Tajikistan Part 2 - Peeking into Afghanistan
Updated: Nov 22, 2019
A hitchhiker on the roof rack!?
I’ve joked about it previously, but now we've actually done it! Not long after turning off the roughly paved Pamir Highway for the route to the Wakhan Valley via the Khargush Pass, we spotted a walker ahead of us. “Oh look, a hitchhiker”, said Sylwia. “No one would be hitchhiking here!”, I replied. My immediate response was in part informed by my reading of Lonely Planet, which strongly recommends against attempting to hitchhike through the Pamirs given the very long wait you could be in for. We weren’t even on the Pamir Highway - we’d departed it for a more remote route and to top it off it was mid-October, which is after the end of the season for visitors to this region. The odds of a hitchhiker catching a ride on this route were pretty slim indeed, yet there he was, and there we were too. The chap’s name is Sacha and he’s from Germany. After a bit of a chat I learned this maverick gentleman has walked solo all over the world, including through remote and risky parts of Africa. Sacha travels so light as to carry neither a tent nor a sleeping bag! He was fed by guards at the corrupt military checkpoint I described in my previous post (they're better known for taking your lunch rather than giving you it!) and he expressed his hope of being offered lodgings at the Khargush military checkpoint that we were heading for… good luck with that I thought! He also hoped to hitch a ride with us. I showed him that with the kids in the back there was literally no room at all to spare. “No worries, I’ll just hop up on the roof rack”, he offered. Ordinarily I wouldn’t allow this – there are important roof weight limits to respect, which we were already pushing and which are even more important to respect when off-road. But in his circumstances, I made a rare exception – for a short distance. We took him up to the top of a pass to save him a climb and reduce his distance from the Khargush Pass. The military post there (pictured below) strictly does not take lodgers… but equally, he would have made it there late in the day - could they turn away someone not really equipped to survive a minus 10 degree night in a remote location? If this bloke could survive on his own in Africa’s Sudan, then I’ve no doubt he managed to do likewise in the Pamirs… so long as he didn’t encounter a Pamir snow leopard after we left him – a hungry one of those could make a meal of a lone hitchhiker. (Just kidding!)
The Khargush Pass Military Checkpoint
I had been a bit anxious about this one for a while. Situated near the isolated Kargush Pass (4,344 metres), I’d read of foreigners being harassed by soldiers at this isolated military checkpoint. One disturbing report on a credible website used by overland travellers states that a Belgian cyclist was robbed with a gun to his cheek here; this by the very soldiers who were supposed to be clearing him safely through the checkpoint. Fortunately, we're benefiting from a recent strong drive across Central Asia to embrace tourism and hence tourists. In just the past couple of years alone most countries in Central Asia (perhaps except Turkmenistan) have taken significant steps to open up and combat the types of corrupt and/or intimidating behaviour that has sometimes occurred in the past. From a visitor's perspective at least, it appears to be working well – we generally haven’t experienced too many issues. There were a couple of efforts to extort us in Mongolia, dodgy police in Kyrgyzstan (likely in Kazakhstan too, though they were always busy with another victim when we came along) and the attempt to levy a fake tax on us upon entering Tajikistan, as described in my last post. Uzbekistan is another matter altogether, which I will address in a subsequent post. But I’m pleased to report we encountered no issues whatsoever at the Khargush military checkpoint. Just one soldier attended to us, and unusually he was unarmed. I wondered if this was deliberate, perhaps to make the soldiers appear less intimidating to overland tourists who often pass through these checkpoints. Moreover, the young soldier was polite and professional – no problem at all.
The Wakhan Valley
After a gradual descent through remote rocky landscapes alongside a fast flowing clear river, we followed a cliff edge route all the way down to the valley floor. Being on the valley floor seemed ‘low’, though in reality we were still just above 2,700 metres. This is the Wakhan Valley, and we were immediately captivated by its sheer beauty.
The Wakhan Valley is clean, with attractive though simple villages, and at this lower altitude the environment is totally different from the high Eastern Pamirs, with fertile lands, trees and flowers. The climate at this altitude too was totally different – sunny and low 20’s through the October days, with nights no colder than minus 1 or 2; and at this altitude the tent heater works reliably again!
The Wakhan Valley is very peaceful, and indeed the friendliest place I’ve ever been - it seemed all the locals wanted to welcome us wherever we were spotted. It initially takes some getting used to the idea that the villages we could see just across the river from us were in Afghanistan. But we would later follow this river-border for many miles and would soon become totally accustomed to peeking into the many Afghan villages, as well of course as exploring more thoroughly those on the Tajik side.
