Crossing the Khargush pass was the last time we’d see the high side of 4000m during our trip to the Pamirs, but there were still plenty of mountains left. Indeed, the Wakhan Valley contains some of the biggest peaks visible from Tajikistan (though most of them are actually in the Hindu Kush range across the border in Afghanistan, or still further afield in Pakistan.)
The Wakhan corridor is kind of a cartographical oddity. Many of you may already be familiar with it, but for those who aren’t, a brief explanation. The corridor is a long (roughly 200km), thin (between 14 and 60km) finger of land belonging to Afghanistan that stretches out to the east from the main body of the country. It became firmly part of Afghanistan during the 19th and 20th century “Great Game” period when Russia was expanding its empire into Central Asia and Britain was trying to stem the tide lest they get too close to British India (which included Pakistan back then.) Each country managed to gain influence and hold sway over much of the area, but neither could ever get a firm grip on Afghanistan. As such when they came to settle the borders once and for all they decided that Afghanistan would be left as an independent state to form a buffer between the great powers. This worked fine, except in the far east near the border of China where Russian and British influence actually met. To ensure that a buffer existed here (but without giving up too much of “their” land) a long, thin tongue of land, the Wakhan corridor was “given” to Afghanistan. Ever since, this spectacularly mountainous and remote area has been a place of legend. Even in peaceful times (which have been hard to come by in Afghanistan) the Wakhan has been difficult to reach. The easiest access to the region has long been the route we were taking: a side road off the Pamir Highway.
So without further ado, on to the photos:
The transition from the high, dry plateau of the eastern Pamirs to the wide, deep Wakhan Valley didn’t happen instantly. First we crossed the Khargush pass, which marked the last time we’d be over 4000m in the Pamirs. Once over the pass, the far end of the valley was still plenty dry, and pretty much deserted except for the Tajik military post near the base of the pass, complete with watchtowers and an actual tank. It’s hard to believe that a fairly insignificant looking stream like this one is actually an international border!
Around a bend in the stream and valley and onto our first views of the brilliant white peaks of the Hindu Kush (which incdentally is derived from an old Persian phrase meaning “Killer of Hindus,” though it’s not entirely clear WHY it got this name)
Because of the narrowness of the Wakhan Corridor, it’s quite possible that at least some of the peaks you can see here are actually beyond Afghanistan and in Pakistan (perhaps even some of the same ones I saw around Chitral in my trip there in 2005!)
The road had plenty of treacherous bits before we finally reached the valley floor. We were a bit nervous that Saghan, our driver might have hit the vodka a bit too hard with mates in his hometown of Murghab the night before (which was a public holiday.) But while he may not have looked quite 100%, he still did a fine job and we never felt at all unsafe, even in bits like this where there was a several hundred metre drop down below the road.
There were no bridges on this section of the road meaning that whenever a stream was encountered the route took a turn way up the side valley so that it could be forded at a smoother, more convenient spot
These brilliant yellow flowers were amongst the first signs we saw of life in the valley. At least life beyond the “grimly hanging on by the skin of its teeth” variety that you found in most of the eastern Pamirs. This view of things extended beyond plants and animals to people too. Many of the residents of Murghab were thin (if not outright skinny) and looked as though their skin had suffered from sun and windburns. Down in the more fertile confines of the Wakhan these symptoms disappeared
A Panorama of Afghanistan. For most of the valley’s length there was little more than a rough path visible on the far side of the river, occasionally travelled by men on horseback or others leading camels. Because of its remoteness, this part of Afghanistan is the only part of that nation that has remained largely untouched by its nearly 40 years of continuous warfare. All the same, sections of the border area are supposedly dangerous to travel in due to land mines.
As we wound our way down the valley our surroundings became more and more pleasant, culminating in the town of Langar where we stopped for the night. While much of the road sat high above the river on the lip of its gorge, by the time we’d reached Langar the valley had broadened and had a wide, flat floor allowing plenty of room (and providing plenty of water) for agriculture.
