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Hidden Gems: Tajikistan's Pamirs & Wakhan Corridor
For the sake of not hating myself, using the rest of my time in the country wisely, and going where few people ever venture I set off, down from Dushanbe and into the Pamirs. To start, I took a plane from Dushanbe into Khorog, a border town of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It was suggested by my guide, Teo, to get out of Khorog as quickly as possible to maximize the short amount of time (4 days) I would have, as there was a still a large distance to cover and drive-time (provided there was a vehicle headed that way) would suck up a large portion. And with that we hit the road from Khorog and headed down to Ishkashim, also a border town. The drive, approximately two-hours on a bumpy mountain road, snakes its way along the Panj River which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. For the duration of the ride I stared to my right at Afghanistan in complete awe. The northern border which you could throw rocks at and easily hit the land at points was gorgeous, quiet, undisturbed and felt like one of the most peaceful places on the entire world. It was at this point I realized why a trip thru and down Tajikistan's Pamirs is a Hidden Gem and I started snapping an incredibly absurd amount of pictures.
These were the homes across the river in Afghanistan. It was difficult to photograph much of Tajikistan during the drive into Ishkashim because we were driving along the mountainside. As anyone would might feel on this drive I was ignited and happy to be exploring what's considered one of the world's most dangerous countries even if it were by car and across the border.
There were numerous homes like this across the way, but I saved both my energy and my camera's battery life for what I was told would truly blow me away and the closer we edged and winded our way into Ishkashim, the Pamirs and Tajikistan's portion of the Wakhan Corridor, I was indeed blown away.
Thankfully, it wasn't by these soldiers or their guns. Around these parts you need a special permit to travel which should be obtained in Dushanbe and there are many passport checkpoints along the way. These guys were sitting at a tiny desk with a notebook which they scrawled who knows what information off our passports and kindly had their picture taken with us. I think they bored or wanted to show off their guns, which were a bit frightening by the way, but nice guys.
As we continued down the road different views and secrets started to reveal themselves. Above is a shot of the Panj river dividing the two countries, Tajikistan and Afghanistan along with a view of the Hindu Kush found in Pakistan. Seeing the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush was also impressive and I knew would continue to become more real as we inched closer along. At this point we weren't far from Ishkashim, but considering it wasn't our final stop for the evening we still had some distance to cover. Once we arrived my guide, Teo negotiated with a gentleman (I think he may have known from a previous trip) for a ride into Vrang, a village in the Wakhan. The driver agreed and told us he would get us to Vrang in good time as he had to turn right back for a wedding. Even speeding along he was nice enough to make stops at points of interest so we could take photos.
Above the hill there was a fort which was manned by two men from what I could tell and so I opted to take a shot of the road from which we'd driven. The sun was still high, but wouldn't be for long. When we left the fort we later stopped at a shrine for which I haven't the name and sincerely apologize. It was explained to my by my guide Teo that there is little written history on the Pamirs and their people, but the further you go and the more you speak with them you learn of all these fascinating and far out tales on deities, supernatural like things, the Aga Khan, and even the high-times when Communism was in place. It was hard separating what was true from what could possibly be considered false, but the Pamiris also known as Ismaili's were quite serious with their stories and far-fetched sounding tales. Who was I to question their beliefs? Without knowledge of the language I could not tell you the exact words from any one man, woman or child I crossed paths with, but will recount to the best of my ability that of what my guide could translate to me.
Upon entering this shrine a local elderly gent appeared with and more than willingly told us the story of this place. My translator and guide followed as best he could, but even he got lost in the man's tale. Whether it was the language (there are several different languages used throughout the Pamirs) or just odd points that he couldn't piece together I'm not certain, but what I am certain is this: this shrine like most reflects the Prophet Muhammad and his family members including Fatima. Every Pamiri home and most structures or shrines have pillars or something to reflect the five pillars of Islam. This all gets confusing for me and requires extensive research, but allow me to continue with the few things this Tajik fellow managed to say.
For instance these ram's horns are Muhammad and there was a time that when you blow on the horns the soldiers would come. We couldn't understand whether the man was saying past or present, but it seemed really bizarre.
When we took off from the shrine we really took off. There were little scenic stops other my guide needing to deliver some photos to families from previous trips, but that was about it. We arrived at a home where we would be taken in by one of the nicest families on the planet. With a goodnight's rest we planned to set off again in the morning. This time we would go up the mountain on a 2-3 hours hike.
