Tour of the Wakhan Valley

Mathieu and I woke up at 6 a.m. Monday morning to try and find a jeep driver for a three night, four day tour of the Wakhan Valley. Our target price was 300$, but we were getting nervous about whether or not we would be able to find anyone willing to make the trip. Our planned route passed through some areas that are barely inhabited, and thus not frequently travelled by locals. Our first two encounters with drivers were fruitless, one wanting 500$ and the other concluding that his jeep wouldn't survive the trip. We found Samat, a willing driver at the bazaar, his rundown Russian UAZ already half full with passengers. Once we agreed to the 350$ pricetag he promptly kicked out the locals and within an hour we were on the road.

Two out of four doors were functioning, the suspension was completely shot, the tires were slick, we had to hold the windows open and the jeep smelled strongly of gasoline. But, at least Samat's UAZ had four wheels and seemed to be functioning, and of course, the price was right. Samat, our driver was young and seemed friendly he spoke some English but preferred speaking Russian with Mathieu. Our first stop of the day was the Yamchun fortress a five kilometer drive above a village. The views from the fortress ruins were fantastic and we explored for a few hours before finishing off at the Bibi Fatima hot springs (Bibi Fatima is the prophet Mohammed's sister). Mathieu and Yann had the first session, then Myriam and I got to enter the hot spring water with a bunch of cute old naked Tajik women. Women supposedly come to bathe here for help with fertility problems. The water comes directly from the spring into a small cave where a cabin has been built to shelter the cave. Other than the teenage attendant who decided she would stand a foot away from Myriam and I while we changed, the springs were very pleasant. Our next stop was the town of Vrang, where we wanted to see some ancient Zoroastrian (first monotheist religion) worshipping platforms. In Vrang, we were first invited for lunch in a local Pamiri home, where we enjoyed the first of many potato and carrot meals. Pamiri homes are interesting, as they usually are made up of a single room, with no windows other than a giant skylight. Along the walls there are elevated platforms for sleeping and cooking, and the roof is supported by five wooden pillars (there is some Islamic symbolism behind this). After lunch we were guided up to the Zoroastrian platforms perched on the mountainside above the village. The platforms were not as 'fascinating' as described in the guidebook, but the surrounding mountains are dotted with ancient Buddhist caves and the views of the valley below were worth the visit. After Vrang, the next scheduled stop was Zong, for yet again, fortress ruins and spectacular views. Unfortunately, Samat was getting tired, and didn't know where the ruins were, after a pretty lame attempt to find them, he told us that his jeep couldn't make it up the hill and that we would have to walk. I voted to skip the ruins, and soon after the others followed, I suspect all according to Samat's plans. While Samat attempted to turn the jeep around, the locals whose home we were in front of came out to see what was going on. At first it was only a teenage girl, and within minutes, grandchildren, grandparents, brothers, sisters were out greeting us. It was hilarious and cute, another Tajik swarming of tourists. We settled for the night in Langar, the last 'large' settlement in the Wakhan Valley. We found a good homestay, run by a lovely group of women. After a hearty dinner, the young girls put on Tajik music and we all danced. Myriam and Mathieu showed us some Uzbek dancing, the young girls proudly displayed their Tajik moves and Yann even brought out his Pakistani dance. With no electricity and a long day ahead of us we went to bed early. The first day of our tour was deemed a great success.

The second day of our Wakhan trip started with a tough walk in Langar to see petroglyphs carved into rocks high above the town. Our driver Samat, didn't seem very keen on waiting around while we visited them and made an attempt at claiming that the 'nice' petroglyphs were actually at the base of the mountains (our guidebook described them as being a difficult one hour walk straight up). He showed us two faint carvings and then began rounding us into the jeep. Thankfully, Mathieu had already started the climb and we chased after him, with Samat telling us to "be quick" (as if we had somewhere else to be?!). It took us a few hours to get up to the petroglyphs and back down to the jeep, and to give Samat credit, they were disappointing. Carved over most of the ancient drawings was newer graffiti. For the next few hours we drove through beautiful but desolate scenery. This part of the Wakhan is almost completely uninhabited. We crossed a few cyclists (tourists), a handful of shepherds and one vehicle coming from the other direction (a jeep full of tourists). The only settlement we passed was a military base where we had our passports checked by two very bored looking soldiers, who begged Mathieu for a few cigarettes. We met up with the actual 'Pamir Highway' and paved roads a couple of hours later. We had chosen the town of Alichur as our stop for the night, mainly because it was about the right place on the map, not because the town had anything particular to offer. Before stopping for the night we had planned to visit a brakish lake near Alichur.

