The Wakhan Valley

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


Arriving in Khorog after our 22-hour trip too early in the day to get breakfast or do much of anything else, we wandered around town before heading back to the bazaar, where local ladies were starting to set up food stalls selling laghman, manti, plov and other Central Asian classics, served with bread and a rich dairy substance that reminded me of clotted cream. [post on Central Asian food to come]

Food section, Khorog Bazaar

After having some soup and manti (the latter topped with a clear sauce which I believe was vegetable oil), we sat in front of the museum, according to the guidebooks a worthy stop, waiting for it to open. The museum is also home to the information center of the Pamirs Ecotourism Association (PECTA), a newly organized tourism development clearinghouse established with the help of the Aga Khan Foundation [post on the Aga Khan to come].

Khorog Museum

The museum was still some thirty minutes to opening when a French woman walked by, and stopped to ask where we were from and whether she could help us. Marielle had been living in Khorog for several years (when asked how many she simply replied “too many”) working for the Mountain Societies Development Support Project, an NGO operated by the Aga Khan Foundation. One of the aims of the MSDSP is the development of tourism in the region, including by helping establish organizations such as PECTA, and so Marielle was particularly well-equipped to help us. She was also curious to see our Tajikistan guidebook, which had just been published by Odyssey Publications and was not even yet available in stores. (Our friend Shan had purchased it directly from the publisher in Hong Kong and brought it to us in Uzbekistan, and so we believe that ours may be the first copy ever in the country.) Marielle contacted for us the director of PECTA, who arrived shortly. We went to the man’s office behind the MSDSP building, where we asked for a quote for a car hire for an itinerary that Marielle had suggested.

PECTA is new at its job, and it showed. The trip we were proposing was a four day/three night, 450 or so kilometer route from Khorog to Murgab via the Wakhan Valley, the Pamir River and the plateau settlement of Bulunkul. At first, PECTA quoted us a price based not only on our route from Khorog to Murgab but also the return trip along the same circuitous route. We pointed out that if we have to pay for the return trip, we would expect that the car, having dropped us off in Murgab, take the direct Pamir Highway back to Khorog, which is shorter by more than 100 kilometers. Even then, the fare at PECTA’s standard per kilometer rate (60 to 65 cents) was more than $600. The price was simply too high, and the drivers that they first contacted totally refused to negotiate, storming out in a huff upon hearing our objections. When we started gathering our bags to leave the office, the PECTA officer asked us to wait, while he came up with more creative solutions.

One solution, which we believe was Marielle’s idea, would have been to have a car drive down from Murgab, where they charge a much more reasonable 45 cents per kilometer, given that we had to pay a round trip price anyway. Of course, this would have had us waiting in Khorog for a day. Even better, PECTA was able to find for us a Khorog-based driver who would charge 45 cents per kilometer for our route from Khorog to Murgab, and only 35 kilometer for the shorter return trip, acknowledging that the return trip need not be as profitable, just a matter of covering actual costs. We agreed to this price, and off we went with Nazar (+992 91 9028539) and his Land Rover after picking up some supplies in the bazaar. (The total price in the end, after our many little sightseeing detours and a driver allowance of $15/day, came to around $400.)

Our driver and car

Before starting on our road south up the Panj River along the Afghan border, however, we wanted to make a first detour to see a pre-Islamic fortress and temple in the town of Bogev, some 15 kilometers in the opposite direction. Given that we were paying per kilometer we felt at liberty to suggest whatever detours we wanted, and this was to be a first test of our driver’s flexibility. Unfortunately, convincing him to go was tough–the man, bewildered, called PECTA seemingly to complain about our request–a bad portent for the rest of the trip. In the end, however, he drove us, and a lovely young lady living by the site helped us find the best route to the fort.

Pamir Highway, just outside Khorog

First car to drive the length of the Pamir Highway

Bogev, Gunt River Valley

On our way back through Khorog, the driver made a strange request–he asked if we would mind if his girlfriend came along on the trip. Now, we like being accommodating when possible, but having another person with us for four days didn’t sound too appealing. We felt we were paying a fairly dear price for the car hire, and didn’t want others’ agendas to complicate the trip. We told him no, the second bump in our quickly souring relationship with Nazar. Fortunately, he took it better than expected.

