(40) Osh, Kyrgyzstan: Ashes to ashes

My first night in Osh after my long drive from Murgab was a little tense. While the height of the ethnic violence had subsided, there was still an uneasy air about Osh. I was so hungry but didn’t want to venture out in the dark. Thankful to have one final protein bar in my pack for times like this. I was vaguely reassured by kids playing outside.

By day, Osh was a lot less scary. Lots of pockets of burnt out buildings, business, and homes. Many doors had signs or paint indicating the business and homes were “KbIPXb3” or Kyrgyz – i.e. Uzbek people were the target. However, the market was hopping, people were out. Business as usual as could be.

Explored town with a fellow traveller from the guesthouse (Scottish?, Swedish?). Walked up a big hill – Dom Babura – which involved something religious (shrine? cemetery?) but in reality is best for the views of Osh from above. From this vantage point one could really see areas of targeted violence. Discreet blocks that were burnt down.

While in Osh I enjoyed some pastries, some ice cream, some stuffed baked dough pockets (could do without the chunks of fat, thank you) and decided to fly to Bishkek the next day. The idea of more long rides did not appeal at this point. There was a guard with a gun outside the travel agency I went through.

And that’s all I can remember from Osh.

(39) Khorog, Tajikistan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan: The slow road

I get down to the transportation area before 10, bypassing a final opportunity with internet.

We wait for 2 hours. Seems like they aren’t actively looking for more passengers, but we finally are joined by two more, and we’re off. The other tourist in the van is a young Japanese woman. 

But first for gas. Then for picking up the last passenger (at hospital?). Then for some sort of mechanical things. Finally off just before 1pm. Sigh.

They say it will take 5 hours, are they lying or stupid or do they serious have no sense of time? The trip is 8 hours. So bumpy. Bumpier than I remember. At least there were only two of us in the cramped back. 

I felt like I had been punched in the kidneys for 10 hours. The first time I was on this road I expressed my desire not to travel on it again. After travelling it twice more, I still do not want to travel it again.

Same scenery. Still nice. Saw 4 eagles. One group of three soaring together. The Japanese woman is in love with the bright orange fuzzy marmots.

We stop in Alichur to eat. My stomach is in pain so I don’t eat and instead I walk off a lot of gas.

We finally get to Murgab after 9pm. It’s dark. I manage to get to the guesthouse. I stay in the Lonely Planet one this time because I want to meet people going to Osh.

Who do I meet there but Surprise! Aziza and Yarma, who I first met way back in Mashhad, Iran, and Chris. The larger groups enjoys late night chat. We share riddles. So late.

In the morning my diarrhea starts again in earnest. For fuck sake.

I head at 8 to the market for transport. It’s dead.

I rest some more. Have breakfast. Head back to the market and get sunglasses. I don’t think they are sunglasses so much as glass frames with grey lenses.

I find a Jeep advertising going to Osh the next morning. I bargain from 200 to 150, as I’m the last passenger they need. It sounds like two other tourists are going too. I try to guarantee a window seat. Not sure if I did.

We have a lazy day. We joke about having a traveller newsletter, with updates on who’s doing what and where and on what timeline. We see the same people over and over again.

A negative German guy harps on the young woman working at the guesthouse–“If I was manager I’d fire her.”

I have possibly the best guesthouse meal yet – fries and yak.

I encourage others to go on the same hike I did with Nick and Nic.

I’m up at 5am for the Jeep, and wonder if a scheduled plan is a plan this time. It is – they honk, and I’m ready. I’m so tired. One of the passengers is a Spanish-Dutch guy I met in Samarkand.

More lovely scenery. Karakol is beautiful, especially from beyond it and looking back. Many tourists likely don’t get this far.

Border crossing is a few shipping containers. Finally, a real mountain pass.

Down into Tajikistan have to stop at another border station. Play with the dog. Wait a looong time. Vehicle thoroughly inspected.

Road washed out, we drive through a river. Russian Jeeps are the best. Stop so some passengers can get kymyz (fermented mare’s milk). A couple gets out as they are heading east to China.

