Monthly Archives: July 2013

When the wheels come off

May 16, 2013

Hitchhiking is best done alone. Despite the challenge of doing so with four men, we all wanted a testosterone laced episode because Max’s stories of improvised overland border crossings were so seductive that you couldn’t help but begin to compose the story of the journey. Well, at least it was true for me. Sjoerd was keen to avoid taxi drivers and save some money, as a consequence. Max craved a trip defining challenge that would add to his collection of stories. Takayuki agreed with us, but his motives were tucked behind that charming smile of his.

As we waited, this shepherd brought his flock into town.

As we waited, this shepherd brought his flock into town.

Takayuki in photo mode.

Takayuki in photo mode.

The novelty hadn't worn off, yet.

The novelty hadn’t worn off, yet.

Just as before, success would depend on an early start and lots of luck and like the day before, I was the only one up at 6AM. My rustling and movement in and out of the room weren’t enough to move anyone else, including the owner of the house. Once I woke the rest of the group, our host woke up and started to cook breakfast. Much like dinner the night before, the preparation was agonizingly slow and we didn’t get out of the house until just before 8AM. I’m getting nervous about our chances of getting rides, and we nearly came to our senses and hired a vehicle that would take us to the border, but solidarity got in the way. Sjoerd wouldn’t participate and we talked ourselves out of it saying that it wasn’t good value for the money. So, we finished the walk to the highway and sat. A few vehicles passed us, but either they were full or weren’t going to the border. So, we entertained ourselves by reading and taking pictures for a while, then we got our first vehicle to stop. It was an old Russian UAZ 4X4 and they claimed they could fit all 4 of us in the vehicle AND get us all the way to Osh for the unbelievably good price of $20. There was clearly only room for one. Anyone else would have to wedge in and roll themselves into a ball for hours. Takayuki had picked up on the fragile group dynamic and couldn’t afford to be delayed, with the end of his trip nearest. So when it was agreed he take the only seat available, he didn’t hesitate. He told us where he planned to stay in Osh and he disappeared into the distance.

If there was grass to watch grow, I would have done so.

If there was grass to watch grow, I would have done so.

Green with envy, we waited in silence. At 11AM we all agreed that if we didn’t have a ride, then we would go crawling back to the driver in town and ask if he would honor his original price. He did, but with one less person to split the cost, the price effectively went up. Without papers to enter Kyrgyzstan, he would have to drop us at the Tajikistani side of the border.

At this point, I am near furious. I am in no mood to talk to either Sjoerd or Max. Sjoerd because of his penny-wise/pound-poor approach to transportation, and Max because he sold all of us on the idea, but showed no leadership in getting up early and pressing to get out to the road earlier. I was also mad at myself because I had seen all of this coming, did nothing about it, and went over the cliff like a lemming. At the border, I shot out of the car to be the first to be processed and start walking through 20km of no-man’s-land between the two border posts. I didn’t want to sleep rough in the cold, high altitude night and I figured that I would arrive at the Kyrgyz border post near sundown. I had to get going.

It was really this futile.

It was really this futile.

After having our belongings and documents inspected, Max asked us if we were going to hitchhike from there. I knew there was little chance anyone would come from the west and even less chance there would be room for us, so I said I would walk. It was the only bit of control I had left on the day and I was going to exercise it. Sjoerd must have reached a similar conclusion because he was going to walk, as well. So, we went together.

Before we could get out of the checkpoint, we were stopped again. Being in the fine mood I was in, I was did not take kindly to being asked for my papers again by someone in plain clothes. I had just done that and I wasn’t going to pay a bribe. However, the message was clear. We were not going to be allowed to leave. After sharing my finest English and being escorted to another office, it was clear that we hadn’t had our passports stamped. Hehe. Oops. By this time, Max was present again and all three of us sat awkwardly in that small, two bunk-bedded room as we were served tea and watched the soldier record our information in a log before he stamped our passports. Before Sjoerd and I walked off, I briefly explained to Max that I was walking because I didn’t want to get stuck sleeping rough at 12,000+ft, but that he may have the last laugh, anyway, and we were gone.

