Energetic members of the RSAA took a Wilderness Tour into the Fann Mountains of Northern Tajikistan.

27 June - 16 July 2012

We flew into Dushanbe at 4.30 a.m. on 28 June, there to be met by our guide Surat Toimastov, sole proprietor of ‘Pamir Adventure’, a passionate naturalist and photographer and an adherent to the Babi sect of Islam whose doctrine of universal pacifism and humanitarianism well suited his role. Surat’s trekking programme was based on a journey he had undertaken from Langar to Jilondy four years earlier, and only he, a savvy local, could have negotiated half-decent terms with our hard-nosed Kyrgyz horsemen escorts who supplied the baggage animals and hailed from villages far remote from Dushanbe.

Fann Mountains

Few expeditions start on time and this was no exception. Nonetheless, at 9 a.m. on 29 June a convoy of four vehicles (one more than originally planned due to excess baggage) rolled out of Dushanbe’s green-belted suburbs onto the A372 highway, whose surface alternated between tarmac, dirt, gravel and boulders. Pausing to survey the site of the con- troversial, Soviet-initiated Roghun Dam, which, if ever built, would provide Tajikistan with its own electricity at the expense of Uzbek irrigation and serious political repercussions, the road took a precarious line above the gorge of the Vakhsh/Surkhob river. This, the second biggest tributary of the Amu Darya (Oxus), raged far below in a frenzy of roiling waves and swirling eddies charged grey with glacial sediment.

The sun was already high when at 8.30 a.m. next day the Wilderness Tour, now swelled by Kyrgyz horsemen, donkey-boys and baggage animals, gathered itself to confront the steep path that led to the Sandal Plateau. Through a veil of sweat, the Highest Pamirs became faintly visible to the South and East, including the 7105-m Korzheneys- kaya, the area’s third highest peak, which was only climbed in 1953. Banks of shoulder-high plants and flowers lined the path and choked the valley while above there cruised effortlessly Lammergeiers, the spectacular Bearded Vulture which drops the bones of its prey from great heights to smash them on the ground to extract the marrow.

Henceforth, the daily programme followed a familiar pattern. It was light by 6 a.m., but breakfast, usually al fresco, was a leisurely affair and by the time everyone had completed their toilettes, dismantled tents and packed up, we seldom got away before 9.30 a.m. Fortunately, the weather was fine throughout and the daytime temperature ideal for trek- king. The first ‘radial walk’ was memorable for an impromptu lunch at a Kyrgyz encampment, or ailok, where herds of sheep and goats were cor- ralled in a mud-brick enclosure ready for milking and young heifers and children gambolled happily about. Our generous hosts, delighted to be photographed, then laid on a delicious spread of bread, yoghurt, butter and honey in an elaborately decorated yurt. I asked Surat if we had been expected. ‘Certainly not’, he replied, ‘Hospitality to strangers is their duty. A guest is the gift of God’.

The move to Lake Maida Kul camp on 2 July began with three hefty meals within the space of three hours. At a large encampment of semi-permanent, flat-roofed, mud-brick buildings, an elaborate lunch was laid out on the carpeted floor of a large yurt whose walls were deco- rated with colourful Kyrgyz woven hangings. About the camp, assorted cattle, heifers, horses, donkeys and children milled around, while scavenging Lammergeiers, Egyptian and Griffon vultures wheeled overhead.

Maida Kul was as fine a campsite as any, set beside a shallow lake at the mouth of a wild alpine valley blocked half-way up by the ice cliffs of a great glacier fed by the snows of the 5900-m Agazziz and the 5489-m Deschar peaks. Into the lake’s hitherto virgin waters, Alan took an early-morning plunge wearing garishly patterned bathing trunks to earn himself the Lawyer of the Lake award. It was also from this camp that many achieved personal altitude bests following a mass assault on an inconspicuous hill, ‘Point 3915 m’, which gave the summiteers tanta- lising glimpses of distant ranges and a bird’s eye view of the moraine- strewn Borolmas Glacier, which, according to Surat, is advancing rather than retreating.

Next day, it was the fast-flowing melt-stream of this same Borolmas Glacier that halted the trek in its tracks. With the horsemen far behind and no rope to hand, a foot-crossing would have courted disaster. Surat took himself off to a nearby Kyrgyz encampment and returned with a pensive-looking horseman who spent the next half- hour ferrying the entire party across on horseback and then refused any payment for his trouble. Our straggling caravan now contoured around a line of spurs coming off the main range, paused for an extended lunch and then breasted a low rise to see, stretching away into the distance, a vast steppe-land bounded on either side by rounded hills, backed by snow mountains.

Trudging on mechanically across this featureless grassland, I sustained myself with hummed snatches from the Polovtsian Dances and In the Steppes of Central Asia. At another rushing stream Surat, Bill, Adrian and a couple of Kyrgyz up to their knees in icy water helped others across. Short of the scheduled camp site, we ground to a halt and revived morale with film-canister nips of whiskey. With Anita’s reminder that this, the Fourth of July, was American Independence Day, Adrian lit a brush-wood bonfire, Anita made a charming speech, dis- pensed one-dollar bills all-round, and then burst into a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The British response of half-remembered ballads, truncated sea shanties and Jerusalem soon tailed away. One More River would better have reflected the day’s incidents.

Extracts taken from the Official Tour Report by John Harding.

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