Sunday, 30 October 2011

A short walk............

Paperwork in order we retraced our steps back down the Wakhan to the valley Raig Jurm. A valley which would give us access to the high mountains of the Hindu Kush on the Afghan/Pakistan border. Our donkey men were waiting for us as planned at the head of the valley. The two men expertly loaded the donkeys (no chance of the loads falling off in the first 10 m like in Tajikistan). Soon we were heading up the dusty trail. We had walked all of about 100 m when the men insisted on carrying our bags. They wrestled James's rucksack off his back, and mine as well, and carried them for the rest of the day.

When I had initially planned the expedition in the Wakhan I had imagined that any valley we chose to explore would be remote and unvisited. I couldn't have been more wrong. As we hiked into Raig Jurm we could see paths, stone shelters, field boundaries and an irrigation system. Although their was no one living in the valley at that time, it was clearly regularly used for grazing and had been farmed. Our donkey men were certainly familiar with the area and lead us to a good spot for lunch.

Our donkeys ready to go

We opened a can of tuna for lunch and stretched out in the sun. Raven's circled overhead. The huge skies of Central Asia stretched north over the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan delineated by the Oxus River which flowed from the Chinese border to the east, whilst the Hindu Kush and Pakistan lay to the south. And out of all the vastness the Raven got a direct hit on me. A brown stain streaked down my T-shirt, a stain so stubborn that it never did come out in the wash and the T-shirt was retired after the expedition.

After lunch we continued on a little further but conscious of the amount of ascent we were doing, and with James feeling a little under the weather, we found a flat grassy spot to camp.

The following morning we had luckily anticipated that the Afghans would be up at 5 am and although we were virtually packed up by 6 am they were still waiting for us to finish so they could load the donkeys. Then we were off at the same blistering pace as the previous day. Up the valley fresh water gushed from the valley side. This was not like any spring I had ever seen before, it was like a river exploding from the side of the valley; a torrent of white foaming water. Above this we crossed to the other side of the valley and the men pushed the donkeys up a steep moraine to a sheltered spot above the river. They sat down to wait for us and would have gone further if we had wanted but this was a perfect spot for a base camp so we unloaded the donkeys, paid the men and were left in the silence of the Afghan Hindu Kush.

Heading up the Raig Jurm into the Hindu Kush.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Wakhan Corridor

Jumping into the back of the car with Adab and our driver we realised that there was a fifth person in the car. Peering over our shoulders from the boot of the vehicle was a toothless old man. By the time we set off we had also been joined by a soldier. Half an hour out of town we dropped the soldier at a check point and not much further along, the old man in a village. The road resembled a track at best and was non-existent at worst. Crossing the rivers, which were in full spate, was extremely tricky. Our drive would driver up and down the river side trying to select a suitable spot. Adab would get out testing the depth of the water and then we would gun it across from one island of safety to the next. However our luck ran out on the final crossing and we got completely stuck. Adab, James and I waded into the icy, knee-deep water and tried our best to push it out but to no avail. We needed reinforcements. The driver walked to the nearest village and returned with 6 men who, like men the world over, were enjoying the air of a minor crisis and generally feeling needed. With 9 men, 4 shovels and 2 larges poles for leverage, after half an hour of work the car was released from the muddy grips of the river. I took the photos.

Guess who the driver is? and notice that James is watching helpfully!

After we had bailed out the foot wells, and acquired a few more people who needed a lift, we were on our way again as the light was fading. The ever thinking Adab made a quick stop at the little village of Piggush to arrange for donkeys to be taken to the valley head whilst we got the final bit of paperwork stamped in Khandud the following morning.

Locals observing the fun.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Ishkashim - gateway to the Wakhan Corridor

In Ishkashim we met a young Afghan who had set up a tour company. Born in Ishkashim but a product of Afghanistan's turmoil over the last 30 years, Adab had always been on the move in his 22 years, to Kabul and Pakistan, where ever it was safe and his father could find work. Now he had returned to Ishkashim to set up a business. Although he had not been educated beyond school level his intellect and innovation were comparable with any Oxbridge graduate. He had this incredible ability to understand what we as tourists wanted, with Adab all the battles we had had over the past couple of months with logistics etc were over. We paid him to help us organise all the permits which we required to head into the Wakhan Corridor. He whisked us around the Governors office, border police and local police departments collecting letters, stamps and permissions. He had organised a car for us to leave that afternoon and had made the decision to join us to help us find pack animals and get the final permission we needed in Khandud.

