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.

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