Tajikistan – The Pamirs and the Wakhan Corridor Part II
How we ended up back in the Wakhan Corridor, drove the eastern half of the Pamir highway and saw a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.
The day after we returned from Afghanistan we set about reorganizing all of our gear as we had left a number of things at the Pamir Lodge including the trailer. It took a fair amount of time which was further delayed by the number of other overlanders at the lodge. Whenever groups of travellers get together, not a lot gets done other than drinking, eating, relaxing and chatting, and as usual we all went back to the Indian that night for a lot of drinking, eating and… well, chatting.
Adam had the Bartang Valley on his mind but decided he would do it in reverse, meaning he would travel towards Murghab before looping back southwest to Khorog along the Bartang Valley. So once again the three of us set off south (for the third and last time) down to the Wakhan Corridor past Ishkashim and out east. As we were covering old ground we rarely stopped for photos, in fact I think we only stopped at the police checkpoint in the first 100km. Passing Ishkashim we were looking for the Bibi Fatima hot springs along with the old forts of Yamchun and Khakha.
The springs were a welcome relief and seemed a little cooler than the ones at Garam Chasma which we visited on our original route south a few days prior. After a good old wash (Lisa had a pool all to herself, but had an audience with the attendant who insisted on scrutinising her every move!) we headed back down the mountain to the remains of the Yamchun fortress. Perched on top of the hill the rocks crumbled away in almost all directions. Dated from the first century BC it had 2m thick stone walls with several watchtowers. It is thought to have been the greatest defence fortification in the Wakhan and was strategically placed on the Silk Road leading from Pamir to Bactria, India, Iran and back controlling the traffic, cargo and security in the region.
It was here, half way down a scree slope that we met the Aussie that is Shane Dallas (http://www.thetravelcamel.com) He was regaling stories and waxing lyrical about his time in the Afghan Pamir. Later that day we caught up with him and his guide at the Vamg Guesthouse. It seems that once you’re in the one way system that is the Wakhan Corridor, there isn’t much of a way out. We discovered that day that after about 2 pm the westerly winds come screaming down the valley like a banshee kicking up dust and sand nearly a kilometre wide and engulfing everything in sight.
Luckily for us we came across the guesthouse just in time. The following morning the owner Aydar showed us his (reconstructed) grandfather’s Pamiri home which is now a museum (he was the famous Sufi mystic, astronomer and musician Mubarak Kadam Wakhani (1843–1903) ). Outside of the museum to the north you can see the stone that he used as a solar calendar. All of his observations are written down and recorded on display in the museum. Aydar showed us everything including the vast array of musical instruments and he even went as far as playing a few for us.
With the day wearing on we knew we needed to get moving before the winds caught up with us again. Passing ruined forts and Tajik border patrol posts we made our way east with the Hindu Kush towering alongside on our right. I would catch glimpses of hidden valleys and soaring (unclaimed) peaks in the distance, some of which I am sure were in Pakistan as when the clouds cleared I could see a fair distance into the range. I was sad to leave it behind as the Big Pamir came into view and with that we turned north into Langar.
That night I noticed that our awning bracket was about to give way again so asked a few of the guides staying at the guesthouse that night if they knew of any. To my surprise they did (there was no electricity at the last place and Langer was also on generators). In the morning we were pleasantly surprised to find a Russian living in Langer who could ACTUALLY weld. He did a great job and whilst I was snooping around I spotted his old Ural motorbike and sidecar in the garage. When I told Adam he came bounding in and asked if he could sit on it for a photo… Cheeky.
As we were up early we had a long day over the first big mountain pass. Adam took a wrong turn the day before and ended up on this road so said something to the effect of ‘you may need low ratio gears on this one’ before steaming off ahead. We got to the first bend and nearly stalled where It was so steep! We got going and managed low second (L2) for a while before a group of shepherds decided to foil my plans and throw their goats in our path. We waited for them to clear before setting off again in L1 for a while. For 70km we climbed and rolled along the mountainside stopping for photos along the way, it was slow going as it was so scenic!
We reached Khargush, passed the military checkpoint and headed north towards the mountain pass passing beautiful Alpine Lakes along the way. As we neared the pass the sky clouded over and it began to snow, luckily we were up and over and on our way down in no time. Catching up with Adam we discussed that evenings camp options and decided to drive on to the lakes at Yashil-Kul and loop around to Alachur the next day.
We found a quiet spot next to the lake but the wind was howling and bitterly cold. We sheltered the best we could and cooked up something quickly for the 3 of us before retiring to bed. The next morning we awoke to the sound of a small van, blaring Enrique Inglesias and six Tajik men inflating a small boat and preparing their nets. We got up and made breakfast when they came over and gave us three white fish. Endemic to the two lakes here in the high Pamirs these are something of a delicacy and we were very grateful. It was at this point that we bumped into a Land Rover Discovery! It turned out to be two lads from Sweden on a short trip through Central Asia. (www.swedishdiscovery.com). After a brief discussion on the finer points of Land Rover diesel engines: ‘does yours blow black smoke at this altitude?’, ‘mine didn’t start this morning’ and ‘what is your economy like?’ we were on our way.
We went in search of the dirt track heading east but it was difficult to find. Following the GPS we crossed open land before picking up a faint track which would take us to the Ak-Jar hot springs. It was rough going following the river and it was easy to see how it would become impassible during the rains. Ak-Jar proved to be a small trickle but further down the road (whilst I was taking photos of Yaks) Adam’s bike was outside a small building. When we knocked on the door we were invited in by a shy Kyrgyz women. Adam was sat there drinking tea and eating bread! It was a great experience. We spent sometime taking photos of her and her young son and then I printed a few out on our portable printer (Canon Selphy) for her. The room was sparse, we were about 75km from the main highway and a long way from a town. Everything was run on one 12v battery but they seemed to have everything they needed. We gave a clutch of pens, pencils and notepads to her for her son before we left and from here we picked up the main Pamir Highway.
“The plain is called Pamier, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but desert without habitation or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you cannot even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of the great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out as much heat as usual.”
Marco Polo, Description of the World