A short walk (and hitch, and roofrack ride) in the Wakhan Valley
Harvest time in Tajikistan. Here in Langar, a town at the eastern end of the only habitable road in the Wakhan Valley, it’s proving difficult to find a drink. The glacial flow down from the twin mountain peaks named for Engels and Marx in the range above usually provides more than enough water for the villagers, but somewhere up there the flow’s gone filthy. In the street-level drainage channels, bearing signs for whichever donor countries helped put them there, the water runs a murky, unpotable grey. Locals tell me that they’ve taken to walking several kilometres to the neighbouring village of Zong, where the water’s still drinkable, cramming enough for their families on the back of a donkey or into a Lada. There’s talk amongst the NGOs operating locally of running a pipe from Zong, but that’s for next year, and nobody can say what will happen with the melt by then.
Equipped with neither donkey nor Soviet sedan, my quest for water takes me in the direction of what seems to be the only shop in town that’s open, in a cluster of half-finished buildings, their unpainted cladding and concrete setting them apart from the stone and mudbrick that have been the norm here for thousands of years. Next to it is a half-built school in similar style, funded by an assortment of European development programs. I know this is the shop because there’s a handpainted sign, in English: “shop”. It doesn’t have the signage of almost every other shop in Tajikistan, in which clip art pictures of whichever products are on offer are overlaid and fading towards cyan. This place is too new for that. Newer still is the sound of a Casio keyboard echoing out from inside, a preset bossanova rhythm with an awkwardly played Tajik melody on top skittering up into the mountainside.
The boy behind the counter stops playing as I walk in, offering a mumbled salom. This place is bigger than almost every other shop I’ve encountered in the valley, conceived with a rare optimism for busy days ahead. The shelves are ample but sparsely stocked — they could almost take the entire load from one of the weeklyish supply trucks that ply the harrowing, mostly unpaved road from Ishkashim, the last major town at the other end of the Wakhan valley. “Voda?”, I ask in Russian, bluffing through a haggle and paying twice what I should. He retrieves a bottle from a closed box that is dusty on the inside. Before I’m even outside again, he’s back at his keyboard. I’m so thirsty I don’t think twice when I notice the bottle’s seal is already broken, slugging back something that’s clearly not the first liquid that’s been in this bottle.
If you’re not out harvesting the fields, there’s not much to do in Langar in the dog days of summer. Up and down this road, as with everywhere right now in the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan region, wheat fields take up whatever sliver of flatlands can be found between the foot of the mountains and the edge of the Panj River, as donkeys and young boys similarly laden with heavy bales trudge with the same demeanour. In the fields, the monotone of dry grass is broken up by intermittent bursts of red and gold and orange, where women in floral chakan dresses hunch over, threshers in calloused hands, their arms a blur as they reap.
As I’ve wandered all morning, the refrain from the children tugging on my shirt has been the same, offers to show me the bronze age petroglyphs on the rise above the village. This is the one English word every kid in the town can say flawlessly — “Petroglyphs? Petroglyphs! Petroglyphs…?”. Soothed by the Casio, I relent for two young boys. Amir with his turned-back green cap and collar shirt, Rayid in his electric blue and orange MOTO X sweater, both in sandals infinitely more practical than my boots. They agree to guide me up the hill in exchange for 10 Somoni each (about a buck).
Soon enough, I’m headed up a hillside woefully out of breath while Amir and Rayid wait further ahead, hands on their hips, impatient to spring onward. The trail up from the village isn’t marked as such, other than by thousands of years of scrabbling of hooves and hands. Past a dusty old sign painted with the word “Petroglyph” in both fading Cyrillic and English, you just have to go with it. As the boys continue pushing ahead, Amir stops and looks back at me, then pinches his thumb and forefingers together to show me just how little distance there is left to go. I pause for longer than they’d like, laying myself flat out on the rocks to catch my breath. With enough altitude now to make sense of where we’re situated, I roll over and take in the view.
Just beyond Langar at the foot of the mountain, the Pamir and Wakhan rivers conjoin to form the westward-flowing Panj, with the ranges that track them meeting in a wide plain. On the other side of the country, closer to Dushanbe, the Panj conjoins again with the Vakhsh after serving as most of the country’s border with Afghanistan to form the mighty Amu Darya, known to antiquity as the Oxus, draining ultimately into the Aral Sea. The source of the Oxus is something Robert Burton wondered after in 1638, in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Colonial adventurers such as John Wood in the 1830s, and George Curzon in 1894, just before he became Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, journeyed to these parts to find the origin of a river which, Curzon wrote, “furrowed a deep channel in the destinies and character of mankind… That great parent stream of humanity, which has equally impressed the imagination of Greek and Arab, of Chinese and Tartar, and which, from a period over three thousand years ago, has successively figured in the literature of the Sanskrit Puranas, the Alexandrian historians, and the Arab geographers.”
