Wednesday, 22 September 2010

2. The Bartang and the Wakhan

In Khorog we fixed ourselves up with two other Italians to share a UAZ jeep down the Wakhan valley. Before meeting them we decided to hike up the Bartang valley for a day or two. This involved negotiating a ride in a Chinese-made Cherry minivan. We ended up paying about double the local price, which isn't really so bad a deal. The drive up the Bartang was beautiful but hair-raising. Sometimes the van felt as if it would fall over sideways, sometimes we had to get out and clear stones from the road, and once we were the first to test a newly-rebuilt wooden bridge. When we got out, one of our fellow passengers invited us into her cousin's house and we had our first taste of Tajik hospitality. Marifat spoke good English (and Russian and Pamiri and some Tajik) and was trying to find a job in Khorog.

We walked up the valley towards Ravmeddra, but by now it was late and we started to look for a house which was supposed to be open for hikers. Surely the one with no door and nothing but straw inside wasn't it. An hour later, as night fell on the steep and narrow path, we decided that probably was it and headed back there. We lit a small fire and fell asleep, woken only by the occasional bat and by the lumps in our backs, which Arianna described as "Tajik stone massage".

In the morning, we found ourselves in a deserted village. A local guy came by to gather hay. We couldn't communicate much but when Arianna said she came from Italy he smiled and said "Berlusconi!"

We got back later that day, stopping only for a couple of hours with the local police, who had a disagreement with our driver, and met our Italians that night. Davide and Alessia had been working in the embassy in Afghanistan and had got married in Kabul. (Most travellers in Tajikistan work in development of one kind or another... or are mountaineers or serious trekkers.) We asked them about Afghanistan. They were very informative, and very pessimistic. Bullet points: everything has got worse since the fraudulent presidential election; the Taliban control about 60% of the countryside; there are no good solutions.

Next day we set off. Our redoubtable jeep driver was called Omur. Lots of people report driver nightmares. We must have been lucky: Omurbek* is fast, safe and knows everything about the area. He is also quite a cool dude and has a great cowboy hat. Omur lives in Murghab and is ethnically Kyrgyz, like most people in the Eastern Pamirs.

The Wakhan valley runs down the Tajikistan-Afghan border. Like all the Pamirs (valleys) in the region it has its own language; these split off from each other before the European languages did. The Wakhan language is called -- what else? -- Wakhi. Under the Soviets people learned Russian. Now there is a push to teach Tajik: not necessarily an improvement, in the eyes of many.

Our first stop was in Ishkashim, in a homestay that was well on the way to being a proper hostel. In the morning we visited the Afghan market, which is held right on the border under the auspices of the Tajik police. (Exciting moment: seeing your mobile picking up an Afghan network.) The Afghans made the Tajiks, with their Western hairstyles and jeans, look rich. Then we rocked on down the valley, stopping at hot springs, fortresses complete with modern anti-personnel mines, and Buddhist temples, until we reached Langar. That was the first night you could really see the stars.

* -bek means something like "Mr."