Kame and I lodged at Hanis Guesthouse in Ishkashim. I was gobsmacked to see the gorgeous (hot) showers and clean toilets they offered. Such rarities are luxuries when found in central Asia. We walked about the streets, ate chocolates and shared a room with rats who lived in the floorboards underneath my bed. It was freezing in Ishkashim and big wolf dogs scampered about the roads looking rabid. I was amazed at how much of a soviet feel this little ramshackle village had. Old father Lenin’s bust basked among hammer and sickle mosaics. There are some nice sweet shops, but basic amenities are hard to find. We managed to walk in to a shop where we were luckily offered some plov for lunch. Other than the guesthouse, there’s nowhere to eat really. Hanis guesthouse offers some wicked meals and breakfasts, I was thoroughly impressed by them. Kame and I got a lot of stares as we walked about the streets and a drunk guy followed us back to the guesthouse one night. He started trying to hug me and held my hand despite me telling him Kame was my husband! We also saw the crazy cyclists who we met in Murgab coming through. They looked cold and disheveled as they tried to make it to Khorog. We wished them well and waved them off in awe of their courage and strength.
I’d arranged with PECTA (The Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association) in Khorog to hook me up with a driver in Ishkashim to take me all along to Langar and show me the sights on the way. Kame decided he’d walk/hitchhike along the route but I didn’t have the time or health to do so sadly. So with a scrawled piece of paper which bore writing on it so indecipherable I had to get a local to read it and phone the number. I dictated a reasonable time of morning around 8 and we were off in a small Russian jeep. Alisher picked up and we arranged for him to pick me up first thing then next morning. I made the mistake of paying upfront and in dollars, Alisher seemed happy with the sum. I should have paid half upfront half later. Part of me always thinks this could have ended in a horror show but it didn’t!
It’s a pity we couldn’t really communicate beyond the usual banter but he proved a good reliable driver. There are a few reasons why I decided to hire a private jeep along this route 1. I couldn’t drive on such roads 2. I was a lone single female 3. I wanted to see as much of the archaeological sights en route as I could. Taking a local shared taxi with 7 other Tajik men again didn’t really appeal to me as they wouldn’t stop along the way to see the sights. Also local rides along this route are very few and far between. A friend of mine mentioned he had to wait for 2 days until a car drove by along the road from Langar. Most tourists hike from village to village and this is a great way to see the sights in your own time- if you have it.
The first stop was the Khaakha fortress (3rd century BC). It’s pretty impressive and offers great views into Afghanistan. There are Tajik border guards all along the road to Langar and part of the fortress is occupied by them and off limits. That said, we still managed to climb up to the top and get great views across the Pyanj into Afghanistan.
Just a stone’s throw away is the Ismaili mazar and a museum to check out as well. There is a collection of ram horns on a raised platform inside the mazar. The doors and wooden beams are ornate and beautifully decorated. The little modest museum is prettily decorated with colorful paintwork on the outside.
The road along to the next fort was scenic and stunning. The mountains leaked snow capped tears and the autumn yellow contrasted beautifully with the turquoise tint of the river Pyanj. It was exhilarating as we looked into Afghanistan, parts of the river looked far too treturous to cross and other parts were almost dried up. We saw young men with donkeys crossing the river from the Afghan side. People bathed in the river I was told, and the border guards liked to spy on the ladies who strategically bathed in quiet but observable spots. The river was a source of livelihood for hundreds who relied on her fertility. Most of all, her currents provided easy accessibility for the ever increasing flow of contraband from the opium farmers just over the mountains.
About 60 km from Khaakha is the ruined Yamchun Fort (12 century). It is extremely impressive. It’s got well preserved round watch towers and it’s quite a scramble to get up to the top. The wind picked up and it was bitterly cold, but standing on the top of the fort gave me a sense of achievement and pride. In such an untouched piece of the world, very few foreigners can claim to have stepped here. The ancient fort told many stories almost as many as the wind.
We drove up to the Bibi Fatima Springs which are about 1km from the fort. It’s a steep drive up and we stopped to pick up some ladies who were going to bath. Foreigners pay for the service whilst the locals quite understandably don’t. It all seemed quite sweet, I was shown a guestbook with a few foreign names from travelers who’d bathed here. There seemed to be a sanatorium of sorts up the way, where honeymoon couples enjoy the warmth and coziness of the springs and each other. We waited and waited for the men to get out of the springs. Ideally every half hour men and women alternate but after around an hour or so the men still wallowed while the ladies bickered. This didn’t surprise me as the same thing happened in Garam Chasma. At one stage I though I wouldn’t have time to wait any longer. Finally, one brave lady beat down the door and went inside to scream at the selfish men. We finally kicked the last man out and I made friends with the ladies we lifted. The brave lady who shouted at the men spoke English quite well and possessed both a striking beauty and confidence. She had had enough of men, detested being married and marveled that I wasn’t hitched at my ripe old age of 24.
The springs have carved out a cave in the rocks and it’s really quite pleasant inside. The ladies were all ages and I felt very welcome in the group. It felt like a place of reprieve and sanctuary. It is even thought that the springs have fertility powers. After the heavily wallowing I decided to get back to Alisher who was keen to rush out of the springs ASAP. I made sure my new found friends came along with us to get a lift back to their homes in the village. It turns out Alisher grew up here, and the ladies liked to tease and taunt him poor thing. Alisher introduced me to his parents and we had a great welcome lunch. His mum was particularly interested in me and kept on giving me chocolates. She invited me as her daughter and I accepted the offer of having a Pamiri mama.