Sjoerd seemed to enjoy the freedom away from Max’s specific needs as much as I did, and we chatted a bit while walking. Sjoerd, who had been trying to photograph a marmot for some time, was thrilled with the abundance and relative nonchalance of those around us and got pictures that satisfied him. We were nearly to the long downhill portion of the road to the border of Kyrgyzstan when a red Lada passed us heading toward Kyrgyzstan. I had seen the car minutes earlier heading the opposite direction, so I knew Max was in that car. The question was whether he would stop for either of us. Time slowed down as I watched for brake lights. They went on and the car came to a stop about 50 yards ahead. Sjoerd was ahead because I wanted to photograph the moment, but I didn’t rush. If Max wanted to leave me behind, that was his prerogative. I had it coming, anyway.

At the top of Kyzyl-Art Pass. Sjoerd walks towards the stopped Lada.

At the top of Kyzyl-Art Pass. Sjoerd walks towards the stopped Lada.

At the car, Max explained that he had convinced the driver (by paying him, of course) to turn around and drive to the Kyrgyz border post. It was our choice to get in and split the cost or not. I’m sure Sjoerd was seething at the thought of spending more money, but the situation had made him a realist and we both got in the car. There wasn’t much to say, but in a dysfunctional way, we were glad to be together and to have another piece of the journey sorted out. The journey down the switchbacks from the Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282m or 14,130 ft) was peaceful, but like almost all car journeys, there was an unexpected break. The driver lives in the this no-man-land and owns some yaks. So, we were treated to tea, bread, and yak butter. Yaks, being the hairy, mountain cows that they are, produce wonderfully flavored butter, and we delighted at breaking off chunks and smashing them on our bread.

The ride through no-man's-land

The ride through no-man’s-land

At the border, we noticed the only vehicles were those owned by guards, who were all to eager to charge us an obscene price to get to Sary Tash. We tried to negotiate with the guards to have our driver take us, but he didn’t have the papers needed. We eventually got a guard to agree to the price our driver would have charged, and we had another 35-40km piece of the journey figured out. As we left the border post, the landscape got greener by the mile and we all felt as if we had been transported to the oasis we sorely needed. There was grass! There were trees! It was as if we had forgotten they existed. The mountains, too, were completely different on the other side. Here, in Kyrgyzstan, all of the mountains had a thick sugar crusted appearance, not just those 6000m or more. We had all been looking forward to getting back to civilization, but this was beyond our expectations!

Ahhhh.... Sary Tash!

Ahhhh…. Sary Tash! The view from our hitching spot.

Sary Tash sits at the crossroads where Chinese truck drivers either go north to Biskek, Almaty, and beyond, or west to Dushanbe, Uzbekistan, Iran, etc. This makes it an ideal place to hitchhike. While Max was content to stay overnight in Sary Tash, I decided to join Sjoerd, who had made a sign displaying our destination. We hadn’t stood out there for more than 5 minutes when a 20+ year old Mercedes cargo van pulled up and agreed to take us. Sjoerd and I joined the driver in the front seat, but behind were two rows of seat filled with two Kyrgyz families. One was extended and numbered 8 or so. They were a nomadic family traveling to their summer house, and we stopped there to unload their belongings from the cargo hold before continuing on to Osh.

Unloading their belonging at the summer house.

Unloading their belonging at the summer house.

As we wound our way through the lush green rolling hills that were golf-course-perfectly grazed by horses, cows, sheep, and goats, our smiles grew larger. This was gorgeous like Alpine Switzerland is gorgeous. What was really surprising was the quality of the road we were on. The Kyrgyz government, was smart enough to have the Chinese construct their roads, and what a difference that makes! Sjoerd was so pleased with our ride, that despite not asking for any money, we both gave the driver $10.

We found the Osh Guesthouse, chose beds, and then Takayuki appeared! It was as if we hadn’t seen him in years! Despite our journey being completely disjointed, Takayuki had only arrived an hour or so before us. His 4×4 overheated multiple times, but he knew he had transportation for the whole journey and spent about 1/2 what we did.