Kev and I in the guest lounge/dining room of our homestay in Langar. I don’t know if it’s simply what’s available, but many people in the Pamirs seemed to share the Chinese love of kitschy, over-the-top home decor. When we first arrived at our homestay, we asked if we’d be able to purchase dinner from our hosts. “No,” they said. “We have no food. We had a big bag of potatoes yesterday, but we sent them off to market.” Was there a shop or a bazaar in the town where we might be able to buy some food beyond the large supply of snacks we’d brought from Osh? No to that as well. Nonetheless, within minutes of our arriving they produced a fabulous platter of snacks and sweets along with tea and bread. And when dinner time came a couple of hours later, more bread and big filling bowls of Laghman appeared
Outside our homestay one of the neighbours was doing some major work on his Lada. Complete with a bottle of vodka to make the lack of a manual seem less important But he was very friendly and, like everyone we’d so far met in the Pamirs was delighted to pose for a photo
When we left the eastern Pamirs, so did we leave the ethnically Kyrgyz part of the country. The people in Langar and the rest of the Wakhan were pretty much all Tajik, and looked very distinct from the Kyrgyz. Their features were much more occidental. They looked more middle eastern than the strongly Mongol influenced Kyrgyz. Like this boy, several even had red hair, a trait that some say derives from the descendents of Alexander the Great’s army, which passed this way over 2000 years before
I’ve actually been misleading you for a while now. While we had been driving along the Tajik side of the Wakhan corridor, it wasn’t actually the Wakhan VALLEY until the morning of our second day there when the Wakhan river joined the Pamir River, which we’d forms northern border of Afghanistan border in the eastern part of the corridor. This view looks up the Wakhan river at their confluence, into the heart of the Wakhan mountains.
We stopped at a village in the valley to climb up and take a look at an old fort that guarded ancient (pre-silk road!) trade routes through the area. We didn’t actually make it all the way up to the fort (the elevation was still high and it was hot.) But we had a fun time in the village anyway. Kev was looking around when two big dogs appeared and immediately ran towards him snarling and barking. He escaped, but caused much bemusement among the village residents, including this family who gave him some snacks and water to help recover from his close call
It wasn’t just the mountains themselves that were on a grand scale. Huge alluvial fans spread out across the valley floor, deposited by the streams flowing down from the Afghan Hindu Kush
And as wonderful as the scenery was, there was more: The Wakhan Valley had been home to people and civilizations for thousands of years, and was full of pre-Islamic monuments like this Buddhist Stupa. When we arrived, a group of kids appeared from out of the woodwork to follow us along as we climbed up towards it, offering gemstones for sale for a few Somoni (most were garnets, but I think a few may actually have been (low quality) rubies that the area is famous for mining.)
High above the stupa sat another fort. I climbed up here after being told of “a big mountain with snow and lots of flowers,” by the kids down below. No sign of either of these, but the fort was cool and the view down the towering walls of the gorge next to the trail was cool.
The Yamchun fort was clearly the most impressive of all the historical monuments in the Wakhan. Like most of the forts in the area it was constructed by Zoroastrians long before the arrival of Islam, and even before the arrival of Buddhism, in the area. As good a driver as Saghan was, he still made some of us (Nat especially) nervous in some moments, such as when he sharply turned the wheel towards the cliff edge here in order to get us out of the centre of the road and into a decent parking place while we had a look at the fort.
Bibi Fatima springs are one of several hot springs in the Pamirs. Reputed to improve women’s fertility, we just went for a nice soak in the hot water after our picnic lunch of watermelon, bread and kurut (dried yougurt balls.) The springs weren’t particularly big, with room for no more than about a dozen people, even if they didn’t mind getting pretty cozy (which, given that visitors bathe naked meant that you had to be pretty comfortable with your fellow bathers if the place was full.) Small as they were, the springs were some of the most memorable I’ve ever visited. They sat beside a roaring cascade, with concrete walls built to keep them separate. The other walls remained in their natural state, completely covered in malachite green coloured travertine. A beautiful place to sit and soak in the ~42C water. As if this wasn’t enough, the springs also had a small pool with room for one, accessed by climbing through a “window” in the travertine. As you stepped into the (better insulated and so even hotter) water on the far side of the window, your feet went down, down, down, leaving you wondering just how deep the pool was. In fact it was only about chest deep, but it was very fun sitting leaning on the window “sill” looking out at the other bathers from your cozy little enclave. Men and women bathed separately, so when Nat and Sarah’s turn came, they went in with all the other local ladies (who’d been waiting patiently as two old men who arrived late for the men’s session refused to vacate the pool for a good ten minutes past when they should have.) As in Turkey, the locals set about making sure the girls experienced the spring “properly” which meant dunking them under the hot “showers” of spring water pouring into the pools from crevices above and blessing them both (presumably, given the place’s reputation, in order to improve their chances of having babies…) When we all got out Sarah and Nat were both feeling a bit overwhelmed by the experience. Nat was ushered into the “medical room” where they insisted on taking her blood pressure.