It’s the question of what comes after the grand narrative moves on that has drawn me here. What is it to live in this deep-furrowed channel by this parent stream of humanity in the 21st century, long after the withdrawal of the Soviet and the civil war that followed? What is it to live in these mountains now, where the impressed imaginations of history can’t keep the water running clean?
Looking south, to the other side of the Panj, there is Afghanistan and the brutal, snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush. Less than 20 kilometres further south through the impassable Kush begins Pakistan. That panhandle of Afghanistan is another of those peculiar compromises produced by colonialism — a border decided at a negotiating table at the start of the twentieth century by the British and Russians to ensure their empires never touched. In bringing an end to the Great Game — those mythologized decades of derring-do where spies on either side murdered each other and the locals for sport while never entirely mastering this terrain — they also drew an arbitrary line in the European manner, using the Panj in a way that did not match reality up here in the mountains, dividing villages and families instantly, and permanently. As here, the people over in that pocket of Afghanistan are Wakhani, their language a dialect of Persian basically the same as what’s spoken on this side. It’s one of Afghanistan’s few regions that has remained relatively free of conflict, the strong grip of local leaders and forbidding terrain keeping the Taliban and others at bay.
Eventually, we make it to a vast grey-brown rock face, covered in carvings dating as far back as the bronze age. Next to an ancient, faded depiction of a donkey, there’s a newer, whiter carving of a motorbike. All over the rocks, in the tradition of the best graffiti, the ancient carvings compete for space with centuries of additions and commentary. Under the many names this land has taken since that first donkey was scratched, from Transoxiana to Bukhara to Turkistan, there hasn’t been time to luxuriate in preservation. Here at the roof of the world, where the great ranges of East Asia — the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, the Tian Shan, Kunlun — come together in what geographer Herman Kreutzmann describes as the tight and unforgiving “Pamirian Knot”, life has always been about as tough as it gets.
If you could follow these drawings as a conversation — one that has continued since the early Aryans first settled here — it might tell you about Marco Polo, or Genghis Khan, or the old Silk Road, or the time of the Great Game. It might tell you about when this rock served as the final frontier of the Persian empire, or as the base from which the Soviet Union broke its own back trying to take Afghanistan. It might say something about the brutal civil war that erupted here after the USSR’s collapse, leaving the region isolated and in conflict with the far away Tajik government in Dushanbe, where Emomali Rahmon has held sway since 1992. It might tell you of the long painful years of rebuilding that followed and persist, where people whose traditional means of subsistence had been subsumed and forgotten in the shadow of Soviet centralization were left to fend for themselves without the resources to do so. Or maybe none of that is what’s recorded here. It might just tell you that a boy was in love with a girl thousands of years ago, and five hundred years ago, and last Friday. And that a motorbike is faster than a donkey.
Throughout the city and the country, President Rahmon appears on painted billboards benevolent and strong, dressed either in military regalia or, as befits contemporary strongman fashion, a blue suit and too-long red tie. While outsiders readily throw Tajikistan into the bucket of failed, kleptocratic Central Asian states, where what income there is from the state’s industry (mostly aluminium processing, in Tajikistan’s case) is funnelled into private pockets, inside the country, at least in public, Rahmon is largely loved. For many of the young people I speak to, who’ve known little other than his rule, he is still the grand unifier who brought warring sides together and brought peace to the nation, the bulwark against the chaos that still threatens from all sides and from within.
Even ten years ago I could have been the only outsider in this village, but the country has slowly, carefully been opening itself up to travellers, building the fragile infrastructure of an adventure tourism industry and issuing visas online without the traditionally suspicious post-Soviet bureaucracy of some of the neighbouring states. Only a week before I came to this rock face, three ISIS acolytes in Tajikistan’s north captured and killed a group of cyclists headed for the Pamir Highway, but the fearful ripples of this attack — the first hints of ISIS incursion into the country — aren’t yet being as deeply felt this far away. The dread will begin to creep southwards in the days and weeks to come. Further away, in the United States, the Washington Post will run some of its minimal coverage under the headline “Were the American cyclists killed in Tajikistan naive for traveling there?”.
There are a few other groups also up on the rock face, mostly four-wheel-drive-loads of retirees from various pockets of Europe, accompanied by guides who seem more patient than Amir and Rayid. As I sit on the rocks and fix my gaze on the snow-capped mountain peaks of the Hindu Kush across the way, trying to mentally sort the historical timeline, a guide strikes up conversation. He’s from Khorog, the largest and really only city of Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, the administrative region that includes the Wakhan Valley and which requires its own special visa to visit. Though Khorog has long served as the Wakhan’s main supply centre, it now exerts its pull in other ways. Thanks to a flurry of recent investments in education and economic development, Khorog aspires to be an oasis of industry, with a new university campus — the only one in the region — on a hilltop overlooking the town.
