Heart of the Grasslands, Soul of the Pamirs

By: Kevin McFarland + Save to a List

After the long ascent up the Karakoram Highway in far Western China - one of the great modern engineering feats on Earth - we stumbled into Taxkurgan, the last outpost in China before Pakistan. Taxkurgan is one of those towns you beg to leave as soon as you arrive. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if the town is unpleasant and dingy. Rather, the surroundings are utterly spectacular. From majestic snow-capped peaks extending in all directions to seemingly endless grasslands where nomads' tents and sheep number in the hundreds, Taxkurgan invited us to explore the great outdoors like nowhere else we’ve been.


The grasslands start as soon of Taxkurgan ends, marked by a lonely road with views of passing vehicles. The grasslands are trodden on a confined area of newly constructed wooden walkways, interweaving back and forth with some mills and bridges for aesthetics. As seen from above, the walkway is in the shape of a soaring eagle, with its wings spread wide and about to pounce on a prey. In fact, I only became aware of this eagle when scoping out the area on Google Earth. The walkways in a sense restrict one's access to the endless grasslands; most people walked an hour on the guided paths then returned to their warm hotels. Nearing dusk, we hopped off the path and set foot in the lush and damp grass. From the fortress in town, the grass appeared so friendly to walk upon, but with our feet on its soil, we found it wet, muddy, and difficult to cross the streams. But this is what makes travel worthy, to get off the beaten path and find our own way, not the way the government what's us to go. Travelling with no destination in mind, but rather with an emphasis on experiences, led us to these grasslands. What we didn't expect was an incredible series of events that made us rejoice in the kindness and hospitality of humanity.


The wooden paths and the wild grasslands mirrored modern China to a tee. In one sense, like the newly constructed wooden planks, China controls one's path and choice. Traveling is following other well-trodden footsteps, taking in the same selfie spots as thousands other tourists. On the other side, just one step off the walkway, lies the wild, diverse, and unexpected China, where thousands of years of history coincide with the unknown. While this may seem exaggerated, to those who spent an effort to personalize with wild China will realize it's truth.


But to personalize with this China requires persistence and some recklessness. In the western regions of China, most notably the Tibet and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions, the Chinese government restricts and controls a foreigners experience. Just in this Pamir region, recent laws force foreigners to apply for permits and only arrive by tour, restrict overnighting with and interacting with the locals Tajik and Krygyz, and providing only two accommodation options - the hotel and the hostel. We were able, perhaps by luck, to bypass all three. The result: experiencing Taxkurgan in a fresh and exhilarating fashion.


When we set foot on the grasslands, the inevitable became the uncertain. It was too late to turn back towards town and find the hostel. Our minds fancied the adventure and opportunity to interact with the locals. As the sun neared retirement for the day, we walk the grasslands, crossed streams, observed the livestock, and visited yurts. When we came upon an older man tending to his cattle and goats, we asked him, in Chinese, if we could set up tent just outside his yurt. This poor man seemed confused, so we used charades to draw the scene: folding hands like a tent and resting my head in my hands. The man understood this universal language, and motioned us to follow him into his yurt. Apparently he thought we asked him to sleep in his home.


Inside the yurt was his adult son, probably in the late thirties, as well as a young puppy, ever so shy. The yurt was decorated in many colors, curiously warm compared to the outside cold, and smelled of freshly made naan and milk tea. The old man offered us these goodies before we could even sit down. As we sat down, his son spoke to us in Chinese, a language the younger generation is more apt to learn. He shared with us their simple lifestyle, but not all that different from our own. He was still holding an iPhone in his hand, and his sister is in town for the day to buy groceries. Such is life in a region locked between two nations - Pakistan and China - that have ever growing trade routes. Modernity is creeping, or has crept in some sense, to Taxkurgan already. The nomadic lifestyle would soon be displaced by a sedentary lifestyle. 


Not quite Tajiks, and entirely not Chinese, these locals of Taxkurgan have a mixed and debated lineage. Most agree they are of Persian descent, and were ancient nomads who settled in the high plains of the Pamir Mountains. They could be called Sarikoli, or Pamir Tajiks. The old man, with an English hat, baggy trousers, and long coat, called himself Bage. His shy puppy went by Ruckece. Together, they formed a hospitable team, characteristic of these Pamir Tajik locals. China, with an almost endless amount of people groups, is a country for anyone. Why the Chinese government doesn't want foreigners to have this experience in the Pamirs - to interact and visit locals tents - is up for greater judgement. We are blessed to be here, in this moment, and learn of a people group so unique in this ancient land.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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