This is Murghab, the highest town in Tajikistan. Murghab lies on the Pamir Highway, which links Khorog with Osh in the Kyrgyz Fergana Valley. It is mid September and there are no regular buses to Osh; the only means of transport are share taxis. I spend two full days at the bazaar looking for a ride. Several drivers plan to leave but none has enough passengers to do the trip. The following morning, we are finally a group of six ready to leave: an elderly Uzbek lady, her two granddaughters, a Pamiri businesswoman, a Kyrgyz law student and I.
By early afternoon we reach Karakul, a stunningly blue and turquoise lake rimmed with white salt deposits and patches of green pasture. The wind has picked up and we seek shelter in one of the roadside restaurants. It is warm inside. A yak dung fire burns in the stove. We eat mutton and noodles in front of a wall-paper that shows fancy villas on tiny tropical islands, palm trees, deck chairs, lavish fruit and bottled wine.
After Karakol, the road climbs towards Kyzyl Art. It starts snowing. We encounter two exhausted cyclists on their way from the UK to New Zealand. They ask us to take a picture of them. They are wearing shorts and one has a wild, long beard. My travelling companions find them hilarious; the image of the bearded European cycling in shorts across the snowy Pamirs makes our party laugh tears again and again.
The upbeat mood changes abruptly at the Tajik-Kyrgyz border: customs, drug inspection, immigration – on both sides. It is now snowing heavily and the officers ask for a bad weather surcharge and a certain brand of vodka that our driver promises to deliver on his way back. In the car, my travelling companions share their stories about greedy officials and the hassle of crossing borders. What freedom there was during Soviet times!
Once we have passed both checkpoints (and repaired a flat tire on the way) it is getting dark and the road is covered in snow. Our driver is worried. We are approaching the final pass behind Sary Tash. The tires barely have enough grip. Silence in the car, night outside. Wayfaring along the Pamir Highway has made us companions in fate.