The majority of those visiting the Wakhan likely enter via Khorog, as I did. Its present-day thrum would have been hard to foresee just a few years ago. Beyond the newer buildings, multi-storey apartment blocks from the late Soviet era stand vulnerable to landslides from the mountains that encircle the city. Though the civil war is long over, there’s a Badakhshan independence movement quietly simmering in the background, and former warlords are still out there, in the wind, resentments lingering. The central government naturally resents how little control it has over the region. The last time things boiled over in 2012, following the murder of a government intelligence officer in Ishkashim, Khorog became the focal point of intense fighting that spread throughout the province. All roads and communication to the city were blocked off, while Tajik solders swarmed in to battle militants on the streets. BBC reports described it as a war zone where at least fifty people, probably many more, died.
Narratives of what happened and who was to blame for the skirmishes differ wildly, but it’s not something the locals I meet want to talk about. At best I hear, “it was all a misunderstanding,” followed by a swift change of subject.
As with almost everything other than the mountains themselves in Badakhshan, Khorog owes its present-day gleam to the Aga Khan. Pamiris are, almost exclusively, Shia Ismaili. This progressive branch of Islam is not shared with the rest of the country, which is largely Sunni although the state remains officially secular. The region is more dependent on, and reverent of, the benevolence of the Aga Khan, their well-financed and far-away spiritual leader, than they are on the government in Dushanbe. Outside of Ismaili circles, the fourth Aga Khan — Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini — is mostly known as a rich and flamboyant dignitary, a powerful mover and shaker who skied for Iran in the 1964 Olympics, a Swiss-born playboy who spends much of his time hobnobbing with the world’s elite at his French chateau or on his private island. As a child his father played in upstate New York with Orson Welles. His father was married to Rita Hayworth, but Rita Hayworth was not his mother. Here, where villagers on subsistence incomes struggle to scrape together their tithes, the Aga Khan is both government and God on Earth. During the civil war in the 1990s, it was the Aga Khan and his foundation that negotiated supply routes to the region and kept its people on life support. In the years since, as the Dushanbe-focussed central government left a support vacuum in Badakhshan, never entirely forgiving or trusting it, the Aga Khan Development Network assumed the role of the region’s de facto administrator. Its web of suborganisations now appear to run the place as though they were government departments, under a relatively unofficial agreement that both sides seem to tolerate and maintain.
The guide from Khorog who I meet at the petroglyphs is keen to tell me how his faultless English is thanks to the local, AKDN-backed, education system. He explains that the Aga Khan himself took a particular interest in Badakhshan when he first visited the region at the end of the civil war, and announced that he would invest in education and infrastructure to help empower the next generation of Ismaili in the Pamirs, preparing them for a life beyond the meagre subsistence on offer here. The Aga Khan funding not just the construction of schools in remote villages but the teachers, electricity, and water they need to run.
The guide’s generation, and the one that follows — the first generation to have grown up entirely after the civil war — are the benefactors of this largesse, studying in Khorog or the capital Dushanbe, and earning degrees in fields such as tourism, engineering, and earth sciences. Throughout the Pamirs, even in the smallest villages, the young children practice their English on me while the teenagers hold court fluently and simultaneously in Russian, Pamiri dialects, Tajik, and English. I ask him what good this kind of education does if there’s no opportunity locally to work in the jobs they’re being trained for. In almost every family I’ve spoken to, the main source of income outside support from the Aga Khan and the government remains remittances from family members who’ve gone to work in Russia, where Tajik are treated as the lowest of the low, and Pamiris often as the lowest of the Tajik. When I ask women in the fields why working-age men are conspicuously absent from the harvest, the answer is consistent: because they’re away, making money for the family. But for this guide, there is only opportunity. As the tourism trade slowly picks up and matures beyond the adventure market, for a few months a year his training means he can make a good living showing tour groups these far-flung edges of these far-flung mountains.
The Aga Khan’s opinion, he tells me, is the only one that matters.
“I owe everything to him,” he says. “If my family are having an argument, there might be three opinions — my mother, my sister, and me. The only correct opinion is the Aga Khan’s.”
As the boys and I make our way down from the mountainside, we stop at a small cemetery with faded photos of the deceased placed at the headstones. They close their eyes and whisper prayers. Rayid then disappears ahead, uninterested in hanging around. I give Amir 20 Somoni for both of them and he lopes away.