It was time for a meal and drinks to celebrate the return to civilization! We went to a BYOB restaurant and treated ourselves to local beer and a king’s meal of kebabs, lagman, and manti. What a day!

Reunion at the Lake

May 15, 2013

Karaköl, pronounced Karakool, would not appear in the guidebooks, if it didn’t sit on a nearly lifeless, salty lake that remains frozen the entire year. But, like most folks, this oddity was intriguing and we  figured we could make a day of it.

That sums it up!

That sums it up!

How we were to get there was an issue of debate. The problem really was that Sjoerd wanted to hitchhike at all costs, meaning he would waste as much time as it took to get a ride on this lightly traveled road. Max wanted to hitchhike as well, but made crossing the Tajik and Kyrgyz frontier his priority for hitching. I wasn’t at all opposed to hitching to save money and to exchange cultures with drivers. The problem is that neither were willing to get up early enough to catch the bulk of the truck traffic as it headed towards Osh, Kyrgyzstan. By the time we finished breakfast and the like, it was past 8AM, meaning there was fat chance that we would catch traffic headed east. Sjoerd reluctantly agreed to pay for another shared taxi, so we headed to the market to get our ride. There we bumped into an old friend from Uzbekistan, Takayuki. We had all tried to catch up with him via email, since he was going our way to share in the cost of the taxi, but had failed… until today!

His east Asian looks and kind demeanor succeeded where we had failed. He got the price we wanted with a 4X4 headed to Karaköl, and we were off. The driver was more of a tour guide than a taxi driver, stopping at a Russian military outpost from the late 19th century and telling us what he knew about it, then pointing out the Chinese border and then other photogenic opportunities for our ready cameras. Smugly satisfied with the price we paid and the kindness of the driver, we arrived in Karaköl in good spirits.

The Russian military outpost from the 18th century

The Russian military outpost from the late 19th century

As we pulled up, we introduced ourselves to a Russian couple that was sitting by the road waiting for a ride. They were hitchhiking and not interested in paying our kind driver for a lift to Murghab. As we talked to them more, I became rather disgusted with their imperialist attitude towards the locals. The male had very expensive camera equipment and couldn’t help but brag about how they were ‘paid’ to hitchhike one leg of their trip. A truck driver felt bad enough for their  ‘situation’ that he gave them money when they got out. These people are poor, and to shamelessly leverage their hospitality and generosity by feigning destitution was infuriating. It would be as if I traveled Iraq or Afghanistan and tried to do the same. Such arrogance! I was all to glad to see them go as they were able to get a ride, though I then felt sorry for the driver that stopped, knowing that they weren’t going to offer anything in return for his kindness.

Blankets, rugs, and sleeping bags getting aired out.

Blankets, rugs, and sleeping bags getting aired out.

Takayuki with tersken bush stored on someone's roof behind.

Takayuki with tersken bush stored on someone’s roof.

Once our accommodation had been settled, we all went out to explore the lake. Max was determined to rent a donkey, and the rest of us went for a walk with our cameras. Unlike the formalized, walled shrines of the Wakhan Valley, the Kyrgyz part of Tajikistan will have an established fire site for sacrifice and the Marco Polo sheep horns are left behind. Nevertheless, they provided an hour or so of photographic entertainment.

Along the frozen shore of Lake Karaköl.

Along the frozen shore of Lake Karaköl.

The horns of Marco Polo sheep just beyond the village.

The horns of Marco Polo sheep just beyond the village.

The bottom line is that we were bored. The village offered little to do other than walk the shore. It made me realize that these people are poor because of a complete lack of opportunity. Unless your family takes in travelers, has some sheep or goats, or is fortunate enough to have a vehicle for hire there was little else to do to make money here. The one bright spot was that most people in the town use compressed dung for heating and cooking rather than the quickly disappearing tersken bush.

