Despite its remoteness, the impressive remains of ancient fortresses strung out along the Wakhan Valley suggest that it had once been important, worth holding, worth defending. By the late 19th century, this strip of land jutting out between the Pamir mountains and the Hindu Kush had assumed strategic importance in the last phase of the Great Game between the Russian and British Empires. The agreement they reached divided the valley, so that nowadays its northern slopes are in Tajikistan, while the southern side is in Afghanistan. The river that forms the border between the two countries broadens out in this wide valley, its shifting streams meandering around islands in the middle. It is a sparsely populated region, most of its people on both sides of the border speaking Wakhi, one of the Pamiri languages.
I started my journey along the Wakhan Valley in Iskashim, a small town on the Panj river. There was a particularly good guesthouse there, by the standards of the region. It was simple, the rooms very basic (one of the other guests complained of bed bugs, which thankfully I was spared). The best thing was that there were nice, modern bathrooms, with clean showers and running water all day, with good water pressure. Also the food was good. There were a dozen or so guests the night I spent there. We sat and chatted after dinner, over green tea. Many were adventurous souls. A couple of teenage Americans had cycled from Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, travelling the Pamir Highway from Osh, and then down the Wakhan. Their hair was long and unkempt, their faces burned and ruddy from the sun. But they were very cheerful. They were planning to cross over into Afghanistan. Others too were planning to cross the border. That part of northern Afghanistan, the Wakhan Valley and Badakhshan, was reckoned to be pretty safe, free from Taliban.
Just up the road from Iskashim there is a bridge across the river, an official border crossing. I had hoped to make a quick foray across myself. There is a weekly market across the bridge, in the middle of the river, but on the Afghan side. Visitors can go to the market without the need of an Afghan visa, just leaving their passports with the police on the Tajikistan side. Unfortunately the market was closed while I was there. There were lots of rumours as to why. One was that Taliban had been there, unlikely in Tajik-dominated north-east Afghanistan. The more probable explanation was a typhus outbreak. Disappointed, I headed off up the Wakhan.
Khaakha fortress, Wakhan Valley
For this journey I had decided to hire a car and driver for a few days, a nifty little Niva. There were lots of places to stop along the way, and using the Chinese minivans would have been impractical. First stop were the sprawling ruins of Khaakha fortress, thought to date from the third century BC. The much eroded walls and turrets blend in with the brown dust and rock of the hills, but still manage to look impressive, standing on the slopes above the river, looking over to Afghanistan. I had read that soldiers were based there, supposedly to counter drug smugglers, and that visitors should be wary of taking pictures. Travellers in recent years had written of bad experiences, of being shaken down at gunpoint and robbed. But I was all alone as I explored the ancient fortifications. There were signs of recent inhabitation, paths marked out with stones and what looked like it might have been a parade ground. I walked gingerly up to the highest point of the fortress, where there was a small cluster of recent buildings. But they were all empty.
Yamchun fortress, Wakhan Valley
That night we stayed at the home of the guide who had earlier taken me up the Bartang Valley (he was travelling with a group up to Kyrgyzstan). First we went to bathe in the Bibi Fatima hot spring, named after the daughter of Mohammed. Men and women used the spring alternately, in half-hour shifts. A little cave has been built into the rock face, holding the hot spring water which streams down from above. It is said to be popular with women hoping to become pregnant. Nearby is the Yamchun fortress, the best preserved in the region, sitting high above the valley, with splendid views across the Wakhan to the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains beyond. It is only a short distance across the narrow strip of Afghan territory in the Wakhan to the border with Pakistan.
Across the Wakhan Valley
Back at the homestay, my host, the father of my former guide, pointed to the village across the broad river on the Afghan side, telling me its name, as well as those of other villages up and down the river. The people there speak our language, he told me. I asked if he knew them? Yes, we know them, he replied. Do you go over there and visit them, I asked? No, it is an international frontier. We’d be shot. He explained that when the river was low, they would go down to the banks and shout across to each other. A century ago this had been one community. These people would have traded with each other, married each other and shared each other’s celebrations. But by an agreement between Russia and Britain, about which they were not consulted in the least, an international frontier sliced through their land, cutting them off from each other.
