We have been in Bulunkul, a tiny village in the western Pamir region of Tajikistan. Tajikistan is a poor country and the mountainous Pamir its least-developed area. Bulunkul itself is remote even by Pamiri standards – it lies a long 16 kilometres of dirt road off the Pamir Highway, and if ‘Highway’ sounds like something with four lanes and tarmac, then re-imagine. It’s a rocky track winding over 4000m passes, the dusty surface constantly pounded by the heavy trucks bringing cheap Chinese goods into the Tajik bazaars.
We arrived late in the afternoon, to find the sky veiled with smoke from the chimneys of low white houses and the children bringing in their flocks of goats for the night. The village lies at one end of a small chain of surreally turquoise lakes surrounded by bare mountains with snowy summits. The lakes were stocked with trout by the Soviets and the villagers survive by fishing and herding.There are only thirty-five families in Bulunkul – in a way it’s surprising that there are as many – and in this subsistence world everyone helps each other. Everything is communally owned and decisions are made by a committee of elders. Like a parish council with real clout, I suppose.
Some of the householders take in occasional tourist visitors (there can’t be many) for $15 per night, including food. We had a sparse little room with two padded mats laid on the floor in front of a stove made of old lorry-sides, which our cheery host stoked up with cakes of fuel made from dried yak dung. It was cold outside, but the room was soon cosy. We sat cross-legged on the floor to eat a plate of boiled buckwheat spiked with some shards of onion, and drank cups of green tea. The next night there was richer fare because a yak was butchered, and we ate a tasty stew of its offal. The village cats delicately gnawed the last shreds of meat off the hide, and the next morning all that remained of the beast was its four trotters laid out in the middle of the village.
I had one of those nights that required a series of nocturnal visits to the tin shed latrine, quite an inconvenient distance away in a temperature of minus 10, but as I shuffled through the thick, soft dust I was tempted to linger and wonder at the stars. No gentle twinkle here. They were puffs and twirls and hard points of steely brilliance and the blackness between them was so dense it seemed to bulge like buttoned black leather.
We spent our days walking. With a pair of young Swiss hydrologists (more about them in the next post) I tried and failed to climb a modest 5700m peak overlooking the far end of the lake. Even from the viewpoint I did manage to gain, the view of lakes reflecting bare mountains was worth every panting step in the thin air.
I won’t forget Bulunkul in a hurry, or the grace and hospitality of its inhabitants.