PAMIR PART 3: COOL HOT SPRINGS TO AFGHAN MARKET


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Asia » Tajikistan » Ishkashim
August 22nd 2010
Published: October 19th 2010
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The dirt road from the Khargush checkpoint to Langar brought us to some spectacular sights, the road winds around the mountain side and across the river is Afghanistan which we can't seem to shake off, it's just there. A quick peek of the Hindu Kush mountain range in Pakistan brought excitement to us as we come across the thin strip of the Wakhan corridor shared by both Tajikistan and Afghanistan, all tall and mighty mountains one can only imagine the kind of weather they have in the winter, though Kevin our driver said you can walk across the frozen river(if they do freeze) to Afghanistan in the winter but then we reminded him there might me mines still lingering around. We stopped a few times to enjoy the view, we encountered a 4wd going opposite way and asked us if we have seen a foreigner walking the road,which we did strangely enough, this odd Kiwi decided to walk for 2 hours but his vehicle was worried he got lost as they could not find him, we told him he is just 5 minutes ahead of them.

Another stop after a dodgy crossing, a waterfall gushes down on the road
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petroglyphs
and into a steep ravine next to the road, it was tricky but we navigated with no problem, then parked at the bridge where we gathered some drinking water and photo op. We are now just about 15 km away from Langar, as the deep valley got wider the view became more interesting, a lot of greenery down below and odd shape and texture of the landscape. We went through several small towns before finding our way into upper Langar, Kevin took us to a homestay where we had lunch, we are all hungry but ordering wasnt easy, the woman asks us what we want as there was no menu, when we told her what we wanted she said she does not have it, all frustrated we told her why dont she tell us what she has or what she can make then we decide what to eat. Will take one hour she says.

Meantime they brought black tea, snacks and watermelon, and we played UNO to pass the time by, Kevin went back to the truck to check on soft tires(hopefully not flat) and cranked up the music of course playing his favorite "we no speak Americano" over and over again, the kids in the street started dancing to the beat as they walk past.

Food came, we decided not to stay here as the woman is such a businesswoman, won't even give us our change, maybe a somoni or 2 but she assume we don't expect it, and the bed prices are a bit steep meals not included, Julie got some tips from a backpacker they met in Dushanbe about a non official homestay in the lower part of Langar, the main downtown area, so we went down and found it, 10 somonis a bed($2.5!) meals are cheap too and its owned by a humble farming family, we loved it and there is a stream running on the grounds which we did our laundry on. After taking care of errands we proceeded to the magasin and bought booze, baltika 7 and Cooler beers for later. We are the center of attraction in town as we walked uphill again to see the petroglyphs, 2 boys from the homestay took us and all their buddies were waving and saying hi to us on the road, we thought it was an easy trek but it's anything but, the hill
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with our silly Afghan hat
is slippery loose rocks and soil, took us maybe 45 minutes to get up to the location, it's a collection of old drawings, how old no one can tell us,some are barely discernible, and those that are have modern grafitti along side of it, a sad fact, the boys showed us all the drawings on this massive rock slab on the side of this hill. Fantastic sight of Afghanistan as well on the other side and a view of the town from above as well.

Sun has set it is time to come down the slope, tricky but we made it, the young boys took us to this apricot orchard on the way back and we picked as much as we can eat, so sweet and delicious, we filled our tummies. we saved the seeds as the kids crack them and eat the nut part of it. dinner was picked fresh from the garden, i saw a young woman gather potatoes on the backyard and dinner was made, simple but delicious. The pit toilet was quite difficult to handle though and we decided to go around it to do our business, after dinner we had a few drinks and Kevin our guide opened up more to us and spoke about his ambitions in life, his life in the military, Pamir society and culture etc. great night to learn about the local's daily lives and customs from our drunk driver! Alex and Petra camped in the backyard, because Thomas snores!Well they just wanted privacy which was fine,poor Julie have to contend with us 3 boys with her in the room, Kevin sleeps with us too. Tire was flat again the next morning so we have to fix it in Vrang. While waiting for it to get fixed we sat on the road and encountered a father and son push bikers, no electricity so we have to wait for the tire to get fixed, Petra had a better idea, we walk/hike towards the Buddhist stupa somewhere up the hill, we left Kevin and we walked towards town, an annoying Tajik man with some black stone was offering us to buy it on the street, we tried to get away so we went to a magasin store, the owner is in cahoots with him, he wants us to stay in this homestay across the road and to buy some stones, we told them off but took awhile to shake them both off.