Beyond Langar, the worn-down path that continues along the foot of the mountain is interrupted at regular points by grey torrents of water. But for a single boy on a donkey, who offers me a high five, and a couple of bored teenage soldiers wandering with rifles slung on their backs, who do not, it’s deserted. At the end of the path, before it turns to switchbacks leading upwards again, a cold oasis of teal and white tin buildings are collecting dust, abandoned behind a forbidding stone wall, trucks full of construction material parked nearby. Up and behind this on an outcrop sits the remains of the fortress of Ratm, younger than the petroglyphs but older than anything else at this end of the valley, for millennia the first line of defence for invaders from the Afghan side of the river.
This empty group of buildings is the Langar border post, the last crossing before the military post in the Khargush Pass, further northeast along the valley. Beyond that, the next real settlement is at Alichur, through the mountains and hundreds of kilometres away on the Pamir Highway. Keep going eastwards from there and eventually you’ll make it to the Xinjiang region at China’s farthest edge, where the Uighur people, closer in heritage to the Pamiri than the Han Chinese, are being rounded up in detention camps by their hundreds of thousands.
This border was open for a few years, after the AKDN funded construction of the bridge, but throughout my journey here, I’ve been given conflicting information about its present status. It’s open, maybe, or it’ll be open in a few years, or never. For the people of the Wakhan, it will change everything, or it won’t change a thing. The buildings appear to be set up for processing a hefty volume of traffic and goods. In its ideal form, this crossing represents a key puzzle piece in a new trade route that will link China with Pakistan, a component of China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative. If the route is one day realized, with a border crossing at Langar, it will inexorably transform life in the region. At the moment, however, there’s little more than a gate on the other side of a narrow bridge that leads to another dusty path. That path is barely wide enough for the single Soviet-era 4WD currently disappearing around the mountain’s edge, into the desolation of the Afghan Wakhan. Afghanistan, of course, is not renowned for cooperating with the best laid plans of others; the sheds seem an optimistic Potemkin built for a future configuration of geopolitics that’s a long way from here.
Back at my homestay in Langar, on the same dusty path as the border, an elderly man named Yodgor moves around slowly with his pronounced limp, tending to his guests — a former Swiss diplomat, along with his wife and three Tajik-fluent children, and another guide from Dushanbe who playfully pokes around at my opinions and reasons for being here, trying to get a handle on my politics. Another man, Kyrgyz by the looks, sits quietly next to me, slamming back cups of tea like they’re vodka shots, listening to us talk about the other valleys, and the ways this one has changed.
“You have to go to the Bartang!” the Swiss family declare. “That’s the real Pamirs! This valley is already so ruined by tourists!”
As I drink a warm Russian beer — cooled for about 10 minutes next to an exposed animal carcass in the freezer before I impatiently drag it out, the bottle smelling just a little of off meat — I ask Yodgor about what the border will mean for his business when it opens. He shrugs, tells me it’s five years away at least, that it won’t make a difference to him. Eventually, some day, maybe.
“Wouldn’t you actually need roads, though?” I ask.
He smiles and nods. I ask him why it is that for all of the infrastructure projects I’ve seen along here, for all the grand ambitions of building a sustainable income, the paved road that might make a real difference seems a bridge too far. He shrugs.
As the light drops I retreat to my room — unusually for the valley, I have an actual mattress. The room has four beds, but the others are empty. From one of them I hear a faint mewing. Carefully lifting back a cushion embroidered with the same flowers as the dresses of the women in the fields, I find five tiny newborn kittens nuzzled into their pudgy mother’s belly. The mother turns and looks at me with the disinterest of one who knows whose turf this is.
In the morning, Yodgor’s grandchildren come in and chase the mother cat away. They apologetically place the kittens in a cardboard box and carry them out of the room. Two minutes later, the mother cat returns, a kitten held by its scruff in her mouth. She hops up to the bed, placing the kitten exactly where it had been, and returns to fetch the rest.
My intention had been to take my time walking, hitching, and exploring the length of the valley westward from Langar to Ishkashim, a busier border town where, until a few years back, a market would spring up on weekends and people from both sides could visit and exchange goods. The morning, though, has something else in mind — the fury of whatever had been resting in that poorly sealed water bottle. I’m in no condition for hiking even short distances. Not relishing the idea of a slow-going 150 kilometres with only infrequent drop toilets at hand, I negotiate a drive with one of Yodgor’s in-laws part way down the valley to Vrang, where I lay flat in another homestay for another day before paying too much to some local kids to drive me straight to Ishkashim.