In the end, Max took a nap on the sunny shore with nothing but an oval portal for face peering out of his cinched hoodie, got a sunburn, and manage to take a guided donkey ride around the village for small fee. The three of us, myself, Taka, and Sjoerd, decided we would split the cost for a transportation to go for a quick hike up a peak because nothing accessible was within walking distance. The trip was just the antidote for the boredom with some exercise, nice views of the lake, and a chance to get close to a herd of yaks on the way back.

Myself, Sjoerd, and Takayuki at the top.

Myself, Sjoerd, and Takayuki at the top with Lake Karaköl behind.

Dinner was slow coming, but well worth the wait. The local dumpling, manti, was somehow rolled into a large plate sized wreath. I thought that I took a photo of it, but gorging myself obviously was more important at the time. For once, we had enough heat in the Pamirs, and it was a comfortable nights rest.

And yes... that's a functioning water well.

And yes… that’s a functioning water well.

Madame Dollar

May 14, 2013

After an altitude sickness ruined sleep, I was happy to get up at 6 AM for our 7 AM ride to Murghab. Breakfast was the best milk and rice porridge I can remember, along with the requisite bread and tea. We all needed to finish packing with the departure time fast approaching, but we had all waited as long as we could to use the walled but roofless latrine hoping the temperature would rise with the sun. Simply, it was freezing outside.

It was literal. The small irrigation canals that are dug to capture mountain runoff, had frozen over. All of them, with quarter inch thick (1cm) sheets of ice on them. Our sequential trips to the latrine only caused a minor delay, but the drivers didn’t seem to mind as we wedged ourselves into the Chinese made and sized minivan. As men usually do, we spread out as much as possible. Max and Sjoerd sat in the first bench and I took the back. At nearly 5′ 10″ (175 cm), I felt like a basketball player in a clown car. My knees, no matter how hard I tried, were being pressed into the springs on the back of the first bench, so I joined Sjoerd and Max on the first bench before the journey could start. As we trolled around town, we picked up passengers, we picked up large and heavy auto parts, and eventually found a house that had fuel for the trip. Such as it is in the Pamirs. Every driver knows who sells fuel. The question is who actually has some to sell.

Murghab

Murghab

The Chinese made and Chinese-sized minivan

The Chinese made and Chinese-sized minivan

The trip to 3-4 hour trip to Mughab was pleasantly uneventful. The only things we had to do the rest of the day was find a place to stay, speak with the tourist office in town, and get cash for Sjoerd. Murghab is the largest ‘city’ that we would encounter until we reached Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Recent development in the town meant that homestays would be plentiful and there were a couple banks as well. After spending some time avoiding a hawker who was driving around to show us where we should stay while trying to guarantee our business for the trip to Osh, we found a nice place that we could stay. I negotiated the price down and we dropped our packs. Next we went to a bank, where again, Sjoerd’s MasterCard wasn’t accepted. So, we walked to the tourist office while Max and Sjoerd considered how Sjoerd might be able to settle his debt with Max. The walk there did nothing to settle that debate nor did it help us decide what our next stop on the Pamir Highway would be. The office was no longer in that location, and since it was ‘off-season’, there was no one staffing the office in Murghab. Even phone calls to that office yielded nothing.

The welcoming committee to Murghab

The welcoming committee to Murghab

The town of Murghab offers LOTS to do, so we did what any Western traveler does- goes to an internet cafe. It was rumored that there was one in town and we had been starved of our Facebook for a whole 3 days. Our best chance was a hotel that advertised it’s internet connection. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to open until July 1. So, Facebook would have to wait. In the meantime, Max had gone inside the hotel hoping for a lead on a legitimate or black market exchange to settle the money owed him by Sjoerd. While there, he had fallen in love with the hotel and its relative comfort. He convinced Sjoerd it was a good idea to move our accommodation, and I was outvoted and annoyed. We picked up our belongings and moved to the hotel where it became clear why it was so cheap to stay there. It was a struggle to find three rooms where the locks worked and there was no heat. I can’t remember needing three layers of clothing to be comfortable in hotel, ever, and I like the cold. I tried to catch a nap to make up for the night before, but couldn’t sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time as the deskman kept knocking on the door to make sure that the lock worked, that I only had one key, and God knows what else, but by the time Max had knocked, I had lost my patience with the utter lack of privacy. That’s why we were there in the first place, right? Max needs his privacy and makes no apologies for it, and here I am being harassed by the staff when I just want a nap. FML.

