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Published: October 1st 2007
me with my new hat
in the background you can see Afghanistan and Pakistan
Safely arrived in Dushanbe
, I took my time to relax and regain strength for the next step of my journey...
The city itself is very nice, though unexciting and not very interesting. You’ll find tree-lined avenues filled with Russian cars, big Land rovers of development aid workers and the occasional Mercedes of a Tajik who made his fortune with his contacts or by selling out the country's resources to mainly Russian, Chinese or British companies.
You'll find Russian style stucco houses in pale colors, preferably light pink or fading green with huge white balustrades overlooking the shaded pave walk. Down there, the leftover of the Russian population tries not to blend in the Tajik majority. You can even treat yourself to a good meal of international cuisine from Georgian to Indian, you can find a restaurant for any taste and any wallet as well...
Things seem perfectly well in a nicely furnished Indian restaurant (which has branches in Afghanistan and Pakistan and claims itself to be the best restaurant of the world....can't approve that, sorry) and one might even forget about the desolate state of the country surrounding this laid-back capital.
It's not before you cross the concrete
factory at the other side of the town which blows big clouds of grey dust in the air that occasionally covers the whole sky above Dushanbe and reminds one of the outlook of this country that can't keep up with the capital's promises.
So it's only natural that they don't make a big fuss about their recent history and that one can still run into huge hammer and sickle signs or the ever present star of the mighty superpower they once were part of.
After a few days strolling around and socializing with other travelers, I decided to move on and as the road was announced to be really bad between Dushanbe and Khorog
, the capital of the autonomous region of Badakhshan
, I chose to fly there.
The flight ranges among the most exciting flights one can take in the whole small world. The pane steers right through valleys of the mighty Pamir Range and comes so close to glaciers and incredibly high mountains that I was really tempted to go for it! The only problem is the weather which has a "natural" veto right to it...
But, to make the story short, I was in Tajikistan and things
just don't work there like we're used to it...after 10 hours waiting, I managed to get a ticket, just to be told at the morning of the fight that there is not going to be any flight during the next days....at least I got refunded and was bound to continue overland.
I grouped with a French couple, Isabel and Frank, two Tajik bankers (one of whom had invited me to stay in his house the night before and I gladly accepted) and off we went from the airport to the parking lot of the overland taxis.
Given that Tajikistan is among the poorest countries in the world, it costs a fortune to travel the 500 km to Khorog (60 US$ per person). We ended up being 9 people in total in a big Toyota, with 3 people per row of seats...while the back seats were definitely the worst ones with approximately 10cm space for the knees (I am not exaggerating!)...
After a quite hard argument about who's going to sit where, Isabel and I took the first shift in the back on our 20 to 30 hour journey.
The road was really bad, but our vehicle took it easily
the hot springs in Garm Tschasma
garm means hot and Tschasma springs :-)
and I can't help telling all these "urban off-road drivers" that that's where there cars are built for, not to block city centers..!
The scenery on our way was stunning and terrifying as well, rusted tanks (leftovers of the recent civil war
) next to the road were guiding our way as well as towering peaks and dizzying canyons...accompanied by the sound of Pink Floyd and Lyube on my little mp3 player...after all not such a bad compensation for not flying there.
After several stops to eat, stretch out and sleep (yes, we slept 4 hours in the house of one of the driver's relatives) we arrived quite in time (it took us 22 hours) in Khorog.
Once in Khorog, a town pressed into its valley by nearly vertical mountains at each side, located just 500m away from Afghanistan, I enjoyed the difference and the feeling of remoteness it has.
This feeling is even amplified by taking in account that every single person there had to come the long and hard way either from Dushanbe, or even harder, from Kyrgyzstan over the Pamir Highway, one of the highest roads in the world.
Life looks so normal there and it is
hard to imagine that the whole town is isolated each winter when nobody can cross the mountain passes leading to it. The people are very warm hearted and their hospitality is of a genuine and unpushing nature.
Before I finally set off in the Wakhan Valley, there's a little anecdote I have to share with you:
One evening, after having eaten out in a small riverside restaurant in Khorog, Isabel, Frank and I went back to our home stay. As we passed the dimly lit bridge, two persons/shadows were coming towards us on the side walk.
We were just about to pass them, when one of them stopped and held his hands over his head, apparently holding a square object in his hands...moving it towards my head!
I was really scared and backed up, ready to take a blow of whatever he holds there, but even more astonished the next moment when, instead of a brick or stone (what I thought first) a hand made skull cap (a traditional one from Badakhshan) was put on my head..!
I was still floating in Adrenaline, when the two guys just proceeded their way and left us three standing in discomposure.
making our lunch...
in a road side restaurant...preparing dumplings with potatoe filling
No word, no explanation, nothing....just a gift of the wonderful Badakhshan people.
I will never forget that!
I spent three days in Khorog, before I met Alastair, a nice English guy who wanted to travel through the Wakhan Valley, following the Panj River, along the border of Afghanistan, before climbing over a pass at 4300m to reach the Pamir Highway.