Though few of the guidebooks say so, the cross-border market has been closed since 2012, ostensibly for security reasons. As the locals put it, too many Taliban types were using it as an excuse to hop across the border and hang out in Ishkashim. Instead, to grand fanfare and with a flurry of international development funding, President Rahmon dedicated a vast swath of land at the edge of town as a free trade zone, a centre of industry that would not only replace the markets, but bring all kinds of business to this corner of the valley, and new sources of revenue and employment to an area desperately in need of them. Years later, it remains an empty, fenced expanse with soldiers trooping along its edge. Its only permanent structure is a monolithic gate house with a hopeful sign. The fence is interrupted at several points for non-existent future rivers or drainage channels. Like the border post in Langar, the free trade zone seems a wish of a viable future given structural form before anything like the conditions of its practical reality were near.
I lie flat in a mildew-ridden hostel room recuperating for several days, rationing my naively meagre supply of rehydration salts and subsisting mainly on broth made from ramen sachets. Many of the travellers passing through are would-be Afghan adventurers — border crossers with visas obtained in Khorog, trying to figure out the right combination of arrangements that will get them over the border at a designated time.
I assume it’s my undernourished delirium when, out of the dust, I see two young Englishmen dressed in white shirts, waistcoats, ties, and bowler hats pull up to the hostel in a Nissan Micra. Texting a friend for help affirming my own sanity, she suggests I might have hallucinated Thomson and Thompson, the hapless detectives from Tintin. It turns out they are merely the first in a wave of more than a hundred cars that will pass through the Wakhan in the weeks ahead on their way to Ulaanbatar as part of the Mongol Rally, each with their own crappy beater car and novelty schtick. I’ll eventually grow weary of the ralliers and the many burdens they pose to resources and scarce fuel in the villages along this road, but these lads are alright.
More than anything, I need sugar. I need fresh fruit. A few crab apples growing on trees outside the hostel aren’t fit for eating. I note some apricots growing on the wrong side of fences nearby, but they’re in a military facility, and my desperation is not yet at the level of triggering an international incident. Rasul, the young boy running most things at the hostel, assures me that there’s fruit available at the bazaar, but when I manage to struggle up the hill, the only food I find is a goat carcass serving as a small castle for a kingdom of flies.
Eventually, I set out on a grand expedition for fruit with Thomson and Thompson — real names Fawcett and Fitch — and a young Canadian cyclist also recuperating in the hostel. After some time searching, we find a single fruit shop nowhere near where anybody had directed us, its single box of aging bananas browning miracles to us. Outside, an even greater miracle — a woman selling watermelons from the back of her Opel, marking the price in the window grime with her finger.
As the watermelon works its magic, I message back to Khorog to see if I can get a translator to accompany me for another go at the valley. Saidaziz, the inflappable owner of the Pamir Lodge and fixer for all who pass through, promises he’ll send somebody the next day.
While I wait, I ask Rasul to take me to the nearby fort at Namadgut, a few kilometres out of town, just past the free trade zone. He summons a dilapidated Lada with a cracked windscreen and a noisemaking device hacked into the dash, marked by the word “Senorita” in flowing script, its button sending a joyful chirrup towards the people in the fields every time he presses it. At Namadgut, we scramble up loose rocks and sand to the top of the ancient fort, more elaborate than the one at Ratm. At the top, three bored teenage soldiers stationed on lookout offer a disinterested assalamu leikum, keeping their eyes on the quiet stretch of river border and the sparse Afghan fields on the other side. The sputtering engine noise of a Mongol Rally car fails to make much impression on them.
When we return to the bottom, as Rasul had warned me would happen, a popup gift bazaar has appeared, a caped old man offering Afghan hats and Wakhani beads. The closest thing left to that old border market, perhaps.
My translator, who I’ll call Murat, is a young student from Khorog, though for most of the year he lives in Dushanbe with his parents, studying computer science and earth sciences at the university. He tells me that as he had never himself been into the Wakhan, but he felt like having an adventure.
While Murat hunts for a car, he leaves me with a friend of his we run into on Ishkashim’s main street, an engineering student from a village about halfway along the valley, back from Dushanbe for the holidays. Like all those who come from here, it’s expected that he come home for the harvest, to help out with the heavy lifting. While we talk, his brother texts to ask him where he is and when he’ll be home. His reply, he translates with a laugh, is “I’ve got, like, so much stuff on man”. But soon enough he will have to go. Inshallah, when he graduates he will travel and make it to Canada, a country that has long been a refuge for the Ismaili.
There are no cars going our way, so Murat talks me into setting off on foot and hitching as best we can to our first destination, Darshai, around 40 kilometres into the valley. This takes five hours and three cars, with half of the journey on foot. An impatient old man in a tiny Opel is the first to pull over for us just before Namadgut. He furiously beeps his horn as we sprint up to him, giving me barely time to unclip my pack before he threatens to speed off. Our next lift is from a gang of twentysomething guys out for a joyride, stopping to catcall the young women they pass on the road. They briefly consider taking us the whole way if we pay for gas, then abruptly change their minds and kick us back onto the road when they realise this won’t be nearly as much fun as cruising around without us.
