Monday, September 29, 2008

Uzbekistan

We just arrived in Uzbekistan today. We got up at 6AM at our guest house in the Fan mountains, hit the museum at Panjikent, saw the ruined ancient city of Panjikent, crossed the border, and took a taxi to Samarkand. We are in a lovely guest house that costs twice what anything in Tajikistan did but apparently they get electricity for 24 hours a day, water comes out of the taps, the shower is warm, the staff speaks English, and the toilet is something you sit on instead of a couple of boards over a hole in the back yard.

We will be here for 2 days and then catch a train (we love trains) to Nukus in the far NW of the country. From there we may go to check out the ruined ships in the Aral Sea, before heading to the ancient silk road cities of Kiva, Bukhara, and then back to Samarkand. On October 22nd we catch a flight from Tashkent to Turkey and on to South Africa, where the second half of our adventure will begin.

As usual, the Internet sucks, so don't expect any photos. We tried to mail photos back from Tajikistan on CD for my mom, but it is illegal to mail CDs out of the country. Luckily you can take them over the border by hand:-)

The Fan Mountains

Our Tajikistan Visa expired on September 29th so we had time for one last adventure before we left this wonderful country and headed to Uzbekistan. We decided to head north from Dushanbe to the Fan mountains which is a popular trekking destination according to the Lonely Planet.

The shared taxi from Dushanbe was relatively uneventful although after the mellowness of the Pamirs we weren't quite expecting the taxi driver frenzy that met us at the taxi station. We took a local taxi from out hotel and as we pulled up to the taxi stand drivers started converging at a full sprint from all directions. Drivers were literally trying to grab our bags out of our hands so that they could claim us for their taxis. Everyone was yelling at once; we were surrounded by a frenzied mob of taxi drivers all pushing and shoving and grabbing. Lara finally resorted to putting her hands over her ears and shouting at which point they quited down enough that we managed to pick a driver and depart almost immediately for a reasonable price.

The 200km drive to Panjikent took 12 hours mainly due to extensive construction delays. The Chinese government is apparently building roads in exchange for some trade concessions. Its quite the sight as all the crews are Chinese and they live in little tent villages along the roadway. Given the incredible infrastructure we saw in China I can see why the Chinese would use their own crews.

Our guest house in Panjikent was great. Neoskul, our helpful host gave us all the information we needed to do our trek. For the first time in our trip we could actually take public transport where we were going and the next morning we set off on an ancient bus and rattled up to Jakahoma (near Artush), the start of a 3 day trek into the Fan mountains. Neoskul had given us contact information for another guesthouse in Jakahoma and the owner met us as we got off the bus. He offered to rent us a donkey and donkey man for $25.00 a day to carry our packs, but we decided to do the hike unsupported. It can be a lot of work to have another person along as we feel we have to talk to them and it changes the experience.

From Jakahoma we hiked about 5 hours uphill (900m elevation gain) to an uneven rocky plateau studded with juniper trees. In the low spots of the plateau were a series of small lakes. On the south side rose a mountain the likes of which we have never seen. Although "only" 5500m high it had a 2km vertical cliff dotted with precariously perched hanging glaciers. The snowy top of the mountain was hidden in a seething cloud which occasionally parted to give us views of the most inaccessible looking summit I've seen. It was beautiful.

We camped by one of the lakes and got up early the next morning to do the next part of the hike. We had originally planned to backpack to Alauidin lakes and camp there but the distance was too great for us to complete the loop and return all the way to town the next day. Instead we decided to do the entire loop as a day trip without the packs so that we could travel more quickly.

We had been warned not to leave gear unattended so we decided to hide our packs as best we could. This was made a little bit more complicated because the local people were gathering firewood in the area, which meant they were randomly looking around under bushes for dead branches. I had just finished reading a spy novel though and in true Robert Ludlum style we hid our packs between some rocks, wrapped in a gray tarp, and covered with stones. Nobody was going to find them (including ourselves we feared) so we GPSed the location before we left.

The hike started as a brutal 900m ascent to a 3800m high pass. After a week in Dushanbe we had lost our tolerance for altitude and were exhausted by the time we hit the top of the pass. To make matters worse the weather was overcast and there was a howling wind. I was ready to turn back, my hands numb from the cold and my lungs aching from the altitude, but Lara had some enthusiasm and we spent a few minutes sheltered behind some rocks at the top of the pass deciding what to do. We decided we were there to hike, and we ventured out from our shelter into the howling wind and into a most amazing view of jagged peaks. The clouds had lifted for a minute to reveal a landscape of mountains so sharp and desolate that we really couldn't wrap our minds around them. I would describe them as snowy teeth, but no teeth are as sharp and jagged as these peaks. It was amazing.

Far below us lay the impossibly blue Alauidin lakes and we made a quick descent to the valley bottom where we were met by a dog of all things. There weren't any people around, but the dog was friendly and well fed so we assumed it belonged to someone. It decided to follow us and we went down the valley with the dog to find our return pass and complete our journey.

About 1km downhill from the lakes there was a serious of buildings that looked like an old climber's camp. A solitary old man was sitting outside in his robe and we asked him for directions and then hurried on our way. The dog seemed to know him, but continued with us as we did another brutal 900m ascent up a second pass. The clouds which had been spattering rain on us all day finally started to dissolve revealing another enormous peak behind us. We snapped several photos before the clouds broke even more to reveal that the impossibly sharp bit we thought was the summit actually had another pinnacle of rock on top of it. Wow!

We hit the top of our return pass at 5pm, by now thoroughly exhausted, only to find that instead of the lake we were expecting the trail skirted a wide alpine bowl to yet another pass. Across the valley the lower front ranges of the fan mountains were bathed in the evening light. They were not snowy like the center ranges, but their rocky desolation was no less beautiful. The dog didn't seem to care. It just wanted to follow us. I even threw stones towards it to scare it home, but I lacked the heart to do it properly and the dog only looked puzzled and then wagged it's tail.

At 5:30 we finally got to the top of the second pass. At this point we met two shepherds who were leading a large group of sheep out from the highlands for the winter. They had four dogs with them and our dog played with their dogs. That was the last we saw of it. We wondered if shepherd dogs simply move from flock to flock, themselves travelers in their little dog worlds.

The descent was bone jarring but the trail was excellent (as it had been all day). We got back to our tents about 30 minutes after dark by the light of our headlights, having covered 1900m of elevation and about 30km of distance. We felt pretty heroic but ate a handful of Ibuprofin each to head off pain!

The next day we had to return to town. We slept in and did a nice hike to the base of the big mountain before heading back down the way we came. The hike was pleasant and uneventful although our feet ached by the end of it. As we approached Jakahoma lots of local people came out of their fields to greet us. This may be a popular trekking destination but it hasn't affected the friendliness of the people. It was hard to make progress as every 100m another group of people would stop us to talk. One couple even sent their young daughter down with us to make sure we found the guest house. Lara had energy for it all however, and her Russian is also much better than mine since she talks to people more. I just collected the apples and walnuts that we were given.

We got to our guest house just before dark and enjoyed a cold shower, a warm soup, and smashed apples and peaches freshly fallen off the tree. It was one of the best hikes we have ever done.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Civil War in Tajikistan

As I've already said, Dushanbe is a lovely city. People are nice, the weather is great right now, and the streets are pleasant. At night there are lots of people about sitting in outdoor restaurants and enjoying the parks. There are even streetlights.

It's hard to believe that martial law ended here only a few years ago, and that 10 years ago the streets were controlled by armed gangs. I won't pretend to be an expert on local history and most of my information come from the Lonely Planet. It's an interesting story however, because it shows just how different the collapse of the Soviet Union looked from the other side.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was much more complex than many people in the west realize. We saw an old enemy vanquished. The Berlin wall came down; people who had never been able to travel to the west could now cross borders that had been closed for nearly 50 years. The world seemed a safer, kinder place.

But some countries didn't really want independence. The central asian countries didn't exist until Stalin invented them. As a result, the borders are a crazy jigsaw of lines on the map; lines which often serve arbitrary political purposes rather than grouping related peoples together.

Tajikistan has a section which is entirely enclosed in Kyrgyzstan. It exists because Stalin needed 1 million people to make an administrative unit and the original borders didn't have enough population. So Stalin just cut a populated bit out of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has two such chunks inside Kyrgzstan and a large Tajik population in the east. Kyrgystan has a large Uzbek population in the west, and the western part of the country is hard to even get to because the old Soviet roads run through the Uzbek and Tajik enclaves mentioned above. The eastern Pamirs in Tajikistan are mainly Kyrgyz speaking.

