05.08.2015 - 07.09.2015 16 °C
Aside from one local family, we are the only people crossing the border at Denau, Uzbekistan into Tajikistan which seems great until we realize that the border guards are restless. Within a few minutes, I'm feigning a polite smile as a woman meticulously removes, unfolds, opens and inspects every single item I'm carrying. She neatly piles my affairs on a small table and invites me to repack while she works her way through all the files and photos on my IPAD. Meanwhile, on the men's side, the official briefly scans the backpack before concentrating on the laptop searching for pornographic images, launching advanced queries, opening all folders, documents, etc. A good 45 minutes later we're cleared but left wondering where the line is between, personal private property and contraband materials.
With no hotel booked in Dushanbe, the taxi drops us at an Italian cafe with wifi listed in our guidebook.
The price for accommodation varies tremendously from one Central Asian capital to another and finding something better than a dorm room with shared bath in our budget is proving difficult here. Even Airbnb has little to offer until I notice that one guy writes that his place is near the cafe we're sitting in. 15 minutes later, he meets us and soon we are settled into a fully-equipped, way too big for our purposes, apartment for a most reasonable $50/night.
Delighted to read good reviews of an Indian restaurant in town, we rush over to offer our palates respite from our fatty kebab diet now going on 2 months. As we savor each morsel of chicken tikka masala our table by the window offers a curious spectacle outside: Police systematically stop cars, pocket some money and wave drivers on. On the main street, there are cops every few blocks engaged in this choreography.
The mountain village of Khorog is the start/end point for a visit of the Pamir Mountains and the Wakhan Valley. Getting there is a 15 hour shared jeep adventure. It's crucial to pick a good jeep, preferably a Toyota Land Cruiser, and a comfortable seat towards the front, with a headrest. It's not possible to reserve a seat in advance, so we get to the taxi stand at 7AM where drivers are already vying for business. Jeeps only leave when they are full, and full means whatever they can get away with. We are firm, 3 not 4 people in our row. Luckily, our jeep fills within 30 minutes and we're off. As we leave town, we are flagged down by a cop. Our driver pays to pass. It's a beautiful albeit bumpy, dusty ride through a relatively arid landscape with numerous stops along the way for food, cigarettes (our driver is not happy because we won't let him smoke in the car or blast electro pop music) and toilets, some of the worst I've seen anywhere. Yes, that includes India.
It's midnight when we arrive in the small town of Khorog only to find that the room we thought reserved at Lal Inn is not. With no other options and despite the roaring slumber of 2 guys in the beds next to us, we crash in the dorm. ($15/person with breakfast). The next day, we splurge for a double room with private bath. ($50 euros for two with breakfast)
A green park with tall leafy trees marks the center of town. Chor Bagh restaurant sits in a corner of the park overhanging the raging, thick grey water of the river that rushes past with melodic vibration. Unfortunately, the food doesn't rate, but it's a very pretty place to chill with an ice-cold beer.
We meet Ergash and his Toyota Land Cruiser through our guest house, and within an hour, we've plotted a 6-day circuit in the Pamir. Although it does put a dent in our budget, as in Kyrgyzstan, it simply makes sense as public transportation is limited and sporadic particularly in remote regions. Admittedly spoiled by Alexey's pimped jeep in Kyrgyzstan, we are a bit let down by this older, less comfortable model but confident as it's a Land Cruiser. The first bit of news is that the infamous Pamir Highway is partially closed due to an avalanche and we'll have to take a secondary road. Thanks to our recent experience with the Off Road Kings in Kyrgystan, we are not nervous about the jeep bouncing along this pitted, rocky dirt road. However, on just the first day we do wonder what the hell he's thinking when Ergash attempts a deep river crossing and gets stuck! As he shifts between forward and reverse, and the tires spin and slam against rocks, the level of swiftly flowing water creeps up on the doors. No one utters a word, but the trickle of sweat that escapes his forehead tells me, Ergash isn't sure we're getting thru dry either. But persistence pays off and with a huge jerk, we're suddenly propelled to the other side landing with a crushing thud onto actual pavement. Amid a collective exhale, he announces, welcome to the Pamir Highway!
It's unclear why the village of Boulun Kul holds the title of coldest village in all of Tajikistan. At 3737 meters/12260 feet, it's certainly not the highest point in the country, but it sits on an open plateau fully exposed to a steadfast wind. It's late afternoon so Ergash drops us by Lake Yashikul for some exploration before dark.