Continuing on to town we passed wheat fields and waved at kids and adults, at the main drag more kids approached and each has a small plastic bag containing rubies and what not rocks, this place is apparently rich in precious stones but none of us is interested in buying them we just want to see the stupa, 2 kids promised to show us the way, they seem nice and sincere, we went through small villages, past apricot and apple orchards and irrigation system that makes water flow to all houses from the mountain springs,another uphill battle for us, scree and streams to navigate, while climbing up more kids joined us, our boys told them to bugger off but not after they showed their jewels to us, rubies I mean...we politely declined, well to be fair it's not like that these kids went to the mines to get the rubies, they just probably found them in the area as they play or whatever, Kevin told us they are good quality, but we dont want to buy them otherwise there will be a market for it and they will pester tourists forever to buy it and besides we think it is illegal to take out these rough stones from Tajikistan anyway. we just want to see nature and stupas.. It was on top of a hill simple tiered mound with a footprint on a stone, said to be Buddhas, who are we to contest the claim, we snapped shots then down we came back, the boys invited us to their house, we wanted to buy freshly picked apricots for 5 somonis which they agreed, rather than paying them for guiding us, but turned out the family served us a big lunch, how hospitable these people are! The whole family got involved, the father played some guitar instrument, the mom and grandma made us lunch, fresh veggies from the garden, the boys picked our apricots. Before leaving we left some money under the table cloth as we know they won't take it if given directly.

Kevin bought a new mp3 player as his broke from overplaying, and with fresh music we set off to Yamchin fortress uphill from some town, the inscriptions said it's very old 2 B.C. I think but we doubt the authenticity, nevertheless impressive and great view
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of again.. Afghanistan across the river, there is a clean spring running below it which made Thomas want to camp there for the night but i told the group it's historical site we should not camp within it's compounds plus it would be hell to carry our rucksacks up the fortress! From there to the Bibi Fatima hot springs, this one is cool, but as like others, certain hours for men and women, changes turns every 30 minutes, it's the men's turn when we arrived, and all these old women waiting around along the steps. the hot springs is small good thing there were only 10 of us men there, i cannot imagine how the 20 women waiting outside will fit here, the locals told me to drink the water sprouting from the rock walls, as it is not sulfur springs, i chanced it, apparently the water has curative powers. There is a small hole in the wall that the boys took turn getting inside,women of child bearing age come here to wish that they be fertile when they get married. When it was the women's turn we went and waited outside, as usual we are all hungry by now,
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we stopped at a few magasins as we pass by several small villages hoping to get some booze and some snacks, as we were driving through one Kevin stopped at this grassy area fit for camping, we tried to find the owner to ask permission but is nowhere in sight so we regretably continued on, the road got higher and we thought we'd never find a better site to pitch tent, there was a perfect spot atop a hill but it's too windy, then as the road comes back down to the villages we found our spot next to the small village of Shitkharv. Grassy, plenty of trees and a stream is running through it, Kevin said we don not ask for permission anymore it seems public, lots of sheeps and donkeys around but it's fine. Soon word got out we are there and as we set up tents we are being watched by the whole village but at a distance, an old woman came up to inspect the camping area and came back later with freshly baked bread, soon as she gave it to us she left and Petra have to chase her to give something back in appreciation.
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petroglyphs


We cooked our food, blaring music going on the truck, and bonfire already started, we cooled our Baltika 7s in the stream, nature's fridge. the night was great, a tad bit windy but tolerable, this is my last time in my tent which has fallen apart, the poles have cracked in different places and it's hanging on to dear life, petra and Julie lent me some pole tubes so i can still use it temporarily, i decided to give it to our driver Kevin am sure he can make something in lieu of fiber poles, people here are genius when it comes to improvising. Surprisingly, Kevin did not play music all night in the truck when he went to bed so i slept well. The next morning local kids armed with their mobile phone, document our every move by taking fotos and filming us, the future of Tajik cinema is here, budding film makers we thought. We packed up and said goodbye to our new friends just in time as a bunch of army soldiers suddenly appeared from nowhere, they wanted to chat but Kevin sped up leaving them in the dust. Now our next destination is to Darshai,
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petroglyphs guide
the girls wanted to try doing some day hike in the mountains, but when we arrived at the spot where the trail begins, it does not seem quite attractive, it dry and barren , us boys were reluctant to hike, just being lazy but we eventually relented. steep hike to the hills and quite slippy, scree and big rocks, we found a trail close to the river so we followed it a bit, going towards the river source, but suddenly it was a dead end, we have to wade in the murky, raging water which we did not fancy so we went back after resting and chilling under a shady tree.