Travelling east along the Wakhan Valley, we stopped at a museum dedicated to the 19th century Ismaili mystic, Mubarak i Wakhani, housed in the sage’s reconstructed home. His tomb is on the hill above. A little further on, above the village of Vrang, is a Buddhist stupa. The 12 year-old who showed me the way up spoke excellent English. Where had he learned to speak so well? In his school, he told me. He could also speak Tajik and Russian, as well as his native Wakhi. As we approached the monument, he showed me how to pick up a handful of pebbles to place there, an example of the easy-going approach to religion among the Muslims of the region. In the rock faces around the site there were numerous hermit caves, now unoccupied.
Continuing along the valley, we passed the remains of another ruined fortress by the bank of the river on the Afghan side. Perhaps Marco Polo looked upon this fortress as he passed that way in the 13th century. Then there was another of the roadside shrines, as usual adorned with the great curling ibex horns, and with rocks placed in the niches, the offerings of passers-by. A little further on I made the steep, strenuous climb up to the fortress of Abrashim Qala, the Silk Fortress. According to legend it had been covered in silk. The views from the fortress across the valley and the mountains beyond are stupendous. As I arrived, a group of children minding some sheep ran to greet me. A couple of boys were very eager to show me the fort. One of them tried to sell me some stones he claimed were rubies. I was often offered rubies by children in the Wakhan Valley. I was once offered one for 20 Somoni, around three Euros. On this occasion, the supposed rubies were not even red, just common rock crystal. The boy seemed slightly crestfallen when I pointed this out. But the Pamir region has been renowned for its rubies since ancient times. We had driven by the Koh-i-Lal ruby mine, near Iskashim.
Our journey up the Wakhan ended with a night in Langar, before we headed up over the 4,344 metre Khargush Pass. Opposite the meeting house in Langar (see posting of 25 January) is the mazar (mausoleum) of Shoh Kambari Oftab, who is said to have introduced Ismailism to Langar. It is a simple building, with inscriptions in Persian and a profusion of ibex horns. Afterwards, I drank beer with the Khalifa, the spiritual leader of the village, who spoke a little English, and a few other local men. Especially welcome, because it was unexpected, was the hot shower at the Khalifa’s house. It was a terrible shower. The water pressure was minimal; it was necessary to crouch down as low as possible in the grotty, rusty old bath tub. But it felt wonderful.
Salt lake, Eastern Pamir
After Langar we left the Wakhan Valley and continued up the Pamir river. It was a very different landscape, dry and sparse, with little vegetation. At one point, we passed camels across the river on the Afghan side, watched over by a couple of men. Below the Khargush Pass was a military checkpoint, which we passed without difficulty. And then we were in the uplands of the eastern Pamirs. For me this was one of the most striking landscapes I have seen, very different from the damp fertile valleys of western Pamir, and beautiful in a very different way. Dry, bleached plains, crusted with salt; bare lakes set off against snow-covered peaks, devoid of vegetation except for little clumps of colourful plants that cling on, squeezing whatever little bit of moisture they can out of the parched ground. And a profusion of birdlife.
We crossed over the Pamir Highway, the Soviet-era military road, built in the 1930s, linking Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, with Khorog, via the plateau of Eastern Pamir. Then we reached the village of Bulunkul, a dry, dusty wind-swept little place, a different world from the villages where I had stayed in the Wakhan Valley. Here, many people, men as well as women, covered their faces with scarves, not because of their Islamic faith, but to protect them from the swirling, throat-clogging dust. This is a Tajik-speaking village, and our hosts here were as hospitable as any I visited in Pamir, to the extent of their meagre resources. The supper was simple, but what was most exciting for me was that I was offered yak yoghurt, thick, rich and delicious. There were a couple of buckets of it in the corner of the room where I slept. Unfortunately I did not see any yaks, although my driver assured me they were around.
