. Apparently the river is the border for Afghanistan and due to the changing course of the river, at one point we were technically inside the border of Afghanistan! How cool is that. We waved back at some of the Afghan people, had a laugh and drove onto the start of the Pamir Highway. A last check point and we asked for directions, the police pointed us one way and being police we believed them. Who doesn’t trust the police? We shouldn’t have!
The road we were sent down is 100km long, a goat track, a 4wd only goat track. The Ambo isn’t 4wd. I checked. It started out well enough, just some dirt, beautiful plains and mountains surrounding us, some small towns and curious locals waving and a great lunch in the middle of nowhere. Then came our first river crossing – not to difficult but the heavy ambulance got stuck, and the hard work had strained our clutch a little too far. We weren’t going anywhere. Then our savior appeared in a Land Rover discovery! With little help at all they got us out of the river, we thanked them and with a warning of more to come in our ears we headed on down the road…track…path? A few false starts and over a few hills we came across our biggest hurdle yet – a dry, stoney river bed. Large melon sized rocks everywhere, about 100 meters of hell for a 4wd. Did I mention the Ambo wasn’t 4wd? I checked.
So we built a road: we gathered hundreds of smaller stones and filled in the gaps between the larger stones until we had a semblance of a bridge through the creek. It was awesome. The ambo got through with some bumps and scrapes, but she got through! Big cheers and high fives. And on we went. We were almost there! You could see the highway! Cruising through the hills we could see the distant Pamir highway, a long way down in the valley but accessible. With our clutch overheating and the car seriously being a little worn out we headed for the road. Only to be stopped by massive washouts in the track, a little detour and a dodgy bridge and we made it to solid ground. I jumped out and let out a huge cheer, Josh and I laughing and high fiving! Much to the amusement of some locals also crossing the bridge. 4wd only, my ass. This is the first time in the trip I honestly thought we wouldn’t make it. Some photos and pantomimed explanation later we hit the road and headed for the Hot Pools at Jindalie. The amazingly nice lady at the hot springs organized some food for us and exhausted we crashed in the ambo outside of the hotel.
The next morning was a nice breakfast and a wash, again losing most of my tan in the process but clean again. The hot pools are supposed to be healthy and give energy, but a bunch of naked men peeing in a pool is not either of those from where I come from and a hot shower was enough. We actually felt good. The Ambulance had sustained a little damage through our ordeal on the previous day, but nothing too serious, except the rear bumper had been pushed up by some of the hits we took and we weren’t able to open the doors at the back.
And headed high into the foothills of the Himalayas (sort of). The Ambo climbing through 4200 meters and then onto 4600 at one pass. The strain from the previous day and the thin atmosphere causing a few power problems on the way, but she kept on going. The road here was actually great though we found a few rough patches on the way up to the highest desert in the world. A massive steppe above 4200 meters, and higher in places, surrounded by mountains of all shapes and colour, like the broken, jagged crown on the top of the world. Past some of the most beautiful, still mountain lakes I have ever seen, with the unfortunate names of Salty and Stinky these ocean sized mirrors capturing the views in crystal clear, perfect reflections. We caught up with those Swiss guys who helped us in Turkey and cooked up a big lunch with them and their US hitchhiker (Travelling the world), by a lake created by a meteor strike. We left the guys a little later to make camp before dark and headed on past some Mexican ralliers, broken down in the middle of the road, but ok, and onto the border.
The Pamir had been a brilliant, exhilarating, exhausting but amazing experience. The thin atmosphere and demanding roads were just incredible. The customs guy at the border was either very helpful or scamming us. Apparently we were missing a receipt and $20 got us through the border without it, only to be stopped again by soldiers who invited us in. Some food and vodka later we realised that this wasn’t any sort of part of the border crossing but just some fun by curious guards and a Colonel, we thanked them and headed through the border. From here there is about 20 km of no-man’s land to the Kyrgyzstan, but the road was an extraordinary pass during the day and just simply crazy to drive down at night. We were both tired and passed by some rocks on the road before Josh slammed on the brakes! The road was washed away in front of us. The roaring river had eaten away our road. We looked at each other, at the black night, at the road that wasn’t there, shrugged and went to bed. Deal with it in the morning.