This isn't the recipe for stable countries with a strong sense of national unity although it worked OK when these countries were all welfare states controlled by mother Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed however, the money was cut off and a power scramble ensued.

For the most part the former dictators won questionable elections and ran the countries as their personal piggy banks; some of them have been in power ever since. These countries are some of the most corrupt in the world; Tajikistan ranks below Zimbabwe according to Transparency International. Turkmenistan is described as the "North Korea of Central Asia". The recently deceased ruler named one of the months after himself, created a "Ministry of Fairness", and made a big golden statues of himself that continually rotates to face the sun.

In Tajikistan there was a horrible civil war when the Pamir area, which felt little connection to the rest of the country, tried for independence. The results were catastrophic. Apparently security forces went around Dushanbe and executed anyone with a Pamir ID card on the spot.

The war eventually ended and foreign donors flooded in to help rebuild the country. The Aga Khan foundation was probably the most influential; they rebuilt much of the infrastructure themselves and the the Aga Khan is revered in most of the Pamirs. Almost every house has a little picture of the Aga Khan on the wall.

It's neat to travel in a countries that are still so young. Central asia is shaking off it's Soviet roots and trying to find it's own identity, a process which has been hard and has led to lots of excesses. Yet these are also the most beautiful countries I have ever visited, and the people are the warmest and most hospitable that I have ever met. When I walk the streets and think of the war a decade ago I can see the progress. These countries are still inventing themselves. They have some incredible materials to work with.

Getting an Uzbekistan Visa in Dushanbe

One of the biggest challenges in central asia continues to be the visas. Each country we've been to requires a visa and many of them have additional requirements.

To visit Tajikistan for example, you need a visa, which is theoretically possible by simply going to a Tajik embassy and waiting. To visit the Pamir area you also need a GBAO permit, which you can theoretically only get in the country. Finally, when you show up in the country you have to register with the KGB within 72 hours of arriving.

We got both a 45 day visa Tajikistan Visa and a GBAO permit in Bishkek simply by filling out a form and writing a brief letter saying why we wanted to visit the country. We've heard though that they subsequently changed their rules and now the Bishkek embassy requires a letter of invitation from a travel agency, doesn't give GBAO permits, and only issues 30 day visas. That would have totally messed up our trip as the main border crossing into Tajikistan is only possible with the GBAO permit.

Tajikistan is not the only country that does this nonsense. Kyrgyzstan has wisely got a policy of issuing visas in the airport (Tajikistan does this too). They also didn't require visas for CIS countries like the Czech republic. They changed the rules for this in July, the middle of the tourist season. We ran into a cyclist who had cycled all the way into the Pamirs only to find out the entry requirements had changed and he couldn't complete his trip because he now needed to go back to Dushanbe and wait a week for a Kyrgyz visa. Ridiculous.

Our next destination is Uzbekistan, and the Visa requirements for there are even more silly. Canadians need a letter of invitation from a travel agent in the country. This was quite a job to get because the only decent agency that does this doesn't accept any normal payment system. We tried to pay them with a bank transfer but my bank didn't recognize any of the routing numbers and said the money would likely just vanish into a puff of electrons. Instead I paid online which required a painful registration and confirmation with some weird online payment system. In the end we got our letters, a second copy of which were sent to the Uzbekistan consulate in Dushanbe.

We had heard horror stories about this embassy from other travellers. The consul has a reputation of being none to friendly and yelling at you if you can't speak Russian. And apparently all the forms are in Russian and Uzbek only and have no translation. As a result we decided to ask for a favor. We had made friends with a guy in Khorog and we asked his brother and a female friend to come with us to the embassy to help translate. It was probably a good thing we did.

We got to the embassy at 8:30 only to find out it didn't open until 9:00. We waited on a bench for a while and then clued in and turned the corner where a small crowd had gathered at a doorway. At about 9:25 the doorway opened and people stampeded in. An unhappy man stood on stairway, barked some stuff in Russian, and gathered a handful of out-thrust passports. Then he vanished.

Our friend fought his way up the stairts and into an office for us, and after a while we were invited inside a room where we were given some forms to fill out. With our translator this turned out to be relatively easy, and we soon handed the forms, a Visa photo, a copy of our letter, a copy of the first page of our passport, and our actual passport to an unhappy man behind the desk. We were told to wait outside. Our translators were quite stressed out by now and both agreed that the people in the office weren't about to win any hospitality awards.

About 30 minute later somebody yelled "Dwa Canadensaya" (or something similar) out of a window, and we went up to the office. We paid our money and we got our passport with a Visa. The whole process had only taken about 2 hours, but I'm sure that having a translator along helped a huge amount. I've heard from other people though that you can find the form online somewhere and print it out yourself so this may work too!

Lara's decision to print out a stack of about 50 visa photos on our computer at home has turned out to be a real time saver many times over. We've used them for China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan (including the KGB registration) and Kyrgyzstan. It would be nearly impossible to get a passport photo done over here. Don't travel in central asia without a photocopies of your passport, lots of passport photos, and a healthy tolerance for ridiculous red tape.

Dushanbe

(This article features improved use of capitals to make Rachel happy!)

We are out of the mountains and into the capital of Tajikistan, a pleasant and peaceful city of 600,000 called Dushanbe. It's probably one of the more pleasant big cities I have ever been in and it reminds me a lot of Oaxaca Mexico in terms of the overall feel (although there is really no other resemblence whatsoever).

We are staying at Hotel Vaksh, which at $35.00 a night is ludicrously overpriced. It's another run-down soviet monstrosity which has seen just the minimal amount of maintenance to allow it to keep customers. The carpets are worn, the lights flickers, the doors don't close properly, and there is no sink in the room so you have to brush your teeth in the standup showers. We actually moved out of our first room because the bed looked like somebody had butchered an animal on the mattress and the toilet didn't flush. Our new room is slightly better except the hot water tap has an annoying habit of coming off in your hands. Lara has an OK bed, but mine is roughly banana shaped so I'm sleeping on the floor on my thermarest.

The good part is that the hotel is brilliantly located across from a beautiful square which is full of life and fountains and surrounded by big trees and nice historical buildings. Five minutes down the road is a wonderful market where we can get grapes that were picked just hours ago and bread that is still warm to the touch. In the other direction is the main street in Dushanbe which has some high end shops and lots of parks and beautiful buildings. The street is broad and has a big pedestrian walkway down the middle. There are four sets of mature trees lining the whole street, two on the central walkway, and one on each sidewalk.

There are basically no tourists and a lot of people ask as where we are from or stop us to chat if they know a bit of english. Everyone is extremely friendly and laid back. Cars even stop for pedestrians which we first though was a trap based on our experiences with drivers elsewhere in central asia.

The parks are all pretty sparkling and all the lawns are freshly cut around the government buildings. We heard that this is mainly because there was a big conference between the central asian countries, Russia, and China that was held here in August. Apparently the paint was still drying in many areas when the leaders arrived, but for us the results are great and we love seeing all the lovely green spaces.

The biggest problem is probably the infrastructure, which is nearly medieval. Internet here is little better than dialup speed, and often stops completely for many minutes at a time. Uploading photos is simply not possible. The electricity goes out randomly in parts of the city and apparently last winter the whole country was without power for several months. The government claims things will be bad again this winter and is predicting that people will only have 2 hours of electricity a day. This in a country where temperatures regularly drop to -40 in the mountains.

People we talked to in the Pamirs said that the situation was so grim last winter in the country that many people died. The government kicked out several NGOs that might have been able to provide statistics (MSF is no longer welcome for example) so nobody really knows the true extent of the problem. We did hear that the Murghab hospital was without power for months and they had no heating in the wards to they had to send people home.

Burning a CD with our photos has also turned out to be a challenge. CD burners seem to be an amazing new technology here and most of the internet places we've tried haven't got one. It's like walking around Calgary trying to find a particle accelerator. We've finally found a cafe that has one and we will mail our picture back in several redudant envelopes as we also don't trust the postal system.

