(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.”

(33) Khorog, Tajikistan: Tajikistan = mountain love

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.

(32) Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Sick, tired, and sick and tired

I’m sure Dushanbe is a lovely city, but for me it was the place where I was still sick with diarrhea from Tashkent, and then also had a sore throat I was worried would be strep, and then intestines healed, but then turned out to have a bad cold.

When I arrived in Dushanbe, not into the home of a fellow CouchSurfer as I had originally planned, I checked into a pretty standard soviet hotel. I think it would have been grand back in the day, but it’s time as home to rebel fighters during the civil war here in the 90s, plus way too many coats of bad paint, leave a bit to be desired. I was in a shared room, meaning there are two beds, and I would be placed with another woman. My first night the other bed was occupied by a nice woman/young daughter duo on their way to Iran to visit the girl’s father. I also tried the first afternoon to explore the city in the hopes of getting a detailed Tajikistan map, mailing some things home, seeing small city life, but I didn’t get too far before an intestinal attack came on, so I spent the evening with bread, cheese, and a banana in bed.

Day two was much of the same. CouchSurfing host turned out to be a bit of a dud. I’m really not going to end up leaving a hotel. During the day I got as far as mailing a package home, and losing my wallet. The postal experience was entertaining, if nothing else. The office I went to was the main one in the capital, therefore the epitome of postal service in Tajikistan. Firstly, I couldn’t mail some of the things I have bought just before I left Iran. Basically, anything the woman couldn’t recognize, I couldn’t send. Dried berries, saffron, and saffron sugar crystals were a no go. So was a special travel bottle with suncreen remnants (and a few shells from Moynak I had shoved inside).

Once the package I was actually sending was determined, each item was individually weighed. I filled out forms in triplicate, twice, as I had mad small errors, and scratched out letters were not allowed.

Then was the issue of a box. In Canada (and Turkey and Iran so far on this trip), one can go to the post office and buy special envelopes and boxes to pack things in. Not so here. The woman tracked down an old box which didn’t quite fit one of the larger items I wanted to send, so she deconstructed and reconstructed it to fit. Badly.

She shook her head at the result, so I offered to try. My result was better, but I would have felt much more comfortable if it had had ten layers of packing tape around it. I suggested I could go by some “scotch” but she shook her head disapprovingly; not sure if this was because it wasn’t allowed or she wasn’t a believer in tape. Instead the “box” was fastened with twine, the corners barely stable with bent cardboard stuck in the wide gaps.

The next step is even more entertaining. She judges the size of the non-rectangular box, and goes into the back room to sew a cotton sack to fit over it. She comes out once to try the fit, and goes back to make alterations. The sack finally firmly over the box, she closes the end of the sack like wrapping paper and sews it shut with individual stitches by hand. She runs out of string at one point, and shakes her head as if she should be able to judge appropriate lengths of string needed by this point in her career. I agree.

Finally, the cotten sack firmly sewn shut, she dabs hot wax from a tin under the counter along the hand sewn seams, and seals each glob with a Tajik postal service stamp. I write the destination address in permanent marker on the cotton fabric.

I have no idea if this is going to get to Canada, but her and I high-five it anyway.

I then went a little bit further for a walk, before I decided my intestines couldn’t handle it. Then I realized my wallet was missing. Whether it had fallen out of my pocket/bag or someone helped it to fall, I don’t know. Luckily I was only out about $40 and a photocopy of my passport.

And then, my final bit of entertainment for the night was dinner with Sino, the alleged CouchSurfing host. He treated me to a traditional Central Asian dish of lagman (noodle soup) and a RC Cola, after I had waived away his interest in getting wine or beer. I think all my stomach could handle was broth. I apologized more than once for my lack of energy – it wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm, it was just that I wanted to curl up in a ball on a cool bathroom floor. He shared some opinions on the history of the Soviets in Tajikistan. How during Soviet occupation, Tajiks thought Russians were the hardest wokring people. The brought electricity to Tajikistan. Tajiks say that the Sun is the light from God. Electricity is the light from Lenin. Since Tajikistan reluctantly declared independence, apparently the Chinese are considered the hardest workers.

That night I shared a room with Russian business woman (I think). I only saw about 30 seconds of her, which probably suited us both.

The next morning I resolved to change hotels. It was pretty clear Sino wasn’t going to work out, I wanted to pamper myself and get better. I splurged on a bed and breakfast with a lovely room and private bath. It included wifi (yay!), laundry service, and even driver service. The manager freaked out as I accidentally unplugged her computer. This was obviously a tragedy for her, and she let me know over, and over. I got her back by asking to borrow paper scissors and using them to cut my toenails.

My first day there I only ventured outside once. I got as far as the main street before it was apparent that my intestines didn’t want me to do any exercise. Sino picked me up and drove me around the city in the late afternoon, showing me the main buildings and monuments. I retreated to the bed and breakfast, and ordered dinner in.

The next morning I resolved the day to be my last day in the city. I enjoyed breakfast with a US researcher staying in Dushanbe for a few weeks. When she found out I had been through Iran, she mentions she was originally from Iran and asked me how it was. She hadn’t been there since just before the revolution in 78. I asked why she hadn’t gone back. Her family is Jewish and is well known there, and her brother is still in Iran and is an active lawyer. Apparently going back isn’t an option. I answered her questions the best I could.

Sino had made plans to meet me at 11am, but he never materialized, and I gave up.

My final two tasks that I needed to complete before I left the city were to get some money out (while ATMs are common here, most are out of money, or only let you withdraw a paltry some of something like 300 somanis, or about $65. Not worth the $5 international transaction fee) AND get my camera lens fixed, as it was still stuck on full zoom. Sino had suggested going to a deparment store on the main street and asking around, which I was suprised to find actually worked. I was directed to a hole in the wall (literally, it was a 2 foot square hole in a wall to access the “fixer man”. We agreed I would pay him the equivalent of about $40 if he could fix it. For some reason I almost hesitated, then shook my head. Why would I pass on possibly my final chance to be able to take wide angle photos for a paultry $40? I watched him work for a while, then went to a hip cafe across the street and got iced tea and a raspberry cake that reminded me of summer in BC. When you imagine me in Central Asia, I’m sure you don’t have a picture of me sipping iced tea in an italian cafe with wifi, do you?

Later, back at the hole in the wall, I found that the zoom was now working, and he was slowly putting all the pieces back together. The camera reconstructed, he tested it and found the automatic focus was now not working. So I watched him take the whole thing apart again, and the back together. Success. I was thrilled, and took a photo of him and his friend, with a wide angle zoom. They kind of reminded me of a Tajik version of Flight of the Concords.

With my camera in tact, and happy that I had been out and about for a few hours with seemingly improved intestinal fortitude, I ventured out a bit longer and walked a bit around the main street before heading back to the guest house where I enjoyed my takeout leftovers, the BBC, and wifi until bed, at which point I knew my sore throat had turned into a full blown cold.

The next morning I took advantage of the guesthouse’s driver service, as the driver not only took me to the place where shared taxis to Khorog leave, but also found a vehicle and negotiated a price. Splurging for the guesthouse definitely paid off.

Overall Dushanbe seemed like a nice enough town, though I didn’t get to truly enjoy it. It is the last town for the next few weeks where the culinary options are plenty (Indian, Chinese, etc) so I’m sad to be sick and not be able to enjoy them. The abundance of treed streets were lovely after the barren scrub of most of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But the capital is not my reason for being in Tajikistan, the mountains are. I’m excited for what is to come.