The raging river turned out to be wide creek as we stretched and woke up, eyes wide at the snow covered mountains that surround us. See what you miss when you drive at night! A massive flat plain, with a crawling, wide, split river spilling through it surrounded by snowcapped mountains in all directions made golden by the new morning. A quick look and the stones on the road appeared to be a warning and detour to a low dirt track through the river and onto the other side. The ride was a little rough but we headed on. But a grumbling growling noise from beneath the car slowed and stopped us from travelling further. We had power, we had gears, no overheating, but this huge noise coming from underneath. I crawled under to have a look and noticed that the last crossing had taken its toll and they large steel bar that stretched under the car, holding the gearbox up and protecting it had been bent severely and moved back until it vibrated against the muffler. The Mexicans had told us that Osh had some great mechanics and we noisily drove to the border where sleepy guards let us through without any fuss at all.
Osh is a large sprawling town which is famous for its amazing markets. But we needed help and stopped at the first garage we came to where a very friendly local, Almaz, translated my hand signals and took us to a mechanics for a little damage repair. 4 children were working on various car engines and parts, the oldest about 16 and the youngest maybe 10. These guys were the mechanics! After a quick trip over the pit we agreed on the damage and the boys pulled it all apart and fixed the problem. I took a 15 pound sledge to the rear bumper and we had opening doors again. The kids spent about an hour on the damaged beam and the accelerator cable and charged us $4. Unbelievable and after some petrol and a big thanks to Almaz (I am Muslim and you’re happiness is thanks enough) we were off into those famous markets for some food and a wander. We travelled some more along the roads before pulling up for some dinner. About a dozen people turned up and welcomed us, with Mohamed inviting us to his house for some supper. He and his family looked after us, feeding us watermelon, tea and bread with the best jam ever. Ever! No English but a warmth which crosses any borders we talked and laughed. Mostly by sign language. They offered but we couldn’t stay and we drove another hour into the night. We were once again stopped by police at a checkpoint “Hello!” “Par Russki?” “Nyet Russki…” “Goodbye”…
At some time in the night was woken by a man crying so hard it was breaking my heart, being consoled by friends by this out of the way place in the middle of nowhere. I went to see if I could help, but before I could get to him some others turned up and they all left us in the dark.
Now the next bit is pretty difficult and I won’t go into too much detail. We travelled through some amazing countryside here, beautiful turquoise lakes, dammed between mountains, with some amazing roads to suit. We did come across a crashed truck a few minutes after it happened, Josh helped him out and away we went after realising he was fine and had called someone. About 12:30 I noticed about 50 people milling by the road and slowed to see what was happening, only to be called over and pulled up. A man had lost control of his car and had been thrown from the wreck. They thought we were a real ambulance. I tried to explain but couldn’t get to them. Calling for Josh I ran down to help. They were just staring at this bleeding, screaming man in the dirt. We did what we could, using all our blankets and towels as bandages. There was. So. Much. Blood. He had a massive head wound, severe lacerations to his arms and upper body, a possible fractured arm and internal injuries, spitting blood and crying at us. I kept repeating to myself that I didn’t know what I was doing, and did what I could while Josh got all I asked of him. At least we did something. They carried him to the ambulance and explained a town was 10km down the road. His girlfriend turned up and pleaded for us to help him. I am not a paramedic. Josh drove well and the longest hour of my life was almost over. I don’t really remember much but trying to keep pressure on his head wound and his girlfriend’s eyes pleading for me to help him and save him, his passenger (who had his seatbelt on, was in and out of consciousness, another girl praying. I kept him awake. We finally found a checkpoint and an armed guard and I screamed for him to help before he took us to a doctor. The man was then taken away by a real ambulance. I didn’t know whether to cry or throw up. It took me 3 hours to clean the ambulance of blood, and myself. We threw almost everything away. I shook Josh’s hand and thanked him. I will probably never know if the man survived.
We once again found the soldier who helped and he offered us tea and bread, he could see we were both in shock and kept us there for an hour or so before exchanging numbers and saying goodbye. We drove in silence for a while before helping an American team with some petrol. They heard our story and saw our faces. We travelled with them to Bishkek, down a 30 mile decent on the other side of a long tunnel. We met some other teams and hunted down a place to sleep, I wanted a beer but was too tired and crashed. I didn’t dream that night.