Leaving the Wakhan Valley, we headed north, still paralleling the Afghan border, but now in the western parts of the Pamir Range. The western Pamirs are much more like the Wakhan than was the eastern part of the range. While it was no less beautiful, on this side of the plateau everything seemed to be on a more human scale. Lower, warmer, less dry, more fertile and (unsurprisingly given all of this) more peopled.
This meant that during our final five days in the Pamirs we spent more time in and around people. This included a spell in Khorog, the capital of Gorno Badakshan and the only real TOWN in the region, and two wonderful nights in a small village in a side valley, one of only two places we stayed for two nights during our trip through the Pamirs.
The carving on this gazebo in the garden near the Garam Chasma hotel was incredibly ornate. Kev and I waited for the girls there after we’d taken our turn in the pools. Like Bibi Fatima, bathing times were divided up by sex at Garam Chasma
Before arriving in Khorog, we made a stop at another of the hot springs along the Pamir Highway, Garam Chasma. This one was much more organized and set up for tourism than Bibi Fatima, with a fancy hotel, cafes and restaurants, a garden, etc. The travertine terraces surrounding the springs were impressive as you can see from this photo. What you can’t see (just) is the actual bathing area, which was made of tile and concrete, and had a pool of perhaps 15m x 8m. It’s actually fortunate that you couldn’t see the bathing area from up here, as I might well have gotten in trouble peeping in at the nude bathers and taking photos to boot!
With a population of around 30,000, Khorog is miles bigger than any other settlement in the Pamirs. It had ATMs, Internet cafes, plenty of shops (at one of which we bought a Tajik SIM card… NZ$4 including NZ$4 credit), an Indian restaurant (part of a chain located throughout Afghanistan and Tajikistan!) AND A HAIR SALON…
Yes, you heard that right. A hair salon. Meaning that I got my hair cut there.
But of course the loss of the hair was really a sideshow compared to the beard coming off. Sarah doesn’tt mind, even likes, me having a moderately sized beard. But it had been too long for her for many months now. Given that I’d originally said I’d get rid of it after we left the cold climes of northeastern China, then after it was one year old (which would have been mid June), then finally when we went to the Ishkashim Market (I thought it would have been very entertaining to have got my beard trimmed in Afghanistan!) I can understand her doubts that it was ever going to happen. But happen it did! Before she began the hairdresser said she was very nervous because she’d never cut men’s hair before, and certainly hadn’t trimmed a beard. But I reckon she did a fabulous job, especially having only scissors to work with. And just look how successful my new look was with the ladies!
Kev, Nat, Sarah and I having dinner in Khorog at the Indian restaurant! Though I felt a bit guilty eating “foreign” food in Tajikistan it was soooo good. Other tourists had similar thoughts as well, since there were about 10 of us in total in the place!
The bright lights of Khorog. It was actually quite a hike from town back to our guesthouse. Perhaps 30 minutes!
The next morning we hit the road again, now actually on the Pamir Highway itself once more. But not for long. Less than an hour setting out we took a right turn and headed up towards the Bartang Valley. We’d been hoping to stop at a village named Geisev and do some hiking with it as our base. But little did we know that: A. Geisev was on the opposite side of the river and not visible from our bank and B. the only way across was a hand powered cable car. This meant that we completely missed the village and ended up well further up the valley at the village of Khajez instead. Which wasn’t at all bad. We were quickly ushered to the home of Malooda, the viallage English teacher and proprietress of the one homestay there. It took some debate and discussion (including with our driver Saghan about where he’d be willing to leave the car and/or sleep for the next couple of nights) but we eventually decided to simply stay in Khajez and make IT our base for walks through the valley
While I’ve nothing but positive memories of Khajez, our hiking plans weren’t immediately successful. Instead we spent the whole afternoon sitting on the raised table/bed/bench with Malooda and her family constantly bringing out more and more food and drink. We ate dozens of perfectly ripe, sublimely sweet apricots, and drank innumerable cups of tea. This was somewhat problematic come dinner time. I paused eating long enough to help Malooda’s daughter Nigura collect mulberries that had fallen from trees onto plastic sheets on the ground beneath them, then to take these to the roof to be dried for the winter. But I (and everyone else as well) was completely STUFFED when the actual MEAL was served.
And as if that weren’t enough, right before dinner we climbed up on the roof of the house with Nigura and picked huge juicy mulberries as a sort of an appetizer.
A few of these would fill you up on their own!
Of course before dinner could be served it had to be cooked. I sat and watched Malooda prepare the food as her daughter Nigura sat nearby helping out and stoking the fire. Malooda was making Plov, and I learned enough that I’m pretty sure I could make a respectable duplicate of the recipe back home.
Look at the size of those plates of plov! And even better/worse were the big bowls of preserved tomatoes, which were really more like the best tomato soup I’d ever tasted. Cooked with green pepper, garlic, onion, basil and lots of dill they were so good I insisted on learning how to make them, and most certainly will next time I’m living somewhere during tomato season.