The house slippers provided by our hotel.

The house slippers provided by our hotel.

At this point, I was hungry and I needed some sun to warm up, so I went down to the market while Sjoerd and Max went to try another bank. Murghab, being a popular truck stop along the Pamir Highway, had a decent, if unorthodox market. Situated more or less like a frontier outpost, the weather conditions in Murghab necessitate a market that isn’t a series of tables and canopies, but rather a collection of all metal shipping containers and old postal train cars. I really enjoyed the rawness of it and the best selection of goods since Khorog. I ran into Max who had found a nice cafe and I agreed to meet him after some shopping. Sjoerd then followed after another unsuccessful attempt to get money from a bank, and we all had a nice, warm, tasty late lunch at the cafe.

Enjoying our late lunch in Murghab

Enjoying our late lunch in Murghab

It was at this point that Max took over. He went to the hotel and spoke with the woman in-charge to so that Sjoerd could get his hands on dollars. We had no idea what her name really was, so she became Madame Dollar. She was quite confident that she would get the dollars needed, however the first time she returned, she only had Tajik somani. Max made it clear that dollars were needed and she disappeared again to gather dollars for the transaction, which she eventually did- ending the Sjoerd’s debt owed to Max. Tomorrow, we would go to Karakol.

Higher than a Coloradan

May 13, 2013

The clear skies that we had been used to the past few days were gone that morning. It was lightly raining, cold, and windy. Since Langar is above 8000ft, we didn’t have to go up very far before every piece of vegatation had a dusting of snow on it. The dirt road was just below the clouds, making for lousy photo opportunities and a subdued gloom to the morning’s drive. The one silver lining is that the chill in the air was enough to prevent our Niva from overheating that day. After a couple of hours, the clouds broke and we got our last views of Afghanistan and the Wakhan Valley along with a couple of camel caravans along the Afghan side of the river.

Reaching the Pamir Highway from the Wakhan Valley

Reaching the Pamir Highway from the Wakhan Valley

Up and over the 13,000+ft pass, we quickly reached the Pamir Highway  and Alichur, where we would leave behind our taxi driver and his very limited music selection. We chose Alichur for one reason. It was the first village on the Pamir Highway we would encounter going east. At over 11,000ft, the overcast skies and howling wind meant it would be the coldest place yet. Despite this, Sjoerd was restless and wanted to go up the closest mountain to the village, so I joined him. It was almost 4PM when we left so, we knew that getting to the top would be unlikely. In the end, frustrating mix of a lack of trails, the altitude, and a very loose mix of course sand rocks, meant very slow going. At times, we (more often myself) had to stop to really gasp for oxygen and subdue the dizzying effect of the effort. We were over 14,000ft at this point. In the end, we were only able to ascend 2/3rds of the mountain and satisfied with that.

Me at our highest point  trying to stay upright in the howling wind.

Me at our highest point trying to stay upright in the howling wind.

It was dark when we arrived at our homestay and we were glad to have a warm room, even if it meant that the woodburning stove was fuelled by an environmentally unsustainable bush. The tersken bush is the only fuel source in these parts since trees cannot grow in the combination of high altitude, salty soil, and high winds. The area is completely denuded of it, so it must be trucked in from an area that probably can’t afford to lose its vegetation either. Guilt aside, we were in for a rare taste of luxury- fish from a nearby lake. Fried to perfection, we devoured it, happy to take a break from greasy mutton for a change. It really put us all in a good mood despite the greyness.

Sjoerd

Sjoerd

That night was difficult for all of us with the altitude change. Max can only effectively breath in one nostril from a deviated septum, I had a headache and Sjoerd was cold. So, we spent the night taking turns listening to the other breathe hard as we tried to get enough oxygen.

Our homestay in Alichur, with Max in the foreground.

Our homestay in Alichur, with Max in the foreground.

