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Published: April 22nd 2018
We left Langar, and the Wakhan Valley, and travelled to Bulunkul Lake. We don't know how far it was - not so far - it took us 4.5 hours and the road most of the way was rough. The road out of the Wakhan Valley is called the road of the fallen soldiers, though we can't recall why.
Langar sits at the confluence of the Wakhan and Pamir rivers which then becomes the Panji River. The Tajik/Afghan border follows the Pamir River, as does the road but it eventually turns north to rejoin the Pamir Highway. So our departure from the Wakhan Valley also marked the end of our 4.5 days following the Afghan border.
As the road leaves Langar it climbs up and up. Langar sits at about 2,800m and the pass out of the Valley is at 4,350m. It starts with a series of rough switchbacks, then the road weaves its way through the mountains. We picked up 2 different sets of locals for the ride up the switchbacks and then at the top passed 3 Mongol rally teams camped out on this amazing spot; talk about mountain vistas. We also passed 3 Dutch cyclists that we'd
chatted to when they'd come through Langar the day before. We'd told them we think they're mad b@stards. But fair play to the, the distance and the ascent they'd covered on the rough roads was impressive. They were nearly up the worst bit but we gave them some encouragement as we passed anyway.
The road was still there on the Afghan side running parallel, but eventually it turned into more of a wide path. Abdesh spotted an Afghan horse caravan before we were anywhere close to them; 6 guys on horseback, each leading another horse loaded with supplies. We stopped, it was in this beautiful valley, and took photos. There was an Afghan goat herder too down by the river, we thought that was pretty cool, but then a yak herder joined them and all chaos broke out as the tried to drive the yaks through the goats, with the goat herder briefly also becoming a yak herder. It was so tempting to wave and shout hello. But we didn't.
As some places of the road where the river was narrower we must have been only 15m away from Afghanistan.
There was a military checkpoint as we
left the Wakhan Valley. There is so little traffic they don't even bother to man it, they just walk over from the base nearby when a vehicle arrives. I wish I could have photographed it - it's this little white hut with a metal Tajik flag. A red and white barrier wrapped in barbed wire with a hand painted stop sign in the middle was weighted by rocks on one end.
We really enjoyed the drive, the scenery was amazing. In the first part it started with jagged peaks at the top and turned into rolling hillsides, then into sheer cliffs to the river, but as we left the valley it changed into high plateau scenery. Eventually we hit the Pamir Highway, and proper seal! There is no sign for the Wakhan Valley, we we looked back at where we had just come from it was nothing but an unmarked dirt track off the highway.
To get to Bulunkul we headed west for a couple of kilometers after rejoining the highway, and the turned north down a dirt road for 14km.
Bulunkul is a small isolated village. It sits at 3,734m, which is over the threshold for
very high altitude. We've been able to tell that we are at high altitude as the thin air means it requires a lot of exertion to do even simple things, but for the first time I had a dull altitude headache for a while and Emma woke up a couple of times in the night a bit short on oxygen.
Bulunkul is known as the coldest place in Tajikistan and one of the coldest places in Central Asia, the lowest temperature recorded here was -63C. In fact the village even has its own weather station. People visit for the scenery and the 2 freshwater lakes; Bulunkul Lake just outside the village, which is known for being a mirror lake in the early morning and Yashil-Kul Lake, a much bigger and beautiful lake just over the hill. We took a trip over to Yashil-Kul Lake after arriving. The wind was whipping up and it was cold enough to warrant digging out our jackets. When we got back we hung out in the sun in the centre of the village and watched daily life. The village has wells for its water and meat is stored in them too. Usefully they were
slightly raised and had a metal lid so they made a great seat.
While relaxing doing not much the tiny village shop opened. Emma wasted no time in diving in, we hadn't had a chance to top up our supplies since Ishkashim. She was gone so long that I started to worry that something was going on and I contemplated is I needed to go in and rescue her. The answer whoever came a short time later when she emerged victorious with an entire carrier bag full of stuff, and being able to recite the owners life story. I wasn't entirely impressed when I examined her spoils, quite why we needed half a carrier bag full of loose biscuits I didn't know. Emma protested the shop keeper was a good sales woman. We donated them to our host family, and with several children in the extended family they were eagerly snapped up.
While we were hanging out at the village we saw the Italian guys arrive. We really had hoped to see them again. We pointed out our homestay before they headed off to find theirs and said we were going to head for a walk down to
the Bulunkul Lake if they wanted to join us. They were keen, so we hung out and waited for them. It their typical style it took them quite a while before they had got settled in and turned up, and with the evening wearing on volunteered to ask their driver if he could drop us at the far side of the lake so we could just walk back. In hindsight being dropped on the far side of the lake quite so close to dinner time at our homestays might have been a stretch too far. Particularly when we tried to stick to the lake edge only to find ourselves in a bog and realising that meant we had a longer walk than we'd anticipated given we had to walk much wider round it.
As we rounded the corner we came across what we initially thought were oval stone animal pens, some up to chest height others fallen in. But the we realised that they had no opening and were fully enclosed. This piqued our interest and we noticed some old one not more than 1 stone high dotted around. Most we peered into were empty by then in one
there was a long plank and the skeleton of something in a hole underneath. We thought that it must be the village graveyard and that they practiced sky burials but when we later checked with a guide he said they didn't practice sky burial. So we have no idea what they were.
As the sun set we left the lake and headed back. We were out of sight of the village but could tell where to head by the cloud of dust the wind occasionally whipped up in the distance. We knew it was picking up the dry dust in the village. The temperature started to drop with the sun and with stomachs rumbling and dinner nearing we frog marched back at a suitably rapid pace.
You don't come to Tajikistan for its cuisine and as there are no shops and restaurants the homestays feed you dinner and breakfast in the room price. The food is really variable from ok to terrible. We'd read that everyone gets sick at some point on the Pamir Highway. Breakfast is usually fried eggs covered in what is now year old oil, dry bread and chai. We eat it only to take
our malaria tablet and because we usually skip lunch. Every night for dinner we've had soup and dry bread, but here we got lucky and were given noodles with a few potatoes and onion - it was comparatively divine!
After we'd had dinner at our respective homestays the guys came round to our place for a last chai - as had become our routine. We were moving on in the morning but they were staying an extra day to do some hiking so our itineraries were not going to intersect again. We'd had a blast with them so it was an enjoyable but sad occasion.
Our homestay was the most basic we'd stayed in. Toilets were usually outside but this one was a hole in the ground and it was in a shed that had no roof. We've managed a shower of sorts, albeit sometimes cold, every day. But here there was no option. With everywhere being so dusty, trousers clean on the day before looked like they'd been worn for a week. We were pretty sure that we had been billeted in the family's living room. It was a 2 big room with a fire in the
middle and at time for lights out someone popped in a disconnected a car battery in the cabinet. We had a feeling there were other things in the cabinet they would need in the morning so resolved to set an early alarm so we didn't hold them up. Sure enough at 6am came a gentle tap on the door so they could retrieve all manner of crockery for breakfast.
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