For more than 2,000 years this was home to the Wakhi people, who had no say in matters when towards the end of the 1800's the border that exists today was imposed on them as a result of an agreement reached between the Russian and British Empires. After the border hardened in 1893, local Wakhi people found themselves residents of different countries, no longer able to freely visit friends and family across the river.
As we progressed along the Wakhan Valley over the next several days we regularly passed by groups of young Tajik soldiers patrolling along the river, typically in groups of four. Just boys many of them really - some would smile or wave to us as we passed. It is a fact that drugs are smuggled from Afghanistan across the border with Tajikistan daily in this region, and there are potential bigger threats to protect against also.
We spent three nights exploring the parts of the Wakhan Valley nearby the tiny village of Langar, including bathing in the glorious ancient hot springs at Bibi Fatima and exploring ruins of the 12th Century fortress at Yamchun; both are located high up a mountainside overlooking the valley. The site of the Yamchun fort is believed to have been built on since the 3rd Century BC; testament to the fact that 2,000 years ago a main artery of the Silk Road went through the Pamirs. I’ll let the photos here speak for themselves.
A memorable experience with a Wakhan Valley family
A local family invited us to put our tent up in a space above their traditional Pamir home, situated on the mountainside overlooking the Wakhan Valley.
We were offered chai (tea), which soon turned into a delicious dinner cooked on a very basic stove - powered with cattle dung of course. Davlatsho, Sofia and their three children of similar age to ours made great hosts. While we were invited to sleep in the house, being a typical one room Pamiri home we preferred our more private and familiar accommodations in the tent. By ‘one room’ home I literally mean that – one single heated room serves as the kitchen, dining room, living room and family bedroom all in one. Yet there is no kitchen bench or sink (no running water), no table & chairs, no couch and no beds. The house has only one window, plus one further in the roof above the stove to allow any smoke out. The toilet was an outhouse - their is no bath or shower, although xx is in the process of building a simply sauna based bathroom outside. This description might makes their home sound rather unpleasant to some, but it wasn’t truly unpleasant - it's just different way of life here. This was not a homestay enhanced in any way for foreign tourists, it was just a traditional local home. Local people eat dinner seated on cushions on the floor. In the evening this is cleared to make space for the sleeping rugs to be laid out. A more substantial traditional Pamiri home might feature permanent sleeping platforms.
Economically this region is extremely poor, with GDP per capita reported at a meagre US$200 per annum. Yet this common economic metric doesn’t seem to fairly reflect differences in how life is lived here vs the developed world. This family’s hillside plot contains their own ploughed fields used for growing potatoes, with their own orchard directly above. Their sheep and goats roam nearby. As with many in the Wakhan they are so self-sufficient that they produce most of their own food requirement – indeed Davlatsho even built the family’s home himself, this not being unusual here.
It’s worth noting that the current population first lost, and then had to re-learn, the self-sufficiency skills they proudly possess today. During the era of the Soviet Union the Pamirs produced little food, with locals here almost totally reliant on goods imported from Russia. Consequently, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 sparked famine and crisis here, even though the necessary resources and potential were right here. Information boards placed throughout the Wakhan Valley name various world governments and other aid organisations who have assisted locals become self sufficient, or who have assisted with various projects, such as irrigation.
At the centre of Khorog is this beautiful little central park, complete with children's playground and a large 'beach' that is filled with water diverted from the adjacent river during summertime. It's hard to believe that in the 1990's this park was dug up to grow crops - this to address famine resulting from the break up of the Soviet Union.
