Hunting Marco Polo sheep in Tajikistan has a reputation — not just for its high-altitude, unforgiving terrain and daunting travel in an unknown world — but also for corrupt outfitters, shady hunting practices and poachers. Sheep travel in large bands to protect themselves from their many threats, and not just the snow leopards, wolves and deadly winters; poachers in jeeps wielding AK-47s routinely roam these mountains in search of trophy rams. The sheep are incredibly skittish and live in some of the highest places on earth. Getting within bow range of these wary animals is a tall order.
But we weren’t just there for the hunt; we were there for adventure. After 30 hours of flying and three days of waiting in a hotel room for permits, we drove 25 hours along a route that was once part of the historic Silk Road. We had to rely on an early 1980s Russian Jeep that often didn’t start. Only now can I laugh about all of the running starts we had to make and how every evening we’d drain the water from the radiator so it wouldn’t freeze only to refill it again in the morning.
As we wound along the Panj River above the torrent of whitewater that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan, it was nearly impossible to see from the Jeep window up to the peaks where bands of Dr. Seuss-like curly-horned sheep lived. We stopped for breaks along the route, visiting with the nomadic people of the region. Limited resources did not hinder their hospitality or willingness to share a meal and tea.
When we reached basecamp, the air was thin, the cover limited. The Pamir Mountains of the Gorno-Badakhshan region proved to be very challenging to bowhunt. Navigating the terrain tested us mentally and physically.
Sheep hunts are about controlling what you can and rolling with what you can’t. While I dreamed about an epic moment when my effort and preparation would result in the perfect stalk followed by the perfect shot on a beautiful old Monarch of the Mountain, I didn’t get the chance, but that’s part of the deal. The great thing about bow hunting sheep is that it gives you every opportunity to tap out and, often, not tapping is the success.