Getting gas on Tajik roads outside of the primary towns depends on understanding the machinations of an informal economy. Though there are a few official stations, and some leftover structures from the Soviet years, supplies mostly live behind locked doors in barrels guarded by old men on folding stools, or in glass jars set out by children on the roadside. For the best prices, you need to know which doors to knock on, which numbers to call ahead. Some of it has been bought for cheap from the military bases with cash under the table, some brought in on supply trucks. It’s not something lightly wasted on tall foreigners with their heavy packs.
It takes me a while to notice the familiarity of the cracks in the window of the third car, and the telltale “Senorita” on the dashboard. This is the same driver who took us to the Namadgut fort yesterday, who now tells us he bought the Lada five days ago in Khorog for 500 Somoni. Smiling, he chirrups the button one more time before dropping us off in favour of some locals he knows.
For most of the journey, however, Murat and I walk, the Hindu Kush rising up alongside us as the wind threatens to blow us off the precarious cliff edges into the angry Panj. There would probably be worse rivers to meet your end in, mythology-wise. We round one hairy bend, past a monument stone marking some unfortunate soul’s flight into the water, and the wind kicks up not only the sand of the road but the pebbles and grit, exfoliating the back of my neck. I talk with Murat about his studies, about the prospects of jobs in computing in Dushanbe, and about our shared taste for bad action movies.
I ask him what he thinks might happen to this area if anybody ever properly paved the roads. He suggests it probably won’t change much until electric cars arrive, that it’s up to the Elon Musks of the world to actually fix this problem. As I scoff incredulously at the thought, he gestures to the river roaring beside us — look at all this power in the river! Look at how expensive oil is! It’s electric transport that will change everything down here.
As we pass a family resting in the middle of a wheat field, the youngest of them springs over, a round of bread in hand. He breaks it in two and insists we each take half. It’s delicious, freshly baked, and a reminder that before we set out, I’d only eaten off-brand Tajik camping porridge and the last banana of my miracle supply.
The sun drops as we finally reach the town limits of Darshai. With my blisters beginning to feel cursed by some dark force I’ve wronged, Murat summons a fresh burst of energy, handing me his phone before sprinting up the high rock face, waving his arms at the top and shouting for me to take his picture.
The next morning, we set out for Yamchun and the mineral springs of Bibi Fatima, a local tourism spot and a deeply sacred pilgrimage site for Pamiris, particularly women. It is said that the water that runs here comes from the cuff of the sleeve of Fatima, the prophet’s only daughter.
After a short walk we’re picked up by a tiny car, with seven elderly men and women crammed in three rows of what should be a two-row Lada. I climb into the back with my pack on top of me, somehow finding a way to wrap my legs around it. Murat sits with the women of the middle row who want to know all about his education, about Dushanbe, about what he’s doing leading a Canadian around in the middle of nowhere, and why he’d want to be out here in the valley. About halfway along, at a point where the road becomes pure sand drift, the little car becomes stuck, its wheels spinning. All but the driver get out and heave-ho, a fog of chakan dresses in a cloud of dust.
At Yamchun, the women leave Murat with hearty hugs and an exchange of phone numbers. We quickly find that there are no homestays in this village, and the road to the hot springs is back at the previous town, just down the road. As we walk back through the fields, my blistered foot causing an exaggerated limp, we wave at the women and children out harvesting, shouting hello to those lounging by the rugs and blankets drying on the road in the sun. I flop down in pain on the roadside next to a friendly cow with a purple flower decorating its ear. From far away in the field, its owner shouts a salom.
At the base of the eight-kilometre switchback road that leads up the mountain to the springs, Murat enthusiastically suggests we should walk. I snap at Murat and tell him I’m incapable of walking with these blisters, that he can go up if he wants but I need to pitch a tent right here. At the end of my tantrum, showing more patience than I deserve, Murat says he’ll figure something out. Before I know it, I’m laying flat on the roof rack of a Landcruiser, holding onto my pack with one hand and the rail with the other as we tear up the mountainside by a series of hairpin turns, the driver beeping to warn us when we need to lean into a particularly wild one. Along the way villagers wave at us like the idiots we clearly are.
As I’m thrown around on the roof, I occasionally turn to see the spectacular view unfolding of Lunkho e Dosare, the 6,900 metre peak looming on the other side of the river, jutting far above its neighbours in the Hindu Kush. When we reach the top, the families milling in the car parks look up at us and laugh as I catch my breath.