Heading south from Khorog along the originally planned route up the Panj River along the border with Afghanistan, our first stop was Garam Chashma, a hot springs located several kilometers off of the main road. The bath itself was not particularly memorable, especially compared to the beautiful springs we would visit later on the same trip, but I did notice one oddity–all of the bathing Tajik men seemed to have shaved genitals! I haven’t found the right opportunity to have this confirmed or explained to me. (As perceptive readers may have noticed, my ability to notice this means that the Tajiks bathe in the nude, unlike their Muslim brethren in most of the rest of the Islamic world. Ibn Battuta, the famous medieval Moroccan traveler, once chastised a hammam owner in Egypt for allowing patrons to bathe in the nude–he didn’t visit now Tajikistan on his world tour.)

Calcium deposits at Garam Chashma

Near Garam Chashma, Koh-i-Lal, a Ruby mine noted by both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta

From Garam Chashma we went south to Ishkashim, where we spent the night in order to visit the next day the cross-border Tajik/Afghan market. The market was fantastic, a wonderful opportunity to see a bit of Afghanistan without the risks of actually crossing the border (see my post of 6.22 for more photos).

Market overview

The market is located in no-man’s land, and all of the merchandise has to be carried in.

Showing just how remote and undeveloped Tajikistan is, cans of soda were being imported from Afghanistan, where there are more bottling companies. Next to the Pepsi are cans of juice from Iran.

Carpets, mostly imported from Iran

Our market visit, however, did not go smoothly. As Derek was taking pictures at the market, an officer of the Tajik KGB (they still call it that) came up to him to demand that he not take pictures. Now, this was somewhat silly as we were just in a market, albeit one located within the no man’s land between the Tajik and Afghan borders, and there were several tourists who together had probably already taken hundreds of pictures. The numerous other Tajik and Afghan police/military present seemed perfectly fine with the picture-taking. The second time the officer came up to order us not to take pictures, Derek stubbornly made clear his refusal, leading to an hours-long ordeal in which our passports were confiscated by the Tajik KGB. After a visit to their office in town, our passports were returned to us and all was well.

Our saviors. These young English-speaking ladies were essential to our eventual release by the KGB–we think that they guilted the officer into showing a little lenience and hospitality to the foreign tourists.

From Ishkashim we drove along the Tajik/northern side of the Panj River, with Afghanistan and the snowy Hindu Kush mountains steeply rising on the other side. At times the river would be relatively narrow, rapids coursing through a gorge, and at other times leisurely wide, with broad alluvial fans demonstrating millennia of erosion on the Afghan side.

Tajikistan, as poor and remote as it is, did benefit from much investment and development during the Soviet era. The Tajik side of the river has a decent unpaved road, while the steeper Afghan side often had only a dirt trail for people and donkeys.

Trail, Afghan side. These precipitous trails, called overings, are built along rocks and cliffs. [Addendum: We walked along nearly identical trails in northern Pakistan, as the crow flies very close to the Wakhan.]

Panj River, in one of its narrowest gorges, north of Ishkashim

Typical view of the Hindu Kush range, east of Ishkashim

Further east

The route along with Panj River is notable not only for its spectacular views, but for its long history as a major artery on the Silk Road. Xuan Zang, Marco Polo and countless others traveled this way, and the exposure that the valley had to different cultural influences remains in the form of both ruins and ethno-cultural quirks.

Pre-Islamic Khakha Fortress, dating from as early as the 3rd century BC

Solar calendar of a 19th c. Sufi astronomer, Yamg

Ruins of Buddhist stupa, Vrang. Xuan Zang noted the active Buddhist monasteries in the Wakhan.

Fortress, Zong.

One of the cultural quirks of the Pamirs, and there are many, is that the Pamiris, as the Tajiks who live in the mountains are called, are not Sunni Muslims like most Central Asians, but Ismailis. I will discuss Ismailis in a separate post to come (and also see my post of 5.28), but the most basic summary is that Ismailis are Shia Muslims who split off from the Twelver Shias (the brand of Shia Islam practiced in Iran–see my post of 5.20) in the 8th century at the time of the succession of the seventh Imam–the Ismailis believed Ismail to be the seventh Imam (their other name is Sevener Shiites) while the Twelver Shiites held Musa, Ismail’s younger brother, as the true Imam. The Ismailis were at one point the more important Shia group, being the faith behind the Fatimid Empire of Cairo and the Assassins, but are now relatively fewer, with their largest communities in remote areas such as the Pamirs and East Africa.

But the religious beliefs of the Pamiris are one step weirder. While the Pamiris are Ismaili Muslim, they hold on to what are clearly pre-Islamic beliefs. This is most evident in their shrines, which have a distinct pagan/animistic atmosphere (meaning that they must also be pre-Zoroastrian, the dominant pre-Islamic faith of the region).

Roadside shrine, Zumudg

Shrine at Namadgut, outside and in. In the interior are special green stones in the corners of the centerpiece, as well as a pile of elk and marco polo sheep horns in the center.

