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A Tour of the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan

Robyn and Gulnamo

Robyn in Khorog with Professor of English Language, Gulnamo Dustambaeva

by Robyn Friend
posted August 10, 2011

Why travel to such an out-of-the way place?  What is the attraction?  Dance, of course, was the first attraction for me. But there are many others: the breathtaking scenery, the kindness of the people.  There is also the realization, in a way that can’t be acquired just by reading about it, that this is how most of the population of the world lives, with little or no electricity, indoor plumbing, or paved roads.  There is nothing like a visit to a remote human habitation to come home with a greater appreciation of one’s own blessings. 

Robyn interviewed
interview at our riverside house in Khorog

After the festival, Neil and I stayed in Khorog for several days, recuperating from the whirlwind of travel and festival-going by visiting with friends, and relaxing at our river-front guest-house.  Eventually, we were caught up on our email and our sleep, and it was time for the next adventure: a tour of diminishing population, via a road trip down to the southern tip of Tajikistan. 

We engaged the same driver, Amri Khuda, who had driven us up from Dushanbe the week before.  We charted out where we wanted to go and the sites we wanted to visit, Amri Khuda putting in his recommendations as well.  We decided to follow the Oxus River almost to its source, then head up to the Khargush Pass, and thence back to Khorog. 

Khorog, the province’s administrative capital, has a population of 25,000.  The next city down the road has a population of 5,000.  After that, the next village has a population of about 1,000; the next one after that, about 300.  At the point where we were to turn north towards the pass, the villages looked to be even smaller; well under 100.  The last few hundred miles seemed to be nearly unpopulated.

At last the day came, and we headed south towards Ishkoshim, stopping along the way at Garm Cheshma (“hot spring”)  where men and women have separate rooms in which to soak in the hot mineral water. 

The Pamir Mountains are part of a complex of mountains (1) created by the northward motion of the Indian sub-continent, which for the last few million years has been colliding with Asia, resulting in the folding and lifting of the earth’s surface.  The movement of this huge landmass causes earthquakes, some of which open shafts deep into the earth so that superheated water can come to the surface, evidenced by the numerous hot springs throughout the mountains.


Looking from Ishkoshim, Tajikistan,
towards the Wakhan and the Hindu Kush Mountains

Ishkoshim is a very quiet town with one main street and one cross street.  From the eastern end, you can just look down towards the Wakhan Corridor, the long valley between the Wakhan Mountain Range and the Hindu Kush (2).  At Hani’s Guesthouse we got a room, plus meals.  I promptly fell asleep, and stayed asleep until supper.

During supper we met four Britons: two from the BBC and two climbers.  The climbers were hoping to be the first to climb the large mountains in the Wakhan Corridor, and the other two were there to document the first week of the journey.  The climbers had planned to buy some food and supplies in the Tajik city of Ishkoshim, and the rest in Sultan Ishkoshim, across the river in Afghanistan.  The only problem was that they did not know the words for any of the foodstuffs they planned to buy, like rice, bread, and so forth.  Fortunately, I was able to write out a grocery list for them in Tajiki that would work on both sides of the border.  The journalists eventually filed a series of reports of the part of the journey they witnessed (3).  That night we were invited to a concert in a nearby little theater, a showcase of local talent, including singers, dancers, and musicians.  It was lovely to see people appreciating their own culture and supporting their friends and neighbors.

Afghan Bazaar

About six years ago, the governments of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, with the aid of the Agha Khan Foundation, cooperated to establish a weekly market where Afghans and Tajiks could meet to swap, barter, and negotiate for each others’ goods.  I had been to the Afghan Bazaar, as the Tajiks call it, many times in Khorog, and had long looked forward to going to the one in Ishkoshim. 

The Ishkoshim Afghan Bazaar was held on an island in the middle of the Panj River.  From the Tajik side, we had to surrender our passports before walking across the bridge to this island – and suddenly, we were in Afghanistan! (4)

Among the many interesting items on offer there were used modern wares (sewing machines, cooking utensils, and so forth), but also atlas fabric, the hand-dyed silk for which Central Asia is famous.  Some of the atlas even came pre-cut and embroidered, ready to be made into the salwar-kameez-like outfit that Tajik ladies like to wear. 

bazaar
Afghan Bazaar, Ishkoshim.
Some women have tied scarves over their faces, not as hijab, but to keep from inhaling the dust

In several trips to the Pamirs, I had never before experienced altitude sickness, which can manifest itself in fatigue, shortness of breath, extreme headache, or dizziness.  By the time we reached Ishkoshim, we were at about 8,000 feet, and the slightest physical effort made me aware of the reduced oxygen level.  This awareness came first of all in the deep and lengthy sleep I had before our supper, and then later by the burning of my oxygen-starved  muscles as I climbed up and down hills to see the sites.  The local people are adapted to the altitude; a good thing, as at one point we had to hire local children to drag me up to the top of a hill to see some ancient ruins.