While Kev took advantage of the satellite TV to watch the Euro 2012 football finals inside (no telephone, but TV programs from thousands of km away…) Sarah and I slept outside on the same platform we’d eaten dinner on, but with a mosquito net and thicker mats to lay on. The combination of 2000m altitude and mid summer weather made it wonderfully comfortable out there (though my somewhat dodgy tummy made it less so for Sarah… we nicknamed our “tent” for the night The Palace of Stench.)
The next morning the feast began again, with all the usual side dishes plus big bowls of a sort of sweet cream of wheat with goats milk. This left us (again) so full that we were hardly in optimum condition for a hike, but the four of us did eventually get going up the side valley that branches off the main one at Khajez.
A road up the valley was under construction for the first few km we walked (though only in the very beginning stages, with surveying and a tiny bit of re-grading work going on.) I’m not entirely sure how this massive chunk of massive quartz came to be sitting by the trail, but it looked pretty cool, eh?
As we walked up we kept an eye out for potential swimming spots for our trip back down, but the river was really too fast and rough to allow it anywhere (plus the sun was dipping behind the peaks by the time we got back, so it wasn’t quite hot enough to motivate us by then anyway.)
Even though this was a third degree tributary of the main river valley beside the Pamir highway (and even though I’ve already claimed, truthfully that this part of the range was MORE human in scale) the scale of the valley absolutely dwarfed us as we walked up it.
Kev was a bit worn out from watching football the night before and so headed home after about 9km, while the two ladies and I continued on, though they stopped for a sit in the shade when we arrived at the next settlement upstream. (It consisted of two houses and some low rock walls… once again I’m seeming to disagree with the intro to this entry, although the western Pamirs WERE more inhabited, there were still few enough people around that this place actually had a name.) As I walked along the only inhabitant of the (village? what do you call a settlement with only one inhabitant?) invited me in for a cup of black tea, some bread and once we’d finished this, a cup of milk-salt tea just like I’d had not too far away in northern Pakistan seven years before.
It seems as though I’m particularly keen on contradicting every single thing I said in the introduction here… Though Khajez was an amazingly fertile and comfortable place to live, most of the valley was very dry and bare of plant life.
We’d had a healthy day’s walk, spending at least 6 hours out on the trail. It wasn’t terribly hot, but we’d still not really brought enough water for a long day out in the sun, so it was with the greatest pleasure that we arrived back at the cold springs flowing out of the mountainside near Khajez. We washed our faces, doused our hair and sipped, slurped and gulped down litres of the blissfully cold, clear water
Back at home in Khajez I had another cooking lesson with Malooda, this time a hearty vegetable and chick pea soup. With our long day’s walk behind us we managed rather better in eating the usual huge dinner. While eating we got a chance to chat with Malooda at greater length than the night before. She was ethnically Uzbek, and had studied English in Dushanbe, where she’d met her Pamiri Tajik husband. They’d moved back to his home village to take care of his parents as they grew old and had been living there ever since. In addition to her absolutely charming son and daughter Firoz and Nigura, she had one more daughter in Moscow. (Many Tajiks work in Russia, and remittances from those overseas form a big part of the country’s economy.) This daughter had had given birth to a daughter of her own less than a week before, and while they’d managed to hear the news despite the lack of a phone in the village, they were still waiting for next week when one of the family would head to Khorog to get a picture from an internet cafe there and have it printed out.
We’d had such a fabulous time in Khajez it was sad to leave. The place seemed truly blessed. There were huge quantities of some of the best apricots and mulberries I’d ever had. And strawberries coming ripe, and winter potatoes as well. But Malooda insisted that this was a poor time of year to visit and the bounty would be far richer in a couple months time! The town had a fresh spring that Nigura told us flowed cold in the summer and warm in the winter. The family at our homestay were, like almost all of the Pamiris we met, well educated and spoke English, ranging from passable all the way to very good indeed. Malooda even told us that Khajez had not really felt any effects of the civil war that had wracked so much of the country a decate earlier. It really did seem like the Garden of Eden and, lack of telephone or not, cold winters and all, it was easy to imagine myself being very happy living life with its simple but peaceful routines
We piled up all of our stuff, said heartfelt thank yous and goodbyes to Malooda and her family and headed back down the valley towards the main route of the Pamir Highway
The road on the Tajik side of the river remained in good condition for most of the day’s drive, though the river beside it was one of the least navigable large rivers I’d ever seen. In the first 50km of its length that day there were only a few stretches more than 200m or so when the entire thing wasn’t completely engulfed in tumult and foam. We saw 4m high standing waves in many parts of the river as it flowed past us considerably faster than we were able to drive.
Though we’d left the Wakhan corridor behind, we continued following the Afghan border for the rest of the day. The villages on the other side grew bigger and more obviously propserous as farm fields appeared. Though there was often no obvious vehicle access to them. Often treacherous paths high above the raging river were the only way in or out
We spent the next night at a town called Kail-i Cun which, while quite nice felt a bit disappointing after the joys of Khajez. We sat outside in the garden for the afternoon reading, then I had a poke outside and watched the local soccer game, which was a lot of fun. No jerseys, no ref, but the players were surprisingly skilled and unlike the Euro 2012 tournament there was NO DIVING!
