The best bit of the whole Tajikistan visit was the drive from Langar village to Ishkashim, the point where the Wakhan valley narrows to a rocky gorge. All along the valley, through quiet villages and gentle apple orchards, the wild Hindu Kush reared across the river. Any one of these peaks would be a significant mountain in Europe, yet here there are dozens of them. I stared out of the car window for hours, entranced.
Ishkashim itself is a border village with a frontier feel. Here is one of the two bridges that allows non-Tajik or Afghan nationals to cross between the two countries, so there is a trickle of coming and going and a faint air of tension heightened by the presence of the military. There is a strict prohibition on non-residents going anywhere near the river bank unless heading for the border crossing, and photography is frowned upon. An Afghan market takes place on a no-man’s-land island in the middle of the river, for which no visa is necessary, but only on Saturdays – unfortunately we arrived on Sunday. We did have a mooch around town before leaving, and we spotted one of the big Chinese trucks from the Pamir Highway discreetly parked in a side alley. Case after case of Russian vodka was being offloaded. Someone told us that this is sold under the counter at the Saturday market – the Afghans love it, but it’s very expensive for them. They can’t pay cash for it, and no one actually mentioned what currency they do use. I could hazard a guess, though.
The President also visited Ishkashim on his recent tour. There is evidence in a brand new strip of asphalt laid through the village centre, and some new turf and dwarf conifers already fading for lack of water. One of the locals told us a good story. The President made his way to a potato field on the village outskirts, where the television crews filmed him and the smiling peasantry together digging up the wonderful crop of big potatoes. Unfortunately the rather small potatoes from these fields had been harvested a month ago, so the asphalt- and turf-laying teams simply buried a few rows of spectacular spuds so they could be lifted to full advantage. Our guide asked if the village at least got to keep the bags of potatoes once the tv crews were done. Not at all, he was told. They were bagged up again and driven to the next village so the process could be repeated.
This is a standard-issue Central Asian kleptocracy, but it’s quite hard to believe what goes on until you actually see and hear it. The traffic police, for example. They stop motorists on a random basis and policeman and driver exchange a brotherly handshake in which a 3-somoni note changes hands. Time after time. We asked about this and were told that the policeman has to rent his radar equipment – without which he can’t do his job – for $100 a day, from his superior officer. So he needs to stop quite a lot of motorists, at a rate of 4.8 somoni to the dollar.
Tomorrow morning early we leave for the border crossing into Uzbekistan, and from there onwards to Termez and Bokhara. Probably just as well….