Faces of Tajikistan

The Tajiks were right up there with Syrians and Iranians (the latter, their kin) in terms of friendliness and warmness to foreign visitors, and we will remember the country very fondly. These portraits are in the order of western lowlands to eastern Pamirs, the direction of our travels.

A beautiful young girl from Penjikent

Elderly Uzbek man, Penjikent. Uzbeks make up some 15% of Tajikistan’s population, living predominantly in the west and north. Tajiks were quick to point out that the ethnic Uzbeks of Tajikistan live much more freely than the ethnic Tajiks of Uzbekistan. [See my post of 6.21.]

Some photographs from Dushanbe. Dushanbe, being the largest city and the capital, contains many different ethnic groups, but the people pictured here appear to be Tajik.


Heading into the mountains of eastern Tajikistan, one encounters the Pamiris, who are an Iranian people like the lowland Tajiks but have a distinct (and ancient) culture. I have read it speculated that they are descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Central Asia, the Scythians, who were reported by many historical sources as having light hair and eyes. Pamiris, having lived in mountainous isolation, retain valley-specific idiosyncratic languages and ancient pre-Islamic customs. [See my post of 6.23.]

A Pamiri family living near a high pass, tending livestock for the summer.


Other portraits of Pamiri Tajiks. Note how light some are in coloration.







Along with the last picture, the following were all taken on the high plateau of the eastern Pamirs. The Murgab District is largely Kyrgyz, Tajikistan’s second largest minority group. I was generally shocked at how “Asian” Kyrgyz look–I could certainly pass for one!



Two members of a rather beautiful family that we met while out on a hike


Cheeks astonishingly burnt by sun

Mudslide, or From Jalang to Osh

This post can be read as a continuation of a series describing our route through Tajikistan–please refer to my posts of 6.18, 6.20, 6.23, 6.24, 6.25 and 6.26.

***

From Jalang it was off again, to see geoglyphs in an even more distant place called Shurali and a meterorite crater. In one of the most remote (and beautiful) settings we met again (after seeing them first in Uzbekistan–tourists’ routes are often surprisingly well-established) a Swiss couple that was driving their two dogs and a very high-tech looking RV that looked something like a souped up waste management truck from Switzerland to Siberia. We stayed the night in a homestay by the lake of Karakul. A chip error has sadly deprived both you and us of the images from much of this segment of the trip.

Karakul, in the background the Alai Range, which forms the boundary between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

We came down from the high Pamirs of Tajikistan and crossed the Kyrgyz border into the small crossroads village of Sary Tash, all without event in our hired Russian Jeep. After saying goodbye to our Kyrgyz-ethnic driver and having a lunch of instant noodles and fried eggs at the local cafe, we were able to flag down a Murgab-Osh minivan, a Russian 4×4 vehicle that was almost filled to capacity but generously allowed us to board, with many children ending up on the laps of their parents. We expected the trip to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city sitting at the end of the Uzbek-ethnic Fergana Valley, to take about 5-6 hours.

The drive was gorgeous–from the desert of the Pamirs we entered lush green mountain valleys, dotted with yurts and livestock, including horses and chickens that we had not seen in the Pamirs. The people living on these mountains were Kyrgyz, just like their brethren in Tajikistan across the border, but the land around their homes was so much more welcoming and fertile.

About two and a half hours into our ride, as the road entered a narrow gorge, we began to pass cars that were stopped on the side of the road, seemingly unable to go any further. The guidebooks warn about traveling in the mountainous regions of Central Asia in early summer, due to snowmelt that can flood roads and make river crossings impossible, but we weren’t quite prepared for the series of mudslides we encountered. The first two rock- and mudslides were easy–our tough vehicle easily made it past. But then we came upon another that was much larger–and apparently fairly recent–just as the road entered the narrowest part of the gorge. We stopped, unable to go any further, and other cars started piling up.

Of course, no-one spoke English, and we had no idea when the road would be cleared and we would go forward. With hand gestures, we seemed to get various guesses, from 3 to 10 days. Tourists also began to pile up, as this is one of the only routes through the region. We met a Swiss couple and a Swedish man from other vehicles. The Swedish man, whom we had met earlier in Murgab, had told us that he was on a five-week vacation, a week of which was unexpectedly eaten up in Dushanbe waiting for a visa. The man then proceeded to stall for three or four days in Murgab unsuccessfully waiting for tourists to share vehicle hire expenses with him, to do some touring in the region. His vacation was clearly cursed, and we found some malevolent comic relief in his predicament–unlike most tourists in Central Asia, who had more time than anything, he had tickets for a flight out of Osh.