The next morning we all piled back into the jeep for our final (long) day of driving. Almost immediately on leaving Kail-i Kun we left the river valley and started climbing up, up and up to 3252m high Sagirdasht Dash Pass, our final alpine pass of the journey. It was very green, and looked a lot more like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan than anything we’d seen in Tajikistan so far.
For several hours it seemed we were the only ones on the road, though eventually we started to see traffic headed in the opposite direction or at least parked pointing in the other direction. Public transport (shared taxis, jeeps and minivans) often make the trip to Khorog in one loooong day, sometimes stopping late at night or early in the morning for a few hours to that the driver can have a rest.
Surely one of the worlds most inaccessible bus stops, right at the very top of the pass. There were shepherds around with their flocks, but I can’t imagine they’d be taking the bus up. At least not with a hundred goats apiece along for the ride…
Though the pass wasn’t nearly as high as some of the others we’d already crossed, there was lots more snow. As evidenced by the much greener surroundings, this area obviously got a lot more precipitation
Descending from Sagirdasht the peaks around us weren’t the towering snow capped peaks we’d seen elsewhere, but were pretty all the same… More like say southern Utah when compared to the BC Alberta border
The trip between Khorog and Dushanbe is only 560km, but we’d met for people who took up to 30 hours to make the drive. On the far side of the pass it became clear why. The roads up to this point had been good. Surprisingly good. At least the equal of those I’d ridden nearby in Pakistan a few years before. But on the far side of the pass they became dreadful. Some of the worst I’d ever been on. And given that A. We were in a modern, well maintained 4WD vehicle and B. I’d driven some of the roads in northern Cambodia in 2004, that mean’s they were bad indeed. Lots of fords crossing rivers strewn with cobbles, deep ruts and even the odd place where the road seemed to just sort of disappear entirely (though to be fair, there was at least a little work going on, which, while making things worse for the moment would doubtless improve them in the future.)
Farewell to Badakshan… One of many police checkpoints along the way. Especially once we left Badakshan it seemed we got stopped at every one. And at most of them Saghan would have to get out of the car, tucking a 5 or 10 somoni note in amongst his papers as he did so. I’m not 100% certain if this was because he had tourists (who were presumably paying him a lot) in the car, or because he was ethnically Kyrgyz. But they certainly weren’t random stops. We’d usually pass by a checkpoint, think we were just about through, then be spotted and waved over by one of the militsia officers standing on the side of the road. Even leaving aside the fact that every stop added 5 or 10 minutes to an already tedious drive, we all (especially Saghan) were getting thoroughly sick of and irritated by this. The Tajik government has done wonders to ensure that police don’t hit up tourists for bribes, but in some ways this makes it even more disappointing to see it taken out on locals like Saghan. We dealt with this by teaching Saghan how to say “The Militsia are wankers,” in English
Two final stops on the way into town, after the road had begun to improve: at a chaikhana for a bit to eat and to give Saghan a bit of a rest since we started so early (to help ensure that the jeep didn’t overheat on the way up the high pass) and a last one for some more diesel, which we obtained from this old fellow who took a bucket at a time out of the big rubbish bin and funneled it into the jeep’s tank
Goodbye Saghan! This photo was actually taken in the morning at Kail-i Cun, but we didn’t actually have a chance to get one when we finally parted ways. We stopped outside of Dushanbe, Saghan explaining that because of his cracked windshield he wouldn’t be able to enter the city. We took one last look at the spreadsheet I’d been using to keep track of the kilometres we drove each day. We gave Saghan his final payment, shook hands, smiled and we all piled into the taxi he’d found for us to head into the big city.
Our journey through the Pamirs had taken nine days from Osh to Dushanbe. We’d seen some of the highest peaks in the world, visited some of the most remote roads on the planet, tiptoed along the border with Afghanistan, ducking over to do some shopping, we soaked in hot springs, hiked up desert valleys, ate fabulous fresh mountain produce AND said goodbye to my year old beard. But as is true of just about anywhere, it wouldn’t have been the same without the people. The wonderfully friendly Pamiris: the crowds at the holiday celebrations in Murghab, the ladies explaining the proper bathing method at the hot springs, the merchants at the Afghan market and of course the fabulous families who shared their homes with us (especially Malooda, Nigura and their family!) And then there were our travelling companions. I guess I haven’t really said enough about them, but it was a joy to share this journey with Kev and Nat. They were incredibly well travelled, making it great to share stories and trade ideas and tips about our onward journey. And even better they were just fun to talk and laugh with, whether in the back of the jeep or while out for a walk. We just couldn’t have asked for better companions. And finally Saghan. Without him there would have been no drive through the Pamirs. We didn’t have a lot of language in common, but we still managed to smile and laugh along with one another, and by the end of our trip it felt like we’d even become friends.
Coming up next: Dushanbe, Big City Tajikistan
Tags: Geisev, Gorno Badakshan, Khajez, Khorog, Llew Bardecki, Pamirs, Tajikistan, Travel