Day 5 | Bulunkul (3737m) to Langar (2740m)
Before we left Bulunkul Village I asked Genghis if he could take us to Bulunkul Lake about 2km from us as I’d heard the morning reflections were amazing. The rumour was true, the view was absolute perfection with the colourful mineral hills mirrored in the glassy water. A lone fisherman in a boat floated in the centre of the lake, somehow keeping dead still even with all the irritating mosquitos around. It was probably the best view we’d seen on this trip and little did we know that it was going to be a jam packed day with insane views.
We drove up to a pass of around 4200m where we planned to hike up to 4700m. Even on day five I was struggling with the altitude as we climbed up a steep scoria hill. We reached the wind blown top after two hours and had a pretty incredible view. Two lakes were below us, one blue and one green with mountains piled up behind them. Then in the opposite direction were the Hindu Kush mountains and Afghanistan. Behind the snowy mountains was Pakistan so it was quite a phenomenal sight.
As we got in the car and through yet another check point we were officially in the Wakhan Valley. This route was no longer the Pamir Highway but a branch off which went alongside the Pyanj River and on the other side of that river was Afghanistan. The river was raging and the scenery some of the best we’ve seen. The mountains rose up in sharp points and were caked in snow and glaciers. Sometimes the river was right beside us and other times it’s wild rapids created deep gorges with our road cruising alongside the top so we could peer down at the drop. The road was probably one of the wildest we’ve been on, only really big enough for one car so it involved some skill from Genghis when we passed other cars but he was more interested in squeezing right next to them so he could shake every drivers hand.
Occasionally rivers would flow down the Tajikistan side and our road would do a big U bend into a valley, cross a small bridge covering the river and then along a section with a 200m drop. It was wild, and Afghanistan looked so so beautiful! There wasn’t any civilisation on either side of the border except for the odd mud house and an Afghan man with three camels.
As we reached the days goal of Langar, life sprung into the area and they’d irrigated the place with the river water so it was full of fruit trees and wheat fields swaying in the wind with the golden sun touching the tips. It was the first homestay where we didn’t get a private room, but we were only sharing with one girl from our group so it was fine and it meant Craig couldn’t fart during the night so that was a plus for me.
The host wasn’t very nice at this homestay, generally the locals are all very calm, gracious and sweet, but this lady was intimidating with her confidence. She looked like a witch actually. When I was doing my embroidery she snatched it off me to take a look and passed it to her sister for inspection. But then she got the needle and began stitching on my piece, which I thought was quite cheeky but I embraced it and let her have a fiddle. She’d clearly embroidered before and was doing a stitch I’ve never used, it was with a sort of loop on every stitch. I decided to give them an example of how I do my stitches to create a straight line and the host rudely said “no good” and had such a look of disapproval. When she asked if the drawing I was using as a reference was from the internet she looked even more disgusted with me when I said yes. I didn’t like her at all. I’d read on someone’s blog that one of the homestays in Langar is known for stealing and I was suspicious of her, especially when she asked for the key to our room. I went along too and she got biscuits from under my bed, no idea why on earth they were in our room as appose to in there huge, 200 year old Pamiri home. But maybe I was just being too suspicious. I managed to hand-wash my trousers which were covered in dust and our friend saw the water I was using and questioned if it was cleaner before or after, he had a fair point, the water was from the river and completely grey from the silt.
Day 6 | Langar (2740m) to Ishkashim (2490m)
Happy to leave that homestay, we set off for more beautiful Wakhan Valley views. Genghis stopped for us to see a Buddhist stupa which was more of a pile of rocks than anything else, and involved an extremely steep trail as we went the wrong way and via some caves. The locals in the village were very excited to have their photos taken though. When I aimed my camera up at a lady farming in the fields to ask if it was ok to take a snap she nodded and then pointed down to her sack full of produce on the floor to say “you want me carrying the sack in the photo?” They all loved seeing the photos of themselves, it would be nice to travel with a portable printer to give them a copy.
Everyone in our group was excited about visiting the Bibi Fatima hot springs today. Everyone except me. It was over 30 degrees outside so the idea of sinking into a hot bath sounded very unappealing, it was a great idea when we thought the homestays wouldn’t have showers, but every single one we stayed at had hot showers or a banya style bucket wash.
The springs were set in two buildings right beside a gushing river flowing down a gorge. One building for men and one for women. Clothes were forbidden so it was a bit like our awkward Moroccan hamman all over again. The pool was fairly small and one of the walls was natural rock with spring water trickling through gaps. It was nice for 10 minutes and then I became dizzy and claustrophobic. If there was a cool pool to jump into I’d of loved it but it was just a hot pool in a hot room with no air. I didn’t last long and quickly got out and dressed, with the help of a local lady who insisted on helping me pull my tangled t-shirt down.
Nearby the springs was the 12th century Yamchun Fort which was built in one hell of a location, on a large lonesome rock with views up and down the Wakhan Valley. We stopped for some photos and then continued onto Ishkashim, arriving at 6pm. A delightful family welcomed us into their traditional Pamiri house consisting of a huge central room with a platform around the sides. The ceiling had big wooden beams and a skylark style window in the middle.
