My first visit to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan was in 1995. My friend Peter Burgess had taken a job in Khorog, a town on the Afghan border, teaching English as a foreign language. It was the start of a spectacular career for him, and an extraordinary series of holidays for me. In 1995 we were just feeling our way, but in 1997 when I went back for my second trip, we were ready for some serious trekking adventures. It was Autumn, and when I arrived in Osh (just across the border in Kyrgyzstan) to meet up with Pete, he already had our first trek planned. We would be dropped off at some remote point, and then walk up to a shepherd’s encampment at a place called Arkzo.
This was all long before GPS navigation, and I recall our driver was none too sure of the spot at which we were supposed to be deposited. There were no maps, so all we had to go on was a name that Pete had absorbed, and the hope that the driver understood where this place was. We drove for some time across the bare desert of the Murghab plateau (similar to Tibet), and were finally turfed out of the vehicle at a deserted aylaq (shepherd’s hut) somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
We slept in the deserted buildings, and the next day hiked to Arkzo. What a trek it was! Around a stunning couple of lakes, and up into a wide valley.
Arkzo itself was nothing more than an aylaq and a yurt, with an extended family in residence. What a hard life they lived, and it showed in their faces.
There was fresh snow the morning after we arrived, and I fell in love with the place. There is nothing quite like sleeping in a yurt, and this was my first time: the thick felt seems to deaden the sounds from outside, and the warm fug of the stove (burning dried dung) lulls you into sleep.
This is an excerpt from my diary at the time:
October 1997 Arkzo
It’s really gorgeous up here. I’m sitting by a stream, just the faintest of breezes wafting around. I’m about a mile up the western valley from the yurt and hut at Arkzo, on my way back down. Inevitably Pete has carried on, up towards the ring of jagged peaks at the head of the valley and he’s now disappeared in the morraine up there. The sun is coming and going and there’s a few snowflakes in the air.
My altitude sickness got worse after I left the stream and got back to the yurt. Once again I crashed out, dozing in the fuggy heat coming off the stove, disembodied voices drifting in and out of my consciousness. In the late afternoon I roused myself to go outside and it was stunning. At this time of year the dominant colour is brown, but there is an almost infinite variety of shades, merging, complementing and contrasting with lyrical subtlety. Looking down the valley the golden late afternoon light could not have been more appropriate. Burnt brown earth, yellowed grasses, ochre granite, all sweeping down to the mirror-like surface of the lake – itself an incongruous light powder blue. Yaks grazed in front of it and the stream tumbled between chocolate coloured rocks and reefs of ice. Gorgeous.
A year later we went back to Arkzo, arriving over the mountains rather than up the valley. It was just as magical, but there were more yurts, and it felt like a proper, thriving shepherd’s settlement. The year before we’d been there with the last holdouts, lucky to meet them before they retreated down the valley for the winter.