For more than a thousand years, women have come here on pilgrimage for the spring’s blessings of fertility and wellness. Where once this would have taken at least a day of dangerous trekking up the mountain, the road is by now well worn, the facilities at the top modern and welcoming. Women get priority in the springs at all times, but facilities are divided so there is always one room where men can bathe without getting in the way. Paying a soldier at the gate, Murat and I are guided over the rushing falls to the changing room currently designated for men, with benches affixed to the side of rough cave walls and hot water streaming down the rocks. Sinking naked into the deep blue pool, I feel beautiful relief for the first time in days.
The infrastructure of modern-day Bibi Fatima is largely down to the tenacity of Safaraliev Mirali, a sturdy, strong-moustached 70-year-old. Mirali has lived in Bibi Fatima since being stationed here by the Soviet administration in the late 1980s. He meets with us in the lobby of his guest house, wearing a plaid porkpie hat and a tank-top bearing the word “Empowerment” showing through his lemon-yellow shirt. He sits on a sofa under a giant canvas portrait of him riding a bucking horse in a lush, vast valley, snow-capped peaks looming behind. He tells me through Murat that the picture comes from a retirement trip he took to China several years ago.
Mirali, an engineer, was originally posted here to look after the sanitarium that stands just down the hill from the hot springs, where elderly people were taken to convalesce from various illnesses, reaping the benefits of the clean air and whatever unknown powers the water carries. While at the sanitarium, he noticed the constant stream of pilgrims coming to the springs, all of whom had to brave the treacherous climb up the mountain.
After modernizing the sanitarium and its gardens, he pushed for the construction of new buildings and, eventually, blazed the new roadway we rode up to here with the help of the government, the AKDN, and UNICEF. Slowly but surely development followed, including guesthouses and the new facilities at the springs.
“This is all my work,” he explains. “With the people’s help, we tried to put this road in.”
I ask him how life has changed up here at the springs since he arrived. He recalls the tough times of the civil war, when life was fraught, with rebel fighters holed up in mountain hideaways. Now, he says, the difficulties are new. Making a living is the main one.
“We have everything here,” he tells us, “but there are no professional people to work. For the old people, this is their home town and the place that they’ve always lived. If they wanted to go they would have left before, but for the younger generation, they know that the best education and work will be outside the country, so they leave.”
He hopes that those leaving to study will begin to come back to start new enterprises, to exploit the natural mineral resources of the mountains, which he says are some of the richest in the world.
“Life is good for people here, I’m not worried,” he says. “If people can come and open a factory or an organisation, though, that’s going to be the best.”
Our conversation is cut short as some old friends, beer bottles in hand, spirit him away to the springs. Later we’ll hear them outside, talking and laughing well into the night.
I sit on the decking outside the guesthouse, talking to a few of the tourists passing through. When everybody else leaves, one man asks me if I’m not cold out here with these mountain winds. He laughs as I tell him I’m Canadian. He lives in Russia, and though he was born in Dushanbe, his wife is from the valley so they’ve come to visit in-laws and enjoy the springs.
After I tell him I’m a writer, he moves closer and tells me quietly — and it’s the first I’ve heard anyone say it down here out loud — that Tajikistan is hopeless until its government is changed. He says it almost like it’s a test, to gauge my reaction. Piecemeal development projects in communities help nobody, he says, without real opportunities. He says that kids want to get out and never come back. Like Mirali, he sees untapped potential in the resources contained in these mountains, and wonders why the country couldn’t ask, say, the Swiss for some help in figuring out how to do something about managing them safely and sustainably, rather than just funding small local projects.
It’s dark, and the wind is blowing icy. I ask the man if he has hope. He tells me a regime that still sells itself on narratives of unity from a civil war that ended before much of its population was born can’t sail on that forever. A young and educated class wants something better, and the youth of Tajikistan are smarter and better read than those who have come before them. It won’t change, though, until Russia changes. Rahmon is Putin’s man, he says, a friendly client in a critical position. Having a problem neighbour here, on the Afghan and Chinese borders, with Pakistan so close, would be a nightmare for him. But — and here’s the wild claim —he says Putin hasn’t got long left either. And when Putin goes, so goes Rahmon, and so arises opportunity for a new Tajikistan.
I ask him if that isn’t a lot to hope for any time soon. He asks me what else he should do? Give up?
In another bathing room the following morning, a newer, gym-like hot tub with solid walls and an ordinary changing room, a bather wants to talk about the healing properties of the water. He stands naked under a vigorous cascade, redirecting it into his mouth with hearty arm gestures. He then gestures for me to do the same. As I take his place beneath the torrent, he sits down and talks about the 2012 unrest that spread from Khorog, which Murat translates as a “misunderstanding.” He tells us that these springs became both an encampment and a battle ground for soldiers, but that any soldier who shot a gun here was befell, not too long after, by one mysterious tragic accident or another. Locals, he says, know not to mess with the good will of Fatima. There are deeper, more powerful forces at work in this water.