All of the vehicles turned back to the last village before the mudslide, where there was a very basic inn. Everyone rushed in, but, not speaking Kyrgyz or Russian, we couldn’t really figure out what if any rooms were available. The woman behind the counter showed us one large communal room, but the thought of sleeping in refugee-like conditions made Derek start searching for an alternative. We ended up procuring the prayer room of the inn, by far the sweetest accomodations of any of the stranded. We unpacked and pondered our next move.

Things weren’t so bad. The village, while little more than a few houses along the side of the road, was set in a beautiful location. Our room, while basic (no bathroom, though not too far from the outhouse and conveniently near the water tank, where we were late at night able to do some light bathing), was comfortable and we even had intermittent electricity (something of a novelty coming down from the Pamirs), permitting us to catch up on some photo and blogging work. At dinner, we found that the food served at the inn was surprisingly good (goulash and roast chicken), and we had the company of fellow tourists to chat with, including not only the Swiss couple and Swede, but also a Belgian couple and an Australian girl who pulled up later.

We learned that we were in a much better situation than the others. The part of Kyrgyzstan we were in was completely isolated from the rest of the country by the mudslide. Since the road forward, which connected to Osh, Bishkek and the open borders with Uzbekistan, was closed by the mudslide, the only options were the road south to the Tajik border and the wilderness of the Pamirs (with over 24 hours’ drive to Dushanbe, the only city of size in Tajikistan) and the road east to the Chinese border. The Belgians and the Australian had just come from China, did not have a valid visa for either China or Tajikistan, and were headed to Uzbekistan, and so had no choice but to wait. The Swiss and the Swede had just come from Tajikistan and did not have a Chinese visa, and so also had to wait. At least we could, if the road didn’t clear promptly, call Kyrgyzstan quits and flee to the modern comforts of China.

We were ready to do just that, but, because it was the weekend and the Chinese border was closed anyway, we decided to hang out and wait. We were sad when the power cut out, but we still had the benefit of a private room (the Australian girl had to sleep in a car with its driver, who kept coming onto her all night), good food and pleasant weather. The very next morning, we heard rumors that we would be moving forward that very afternoon, that the mudslide had been cleared in the space of about 24 hours. We were incredulous, but packed our bags and got back into our van, to find that all the vehicles were indeed making it through. While the road itself had not been cleared, an alternative path closer to the river had been made. By sunset we were in Osh–the end of the Pamir Highway.

Tajikistan Hardships

Tajikistan, as a tourist destination, is not quite ready for prime time. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy it–it will, we are certain, be one of the highlights of our trip, and in large part thanks to the lack of other tourists and tourist infrastructure. But it is not for everyone. Of course, our deprivation was only for several days–what babies the comforts of modern life have made us–while the local people manage to survive day in, day out. The things we had to go without, in the high Pamirs in Tajikistan–travel isn’t always so easy:

Electricity. You may have heard last winter about the bitter cold (colder than usual!) and fuel shortages that the Pamiris suffered. Obviously, traveling in summer we had no risk of freezing to death, but, as I hope to describe at some point on a post on traveling with technology, we have quite a few gadgets that require regular charging. In the ten or so days that we were in the Pamirs, we spent only two nights in places with usable electricity. Some places had weak generators or solar powered batteries that could be used for dim light bulbs, but not for our electronics–requiring very careful planning and conservation of battery power on our part.

Toilets. We’ve been around the world some, and know the various forms in which facilities come in. That nowhere we stayed in in the Pamirs had actual modern plumbing goes without saying (although the bigger towns do contain some buildings that do have them), but, to our surprise, two of the places we stayed, both homestays in fairly large villages, had no bathroom at all! In one, we were told to walk into the thorny bushes to the side of the house, while in the other we were told to walk to the edge of town, where there was a huge field of animal and human waste. Who thought a pit toilet would feel like such a civilized blessing?

