Sunday, September 19, 2010

The High Pamir

The High Pamir

Tuesday morning was back to sunny with clouds, and once again felt rather Alaska-y (Alasky?). Friends and family gathered to see off Zarina and Eric. I felt privileged to have had happenstance allow me to have taken part in the festivities. But now it was time to leave this sweet world behind.

The new driver was a little bit of a jerk, but Eric and I got him down to 60 cents a kilometer. Gilu had missed the morning weekly bus to Khorog, so Eric was bringing him along to Murgab, and then taking him back with him from Murgab to Khorog. Then the driver had a couple of friends get in the back. For free. That's how they did it around here.

We continued up the Wakhan Corridor. Same flat bottomed valley with steep Afghan mountains on the other side. At one point we saw a gleaming new white building over there. American base. While the Afghans are even poorer than the Tajiks over on this side. At Langar we were at the head of the valley.

Well, not really. What happened was that the border turned left. The Wakhan kept going up into the misty distance, only now completely in Afghanistan. We would now begin our ascent to the high Pamir.

There weren't any switchbacks or death defying cliffs. The gravel road just kept going up and up through a dusty, rocky landscape. Kind of like in a Western movie, only of course bigger. We stopped for a little lunch at a little stream and Eric ran around, trying to get his red blood count higher. When we reached the summit, at around 14,400, it topped by a little my previous best, which was the Mt Evans road in Colorado. But there really wasn't a summit. It was more like the road stopped going up and started going down. Eric was talking to someone and never even noticed.

Not too much time later we reached the main Pamir Highway that went directly from Khorog to Murgab. It was paved. Sort of. A Chinese semi whizzed by. Then it was quiet. And empty. Too empty.

The LP had said that the mountains up here were rounded, so I was expecting humps and lumps. But they were more like the reddish mountains in southern Arizona. Or the blackish mountains in the Mohave. Big enough but, like all the other mountains so far, not majestic or awesome like the Alps or the Canadian Rockies.

It also felt like northern Alaska or northern Yukon. Real top of the world and end of the world stuff. But much, much drier. In fact, everywhere I had been so far had been pretty much bone dry. The ski resort at Chimbulak had been the only place with naturally occurring trees. Here at around 13,000 feet it was bone, bone dry. And no highway in America had ever been this lonely.

But maybe I've been to too many ends of the world by now. Because so far I wasn't as blown away as I thought I would be. On the other hand, I figured that with this kind of sky the pictures I was taking would blow me away when I saw them. (They did.)

We made pretty good time on the ribbon of (barely) asphalt, and as the sun was sinking in the west the white buildings of Murgab came into view. Our first police check of the day and then we were in the town.

What town? Take the driest, emptiest part of central Nevada and then make it drier and emptier. Take the poorest Mexican town at the end of the poorest Mexican road and then make it poorer. That would approximate Murgab. Not having made reservations, we were expecting to see 'guesthouse' or 'homestay' signs, like in every poor village in the Wakhan. Nada.

We were directed to one place. Awful filth and the lady wanted $20 a person. Absurd. Then the driver had a friend who had equally squalid conditions. Then we stopped at the Murgab Hotel. The price was right, at $2 per, but the facilities consisted of solid wood mattresses surrounded by dirt.

We finally got it in the driver's head to ask for Ibrahim's Guest House (as recommended by the LP), and right down the hill from the Murgab there it was. It did have a foot powered shower and an actual toilet seat perched over the pit, but the 'nice location' was a greasy courtyard where Ibrahim was taking apart engines.

Since there seemed to be no electricity in town, the advertised generator would have come in handy, but right now Ibrahim also had that apart and was working on it. Still, this was by far the best place in town, at $15 a night including meals, so we took it.

By now it was cold. Damn cold. I went to my new room and quickly put on my thermal underwear, a long sleeve t-shirt, a regular one, a long sleeved shirt, and my light windbreaker jacket. On my feet went cotton socks covered by my one pair of woolen socks. That was my entire arsenal. No more had been allotted. As it was, I could hardly close my pack.

I was still freezing. So I huddled under their thick blankets until the dinner of my potatoes and their spaghetti was ready. Then, without much to do with no electricity, we all went to sleep.