We ascend again, very windy roads. Lots of road construction. Mud. Trucks. The Chinese are improving transportation routes for their goods into Central Asia. Lunch is lagman, but different than in Tajikistan.

As we get closer to Osh, there are green hillsides, the sites of weddings and parties. A place to get away to party in the “country”?

The first time I’ve seen working gas pumps in a long time.

Beautiful valleys.

In Osh, it take a long time to get to a guesthouse. A taxi can’t find the address I want. Finally I find that I have to walk off the road to get to it. It’s full with Red Cross and other workers (ethnic tensions still simmering here, the major violence was just a few weeks ago). I eventually get to the other one in the guidebook. It’s in a residential area, in an apartment building. Finally. It’s been an 18 hour+ day.

(38) Khorog, Tajikistan: A week of rest

(Note: I’m posting this 3.5 years after the fact. My notes are variable in quality, so what I give up in narrative quality, I get back in just getting this damn thing posted).

Said goodbye to the guesthouse folk. Found a shared taxi with two young French and an older German man. The drive is underwhelming. Hazier? Used to the scenery? I nodded off a lot, and didn’t take many photos. I can’t believe I have to do this trip one more time to get to Osh.

The minivan drops us travellers at the bottom of the hill that leads up to the guesthouses. The usual Pamir Lodge is cramped, so I decide to stay next door. It’s cleaner, quieter.

A few of us head for the vampire restaurant, but it’s full, so we head into town to try the Indian restaurant. Vegetable Dynabites are on the menu? Is this like pakora? The food is just OK. Trying to get home, is seems the minibuses are done for the night. It’s a long walk home.

I feel a little bit ill when heading to bed, and I end up getting up 3 times in the night with watery diarrhea. I notice bites on my feet in the morning. I stay in bed reading most of the day. Three of us head out for dinner to the usual vampire “haunt” and satisfy my weak intestinal system with mashed potatoes and vegetables. It’s rainy. One of my dinner mates, the old German man, is very interesting. He has worked in university research in applied neurobiology, pharmacology. Very well travelled. Only not to Antarctica, so as not to spoil it. He grew up in West Berlin. And is very anti-minaret and anti-Islam. It makes for tough conversation between the three of us.

Back at the guesthouse, a French duo think they’ve had 900 Euros stolen from them. It turns out they didn’t look hard enough.

I read in the morning, and feel well enough for breakfast. I take a bus up to the botanical gardens. Pick apricots. Still rainy. Bites getting worse.

I still don’t feel like eating any Tajik food. I’ve been sick too often. At this point I just want North American comforts. This sickness makes me want to go home early. I’m tired. I’m not looking forward to the food. I’ve seen enough mountains. I’m a pussy.

I read more. Watch a little TV. Russian news channels of various quality. I worry about finding people to get to Osh with. It’s a rare journey from Murgab.

A pair of mountain climbing women come to the guest house. My first thought is whether they’ve brought more fleas inside. A noisy Chinese group checks-in.

Hang out more. More reading. Some writing. I have stayed one more day than planned. I like to rest.

On my final day I went down to the local market, dead on a Sunday. Got apricots, a razor, pen, veggies.

I come back down for dinner at the nice cafe overlooking the river, figure out transport for Murgab. I eavesdropped on some young development workers. Oh dear, is this development?

The Internet cafe is closed. Back at the guesthouse there is a noise family with 10(?!) children screaming. Seriously?

My bites are so fucking itchy!!!

(37) Murgab, Tajikistan: A goat? Just for us?

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.

(36): Pamir Highway, Tajikstan: Summer holiday

(Note: I’m posting this 3.5 years after the fact. My notes are variable in quality, so what I give up in narrative quality, I get back in just getting this damn thing posted).

We leave Bulunkul late, after having slept long at high altitdue. It’s about 3800m here.

We plan just to get to Murgab with some photo stop along the way.

We stop at an abandoned russian base. Used for spying? It has be destructed. We spot an old bathroom and the captain’s cafeteria. There are other men here at the moment, using a truck to tear down and salvage an old wood frame. Lots of goats’ feet lying around.