So we decided to head off together and went off to the bazaar to find a driver. After haggling with the "syndicate" there, we found a nice driver with a red Niva who was willing to take us for 4 days until we reach Alichur
, which is situated just after the road coming from the Wakhan Valley hits the Pamir Highway.
On our first day, we made just some short 50 km to the sanatorium in Garm Tschasma (which means hot springs; Garm = Persian for hot, Tschasma comes from cesme (Turkish) for springs), where hot water comes right out of the rock and formed some impressive rock formations similar to those in Pamukkale in Turkey (not in size though). The water is led into an outdoor and an indoor pool which you can only enter with a
on the market in Iskhashim
Afghanistan meets Tajikistan - every Saturday :-)
After bargaining our way into a room in the full booked sanatorium (it turned out that we were staying in the storage room) as well as in the indoor pool, we had a great time washing off the dirt of the road and enjoying the hot, sulphuric water smoothening our skin :-)
After this treatment, we settled down for my bottle of Uzbek wine I still carried around from the second wedding in Samarqand. Later on we even participated in a dance contest of young students, which was a lot of fun! After all a very nice start into our little expedition.
The sanatorium itself was built during the Soviet Union and was really meant for the people, as one can tell after having seen the basic accommodation.
Nothing compared to the other Soviet sanatorium I saw in a remote place in Mongolia, where declining wooden dachas still wait for the resigned officials that passed their holidays there...but that's another story.
The next morning, a Friday, we set off to Iskhashim
, the gateway to Afghanistan.
It is there, where the links between the two countries are the tightest and the access the easiest.
The reason for that is
on the market in Iskhashim II
nice dress...maybe the beginning of a new trend..?
not only the new bridge (have a look at the inauguration speech
) which was financed by the ever present Aga Khan
and his development organization
, but also due to the weekly market that is held on an island in the river.
This was our destination and we were very keen on seeing and experiencing differences as well as similarities of the people from both sides of the river.
But before we went there, the market is Saturday, we met Simon and Raoul, who were stuck there without transport and very happy to jump in our car and go with us.
After an interesting night with exchanging travel stories and advice over a good dinner and even a bottle of mulberry Champaign, we went to sleep, all curious about what the following day would bring...
The border market:
Leaving the passport at the Tajik side of the bridge, we entered the tiny island with nothing than a a square wall with a gate, a small hangar and cobblestones on it.
But what variety of people brought it to life....
Boots, Afghan caps, carpets, rice, shoes, Chinese junk, etc. were spread out on plastic sacks. The hangar was filled with Tajik women offering
Chinese batteries to bearded Afghan men. As they speak nearly the same language, not only goods were exchanged, but also opinions and greetings. Truly a meeting point in "No Man's Land"...what an atmosphere...
About 300 people were present on the tiny island and even though the display wasn't that amazing, the people were already worth going there. The police and army was very present there and it was kind of sad to see the police men working for a better future of Afghanistan face to face after reading every second day of ten of their colleagues killed by terrorists.
After acclimatizing, I talked to some young guys and didn't stop strolling through the rows of people, always noting something new. I also told the young Afghanis I talked to that I really like the caps the older men wear....and believe it or not, before I set foot off this island, I got my well worn (by whom I would like to know) Nazi-brown Afghani skull cap as a present.
Great people, just have a look at the pictures and try to imagine the atmosphere!
We headed off to Langar
the same day, with having Afghanistan always in
plain sight and over the foothills of the Pamir, the mighty Hindukush reminded us of the third country present in this remarkable region: Pakistan.
It was an amazing scenery, composed by three different nations, yet so remote and unspoiled.
We stopped to climb a fortress set on a hilltop, where we got to see the beautiful valley full of crops and green trees. We passed many small villages with just a few houses before we reached Langar, a small settlement at the end of the fertile valley.
And again, we were lucky with the date. After having found a home stay in a traditional Pamiri house with splendid wood carvings and beautiful carpets, we were told that tomorrow will be the golden jubilee of Imamat. The celebration attracted a large crowd from the surrounding villages.
There must have been around 400 people and folk dancers, musicians and so many traditional dresses all over the pace...again what an insight in regional culture and tradition.
We attended the colorful festival until we decided to go on and carried on in the high altitude desert that lies between the Wakhan Valley and the Pamir Highway.
We made our way through a barren landscape
without vegetation or wildlife. Just some camels on the Afghan side of the river were alternation in scenery :-)
We climbed slowly and carefully (our car wasn't the newest and the dirty petrol was causing some trouble) until we reached the Russian army outpost on 4300m where we were checked once more and finally let through by 15 year old soldiers.
We climbed the last meter to the pass and continued downhill on to Alichur, with a great sensation in mind of finally reaching the Pamir highway.
And we made it! Pristine scenery unfolded in front of us when we came down to the Pamir plateau which was going to accompany me on my journey during the coming weeks.
Empty, big, sheer endless, with a perfect blue sky above the desert, it made a big impression on me and my travel buddies.
In Alichur, a Tajik/Kyrgyz settlement of about 1300 people, we found our way to the home stay of the local English teacher of whom we were going to learn a lot about life and future on the plateau, but that's going to be the next story!
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