Heading east out of Ishkashim, there was a distinct feeling of autumn in the air. The barley in the fields had turned golden and people were preparing for the harvest. The Wakhan Corridor has long been pivotal in history. Marco Polo recovered from Malaria here in the13th Century; it was a key Silk Road route. More recently Great Game encounters between the British and the Russians had been played out here, resulting the in the obscure pan-handle addition to Afghan territories, which was designed to be a buffer between the British Indian empire and the Soviet Union. It certain feels that there has been a long history of habitation here, unlike in the Eastern Pamirs. The people are also unique. In the Lower Wakhan the Wakhi people are Ismaili Muslims and the women do not cover their faces and traditionally wear rich red clothing and shawls.

James and barley fields

Me in the market

Wakhi woman in traditional dress

Invited in for tea. Local family in their home

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Across the Oxus

With two weeks of camping food bought in Khorog bazaar we headed south along the Oxus. We drove south, in a taxi, for about 10 minutes until we realised that we had forgotten all our money, having left it by accident at our homestay with the remainder of our belongs which we wouldn't need during the next 3 weeks. The now bad tempered taxi driver sped back and we collected several bundles of 50 dollar notes. We were heading to a place without a bank, post office or electricity beyond what generators could supply - so we really needed that cash.

We had got our visas in London within a week and without too much trouble. There wasn't a queue at the embassy for tourist visas. Afghanistan is not top on most people's holiday destination list.

The drive south follows the Oxus which acts as the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in this region. For 3 hours we gazed across the river, which looked wadable in parts, at a place where time had stood still for centuries. There were no vehicles on the other side of the river only men walking with donkeys and women in burqas. Half of Tajikistan's GDP (which is the equivalent of the average Hollywood film budget) is spent on security along its long border with Afghanistan and we passed several Tajik patrols on our drive.

 Afghan/Tajik border post - looking into Afghanistan

The border crossing at Ishkashim is simply made up of the Tajik and Afghan border posts either side of a small bridge. Entering the other side was like stepping out of Central Asia into a different world. A world a lot more Afghan than we were expecting. All of a sudden we were in a world of bearded men wearing shalwar kameez, turbans and women in blue burqas. Now  no one spoke Russian but a surprising amount of people knew some English. Empty shells of Russian armoured personnel carriers lay rusting around town and many people carried small arms. But with a smile and a 'A-salaam Aleykum' we quickly turned the cold stares into warm smiles. The women only seemed to wear their burqas when walking down the one dusty street which was the centre of town. Away from this road the face veil would be pushed up and the burqa balanced to cover only the head.

Typical scene in Ishkashim

We had prearranged being picked up from the border as it was a bit of a walk into town. Two young Afghans came to meet us; Adab who would become very usual indeed and the driver of the car, who was also a guide. He became very excited when we told him that we were English explaining that he had just guided an English man on a trek, his name was Mr John and did we know him? We did happen to meet Mr John later in Ishkashim and managed a brief chat where we did establish that we were in fact from the same home town.

 Dinner at our homestay

 James with a local man and his motorbike

 James meets the locals

 New and old modes of transport in Ishkashim - a donkey tethered to a Russian Armoured Personnel Carrier

Khorog, the Pamirs

Khorog is now a sleepy town in the Pamirs, however this was not the case just over a decade ago. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, civil war broke out in Tajikistan in May 1992. The Pamirs, including Murghab and Khorog, underrepresented in the government, began protests which spilled over into violence and civil war. The Pamirs were cut off from Dushanbe. Khorog ran out of money and was reduced to barter. The town park was dug up to grow vegetables and the population was kept alive by donations from the Agha Khan Foundation. In Dushanbe, anyone found with an ID card from the Pamirs could be shot on the spot. The war ended in 1997 claiming somewhere in the region of 50,000 to 100,000 lives, a huge toll for a country with a population of 6 million.

There is no evidence of the civil war today but in these remote parts of the world commerce is difficult and Khorog today only flourishes due to the massive investment from the Agha Khan Foundation who have restored the park - complete with concert venue, and built and funded an entire university, amongst other things. Although President Rahmon's face is on posters all around town, it it the Agha Khan's picture who adorns family homes and the dashboards of taxis.

The town is incredibly laid back, to the point that it gets frustrating when, for example, you wait in a cafe to be served and then just give up and leave. Being Ismaili Muslims, Islam is interpreted in its most liberal form, women wear long, colourful dresses with short sleeves and may only sometimes wear a headscarf. The dresses are pretty unique reaching almost the ankles and looking more like nighties. The ankles are then concealed with a matching pair of trousers. The most fashionable women wear big shoulder pads and traditional women go in for big eyebrows, pencilling in thick black brows which can meet in the middle, making a striking mono-brow. The tranquillity and liberal atmosphere of Khorog is all the more astonishing considering that it sits on the Afghan border. Across the Oxus river women are wearing blue burqas.