Our host family on the left  (Kyrgyz) and our drivers to the Murghab (Tajik)

Our host family on the left (Kyrgyz) and our drivers to Murghab (Tajik)

Livin’ La Niva Loca

May 12, 2013

Our driver was very eager to get going and get paid, so he showed up a bit early. Since we were still eating breakfast, the owner of the guesthouse went out to tell him to come back in half an hour. What he should have done in that space of time was fill up the car, but I guess he didn’t have the money for it, thus why he demanded money at the ‘gas station’. So we doled out enough so that gasoline could continue to be poured into our white Lada Niva from a very large measuring cup into a funnel.

Heading out from Ishkashim

Heading out from Ishkashim

With that behind us we were able to resume staring at the Afghan border as we searched for signs of villagers going about their business. This, however, wasn’t the only reason we were spending good money for a driver. We stopped along the way to see shrines and very old fortresses. The shrines, which consist of a fire burning altar and skulls and horns of the Marco Polo Sheep and ibex, are still in use to day despite the fact that the local population is Shi’ite Muslim. The remoteness of the Wakhan Valley, it seems, has allowed them to blend pagan and Zooastrian beliefs with Islam. The isolation also gives them a unique appearance where they have tan skin, often brown or sandy hair, and hazel to gray eyes, as well as an intense sense of cultural identity. This meant that we would listen to the same four Wakhan/Badakhshani tunes for two days. Fortresses rarely disappoint me, but the age of the two visited were special. One site dated to the 3rd century BC (Khaakha) and the other, better preserved, from the 12th century AD (Yamchun). The latter providing stunning views of the valley, well over 2000 ft below.

Khakha Fortress standing proud on its 4th Century AD (some say older) foundation

Khakha Fortress standing proud on its 4th Century AD (some say older) foundation

Another view

Another view

The driver didn’t mind the breaks at all. This would provide the poor car a chance to cool down, rather than stop and fill the water bottle to cool the engine, which happened at least 5 times that day. When we asked for extended time at the larger Yamchun site, he decided to take out the jack, take a wheel off, and replace a suspension joint. Very reassuring.

The view of the Wakhan Valley from the fortress walls. Afghanistan is across the river.

The view of the Wakhan Valley from the fortress walls. Afghanistan is across the river.

Just up the road from Yamchun were some hot springs that we thought would be nice, so we stopped there as well. What I had envisioned was an open air pool that would be perfect for relaxation. What it really was was an enclosed concrete pool with no view of the valley. Sjoerd, thinking that there might be another pool walked towards a door. I heard a local say that it was the womens bath in Russian, but before I…could…utter…the..words… Shrieks and screams! Sjoerd quickly closes the door. He apologized as best he could through his bemusement. Thankfully, the male (we think father) watching the door for his females didn’t want our heads for it. We left before he could change his mind. Back in the car, we had to ask Sjoerd what he saw. He claims that most were in bathrobes and in the process of dressing, but the couple that weren’t ‘were surprisingly nice to look at.’ The hot springs are supposed to improve fertility so the women he saw were reportedly in their 20’s. The rest of the trip went well and we arrived in Langar in the late afternoon, which gave Sjoerd and me a chance to have the boys of the guesthouse show us the way to the petroglyphs while Max took it easy. The petroglyphs are reported to be as old as the Bronze Age, almost all depicting hunters with bow and arrows killing Marco Polo sheep and ibex. What amazed me was how clear most are despite being completely exposed to the elements for all of that time. What saddened me was how many of them had modern graffiti right next to them or someone had started retracing the original to make it brighter. That night, we had beer and played Monopoly cards and then played some regional card game with the driver. We could never figure out the rules, and he won each time, naturally. It was good for a laugh.

Inside the walls of one of the shrines.

Inside the walls of one of the shrines.

The collection of Marco Polo sheep and Ibex horns and skulls.

The collection of Marco Polo sheep and Ibex horns and skulls.

A small roadside shrine.

A small roadside shrine.

