Yes I think it probably is! Maybe I should just call it something sensible like Pamir Highway part 2, or days 41-48
I had virtually no expectations of Khorog (having done precisely no research..) but almost immediately it cheered me the hell up (I was on a bit of a downer after Uzbekistan). Me & P (a girl from Hong Kong and one of the Dushanbe group) headed down the hill looking for dinner – the Pamir Lodge is way out of town but apparently there was a not very good restaurant as soon as you reach the main road. We couldn’t find anything that looked open though so flagged down a passing car to see if they could take us to somewhere (anywhere) that we could get food. We got in and they told us we had just walked past a restaurant but we explained that we thought it wasn’t open. So they gave us a packet of crisps then called the place – Varka – who eventually opened up for us. It appeared to be populated by vodka fuelled local men making the most of the dance floor. (The trusty Lonely Planet describes this place as perfect for a petty drug dealer’s date – the doors were probably locked to keep lonely planet writers out and drunk locals in). It was exactly what I was in the mood for. We ordered food and once I had some Baltika 7 and vodka inside me I wowed the locals with my astonishing mastery of traditional Tajik dancing. Yes really! This is what it should look like – my version was pretty similar but with better footwork:
All visual evidence from Varka is now under lock and key but here is the next day’s shashlik lunch stop:
On Sunday P & I decided to try and get to some hot springs – Garm Chashma – that are not far (well 1.5 hours on the terrible road) from Khorog. We found a guy with a Damas type van willing to take us there and wait. I wasn’t convinced this was exactly the best vehicle for the journey but it managed surprisingly well. On the way we stopped to pick up another passenger. I asked him where he was going (he spoke English) – ‘l am the driver’s nephew!’. Ok, so just along for the ride and to keep his uncle company then – fair enough. It turned out he was in his late twenties and having done military service in Dushanbe, was now training to be a geologist (and Tajikistan certainly has some good rocks to study..). He and his uncle spoke to each other in Shugni, one of the four Pamir language groups and the one with the most speakers (the other main group is Wakhi – not surprisingly people we later met in the Wakhan told us they spoke Wakhi). They are all Indo-Iranian languages, about as closely related to Tajik as English to German, apparently and Tajik itself is very closely related to Iranian Persian. (Pretty much everyone we spoke to identified as Pamiri or Wakhi rather than Tajik. The Pamiris that we met, especially in Khorog, often spoke English and were well educated – they are mostly Ismailis and have received alot of development assistance from the Aga Khan. And sorry – they are just lazy Wikipedia links!)
We got to the hot springs – very welcome at these 2000+ metre altitudes and the geologist and his uncle waited for us while we simmered. Garm Chashma is on the way to the Wakhan Valley – all the way south from Khorog we had continued to follow the Afghan border and there was actually a group of Afghan women bathing there as well. (The previous day we’d attempted to go to one of the two Afghan border markets in the region but it wasn’t running, I guess suspended due to the security situation, or lack of..).
We were chucked out after an hour (long enough) as it was time for the men’s session. Back in the van, driver and nephew offered us some of their bread. A large number of Tajiks work outside of the country – mainly in Russia – it had been suggested the figure was something like 1.5 million out of a total population of 8 million. Last year however Russian tightened up its regulations making it much harder for migrant workers so the number is reducing, though the nephew said both of his two brothers were away working in Moscow. In contrast to what seems to be the central Asian norm, he told us that he didn’t plan on marrying for another few years, until after he’d finished his studies, and he won major brownie points for not expressing shock and horror at my unmarried-at-my age-status! When we dropped him back at his village, he invited us in for tea, to meet his family and to stay the night as his guests. We had to say no as our stuff was back in Khorog and we planned to leave early the next day, but it was a real shame and the onslaught of Pamir hospitality has been rather heart-warming.
From Khorog, you can either hang around there (which we had done), explore some of the areas nearby such as the Bartang Valley, head directly east to Murghab or take a detour (or alternative route to the main highway) through the Wakhan Valley. We wanted to go to the Wakhan so the following morning, P plus H (from Japan) and I set off for a place called Langar – though first we had to waste some time in a parking lot doing some taxi wrangling. (Much as I am loving Taj so far, their shared taxi non-system is totally inefficient and just as effing infuriating as everywhere else in the region). We eventually got what we thought was going to be a ride all the way there (retracing the previous day’s journey then continuing for about another 100 km – we planned to stay a couple of nights there) but he dumped us out half way at Ishkashim, where we had to switch to another 4wd, and instead of only us 3 passengers, it now had 9 plus a baby and the driver. We were pretty pissed off as not surprisingly it was very uncomfortable and you can barely see out of the windows to enjoy the view, plus there were numerous stops for every reason you can think of (though no breakdowns!) and several more unfathomable ones. Out here the taxis seem to operate like an outreach/social service facility as it is just so isolated.
The driver’s family ran a homestay, and arriving after dark in the small but spread out village of Langar, we had no other real option but to stay there. Happily the millions of stars in the awe-inspiring Wakhan sky melted away the day’s minor irritations. Not a great photo but you get the idea:
We went looking for the remains of a fort at nearby Ratm (surprisingly not named after the popular rap-metal group..) – we started to walk the 5ish kms but it’s pretty exhausting at that altitude so were happy to accept a lift in these mens’ truck!
Back in Langar we also tried to find the petroglyphs that the village is known for. We gave up after scrambling up a hillside into the cemetery!
Maybe these are petroglyphs?!
Langer is not exactly a commercial metropolis:
Village shrines and the walls of some buildings are decorated with ibex/Marco Polo sheep horns, which dates back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian beliefs in which the horns are a symbol of purity!
Leaving Langar we hoped to stop at some more hot springs – Bibi Fatima – and spend the night there before heading back to Khorog. From the vast array of transport options (err..) we found a man (actually he didn’t look old enough to drive) with a lada to take us.
His friend came along too – I assume for company and mechanical assistance. We stopped to get petrol at a building in another village that it would be generous to call a *filling station* and then we stopped to pick up the driver’s friend’s girlfriend, obviously. When we got to the hot springs they were even better than the last ones with a great in-a-cave setting and a lot of scope for imagining yourself to be in a timotei advert.
Nearby is the Yumchun fortess which is rather more obviously fort like than the Ratm one. Not too shabby:
Super lada boy had agreed to come back the next morning to take us to Khorog, but he sent someone else instead – I guess it was a bit ambitious to ask that much from the barely running motor, but it meant we were in danger of more taxi wrangling with the replacement driver, which none of us were in the mood for. In the end it worked out ok though with only marginally more faff and discomfort than we had anticipated and a small ‘debate’ about the price at the end when he dropped us back to the Pamir lodge 🙂