Thursday, 20 October 2011

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

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