The breathtaking and very old (1-3rd Centuries BC) Yamchun Fortress

The breathtaking and very old (1-3rd Centuries BC) Yamchun Fortress

An imposing eastern approach

An imposing eastern approach

From inside Yamchun Fortress

From inside Yamchun Fortress

The commanding view of the Wakhan Valley and Afghanistan

The commanding view of the Wakhan Valley and Afghanistan

Interior walls

Interior walls

The driver took our extended visit to work on the suspension.

The driver took our extended visit to work on the suspension.

Max relaxing after his jaunt in the fortress.

Max relaxing after his jaunt in the fortress.

Leaving a cash offering at the shrine.

Leaving a cash offering at the shrine.

The largest shrine we saw with a staggering collection of horns and skulls (many more not photographed). Some still with flesh on them.

The largest shrine we saw with a staggering collection of horns and skulls (many more not photographed). Some still with flesh on them.

That Ibex is gonna get it in the gonads! One of the best Bronze Age petroglyphs in Langar.

That Ibex is gonna get it in the gonads! One of the best Bronze Age petroglyphs in Langar.

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Fashionably Late

May 11, 2013

Since all three of us had gotten in late, we were a bit slow getting ourselves started. We we were told that the Afghan market in Ishkashim would finish between 2 and 3, so we had time to take care of some business. Sjoerd needed to get more local currency and Max really needed to update people on Facebook.  Despite trying two cards in two locations, Sjoerd wasn’t able to get the money, and Max needed more time than anticipated to update everyone. So, it wasn’t until 11AM or so before we headed off.

It’s a good thing we found the one driver that treated his minivan like a rally car because we got there ahead of schedule- unheard of in this part of the world. It was about 1PM, but all we could see were shoppers and merchant heading for the exit. I don’t know whose decision it was, but the market was over. Who cares, right? Well, this market is once a week and it offers the opportunity to mingle with Afghan citizens and merchants on an island in the middle of the river separating the two countries.

Just as Sjoerd had managed to talk us onto the island for a ‘We were here’ moment, there was a disagreement with the driver over the cost of the drive and even that chance disappeared as the border guards padlocked the gates to the bazaar. Bummer. Maybe next year 🙂

We walked the rest of the distance to the town and dropped packs in a cozy homestay before having a walkabout town. The town felt a bit deserted and eerily quiet for a Saturday afternoon, this included the restaurant that we found. We started with the predictable soup, tea, and bread, but we were still hungry. Overly eager to please us, but without a printed menu, the waitress called a friend that knew English to tell us what they had. That amounted to fried eggs and ‘sausage’. We all ordered a ‘portion’ and waited anxiously to see what would come from the kitchen. What we got would have fed and NFL lineman. 4 fried eggs and 6 hot dogs. We bust out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I was the only one who managed to finish this, but none of us would later want dinner.

Since the river, being a border, had magnetic powers, we walked closer, looking to find a vista to relax and enjoy the late afternoon hours. Rather, we found a group of children and teenagers playing soccer. Sjoerd, being an avid soccer player was in seventh heaven. Max and I preferred to watch until the chill in the air and the wind became uncomfortable as dusk became nigh.

When Sjoerd returned to the guesthouse, it was well past dark, but he had found someone willing to drive us through the Wakhan Valley. So, we formed a negotiating strategy and went to meet him. Public transportation would, of course, be cheaper, but the valley is only dotted with small villages, so hired car is the only way around. We came to agreement on the price, which would include two days of driving to link us with the Pamir Highway. We would begin at 8AM.

These are present in nearly every town and village in Tajikistan. Lenin is very much still a revered figure here.

These are present in nearly every town and village in Tajikistan. Lenin is very much still a revered figure here.

Sjoerd presses his side of the argument with Josh mediating in Russian.

Sjoerd presses his side of the argument with Josh mediating in Russian.

Max starts to pull out reading material as Sjoerd continues to argue his point. Tajik guards man the closed market entrance in the background.

Max starts to pull out reading material as Sjoerd continues to argue his point. Tajik guards man the closed market entrance in the background.

On the 3km walk from the market to Ishkashim.

On the 3km walk from the market to Ishkashim.

Sjoerd devouring his Frankensandwich.