We walk the 5kms back to the village which is just a few rows of small houses making it easy to find our jeep parked in front of our homestay ($30 for 2 with dinner and breakfast).
The room is actually two rooms with a separate entrance, but having a door means nothing as the kids open it to look at us and giggle, while the parents come in and out freely. The lady of the house serves us dinner, a clear soup with one piece of carrot, a quarter potato and traditional round bread at a low table with floor cushions in the larger room. As is customary at all meals, there's a pot of black or green tea, colorful bowls of jam, yak butter (an acquired taste), wafer cookies and individually wrapped candies on the table. In the other room, she prepares our bed, a pile of traditional handmade thick duvet-type blankets covered with clean sheets and more blankets on top. The blankets, visible in every home and yurt across Central Asia, are part of the bride's dowry and illustrate the family's wealth. There's a small sink by the door, but no water. Just as I'm trying to work out the mechanics, the husband arrives with a bucket of hot water and fills the tank on top. He shows me how the pedal below releases the flow. This is the shower. The wood outhouse is a two person affair with no privacy about 100 meters away. Thankfully, I'm alone, every time.
Outside our window, a group of men play volleyball until they can no longer see the ball and by 7PM, with little to no electricity; we won't be charging our battery of electronics tonight, the village pretty much goes dark. We lie in our hard but cozy bed on the floor mesmerized by the star spectacle outside our window.
In the morning, Ergash who had proposed eggs for breakfast comes in and announces, "Eggs cancelled". So bread and jam it is. We watch as he dips his bread into a bowl of tea and yak butter...
A few hours further on the Pamir Highway, don't be fooled by the name, there's hardly a smooth patch on this road, lies Murghab.
At 3576 m/11732 ft, this is the biggest town in the Western Pamir and it is one ugly place. Surrounded by a craggy, barren landscape, town is all of a few half-paved roads, with box-shaped houses and an inordinate network of electrical poles connected by seemingly haphazard knots of cables.
Despite all the wiring, there is no electricity: the power station flooded a few weeks ago. The shop, the restaurant and a few guesthouses have generators. Ours at Tulambek Guesthouse ($20 eu for 2 with breakfast) will be on from 8 to 11PM for charging batteries and devices. Luckily the outdoor shower (an extra $2) is solar powered.
Evening is spent chatting with other travelers in the common room: a French couple who are literally walking through the Pamir, 2 German guys cycling through on their way to Southeast Asia, a Slovekian guy taking time off from his job in Bishkek... Folks are either heading north to the border of Kyrgyzstan, or south towards Khorog so running into people you've met in a guesthouse along the way is fairly common. We are on the look out for the Dutch couple traveling in their own jeep that we met two months ago in Kyrgyzstan. Someone seems to recall having met them recently.
Karakul (3914 m/12841 ft) is a meager village of 30 or so rudimentary houses on the edge of a large pretty turquoise lake of the same name created by a meteorite millions of years ago.
The village sits on a long stretch of fenced, undefined territory between Tajikistan and China and is about 60 kms from the Kyrgyz border. The sign by the first house on the village says "STAY" and most people do; bikers, cyclists, vans... There isn't enough water for everyone so I'm hardly surprised when Ergash informs us, "shower cancelled". We hike around the lake in the afternoon until we're beaten back by ferocious mosquitos who are not the slightest bit deterred by our repellant.
Our room is private and bare with just a few layers of blankets on the floor. The facilities, across the courtyard and up a hill are well, by now you can imagine. $38 for 2 with dinner and breakfast.
Having already visited Kyrgyzstan, we turn back south to traverse the Wakhan Valley. The landscapes are vast and rocky and the snow on the peaks in the distance remind you that it's only possible to visit this rugged terrain during the summer months.
On the way, we stop again in Murghab, for lunch and gas. As with most towns in all the "stans", the main attraction is the bazaar and here the creativity that some have put into their converted cargo containers is impressive. There's no one at the gas station so we stop at the Chinese truck parking, a large fenced-in area on the outskirts of town and wait while Ergash negotiates a reasonable price for Chinese diesel.
Choking on dust, we pull into the tiny village of Ali Chor late afternoon.
Here too we have our own room with a comfy pile of traditional blankets and clean sheets on the floor. The family sleeps in the rooms on either side. There are no doors. $30 for 2 with dinner and breakfast.