We stayed in Lalmo's Homestay when in Khorog and sampled her excellent cooking as well as watching the various travellers coming and going. The main traffic was, of course, cyclists who were generally recouping from some sort of gut rot. There were also motor bikers, one of which was a Parsian women who, when not biking around the world, testing bikes for Honda and writing a blog for a motorbike magazine was a theatre costume designer. There was also Constance and Joff who would have looked more at home at Cowes but, despite appearances, Constance worked for the British Museum and had just curated the 'Treasures of Afghanistan' exhibition. Finally there was Alex, another Brit, who was partially sighted having been injured in Iraq, but now studying for a PhD in Material Anthropology at Cambridge and had just walked the Tajik Wakhan valley alone.

Eating was one of our priorities and a particular favourite restaurant close to our homestay was called Varka. It was wonderfully Russian with an interior like a strip joint, complete with dark red velvet furnishings and very low lighting. The menu included mains called Perfume of Love and Varka Surprise. Obviously, we couldn't resist ordering this and just about managed to keep a straight face. We can report that both of these dishes are very good and can recommend them.

After recouping from mountaineering in the Pamirs it was time to prepare for our next mountaineering trip further south. We bought 2 weeks worth of food in the market and repacked our rucksacks.

 Khorog's leafy park


 Steak delivery Hysteria Lane HQ

When heading into the mountains it is always a good idea to tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. We had tried to do this at a local NGO office in Murghab but after having to correct them over several days it was evident that they were completely useless. So, as the generator was spluttering at the end of the day, we fired off an email to our parents.

After 3 days of shuttling kit back over the pass we waited for the donkey-men to arrive to help us get the kit back to the road - with our fingers crossed. Amazingly, a donkey did arrive but only one, and was even 7 minutes early. We rearranged the kit for one donkey and carried large packs back to the Pamir Highway. Late afternoon, back at the yurt, our donkey-man was to drive us back to Murghab (probably the reason he had brought the donkey up the valley to collect us). He required a break to eat before driving us - for an hour and a half - and then announced that we needed to take a detour to pick someone up on the way. When we complained about this he said that his friend needed to get to Murghab as his grandmother was in hospital there, we didn't believe him but couldn't say no. For half an hour we bumped down a dirty track to a remote yurt to find out that the person had already left and then bumped back to the Pamir Highway. Continuing over the high pass it started to snow. This became a problem as the windscreen wipers on the ancient Uza we were travelling in didn't work. We crawled along at 10 mph with the driver trying to make out the road. Just after dark we arrived in Murghab relieved to be back to civilisation of sorts.

My priority was to let our parents know that we were back but that evening the phone wouldn't charge through the mains, so I got up early the following morning to put the solar panel out and got one bar of charge on the phone to fire off texts to James's and my parents and Mark also texted his Mum. Despite it being 4 am in the UK, Mark immediately got a text back from his Mum, before the phone ran out of power again. James managed to find a jeep to take us west to Khorog and we loaded our kit onto the roof and hit the road. 

Meanwhile, completely unbeknown to us, our parents had misinterpreted our sloppily worded email. Instead of needing to worry at the end of the 18th they had interpreted it to mean that they needed to press the panic button at 00:01 on the 18th. Hysteria Lane HQ therefore went into full panic stations with Acute Hysterics (my Mum) and Chronic Hysterics (James's Mum) at the helm, as well as contributions from Trainee Hysterics (my brother). Voice of Reason (my Dad), it appears, had been completely overruled.

When we arrived in Khorog that evening I thought I ought to get in contact by email too. All bases covered we headed out for a beer.

The following day, after picking up a new phone charger in the market and charging my phone, I had a rather curious text. It was from the embassy in Dushanbe asking me to contact them immediately. I phoned them straight away to have a very confusing conversation. It transpired that Hysteria Lane HQ had not received any of the texts and had raised the alarm with every agency they could get a number for, instead of trying to contact us. A helicopter had been scrambled and the hysteria didn't subside until it was reported that 2 men and a woman had been spotted safely in the valley - Hysteria Lane HQ stood down. Expect the reported people could not have possibly been us as we were on the road heading to Khorog at the time. They must have mistaken the 3 burly Tajik geologists and their dog, who had also been camping in the same valley, for us. Hopefully the fee for the helicopter paid by our insurance company will go towards eye tests for the crew!