It was so warm and inviting inside. I was introduced to the family pets and an uncle popped in to introduce himself. Alisher was keen to get a move on and the winds were picking up and the clouds rolling in. A dust storm was chasing us. It was beautiful to behold as I’d never seen one before. It was pretty frighting how quickly the storm accumulated and gushed down the river bed. We fortunately didn’t get caught up in too much of the fluster but it posed a threat to the journey. At one stage Alisher tried his luck, as all men do. He asked where I would be staying in Langar. I hadn’t organised accommodation or a return trip to Khorog. I didn’t know yet was my honest answer and he half jokingly pointed to the back seat of his car. Well I say half jokingly, he was pretty happy to sleep in the back seat with me! There was a even blanked laid out! (I didn’t take him up on his offer – later on I was quite shocked to see Alisher back in Ishkashim with a new born baby in his arms!)
We set off to Yamg, a tiny and beautiful village which houses a museum of Sufi astronomer and musician Kadam Wakani. We went on to Vrang which is probably a firm second after the Yamchun Fort. There is a Buddhist stupa among the ruins of the remains of geothermal activity and dozens of hermit caves carved out in the rock face framing the stupa. It’s a helluva steep climb to get up to the top. I was helped by a local village boy who displayed a keen interest in me and Alisher, they had to drag me up some parts! The stupa dates to around 6-7 centuary AD. I was honored and happy to see it still intact, after what the Taliban did to the Buddhist remains in Afghanistan, it’s great to see this one is still well preserved tangible piece of the local history. On top of the stupa lies an interesting stone with an imprint of sorts carved in it. Rumor has it that it is the footprint of Bhudda.
Alisher and I finally made it to Langar in the dusk. He had family in Langar and with no questions I was invited in for dinner and a bed. What a delightful family. Two shy young girls giggled and looked bewildered to see me. They’d never housed a foreigner before. In no time I was regarded as a member of the clan and the elder daughter plucked up the courage to speak to me. She spoke great English and told me all about her school and her sister. She loved to read and she loved English. When I go back to Tajiksitan, I hope to see them again and give them some books. It’s pointless trying to send books or photos, they probably wouldn’t make it out of South Africa without being stolen! We spent a great evening chatting and the little girls pulled on my heartstrings. They stayed with their grandparents, their mum was off in Moscow trying to make a living and send back money. They missed her and the younger one teared up talking about their mum so far away. They made up a bed for me and I shared a room with them. Warm comfortable mattresses and blankets were laid on the floor for me and it was comfortable and warm. The little princesses chatted and giggled all night and we whispered stories to each other. I was given a beautiful beaded necklace as a gift. The next morning I awoke to the girls getting ready for school. I took a picture of them all smartly dressed up. I was half keen to join them myself.
There was no toilet (eek) not even a squatter so the backyard had to do. It wasn’t so bad at night (despite the dogs!) but during the next morning I didn’t know where to go about my bizniz. Anyone can walk by and see you, and there’s no where to hide.
Alisher was keen to get going the next morning. I felt bad as I hadn’t organised for a return trip, but he said he’d take me back to Ishkashim for no charge I’d planned on staying in Langer for a few days. I didn’t know how to negotiate but he seemed to be pretty happy to take me along. I assured him that we could pick up passengers on the way, which we did. Some paid, some didn’t!? The Pamiri people aren’t bizniz minded at all. It’s not in their nature to rip off travelers and the whole “pay for accommodation idea” is beyond them. You meet a stranger you take them in, you feed them and make merry. The thought of charging a stranger for staying the night doesn’t sit well with most families. Often when I mentioned I was staying it a guesthouse, people would look at me in disbelief and immediately invite me to stay with them for no fee. It’s really refreshing. The few home stays that do operate are linked in with PECTA and run on a community collaborative basis. Bare in mind, some are closed during the off season.
So we set off early the next morning to get back to Langar. We stopped by another guesthouse, and blow me down Kame crawled out! He invited me for breakfast and we exchanged stories. He’d got a share taxi down and was heading back towards Ishkashim. Turns out him and another friend I met later, John, had to spend a good few days walking from village to village until they were picked up. I wasn’t sure if I’d be seeing Kame again, as he had arranged to go straight to Afghanistan from Ishkashim. So I bid him farewell and good luck, he sure needed it.
Alisher bought a new tire in Vrang and we lifted people along the way. We stopped to drink water from a natural spring. It tasted like rust
It was a stunning drive and we got back to Ishkashim in one piece. I was also really lucky to see a Marco Polo Sheep just outside of Ishkashim.
I went back to the same guesthouse and immediately missed Langar and the family I stayed with. I got up early the next day to try get a ride into Khorog, nothing nudda rien! It started snowing and the family I was sitting with looked desperate to get a lift to Khorog as well. Babushka packed it in and headed back, I stayed on in the vain hope of someone somewhere coming through. Alsiher popped by with his baby (I could have slapped him! Don’t peruse other women when you’re married with children Mr!) He looked sheepish at my surprise and look of disapproval! He said he’d keep ears open for me for a lift, but it looked unlikely. Finally a new minibus full of young guns pulled up and said they’d give me a lift in for what was the local price. The dad and son of the family I was waiting with on the side of the road accompanied me for part of the trip, which was great. The dad could sense my unease at being the only female in the trip and served as a guardian of sorts. His little son got car sick and puked most of the way! I was sad to see them go, even though we didn’t say much to each other, their mere presence provided such comfort and companionship. The young guys in the car all seemed high on opium and pretty harmless. I’m sure they smuggled some dope to afford this new 4X4. The driver was aggressive and quite brash at times. Alisher immediately went up in my books. This driver wasn’t a skilled or experienced driver and I was glad to be dropped off in Khorog.