The high mountains and narrow valleys of Badakhshan make the Pamirs remote and inaccessible, with what seems a strong and active connection to an ancient past.  This is manifested most obviously in the form and structure of the cheed house, but also in the many petroglyphs and relics of the two main local religions before Islam, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. 

After we left the guesthouse the next day, we continued our route along the Panj River, stopping at a fort built in 300 BCE to prevent invasion by the wild tribes from across the river.  The ruins of the ancient buildings remain, and are still used as a military outpost to prevent a different kind of invasion: drug smugglers.  Among the other sites we visited were a hilltop Buddhist stupa (5), ancient petroglyphs (6), and the hot springs of Bibi Fatemeh.  This hot spring had only one facility, so the ladies and gentlemen had to take turns.  This was unlike any hot springs I had ever been in – instead of man-made pools, there was the natural cavern full of water, and we waded right in.  There was a small window through which one could look up the canyon, and a tiny little cave at about waist height, through a narrow and oddly shaped crack. 

One lithe young girl twisted her way through this crack and into the tiny cave, and brought back some mineral crystals, said to have healing powers.

  She shared these crystals around, giving me one of them, as well.  This spring is also said to open a barren womb, and make it possible for a woman to get pregnant.  As seems to happen frequently when we travel in the Pamirs, we bumped into a friend; in this case, the mother of our landlord in Khorog, who had been making us breakfast just a few days before.  Right near Bibi Fatemeh was another, even more gigantic 2,000-year-old fort – almost 600 feet long, commanding an amazing view of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

fort
fort

The second night on our tour we stayed in a home with a family.  No hotels in a village of 300, of course, so a home-stay is the only option.  They even had signs in a few villages directing one to homes that offered accommodation.  Historically, travelling on foot from place to place up in the mountains, or down to the town, can take several days; because people need a place to stay overnight, traditional Pamiri houses have a separate room for guests.  Our home-stay had an outbuilding with three rooms.  There was another small building with a shower and sink, powered by a tank on the roof, filled by girls carrying buckets up a ladder.  The toilet, a “squatter”, as is most often the case outside of Khorog (7), was in its own little building out back.  We took our meals in the family’s part of the house, cooked for us by the family in a small kitchen.   

The family included a young woman with a baby; after our breakfast the next day, the woman put on some dance music and held the baby, moving the child to the music.  And that is how Pamiri children learn to dance so well!

Through the Khargush Pass

Back in Ishkoshim, we had been told that there had been a washout on the road farther up the Oxus River, the very road that we needed to take to get to the Khargush Pass, and our route back to Khorog.  The rock slide had occurred at a point where the hillside was very steep, and the road was very narrow – and several hundred feet up from the rushing river below.  One French engineer at our guesthouse who had gone up to see the damage stated that it would probably be three weeks before the road would be ready for vehicles again.

We had a conversation with Amri Khuda about the road, thinking about having to turn around and go the back way we had come.  He just smiled and said, “We will go there and see”. 

So, the next morning, we set off towards Langar, the last town along our road before we started for the Khargush Pass, visiting more sites, including a shrine and tomb to a local sufi saint, decorated with very pagan rams’ horns. 

In these mountains, elements of paganism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam are all evident and side-by-side. Many people appear to be aware of the ancient roots of some of their Ismaili Islamic religious practices, and seem very tolerant of the ambiguity and apparent contradictions.

Fort?
Shrine in Langar with rams’ horns

Shrine?

At the very last house beyond the very last village, we stopped at the home of the khalifa, the spiritual leader of the town of Langar (population: not very many), where we had a delicious lunch prepared by his daughter.  People in the Pamirs are generous, but they are also poor, so we paid for our lunch, just as we had paid for our accommodations each night in our home-stays.

While in Langar, Amri Khuda had heard that there was a German gentleman hitchhiking around the Pamirs, and would we give him a ride?  Of course, we had no objections to this.  We picked him up after our lunch, and were surprised to see that he was not a young man, but rather in his 70’s, with nothing more than a small backpack. 

