With rods poking at our backs (there are now 6 of us, we just picked up another vague relative along the road) and surrounded by fumes of diesel and dead fish we are squeezed in the back of an old Russian Jeep, no suspension to speak of, thundering over the potholed roads of the Pamirs as if there is no tomorrow. We have to be home before sundown. Don’t know what’s worse, the fumes or the pain in our butts but an experience it certainly is.
|Potential camping spot for future visitors|
So, here we are, now in to our last month in Tajikistan; delighted to report that we made it back to the region of the Murghab, with its incredibly barren vistas, yaks, yurts and lakes. We were invited by a local Pamiri who is keen to develop a tourism product for the international traveller..... Murghab trout fishing. We were picked up on Saturday, mid-morning by Shamir (the young nephew), AliJon (the elder nephew and coincidentally, our landlord) and 'Maki' (mr moneybags), 'uncle' in Shugni. They had decided the previous week that the only means of transport that could negotiate the roads we were to take was an old Russian ‘jeep’. We should have been warned. These Russian vehicles are true war-horses. Dented, patched-up, sturdy and still olive-green, they can take on any type of terrain. Inside, they are pretty minimalistic and HOT. The windows are fixed and do not roll down. The little louvres in the back and front do hinge open, but you have to hold them in position. So, three hours of inhaling diesel fumes later, we arrive at our half-way point to visit a farmer friend who has moved his 240 head of yak up to the summer pastures. He and his family were ensconced in their summer home, a one room dwelling in the middle of wide open pastures and pretty much nothing else. We topped up the meal of diesel fumes with sheerchoi – a strong black tea with yak milk, and salt. To this is added yak butter and bread is used for dunking. Interestingly, this ‘meal’ or a variation of it is available in mountainous regions in many Central Asian countries. Jelte and I opted for sugar in our sheerchoi instead of salt – and no butter. We left behind our tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and a packet of French cookies (see how far your generosity travels, Mady and Pat) as a ‘Thank You’ for their hospitality. By the way, this is the usual way of paying back for hospitality, money is frowned upon…
|Trout lake, early morning|
The next stop (for a repeat performance) was the village of Burunkul in the West Murghab. While we had another break from eating dust and breathing diesel, our hosts picked up tents and other necessities. An hour later, we were on our way again. We drove along the lip of Burunkul (kul is lake), so blue, it’s almost unreal. First stop, a small hot spring. Covered by just a simple shack, the water was warm and clear. The only users at that time of day were a couple of little resident frogs.
The road continued over mountains with not a tree or bush in sight - @ 3,900 meters above sea level. Now we understood the need for the Russian jeep. The road was rutted and often destroyed by spring water runs. Finally we arrived at our final stop. A 10 minute climb up and down some imposing rocks and we arrived at a small lake – Yesikul – completely bordered by huge rocks and boulders whose formations are quite unfathomable. There must have been some serious seismic activity here. That’s the only possible explanation
|Preparing the boat for a fish trip|
Evening was setting in and camp staff (we had made another stop half an hour out to pick them up) put up our tents at the lake-side. The rest of us collected around a camp fire and prepared our dinner – packet noodles enhanced by carrots, green onions, peppers and tomatoes. Vodka, beer and choi were the drinks of choice. Snickers and a couple of other treats were our dessert. We sat there, huddled in our winter gear, looking up at the most incredible vista of the Milky Way. Almost too many stars to make out the constellations. The Great Bear, the North Star, Cassiopeia’s Chair and that was it! Time to roll out our sleeping bags, find our torches, crouch behind a rock far enough from any water source, a quick cat-lick and we were out like a light... for all of 10 seconds. The wind had picked up across the lake; our tent (we were given one to ourselves) had not been pitched properly. The entire night, we kept trying to adjust tent pegs, rocks and other paraphernalia to kill the sound of sleeping in a rustling plastic bag. No joy. Bad night. Christine’s first experience of raw camping was not a huge success. Although the Russian sleeping bags were beautifully warm. Her only two experiences of ‘tent’ life go back a fair few years. As a girl guide (no choice, compulsory activity in boarding school) one had to master the art of pitching a tent.... she should have paid more attention. The other experience was in the mountains of Kashmir, the tent (the size of a three bedroom house) was already pitched beside a mountain stream. Dinner was served by army personnel in the ‘dining area’, the toilets at the time were ‘thunder boxes’ also managed by camp staff. The beds were already made up camp cots with ample blankets and spotless bed-linen. Still, the Murghab experience was memorable and well worth repeating, perhaps with a bit more care and attention paid to our sleeping quarters. Gavin, Paula and Dip.... take note.... Christine might need some serious training before we embark on our Bowron Lakes trip next year.