Outside the shrine at Ptup. Of the small villages we visited, Ptup had a special atmosphere, with a general store operating out of a truck and dandelion seeds blowing through the air.

The most memorable stop was at Yamchun, where we spent our second night. Our first stop near Yamchun, high up in a side valley, were the Bibi Fatima hot springs, which are the most beautiful we have ever visited.

The bathing enclosure is built around the original natural outlet.

Nearby the springs is a Soviet-era sanatorium, where we were planning on staying, but after the sanatorium offered us only a tent (which was perfectly fine with us but for whatever reason our driver reacted violently against, allegedly on account of price although of course we would be paying and not he), we were forced to seek other lodging. We stayed the night in a local home, the woman of the house being gracious enough to offer us room and board when stopped to ask her if any lodging was available nearby.

The homestay is in some ways an essential Tajikistan experience. Because tourism is still in its infancy in Tajikistan, there are not very many hotels outside of Dushanbe, leaving informal guesthouses and homestays to fill in the gap. While it is expected and customary that the tourist will offer some sort of payment ($5-10 per person for dinner, lodging and breakfast), the experience feels not at all a commercial one. The hospitality and graciousness of the Pamiris and the Tajiks as a whole were perhaps unmatched in our trip so far, even surpassing the warm welcomes of the Syrians and the friendliness of the Iranians.

The family we stayed with in Yamchun lived in a beautiful Pamiri house overlooking the valley from a considerable height. We’re not sure whether the woman had ever housed tourists before (it seemed unlikely given the way we ran into her), but she had the empathy to set out our first meal (what we thought was dinner but ended up being a sort of pre-dinner) in her yard, with an unbelievable panorama.

View from Yamchun

When the gentleman of the house returned home, another meal was laid out, this time served inside the house. In what must be a rule of hospitality given the relatively scarcity of the region, the man didn’t touch the communal food at all until it was clear that we were finished. We slept in the main room of the house, which was ceded to us, the guests.

The Pamiri house is another vestige of ancient customs. It is believed that the essential design of the house traces back thousands of years, and while the form has been ritualized and rationalized to Islam (the five pillars of the house, for example, being given names of the prophet Mohammed, his daughter Fatima and the earliest Shiite Imams), it is certain that the blueprint is at least Zoroastrian, and likely older. All of the houses in the region are essentially identical, with the five pillars, the design of the central skylight and even the number of beams along the ceiling being prescribed by custom. [Addendum: Traditional Hunza houses in Northern Pakistan, we found out, have essentially the same layout.]

Pamiri home, Yamchun

The next morning, Derek woke up at sunrise and spent hours taking pictures around nearby Yamchun Fort, perhaps the greatest in the valley. His disappearance for six hours caused me much anxiety, forcing me eventually to force the driver to go up to the fort to look for Derek. (This required screaming at and hitting him, the same treatment that Derek got when he was recovered. Why was the driver so reluctant to go searching? In hindsight I think it must have been the lack of available fuel–more on this in a future post.)

Yamchun Fort

Herding goats near Yamchun Fort

The valleys of the western Pamirs are also noted for their linguistic diversity. Each valley, pretty much, has its own language, that of the Wakhan being the most unusual and incomprehensible to the others. While still related to Persian and a member of the Iranian family of languages, like standard Tajik and all the Pamiri tongues, according to our impromptu guide for the Buddhist stupa at Vrang Wakhi has quite a strong resemblance to Sanskrit, which makes geographical sense since the Aryans who entered India did so through the Hindu Kush, just across the river from the Wakhan (see also my post of 5.12).

Langar, where the Wakhan and Pamir Rivers meet to form the Panj River

From the town of Langar, where we met an army captain friend of our driver who needed a lift and returned the favor in advance by providing us a much needed meal, we headed along the Pamir River, Afghanistan still following us on our right until we hit the military checkpoint of Khargush, after which we began our ascent into the real Pamirs, the high plateau of the eastern Pamirs.

The rough road from Langar to Khargush, Afghan mountains on right

The Pamir River is much smaller than the Panj, bringing Afghanistan even closer to our road. This building was identified in one of our guidebooks as a Buddhist-era caravanserai.

After the sun had already set we arrived at the middle-of-nowhere settlement of Bulunkul, where another local family took us in for the night and made us a meal of locally caught fried fish at the late hour of eleven o’clock. The next day we would drive out to Murgab, the capital of the eastern Pamirs and the end of this stretch of our journey.

3 thoughts on “The Wakhan Valley

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