Our taxi driver, having offered to drive us to ACTED the night before, picked us up in the morning to visit the NGO office. ACTED had established a community-based tourism organization called META, but this has ceased to operate as of this year. Apparently the yurt owners, horse guides, and jeep operators didn’t think it was worth it. Which means it’s a little tougher for the tourists to find service providers.
The night before Nick, Nic and I had decided to try out a hike over the next few days. We would get our driver to drop us off in the late afternoon at a yurt stay, we’d hike the pass the next morning, and have him pick us up on the other side, where we would stop at some hot springs before heading back to Murgab. At ACTED, our goal was to find a map and touch base with the world-wide-web that we had been missing over the past few days.
We arrive, and it turns out that our driver knows the operator of ACTED and had arranged to open up the office for us on a day that it was normally closed. Duh. And the maps were actually in another room in the building, so other people were called in to open up on their day off. The map ended up being at a scale that was totally not worth it, but we made it worth their while by buying a bunch of locally-made handicrafts.
Instead of the map, Nic found Russian military maps online, of which we took a photo, and the ACTED guy and our driver explained to Nick in Russian what the hike was like. Easy. 6 hours at leisurely pace. Take the left pass instead of the right. Nic was a seasoned hiker in Switzerland, I’m decently experienced, but Nick needed to confirm that his Converse sneakers were good enough for the hike. No problem, he’s told.
It sounds all pretty reasonable.
After ACTED we get dropped off at the market to get ready for the hike. We get some chocolate, bread, and vegetables. Some of the mini chocolates we get are made to look like $100 US bills. Cute. Marco Polo sheep shashlyk (skewered meat) is on offer in the market, but I turned the endangered animal down.
Murgab is not the nicest of places. After the sights of the Wakhan Valley and Pamir Highway, most tourists are not enthused with Murgab. It’s dry (water has to get trucked in) and has the feel of a wild west mining town after the gold rush has ended. The bazaar is made up of two rows of shipping containers. The houses and buildings are placed haphazardly around town – few true streets exist. It’s like some idiot Russians set up shop here, and then quickly realized, “Oh shit, we shouldn’t have done this” but it was too late to move and people just kind of stuck around. But I didn’t find it all that bad. It’s in a scenic location. The homestay options are pretty good. The place has character, as rough as it is.
That afternoon we get picked up to head to the yurtstay. We drive through yet another scenic, broad valley. The mountains are topped with snow. They alternate in greys, reds, and browns. Side valleys are sparsely populated with small clusters of yurts. A girl waves us down on the side of the road. She wants us to charge her batter by changing it with the one in the jeep. The driver turns her down.
About 20km later we end up in the village of the valley of the pass we are going to cross. This “village” consists of 6 yurts and an outhouse. The driver takes us to a family that also has another small room built near the yurt that they can stay in to give us more room. The family consists of a young mother and father, four children (of which some of them are actually their sibling’s children) and the man’s father. The children include two young boys and two babies. One young boy has a lot of fun with us. He can’t stop giggling at our hat-stealing, face making antics. Another boy, just a few years older, is much more grown up. The two or so years difference means he plays less and knows his responsibilities. He’s already a young man. The babies are frightened of us and cry and run away when they spot us. The like using their new-found feet to run around in the grass, but just when they think they’re having a ball, a damned tourist appears, and they run crying for mommy, daddy, aunty, uncle, or grandpa.
Soon after our appearance, a goat gets slaughtered. Nick asks the father what the goat is for, and he replies, “We always slaughter a goat when we have guests.” We’re confused. The financial math doesn’t make sense seeing as we are only staying one night. But we’ve heard about goats getting slaughtered for guests of honour. But is that us? Whatever. We’re having goat for dinner.
The family has an adorable dog. It tries to get close to the goat while it’s getting cut up, but he knows the expected boundaries. It’s a cute dog, and if you say “Salaam” you can shake his paw.