We stop in Alichur to check the gas situation. Literally look into it. The drive looks into the take.

We stop at a renowned fish pool with super clear water. Are there any fish around? Apparently Russians fished it dry 10 years ago.

Eventually we find a yurt we can stop at for a snack. With fish. It’s and old couple–this is their summer home. In the winter they live in Alichur. They don’t work, just “enjoy nature.” The river fish at lunch had been caught by their grandson and was accompanied by yak’s yogurt, yak’s cream, fresh bread, tea. Delicious, though we weren’t really all that hungry. We had an interesting conversation with our hosts (through Nick’s translation) about race relations in America. I’m almost falling asleep sitting up. The wife is making noodles as we sit. The yurt has a satellite dish and DVD player.

We joke that the hole in the roof is their incandescent light.

Our host speaks a bit of English. “Come please.” “Tea drink.”

He tells us that “up here, the land is everyone’s.”

A yurt costs $3000. $2500 for a Russian Jeep. Sounds like a great summer to me. I imagine having a little yurt off the main road. I’d have a sign at the road with an arrow pointing down to the yurt — BANANA PANCAKES. BOOK EXCHANGE. Wouldn’t the cyclists be dumbfounded.

We leave, and as we descend to Murgab we pick up a local hitchhiker.

In Murgab, we find out that META (the community-based tourism agency) is no longer. Our driver explains high commissions and a requirement to be involved as reasons. At the home stay we end up at, it’s $2 for everything–breakfast, lunch, dinner, shower. I guess this means sleeping is $2 too?

I indulge in the $2 “shower”. Scrub feet. Hot water. So good. Clean clothes. Sunny little sitting area.

I will sleep soundly again tonight.

We tipped our driver, and he offered to drive us to ACTED tomorrow (another community development initiative). We may do a hike.

(35) Wakhan Valley to Bulunkul, Tajikistan: Miracle by Jeep

(Note: I’m posting this 3.5 years after the fact. My notes are variable in quality, so what I give up in narrative quality, I get back in just getting this damn thing posted).

The driver arrives early that morning. He’s pissed. There is a flat tire. We sort out costs with our new route (i.e. him dropping us off at the washout, driving back to Khorog with the French women). The French women are also pissed off, but OK over all. The hosts where we are stay are not all that friendly in the morning. We finally leave, but the old jeep battery dead. We stop for chocolate, cigarettes, watermelon.

The drive is still lovely. We pick up two local girls for a ride part of the way. Are they thankful, or does this just mean two more hours of working when they get to their destination? Maybe walking with a sister/friend is more enjoyable than the alternative.

Then, we pick up Polish couple. They hadvwalked from Langar that morning, expecting to walk the rest of the valley, knowing the road was closed.

We get to the washout, and our jeep is waiting on the other side. We ready ourselves for a traverse of the river. The local men help us out with hands and backs. We give them some dollars for their help. It’s much easier than we expected. Nic and I lament on the lack of adventure. It was all too easy. We got a ride. The crossing was quick, the other jeep was waiting. The Polish describe it all as a miracle.

The road continues along a beautiful, broad, high valley with river in a canyon below. We stop for lots of photos. I spot a bird of prey soaring, the ends of its wings tipped up.

We run into a jeep coming our way with tourists in the back. We explain the situation. The tourists are obviously surprised, but the guide and driver less so. Not sure what they are planning, but they continue on.

The Russian Jeep is surprisingly comfortable, even with 4 across the back. The road is a fairly great gravel road, the seats are well cushioned, the valley is broad enough that views exist for everyone.

The road descends into valley, and we are so close to Afghanistan. I throw a few rocks to the other side of the river, just so I can say something I touched went to Afghanistan. Just a stone’s throw from Afghanistan. Seriously. I threw a rock. It hit Afghanistan.We consider finding a place to cross if the river widens, as we expect it to.

Swiss Nick and I consider whether anything bad would happen to us if cross. Would we be shot at? Where from? There aren’t any buildings to hide in on the others side. Do they have snipers? This is not Taliban territory. If there is Afghan army presence, I’m sure NATO forces would not leave them instructions to shoot. Maybe shoot near as a warning, but not actually shoot.

