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Reality Bites

His Highness commonly known as "HH" (the Aga Khan)
Finally, I suppose it's time to talk about the weather here. Since arriving in Khorog, we have had just one day of rain... every other day has been filled with startling blue skies and sunshine. But, as the days draw shorter, the sun struggles to show its face over the mountain-tops. Which means that most of the valley sits in the shade until 10am. So, progressively, the edges of the river have started freezing and our daily walk across the wooden suspension bridge is a little more slippery. As Jelte mentioned, two weeks ago we took a trip to Roshan, Darwaz and the Gisev valley. It was pretty cool. This last week, we took a trip to Ishkashim; it was COLD. Both of us are eternally grateful to my sister Paula for guiding us through the necessities of cold weather gear. I know that our thin California blood would not have made it thus far without our thermals and countless other layers. The only items that we have still to get good use out of are our balaclavas and we hope they will continue to languish in the drawer for a few weeks yet.
Bird's Chicken's eye view of one of the 2nd Century BC fortresses; Hindu Kush in the back
Our house is wonderfully warm and welcoming and not just Jelte and I feel that way! On moving in, our landlords, in hospitable Pamiri tradition, welcomed us with a table laden with fruits, biscuits, home-made apricot and cherry jams and a lovely bowl of local walnuts. We slept well that night, apart from a couple of hours at dawn when we could hear scuttling and thumping in the rafters of the house. 'Mice' says Jelte. 'Rats' says Christine. The weekend comes; we play the tourist and return 'home' to find that our bowl of walnuts has been emptied. Funny Tajik hospitality this; if we don't finish our gifts, they are taken back by the host! Next morning I opened the cupboard under the sink to find the walnuts placed in a neat pile beside the garbage pail. Not sure whether we were going senile or whether our landlord (who was still working on a few odd jobs in the house) was trying to tell us something, we replaced the walnuts in the bowl on the kitchen table. The episode was repeated three times before we realized that we were really making stocking up for the winter a marathon job for our resident rat. He will not see another winter, sadly. But these guys find their way in to the shelter of warm homes so the battle will continue. We know that the solution would be to adopt one of the local cats which are always sucking up to you, trying to wheedle their way in to the house but with no means of ensuring they are kept flea free, this is probably a bad idea. 
Cross Border market in Iskashim; from here, you can cross into Afghanistan
Ishkashim is probably the most historically significant town/city in the Pamirs. Back in the 3rd century AD, when the Silk Route was the only throughput between the 'East' and the 'West', it was the capital of the Pamirs. There are remains of old fortresses and castles that guarded the route that date back to the 2nd century BC. Their most frequent visitors now are the goats, sheep and cattle that graze amongst their ruins.
Parts of the old fortresses along the Silk Road..
As part of our product education we visited two of these spectacular remnants. As with most fortresses, they are perched high on hillsides, and overlook Afghanistan to the South. The views are beautiful and bleak. At one, high, up near the snow-line, Christine played 'chicken' again. The climb up and down to access the ruins were too steep and given the -3 C temperature and the lack of oxygen at over 3000m above sea-level, it was not a bad decision! Instead she watched the partridges flurry away as the three human hulks invaded their territory.
Still standing and overlooking proceedings; here in Iskashim
In terms of tourist appeal, The Pamirs is an adventure traveller's paradise. Roads are hewn out of mountain-sides and wind along rivers fed by the numerous ranges. Travelling East from Ishkashim, the scenery is breathtaking, with unbelievable views of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum ranges. At this point, one is just 30 miles away from Pakistan!! Accommodation is very rudimentary and is available in the 'home-stays' Jelte writes about, for the less hardy of us that want a roof over our heads at night. It was in this area that we saw our first yak. Further up the mountains, we are told that there are mountain goats, but for the famed Marco-Polo sheep, one needs to travel as far as Murghab. Wolves are also found in this region, but are more frequently seen in the winter, when food in the mountains is scarce and they venture closer to the villages to nick the occasional sheep or goat.
We spent two nights in the Iskashim area driving as far as Langar, for those of you who might be interested in locating our whereabouts on a map. As far as we could see, Langar was pretty much the end of the road. From Iskashim, eastwards, the region is all part of the famous Wakhan Corridor and an inhospitable place to live. People on both sides of the border - Tajikistan and Afghanistan, eke out a living here; the land is barren, with little or no potential for growing anything edible. Villages are sparse and kids travel miles to attend school. Interestingly, the Aga Khan Foundation is managing to support these brave communities by installing solar power systems, setting up schools, and so much more. At night, one can see the results of these efforts in the smattering of villages that now are generating enough electricity to light their homes. 
Border crossing to Afghanistan
Friday night was spent in a guest-house in Ishkashim, so that we could visit a couple more 'home-stays' in the morning as well as the famed Saturday cross-border market. The cross-border markets are another initiative of MSDSP, part of the AKF. These markets give the Tajik and Afghan local traders in the regions of Ishkashim, Darwaz and Shugnan the opportunity to sell their wares to the communities on both sides of the river Panj that marks the division between the two countries. Of the three markets, the one at Ishkashim is probably the largest, and it is here that one crosses over from Tajikistan on to Afghan soil, to attend the market. There are no real stalls; wares are displayed on cloths or tarp on the ground. In December, there are few traders selling produce. Most are peddling clothes, both second-hand and new, household items (predominantly Chinese) and leather and suede. Andreas, the volunteer from Germany, picked up a fleece-lined suede coat for just 70 Somoni ($17.50)! The Tajiks set up rudimentary 'cafes' in the biting wind (at this time of year) to sell choi, coffee (instant) and snacks of somusas, meat dumplings and deep fried potato patties. In one corner of the market there are even traders selling Iranian and Chinese carpets! I bought limes and chillies carted in all the way from Pakistan. 
Fresh bread, right out of the oven
Oh! By the way, our first 'Red Crescent' package has just arrived all the way from Holland - sun-block, dental floss, batteries, anchovies, Parmesan Cheese (yum!), oh so soft TP, GROUND COFFEE!! We're in heaven. Thanks Ma. Speaking of heaven; we've found ours in the Serena Inn on the outskirts of Khorog. Spent a long, long Sunday lunch there, looking out on Afghanistan and drinking our first bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in over two months.  This is where we have decided to bring in 2011! Yes, we're losing weight; Jelte faster than Christine, as he is no longer able to 'graze' from dawn to dusk. We eagerly await our next 'care package' which, we are told, contains, chocs., cough lozengers, moisturizer, thermals, more ground coffee, M & amp; S knickers and other glorious goodies! Thanks Adele!!

Comments

  1. i'm loving your updates. tajikistan reads as a place that's stuck in time - which i say not in a bad way, it seems like a very interesting destination that i would love to visit and explore.

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