Dushanbe is a wonderful city and if you ever get a chance to visit it is a very pleasant place to hang out. Come in September when the days are warm, the nights are cool, and the markets are full to the brim with delicious fresh fruits.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Vanj Valley

One of the more interesting valleys in the Pamirs is the Vanj valley. It runs east from the border for about 100km before ending abruptly in the massive mountains surrounding the Fedchenko glacier. The Lonely Planet doesn't mention anything about this valley, but we had talked to some people who said that there was nice hiking. We decided to have an adventure and check it out on our own on the way from Khorog to Dushanbe.

Because it was quite a distance from Khorog, hiring a car was not really an option. Instead we decided to do it the Tajik way and rely on shared transportation and hitchhiking. In Khorog everyone laughed when we said we were going to Vanj, but we did manage to eventually find a Dushanbe-bound vehicle that was willing to drop us off at the turnoff into the valley. We crammed into a van with a bunch of other passengers and slowly made our way north.

At around 4PM in the afternoon we were dropped at the turnoff. There was nothing there other than a police checkpoint (which promptly examined all our documents), and a small restaurant where some men were playing backgammon. Lara chatted a bit with some prospectors who were camped 1KM up the road, and I sat on a bench and read my book.

The road was silent. We waited.

After about 30 minutes a vehicle came from the north, but it continued to Dushanbe. I was starting to get a little worried that we'd have to camp right at the turnoff when another vehicle came and turned up our road. Improbably there was nobody in the back seat, and they were happy to give us a ride up the valley.

It took about 30 minutes to go to the town of Vanj, which was about 15km up the 95km long road that runs to the end of the valley. This turned out to be the stopping point for our vehicle which was driven by some bank employees transporting money to the local branch. I think they probably wouldn't have stopped for locals but we didn't pose a threat and they actually recognized us from the bank in Khorog.

Vanj is a pretty little town nestled in the mountains. The houses are neatly kept and many of them have multiple stories with metal roofs and decorative windows. There are lots of fruit trees, but obviously very few tourists as we drew a lot of attention. Lara went in search of a place to sleep while I stayed with our packs. A little while later she came back after having been shown a nearby guesthouse by a helpful man on the street. It wasn't until the next day when we ran into him again that we realized that he had first offered to have us stay with him. I wish we spoke more Russian.

The guesthouse was run by an old lady and her granddaughter. The granddaughter was friendly but somewhat odd, sometimes communicating only in sign language. The guesthouse only had a couple of rooms and it was nearly full so the granddaughter wanted Lara and I to share a bed in a room with two other people. The bed was pretty small, and normally people in this part of the world wouldn't mix men and women in this way so the whole thing was a little strange. Still, we didn't have much choice and we grudgingly agreed.

We wanted to get some fuel for our stove so we went in search of gasoline. This turned out to be a very lucky decision since we met Berus, a wonderful man from Dushanbe who invited us to join him for dinner. He was observing Ramazan and had been fasting all day. The meal with nothing short of a feast. He spoke a bit of English and we spent some time talking with us. He told us that there was little transport further up the valley and agreed to help us find a driver the next morning. He also invited us to stay at his house, but since we were already in our strange hotel we declined the offer.

We returned to our hotel to find that the grandmother had realized what her daughter had done and now insisted that Lara move to a couch in another room. I decided to join her and just sleep on the floor so we moved all of our gear.

At this point the police showed up. They had heard that there were foreigners in town so they wanted to check all our documents. They told us that we needed to register with them in the morning before we went off on our trip. This turned out to be no problem except that the power was off when we went to the police station and we had to wait an hour for it to come back on so that they could photocopy our passport covers.

After the police left, the other guests showed up. One of them spoke great English and he came equiped with a beer he had bought for me in a store down the street. We chatted for quite a while and found out that they were part of the Tajikistan Anti-Drug initiative that was travelling the country educating children about the dangers of drugs. They told us that the guesthouse staff was a little crazy and that they had reorganized themselves into one room so that Lara and I could have the other room to ourselves. We explained that we'd already moved to the couch but they insisted, and we moved back to our original room which had now been converted to a private room.

After some chatting we went to the toilet. Unbelievably, the guesthouse didn't have a toilet and we had to walk a block to a public toilet. Like most public toilets in the country it was a little worse for wear. I've never been able to figure out how people manage to shit on the ceiling, but it does happen and this was that kind of place.

The best was yet to come however, as the next morning at around 7:00 AM the owner's daughter marched happily into our room to say hello. Lara was sleeping with the covers pulled over her head to try and keep some annoying flies off her, so she missed the entry. She couldn't miss what happened next though, as the curious girl pulled all the covers off her to see if Lara was actually in the bed.

The four star rating system for hotels simply doesn't cover situations like this, but this guesthouse would clearly earn a negative rating.

After the police registration and a breakfast of incredibly revolting processed meat we went off to negotiate with our driver. He was very reluctant to take us to the end of the valley, complaining that the road was bad and that he wasn't very keen to spend two nights waiting for us while we went hiking. In the end we agreed to pay him $0.60/km for the rough road and $15.00 for each night of waiting, and we set off down the valley.

The drive was pretty smooth until we got close to Poi Mazar, the last town in the valley. At this point the road vanished altogether and we started to do some serious driving over big boulders and through a river. We were glad we were in a jeep and not a smaller vehicle, and it was with some relief that after 1km of rough road we found ourselves on something decent again.

We had planned to stay at Poi Mazar but realized when we got there that we really wanted to be further down the valley. The driver agreed and said that he would sleep in the vehicle for two nights while he waited for us. At this point we noticed that he just had a T-Shirt. No sweater, no blanket, no pillow. He insisted that he was tough and didn't get cold easily. We didn't believe him but figured we'd be able to help if things got bad.

The drive to the end of the valley was heroic. At one point the road vanished to the point where Lara was urging the driver to stop because she was afraid we'd get completely stuck. Somehow we made it to the final bridge in the valley at which point there was no continuing. The bridge was completely rotten and even walking across it was a scary experience.

The scenery was amazing. To our left was an enormous glacier, black and covered with rocks and debris. This glacier was part of an enormous jumble of ice which continued for 20km to reach the Fedchenko glacier 1000m above us. All around us where huge, snow-capped peaks, including the completely snowy 7000m high Revolution peak in the distance to the south. We did a short hike to the foot of the ice and then scrambled up the side of the valley a short distance to try to get some better views.

We pitched our tents on a sandbank next to the river and cooked some noodles as the temperature started to drop. I gave my down jacket to the driver, and Lara gave him a hat, extra pants, and a shell. He insisted he didn't need them, but as the temperature dropped he quickly put them on and still looked none to warm.

The next morning we went for a long day hike up the valley to the south while we left the driver to thaw in the sun. The road continued on the other side of the bridge and we walked several hours in a lovely valley before we hit a big glacier coming in from the east. We tried to continue south for a while towards Revolution peak but the going was pretty tough and we decided to head up along the glacier instead. We took a shortcut over the nose of the glacier and hiked several hours along the grassy slopes on the south side of the glacier until we could go no further. The views were incredible, with the rocky cliffs sandwiched between their snowy summits and the jumbled ice below us.

To our amazement we saw that there had at one stage been an attempt to mine the area. There we several nearly vanished roads carved into the cliffs on both sides of the valley, including one that clearly had crossed the ice. There were also remenants of a power line which led improbably to a summit far above us to the west. I have no idea what they were mining, but clearly it must have been valuable given the tremendous efforts that had been made to construct a road. In this case Russian engineering was no match for nature, and there was little left of all that hard work.

On the descent I convinced Lara that we could cross safely across the center of the glacier. Generally this isn't a very good idea, but I've taken some courses in glacier travel and since it was late in the season the glacier was bare ice without any hidden crevasses. We had a really fun time picking a route around the big twisted blocks of snow and over the big piles of rock, and eventually emerged on the other side of the glacier where a nice road led us back to the trail at the bottom of the valley.

The next day we woke to a very cold driver and a car that wouldn't start. By now we were so used to breakdowns that we payed little attention and we went for a morning wander to explore the glacier 100m across the river from our tents. We had initially hoped to walk along the bottom edge of it, but it was literally raining down rocks and debris as it melted in the hot autumn sun. Instead we found a path onto the top of the glacier and spent another few hours wandering around on the ice looking into crevases and admiring some of the enormous boulders that had been transported from who knows where by the awesome power of the glacier.

