As a traveler researching the minutiae of the Pamir Highway, you will undoubtedly be well acquainted with the sensations of pure adventure associated with this part of the world. But what Bulunkul provides is a separate feeling entirely, a sense of place where no place should reasonably be found.
Nestled deep in the high Pamirs, just 16 kilometers from the M41, you will find a small piece of land with 45 homes along a road that comes to a rather abrupt end. In these homes live the 306 people of Bulunkul, more affectionately known as the coldest town in Central Asia. Besides them resides a large lake of the same name, home to many fish, and for brief moments of summer, unfrozen water to swim.
It was a brisk mid-April afternoon when our busted up Pajero rolled into town. We had a day to kill, and curiosities to fill. Arriving at a small home that had haphazardly been labeled ‘shop’, we were greeted by a local family, and soon began the gesture dance that is figuring out a bed for the night. Without skipping a beat, the matriarch of the storefront stepped up to the task. 80 somoni for meals and a pillow? Sold. A quick stroll through the homes in the soft light of golden hour, and we knew that 1 night would quickly turn into 3.
In Bulunkul, you won’t find running water, or almost any signs of electricity. You will however become well accustomed to the many uses for a yak. Drink its milk, eat its butter, be warmed by its dung in the fire (the only available fuel), probably eat its meat, and maybe wear its wool.
You may have a squatting partner in one of the town’s few toilets to be shared, and will probably immediately go to the well for fresh water. You’ll be asked the same 2 questions by every kid who went to school that morning, and happily share your polaroids with half the town. Strangers will heartily invite you into their homes for a bowl of questionable salty yak milk tea. A bowl many would rather refuse, but formalities and sensibilities will help you choke it down.
5 kilometers beyond Bulunkul, you will find the much larger Yashilkul lake. Along the western shores, a small hut has been built around a ‘warm’ spring. Far from the satisfaction of a full blown hot spring, yet still very appreciated in these outlandishly dry climates. By the middle of April, the lake will begin to thaw, reintroducing fresh fish to the people of Bulunkul. If you are so lucky, you may be invited to go enjoy the years first fishing trip. In the summer months, Yashilkul’s water reaches a tepid temperature of 12 degrees (Celsius), not so unreasonable for an afternoon swim.
What makes Bulunkul so attractive? Is it the unabashedly cheerful people? The seemingly total lack of organized city planning? The colour palette straight from a Wes Anderson film set?
For the traveler looking to slow down an action-packed traverse of the Pamir Highway, Bulunkul is an ideal place to gain perspective.
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