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Adventure bound: the search for new and exciting travel opportunities--not to mention good dinner party stories--has led to a rise in the popularity of truly adventurous holidays. Minty Clinch joins a challenging horse trek through the High Pamirs of Tajikistan to see what all the fuss is about.

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Riding in the High Pamirs. Four weeks in the wilderness in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Communal tent or sleeping outdoors at altitudes above 4,500 metres. Twelve-hour days on horseback in boulder-strewn uplands. Itinerary strictly uncertain. Rationing essential whenever food runs low. Ditto vodka. Cost: 5,000 [pounds sterling], international flight not included. Any takers?

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Too many, as it turned out. When High Plains Drifter, the inaugural Wild Expedition, appeared on the Wild Frontiers website in 2007, the niche adventure company was inundated with requests. They squeezed in one extra rider, bringing the total to eight, but had to turn several people away.

The adventure begins on the 4,282-metre Kyzyl-Art pass on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. Not many people pass this way, and those who do are often running drugs between Afghanistan and China. We're heading the other way, but 15 horses, five Land Cruisers, a dozen foreigners and a track laden with hay and barley require paperwork, authorised and unauthorised payments, and the patience of several saints.

But eventually the young soldiers relent and celebrate our release by vaulting into our saddles and galloping our horses around their compound, whooping with joy.

WILD SPIN-OFF

Jonny Bealby, a travel junkie who has written books about crossing continents on motorbikes and horses, started Wild Frontiers in 2002 to feed his own habit. Currently, the company takes about 750 people a year to far-off places. Seventy per cent of them are women, perhaps, as Bealby claims, because they're more inquisitive, but more likely because they're less confident about going it alone. In 2005, he identified a niche for trips to extreme destinations such as Yemen and Afghanistan. Four years later, they make up 15 per cent of his business.

The Wild Expeditions spin-off represents a natural extension of the quest for travel kudos. As each trip is a one-off, they pander to the growing popularity of 'vanity travel'. 'In a very real sense, I sell dinner party conversations,' Bealby explains. 'In that context, the Bahamas versus Bhutan is a no-brainer. The Bahamas marks you out as a pleasure seeker, whereas Bhutan suggests an interesting person with tales to tell over the creme brulee. Being the first in your peer group is key.'

Many of Wild Frontiers' bread-and-butter trips apply a proven adventure formula--part culture, part trekking--to out-of-the-way places, but the Wild Expeditions ramp up the 'adventure' element. This year's flagship is a trek with 400 camels and 40 Tuareg in the Tenere Desert in Niger. 'It's essentially their trip, so if they stop for three days, you stop, too,' Bealby says. Next year's main journey will follow Joseph Conrad into the heart of darkness on Blood River, aka the Congo, from Kigali to Kinshasa.

RETRO ELEMENT

Trips such as High Plains Drifter have a retro element that harks back to the dawn of the adventure travel industry in the 1960s and '70s. In the days before gap-year toffs clustered at every intersection, those who wanted to break out of the straitjacket of a fortnight on the Costa Brava joined pioneering expeditions, riding in tracks and camping under the stars for months at a time. The most popular option was the route through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to India, the jumping-off point for jobs in Australia and New Zealand.

In the increasingly cash-rich, time-poor '80s and '90s, such journeys were packaged by companies such as Explore, Exodus and a myriad of imitators into adventures that fit neatly into annual leave patterns. Want to take the Reunification Railway from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City? Spot lemurs in Madagascar? Ride from palace to palace in Rajasthan? No problem. Two weeks will do it, with time for a bit of R and R along the way.

The 21st century, with its cheap flights and exhaustive list of 'safe' options, is tough on those looking for genuine 'firsts', but the go-anywhere, do-anything tourist has never had it so good. Imaginative Traveller, the adventure arm of the German giant Tui, which also owns Crystal and Thomson, has taken the concept to another level by introducing mystery tours to an annual schedule that already includes 300 soft adventures worldwide. The 15 places on their first 14-night trip--price 2,099 [pounds sterling], destination only revealed on arrival--sold within a month of the launch.

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Lynsey Devon, group public relations manager for Inghams Ski for the past decade, recently joined Imaginative Traveller to explore the boundaries of this kind of travel. 'Our research indicates that three quarters of our clients are looking for a memorable experience off the beaten track,' she explains. 'The secret tour offers pioneering travel to those who are brave enough to take up the challenge.'

GETTING HIGH

The High Pamirs, which occupy 45 per cent of Tajikistan but contain only three per cent of the country's seven million people, are among the world's least visited mountains--a state of affairs we find completely understandable as we ride into our windy campsite at nightfall with temperatures rapidly plunging below zero.

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When Marco Polo took this strand of the Silk Road in 1273 as his 17-year business trip from Venice to Beijing got under way, he wrote: 'The plain is called Pamier and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or 'any green thing so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you can not even see any birds flying.' Were the 19-year-old entrepreneur to pass this way more than eight centuries later, he would surely be astonished at how little has changed.