Towards the end of the day we stopped at an area with a number of petroglyphs, ranging from thousands of years old drawings of hunting scenes to comparitively modern (mere hundreds of years old) inscriptions in Arabic script. The area was surrounded by a wall with a huge collection of Marco Polo sheep horns and skulls. Marco Polos are kind of like the big Pamiri cousin of North America’s bighorn sheep, though they are secretive creatures that are rarely seen much below 5000m in the summer time
Not quite so well preserved, but much more accessible than the Yamchun, the 2300 year old Kha Kha fortress was just beside the main road through the Wakhan valley. Large sections of the original walls, made of mud brick, were still standing, though other sections had been reconstructed. That said, the reconstruction looked pretty good as it was done with ancient methods (if only because construction methods in the Wakhan Valley haven’t changed much over the past couple of thousand years… we regularly mistook people’s garden walls for ancient structures of some sort.)
A view back up the valley from the ramparts of one of the reconstructed parts of the fort.
The main road through our destination for the day, the town of Ishkashim. Ishkashim is the largest town in the Wakhan valley, especially if you include the Afghan town of the same name just across the river. It’s a popular stopping spot for visitors through the Pamirs and there were an astonishing 11 tourists staying at the guesthouse we lodged at for the night
The main reason for the relative busyness of the town was the Saturday market that was held the next morning. The market is held on an island in the middle of the river, placing it right on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. People from both countries are permitted to come to the market, making it an international meeting place. We showed the Tajik border guards our passports and visas, and were welcomed out of Tajikistan. Meanwhile Afghans headed through their own checkpoint, guards carefully inspecting the contents of the bags and carts full of goods they brought along for sale. If you look carefully at this photo you can make out the Afghan flag at the border post just left of centre
The Afghans seemed to be primarily sellers, the Tajiks buyers at the international market. We arrived as the market was setting up and were constantly having to dart out of the way of Afghan traders charging along with huge loads on their backs or flying past with massive (and not particularly maneuverable) carts full of goods
The market just got busier and busier throughout the morning there were hundreds of people milling about, browsing and shopping at its peak. Many of the Tajiks were, like us, tourists, primarily there to have a look around. This was even true of some of the Afghans. I met one man who’d come 200km from Faizabad just to see what the market was like
The market really was a highlight of the trip for me. The liveliness, the setting, the sounds, the colours, the clothes worn by the salespeople… they all made it a wonderfully memorable place
We even stopped for a cup of tea and a meal of plov (Central Asian rice pilaf, usually cooked with meat, carrots, onion and plenty of oil.) As the title of this post implies, I’d like to be able to claim that we had a meal in Afghanistan, but in fact the chaikhanas (tea houses, sort of mini resting places/restaurants) were actually all at the Tajik end of the market
I bought a Pakol (traditional Afghan hat) from this guy. There was very little in the way of real souvenir type stuff for sale (the goods leaned much more towards practical, everyday items) but in addition to the Pakol, Sarah got a Lapis Lazuli ring and some very entertaining to use Afghan eye makeup
Nat and Sarah haggling over the price of some top notch traditional Afghan textiles
There were plenty of women at the market, but almost all of them were Tajiks
An Afghan trader offering a string of beads for his customer’s inspection
As in Murghab, people at the Ishkashim market delighted in having their photos taken. I loved this guy’s turban
As the market began to wind down we headed back through the Tajik border to hit the road again. When I did the border guards didn’t even look at my passport (though with my blue shirt, long hair and huge beard I was probably pretty memorable.) This would have been helpful for the young American man we’d met in the market. He’d crossed from Tajikistan to Aghanistan a few weeks before under the mistaken impression that he had a double entry Tajik visa. He only realized his mistake when, with only $200 left to his name, he tried to cross back into Tajikistan and was denied entry. At the market he was borrowing peoples’ phones trying to call the American (and even the British) embassy, though having little luck speaking to anyone as it was Saturday. We actually saw him again the next day and learned that he’d paid about 3/4 of his remaining cash to the border guards as a bribe to let him back into Tajikistan, and most of the rest of it for a ride to Khorog where there was an ATM and better telecommunications
Turning north from Ishkashim and heading back towards the main Pamir Highway, the open, fertile lands came to an end as the valley narrowed and the local climate dried. Which was, of course, just as beautiful, though much less conducive to habitation!
With the end of the Wakhan Valley comes the end of this entry.
Coming up in the next one: our final days in the Pamirs, this time in the western part of the range. A homestay in the garden of Eden, a hike up a beautiful desert valley, and the looooong road down from the high mountains to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe
Tags: Afghanistan, Ishkashim, Ishkashim market, Llew Bardecki, Pamir, Pamirs, Tajikistan, Travel, Wakhan, Wakhan Valley