It was easy to find where Kevin parked the car as we get back on the road to meet up with him, just follow the loud blaring music, bunch of kids surround us and after a few snaps of fotos we took off. Another fortress along the way was there to explore, i was lazy so i did not get out of the car, when the gang came back they told me there are soldiers at the fortress telling them some parts are mined so they cannot pass
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petroglyphs
and one dude tried to extract money from Thomas. Eventually we found ourselves in Ishkashim, a very quiet frontier town, one of the places where you can cross into Afghanistan via a bridge, this place is also known for the interborder Saturday market which we came here for. First we have to find a place to stay and eat. We found a restaurant recommended by locals, we sat outside on the tea bed and as before they asked us what we want rather than giving a menu, and of course most of what we wanted they dont have, the woman waitress wasnt very friendly and smirks every time we order so I lost it when I tried to order and she kept saying nyet nyet, what exactly did you want, Kevin asked trying to help, P-O-T-A-T-o! I spelled to him with an attitude, which he found so funny he will keep repeating it to me from then on every time he want to annoy me, Thomas though wasnt amused at my antics so I kept my mouth shut after that, I just wanted to eat. meanwhile Thomas picked some fresh apricot in the restaurant garden which we had whilst waiting
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for our orders which surprisingly came quickly.

We decided to skip Hanis GH the popular place to stay here instead we found this simple homestay near the Post Office, the family is ever so friendly and the gang pitched their tents in the garden, while me and Kevin took the room because my tent is dead by now. We headed to find an ATM machine for Julie, the bank does not have it so we went straight to the local market to buy water and booze, we succeeded, one store even have cold beer, well one, which we shared amongst us. we went for a walk in town, nothing is happening, very quiet place, the streets are lined with tall leafy poplar trees which shaded us from the heat of the day. We got back and boozed up, for dinner we were served the famous Tajik dish Shakharov, it was oh so good, we finished it in a hurry, then more boozing throughout the night, Alex and Thomas went out to buy more booze later on, we have the place to ourselves except for a famliy living in the adjacent house, and like every homestay here in the Pamirs, the pit toilet is smelly so we went in the bushes, and goodluck if you need to do number 2. it wasnt hard to fall asleep tonight, i passed out right away in bed and woke up with a sore head. thank goodness for a good breakfast the lady of the house prepared for us. When we checked out we headed straight to the interborder market on the Afghan side, there were already lots of people at 10am, we have to cross the bridge on foot but first we have to surrender our passports on the Tajik side and were told by soldiers not to take photos in the market. soon as we arrive there we saw a few gringos aiming their lenses to the locals so we followed suit and no one really stopped us. it is not as chaotic as I imagined it would be but there also was not much of a selection, lots of cheap things, made in China, everyday needs, toiletries, some crappy carpets. We tried to buy a mobile phone for Julie but prices were steep and we got out when the vendor started to threaten a buyer by aiming to throw a stone at him, kevin pulled me out and we escaped unharmed. Us 3 boys bought Afghan hats, then I saw opium for the 1st time when Kevin dragged me to this guy selling it in various forms in the open! dried and one is the black resin type, I wanted to take fotos but Kevin said no!

After awhile we got bored, it's just like a normal small bazaar the only nostalgic thing is we are apparently on Afgan soil, says the locals though books say it is no mans land zone, whichever it is, did not matter, we've been to Afghanistan in our books. Time to leave, so much traffic by now, we headed back to have some coffee in town then we drove out of the city to the last hot spring we will visit, Garm Chasma, it's a nice place, women and men separate as usual, at the time we were there, women are outdoors, the pool is at the top of this rock formation and us men is inside, the doors were locked so we banged on it and a naked dude opened it for us, i was a bit shocked then I remembered they are naked in hot springs here! as if i havent been to one yet... The water wreaks of sulfur, I put some clay substance I found in the bottom of the pool to my face and it stunk for hours..When we went in to the hot springs, the caretaker told us the outdoors is free so the girls were ticked off when they get charged on the way out. I dropped my lens cap on the way here while taking a multi road sign spot on the road, I was relieved to find its still there when we came back. We inched our way to Khorog, first stop is to Kevin's home, where he introduced us to his relatives and his scholar brother explained to us all about the typical Pamiri house designs, he was very soft spoken and calm, reminds me of Cat Stevens for some reason, he looks like him too in his younger days. We got fed fresh veggie snacks from the garden and loads of tea, Kevin is well loved by his family being the youngest and his grandma keeps giving him apples, quite funny.

Back to reality, the excursion has ended and we checked in to Laalmo GH which is near Pamir Lodge, we had bad experience with Pamir lodge last time we were here, no water, toilets are gross, meals are meager at best, LP was lying again, Petra and Alex stayed at Laalmo before and so we wanted to be pampered, $10 a room and $6 if you pitch a tent at the back, meals are good too. Proper clean showers as well and nice clean toilet with running water! We chilled for a bit then that night we went out to our favorite Indian restaurant next to the Aga Khan foundation, we ordered up a storm we could barely walk out of the restaurant afterwards, we sat in the park for awhile watching the kids go for a night swim in the dark. Then went back to the GH, unfortunately one of the dish we had at the Indian must have been bad, and Alex was puking the whole night and I woke up with a sore tummy. being a Sunday we cannot find an open place, hardly an restaurants, banks are closed, museum, and even the bazaar, after making an appointment with Rohila at PECTA, paying off the balance we slowly went back up to the GH. Alex was still in bad condition, Thomas me and Julie asked the owner if we could cook lunch in their kitchen with our left over food from the trek, she willingly obliged and watched us do it, she was curious how backpackers make meals!

