I loved Khorog, I spent most of my time in Khorog whilst I was in Tajikistan. It is the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan region and lies at a friendly 2100m. My head could feel the
lessening pressure that had built up from the soaring heights of Murgab and my fingers began to regain some feeling after a few days at this altitude. I had no idea how close Khorog is to Afghanistan until I looked at the map. As a result of the Anglo-Russian-Afghan Border Treaty of 1896 the norther border of Afghanistan along the Pyanj river was demarcated. The Gunt river divides the city nestled among the peaks of the valley. Khorog felt like a metropolis compared to the likes of Murgab and Jelandy. I was happy to be in a relatively busy but small town which bustled during the day. You can’t help but pick up on how prominent the Aga Khan is in this part of the world. Most Pamiris are Ismailis and follow the teachings of the Aga Khan. Every house, shop or restaurant has a portrait of the man who has done some incredible and life changing work to try transform the impoverished GBAO region. There is a modern and beautiful university campus of the University of Central Asia which helps to educate both female and male students at a tertiary level. Some of the brightest and most educated people of the Central Asian region reside here. The students seem to speak pretty decent English and enjoy the campus facilities like accessing the internet. (There’s also an internet cafe in the city center near the post office, which sometimes works but mostly in offline). I asked two young students to help me out and try find the Pamir Lodge and they went out of their way to walk me to it.
Pamir Lodge was recommended to me by everyone who I’d met on the road and for good reason. Unless you can afford the Delhi Darbar Hotel there’s nothing else besides a couple of homestays (which close up during the off season). Pamir Lodge is a sanctuary run by couple extraordinaire Said and Zubaida Ilolov. The Pamiri people are famed for their hospitality and this is where I got my first taste of it. I was shown my room which was simple and comfortable enough. Zubaida then ushered me in for lunch and I met her gorgeous children and babushka. Zubaida speaks great English and it was great to chat over chai. I met Said later who was delighted to met me and told me about how their lodge had grown and how it had been established to help fund the local jk (jamoat khana). I’ve met few couples who treat each other with such respect, love and compassion. They compliment each other so well and one can’t help but gush at how gorgeous their family is. I was offered dinner and the meals I ate there were delicious. Family pop in and out and food is always on offer and shared. The khalifa (religious leader) came in at one stage and it was quite an honour for us to receive him. He greeted all and gave me and the kids chocolates, quite charming really.
I went to the bazaar to have a look around, but it had all but closed with a few murky fabric shops that remained half open. Walking around Khorog is quite a frightening experience with the stray dogs that run amok These horrific animals are as big and fearsome as wolves. So much so, that I used to joke about them not being fully evolved from their wolf ancestors. They run about in packs clipping peoples ankles and some looked pretty rabid to me. I was attacked by one, fortunately it bit my shoulder bag and no flesh. I froze on the spot as it bolted towards me whilst barking viciously. I did what I’d once read and showed it my open empty hands in a gesture of surrender. Panic stricken I recalled Paulo Coelho’s “The Pilgrimage” where he wards off an evil black beast in his account. I had finally met mine and managed to fend it off with a power that I didn’t know I had. As soon as it came for me I stood tall and although absolutely scared shitless I managed to keep calm and tame this wild beast. It could have torn me to shreds judging by the size of this thing but I somehow held an authority over it and it backed off. I heard horror stories of the cyclists I met at the lodge about how these dogs hanker after them relentlessly as they cycle along the roads. Some had been attacked and others had their tires punctured by these menaces.
One thing is certain in Khorog, you WILL GET SICK. Just about Everyone gets a bout of the runs. I’m not sure if its the food/water/lack of hygiene/intermittent typhoid outbreaks or a combination of all four but one sure can get violently ill in these parts. I met a French doc in Bishkek who had been to Tajikistan and gave me some meds which I definitely needed here. I shudder to think what would become of me if I didn’t have them. I was (wo)man down for about 3 days. I couldn’t stomach anything and barely had the strength to get bottled water in the city center. I was pretty devastated as I’d built up quite a bit of strength from 4 months of lugging around backpacks, walking and hiking but that diminished so quickly with the onset of this bug. Sadly I’ve felt weakened ever since and I’ve never regained that level of fitness again. It was also pretty darn freezing in the rooms, I didn’t have a heater until I managed to scavenge it off some cyclists who’d left. I slept in all layers, jackets, beenies and my pamiri socks!
I also met lovely crazy Michael from Germania who showed me around town. Turns out he’d once lived in South Africa, what are the chances! We spent a great afternoon wandering the streets on a quite Sunday (everything is closed on Sunday) where we reminisced about the increasing crime and sunshine in my native RSA. A big red hummer started following us in the streets and eventually encircled us as stopped. The driver was as high as a kite, gave us a thumbs up and offered some of the local smack, I was horrified whilst Michael just laughed. Drugs are everywhere here, hash, opium and heroin being cheap and easy to get is a firm favorite for unemployed men who lurk about in black tracksuits around big land cruisers. Guys walk about red-eyed and completely blazed out of their minds in zombie like states.
That aside, we ambled through the gorgeous Central Park in autumn bloom. I hadn’t seem a park this since Tamga. (There’s an Amonat Bank there where one can exchange travelers cheques believe it or not) and we ate the Chor Bagh (which was the only place open on Sunday). It’s a great restaurant and a real gem. Chor Bagh and Delhi Darbar both seem completely out of place in Khorog, they’re clean for a start and offer fantastic meals. We met lovely Roosbeh and Emily in the restaurant. They recalled the story of their car being hit by a rockfall along the road to Dushanbe and the horror of the road conditions. Emily is a dancer and studying Persian. Roosebeh is from Iran and a film maker. They were involved in filming different dancers in Tajikistan and Emily’s research for her PhD is really interesting. They were based in Dushanbe and great to chat to. We also met Stephan who is also German and working in Khorog with conservation. He’s a pretty die hard conservationist and has helped establish a protective hunting program for the area. Instead of letting hunters shoot whatever whenever and poach in the extreme (like what happens in SA) the hunting is controlled. Sadly the beautiful snow leopard is top dollar and in demand followed by the beautiful Marco Polo sheep. Hunters pay thousands of dollars to full their absurd blood lust. The stories of how much money these hunters have and the extremes they to which they go to are ridiculous. Stephan also mentioned the education and training he’s trying to put forth to tackle the problem of deforestation of the tersken bush which locals use for firewood. It’s meeting men like Stephan that restore my ever diminishing faith in humanity.
Speaking of fires, there was an arsonist attack on the market in central Khorog. Someone set
fire to a building which destroyed most of it and left it in cinders. I remember seeing it still smoldering whilst desperate shopkeepers tried to salvage what they could form the remains. I didn’t seem to get the full story on this either as no one was willing to comment freely on it. I also heard that the Afghan market which is was meant to be open on Saturday was closed closed due to arsonist attack. It lies on a bridge on the Afghan border and after two weeks it reopened and I was lucky enough to see it. It’s crazy to think the poppy fields lie just over the mountains and the Taliban are rumored by locals to lurk there…