Monday, May 16, 2011


A slight disaster: the last post I wrote regarding arriving to Dushanbe did not get published properly. Furthermore the drafts were also lost. I have contacted Blogger and will hopefully retrieve the post and put it up again, in the meantime, rather than write it anew I will carry on from where it finished.

Having put in my application for the Kyrgyz visa I had a week to kill before I could set off along the Pamir highway. My destination was the town of Panjikent in the Zerafshan valley and the Fan mountains to the south. The Fan are an outlying spur of the Pamir-Alay range and with peaks reaching up to 'only' 5500m, and as such are a more accessible and amateur-friendly range than the giant Pamirs to the east. Getting to Panjikent required a little backtracking towards Istarafshan, but only crossing one pass, before getting off in the valley hoping to catch some onward transportation along the wild and narrow Zerafshan valley. My onward transport happened to be an old man in his battered Moskvich who picked me up and took me all the way. The road was in a poor state, but at least the views were compensation, with the scenery reminding me of a small version of the Karakorum Highway, with only 200m drops rather than 600m (although, at the end of the day, both are lethal should you try to test them out).

Along with pot-holes and dodgy drivers, herds of sheep are also a natural obstacle to be  negotiated on Tajikistan's roads.

Panjikent is a pleasant, provincial town. The roads are lined with mulberry trees which are now giving up their tasty treasures (and so when I didn't have anything constructive to do I would climb the nearest tree and gorge myself), turtle doves and mynah birds flitting around in pairs, and the dowdy civic centre is still doted with some Socialist Realist murals and a fine statue of Lenin as wellas a more recent one of the Persian poet Rudaki, who was born nearby. Just like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan is trying to create a national identity, often by shanghaiing Persian cultural luminaries and calling them Tajik, despite the concept of a Tajik nation being a relatively new one (akin to Belgians claiming Moliere as their own, despite the idea of Belgium not even exisiting at the time). The town is currently suffering somewhat as its natural communications route is west to Samarkand some 60km away, where many locals have families, however 6 months ago the Uybekistan government unilaterally closed the border, bulldozed the border post, and used the rubble to form a barricade across the road. A fairly unequivocal signal, and one that has hit the local tourism industry hard as many tourists used to come on short breaks from Samarkand. Nevertheless life still goes on and the countryside is filled with people working the fields or viciously pruning the mulberry plantations to provide food for the hungry silkworm caterpillars who have very singular tastes. Apart from a couple of archaeological ruins - one of which pre-dates the pyramids and is one of the most important sites in the region, though to the untrained eye there isn't much to see - there isn't that much to keep you. So armed with some food supplies (chocolate spread, bread, granola bars and dried fruit) and a photo of a basic map of the mountains, hopped onto a bus headed for a mountain village for an adventure.

White mulberries. Ripe, sweet, tasty and free.

Villagers were surprised that I was heading off on my own, and tried to warn me off by listing all the dangerous beasts that I would invariably meet along the way and would eat me. Having heard the same tune numerous times before I headed on past the village and to the upper pastures. A local guy, sporting a lovely broad-brimmed hat and tending his cows invited me over to have some tea with him. Ibrahim was an interesting guy. Despite being stuck half-way up a mountain herding livestock he had worked for the past 8 years in Moscow and had now returned with his nest-egg to build a house and look after his family. He was also, like many Tajiks, very curious about Iran (as I generally go around saying that I am Iranian) which is considered like a big brother nation. I have therefore taken it upon myself to dispel the myth of the benign, friendly leaders that the regime likes to portray abroad and tell all and sundry how much the ordinary people of Iran dislike their rulers. Often people are shocked that someone criticises the regime so openly and vehemently as here in the region such talk can land you in very hot water.

Ibrahim, happy to be herding his 7 cows and 10 sheep in the mountain pastures of Tajikistan.

As I left Ibrahim behind I kept climbing up to a wide bowl, nestled amongst the high, craggy peaks, dotted by small lakes, meltwater streams and juniper trees. Apart from the gurgling water not a sound was to be heard, apart from the odd chirping of a bird. Drinking in the peace and solitude I pitched my tent in a crook formed by the branches of a venerable tree and just stared in awe at this natural ampitheatre as the sun went down turning the mountains to flame.

My camp spot for the night. Perhaps the best place I have ever pitched my tent.

When you're camping there isn't much to do once the sun goes down. You go to bed early and wake up at dawn, and so it was here. Despite not having a map the path ahead was obvious as it led to a pass between the mountains that would lead me to the valley which would eventually lead me to the main road. Unfortunately at the top there was some snow for the last few hundred metres. But I had already come this far that I refused to turn back without seeing for myself whether crossing was possible. To my chagrin I had overestimated my fitness and the slog up the mountain with my backpack and the altitude was hard going and I had to stop frequently to catch my breath, but luckily I compensated with stubbornness. The way was indeed impassable, with snow on the other side, but it was possible to move along the ridge to the next vale where the snow had already melted away and make my way down there. Looking back it has to be one of the most dangerous things I have done as the lack of path, steep slippery slope, and backpack meant that falling was likely (I actually fell several times, but not too seriously), but being alone meant that should anything happen I was in trouble. In the end I made it to the valley floor, but it was mentally exhausting.

From there my route was simple: follow the river until I hit the road to Dushanbe. For almost 40km the rushing water accompanied me inexorably downhill through narrow valleys, pastures, small villages and even smaller fields. I didn't see another hiker the whole time I was there, but there was nevertheless plenty of traffic. The villagers from the lower reaches of the valley were sending their cattle up to the higher, summer pastures where they would spend the next 4 months, so there was a constant stream of people and livestock, all friendly and waving as they passed (well, the people at least, although some of the cows were looking quite pleased too). Onwards I continued, until finally I reached the road, exhausted but happy that I got to spend some time alone with my thoughts and pushing myself physically whilst in such beautiful surroundings. Then I caught a ride back to Dushanbe where I hoped my visa would be waiting for me.

Cows on the move to summer pastures.

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