My fellow travellers are a diverse but representative bunch: a doctor (always welcome), a photographer (ditto), four very English ladies, a couple from Belgium and an American. Leading the group are Dom Mocchi, an Italian based in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, who supplied the horses and sorted out the logistics, and Richard Dunwoody, Grand National-winning jockey turned polar explorer.

Why did the clients sign up? For 38-year-old Duncan Grossart, chief executive of his own global images agency, location was key. 'I'm fascinated by Central Asian culture, the Silk Road and the Great Game--the manoeuvring between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia during the 19th century,' he says. 'I've travelled independently in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but Tajikistan is another piece in the jigsaw. Riding through the High Pamirs is difficult to arrange on your own, especially in a timeframe limited by work and being a new dad, so Jonny's trip had an irresistible appeal.'

For 35-year-old Belgian banker Wendy van den Heuvel, the trip's novelty was the draw. 'My partner, Wim, and I go on a riding holiday every year, but we were attracted by something so radically different from the norm,' she says.

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CELEBRATING UNCERTAINTY

For the first week, we cross arid uplands ringed by 7,000-metre peaks, with occasional steep descents into narrow valleys. Colourfully dressed Tajiks set aside their tools to greet us with astonishment that turns to smiles as they remember the brightly patterned socks they've knitted for just such an occasion.

The magic ingredient in this sort of travel is unpredictability. For us, it kicks in when our basics have been loaded onto donkeys and we set off, unsupported, for the 4,800-metre pass that guards Tajikistan's 'Lake District'. Will there be snow at the top? There is. Will the terrain be horse friendly? With long stretches of slippery boulders, it isn't. The lakes with no names are glorious, ranging in colour from palest turquoise to deepest indigo, but sleeping on their shores with no tents at 4,500 metres isn't for the faint of heart.

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How long will we be on our own in the wilderness? The estimate is three days; we have food for four. On the fifth, when we're down to a few cans of fish, we run into herdsmen grazing mixed flocks on high summer pastures. Food on the hoof? The English ladies shudder delicately and say they couldn't really. Five hours later, as a plump lamb reappears as stew, they change their minds.

The following day is the toughest yet. Our goal is the camp set up by our local 'fixer', Mumbet, who constantly keeps the supplies coming. We're dreaming of a roaring campfire and hot food as we ride into the teeth of a bitter wind on a morsel of week-old bread and a mug of green tea. At 6pm, after eight hours in the saddle, our spirits are flagging when we spot a figure on a distant mountaintop waving a vodka bottle. A mirage? No, Mumbet's man on a meet-and-greet mission--we must be nearly there. Again, no: there are still four hours to go, two of them in darkness, before we finally limp into camp.

And therein lies the rub. By now, several of the horses are lame and, after 16 consecutive days riding, most are close to exhaustion. In the spirit of democracy, Dom and Richard call a meeting to decide what we should do next. There are three choices: jump ship and go home, as two people did; continue with Dom on the Tajik ride, as Gus, our gung-ho Welsh surgeon, chooses ('I would rather cut my foot off than get in a Land Cruiser,' he says, earning the admiration and support of the English ladies, who can't bear to leave their horses); or spend the next week in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, as promised on the original schedule. Luckily for Wendy, Wire and me, Richard volunteers to oversee this option, so everyone gets their first choice.

Back at Wild Frontiers, dividing the group hadn't been looked upon favourably, but embracing unpredictability by tearing up the schedule requires a response that meets all expectations. And that's exactly what it got. Roll out those Wild Expeditions--and count me in.

PHOTOGRAPHS by DUNCAN GROSSART

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HIGH PAMIRS CO-ORDINATES

When to go

The high-altitude trekking season in the Pamirs is very short, effectively limited to July and August. Trekking at lower altitudes is usually possible between June and September, but there may well be snow at passes above 3,000 metres at any time of year.

Getting there

Wild Frontiers is organising a High Pamir Horse Trek in Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, starting on 23 August and ending on 5 September. The cost is 2,195 [pounds sterling] (land only), with a further 750 [pounds sterling] for flights on BMI to Bishkek.

It's also offering a Wild Expeditions recce trip in the Wakhan Corridor through Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan between 26 July and 17 August. The cost is 3,500 [pounds sterling] (land only), with flights on Turkish Airlines and PIA likely to cost around 800 [pounds sterling].

The next Wild Expedition is a camel trek on the Tuareg trail, starting and finishing in Niger, in November.

For further information, call 020 7736 3968, email info@witdfrontiers.co.uk or visit www.wildfrontiers.co.uk

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Title Annotation:travel: HIGH PAMIRS
Comment:Adventure bound: the search for new and exciting travel opportunities--not to mention good dinner party stories--has led to a rise in the popularity of truly adventurous holidays.
Author:Clinch, Minty
Publication:Geographical
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:9TAJI
Date:Jul 1, 2009
Words:1837
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