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.

1 comment:

markus said...

The Soviets were mining quartz for their Missiles (Navigation system). At that time money does not matter, so you will find at many places in the Pamirs crazy roads going somewhere.
How it was looking 17 years ago you may see here:

You missed two wonderful natural ponds hidden by some rocks close to the road, about 200m from the last bridge!

Thanks for these details. I always remember Vanj (and Yazgulam) as my prefered destination!