MapAs we headed up hill towards the pass, I looked back and caught a fleeting glimpse of the Amu Darya plunging down a steep and narrow cliff on its way down towards the Aral Sea, many miles to the northwest (8).  Off in the distance on all sides as far as the eye could see, rose wave after wave of snow-topped mountains, each range taller than the one in front of it.  We eventually drove as high as 14,000 feet, but the mountains still rose up another two miles.

Soon we were at the point where the road had washed out.  There was plenty of time to view it because the road made a large hairpin turn hugging the opposite cliff.  

We were pleasantly surprised to see that the washout had been neatly filled in with large rocks up to the level of the road.  We crossed that patch of road fairly quickly, holding our breath and invoking the names of whatever gods protect the innocent traveler. 

But we made it across, and the road held up just fine.  In a land where the government is not there demanding a lot of red tape, safety inspections documented in triplicate, and formal contracts for acquiring materiel, people just take care of business and do what is needed.

As we worked our way slowly up towards our turn-off for Khargush Pass, the number of dwellings and visible people dwindled until we seemed to be the only humans for many miles around, except for the occasional goatherd with his flock.  Eventually the road leveled out even with the river, which was narrow and shallow at this point, more of a psychological border with Afghanistan, literally a stone’s throw away, than a real barrier.  Before we turned more directly north and away from the river, we saw above the opposite bank a small domed building with a few camels wandering around it.  This building turned out to be another tomb-shrine, far away from any apparent village or habitation. 

Finally we turned our backs to the river and climbed up towards the pass.  A small rill came down through a ravine, moistening and greening the land on either side.  At the top of the pass (9) was a small still lake, the source of the rill, backed by even more snow-capped mountains off in the distance.  Green natural lawns surrounded the lake; scampering over these lawns were brown animals the size of a large housecat that disappeared into their burrows as we approached.  Amri Khuda told us these were marmots, small mammals related to the North American groundhog, that live in mountainous areas all over the world.  “Khargush” means rabbit in Tajiki; we had fun joking about the very large “rabbits”.

At last, our road intersected with the Pamir Highway, that ancient trade route that would take us either west to Khorog, or northeast to Kyrghyzstan.  We said farewell to our hitchhiker (10), and took the west road towards “home”.

One can read weighty tomes about the history of Central Asia, the influence of Persian culture, the nomadic or agricultural life in the mountains, the diaspora of displaced peoples.  All those volumes by erudite scholars and travelers cannot replace the knowledge that smacks into one’s forehead by simply being there, observing the way of life, the harsh circumstances of geography, political boundaries, and rural poverty.  With all their hardships, still the people of the Pamirs are warm-hearted, welcoming, and as generous as they can be in their meager circumstances.

I would love to bring you with me on my next trip, so you can experience yourself the thrill of the mountains soaring overhead and the kindness of the strangers who will soon become your friends.  Who knows?  The Pamir Mountains and peoples pull me back again and again.  Who is to say they won’t pull you, too, someday?

farms
Amri Khuda and the author looking across the remains of an ancient fort and the Oxus river towards the green fields of Afghanistan

Robyn Friend is a scholar, writer, dancer, choreographer, and teacher.  She has a Ph.D. in Iranian linguistics from UCLA, and lives southwest of Los Angeles, where she is the favorite dancer and dance teacher of the large Iranian community of Southern California.  She has studied dance with distinguished teachers in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and is the author of many books and articles.
Want to learn some Pamiri dances?  Visit www.robynfriend.com.

 

Footnotes

1-The others include the Tien Shan, Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas.

2- During the 19th-century “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain the Wakhan Corridor was placed inside the borders of Afghanistan, so as to keep Russian-influenced Tajikistan separate from British-influenced India,which in those days included what is now Pakistan. 

4- A tightly controlled part of Afghanistan.  Without a passport or visa, we could not enter Afghanistan proper.

5- According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stupa, a stupa (from a Sanskrit word literally meaning "heap") is a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the remains of Buddha, and is used by Buddhists as a place of worship.

6- At 1,500 feet above the road, over 11,000 feet in elevation – I let Neil do that one without me!

7- And sometimes even in Khorog.

8- The Oxus at one time flowed all the way to the Aral Sea.  Now, however, due to the irri gation of cotton fields begun during Soviet times, the Oxus disappears into the desert sands of Turkmenistan before reaching the shrinking Aral Sea.  The loss of the Aral Sea as a heat sink for Central Asia is one of the major ecological disasters on our planet.

9- At 14,400 feet the pass is higher than the highest spot in the continental U.S. – and we drove there!

10- He caught a lift with an eastbound truck right away.

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