Khorog is the administrative capital of the Pamirs and the first true little town that we’d come through in the c. 1,000 kilometres since Kyrgyzstan’s Osh. On the day of our arrival we were alarmed by the numbers of both regular police and combat ready police to be seen on the streets, this in addition of course to an already strong military presence. The combat ready police, wearing helmets and body armour, gave the impression that we’d arrived into Khorog at a time of high tensions, but we would soon learn that this is just how it is here ordinarily. Something did later occur during our stay in Tajikistan to highlight that this constant state of preparedness is not just for show. A few days before this post was published 20 IS fighters entered from Afghanistan to attack a Tajik military border post situated near the Uzbek border. The attack occurred 60 kilometres southwest of the capital, Dushanbe, which is where we'd been staying just prior to the attack. A policeman and a soldier were killed before Tajik soldiers gained control, killing 15 IS fighters and capturing 5. I appreciate that this occurrence may cause some to have a hard time accepting my view that those parts of Tajikistan bordering Afghanistan are generally safe and peaceful to visit. I note that the New Zealand and Australian government's advise their citizens against all non-essential travel anywhere near the Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrgyz or Afghan borders and also against travel anywhere within Tajikistan's GBAO - which essentially encompasses our entire route that you've been following in this, the previous and the next post! The UK government has a somewhat softer travel advisory stance, advising caution but stopping short of recommending against travel to these places. We find that as we've become more experienced in independent travel to less developed regions we've learned to form our own opinions - based on what we can actually see for ourselves - of what and where is 'safe'. It certainly is always important to stay alert, wherever you are, but I maintain that visiting this part of Central Asia is safe... and hugely worthwhile.
Visiting an Afghan Border Market
From Khorog we had opportunity to visit a nearby Afghan/Tajik border market held on Saturdays. This market takes place on Tajik soil, with Afghan traders permitted to cross the river with their goods. Our interest in attending the market was purely to gain some additional exposure to Afghanistan. We’d been peeking into these Afghan villages just across the river from us for a week and welcomed the opportunity to see some Afghan locals up close. As the images show, the Afghan locals who attended the market to sell their wares are quite different in appearance/attire to those residing on the Tajik side, hinting at the different culture prevailing across the river.
The 'Middle' Route
As mentioned in my previous post, I desired to explore the Pamirs more thoroughly than most would. I repeat to the left the same GPS track map provided in my previous post - here I'm referring to the segment appearing as a circle, which we travelled anti-clockwise. We took the lesser travelled middle route up, receiving a good deal of attention from excited children living in small villages we passed through along the way. Like the Wakhan Valley, this route followed a lovely clear river, with local villages taking advantage of the fertile land either side.
It’s almost mandatory at some point in the Pamirs to be stuck behind a large broken down truck on a cliff edge track and we had the pleasure of this experience too. We managed to get around the broken down truck and squeeze past another big old truck behind it too. I mention the second truck because it was so old that when its occupants moved it for us they started the engine with a hand crank!
The final part of this route took us into strictly 4wd terrain and into snow at around 4,000 metres, with temperatures outside plunging below zero as night fell. What I've referred to as the 'Middle Route' terminated where we rejoined the Pamir Highway, not too far from where we had previously left it in favour of the route over the Khargush Pass to the Wakhan Valley. As such, we managed to drive both the Wakhan Valley and the Pamir Highway, rather than having to choose just one.
Welcome to the Hotel California… or a Soviet era version thereof!
We spent two nights in the rough and ready little settlement of Jelondi (3,574m), whose main attraction is the natural hot water springs that emerge from the ground there. So plentiful is the natural hot water that locals not only have built their own hot pools, but they’ve plumbed it into radiators throughout their homes! A novel way indeed to heat homes in the harsh winters they endure here.
We stayed one of the two nights we spent in Jelondi with a family in their cosy and freely heated home (pictured above-right). We were going to stay at the old hotel & sanatorium, but as we approached it in the dark of night it appeared deserted and we wrongly presumed it had closed for the season. The following day we learned it was actually open and so went there to bathe in the hot pools. First impressions were that this old Soviet style hotel was somewhat run down, and yet at the same time kept spotlessly clean and tidy. We decided to go the full experience and stay a night in this strange old hotel. Locals bathe naked in all hot springs in Tajikistan, much to Marcel’s disgust, and so there are separate men’s and women’s pools. The water is hot! At least 45 degrees Celsius if not more - it almost feels scalding and takes some acclimatising to get fully submerged
The Pamir Highway continues
Returning to Khorogh, this time on the Pamir Highway, we discovered this too to be a beautiful route following a magnificent river. In essence, there are no routes through the Pamirs that would disappoint and all offer something of interest. I'll leave you with a few images from this section of our journey. The pictures that follow are in such stark contrast to the snowy pictures just above that you could almost think these come from another season, but it's just the result of dropping down 1,000 or so metres in altitude.
Coming up next
Khorog is still in the midst of the Pamirs. When I conclude on our time in Tajikistan in the next edition, we travel onwards through the Western Pamirs bound for Dushanbe - Tajikistan’s interesting and unusual capital city - but spending two nights along the way detouring up the truly spectacular Bartang Valley.