Through the Tajik Wakhan valley to Kyrgyzstan

The Wakhan valley

Most of the south-eastern border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is referred to as the Wakhan valley after the Wakhan corridor, a narrow strip of Afghan territory that was created by the British empire at the end of the 19th century as a buffer zone to the Russian empire during the Great Game. Located between two very high mountain ranges, the southern Pamirs and the Hindu Kush, the Wakhan valley is difficult to access, but offers unique landscape paired with welcoming and hospitable people.
The group of four teachers I joined in Bachor to get to Khorugh, the regional capital and biggest town in Pamir, was excellent company and would be a perfect match for a trip through the Wakhan valley. However, they were undecided to where to go to from Khorugh. As hitch-hiking in this remote region is a gamble and my return flight from Bishkek was booked, I tried to find other travellers to share a car with for the further journey. Finally, the four, namely Caroline, Dave, Susan and Nathan, decided to join me in the Wakhan valley. Aided by the local tourist information in Khorugh (I was surprised that it really existed), we quickly found Vazir, who knew our planned route and had a Landcruiser that was in surprisingly good shape. Fortunately, deciding on the route was not an issue as we had similar interests and schedule. Apparently, this isn’t always the case as we were told by Jakob, a funny doctor from Leipzig, who we met in one of the homestays. On the route from Osh in Kyrgyzstan he shared a car with a Swiss couple who wasn’t used to the idea of compromise and had a deficiency in arithmetic. I was speechless when he told us that they eventually pushed him out of the car in the middle of nowhere after a row over the payment for the car. Jakob joined us for one day and we enjoyed many more of his adventurous stories.

The busy market of Khorugh, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan region. The region comprises the whole Eastern Tajikistan including the Pamir

Every inch of the market space is valuable. This hallway doubles as a restaurant and their food looked good!

The lady sat down on a free seat next to me to have her lunch and smiled beautifully when I asked to take a photo of her

Fresh Pamiri bread


On the way to Ishkashhim, Afghanistan left and Tajikistan on the right side of river Panj

Idyllic Afghanistan

Nathan and I conquered Yamchun fortress which offers amazing views of the Hindu Kush range

Cars of all sizes suffer under the bad roads in the Wakhan valley 😉

Yamg Wakhani museum is dedicated to the life of Sufi mystic, astronomer and musician Mubarak Kadam Wakhani and local culture. Among many other instruments, Wakhani invented this 20-string guitar

I admired the Hindu Kush range mouth agape for hours. In the background the 6848m high Kohe Hevad.

A site with paleolithic rock carvings near Langar, flawed by so many modern rock carvings that it is hard to tell what is historic and what isn’t

Perhaps this is the real thing?


Our fantastic host family in Zong, who served us some of the best food in the Wakhan valley

The soup was made of potatoes and herbs freshly picked in the field in front of the house

The strategic location of the Yamchun fortress allowed for control of the Wakhan valley (and currently offered great views)

The confluence of Pamir (left) and Wakhan (middle) river forming the Panj river (right)

A few Afghan houses with the „Higher Pamir“ mountain range in the background

A morning over lake Zarojkul

Who would not like to live here?

On the way to the Pik Engels meadows I could enjoy nice views of the Hindu Kush range

Susan, Nathan and I resting on the meadows with Pik Engels covered in clouds in the background

The sky cleared up briefly during the night

The only local person I saw on a bike on a route that is famous among foreign cyclist

A Kyrgyz family braves the elements in the barren plain around Zarojkul

After all my stories of hospitality of the local population it should not come as a surprise that we were invited to their yurt : ) Unfortunately, we had to continue our journey to reach our goal for the day that was still several hours ahead

Yaks have perfectly adapted to the harsh weather of Central Asia

Two Bactrian camels on the Afghan side of the river Pamir

Two curios Kyrgyz boys posing for a photo

Our campsite at Zarojkul lake

Dinner time 🙂

Murghab, the only town in Eastern Pamirs, has roughly 4000 inhabitants, no power, an average annual temperature of -3.9°C and uses Kyrgyz time (Tajik time +1)

Apart from breathtaking views, the Wakhan valley offers plenty of historic sites that show its significance as part of the ancient silk road. We visited several fortresses, but hot springs, a museum of a local Sufi mystic, astronomer and musician, bronze age rock carvings and even a Buddhist Stupa can also be found on the way. After two days of driving, we stretched our legs with a trek to meadows of the Engels peak near the village of Langar. The 6510m high mountain, named after the philosopher and communist Friedrich Engels, towers over lush green meadows. The meadows, on the altitude of 4000m, are nothing less than a perfect camping spot. Unfortunately, struggling with backache, Dave and his wife, Caroline, couldn’t join us for the hike and instead tested the local hot spring. On the hike, we met a group of Swiss tourists who did a organised round trip through Tajikistan and were heading to the meadows with a guide, cook and donkey handlers. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I recognised their guide. It was the same weird Russian guy I met in the Fann mountains. Upon return from the trip, the local hot spring (which was used as bathhouse) offered a very welcomed refreshment for our sweaty bodies. In the afternoon, we continued to drive along the river Panj to the East until we reached lake Zorkul, where we pitched our tents. Due to its harsh climate, the region is almost uninhabited, with the exception of a few Kyrgyz nomads braving the elements. Without the acclimatisation we gained during the hike to the Engels peak meadows, Dave had a lousy night at an elevation of 4200m and wasn’t feeling well that morning. We quickly continued over the high altitude plain towards the valleys that eventually lead to Murghab, the only town in Eastern Tajikistan at an elevation of 3600m. Unfortunately, from there Susan and Nathan had to return to Dushanbe to catch their flights to the UK.

