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Discovery Tajikistan travel guide #2/2010


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My travel story: The Rooftop of the World

For people attracted to wilderness, to nature at its most dramatic, to adventure and discovery, the legendary Pamir Highway has an irresistible lure

Winding at altitudes between 3000-4700m between Khorog and the Kizil Art pass bordering Kyrgyzstan, it promises all of these and also a unique experience, since very few foreign travellers have passed along the route since the Great Game explorer Francis Younghusband was expelled by the Russians in 1891. At that time the Pamirs were the arena for the strategic duel between the expansionist interests of Tsarist Russia and the concerns of Britain to protect the borders of India. The spectacular Pamirs are known locally as Bam-I-Dunya, the “Roof of the World”, fringed by the Karakoram and Himalaya ranges to the south, the Hindu Kush to the west and the Tian Shan to the north east.
My journey began in the bazaar in Dushanbe, appropriately enough as Dushanbe itself means “Monday” in Tajik the day of the main weekly bazaar. Seeking a slightly more authentic experience of travelling than the hermetically sealed tour group or private chauffeur I found Tatish, who was filling his old Russian army truck with local people loaded with bundles of shopping who were returning to villages along the two day journey to Khorog, capital of Gorno-Badakhshan and the Pamir region. Among them and travelling alone was seven year old Rosa, whose only possession seemed to be a doll at least her own size; which I took to be a good portent as she shared the name of my daughter as well as having an enchanting smile.

Apart from the occasional stop to drop off or collect passengers, to freshen up with tea or bowls of soup at roadside “Chai Khana” or to refill fuel (usually with buckets of petrol siphoned from container lorries), for the next two days we bounced and lurched along a rough track amid billowing dust, cavernous potholes and recent rockfalls. Crossing the Saghirdsht Pass at 3250m, the skeletal remains of a Russian army helicopter, that didn't quite make it, signified the approach to the towering Pamir mountains.

After spending a night at a comfortable guesthouse in Kalai-Khum run by the Aga Khan's MSDP (Mountain Societies Development Programme) - on day 2 we followed the course of the Pyanj river to Khorog. The Pyanj marks the border with Afghanistan, for most of the way only 100-300 metres across, and it was fascinating to observe life in the Afghan villages on the opposite bank. Along most of the way it is a narrow winding gorge, with tiny villages on both Tajik and Afghan sides eking a subsistence living from agriculture, farming isolated patches of soil beneath massive and barren mountain peaks. The rutted track on the Tajik side seemed like an autobahn compared with the footpath on the Afghan side, often chiselled into cliffs or comprising stones heaped along the shoreline, frequently leaning perilously over the powerful torrent of the Pyanj or disappearing altogether and then mysteriously reappearing 1000m further. Other paths would suddenly rise like hairlines up and over the mountains. It's entirely understandable that with such a porous border it's impossible to stem the flow of heroin from Afghanistan to any significant extent. We were stopped by soldiers whose truck had run out of petrol. Tatish ignored their request to borrow some, knowing they couldn't pay him, and scowled at the state of the Government's finances. It's said that the entire budget of the Tajik Government is less than that of a major Hollywood film.

Amid such isolation, and scenes of traditional rural life, it comes as a shock to arrive at cosmopolitan Khorog, bustling with land cruisers, international consultants and where local women are more likely to be wearing fashionable western clothing than the more conservative dress of the villages. As well as having one of the highest botanical gardens in the world (at 2200m), it is the centre of the Aga Khan's MSDP which aims to support the development of Badakhshan's predominantly Ismaeli mountain communities by providing water and electricity supply, repairing roads, supporting economic development and even establishing a university. The Serena Inn, run by the Aga Khan Foundation, provides a luxurious six-room guesthouse and a welcome bath and restaurant after two days on the road. As the sun began to set, I watched Afghans coming to the riverside to picnic following their evening prayer only 300m away on the opposite bank of the Pyanj.

From Khorog the road through the Pamirs to Murghab splits, taking a direct route following the Gunt river or heading further south along the Pyanj before turning east up the Wakhan valley bordering the Hindu Kush. I met Atambek in Khorog's bazaar. He had left the Tajik army six months previously, after eleven years service, and made his living now with a borrowed WAZ army jeep. With one hand clutching the dashboard for stability, as we veered around boulders and through potholes, and the other clinging to the passenger door, which alarmingly sprang open every fifteen minutes owing to a faulty lock, we headed south. It was the more exotic choice with villages along the way named Ptup, Yamg, Vrang and Zong and the knowledge that the narrow Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan, in places only 40-80kms wide, was all that separated us from Pakistan and India.

