Bulunkul is a very small and isolated town of 306 people that live deep within the High Pamirs in Central Asia. The people of the town live off of little more than yak and grain but are also some of the happiest I’ve ever met.
Earlier this year, my brother and I went to Georgia and bought a two-decade-old Mitsubishi Pajero with a quarter million kilometers on it. We then spent the next 100 days driving it across most of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Here we are in Northern Georgia in the middle of winter, close to the border of Russia:
In a street market in Tbilisi, we bought 3 old-school USSR briefcases to hold most of our gear. One for food, one for clothes, one for camping accessories.Our morning ritual of rearranging the car:
The Pamir Highway is also known as the Roof of the World. This right here is the Wakhan Corridor, a valley that sits between the Hindu Kush mountain range to the south, and the Pamir range to the north. the Panj River down the middle acts as a natural border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The main Pamir Highway (also known as M41) — roads like this were the standard:
This is the very small town of Bulunkul, one of my favourite places in all of Central Asia:
Situated at 3700m above sea level, just 306 people live in its 45 homes. It is known to be the coldest town in Central Asia, the people here live off of little more than Yak, and the fish from a nearby lake of the same name.
Driving into Bulunkul, we went straight up to the only shop in the town and quickly found a place to stay for the night. After about an hour we knew that 1 night wouldn’t be enough, so we stayed for 3.
This was some of the family that we stayed with:
I had brought my Leica Sofort camera with me, and by the end of the 3 days, about half of the villagers had a photo taken of them. I kept the good quality instant camera on me at all times so that they could all keep photos of themselves.
Everyone in the town loved having their photos taken, some of them possibly for the first time ever.
I must’ve given instant photos to over half the town.
Getting to share such a simple but profound experience with these people was genuinely moving and has undoubtedly left a lasting impression on how I view photography. The photographs were able to break down a barrier that language (or lack thereof) simply couldn’t.
What makes Bulunkul so attractive? Is it the unabashedly cheerful people? The seemingly total lack of organized city planning? The color 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.
P.S. If you’d like to see some more photos and stories of this trip, I’m putting together a book about the experience that you can find on Kickstarter.
About the author: Alex Pflaum is a fine art travel photographer who tells stories of culture, history, and nature. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his Instagram.