As the evening progress, we spread out and each take walks to enjoy the golden light and find some peace and beautiful scenery. Along the way I have to pee and spot a pile of rocks that looks suitable. Nope, it’s a grave. Move alone.
On my walk back, I get invited into one of the other yurts for tea. They spot Nic a few minutes later and he gets a call in. Once they realize that neither of us speaks Russian and therefore aren’t too entertaining, they go off in search of Nick. We three are soon reunited over drinks and carbs.
We find out that they are here for the summer only. They’re relaxing. No work involved. Basically the Kyrgyz Tajik version of a summer cabin. Except they disassemble this cabin at the end of the season. They live in Murgab during the winter. I can’t imagine anything more desolate that Murgab in the summer, but Murgab in the winter might just have that beat.
We also learn that our hosts (where we are sleep) are having a big wedding tomorrow. They are already husband and wife, but they are finished a new house, so apparently this calls for a big wedding. Nick confirms later that this is actually more like a housewarming, and not a wedding. Over forty people are expected.
One of the young men in the yurt says something in Russian, and Nick almost spits out his tea. He translates.
“You thought the goat was for you, didn’t you?”
We laugh sheepishly and admit that while confusing, we thought that the goat was for us.
Along with tea they serve little fried little dough balls. I’m tired of all the bread and dairy, but these little things are great dipped in thick cream and sprinkled with sugar.
We bow out soon enough, as dinner at our other yurt awaits. After we leave I bring back a bar of chocolate in thanks. We watch the yaks come down for the evening from the high pastures. They know the daily drill.
As we wait for dinner, the young silly boy and I play the “guess which hand the coin is in game” like I do so often with kids. He doesn’t like to play fair and instead of pointing at the one hand he suspects, he grabs both hands. I impressively grab the coin from his ear. My magic skills are shite, but they seem appreciated. If they don’t instill a sense of awe, at least they are a form of amusement.
Dinner was what I had been expecting all along in Central Asia. Meat, bread, and dairy in the form of yogurt, cream and butter. Large bowls of each are spread around the mat in the yurt. Whatever is uneaten goes back into the small kitchen area and is brought out for the next meal. Truly communal eating. This meat is the first meat I’ve had in a homestay. Most meals have been vegetarian – potatoes, cabbage, eggs, bread. I’m not sure what the meat is, and if it is the goat we saw killed earlier. The father and grandfather skin every bit of meat off the bone with a knife and suck the marrow from within. I only take one small piece and eat as much as I can, but I’ve never been much for fat.
After dinner the grandfather prays. It’s the first namaz I’ve seen performed in Central Asia. We then fall into political chats. It’s great to have Nick in our group to converse and translate. How rare it is to find a young Texan travelling to Central Asia who speaks Russian. We talk about the recent Kyrgyz/Uzbek violence in Kyrgyzstan. The grandfather believes that the Uzbeks started it, but that Americans and Russians were provocateurs. We ask what he thinks the solution is.
“Only God knows.”
We ask how they like living in Tajikistan. This area of the country is largely Kyrgyz, and the grandfather has no interest in living in Kyrgyzstan. He says they speak a bastardized form of Kyrgyz up there, mixed with too much Russian.
After the dinner is cleared, we head outside as our beds are made with piles and piles of sleeping mats and blankets. One wide bed is made on the right, one single bed on the left. Our first quick assumption is that the girl and boys are sleeping separately, but it turns out the three of us will be snug as a bug in a rug together, and gramps will be joining us.
I sleep lightly and sporadically. The altitude is 4100m we’re told, but I can’t imagine that we’ve gain 500m since Murgab. I also would like to think that we have more than 600m to climb the next day. Gramps is up at 5am for morning namaz, then the fire gets made to slowly warm us out of bed.
The light in the morning is beautiful. It’s a clear day for our hike and the sky is a deep crisp blue. Breakfast is bread and dairy (I’m so tired of bread), as well as some buttery layered dough thingy. It’s almost like a moist uncooked pie crust rolled out thinly and layer over and over again back over itself, the cut up into pie-piece triangles.