The valley descends to meet the river, and we spot some Bactrian (two humped) camels. We stop for picnic, as no villages or services for lunch. We share everything we have. Old tomato and cucumber. Old bread. Left over bulgur wheat. Dried fruit. Almonds. Chocolate. A watermelon. 

We see ground animals. Marmots? Huge yellow things.

The river seems broad enough to maybe cross, but it’s very cold, very fast moving, and probably above the knee. I dip my toe and retreat. I would only attempt to cross for a sure thing, and this is not it.

We finally leave the riverside, and the road starts to ascend. We approach a checkpoint and have to honk and honk to get someone to come from the nearby base. Not much traffic today. I play with a base dog, and pee behind a stone traffic-calming barrier.

We leave the Afghan border, and climb a pass to meet the Pamir highway. I expect a pass, but there isn’t one, just a very broad and high altitude valley. A stinking salty lake.

We descend to meet a paved highway. The Pamir Highway. Highway is a strong word, but it’s more than a gravel road.

We stop in Bulunkul for the evening. The light at this time of day is beautify. The village is haphazard. The polish get their military maps and head off by foot with their huge bags.

We take a quick trip to the lake, were apparently there is a hot spring in a little makeshift building. Turns out the “hot” spring is only warm. The shack has a bathtub to catch the spring water. With frogs. We take a walk down to the lake. It’s reasonably warm.

Back in Bulunkul some young kids are playing with tin lid and sick, shards of glass. We play volleyball. Older boys come and only want to spike. We and the kids leave the game.

The kids play a game with a cloth ball. Cardboard numbers get flipped over, and it seems the goal is to not get hit with ball.

We talk about hiking a valley and meeting up with the Jeep at the other end. Too many unknowns. I consider going back to Khorog. I can’t decide what the fuck to do. Murgab or back to Khorog? In the end I continue with the guys.

(34) Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan: Alongside Afghanistan

(Note: I’m posting this 3.5 years after the fact. My notes are variable in quality, so what I give up in narrative quality, I get back in just getting this damn thing posted).

We stop at some hot springs, they are way built up with mineral deposits. Many naked women bath in the area around the corner–the guys I’m travelling with almost accidentally caught a peek.

We drive up up way up (steep, not far) off the road into a village in order to see a shrine listed in our book. We take photos. The shrine is basically a few ram’s horns. Photogenic old abandoned car. Get invited for a tea by a man who perhaps has had a stroke, half of his face hangs, he has a weeping eye and a twisted mouth, but he stance is proud. We feel pressed for time so decline. I’m really saddened. I cry. I don’t want to have to say no again.

How could I live here? (Not that I doubt that I could, I’m just honestly thinking of scenarios that would allow me to live here). The whole situation is so beautiful.

Ishkashin has lots of nice cars. It’s an entry to point into/out of Afghanistan. There is drug trade. We have lunch.

We stop at an old fort which overlooks the river into Afghanistan. A few guards sit atop and point to us. Go this way. No, don’t go any further. This way? That way? Oh, that way? They cross their arms, but also bring their hand to their heart.

We walk to another shrine. Just a ram’s head again. Meet a few local women up the road, try out my Tajik.

We learn from a passer-by that the road somewhere ahead is blocked. We question if we should even tell the French women. Nothing is confirmed.

Climbing up another old fort/viewpoint. So windy. Beautiful views. We lose Nick for a while.

We leave the main road up towards Bibi Fatima hot springs to find a guesthouse for the night. We hear a gunshot. It’s all good.

Lovely hot springs in the morning. Women and men have to wait and enjoy dark room separately.

I ask the women if they are here on holiday. No, they are sick. They come here two times a day until they feel better. Apparently these are healing springs. The women take care of me – where to go, how to use each water, tell me the spout is good for the scar on my stomach. A young woman has a knee problem – will the water really help?