I plunge fully beneath, enveloping myself in the warm water which will soon enough cool as it runs from Fatima’s cuff down the mountain towards the Panj. I think of Robert Burton again, of The Anatomy of Melancholy, where in the chapter “The Cure of Melancholy”, he imagined himself a hawk traversing the earth, transcending the human limits of all mountains. Seeking the patterns that tied all of life together, he would soar up here as he would the other great rivers of the earth. He wrote of how by understanding the flows of water he might understand how landscapes shift and change over time, or know where swallows, storks, and cranes go in winter; why tides differ, why one ocean is angrier than another, or whether Mermaids lay below. I think of the melancholy that has washed away here over centuries, along with the wounds of the wars and the dust of the roads. Of the children brought into this earth after pilgrimage here, bestowed with the spirit that flows down these rocks. I think about my friend from the night before, his hard-edged despair for his homeland, and how hard it is to hold onto at these heights, in this warmth.
I surface, quietly, letting my legs float, pushing my back into the stone wall, the rushing of the water a comforting blanket, the sounds of tension leaving the bodies of the Murat and the other man by way of sigh.
After waiting for an hour or two, we thumb our way down to the bottom of the hill in an old Opel. From there, we plan to set out further, to make it as far as we can back towards Langar. Three boys try to sell us a ride in a broken down Lada for 200 Somoni, but there’s no evidence the car will even make it around the bend, and Murat shoos them away.
While we wait for a willing and more roadworthy car, an elderly man called Yusufsho comes up to talk to us. Yusufsho’s family has lived here, on both sides of the river, for centuries. Before the border markets closed in Ishkashim, he says, family from either side would journey there to meet up whenever it was open.
“When they put the border in, they divided our family and our town,” he says. “We’re the same people as those over there — we have the same heart and the same passions.”
Yusufsho talks fondly of his time in Moscow as a younger man, of how vivid and diverse he found life there. Out here, he says, there’s just no way to get by. That’s why they depend on the benevolence of the Aga Khan, who helps all those out here who can’t sustain themselves.
“We have 97 per cent mountains, and only 3 per cent land to grow things on,” he says. “It will never be enough.”
We eventually find another ride, passing the Lada not more than a kilometre further down, hood popped, steam rising, boys flat out on the road with wrenches in hand.
Back outside Langar we wander the fields, talking to women and children and mostly trying to not get in the way of their work. A single sunflower stands tall in the middle of a wheat plantation, where two young children — one dressed in a mustard yellow Vivienne Westwood jumper — are stacking their harvest on a donkey’s back. The donkey eats contentedly from the stack as it’s loaded on top of him.
One woman tells me the potatoes and wheat she’s harvesting are mainly for her family — she lives just over the road with her husband, his parents, and their three children. Wary of the eroding cliffs behind her that seem poised to crumble down onto her fields, I ask whether the water shortages and the increasingly weird weather of late are making life here too hard. She shrugs and says some years are good, and some years are bad.
Murat and I sit patiently fly fishing again for cars, as girls in the field opposite spray water at each other from bottles. Nissan Micras from the Mongol Rally occasionally fly past, tearing on up the hill towards their far-away endpoint, but otherwise there are no cars today. Never today, they say, always tomorrow. Teenagers strut past, some with shovels over their shoulders, others with the bored aimlessness of any small-town kid. Murat wanders the town negotiating for rides, while one small child sits with me for the better part of an hour, patiently eyeing me up, asking in English every ten minutes or so, “where are you from?” I decide I like him. His mother walks past and asks me if I’d like to stay at their house, but I decline. A few minutes later, as I turn my eyes away from the young boy, a thrown rock pelts my sunglasses, cracking the lens.
“You little fucker!” I leap after the boy and he runs away, shrieking. Shaking my fist like an angry old man, I chase him down the potholed road until he disappears into the bushes, and my blisters scream at me to stop. As I flop back on the ground, scanning for Murat with the hope of news, two more young boys walk past, asking if I’d like to see the petroglyphs.
My time in Tajikistan was generously supported by Studio D Radiodurans, via their inaugural travel writing fellowship. My lifelong and boundless appreciation goes to Jan Chipchase for his support, his trust, and his pushing. And my thanks to the people of the Pamirs who welcomed me into their homes, their communities, and their lives. Except for that last kid. In particular, Saidaziz and his extended family at the Pamir Lodge in Khorog, who made all logistical problems disappear in a hotspring of calm. And to my walking companion and translator, who here I called Murat, and who knows who he is.