We each had our own rooms again, and much to our surprise a lovely clean western toilet. The property had a blooming garden full of fruit trees and we were encouraged to eat as many fresh apricots from the tree as we liked. Cherries, apples and tomatoes were growing in the garden too. We were treated to our best dinner yet, tasty soup, pasta, salad and fresh bread with their homemade apricot and cherry jam from their crops. They were such a hospitable family, every time we showed our appreciation they sweetly held their hand to their chest or belly and gave a little bow, which is a polite gesture here in Tajikistan. We even had a big bowl of chocolates and the three kids helped grandad clear our table and were always poking their heads around the door and saying “chai?” to check we had enough tea.
Day 7 | Ishkashim (2490m) to Khorog (2123m)
Our final day was to be a short one, once at Khorog Genghis was planning to drive back to Kyrgyzstan and the tour was over. So we tried to slow things down and stop at pretty views across to Afghanistan. The area became greener along the river and bigger mud-brick villages were appearing. We stopped and waved at the Afghans across the river, it would have been nice to cross the border but also an expensive trip from what we read. This area is considered safe, the Taliban are 2-3 hours away but the Wakhan is a pretty relaxed area. We heard a funny story that a French guy travelled through Afghanistan and apparently the French government pays for hostages, unlike the UK, so local taxi guys get a cut if they pick up a French person and take them directly to the Taliban who hold them hostage until the country pays. So this French man grew a beard to blend in and didn’t speak at all, pretending he was mute and deaf. Writing on paper to communicate the hotel owner would then tell the taxi man, he’s mute, take him here, and they would never know where he was from. Genius. We also met a guy from the Czech Republic who tried to visit Afghanistan back in 2001. In those days it was illegal to be in the country if you weren’t a Muslim and you would be murdered, so he said. So this man and his friend grew beards and spent 6 months studying the Quran in Turkey and praying in the mosques until they felt like they would blend in like a local. As he was in Pakistan getting ready to cross the border into Afghanistan, news came through about the 9/11 attack and war was imminent, the chap couldn’t enter Afghanistan after all that time practicing to be a fake Muslim.
Anyway, on the way to Khorog we went to another hot spring called Garam Chashma Hot Springs. Locals from the capitol come here for holidays and stay in one of the fancy hotels. The springs were very interesting with calcified deposits trickling over the edge of the pool like the wax from a candle. The men and women had separate times and it was the men’s turn for the big natural pool when we arrived so the ladies were in rooms with water filtering into pools. There was no fresh air or cold pool once again so I gave it a miss and left the others to it.
Khorog was surrounded by sheer mountains rising high above us. In the centre was a pond like pool where all the kids played. We found a homestay which was nice and clean but weirdly our bedroom window looked into the hosts kitchen. Not a problem, but they only had a see-through netted curtain so kinda a problem when I was getting dressed after my shower and the obese grandma was just standing by the window cooking eggs.
Day 8 | Khorog (2123m) to Dushanbe (706m)
We felt like we didn’t need to spend any longer than a day there so we agreed to leave for Dushanbe. Now we were without our jeep we had to get a shared taxi which could take anywhere between 14 and 20 hours. It sounded dreadful. We would normally split that into two days but we were sceptical about how easy it would be to get a jeep from the midway point to the capital. So we said sod it and went for the big trip. We headed to the taxi stand at 8.50 and amazingly by 9am we were on our way. We actually had to drive around the town to a families house where a mum and three kids joined us. Luckily a 16 year old girl travelling in our car spoke fluent English and really took care of us. When we got to a lunch spot her and her mum sat with us and suggested we should stay with them in Dushanbe, sadly we had already arranged a hotel and we actually really needed some alone time after 7 nights of homestays so we had to politely decline. She also showed me where the loos were and insisted I went first. When I came out she didn’t even need to go to the loo, yet she’d queued up with me for a good five minutes next to the smelly toilet. When we ordered tea at the eatery she saw the cups didn’t look clean so she took them all to a fresh water spring and rinsed them for us. Can you imagine a 16 year old treating a tourist like that in England?
There was 13 of us in the car and it felt like a family roadtrip. The four kids were so well behaved, they had nothing to keep themselves entertained yet they never complained. They didn’t even have proper seats and were either on mums lap, between a strangers legs or perched on the edge of a seat. Everyone wanted to give us food, handfuls of sour apples, dough balls and fresh bread were passed to us from the lady in front and the guy next to us insisted we had an energy drink and bubble gum. What lovely people. We felt like we needed to reciprocate and as luck would have it we still had a trio bounty bar leftover from the Pamirs. A piece for each of us so we thought, but when we opened the packet it was a melted mess. We smiled awkwardly with the open packed insisting the guy had a piece but he politely declined, I wonder why? The scenery was still very spectacular on the drive and we went through a wide gorge with insanely high rocky walls around us. As we left the mountains the heat in the car became more intense and our backs were soaked with sweat as the temperature hit nearly 40 degrees. After 13 hours (thank god it didn’t take 20!) we arrived in Dushanbe.