We leave at 9am, first taking a family photo by the yurt. We play “I stole your hat” with the young boy, and are refused a paw after our offers of “Salaam” with the dog. The babies surprise us by waiving goodbye as they are carried near us by the adults. I suppose they hate to see strangers come, but are happy to see them go.
It’s a long, slow walk up the valley. We can hear marmots squeaking all around us, but it’s rare to actually spot one. The yaks are already back up in the high pastures above us. The ground is spotted with tonnes of flowers – purple, white, yellow. For quite a while our hiking takes us along the grassy valley bottom, but soon we start to climb among rocks. Really loose rocks.
The nonpath along the loose rocks becomes steeper and suckier. It’s the kind of rock that takes you back down half a step for each one you take.
The whole time we can see where the pass will roughly be, but not the exact spot. It’s always a little bit around a corner. While I imagine that there is actually a dip of a pass, I have no idea. Nic is quite a bit ahead so I keep asking him for route tips based on what lies ahead.
Soon the rocks become interspersed with snow. The edges of the snowfields are icy and hard to navigate without slipping. Nic has made tracks ahead of us and I’m grateful.
One foot at a time seems to work. I keep my head down. I’m a bit dizzy with height; it’s easy to imagine a wrong step and then a subsequent slide down a few hundred metres. Nick is having a bit of trouble with his sneakers, but he’s a trooper and never complains. Nic is great at making trail. I lead for a bit, but decide I feel comfortable if Nick makes the tracks. Crampons would have been ideal. We were told there was no snow at the pass. This doesn’t look like much from below, but when you are trying to climb it, it feels like much much more.
Nick and I rest near the top as Nic scopes out the best place to cross the pass. It definitely isn’t a pass like I expected. It’s more of a ridge that may or may not have a lowest point.
Finally, we make it. It’s windy at the top. With the cold wind and the altitude I’m having a bit of trouble breathing. Lots of coughing. 4721m. This is the highest I’ve ever been on a hike. I’ve been higher on a bus in Peru, but it’s a lot different when you’ve had to do the footwork yourself.
The valley on the other side is much different that the one we have just come from, but is just as picturesque. As this side is oriented in a more southerly direction, there’s little snow. It’s easy going at first, but then once we cross a small wall of snow the path turns to loose rock. It sucks. At least each slide is a slide in the right direction though. The route is barren, and I have trouble finding a private place to pee. I squat behind a 2 foot rock and hope that Nick and Nic avert their eyes.
I breath a lot better as I warm up and descend, but my nose is running just as much as usual. I opt for the “plug one nostril and blow” approach, wiping whatever remains with my sleeve. My clothes are absolutely nasty.
At the base of the rockfall there is a bit of grass and once we’re all caught up with each other we have a rest and snack on our vegetables, bread, and chocolate. I lay down in the sun and become groggy with relaxation. It’s lovely. I need rest, but there is no time, so we push on.
Down in the river valley the trail is much better. Hard grass with only scattered rocks and gravel. I know already we are going to be late to meet our driver. Once we hit the 4WD road we have another 8km to go.
We spot two boys up ahead. They say hello. About 10 times. Nick asks how far to Madiyan, which is on the main road. They say 1km, but we know that’s wrong. They must mean to get to the 4WD road. We spot two other people, but lose them. Where did they go?
We climb over a crest, and magic. The jeep. Yup, the two people we spotted and lost were driver and son. We originally arranged for him to meet us in Madiyan, on the main valley road below, but he was worried about us. He refused payment for these extra km, even though they were the toughest he’s driven for us.
The 4WD road out makes all other roads I’ve ever been on seem luxurious, and all other 4WD vehicles seem like sissies. There was no road. It was just big rocks. Rivers. And once and a while two tracks that lead through rocks and rivers. Every other 4WD road I’ve been on now just seems like a gravel road with some pot holes. Even if you think your SUV could make this road, you wouldn’t dare. I was glad I didn’t have to walk it in the end.