Because of its strategic importance, the Wakhan valley is studded with ancient hill forts commanding spectacular views. There are also hot springs, Buddhist and Zoroastrian shrines and, one hour's climb from the track, impressive collections of petroglyphs that are among the remains of human habitation in the Pamirs that date back to 8500 B.C.

But the most memorable experience was the contact we had with local people along the road which could only result from travelling with a local Pamiri. We scarcely passed a village where we didn't stop with one of his or his wife's relatives for tea; others threshing wheat in fields alongside the track ran over to say hello or to ask for a lift; a former army colleague hitched with us for several miles, sitting in the back with a bucket or petrol (practically asphyxiating us) until we reached his car that had run out of fuel at the side of the road. We spent the night at a 'home-stay' with local villagers, enjoying their generous hospitality, kindness and insatiable curiosity to learn something about the world I came from. It was humbling to sleep in the room they reserved for guests, while three generations of the family lay side by side in the adjoining room and to be offered so much food, knowing they were probably doing without themselves. Home-stays are a wonderful way to get close to the local culture and have an unforgettable experience; it's only advisable to take a torch for the after dark stumble to the “point and shoot” outhouse!

Some revel in that; I found it almost overpowering in its severity. The sight turns you to introspection and conversation dries up like the surrounding landscape. Suddenly, in the midst of this emptiness, we surprised a wolf which ran no more than 150m from us parallel with the track before veering off and watching us from a distance. I was elated by its physical beauty, the power and grace of its movement and the sheer unexpected privilege of coming across such an animal in the wild. The only other animals we saw (presumably its staple diet) were a lot of marmots that scampered away and burrowed into their homes in the sand when they saw us, comically resembling Garfield with their snub noses and fluffy orange fur!

Arriving at Murghab (at 3600m), after a short detour to Lake Yashikul, I arrived feeling slightly nauseous and with a headache. Altitude sickness can be a serious problem for some visitors but generally not if the journey is not hurried and some time is taken to acclimatise at Khorog. My own road to recovery was perhaps not orthodox. One of the outhouses of my home-stay was lined with thick blankets which turned it into a sauna when a large basin of water was placed over a wood burning stove to heat up. Equipped with a saucepan as a ladle and a plastic baby bath, I enjoyed one of the best baths of my life! Followed by an excellent meal of Pamiri cuisine, I rose the next day feeling brand new.
From Murghab it's possible to explore the natural splendour of the Pamirs extensively whether climbing, trekking and riding or to visit the wealth of archaeological remains which include ancient settlements, mausolea, petroglyphs, geoglyph stone formations, caravanserai, abandoned silver mines. ACTED has a small office in Murghab (with a yurt in the front yard) and can make all necessary arrangements including home-stays.

A short distance from Murghab, we decided to explore the Rang Kul valley by following the border with China, framed in the near distance by the 7000-8000m mountains that separated us from Kashgar. Leaving the track we drove up a narrow valley and found a camp of twelve yurts where a community of up to eighty people spent their summer months with their livestock in pasture.
The skulls of legendary Marco Polo sheep (with curling horns of up to 2m in length) warded off the evil eye from their settlement. I was invited into the yurt of a family with two children and a ten day old baby and offered tea, delicious yoghurt, bread and honey. He picked up a three stringed wooden instrument (Komuz) and played some music.
All the while his children watched me wide-eyed. We walked together around the surrounding hillside, with him proudly pointing out his Yaks (that looked like Highland cattle on steroids) and introducing me to others in the settlement. When I left he wouldn't accept any payment for their hospitality, even as a gift.

Atambek and I explored further up the valley to the crest at around 5000m. At the top, an 'epiphany' moment, the vast mountain landscape opened before us stretching to the horizon. No vapour trails from aircraft overhead, no electricity pylons, no sign of human habitation, not a sound other than the breeze it was the pure beauty of nature. Even as a Pamiri, Atambek was taken aback and decided to switch off the engine and simply roll the car down the other side so as not to disturb the silence.
Central Asia sometimes receives a bad press, not least Tajikistan which endured a civil war until 1998 and Kyrgyzstan where the post-Soviet government was recently overthrown. The Central Asian republics are each going through difficult stages of economic and political transition since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and tourism infrastructure is not always what might be expected in more developed economies. However, for that same reason, they offer a unique opportunity to explore largely uncharted territories and experience a fascinating and original part of the world, as yet untouched by culture of fast food outlets that is sweeping over so much of the rest of the world. Tourism is one of the ways these countries hope to rebuild their economies and visitors are sure to enjoy a legendary Central Asian welcome

Neville McBain is Director of British Council in Tashkent and responsible for Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan

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