We push-started the jeep and drove back to Vanj, stopping along the way to collect gifts of walnuts from all the local ladies. We paid the driver an extra $20.00 for his heroics. That night we stayed at Berus's house in Vanj and enjoyed another fantastic dinner before falling asleep under the stars on his tea-bed.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Gesiev Valley

After a few days in Khorog we decided to do a overnight side trip. Lara was recovering from a cold so she didn't feel like hiking with a full pack. As a result we decided to check out an eco-tourism project in the Geseiv valley just north of Khorog. We found a driver who would take us for $0.50/km (the going rate) and would wait for us overnight until we returned the next day. Hiring drivers to wait is fairly typical here and it saves a lot on transportation costs.



The Pamir mountains are dominated by a set of large valleys which run more or less East-West. In the southern Pamirs these valleys run right to China but as you get further north the mountain range dominated by the enormous Fedchenko glacier blocks the way. About 60km North of Khorog is the Bartang valley, stunning and wild with huge mountains that loom over both sides. The walls are steep and brooding and there is little sunlight in the deep valley that the road runs through. A river provides water, but there is little arable land. It is a canyon in stone. It is the last of the valleys that crosses the country, and about 20km in is a side-valley called the Geseiv. This is where we wanted to go hiking.



Our driver dropped us off at a footbridge across the river. A sign in English and Russian explained that an eco-tourism project had set up a series of homestays in the valley. As usual it was sponsored by the Aga-Khan foundation. The homestays were a big attraction for us because it freed us from having to carry a heavy pack (although as a precaution we both took our sleeping bags and a bit of food).



The valley was beautiful. We followed an excellent trail along a fast flowing river. The walls of the mountains were nearly vertical and it was hard to judge how high they were (though our map claimed that some of them stretched to 2500m above us). The valley bottom was littered with fallen stone; even the fortress-like walls of the mountains were no match for the shattering winter ice. Occasionally there was a flat spot where trees hung heavy with wild apples.



About 2.5 hours hike up the valley we reached lovely Pamiri village of mud huts. There was no road and no electricity and I found myself humming the "shire" theme from Lord of the Rings. A group of people waved to us and smiled in greeting. "Please come in for tea", they said to us in Russian.



The Gesiev valley actually has 3 villages in a row and initially we'd planned to stay in the second or third village, but everyone was so nice that we decided to stop hiking for the day where we were. We stayed in "Lola Guesthouse" which was a spacious pamir house that we had all to ourselves. Lola's husband Towakal (Lara remembers all these names somehow) sat with us through dinner and peppered us with questions. Our meal was eggs and fresh bread, prepared (so they said) on a gas stove so that tourism wouldn't put increased pressure on the limited wood in the valley.



We learned that since the eco-tourism project had started there had been lots (150 anyway) of tourists in the valley. All the homestay providers we talked to were very happy and the reception we got from people couldn't have been friendlier. We did a day hike the next morning before returning to our car; everyone we ran into invited us to join them for tea even though they knew we were staying elsewhere. Our only complaint is that we didn't spend two nights.

This is one of the best eco-tourism projects we've seen. The people in the valley are marvelous, the views are fantastic, and the homestays are spotless and cozy. We felt like we had been transported to a different time. We went to bed that night to the sound of a family playing musical instruments together and we woke up to a meal of fresh eggs from the local chickens. Yet another highlight in a sea of good experiences.

Into Afghanistan (sort of)

As I posted recently we decided against travelling to Afghanistan because the risks didn't seem worth the reward. Still, after living a stone's throw from the Afghan border for several weeks and seeing all of the villages and people on the other side of the river I have to admit there was still a draw. As a result we decided to do the next best thing to going there, which was the Afghan market at Ishkashim. The Afghan border post is on an island in the middle of the river, and every Saturday there is a market on the neutral zone between the countries.

We caught a mini-bus from Khorog and had a scenic 3 hour drive along the river in a very comfortable chinese van. I have gotten very tired of Russian jeeps since the windows only come up to my neck and I spend most of the time looking at the ceiling or slouched down trying to see outside. This is made worse by the lack of suspension and bad roads which send me crashing into the roof at regular intervals. It was nice to be in a well-designed vehicle with big windows and comfortable seats!

We left our passport at the border and walked across the bridge to a stone courtyard. And we were in Afghanistan. It was amazing. The men were all wearing traditional Afghan clothing and everyone had beards. There were no women at all except for a few from the Tajik side. People spoke Persian and once again, after months learning a few words of Russian, we were in a place where we didn't have the first word in common with anyone.

Everyone was incredibly friendly even though we couldn't talk to them very much. A few people spoke some English and invited us to come to Afghanistan to stay with them. People loved having their pictures taken. For the most part I think we played the part of nice Canadians well although we committed a bit of a blunder when be bought two cokes and opened them (they don't have Coke on the Tajik side). In Tajikistan Ramazan isn't a big deal for most people and you can eat freely, but in Afghanistan eating or drinking while everyone else is fasting is a major no-no. As soon as we realized our crime we put the cokes in our pockets and drank them outside.

The market itself wasn't that exciting unfortunately as there are no tourists in this area so nobody sells the types of things tourists would find interesting. Most of what was being sold was basic food stuffs, some fabrics, and a few car parts. I did manage to score a complete Afghan outfit which should look great at Burning Man next year.

All in all it was a great experience and it made us sad that circumstances are such that we couldn't cross the border entirely. The NE corner of Afghanistan looks amazing and the footpaths we see across the river would make for some remarkable hiking from village to village. Maybe one day we will return to this part of the world when circumstances are better. Until then our hopes are with the Afghani people. History has dealt them a bad hand and we hope that things turn around for them and their country.

Fruit Everywhere

One of the real unexpected pleasures in Central Asia has been the fruit. The climate here is perfect for apples, pears, grapes, apricots, walnuts, figs, peaches, and other wonderful stuff. As a matter of fact we've found ourselves repeatedly given huge bags of produce by people.

One big annoyance to me however is that people really mangle their fruit. For some reason nobody here seems to mind bruised or damaged fruit. At first I thought they just ate around the mangled bits, but I've seen people happily eat brown mashed apples although obvious rot is still avoided.

As a result of this strange immunity to bruised fruit people don't bother taking care of fruit at all. The standard way to pick apples is to shake the tree and then gather all the mangled apples off the ground. So far I haven't seen anyone actually remove fruit from the tree while it is still undamaged.

It's weird, and also a little bit gross when a well meaning person brings us a 10 pound bag of pulped apples with goo oozing out of the bottom. This is just not the type of thing that is easy to backpack with. But we also don't want to offend anyone by not taking it. A driver we hired the other day stopped his car and picked some pears for us. Off the road. It looked like they'd been run over by donkeys a few time. "We'll just have these later shall we," said Lara as she passed them back to me. The sheep loved them.

Still, on the whole it is wonderful to have so much fresh food, and never was it more so than when we visited the botanical gardens in Khorog. The gardens are the highest botanical garden in the world and they contain all sorts of native fruit plants. They seem to grow nearly wild and it feels like a natural garden of Eden.

We went there when the apples were ripe and there were probably 100-200 different varieties of apple trees all ready for the picking. I was in heaven and went into "wine tasting mode" where I took a bite from each apple, even spitting it out if I didn't like it, so that I could try as many as possible before getting full. It turns out that most of the apples that we eat are much superior to the wild varieties (which is no surprise given how hard we've worked to breed good apples). Still, it is hard to describe how many different textures, colors, smells, shapes, and flavors of apples there are. Anyone going to Khorog should check out the botanical gardens (on an empty stomach).

As an interesting aside, one of the really popular snacks here is apricot seeds. If you crack the shell of an apricot there is a nut inside which tastes and looks like an almond. People love them and I think they are more prized than the apricots themselves. For a few dollars you can buy long necklaces in the market which are made of the threaded seeds.

Of course I had always heard that apricot seeds contain cyanide. This actually turns out to be true and a quick search on the Internet shows that a number of people die every year from overeating them. Luckily cyanide isn't harmful in sub-lethal quantities, so if you don't overdo it Apricot seeds can be a lovely addition to your snack mix. Also lucky for me I have a sensible wife who said "Maybe you should not eat quite so many of those just in case the rumors are true."

Down to Khorog and up a Mountain

After spending about a week in Murghab it was finally time to leave the Eastern Pamirs and head to Khorog. As usual the hardest thing was finding transport, but fortunately it has become very easy to get rides towards Dushanbe. The reason is that there is a constant flow of goods coming in from China through a border post about 2 hours east of Murghab. The Chinese drivers go to the border where Tajik drivers pay bribes and then take the vehicles into Tajikistan.

