Monday, September 8, 2008

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...

No comments: