At Bulunkul we met a cheerful young Swiss couple, Jonas and Alexandra. Environmental engineers working on a hydrology programme, they both spoke a little Tajik and were taking a hitch-hiking holiday through the Pamirs. They squeezed into our room after we had eaten our dinner, and we sat chatting by the stove. There is no vehicle traffic to speak of along the track down to the Highway and they had accepted that they would have to walk the 16kms before any hope of a lift. So they were glad to see us in a 4WD with one and a half seats to spare and the same planned destination – Langar, a little village down in the Wakhan Corridor. When the time came for us to leave Jonas took the middle seat and Alexandra perched on the luggage in the back. The drive was sensational – winding past lakes and high peaks, across the Alichur mountains via the Khargush pass, the highest yet at 4344m. In the whole 6-hour journey we saw one other vehicle, an army patrol truck.
Our route met the Afghan border once more and at one point we stopped to watch a camel caravan passing on the other side. The men paced beside laden camels, the women and old people rode donkeys, and the line wound steadily along the dirt track over low hills. It occurred to us all that this scene can hardly have changed in a thousand years. Jonas ran down to the bank to call out to them. He learned that they were nomad families, carrying with them everything they possessed, and heading to the Afghan bazaar in Ishkashim. Oris was not pleased with this cross-river fraternisation – it’s forbidden by the Tajik authorities in case of spying/smuggling, and a German tourist was recently arrested for it. He spent 10 days in prison, was fined $2000 and expelled from the country. Jonas laughed merrily at this information.
Finally we came to Langar, the first of a chain of tiny whitewashed villages lying along the bank of the Panj river (although for me it will always go by its ancient name of the Oxus), looking across to the vast peaks of the Hindu Kush. The Wakhan Corridor is a thin spur sticking out eastwards from the northern corner of Afghanistan, created by the British in 1893 as a late move in the Great Game to form a barrier between the southernmost extent of the threatening Russian dominions and the mountain passes into British India. At the corridor’s narrowest point it is only 30 kms of mountain wilderness southwards to the Pakistan border – to India as it then was, of course. The river is now the border, with the Tajik police and army patrols on one side and on the other the Afghan men in their pakol hats and women in blue burqas. But this wide valley was once one domain and the people are ethnically identical.
Our room in the tiny guesthouse at Langar had rugs on the walls as well as the floor. Disorientating in the middle of the night. While we were trying to sleep, Alexandra and Jonas were hatching A Plan for their onward journey to Khorog, about 200 kms further along the corridor. They would buy a donkey to carry their minimal luggage, and walk it there. By the time we emerged from our room for breakfast, sneezing and itchy from the dust, they had already sourced and purchased TWO donkeys, for 100 euros apiece. They climbed on to the beasts and urged them to move with polite European slaps and shouts. Neither donkey stirred until Nuraddin, our driver, thrashed their rears with a stick. The large crowd of Langar residents roared with laughter. In the end we had to move on and leave the Swiss to the donkey dilemma. We exchanged email addresses and Alexandra presented me with a Swiss Army penknife, which I am very pleased to have.
For the rest of the drive we chuckled from time to time and wondered how they were getting along, imagining that together with the German cellist (see previous post) they were the oddest representatives of On the Road in Tajikistan. That was until two days later, when we met Gillian from Edinburgh in the Hanis guesthouse in Ishkashim. She was the only other guest and we were exchanging stories over ‘dinner’. It turned out that Gillian had just cycled over the pass and down the Wakhan Corridor, all the remote way we had just come. What’s more, she had done it alone – and this was just the most recent leg of her journey, because she had ridden all the way from Thailand. My jaw fell into my mutton soup, but Gillian was perfectly matter-of-fact. She asked us if we could give her a lift onwards to Khorog, and of course we said we’d be glad to. But by the morning, plans had changed – as they do around here. Gillian had bought herself a ticket on one of the taxi-buses that do the 18-hour journey between Ishkashim and Dushanbe. Her bike was strapped on the roof rack and we waved her off. Perhaps we’ll catch up with her in Dushanbe, from where we’ll all be heading to Uzbekistan.