Much of the traffic is actually brand new vehicles. There are very nice Chinese mini vans on sale here for $5500 brand new, and they all come down the Pamir highway. As a result there are tons of empty cars heading west, and there are also empty mini-buses that transport the drivers to the border.

We let it be know that we wanted to head to Khorog, and within an hour somebody was at our guesthouse offering an (outrageously priced) ride. It turns out that he was a guide who had just finished driving some clients around for 10 days and now wanted to head back home. When we let it be known that we knew the going rate he agreed readily and the next morning he picked us up at the guesthouse and we got door-to-door service all the way to our guesthouse in Khorog. We even had a stop at a hotsprings along the way.

In Khorog we stayed at the Pamir lodge, a cheap, clean, and very pleasant place to hang out and the only place to meet other travellers. There were five rooms around a nice courtyard and we paid $5.00 each for sleeping and $2.50 for meals.

The next day I decided to scramble up a mountain overlooking town while Lara wisely decided to hang out and relax. The mountain, which is just North of town looks big and is bigger. I think the total elevation gain must have been 2000m and the summit I made it to was still some distance from the main summit.

One of the amazing things about the mountains in this area is the sheer scale of them. In Canada summits are typically 1000-1500m above the road, and what you see is what you get. Here there are many summits that are 3 or even 4km above the surrounding landscape. When you climb a ridge you find yourself on a tiny spur of a vast massif that continues to impossible heights beyond where you stand. I'm used to being able to get up everything I see as a day hike, but I've had to content myself to hiking to a viewpoint and leaving the summit for well equiped mountaineering teams.

I think many of the summits we see here have probably never even been climbed. The rocks are so jagged that many of the peaks look like cartoon mountains; impossibly sharp and challenging to climb. On top of that there are numerous border zones which are closed to climbing.

Anyway, my particular scramble was much tougher than it seemed. It started well with a nice hike through some old streets at the edge of town and a pleasant path up the valley that splits the main peak. As I got higher up things got worse however, and what looked like a nice hillside from town was a loose jumble of boulders. The summit didn't seem to get any nearer despite my best efforts and I was pretty happy when I finally reached the top after 4 hours of climbing. I had to be extremely careful on the descent not to twist an ankle. I suspect that mountain rescue services here are not what they could be and a night at 4000m with a broken ankle wouldn't be much fun. I would only recommend this hike to serious scramblers.

The Indian restaurant where we ate dinner the next night is probably a much better bet.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Getting Money in the Middle of Nowhere

One constant concern when travelling is how much money to carry. The easiest would be to take $30,000 out of the bank and just carry it around, but this is clearly a bit of theft risk. On the other end of the spectrum you'd have the smallest amount of cash possible, but then you run into problems when something unexpected happens. Most travellers have an emergency stash hidden somewhere, and enough "ready" money to pay for the next couple of days.

In Murghab you are about as remote as it is possible to get (except for maybe Central Anarctica), so it's no suprise there are no bank machines. Our plan was to spend about a week there and then head to Khorog, which has a banch machine, so we had allowed our cash piles to get lower then normal.

Then we went to the META office and found out about a great 5 day hike to the Fedchenko Glacier, the longest subarctic glacier in the world. We couldn't resist despite the $800.00 price tag for vehicles and a guide. The route would take us through some of the most remote scenery in the Pamirs and give us a chance to see a view that had never before been visited by westerners. Best of all, we'd end up in Khorog at the end of the whole thing so we could go to the bank there and pay for it.

Unfortunately, we ran into some people from the British embassy who told us the road was washed out and we couldn't complete the route. This dropped the transportation cost, but it meant that we had to come up with all the money ourselves. We didn't have enough.

No problem, said the META guy. You can do a wire transfer to the bank here and get the money from them (there is a bank in Murghab, but it doesn't have an ATM, or Visa, or any other modern connections, and normally is short on cash, so it is kind of useless). He got us all of the information, and I asked if we could use his internet (the only connection in the town) so that I could email my banker. Unfortunately, the electricity was out (Murghab only has a few hours a day of reliable power and it is often so weak that you can't see by lightbulbs because they are too dim).

Sigh... Well, maybe I could phone my mom, give her the information, and ask her to do me a huge favor and arrange the wire transfer.

That evening I went down the pitch black streets (Murghab has no street lights) to the phone office. I gave the number to the lady in the office and she phone for me. No lines. She tried again. Error. She tried again, and again, and again.

We never did go to the Fedchenko. If Tajikistan had only had any one of:
  1. a working road system
  2. a working electricity system
  3. a functional internet
  4. a functional phone network

we would have been able to do the trip. Ohhh well, you can't have it all.

The Rangkul Dunes

We spent several days in Murghab after completing our Wakhan valley loop.

Our first trip was a bike ride down a valley to a meteor crater. An enterprising young man has set up a bike rental business which promises "state of the art" mountain bikes. The bikes are OK but don't have any suspension which makes for brutal riding on the washboarded dirt roads. While the Pamir Highway is mostly paved (by Central Asian standards) most of the side roads haven't seen a paver let alone a plow in years and are badly washboarded. Still, it was lovely to get out on the road.

Unfortunately we didn't make the crater because the bridge that was shown on the map was washed out and the river was a bit too big to cross. Apparently we should have crossed the river close to Murghab at Kurgan, but we didn't know this at the time. Still, it was a great ride and gave us an appreciation of how wonderful (and cold) cycling across this region would be.

The next day we did a two day trip to the nearby town or Rangkul. We hired a driver for this to take us on a loop. Our destination was some sand dunes that were shown on our map. We both love deserts and it seemed like a great adventure. The META office told us the sand dunes were off-limits because they were too close to the border, but Lara wanted an adventure so we set off anyway.

Our vehicle of course didn't work properly and every time we stopped for photos he had to park on a hill so he could do a rolling start. By now this didn't even phase us, even when we were the only thing moving for 20km in any direction.

The town of Rangkul is pretty small and lonely and is situated in a broad valley. Camels are a common means of transport around here although we didn't see any. The valley is irrigated by a river and groundwater from two very salty lakes, although by our standards it is pretty bleak. Our driver took us to a house for lunch where we had incredible fresh yak yoghurt. I had two big bowls and it was the best yogurt I have ever had. Yak milk is much tastier than regular milk I think, and eating yogurt which is only a day old is a great experience.

It turned out the lady who fed us was his sister-in-law, and she worked as a teacher in the local school. She insisted on no-payment and feeling very satisified we set off for the dunes. To our surprise we were able to drive right to the base of them, and what a worthwhile trip it was.

The prevailing winds that howl down the long valley have over the course of thousands of years created 300m high dunes at the end of the valley. They are an incredible sight and we lost no time getting out of the car and hiking towards them. Lara wasn't feeling very well so I ran up the dunes ahead of her while she took photos of the weird rock outcrops that poked out of the sand and the border between the dunes and the desert.

The view from the top was stunning. The dunes formed rounded ridges with beautiful patterns on them from the wind. To the west we could see past the salt lakes near Rangkul to to the 6000m high glaciers of the Central Pamirs that lay maybe 50km away. To the East, towering above the nearby mountains was the 7400m high Chinese peak of Mustag Ata. It was completely snow covered and it's size was staggering.

The dune field was several KM across and I had a great time running down the dunes to join Lara who now felt stronger and joined me for a second trip to the top. By now Mustag Ata had been consumed by the clouds; mountains of this height are often wrapped in perpetual cloud and show themselves rarely. I left Lara on the summit to take photos in the setting sun and ran down to the driver to let him know we would be late. An hour later, Lara showed up, delighted that the clouds had parted for a moment so that she too could glimpse one of the highest places in the world.

That evening we slept at our lunch spot in the living room on a comfortable pile of blankets and enjoyed another awesome meal. In the morning the lady again didn't want to be paid, so we gave her a donation for her kid's education instead at the standard homestay price.

From Rangkul we completed a loop back to Murghab, stopping an old mine site along the way so that we could see where the local rubies come from. We found out later that collecting Rubies is a serious crime if you don't have permission, so that's all we will say on that topic. We won't be retiring any time soon though, if anyone is wondering, although the mine site was very interesting and shows just how much hard work goes into collecting precious stones.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Why don't I spell Check?

