(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.”