Wow. What a drive. Both in length and vistas.
The guesthouse manager had said the drive would be about 12-13 hours. That if I left about 9:30 (which I did) I would arrive by 10 (which I did not).
The drive probably is more like 18 hours, but when you figure in 1) waiting for a 10m section of road to be paved (literally waiting for the asphalt to be poured, raked flat, and rolled over) 2) a legitimately tired driver wanting to nap for 4 or 5 hours, 3) running out of gas in the middle of nowhere and waiting for one of the passengers to hitch to the next village and back with gas, the whole trip ended up taking 25 hours.
But, what a drive.
The first 6 hours were fairly boring. It started with, well not starting. It seems inevitable that when a vehicle is full and all passengers are set that it’s not actually time to depart. First gas. In this case, gas taken by glass jars from open barrels, poured into the vehicle through a funnel. We also were stopped by multiple traffic police, at which point our driver soon realized that the starter wasn’t working, and that in order to get going we were going to have to find a way to get a rolling start (which remained true for the rest of the 25 hours).
On a side note, while I didn’t see any money change hands when we were stopped repeatedly at the beginning of this trip, traffic police apparently squeeze a few somanis out of many stopped cars. Next to the president’s inner circle, I suspect traffic police are the next richest group of citizens in Tajikistan. They’re everywhere, and always out in full force.
But back to the actual drive. Again, the beginning was fairly unremarkable. Rolling hills and incredibly hazy sky. We stopped for lunch, where I ordered the only word I recognized – borsht – and the ladies were treated by the men. This is the first shared taxi that I’ve taken where a majority of passengers are women. The four of us were treated for dinner that evening too.
After lunch before we start our climb over a pass, we stop for fruit and get accosted. Little children asking for money. Little children trying to pull the windows down and open the doors to ask for money. An old man who really wants a ride, and won’t take “sorry, we’re full” as an answer. Those not buying fruit lock ourselves inside. One man comes back, sets his grapes down on the seat, and I soon find myself sitting in water. I spend the rest of the trip sitting on a towel. We take off, and one of the packages on the roof falls off. A comedy of errors.
Eventually, we crested the pass, and descended into an increasingly remarkable canyon. In the far distance through the canyon I could see snow-capped peaks. Was this Afghanistan?
Soon enough the canyon emptied into a broad river valley, were we met up with the Panj river, separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan. My first glimpse of an Afghan village was very exciting. I couldn’t believe that right there, across the river, was Afghanistan. Where as the Tajik side was serviced by road, the Afghan side wasn’t even serviced by electricity. Villages were few and far between, with narrow footpaths as their sole connections.
As the river valley narrowed to have steep rock faces line each side, my new pasttime became following the footpath on the Afghan side. The path was carved haphazardly yet thoughtfully into the most forgiving part of the sheer walls. Sometimes the paths dipped below the water line – the river was higher than usual. What happens in that case – are the villages completely cut off? At one point I spotted three men walking along the path. As we continued driving, it seemed like hours before we spotted any civilization. Where were the men coming from? Sometimes the rock wall became too vertical, and the path would have to climb high about the river. Sometimes I would lose the path, and find it again only to be dumbfounded as to how it would be possible to climb and descend it without falling.
At first I thought this would be a great place to come for a hiking trip. But as the paths got more and more extreme, I thought it would be a bit of a death wish.
At dinner I sat with the women. I asked the youngest one (20 years old) the usual third question after “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” and “Are you married?”
“No,” she responded with a smile. “I’m studying medicine.” Right on! I thought.
After dinner the ladies went to find a toilet. The public toilet was the first truly public toilet on this trip. No stalls. Just a huge line of holes with two foot high dividers between them. The only private one is the last one, as no one can walk by you.
About half an hour after dinner, the driver decided to stop for a rest. Completely reasonable considering he had been driving for over 12 hours and he still had at least another six to go.
The women lie out on a large platform bed outdoors. We’re there for 4 hours, but I swear I only sleep for less than 30 minutes. One problem is the bugs, or at least my imagination. They keep flying into me or crawling on me. And the cold that I developed in Dushanbe is in full swing. My nose won’t stop running. My head aches. I sneeze. And sneeze. And sneeze.
Once we’re back in the car I manage to nod off for a bit while it’s still dark, and skip breakfast for more napping.
And then it was light, and I noticed the valley had opened up. Still stunning. I was offered to go to the homes of two of the passengers, but seeing as I was sick and was arriving in Khorog at a decent hour, I wanted some privacy.
Khorog is a nice little town, set in a valley just up from the main valley that borders on Afghanistan. The streets are tree-lined, the air is fresh, and the mountain views are lovely.
I ended up at the main backpacker haunt in Khorog. Mainly because I was hoping to meet some other people interested in sharing a jeep up the Wakhan Valley over a few days. I did meet some interesting people. Lots of cyclists. A group of motorbikers heading over into Afghanistan, including a Calgarian. An English woman doing research with the local Ismailis. Had a good laugh when a German cyclist very seriously told a group of us that he was a warm doucher. It sounded funnier than it looks in print.
Through the information centre I was able to hook up with a young Texan and two older French women who were also interested in sharing a jeep. It worked out pretty perfectly, though I could tell early on that the French women, one in particular, might be a bit too assertive for my liking. But Nick, the Texan, spoke Russian, so he was going to be a great help. That night I also found one more traveller, Nic from Switzerland, looking to go, so we were 5 in total. Perfect.
Before we left Khorog, I achieved two important things. First was finding a place to eat a better variety of food than the standard Tajik fare. I was able to try an Indian restaurant (though while run by an actual Indian, does not compare to India or Vancouver), a kind of fancy cafe overlooking the water (which served decent tasting food in small portions and at high prices), and finally, my favourite, the Russian restaurant. The place looked like a Russian love dungeon. It was dark and furnished in dark wood and red satin. Apparently it was a night club later in the evening. But it served good food. I settled on mashed potatoes (yum!), vegetable ragout (yum!), and a main dish called “Perfume of Love” (huh!?). I had enquired about the “Canadian Steak” but it was described to me as “chopped up meat”. Perfume of Love, on the other hand, was a chicken breast, covered in chopped up green peppers and onions in some sort of cream, topped with slices of tomatoes and melted cheese.
The second thing was to inquire into some volunteering possibilities. I popped into the Aga Khan Foundation office to see a woman I had met briefly on the way to the tourist information office earlier in the day. I wanted to find out if any project work was available in Kyrgyzstan or possibly Tajikistan. I have quite a bit of time to spend in this area, and with visa extensions being much easier in Kyrgyzstan, the former seems like a better option. I met with Nuria and her colleague Azicha, explaining my interests and experiences, inquiring about contacts or projects they may be able to direct me to. They offered to make some inquiries and get back to me. Which would be difficult seeing as I was leaving the next morning, and I didn’t have a cell phone. Azicha was a bit surprised I wouldn’t have a mobile.
“A man without a mobile is, is like, …. like a border guard without a gun.”
An odd choice of simile.
On our way out of the office, I met of friend of Nuria’s who was selling a phone. He didn’t have it with him, but said he would bring it by in the morning, all set with a SIM card and some credit. 8am. When I was meeting the others at the PECTA office to leave in the jeep.
Yeah, that never happened. I’m not sure what it is, but as firm as you think plans, are, plans never seem to be plans here. Ah well.
Instead, it was Nick, Nic, Francoise, Mary Florence and I ready to take off for four days through the Wakhan Valley and east Pamir Highway. An eclectic bunch.