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.
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.
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.
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.