Samat apparently had different plans for us, and even though we had made it quite clear that we would be stopping at the lake, he expressed shock and disbelief when we stopped him as he attempted to drive right by it. It's not the first time we had experienced drivers becoming impatient near the end of the day, usually because they have friends in town that they are meeting up with. Samat had been talking about how great Alichur was for most of the day, so we were convinced we had a drinking buddy (buddies) waiting for him. Yann fed him some peanuts to appease his hunger that he was now complaining about, and we prevented him from driving us up to the edge of the lake through the grass. We visited the lake with Samat pouting in the car, which took away some of the enjoyment of our short time there. Alichur is a very sad looking place. Way above the tree line, it is cold and barren and it isn't clear how anybody can or would want to live there. There is no running water or electricity, the town shares public outhouses near the centre of town. We found room to sleep in the English teacher's home, then Samat disappeared to the town's only restaurant. We figured out why he was so eager to get to Alichur: fried fish. The restaurant's served up fried fish from a nearby lake. Availability of a variety of different foods is definetely something that we Westerners take for granted. We were all still pretty mad at Samat, especially when he started to dispute our plans for the next day. We had only one stop scheduled for the next day, the town of Bulun Kul 16km off the main highway. When Mathieu and I were first dealing with Samat we had presented him with a list of all our stops including kilometrage, which he had quickly glanced at and agreed to. Now when we presented him with the same list he claimed that he had never seen it and we had probably just written it. I threatened that he leave us behind and not get his pay, he responded that he would get the police after us. He had really turned into a nasty little brat. Mathieu was able to speak to him (in Russian) and get him to agree to our itinerary (which he had already agreed to once).

The town of Bulun Kul was possibly even more sad and desolate than Alichur, if mainly because it wasn't even on the main highway, completely isolated. After a four hour walk to a nearby lake, we had tea with a local family. The head of the house was also the town weather man. Four times a day he walked out to his little weather station, recorded the temperature and then reported it back by telegram to the central station (in Kazakhstan). He proudly showed us his meticulously kept notebooks (he's probably the only employed man in Bulun Kul). It was August and he had already recorded many temperature below zero degrees. He lamented with Mathieu a bit about the good old Soviet times when trucks actually came to town with fresh fruits and vegetables, those days were quite clearly long gone. We arrived in Jelandy in the late afternoon, where we checked into the local truckstop/hotsprings. We were pretty keen on more hotsprings, but were disappointed by the grotty settings: lots of men (including one carrying a large rifle), public baths with tiles covered in about 2 years worth of scum filled with luke warm spring water. We hadn't bathed in almost a week, otherwise we probably wouldn't have entered the pools. Myriam and I didn't even take a pre-bath shower, a taboo, since we were covered in dirt (this really grossed Mathieu and Yann out when they heard). We also made an important Tajik cultural discovery pertaining to shaving. We had already observed that Tajik women don't shave their legs nor their armpits, but after two naked public baths we were able to conclude that there seems to be widespread shaving of another part of the body...weird (note this was mainly Myriam's discovery).

The next day, we stopped to see ruins near Khorog, I didn't join the other three because of stomach problems. I sat outside beside the jeep and within about 3 minutes I had already been beckoned into a villager's home. I resisted at first but after the third family member had come to get me I surrendered to their hospitality. I was fed a full meal and left with my hat and bag full of apples and tomatoes from the garden. This was the last stop before Samat dropped us off on the side of the road in Khorog, didn't even bother to bring us to our guest houses (we should have insisted but we were tired of arguing with him). Yann and I were warmly welcomed back to our homestay, and Myriam and Mathieu ended up there with us. Despite his best efforts our driver hadn't managed to ruin our trip, or taint the Pamiri reputation of friendliness and hospitality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

coucou mes deux amours,

Eh oui, nous sommes de retour, ne vous inquietez pas, nous sommes toujours a lire vos peripeties (droles et quelques fois un peu dangeureuses), Malgre la distance, on pense souvent a vous. Je crois que cela fera bientot presque un an que vous etes partis, le retour est prevu pour quand...
On vous attend tous avec impatience ici.
On vous aime beaucoup beaucoup et on vous manque beaucoup beaucoup beaucoup.

La belle matante et le le beau Raymond