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.