No doubt some people have noticed that I don't seem to spell check (or even proofread) very much.

There are two reasons. The first is that the Internet connections here are too slow for the spellchecker in my Google's blogging software to work.

The second is that I write these posts very quickly, as I am trying to get down as many of my impressions as possible. Generally I write the whole post from beginning to end in one go, and only if it is something that I feel strongly about will I go back and edit it. I could write twice as well, but I'd only write 20% as much and many of the impressions I'd like to capture would vanish as my memory fades. If only there were more time...

Wakhan Corridor Continued

continued from previous posts...

The next morning we left Langar bright and early and rolled down the road. This part of Tajikistan is much more populated and we passed through numerous small towns. Our first stop was a museum dedicated to a local Sufi mystic. It was a single room and we were able to pick up and play with most of the exhibits. The highlight was some really neat antique instruments which the museum guide played for us. He even gave us a bag of apples for the road.

Further down we stopped to see the ruins of a Buddhist temple on a hillside. This is a testament to the range of races and religions who have travelled down this corridor over they years.

Most of the people in this part of the world are Ismaili Muslums. They recognize the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader and many of the towns had painted rocks on the hillsides above welcoming the Aga Khan. I can see one even from the Internet Cafe I am writing from in Khorog. The Aga Khan visited this area two years ago before going into Northern Afghanistan, where he has been equally active in helping reconstruct that poor country.

The Aga Khan preaches moderation and tolerance. One guide we had told us that the Aga Khan says that a diversity of viewpoints is good because we can all learn from each other. He said "Alah is great" and pretended to shoot us. Luckily he laughed loudly at this. Ismailis dress modestly but many of the women don't wear headscarfs, and the spiritual center is a community hall instead of a Mosque. Most Ismailis also don't celebrate Ramadan which is very nice since it means that restaurants are still open in the daytime and we don't offend anyone by eating a meal.

The Aga Khan does wonderful work in this area through his charities. After a ruinous civil war war in the 1990s the Aga Khan foundation almost single handedly rebuilt the area, providing bridges, health care, wells, and education. We are incredibly impressed by this charity and the good work it is doing in an area that has largely been forgotten by the rest of the world.

The result of all of this is that this is a delightful area to travel through. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming in the best Muslim fashion, but they dress colorfully, educate their women, and are tolerant of a wide range of religions and viewpoints. If only Islam were able to show this face to the world more often there would be none of the fear that dominates our politics today.

Anyway, after the Buddhist temple we headed off again. By now we were starting to get a bit worried about the vehicle as the brakes didn't seem to be working very well any more and our driver drove through towns honking loudly so that nobody would get in his way. To make matters worse, he kept asking people for Benzine, although he assured us he had enough gas. It seemed like we would either end up in the river or stuck on the road.

Our next stop was Bibi Fatima, a natural hotspring high on the hillside above town. We had a picknick lunch here and then went inside in groups. Clothing is not generally allowed in hotsprings, so men and women bathe seperately in shifts. Most of the hotsprings have some sort of sanitorium nearby which means that you share the hot water with large groups of people who have infections skin diseases that they try to scrub off themselves.

Thankfully the water flow at Bibi Fatima was enormous so the springs were very clean. The springs came out of smooth wall that looked organic. A concrete "bunker" had been built on the other three sides, giving the whole thing a very enclosed feeling that people either love or hate.

After the springs we drove back down the road (in low gear). There was an old silk road fortress on the hillside and we took some photos and explored the ruins. The situation was spectacular. On the Afghan side of the valley we could see small plots of land that people were farming, above which rose the mighty Karakorom mountains, easily the most spectacular peaks I have ever seen. These are mountains out of fairy tales; impossibly sharp and vertical and covered in ice. Plumes of cloud whipped off the top of the highest peak, a chilling reminder of the howling winds and punishing temperatures that challenge the intrepid explorers who climb these peaks.

We continued down the hill back to the main road only to find it blocked by a car with a broken wheel. A group of people were trying to fix it, but after about 30 minutes it became clear that the vehicle wasn't going anywhere as the wheel was at a 45 degree angle to the body of the car. In the end about 20 people simply pushed the vehicle into the ditch and in an incredibly chaos of traffic the 10 vehicles that had accumulated made their way through.

Ibrahim found us another homestay although one of the gentlemen who led us there seemed quite drunk. That evening and we enjoyed a wonderful meal with a nice family and luckily the drunk person left. Like many of our homestays it seemed like we were probably simply staying with a family who offered their home to us rather than with people who regularly took in tourists. Unfortunately the experience was somewhat spoiled when my hat was stolen out of our van the next morning. Luckily we had taken our standard precautions and kept all our valuables in the room with us, so all I lost was a worn-out Tilley hat. When I get back to Canada I'll see if the warranty against loss is something that they really honor.

From here we were on our last leg of the Wakhan Corridor. We drove along the river to Ishkashim, home of a famous Saturday Market in the no-man's land between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. From there we drove down an incredibly scenic road through numerous small towns. On the Afghan side we could see children going to school and people working in their field. When we stopped to take photos they would wave. The numerous new buildings showed that our tax dollars really do work, and the road on the Afghan side looked in pretty good shape with new bridges over all the streams.

We saw little signs of technology on the Afghan side. It was like looking back 2000 years. No cars, no tractors, no electricity. Arable land is so scarce that many houses are built on big boulders so that they don't take up valuable farmland. The Afghan farmers were piling hay on their roofs for the coming winter, and many of the houses had enormous haystacks on them. The road vanished up a side valley and now the only think linking the Afghan settlements we passed to the 20th century was an impossible walking track which wound it's way through the the steep cliffs on the far side of the valley.

We stopped at one more hotspring, which was split into two halves. The men got a concrete shed while the women got an outdoor pool surrounded by lovely travertine dams. It's nice to see the women win one once it a while! That evening, after another checkpoint and a bribe for some missing papers (luckily the bribes are included in the vehicle rental fee) we ended up in Khorog. It was great to finally be in a place where there is water and regular electricity.

Ibrahim found us another homestay, again with a family that didn't normally take tourists, and I stuffed myself on the apple and pear trees in the yard. Our trip to the Wakhan was over, and the next day we said goodbye to Kay, Patrick, and Christina, our first long-term travel companions.

Ibrahim had the brakes fixed in the morning but our trip to Murghab was delayed several hours over a miscommunication of the departure time. We were delayed even more when the police pulled him over for another bribe before we left town (though in fairness, I think he really was lacking some papers). It wasn't till 4PM that we finally hit the road to head back to Murghab. Lara was feeling pretty ill from something we ate and only I was able to appreciate the spectacular scenery.

The trip back was mostly uneventful though when we reached the top of the Pamir Plateau the weather took a turn for the worse and the wind came up with the occasional spatter of rain. It was now pitch dark and we had little idea where we were. It was at this moment that Ibrahim spotted a faint light waving along the side of the road. We pulled over and an elderly lady (maybe 75) scrambled into the truck. We had no idea where she came from or how long she had been waiting there, alone in the dark. We gave her some break and a blanket and she eventually stopped shivering and sobbed quietly to herself. It is quite possible that if we hadn't picked her up she would have died there. Even in the daytime you can wait hours between cars on the Pamir highway.

It was around midnight when we got back to Murghab and Ibrahim's house. We felt strangely alone without all our friends around, but we had plenty of new adventures to look forward to.

Where are the Photos?

Some people are wondering why we haven't posted any photos recently.

The reason is crappy Internet. Most cities in central Asia have no Internet at all and even the capitals only have dialup or maybe an ISDN line shared between 30 computers. At 4MB per picture it can take up to 30 minutes a photo to do an upload of one photo. We might not be able to upload the bulk of our photos until South Africa in November.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Travel to Northern Afghanistan

A lot of people we've talked to on our trip have been interested in Northern Afghanistan. The Lonely Planet has just released a guidebook for the country and it is generally considered to be relatively safe. As a result we've spent some time debating the risks vs rewards of doing a quick trip through some of the more stable cities in the North. This would not only allow us to see a country that is by all acounts an amazing place to visit, but it would also give us an excuse to get an elusive Turkmenistan transit Visa. Turkmenistan is a wacky little country that is almost impossible to visit unless you are travelling through it, and we'd love to see the flaming gas craters, rotating golden statues of the president, cable cars, ministry of fairness, and other weird stuff.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) for us the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated terribly in the last two weeks. Our source of information is a NGO worker who spends much of his time in Afghanistan doing community development work. According to him things have gone completely to hell and the NGOs (who have been working in the area with limited problems for the last six years) have banned all road travel between the cities. While the cities themselves are safe, he describes them as islands in a shark infested sea. The highways have become incredibly dangerous, kidnapping for ransom and robberies being the main risks.