Sjoerd devouring his Frankensandwich.

A beautiful poplar lined entry to Ishkashim. To the traveler, this means your journey is just about over.

A beautiful poplar lined entry to Ishkashim. To the traveler, this means your journey is just about over.

They have no way to receive a digital photo, but that doesn't stop kids from asking you for a photo.

They have no way to receive a digital photo, but that doesn’t stop kids from asking you for a photo.

Our homestay in Ishkashim.

Our homestay in Ishkashim.

Now, it’s getting REAL!

May 10, 2013

I am not a fan of waking up before the sun rises, and today was no exception. The upside, of course, was that I was leaving Dushanbe for the exotic mountains and valleys of Tajikistan. I arrived at the rendezvous point early and waited for my Toyota Land Cruiser to arrive. It was a bit late, but the owner of the vehicle, who I had negotiated the terms over the hawker’s cell phone, was in the back seat and confirmed the agreement, which was a truly impressive bit of customer service here or anywhere.

I had to pay up front for the ride, which is unusual, but I was the only passenger in the car at the time and our passenger pickup would be 4 hours into the trip. With the tank at a quarter full, I didn’t mind obliging. In the town of Vose, our passengers were a family of 5 and a student. The father of the family helps run an English and Russian language school in Khorog, our destination, and thus, he was a pleasant person to talk with when he wasn’t tending to his 3 young ones.

From Vose, it is a long climb to the pass before dropping down to the Pyanj river. However, before that could happen, our driver, whether out of laziness or mindlessness, left the car in 2nd gear and we needed 15 minutes to cool the engine before carrying on. Once down to the Pyanj River, I was wide eyed with excitement and curiosity because that river creates the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. We would follow that river for the next 12 hours or so.

Often the border is two cliff faces or steep mountains staring at each other. Other times it opens up enough so that a village of mud brick huts can exist between the river banks and the mountains behind, but people aren’t commonly seen. Believe me, I was looking. In a few places, the houses were nice enough to have a few modern convenience, a satellite dish being the most obvious of these. I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t tempted to pick up a stone and hit Afghanistan with it. It was that close in places. I just stared, amazed that a river with guard towers on each side (many more on the Tajikistan side) is the difference between a country that has yet to enter the 21st century due to near constant war and another that put it’s own civil war (1991) aside to do so. For that reason, the trip, along with the dramatic landscapes, with well worth the price of the trip.

We were more or less on schedule until the college student needed the car to pull over several times to deal with his car sickness. Thus, it was pitch dark when we arrived in Khorog and I was very thankful that they dropped me at my guesthouse.

I dropped my bags and discovered that the town was more or less closed for the night, despite being 9PM. So, I ate what food I had on me and went to brush my teeth. While walking back to my room, I saw a familiar face. Max. Max and Sjoerd had arrived about 30 minutes after myself and they were a welcome site. Max and Sjoerd were going to the Wakhan Valley, which would make the trip through Tajikistan longer, more interesting, and cheaper for all of us. Tomorrow would be a trip to the market in Ishkashim, but first, some rest.

The ripe mulberries that were offered to me and the driver as my fellow passengers loaded up their belongings.

The ripe mulberries that were offered to me and the driver as my fellow passengers loaded up their belongings.

 

This is what happens when your driver leaves the Land Cruiser in 2nd gear all the way up the hill.

This is what happens when your driver leaves the Land Cruiser in 2nd gear all the way up the hill.

Now, that's just pretty!

Now, that’s just pretty!
So close, yet so far from an Afghan village.

So close, yet so far from an Afghan village.

A border crossing to Afghanistan yet to open.

A border crossing to Afghanistan yet to open.

The sheer valley walls that neither Tajik nor Afghani habitate.

The sheer valley walls that neither Tajik nor Afghani habitate.

This village is just begging to be touched.

This village is just begging to be touched.

Having lunch with a view of Afghanistan (albeit under the bridge)

Having lunch with a view of Afghanistan (albeit under the bridge)

The Badakhshani family who shared the vehice with me.

The Badakhshani family who shared the vehice with me.

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