We hit the main road and turn up the route to some hot springs. We had asked the driver the day before how the hot spring were. The last ones we stopped at near Bulunkul had been more like lukewarm springs. “Hot,” he says.
The road out to the springs skirted the edge of a lush and green valley. A lovely wide river, eventually leading to Sarez Lake, was dotted along its banks with trees and crops, all thriving above 3800m. Sarez Lake is off limits without a permit, as it was formed after an earthquake resulted in river blockage. If another earthquake disrupts this natural dam, experts expect a flood of such devastating proportions that lives and villages would be destroyed all the way into Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. It would be the largest flood ever to be witnessed by humans.
We turn off the main road for the last 10km to the hot springs and follow a narrow gorge. Once we arrive we’re told that all the bathing rooms are taken, so we wait. I entertain myself with the resident dog, which likes to half lay, half stand while getting its ears scratched.
When the first room opens up, the driver asks if we will bathe together. This is definitely not Iran. I wait it out.
As I wait it out, I think. Earlier in the day I had decided, after much indecision, the head on to Kyrgyzstan. The prospects of maybe teaching English in Khorog did not appeal to me, and as much as I enjoyed it there, I just wanted to push on. And then, in my post-hike induced clarity, I realize that my Kyrgyz visa not good until the 2nd, so back to Khorog it is. I’m happy enough with the outcome. The decision has been made for me.
Finally it’s my turn for the bath. The water is not hot. It is F***ING hot. I accidentally hop in, and then hop out, and then finally back in again. Is there no cold water mixing option? I have a whole little pool to my naked self, but I quickly rinse off as much filth as I can, and get out. I’m so hot I’m dizzy. I dress as fast as I can in order to catch some fresh cool air.
Before we head back into Murgab, we have tea with the older man that seems to run the place. He looks like a Kyrgyz pimp with his traditional hat, trench coat, and think glasses.
As has become so common now, we (through Nick) and our host discuss politics. We discuss the recent turnover in government in Kyrgyzstan, and the man reveals is is not a fan of parliamentary government. He believes that a country needs one strong man to lead its people (though he later confirms that one strong woman would also be OK). This strong leader is needed to hold back the influences of Russian and US, and soon China. He worries about the possible influence of Islamic fundamentalism in Kyrgyzstan, noting that its not a problem in Tajikistan because of the strong President. The influence of the Taliban is not a problem if the government and its people don’t want it. He says the people here are not interested in what that kind of religion brings.
Pimp comes back with us to Murgab. He sits in the back so that we can continue our conversation. We stop for a series of photos, the driver now attuned to our English cues of wanting to stop. The sun is almost setting and has washed the green valley in golden light.
Once back in Murgab, the air is so clear we can easily see the 7546m snowy peak of Muztagh Ata in the distance (in China). Apparently it’s the easiest 7 thousander to climb in the world. It’s more of a really high broad hill that a jagged peak, but I’m sure it requires skill just the same.
I get a photo with the drive as we say goodbye. I really regret not getting his name and phone number to pass on to other tourists heading to Murgab. He was really a gem, and this season has been very slow with the lack of tourists heading through to Kygyzstan. He tells us that we are only his second group of tourists all season, and the season is half-way over.
Dinner is met with hungry stomachs that are filled quickly. Some miscommunication happens as I think the homestay owner is asking if she can take my plate, when it turns out she was asking if I wanted my plate refilled. Thankfully Nick has no problem shovelling down the extra portions.
So tomorrow, our original group of 5 which fractured to 3 will be divided again as Nic and I head back to Khorog and Nick head to Kyrgyzstan to meet up with a friend in Osh before he continues to Uzbekistan.
I’ve got about 5 days to fill before my Kyrgyz visa starts. Will I volunteer? Hang out? Try to hike some more?
Only one thing is definitely on my list. Laundry.