Apparently the kidnap and robbery gangs have now gotten so organized that information on the location of foreigners is sold up a food chain to those who are willing to act on it. If you are seen checking into a hotel or taking a taxi it may result in a phone call to an armed gang that would be only too happy to show you the side of Afghanistan that you didn't want to see.

Needless to say, we won't be going.

For those who are still interested it is extremely easy to get an Afghan Tourist Visa in Khorog. The Embassy is open daily until 2PM. You need to write a letter explaining why you want to go (handwritten is fine) and bring your passport and a passport photo. After filling out a form you must go to the bank to pay $30.00, for which you get a receipt that you can trade for a Visa. The whole process takes less than an hour.

All travel entails some risks, and many of the places we've visited have been lawless by any reasonable standards. With adequate precautions I believe it is possible to travel through these areas. After all, it is not fear of the law that causes us to behave kindly to each other. We've met the most amazing people in the remotest places and never had a reason to feel worried.

The situation changes however, when you become a target simply because you are a tourist. There is no substitute for local knowledge. Don't let outdated guidebooks and second-hand information lull you into a potentially fatal decision. If you are going to a potentially dangerous area like Afghanistan you owe it to yourself to talk to somebody who has extensive, on the ground experience in the area. We are glad we did.

Descending to the Wakhan Corridor

continued from the previous blog post...

The first thing we had to do when we arrived in Murghab was register with the police. In Tajikistan you must register within 72 hours of arriving in the country although this is more of a money grab then anything to do with security. In our case it involved spending most of the afternoon sitting on the steps of the police station before we were escorted to a bored-looking woman who wrote our contact details down on 3 different forms and gave us a slip of paper. Payment was in a combination of Tajik Somoni and US dollars. I always find it worrying if the government itself doesn't accept the local currency, although the exchange rate has been stable for the whole trip. (In general I've found US dollars to be widely accepted in Tajikistan at the bank exchange rate, and most tourist prices are quoted in dollars although Somonis are accepted.)

The next morning we woke up late and decided to try to arrange onward transport from Khorog. Christina, Patrick and Kay were all interested in renting a car together and doing a leisurely loop of the Wakhan corridor which is a valley that is shared with Afghanistan. It is on the ancient silk road and contains hotsprings and ruined forts that date back to the time when Marco Polo travelled the road on his way to China.

Murghab Eco-Tourism Association (META) was started by foriegners to try to provide some income to the area through tourism. META arranges homestays, transportation, etc... and charges a reasonable 15% commission. We went to the META building at the edge of town and found a variety of neat side trips from Murghab. META drivers turned out to cost about 50-60 cents per kilometer plus $15.00 per night to cover food and accomodation.

Lara and I had a brief debate about whether it was better to do our side-trips first before going to the Wakhan, but we were having a lot of fun with the rest of the gang and we had to pay back transportation for the driver anyway so doing the Wahkan with the other three seemed like the best idea.

In the end we decided to see if we could hire Ibrahim, our driver from Osh, to continue the tour through the Wakhan. He was delighted that we chose him, and the next morning after a couple of hours of unexpected fussing with the vehicle and looking for gas we were ready to go.

Just outside of Murghab we hit a checkpoint but this went fairly smoothly and soon we were bouncing down the road. Our first stop was some Pictographs (rock paintings) about 15km off the highway. I'm generally not that impressed by rock art and this was no exception, but the location was incredible. The paintings were in a shelter cave in a desolate valley. Nothing moved for miles around and there was no surface water as far as the eye could see. What could have brought people to this place? It was a very powerful spot.

From the rock paintings we continued along the highway past a natural spring full of fish (stopping at the fish restaurant shortly afterwards). As the sun set we arrived at Bulankul, a small settlement at the edge of a lake. Ibrahim found us a great homestay with a nice family who moved out of their bedroom and slept in the living room. There was no electricity but they ran a generator which they used to show rock videos of various Indian performers. The whole community seemed to have come out for the event and there were about 20 people in the living room for most of the evening.

We woke up and found ourselves in another broad valley surrounded by eroded mountains. Ibrahim spent a few hours fussing with the van and then off we went to Yashikul a bigger lake just a little way down the valley. Our map showed a Solar Calendar (yawn) and a viewpoint (yeah) along the north shore of the lake, and after some debate we coaxed the van across the river and along the shore of the lake.

The lake was amazing, sparkling blue and surrounded by eroded hills that gave way to huge glaciated peaks as you moved further west. The road, little more than a track, led to a rise where we got out and had a great picknick lunch. Patrick and I decided to head to the viewpoint while Lara and Christina went in search of the solar calendar.

About 500m vertical above the car we hit the top of the ridge and were treated to magnificent views of the whole valley. The erosion in this land is amazing because everything is so visible. The mountains are sliced by valleys that feed huge fans of rock. These fans, perfectly circular, are cut by hundreds of twisting dry channels left by meltwaters that never settl—É in one place for more than a season or two. Nothing grows here except next to the currently active melt-channel; a ribbon of green in an infinity of dusty rubble. And above this dry dusty wasteland, the earth and sky meet in a sea of ice.

We saw the solar calendars far below us, three large circles of rock. Lara, a speck, was standing in the center of one, a human replacement for the center stone that had long since vanished.

We spent another night with the same family and then went to the Wakhan valley. We crossed a huge pass (4300m?) and saw two small lakes on our right, and an enormous range of mountains on the horizon. Afghanistan.

Our map showed another viewpoint here and we set off to do a day hike up the round ridge to our left. It was higher than it looked and our altimeter showed 4800m by the time we summited some hours later. The valley to our South was the Wakhan, which is the funny little bit of Afghanistan that sticks out of the East. The Wakhan was ceeded to Afghanistan during the Great Game in the 1800s to provide a buffer between Russian influences in the North and British ones in the South, and is culturally and geographically far removed from the rest of Afghanistan.

We gazed at the enormous mountains of the Karakoram to the South, and the rounded Pamirs to the North, and then went back to the van and rattled down into the valley. We passed another checkpoint where our GBAO permits were examined. (To make matters even more difficult for tourists you need a special permit to visit some sensitive parts of the country). Luckily we had no problems although we later heard that some cyclists had much of their gear including a laptop stolen by the solidiers.

Past the checkpoint we were in the bottom of the valley where the road followed a narrow river. On one side was Afghanistan, and on the other, Tajikistan. On the Afghan side high mountains were occasionally intercepted by deep valley which showed even bigger peaks behind. The farthest of these were the Karakoram, the border with Pakistan, and many of them were 6000, and even 7000m high. The valley itself was dry and lifeless, with nobody living on the Afghan side and only the odd farmer on the Tajik side.

We stopped next to the river for another picknick and then drove past wild camels and spectacular views into the setting sun. The road wound up and down, sometimes high above the valley when the river cut a gorge into the valley bottom, and at other times so close to the river that we could have tossed a rock into Afghanistan out of the window. Shortly after dark we arrived in Langar, the first settlement in Wakhan.

Ibrahim found as a lovely Pamiri family and we had the luxury of private bedrooms for the first time in many days. There was even a shower, although the water was cold. Exhausted from a long day of hiking and sightseeing we were sound asleep in minutes.

We had planned to continue onward from Langar the next day, but unfortunately the truck was having mechanical issues. Our host took us on a hike to the famous Langar Petroglyphs, rock carvings a few hundred meters above the town on some smooth slabs of Granite. Unfortunately the Petroglyphs are heavily vandalized, although much of the vandalism itself is interesting as some of it dates back to silk-road caravans that travelled this valley 800 years ago. The Bronze Age petroglyphs had an unhealthy obsession with Marco-Polo sheep in my opinion. Sheep, sheep, sheep, hey look, more sheep. I could almost imagine some autistic cave man sitting up here banging sheep into the rock day after day.

