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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.