Despite the language barrier, the hospitality could not be warmer. The men offer to take us fishing for dinner. We head out in anticipation, but we arrive by the river to find that there are no fish today. Hoping to please us, they set off to buy fish, while we hike back to the village, but when we arrive Ergash informs us "fish cancelled". Dinner will be our favorite - a clear soup with a piece of potato and carrot served with bread and tea. When I ask where I can wash my hands before dinner, the lady explains to Ergash, that only on Saturdays, women convene in the center of the village to wash their hair. As we giggle over the miscommunication, she takes me outside and pours water over my hands. With no electricity, by 7PM we're tucked in.
After days of coarse, lunar beige landscapes, the Wakhan Valley, whose roaring rivers separate Tajikistan from Afghanistan sometimes within spitting distance, offers a palette of flowering lush green landscapes and quaint villages. In the miniscule town of Vrang, 2 annoyingly nimble young boys, lead us through planted fields and up a steep path to the remains of a buddhist stupa.
In Langor, the short but somewhat tricky hike to the fort ruins is well worth the effort for the view.
Yamtchoun is famous for the Bibi Fatima hot springs. It's here, on the steep winding road leading up that 2 months later we find our Dutch friends, jumping out of our respective jeeps to embrace.
With the encouragement of a dozen other naked ladies, I struggle to last a full 10 minutes in the boiling hot spring waters of Bibi Fatima.
At the Sanitarium of Yamtchoun nearby, we are offered nicely made-up mattresses on the floor in a large traditional wooden pavilion where it would be possible to sleep at least 20, but we have the place to ourselves for $16 for the night, no meals.
Being so close to Afghanistan is just too tempting for the photographer who was there on several occasions over 30 years ago. So, within an hour, having signed away all responsibility of the Afghan consulate in Khorog, he has obtained a visa. An Australian guy offers to share his ride to the border at Ishkashim (Eshkashim) and I wave the guys off promising not to worry for the next 3 - 4 days, despite the Saturday Afghan market on the bridge (no man's land) which has been cancelled the last few months and stories of Taliban presence in the area. Incidentally, to situate our location we are 40 kms north of Kunduz where the Taliban attacked a couple of weeks after our passage. However, 4 days later, he reappears at Chor Bagh, the pretty restaurant in Khorog park filled with stories of the warm welcome and unparalleled kindness extended by the men encountered in the village, also called Eshkashim, on the Afghan side. In 3 decades, nothing has changed there. Men wear traditional turbans and women are completely veiled in typical blue burkas. So few tourists visit that he is the main attraction and spends his days, photographing, shaking hands, gesticulating and sharing meals with the men of the village.
It is possible to fly from Khorog to Dushanbe in 45 minutes and though it's billed as a nail-biter , it sounds better than another 15 hour jeep ride. But purchasing a ticket proves impossible despite my best efforts at the cinder block they call the airport where a man on the other side of a narrow hole in a wall waves me off emphatically: tickets are sold out for the month ahead.
The jeep-taxi back to Dushanbe makes the same stops along the route including a restaurant for lunch which has the funniest bathroom. The attendant waves us in together where the stalls have short shower curtains for doors!
We spend a few nights at our favorite Airbnb in Dushanbe where we've now stayed in 3 different apartments owned by various family members in the same building (by our 3rd visit we're now paying $40/night) before flying to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for a final week. Our room at the Lavitor hotel and restaurant run by a nice family is a find. It's a bit outside the center of Bishkek, but a $1 cab ride gets us pretty much anywhere. $19/night for a double room.
On August 31st, Kyrgyzstan's Independence day is celebrated throughout the city and includes an exhibition of Ulak Tartysh (aka buzkashi, kokpar) at the hippodrome. The few women in attendance are tourists like me. After some rather entertaining displays of technical riding, like hitting a target with a bow and arrow from the back of galloping horse, the game begins and it's not for sensitive types. This is a brutal game which consists of two teams on horseback fighting for possession of a beheaded goat and heaving the animal into a goal on either end of the arena. The horses, thick and muscular are trained to fight, and the riders, just as big and strong, jockey for position, dipping way down to lift the heavy beast from the ground, wedging it between leg and saddle to secure it and block opponents as they race toward the goal. It's a grueling display of force and technique and the crowd is wild with excitement as the dead animal is pulverized. Some say the animal is cooked and eaten after the event. We don't stick around to verify.
And with that we wrap up 3 months in Central Asia. While the food is not great and the accommodations are sometimes quite rustic, the people we've met and the places we've seen in all the "stans" have been worth of any bit of inconvenience. Although there is friction as the governments of these newly independent countries struggle over borders and natural resources, as a tourist you are welcomed to enjoy the rich history culture and immense beauty that each has to offer.