I was awakened about an hour later. First, the electricity had somehow gone on, my light bulb was lit, and no mattered how hard I looked there seemed to be no switch. Finally I had the bright idea of unscrewing the barely functioning and thus barely warm bulb.

But the larger problem was the Gilu was yakking away through the paper thin walls in the next room. Why didn't Eric shut him up? Did he have some kind of sleep disorder? Was this sort of behavior acceptable in Pamiri culture? I put my ear plugs in and kind of drifted off.

Forty minutes later I was re-awoken. Gilu was still talking loudly. I got up, opened the door, and said, 'Could you please stop that?' Acutely embarrassed, he immediately did. It turned out that he had been talking on his cell phone to his girlfriend and Eric had been too exhausted to say anything.

The next morning the sky was achingly clear blue and I had bread and jam and chai for breakfast. Eric hadn't just been physically exhausted; he had been having trouble breathing. Personally, one of my biggest fears for this trip had been the possibility of altitude sickness. In my younger years I had gotten it pretty bad both in Bolivia and Tibet, and if it weren't for an oxygen tube I might have died in Lhasa. But I live now at 7700 feet, and I had been taking Diamox as a precaution. Here at 11,700 it was so far, so good, although little twinges in my neck had me reaching for the Diamox.

Eric was into the outdoors. And he had been acclimatizing in Khorog. But altitude sickness can strike anyone, anytime, no matter their level of fitness. When he let me call Maureen on the iPhone I joked to her in his presence that I was fine but that he might die.

Eric had talked to his parents in Montreal, and they finally had the not married form. Now he thought that if he could have it emailed here and printed out he could somehow get his marriage registered today. So while he hassled with that I went off on a walk around town.

There wasn't much. The place did indeed have atmosphere, as in hardly any air and therefore crazy sharp light. And a few 'blocks' away was about the most bizarre bazaar I have ever seen. Facing each other down an impromptu 'avenue' were old truck shipping containers of various sizes. And at each a little door and window had been cut out, and in each was a tiny little store selling tiny little amounts of things. This was downtown Murgab.

I ducked into a bunch of the places, got to the end of the row, and turned back toward Ibrahim's. When I got there I was surprisingly totally exhausted, and I had to take an hour long nap. When I awoke I wondered where everyone else was. I went outside and sat on a rock for a while. Then I went back to my room and got out my notebook to finally try to write something important in it.

At that moment Gilu burst in and said, 'Quick. You must come to the hospital. Eric might die.'

I rushed around trying to find any conceivable item that might be of help. Then we had to wait for the jerk driver to show up. It seems that Eric had been walking with Zarina and Gilu when all of a sudden he blacked out and collapsed. They had gotten him to the hospital, where the doctor, an uncle of Gilu's, had given him a couple of injections. He was there now, lying wasted in a bed.

When I got there I at least gave him the emotional support of a fellow Westerner who could yell and scream if he wasn't being taken care of properly. But the people there had it under control. And it had already arranged for the driver to take him post haste back to the lower elevation of Khorog. As I cheerily told him as he lay there in desperation, 'When I was planning this trip, I realized that it usually takes at least 12 hours to die of altitude sickness. But it's only 8 hours back to Khorog.'

Somewhat relieved, he still wanted to get that Quebec form printed out. So he sent me off with the driver to try and find some internet. But the Yak House had closed down, and that had been the only internet in town. Nor did they ever have a printer. I went back and pointed out to Eric that tomorrow morning he could do all that in Khorog, then in the afternoon go down to Ishkashim and register there if need be. Resigned to that fate, he was now ready to go.

He could barely stand, and had to be helped down the stairs to the mini SUV. We went back to Ibrahim's, where Zarina and Gilu got all the gear together and he used his Russian to help me finalize my deal for getting driven to Sary Tash tomorrow. Then they were gone. Out of town, down the road, and hopefully soon down to where Eric could successfully breathe.


At 2:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm reading while in Dubai and am exhausted reading the three most recent posts: the travel to Eric, the wedding and the near-death hike.
Forget publishing and go straight to the screenplay - Andy


Post a Comment

<< Home