We got back and found the van nearly working. However, it was late enough that we didn't feel like continuing ( and we loved the homestay and the food), so we decided to head up to a fort just up the valley. Ibrahim drove us the 10km to the bottom of the fort and we hike uphill (again) through fields of wheat. The valley at this point is a wide delta where two rivers meet and there are fruit trees as well as lots of wheat farming. Amazingly, n0ne of the agriculture is mechanized and we saw repeated scenes of people harvesting wheat with a sickle and threshing it by running a cow through it.

The fort was mostly destroyed but it's commanding position above the valley made it an awesome site. The mountains of Pakistan gleamed in the evening sun and Patrick shot most of a memory card in the every-changing light. Two local kids came to see what we were up to, leaving their goats to fend for themselves. I showed them my coin vanishing trick to rave reviews and for the next while had to fend off the one kid who wanted to see it again and again. They both vanished suddenly when they noticed their goats wandering up the hillside.

We descended down a better path and passed some houses on the hillside where we were promptly invited for tea ( a common occurance). The Pamiri houses have mud walls which support a large flat roof. The roof has a dome in the middle which drains water away from a skylight. On the inside the floor space consists of raised area which surrounds a sunken section in the center. There is generally no furniture, the raised area being a nice height for sitting on. Often there will be a stove under one of the raised sections to heat the house and provide a place to cook. Overall we like the design a lot, and we have really come to enjoy sitting on the floor and sharing food. We also like the idea of sleeping on the floor and then stacking the bedding in the daytime, something both the Pamiris and the Kyrgyz do. It seems a much more sensible use of space then buying a huge bed which is unused most of the day.

After our tea we were shyly shown some jewelry which turned out to be nice enough that Lara bought some. We were happy to be able to repay the hospitality.

To be continued...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Roof of the World

We spent about a week in Osh, Kyrgystan resting after our trekking and my assault before continuing our trip into Tajikistan. The Pamir mountains in Eastern Tajikistan are very remote and transportation is limited to occasional minibuses and the odd shared taxi. The other option is renting a vehicle and a driver, something which costs around $0.50 per kilometer and about $10.00 per day for the driver if he has to stay overnight.

Most travellers for some reason try to do the trip as cheaply as possible. We hear regular boasts from people about how the found a minibus right across the Pamirs for a very reasonable price. While I'm sure it is great to save some money, I'm not sure of the logic of spending thousands of dollars on flights and visas only to go through some of the most interesting and beautiful landscape in a 24 hour bus ride.

Lara and I were lucky enough to run into Patrick, Christina, and Kay (two Australians and a Japanese) who were all of the mind to split the cost of a car and do a more leisurely to trip. We arranged to hire a van for the first leg of the journey from Osh to Murghab, and on Monday, August 18, 2008 we left Osh in an old Russian van driven by Ibrahim, a friendly chap who spoke a little bit of English.

The drive was painfully slow as there were some huge passes and the vehicle had almost no power. It wasn't until late afternoon that we reached Sary Tash, a desolate little town perched at the edge of a big plain at the edge of the Pamir mountains. On the horizon were the white peaks of the Pamirs which marked the border with Tajikistan.

We drove across the barren plain and the mountains got larger and larger while we seemed to get no closer. Finally we arrived at the Kyrgyz border post, nestled among glaciated peaks which were bathed in the last rays of the sun. The border post was no more than a few mud houses, but for security reasons we had to stay in the car and not take photos. Immigration was painless for us, although we found out later that our driver had to bribe customs, immigration, and the drug control checkpoint to get us through.

With the border out of the way we wound our way up an enormous pass in the fading light. It was almost dusk when at the heady altitude of 4282m we reached the two metal drums which make up the Tajikistan border post. Here we were forced to wait for over an hour while Ibrahim was hit up for more "fees". A guard tried desperately to look serious as he marched back and forth in front of the gate in the freezing cold. My head pounded from the elevation (Osh was over 3km lower). I hoped that our planned stop at Karakul (3900m) would be low enough to give me some relief.

Eventually we got going again and we descended from the icy heights, gazing at the moonlight landscape through the windows. The term moonscape is overused, but there is no other description for this desolate land. It is a barren wasteland of gravel and stone, broken only by the snowy teeth of the mountains. The Pamirs are as dry as the Saharah, but with valley bottoms starting at 3500m they are also intensely cold with winter temperature dropping to -45.

Karakul was a ramshackle collection of houses along the highway. It is at the edge of a large lake, the remnant of an ancient meteor crater. Ibrahim found us a nice homestay and we were happy to get into a warm house where the family got out of bed to make us some tea. The five of us slept on the floor of a large room in the piles of blankets which are typical of all Central Asian homestays. Ibrahim vanished to stay with some family who lived in the town.

Most people rush to Murghab from Karakul, but I had seen on the map that the lake had a large peninsula extending about 10km into it's centre and our group agreed to spend a day to see if we could get a nice viewpoint from the peninsula. After some negotiation we got the son of the homestay lady to drive us out for the day and wait while we went hiking for about $35.00. It was great fun bouncing across the desert in his jeep and soon we were at the base of the small mountain range the ran along the peninsula.

The desert was intensely beautiful. The ripples of sand formed amazing patterns, only to be interrupted by jagged rocks jutting out of the ground. There was almost no vegetation, and the lake was salty and unpleasant to drink from. All around us were the giant peaks of the Pamirs, their snowy heights jutting out of the the wrinkled rubble left by thousands of years of erosion. I have never seen the earth look so old.

From the top of the ridge the views were amazing. On the north we could see the border with Tajikistan, and 7000m high Peak Lenin. To the East, the snowy glaciers of the Chinese border. Wrapped around us was Karakul Lake, so intensely blue that it seemed to have stolen the color from the sky. The lake was so beautiful that we couldn't resist the temptation to swim in one of the highest lakes in in the world, an experience which left us refreshed (and cold).

The next day we continued down the highway to Murghab. Tajikistan is still a bit of a police state and you have to register with the security forces within 3 days of your arrival so we couldn't linger two days in Karakul. However, my map showed a cave on the east side of the highway and we decided to ask Ibrahim about it when we got close. Prospects didn't look good however, as a shiny new fence had followed the highway since the border with Tajikistan. The poorer your country is, it seems, the more you must in protecting your border from imaginary threats.

We reached the valley that was supposed to have the cave and we asked Ibrahim to stop the car at just about the same instant as he was flagged down by two soldiers standing on the side of the road. After showing photos of caves on my iPod it emerged that nobody knew anything about the cave (it latered turned out that my map had it marked in the wrong valley). However, the solidiers said that there were some Petroglyphs in the demilitarized border zone with China and offered to take us there for fifteen dollars. (Note: Many people have problems with Fifteen and Fifty. Write everything down. It avoids problems.)

At $3.00 ($10.00 it turned out) each this seemed like a great adventure and before we knew it we were driving through an army base into the DMZ with a machine gun toting soldier keeping us company. Patrick even got to play with the gun once the ammunition had been removed.

The road eventually deteriorated and we walked a few kilometers to the "Petroglyphs". It turned out that these were just graffitti in the soft sandstone walls of the valley and after we spent a few minutes pretending to be interested our guide took us further up the valley. At one point he told us to stay on the road so that we wouldn't step on any landmines, although the numerous tracks of animals and vehicles made mines seem unlikely. We hoped he was taking us to the real petroglyphs, but we simply hiked to a view of the Chinese mountains in the distance and then returned to our vehicle.

Not sure whether to be dissapointed or happy about our strange adventure we continued to Murghab, our solidier now another passenger. We went over another 4000m pass and then dropped into land that was even drier. As night approached we rolled into Murghab where Ibrahim's family runs a guesthouse. Murghab sits in a broad valley is threaded by a river which provided just enough moisture to the surrounding land to allow for some agriculture. The valley is bordered by mountains of dry rubble, and on the distant horizon the 7400m Mustag Ata towers out of the Chinese Pamirs- a constant reminder of the powerhouse that lies next door and is the source of most of Murghab's wealth these days.

Not that Murghab is wealthy. The population of Murghab is only a few thousand and it is little more than a few hundred mud houses. Unemployment is 50% and winter temperatures are below -30 even before you factor in the ubiquitous wind. Other than a slow stream of Chinese trucks from the recently opened border crossing to the East, and a handful of tourists that come during the brief summer nobody passes this way. It is at the end of the earth.

It was terribly beautiful in the way that only deserts can be, yet it filled us with a deep despair. What were we going to do in this lifeless wasteland for the next five weeks until our Uzbekistan Visa started?

To be continued....