High Altitude Hikes, Wolves and Exploring the Borderlands

OK, so it didn’t all go to plan.

Studio D recently completed an expedition to Tajikistan and the Borderlands with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. It didn’t go quite to plan.

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) of Tajikistan literally sits at the roof of the world, with scattered high-altitude communities that exist at the very edge-of and beyond the grid. It is a seductive environment for anyone that is interested in learning about resilience, Central Asian cultures, geo-politics and their own limits.

Drone footage of the Tajikistan/Afghanistan Borderlands

The goal of the expedition was to prepare the team for a three-day high altitude hike, one that would take us from a remote hunting lodge over a 5,000m pass down to Zorkul Lake, a nature reserve on the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border (photo above). Our two week expedition started out with two 4WDs carrying our group of seven, including our local fixer. Snow line permitting, we also had the support of yaks to carry equipment on the trek.

What marks the difference between an expedition and being on a tour?

On a tour, you can just be along for the ride.

In comparison an expedition provides sense of purpose: in this instance, to reach Zorkul Lake; detailed preparation; a nuanced understanding of what can go wrong; and a mindset for problem-solving. We were constantly assessing the context and environmental conditions and adapting plans as required. Everyone had a role to play and none of us could achieve our goal without everyone pulling their weight.

Life at altitude is a sparse existence, warmed by khorog-burning stoves, strong tea and rich local traditions. There is no mains electricity or running water and limited service infrastructure. Roads are poor quality when they exist at all and some of the days were entirely off-road. We spent much of the time at altitude of between 3,000 and 4,500m (<15,000') with the consequent impact on wellbeing and performance. At that altitude the weather can be severe — with temperatures alternating between plus 29 and minus 15 celsius.

Khorog.

Layman conversations about Afghanistan, even if only about the border regions within Tajikistan, center on war and terrorist risk. While the area is remote, there are regular army patrols on parts of the border and, with the sun beating down and the cherry blossom in full bloom it feels closer to northern mediterranean than a northern theatre of war. From our vantage point on the Tajikistan side of the border the nearest known Taliban whereabouts was an estimated 50km inside Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, the flat-land equivalent of 300km when you take in to account the mountainous terrain — it’s essentially a non-risk. There’s even a sandy beach on the river between the two countries a good spot for a BBQ the next time around.

Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan foreground, Afghanistan background.

From the experience of running projects in the region there are always bigger trajectories at play than are apparent in the moment that can upend even the best-made plans. With our Studio D crew in place undercurrents are easier to ascertain and mitigate, but part of the experience is in coping with the unexpected. Gauging and mitigating risks are skills that transfer well to all walks of life, and put our day-to-day big-city existence into stark perspective.

For Tajikistan our two vehicles were a Russian made UAZ Patriot and a Toyota Landcruiser. Within Kyrgyzstan we also had the use of a two year old UAZ Hunter, a car whose quirks — such as having two separate fuel tanks filled up from both sides of the car, and a fuel gauge that doesn’t actually gauge fuel — were lovingly ascribed to “Russian engineering”.

The reliability of the UAZ Hunter had created a cascade of problems. The power loss from fuel filter that needed changing resulted in stopping at a village mechanic who damaged the seal when putting it back together. The fuel pump sits under the passenger seat, the net result being that fuel literally gushed into the car as it picked up speed.

A couple of hours set aside for further repairs is not normally a major issue, but driving on bad quality roads with no street lighting, in a car with dim and dimmer front-beam settings lead to fatigue which in turn made it more difficult to make smart choices. In the GBAO reliability trumps instagrammable moments and the Hunter was switched out for the Landcruiser.

Lenin, Murghab.

The region has an endless supply of magical moments, some of which were shared by the group, others of which were intensely personal. A few of my own:

  • Watching a group bond into a team through shared experiences and overcoming hardships. These create a rich perspective on everyday life, a deep shared understanding which are the basis for healthy relationships.
  • Rising at dawn, brewing up a batch of Monmouth coffee, and watching the cloud cover dissipate from the mountains.
  • Our home stay in Murghab (3,600m) built a banya (sauna/bathhouse) that eased us into the high altitude air. There were numerous bathing surprises along the way: from soaking in a natural hot spring in the Wakhan Corridor with a view of the Afghanistan mountains, to tracking down a sulphur pool literally in the middle of nowhere, complete with algae and hot-sand that was ideal for a scalp massage.
  • When water is drawn from the well, something as simple as washing hands becomes a sociable, two-person affair with one person soaping and the other pouring water from the jug.
  • Our accommodation consisted mostly of cozy local home stays, with some camping. High altitude weather can change rapidly, and a couple of nights were spent hunkering down next to a stove, sipping on warm mastava, as a snowstorm rolls in. Even if you are an excellent chess player, we don’t recommend betting against the locals.
  • The 100+km off road drive to Shaymak, a small village that nestles close to where China meets Afghanistan (and only a few km more to Pakistan) and with the light fading and a snowstorm rolling in having to pull one of our 4WDs out of the ice, after failing to ford a semi-frozen river. While we were rightly proud of the team effort of freeing ourselves, the after-action assessment provided the truer learning experience.
  • Waking up from camping on Yashikul Lake, we saw the footprints of two wolves that had come to investigate the strangers in their midst. A local had been attacked by a wolf in the same spot months earlier, survived the attack, but died of rabies. Stepping out of the tent to take a pee in the middle of the night had a certain edge to it.

As with all good journeys, the most interesting experiences will never make it onto any list.

High altitude trekking.

There’s something humbling about writing an expedition diary (that is shared with the team for comment and perspective), detailing what we covered in the day, the challenges we faced, where we fell short, the lessons learned and how I and we can improve. On a personal level it’s refreshing to be faced with a steep learning curve even if that means exposing others to that learning. There’s no way I would have got through this without the support, smarts, patience and sacrifice of the team, something for which I remain grateful.

There are few times in modern life when you are truly disconnected. While there were slithers of internet access along the way, our group stepped away from social media for the entire expedition. We reveled in each others company and let the Pamirs seep into our clothes, bodies and consciousness.

For all of the trials along the way, the most difficult part of the expedition is on the final day, with long goodbyes and the need to recalibrate into mainstream “civilization”. The dust of the journey can be washed away, while the emotions associated with the experience shape who we are and what we want to become.

Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan foreground, Afghanistan background.

Planning has already started on the 2019 Pamirs Expedition. We welcome people that are innately curious and are comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Many of our attendees joined because they are also in transition—a good expedition enables conversations and perspectives to figure a better way forward.

The 2019 Pamirs Expedition won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you think you have what it takes, sign-up here.


Photos, Jan Chipchase, drone footage thanks to Gyula Simonyi. See also, 61 Glimpses of the Future. Studio D is committing resources into the region — from building out our local network, sourcing a quantity of Pamir river stone from the local community for use on the D3 zip pulls, and the region is also the focus of our Studio D Grant.