Kevin joined us that night at the GH, sort of our last meal with him, and when we asked for some Pamir music from him he took me to his cousin's house to download some, it was 15 minutes away and he played music so loud the whole neighborhood woke up, but that's Kevin. Turned out he is also related to him, and same course in Uni as him, after we download 2 gb of music I wanted to leave already but the dude insisted on us watching a concert DVD of Yanni which I don't care for much really, i made excuses that my friends are waiting for us etc. it worked. Now we planned on getting back to Dushanbe with Kevin driving us but the price is too steep, he works and is contracted by Safar drivers association and if we hire him we pay by km which is absurd so we elected to find a share taxi in the bazaar the next day that is if Alex is well enough to travel. got up quite early at 5amish had a quick breakfast and sad goodbye to Thomas who will be on his way to Murgab, the rest of us heading back to Dushanbe. We hired a taxi to take us to the bazaar and there heaps of 4wds abound and offering their service, I watched the bags while Alex and the girls surveyed each car and lots of bargaining ensued, we wanted our own vehicle with 4 of us it is expensive, they all ask for 1,500 somonis per car and some are willing to get the price down but their trucks were crap. Having no choice and going around in circles for an hour we opted to hire one of them and luckily before we left we found a wandering Korean dude who willingly shared the jeep with us that made nit cheaper a tad bit. Then an American couple turned up but Alex and I wasnt so keen on adding more persons, especially we are bought on the mend from food poisoning.

Not 2 minutes had gone when we already got checked for passports just outside the bazaar! the trip was uneventful, started sunny and then the clouds came and rained in a few places and in one mountain pass it was hailing! The driver is very careful and seem to have lots of experience, he does not speak a word of English but very kind and fatherly to us. We stopped a couple of times for meals, one being in Darvaz, all in all the trip was good despite the distance our only complaint is too much checkpoint, we counted at least 20! In some places they list down passport info, Petra has to come over to help them decipher Roman letters as they cannot read it, she has to dictate names, nationality, age etc. by the 3rd time she refused as she got fed up. I understand the need(not really!) for regular checks but if you are to do this job, shouldn't you be able to at least read the info on the tourists passport page info? Some soldiers are really downright stupid, not even knowing how a Tajik visa and GBAO permit looks like, we all lost it when several times the checkposts are only 2 minutes apart! We wonder whats up really this is absurd! The driver was fed up too so when we arrived in Dushanbe and the sharks(police) were on the prowl, he stopped at one point and told us he can't continue anymore too much police stops, he has to bribe them every time, we have to take a taxi to Hotel Dushanbe.One reason the share taxi fare to Khorog is high is because of gasoline prices and an allowance for bribes to the greedy police and soldiers along the road, this is the only thing that does not endear to me in this beautiful country, hopefully things change in the future.

My last moment in Dushanbe, sad goodbyes to Alex, Petra and Julie and I went back to Firuz and his family in Karatag for a weekend couchsurfing and once again I had a great time, and since it was Ramadan they were fasting and I felt bad they have to serve me food every meal, but Firuz ended his fasting the next day. Once again cognac session with their father on day one, he doesnt talk much but is a humorous man when he does and the alcohol made it easier for us to connect. he told me they are going fishing that night, I told Firuz I wanted to go but I passed out in the tea bed and woke up they are gone already. So I hang out with Iskander and Alisher instead. Inom their oldest brother came the next day and a few of their friends, Sokir and a Bangladeshi dude named Jaffar, Firuz' classmate in Dushanbe, we had a great time swimming in the strong current of the canal, we swam with young boys doing all kinds of crazy stunts, youth makes them invincible. Then visited their relatives and had some tea with them. This time around, Iskandar and Inom's wives were more open to me and enjoyed chatting with me in English, both are well educated but a bit shy to speak with me, eventually they warmed up and we had great conversations.Inom gave me a lift back to Dushanbe on the 3rd day, I hate goodbyes, I will miss this family, they are so warm and welcoming and apparently I was the only CSurfer this year, so I got all the attention. The brothers were excellent hosts, we all got along so well and the mom is a cooking machine, plovs, shakharov, soups, marmalades, I fattened up in my 3 days of stay and it's Ramadan!



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me with the kids(our guides to the stupa) in their house


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