From Murghab to Osh and Kyzyl-Oi

The Alai mountain range

The Pamir highway leads up to the 4655m high Ak-Baital pass that is also the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

Pik Lenin (7134m) was hidden in the clouds when I reached the yurt camp and only the 4825m high Pik Petrovsky was visible before the rain set in

Sary Tash has a unique setting near the Alai mountain range, but has little else to offer, unless you are looking for a petrol station or food that is edible, but not much more than that

The museum at the foot of the famous Sulayman mountain in Osh

Breakfast preparations in Osh

It certainly did not look as though much had changed since the end of the Soviet times

One of the many yurts along the road

A shrine along the way to Kyzyl-Oi

Kyzyl-Oi had some beautiful old houses

The Kyrgyz way to store hay

The graveyard of Kyzyl-Oi

I was very surprised to see these elaborate and impressive graves in Kyrgyzstan. First of all, graves didn’t play a big role in the other Muslim countries I visited so far. I was told that the main purpose of a grave is to enable the soul of the deceased to rise to heaven, but it does not play a spiritual role thereafter. Contrary to Christian culture, Muslims do not frequently visit graves of their loved ones to pray for the deceased or to be closer to them. Hence, graves are often nothing more than two stones which often even don’t have a name on them. I thought that the nomad Kyrgyz people would not focus on graves either. May be it’s a tradition inherited from the Russians during the Soviet era?

As Caroline and Dave were heading to Bishkek too, we shared another 4WD for the Pamir highway to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Our ambitious driver was literally flying over potholes of the battered road. Many cyclists were fighting the elements on the Pamir highway and they were rewarded with astonishing moon-like scenery. The Tajik border post on the 4336m high Kizil Art pass is one of the unforgettable borders. The ramshackle container buildings from Soviet times located in the middle of nowhere are probably not the favourite duty station of Tajik soldiers 😉  As several people told me about a memorable view of Pik Lenin from a yurt camp just 40 km away from the road to Osh, I decided to head that way. In Sary Tash I hopped off the 4WD. Luckily, the third car driving westwards picked me up. For the last 10km I shared a Soviet UAZ 4WD with a girl who wasn’t keen on cycling on the rough gravel road to the yurt camp. Unluckily, after three weeks of continuous sunshine in Tajikistan, the weather north of the Pamirs scotched my plan to admire the glaciers of the 7134m high Pik Lenin. After it rained all night and through the morning and the forecast for the next days was less than promising, I shared the UAZ to the main road from where I hitch hiked back to Sary Tash and finally to Osh. Dave and Caroline, who were still in Osh, were heading to a traditional horse game festival in the village of Kyzyl-Oi, almost on the way to Bishkek. I didn’t think twice about joining them as it was probably the best option to spend my remaining days in Kyrgyzstan and get an idea about the people and culture. What I learned during those few days was that the traditional Kyrgyz life revolves around horses and yurts. Along the road plenty of yurts were offered for rent, mostly for locals who spend their life in cities, but need a nomad style retreat from time to time.

Organised by the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association, the festival in Kyzyl-Oi was no secret among tourists and we were lucky to get one of the last rooms at the far end of the village. It soon turned out that this was not a traditional festival, but rather an event organised for tourists. Different stages of yurt construction were shown among other staged elements of Kyrgyz culture such as dancing and singing. All in all, definitely not my cup of tea. Generally speaking, tourism in Kyrgyzstan seemed much more developed and organised than in Tajikistan, making things easier to plan and arrange, however, at the price of authenticity and real contact with the people. Nevertheless, the horse riding games at the end of the festival were worth waiting for. Kyrgyz men demonstrated their astonishing horse riding skills in Kokboru or Ulak Tartysh (literally „goat pulling“) and Er Enish (horseback wrestling). With the ride to Bishkek, from where I took a plane to Germany, my trip came to an end for the moment. But don’t be surprised if another article about Sudan pops out 😉

Yurts were erected only for the festival as the people of Kyzyl-Oi live in houses today

The villagers presented their best clothes during the festival

In contrast to the Mongolian yurt, the Kyrgyz one doesn’t have columns for support

The aim of Kokboru is to carry a carcass of a goat into the goal of the opponent team. For a reason, the referee watches the game from a safe distance

One contestant picking the goat’s carcass from the ground

…and tries to escape to the goal of the other team

Balancing on a galopping horse with a goat in one hand isn’t easy 😉

…so he finally puts it on the horseback

Infight

A contestant is trying to steal the goat on the run

…but he paid a price for that. Defintely not a game for sissies!

One picked the goat from the ground

…but soon he faces strong competition

A fast horse is essential in Kokboru

… and so is a brave rider!

Just missed the goat…

A pretty bold move to get the goat!

The main goal of Er Enish is to take the ribbon tied around the rivals hip

However, pushing the rival off his horse counts as well

There he goes… No worries, he wasn’t injured and back in the saddle within 5 seconds

Besides the opponent you also should watch out for his horse

Another horse riding demonstration: picking up a small bag with coins at full gallop

Another game: a man tries to kiss a fleeing maid on the cheek

…the kiss was successful as you can read on their faces 🙂

On the way to Bishkek I saw the most impressive rainbow I’ve seen so far

Comments ( 3 )

  • Ibuxaaspep

    Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after looking at
    a few of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Regardless,
    I’m definitely happy I came across it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently!

  • Martin Obermueller

    Thomas, der Löwe des Pamir. Sehr schöne, interessante Fotos.

    • thomas

      hehehe, verglichen mit den Einheimischen bin ich aber schon ein Warmduscher 😉

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