On day two when we woke my guide managed to deliver all that he had promised including some really intense unexpected mountain hiking. Sure he'd warned me to fill up as I'd need as much fuel for the mountain hike, but it was far more difficult than I imagined. Our first stop up the mountain was at this Buddhist stupa. Little history is recorded on the stupa, but it is surrounded by caves that served as cells for the monks. Atop of the stupa rests a stone which if you ask anyone from the village about they'll tell you almost immediately that it has the footprint of Buddha on the stone.
Further up the mountain there are small forts which see very few tourists and which very few tourists see because of the difficulty of the climb. While the air quality was amazing the climb in altitude was a slight challenge for me and I had to stop for short breaks more than I thought I would. As you could imagine I was thrilled to make it to points of interest like this years and years old signal fort. Ashes some thousands of years old can still be found around the fort I believe. In any case this made for a good break and photo opportunity.
After the signal fort we climbed some more to this old ancient fort. With the stunning views behind the fort of the valley it was clear on why any man would build a post at this particular part of the mountain.
My guide Teo, who has the eye sight of a hawk, spotted these folks coming back with their sheep, donkey, and cows from a recent few days trip when they take the cattle to feed and what have you. He suggested we meet them along the way. I was pretty timid considering the teeny-tiny path you have to take to reach them and I wasn't the most trusting of the mountain terrain. Hey, I'm from Florida, but without much tooth-pulling I took off along the path. I was hoping to make new friends and surely I did.
The mountain men joked as they watched me clumsily walk carefully along the path. They said if I could ride a donkey I could get out much faster, but I think sitting atop of a donkey would have freaked me out more though it was a rather charming little guy.
Which one of these doesn't belong?
Almost everyone you meet along the way will happily invite you to their place for tea and other Tajik delights and while you shouldn't refuse the invitation or chance to check out a Pamiri home it gets tough when you have two, three, or four families asking you over. Whatever the case you should at least accept one offer. I had the chance to stay at two. One in Vrang and the other in Yamchun.
On our third day before we had to take off later that day my guide and I went up to the Bibi Fatima mineral hot springs. I was told it would be sinning not to go and naturally I did not wish to sin so I followed along once more. The full name is the Ostoni Bibi Fotimai Zakhro hot spring which literally means 'holy site of the sleeves of Bibi Fatima.' The story behind the hot springs is that it is believed to improve female fertility. After finding this out, I then knew why it was such a big deal (especially if your a woman) to make a trip to the hot springs. To sum my trip to Bibi Fatima up it was here I think I found heaven on Earth. Having taken bird baths over the last couple of days and with sore muscles from my mountain climbs the hot water splashing down from the falls in the cave felt like a dreamland. I only wished I could have stayed there forever. Will it increase my fertility or any other visitor for that matter? Who knows, but it certainly felt great!
While I haven't any photos from the hot springs interior I leave you with these shots of signs from Yamchun and one of the Bibi Fatima exterior. From here I began my departure away from Yamchun, Vrang and the Wakhan Corridor to return to Khorog where there were some hidden gems as well. Overall, the Wakhan has too many hidden gems to name and so much history that it makes writing about them very difficult. My only hope: should this be a desired travel destination for someone that it has helped in terms of what to do and if it wasn't that it has inspired you to go. Stay tuned for more.
Getting to Tajikistan can be difficult depending on your schedule and flight plan. I went from Tampa-JFK-Istanbul-Dushanbe, on Delta then Turkish Air (approx. $1,900 USD) which I highly suggest flying Turkish Air into the country rather than Tajik Air which has can be fickle at times. However, Tajik Air flies through Munich, Moscow and St. Petersburg to name a few international cities of interest. Check their website for flight times and departure cities. Once in Tajikistan you can either fly into Khorog ($60 USD) to start your Pamir journey or you can take the 15-18 hour drive from Dushanbe down ($30 USD). I went by flight down with Tajik Air and drove back up. The ride is bumpy, long and filled with terrifying close calls with the mountain edge. If you can stomach it or on a tight budget go for the drive.
When planning a trip down to the Pamirs more than money you'll need time. You can get by on $30 USD for 10 days according to my guide if you have the time. Most of the cost goes towards transportation and accommodation is typically provided by a friendly stranger or two along your path. For more detailed information on visiting Pamirs I suggest heading to this Pamirs website first. They've got tons of background details, panorama photos of the region, as well as this page of links to help you in your travel planning. Lonely Planet has only a wee-bit of information, but you may find a nugget of useful information somewhere. The Great Game Travel Company has great information and can provide you with a guide as well. I'm told their schedules are pretty strict and it might be better to go with a local should you speak some Tajik or Russian.
(All photos taken by Adrienne Wilson unless pictured in them where they were then taken by my guide Teo Kaye or a villager who had some decent photo skills.)