Good drinking water. Now, you may point out that we were in the wilderness, with fresh snowmelt and springs all over. To an extent that is true, but with the amount of livestock being herded by the Kyrgyz in the Pamirs, even water in what seems like pristine wilderness is likely not safe, leaving us to drink tea, as the locals do. But sometimes you want a glass of cold water. The only bottled water available in the region is either the Pamir brand, which is a rather unpleasantly minerally carbonated water bottled locally, or Jalalabad brand from Kyrgyzstan, which is equally unpleasant in taste and carbonated and also seems to suffer from poor filtering–particles are quite visibly suspended when you hold the bottle to light. I found myself craving often a glass of simple uncarbonated neutral tasting water. An attempt to drink soft drinks as a substitute was met by what must have been counterfeit Mirinda–it tasted awful.

A shower. This was a slight point of frustration, because local people must have a way of washing. But with no plumbing and often little privacy, and a lack of desire to taint natural sources of water with soap (even if the locals do so), it was usually easier to forego washing and just feel dirty, until the next shower three or four days away. The weather was cool and dry enough not to feel too filthy, but long dusty jeep rides did contribute to a high level of grime.

Communication. Tajikistan having been part of the former Soviet Union, the class of people who would in other countries have some knowledge of English only speak Russian, and the tourist who doesn’t speak any Russian is essentially totally unable to communicate. This includes not only the random locals you meet, but also the drivers that you hire, who comically try to interpret for you but of course cannot. We got by, and very rarely we would meet someone who speaks English (including, in a very remote Kyrgyz yurt encampment, one Kyrgyz woman whose father had been a mountaineering guide), but for the most part it was total deaf/dumbness. This made homestay experiences (there are essentially no hotels in the Pamirs) at times a bit awkward, with hours of sitting around with nothing to say and limited means to express gratitude.

Car problems and fuel shortages. The condition of the roads being what they are, and the country as a whole being poor enough to have to rely on fairly old vehicles in varying states of (dis)repair, car problems are an ever-threatening part of any trip in Tajikistan. We met our first problem, thankfully minor, on our 22-hour trip from Dushanbe to Khorog, when the luggage rack of our SUV malfunctioned, forcing us to fit all of the luggage in an already crowded passenger cabin. The more threatening car problem, by far, however, was in the last day of our trip from Khorog to Murgab–see my post of 6.24.

The Kyrgyz of Jalang

This is part of a series describing our route through Tajikistan–please refer to my posts of 6.18, 6.20, 6.23, 6.24 and 6.25.

***

To get a sense of how remote Jalang is, if you have not read the posts leading up to this one, it is at least 16 hours from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, along a very rough 4×4 road. From Khorog to Murgab, the capital of the Murgab District of the Eastern Pamirs, it is another eight hours or so along a mediocrely maintained paved road. From Murgab to Jalang takes another five or six hours, much of it on an unpaved track that leads off straight into total wilderness and some of the most desolate scenery in the world.

The largest ethnic minority in Tajikistan is the Uzbeks (some 15% of the total population), who live in the west and north of the country, but almost equally visible, despite their much smaller numbers, are the Kyrgyz, who dominate the population of the Murgab District (roughly 13,000 out of 16,000 total population of that district). The Kyrgyz are semi-nomadic, living in settled villages in the fall, winter and spring but moving to their yurt encampments in the high valleys in the summer, where their livestock graze on the relatively meager grasses that grow in the high plateau.

Jalang itself had, we would guess, about six families. Surprisingly, one woman spoke quite respectable English (her father was a mountaineering guide in Kyrgyzstan), and told us that outside of the summer they live in the village of Karakul, which lies on the Pamir Highway between Murgab and the Kyrgyz border. She grew up in Kyrgyzstan and found yurt life in the Pamirs difficult, with no lowland pleasures such as fruit, no electricity outside of a solar powered battery and strained hygiene: “Life is hard here.”

But to us the picture was an idyllic one. As we arrived in the afternoon, the animals were just returning home, along with the young men and boys who were herding them, the sheep going to their pen and the yaks chained up for the night (the calves a good twenty feet from their mothers so that they wouldn’t drink all the milk). In the late afternoon light we saw balls of cheese drying on the rack and women weaving traditional kilims–we were told that it was to be a present for a daughter who was about to be married.



The yurts themselves were grand and comfortable, with a dung-fueled stove in the middle and plenty of cushions, bedding and quilts for a comfortable rest. A stream flowed nearby, and presented plenty of water for tea, food and washing. Thankfully, and possibly only because these yurts were prepared to accept tourists, a couple pit toilets had been built a hundred yards away.