The climate up here was much different from what I had experienced in western Pamir, the temperature dropping close to zero at night. It was a small house. The family, three generations of them, all stayed in one room, snug and toasty with a wood fire and a television. My driver opted to spend the night with them. I had the other room to myself, and it was cold. This was the one night during my stay in Pamir when I snuggled into my sleeping bag, in addition to the provided eiderdowns piled up on top. It didn’t matter. I went to bed early, and was up at dawn to go for a wander in the beautiful early morning light. Before I went to bed, I sat outside the house and watched a group of village boys play volley ball, cheered on enthusiastically by the girls (cheered is hardly the word; it was more like a joyful screaming, finishing in fits of laughter).
The village of Bulunkul is set at one end of a wide plain, surrounded by bare brown hills. Walking away across this plain, the dry ground of the village soon gave way to green, marshy land, scattered with reed-surrounded ponds. Little birds with long bills nest in the reeds, diving and swooping around after insects, or, as I approached, holding themselves stationary in mid-air as they shrieked out a loud, harsh warning. I had to choose my path carefully. A wrong turn, and I was quickly surrounded by impassable bog, and had to retrace my steps. The next morning I skirted around the edge of the boggy plain in order to approach the lake at the opposite end from the village. As I came closer, I discovered what was perhaps the reason why the village was at the dry, dusty end of the plain, and not nearer to the water. Close to the lake I endured an attack from some of the most aggressive, determined mosquitos I have encountered. The lake was picturesque, the surrounding hills shimmering in its reflection, and birdlife all around. But it was hard even to raise my hands to take a photo, as swarms of insects immediately attacked the exposed skin.
Leaving Bulunkul, we re-joined the Pamir Highway, following the Gunt Valley back to Khorog. The fast-moving river, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, is more inhabited in its lower reaches. Just before Khorog is a monument to the building of the highway, the first ever vehicle to make the trip.
Strung out along the Gunt River, hemmed in by mountains, Khorog was my base during my stay in the Pamirs, from where I set out on my tours of the region, and where I rested in the relative comforts of the modern world, hot showers and flush toilets, internet cafes and ATM machines. I found Khorog a pleasant enough little place. The shady central park, renovated with the help of the Aga Khan Foundation, and overlooking the river, had a pleasant café and was a relaxing place to while away an afternoon. Khorog is the administrative centre of Gorno-Badakhshan. It has government buildings, banks, universities, and hospitals. It also has a rather good little museum. I was given a personal tour by the lady who sold me my entry ticket. Exhibits included the first piano to be brought into the Pamirs, lugged over the mountains by Russian soldiers a century ago for the daughter of the garrison commander. It was the Russians who made Khorog the regional centre it is today. The museum has many old photos of Russian soldiers fraternising with local people.
Unfortunately, I spent some of my time in Khorog visiting a Pamiri friend who had come down with tuberculosis since returning to her home country. The hospital was depressing testimony to the hardships of living in a poor country, squalid, shabby and rather smelly. There was only one lavatory on a floor with several dozen patients, and no shower. Thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation, it had the medicines my friend needed to get better, although she had very little faith in the ability or qualifications of the doctors. The Pamirs are a beautiful region, and no doubt burgeoning tourism will being greater prosperity, even despite the corruption and dismal governance that undermine even the meagre advantages Tajikistan possesses. For the visitor, experiencing the quirks of the local transport, the basic conditions of so many homes, the poor roads, it can all seem rather picturesque. But a visit to the hospital in Khorog was a reminder of how hard, how humiliating it can be for those who cannot leave, for whom poverty and poor facilities are their day-to-day life.