On the drive towards Langar we stop in another village with a little canyon, and a monument atop a hill–both of which seem to be magnets for local children. I buy Pamiri socks in the village after a little tour of a local museum. No place to have lunch anywhere.

We finally get to Langar, and to a guesthouse eventually. 10TL for lunch. Host (male) is drunk. Nick is trying to figure out the roads with him, but the host points sloppily, stink of alcohol.

There are are also Australians with a guide here. The guide says it will be fine tomorrow (or is that just what the guide needs to say to string his guests along?). 

Our options are 1) hope it’s truly fine. Stay and try tomorrow. 2) Head back to Khorog. 3) What about the Maz Pass? (apparently too rough for even the Russian Jeep).

Nick and the driver decide to go look at the situation. Apparently the road is washed out, but everyone wants to go look.

The scenery is stunning. It’s different than everything else we’ve seen so far. We see the final Afghan border crossing. Canyon. Broader valley. Ins and outs. Flat, high plains. We stop a lot. There are great views of the valley below.

Along the road we pass two men walking with shovels. The road is not going to be ready tomorrow if it’s just these two guys. 

Apparently someone made a great double entendre (pun?), but I don’t quiet have it right: “I’d prefer such the road was over ..(?).. by a landslide.”

We get there and finally see as we turn a corner. The road is gone. Fully washed out. Large rocks are scattered all around. Nick chats with men at the building by the washout. Apparentely it happened two or three days ago. A tractor is coming from Ishkashim to fix it, but they are not sure when or if it has left yet. They are not sure how long it will take to get there and to rebuild the road. There is no phone reception, so they really have no idea.

I imagine the possibilities if we had been on bikes. It could be possible to cross with stuff on our backs. But not tomorrow.

We start start discussing our options. There is one other possibility. Apparently, tourists the day before had met accidentally from either side of the landslide and exchanged vehicles.

We talk about calling for a car from Murgab, and walking around the slide. The French women are not impressed. They want to push back to Khorog. We get back to Langar. We make some calls. We decide either way the Jeep leaves at 7pm, with or without the three of us.

Nick, Mary and I go for a walk to the Afghan border. Can we bribe someone and get across? We just want to step foot on the other side.

We make it there on an almost nonexistent road. The guards don’t see us approaching until quite late. I’m all smiles, and the guys shake hands but are pretty serious. I try my best in Tajik. I motion to walk across the bridge and walk back. I get the standard arms crossed. They tell us that if we try to cross the Afghan side will shoot us. Before we even make a motion to, they also make sure to give us an x-arm for no photos. We make like we understand. And then I show that I understand that I can’t take a photo of the bridge and border, but can I take a photo looking away from the bridge, and perhaps take a photo of them with us? Of the two men, one I think looks like he would have no problem. The other guy smiles briefly, but then goes back to serious, and gives us the arms cross. No more luck. And my Tajik has pretty much run out, so it’s time to return to the jeep. They escort us back to the “main” road, at which I try one more time unsuccessfully to get a photo with them.

I suppose I’m happy that the Tajik/Afghan border is maintained by men that don’t seem to encourage bribes, and like to follow protocol. 

Rain starts to come down fairly hard.

Back at the vehicle, it turns out we can get a car from Murgab. So do we take it? Nic will do it if Nick and I are totally for it. I will only do it if Nick does it because of his Russian. Done.

We decide to not stay at the lunch guesthouse as the host is a drunk asshole. We find another guest house in the village with a big yard. This last night as a group of five and driver, we laugh a lot. The French women lighten up. One of them cracks a joke that was apparently memorable and funny enough to note in my journal, but here it seems just like a statement: “I’m not good at math, that’s why I can’t get into a masters of economics program.”

People (including me before I came here) imagine this area as remote, tough. I know that after my friends Andrew and Shirley described the area to me, I pictured it dry and desolate. Dangerous even. But in reality, we’re in a 4×4 with a driver, a passenger who can translate English/Russian. Nick is a godsend, and the driver is lovely. The area is lightly populated, but there are people, and it’s really quite easy in the grand scheme of things.

One final joke for the night (context long forgotten): “I’ll take the scarf, but pass on the underwear.”