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Discovery Tajikistan travel guide #2/2010


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My travel story: On a musical journey around Ishkashim
Katja Daniela Hillebrand is Swiss and one of the few Westerners who has explored Central Asia for the last 15 years touching on the most remote and therefore interesting areas imaginable. She is based in Tashkent, where she has studied Central Asian Dance with the region's famous dancers. An ardent traveller, Katja is fluent in Tajik, Uzbek, Russian, and therefore able to communicate with people from the region's diverse ethnicities, many of whom have never before spoken to a foreigner.

Katja's travel tale is all about Ishkashim on the border of Afghanistan, a place she has returned to several times and from where she has toured the surrounding villages with her friends, the local folk musicians.

Maram, Miroyaz, Mohammed, a Wakhi rhubab player, I myself and the rest of the ensemble squeezed into a jeep leaving Ishkashim to visit the many relatives and fellow-musicians scattered over the villages beyond town. Maram's family, his grand aunts, uncles and cousins, are spread out over 4 countries; Tajikistan, Xinkiang China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are artists who live music with their heart and soul and the entire trip was accompanied by live tunes from Wakhan, from the Pamir, Afghanistan, of one people separated not by geographical but by political frontiers.
I remember how we had to spend the occasional night in the jeep because of landslides or punctured tires but morale never faltered, with all this cheerful music, bantering, singing and dancing.

The Shrine of a local XIX century Sufi Leader, Mubarak Adam Wakhani, who lived an ascetical life in the hills above town, away from his family, is lovingly decorated and can be visited. Famous too is his sun stone, a hollowed rock through which solar readings at Navruz indicate a favorable or ill harvest and weather conditions.
The people of Ishkashim, like all the Pamiris and Wakhis are Ismailis, followers of his Highness, the Aga Khan. A religiously tolerant, open minded and spiritual branch of the Shia muslims. However, the local Sufis as well, the Pirs, are much revered and an integral part of everyday life, like everywhere in Central Asia.
The deeply mystical writings of these Pirs are called the “Lal' i Badakhshan”, “rubies of Badakhshan”.

Built in the typical style of the region, the private home of Pir Mubaraki Wakhani is a fine example of local architecture, where the number 5 is dominant. His great grandson, Nehmatullah, who is pictured here with the Sufi's musical instrument, can lead you there. Nehmatullah is studying the poetry of his forefather to keep his heritage alive and while I was a guest of his family in this very house, Nehmatullah beautifully performed some Munojods, the melodious moment with god; a moment I personally will never forget. This young man's dearest wish is to enter the University of Oriental Studies in Dushanbe to do some more research into his great grandfather's body of work and of the other literary “Rubies of Badakhshan”. I wish him all the best of luck.

When I heard that the next day my local friends were planning to cross the river to visit the Afghan side, I paid a visit to the local KGB office to inquire if I as a foreigner could join them. This was going to be an “unofficial” half day trip and to my surprise it did not take a lot of convincing the authorities. At the checkpoint by the bridge, I deposited my passport with the customs officials and trudged on in the midst of a group of village women, excited of course by the prospect of setting foot on Afghan ground. We stepped off the bridge into another world. The wares were not half as colorful as the Afghani personalities that sold them but I was really thrilled.

Discovery Tajikistan #1

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