As an afternoon snack they gave us a huge plate of fried, home-made noodles, delicious but also supergreasy in the way that almost all Central Asian food is. For dinner it was soup. As usual, every teatime and meal were served with huge pieces of bread torn by hand. Everyone, including especially the young son, liked looking at our pictures of New York, though they liked even more looking through the pictures in our Tajikistan guidebook.

We awoke to the sight of the ladies milking yaks, baby yaks standing by looking sad and hungry, and all of the menfolk shearing sheep. Breakfast was the usual rice porridge, eaten with ample butter and sugar. Derek made his 3-in-1 coffee. The father of the house guided us on a short hike to see some petroglyphs nearby–a solar symbol, a man with a bow, and an elk.

Payment was handled with more grace and class than it had been anywhere else–just as Derek started to fumble for money, the father left the yurt leaving Derek and his eldest daughter behind. She accepted the money and put it away without counting, thanking Derek.

From Jalang we were off to see some ancient geoglyphs and then, after a night at Karakul (Lake), the Kyrgyz border.

From Murgab to Jalang

This is part of a series describing our route through Tajikistan–please refer to my posts of 6.18, 6.20, 6.23 and 6.24.

***

Murgab

Having arrived in Murgab late at night, fortunately on a minivan that had as a fellow passenger a man running a guesthouse in town, we slept, recharged our batteries (literally and figuratively–the guesthouse had electricity) and headed out the next morning down the street to the office of the Murgab Ecotourism Association (META). Set up with the assistance of a French NGO, META is a sort of one-stop tourism development company for the eastern Pamirs, helping develop, maintain and promote jeep hires, home/yurtstays and trekking/riding excursions throughout the region. Although some of the experiences available in the Pamirs could be arranged yourself (craft an itinerary, hire a car in the bazaar, etc.), going through META is by far the simpler and most attractive option.

META office

We were truly impressed by META’s operation. Set up in an attractive yurt-inspired custom-built building at the edge of town, with a pretty good gift shop to boot, META had descriptions and photographs of many of the natural and historical sights near Murgab, as well as a well-written brochure describing the archaeological sites in the region. Given our limited time (we had some four days before our Tajik visa expired), we put together with their help a tight but doable three-night/four-day itinerary with car hire all the way into Kyrgyzstan. META charges a 15% commission on top of the services they arrange, the rest of the payment going directly to the service providers–not a bad profit for them, but not too much for us either.

Our very friendly Kyrgyz driver, who of course spoke no English, got the paperwork set for our trip (all itineraries require approval from the Tajik KGB, as they still call it), while we went back to our guesthouse to settle our bill (a somewhat hefty $40, including meals) and pack up. We started off for our multiday trip in the Russian jeep around 2 p.m.

Our driver, Ismail

Day one was to be a hike over Gumbezkul Pass, starting from the Pshart Valley and ending up in the Madian Valley, both fairly close to the city of Murgab. The driver would drive us to the trailhead, and then pick us up at the end of the trail. META had estimated that the hike would take us four hours, because we “look like sportsmen.” Unfortunately, not being sportsmen at all and, as we have learned from many hikes in the past, having horrible navigational skills, the unmarked hike ended up taking us seven hours, including a rather scary part where we really didn’t know which way to go, along a slippery rocky slope. But we survived, and the scenery was quite beautiful from the 4700+ meter pass.

Pshart Valley

Yurts near trailhead

Looking up toward the pass

Looking down, from halfway up–note the yurts in the lower right

The pass. Note that we’re way above it, having overshot!

I think our driver was worried about our delay (the sun having set before we were off the trail), as we could see him blinking his headlights in the distance through the darkness. He had also borrowed a pair of binoculars from a local yurt to search for us on the trail. We took a surprisingly long and astoundingly rough (giving us a newfound admiration for Russian automobiles) drive to our accommodations–a yurt located near some hot springs.

When you arrive at a home- or yurtstay in the Pamirs, you are never announced in advance–the local people do not have phones and live very remotely–and so it’s quite awkward arriving late at night. Nevertheless, the gracious Kyrgyz family, when roused from their sleep, set up our bedding and served us tea, before layers of blankets were laid out and we fell asleep. The daughter was quite beautiful–a Mongol princess, as we termed her.

After a dip in the hot springs the next morning, we were off again, to a very remote yurt encampment called Jalang many hours away. On the way we passed yet more beautiful terrain, including the 4600+ meter Ak Baital Pass.

Mt. Muztagh Ata, in China, seen from Murgab

Pamir Highway, north of Murgab

Ak Baital Pass

Road to Jalang