|Rowing the Zodiac to a secret fish spot|
Up early. 06:30. Breakfast of choi and bread. Then it was time for the serious business of the day – fishing. While we acquainted ourselves with the fishing gear and ‘spinning’, the others pumped up the Zodiac for a trip on the lake. This far in-land and the gulls have already started homing- in. The Zodiac took just three ‘fishermen’ so Christine opted to stay on land and fish from the lake-shore with the remainder of the group. Jelte went out with the guys. When you go out with fishermen, there is always talk of a secret place that nobody knows, where the trout really bites so off they were, rowing against the wind to find a secluded spot around a bend in the lake. Nice little nook and, lo and behold, the trout seemed to be biting.
|yaks, yaks, yaks and more yaks|
According to our fellow fishermen, trout are smart creatures and they stop biting when they see that their fellow trout are awol, so, after an hour, the boaters returned with a large catch and larger stories. Fishermen are the same everywhere; the big one that got away, the old uncle, who caught a trout of 6 feet once (but nobody knows him) etcetera. Nice light moments in an unforgettable landscape. Lunch time was a meal of fried meat with tomatoes and onions, rustled up by the camp cook, Baltikas (the local beer of choice) on the side. The meat was sheep; don’t ask what type. We’re ashamed to tell you. It was either that, or starve – the latter was Jelte’s choice. Christine, as always, keen to try a new culinary experience could not resist. After lunch, we broke camp and struggled back up the imposing rocks, to our Diesel Wagon and the return trip home with a few stops en route.
|crossing the lake for a site visit|
Across Lake Yesikul is a small valley which leads into the nearby mountains. We took a rusty, leaking, metal boat across the lake and visited this little area, which ‘Maki’ wants to offer to those tourists that REALLY, REALLY, want to get away from it all. It is spectacular and solitary. A great idea. All that’s needed is a barbecue on the beach, a toilet far away from a water source, a few tents and some receptacles for rubbish. On the boat-ride back we waited while the ‘boat-man’ stopped to check his nets. Sadly, kilometres of net, stretching the length of the lake. The one advantage for the fish was that the net was in a terrible state of disrepair. One can understand why the fish-stock is so low in most of these lakes. Overfishing by the locals. The boatman cannot afford the diesel for a boat so has to wait for an opportunity like this. He collected 4 HUGE trout. The first, probably had been dead for a few days but with the water at just above freezing, perhaps it was still edible. The second, just as large, looked like it’s been dead for perhaps a day. Fresh enough, we suppose. The last two were still fighting the net. Valuable food for his large family. By this time, the boat had collected a fair amount of water and while our two ‘boat-mates’ dealt with the nets and fish Jelte bailed.
|Caught another one but won't show|
At the shore (where the rest of the group waited for us) the fish were gutted and cleaned. Happy seagulls again! What amazed us was that the roes from two of the fish were discarded, left for the gulls to gobble. We pretty much followed our arrival routine, in reverse. Last stop was the Yak farmer. By the way, we did some calculations. The cost of Yak meat averages at $750 per head here in Tajikistan. By Pamiri standards, the guy was hugely wealthy. This time, we picked up two huge metal urns of two types of yoghurt – chakka and kefir. Back in the Diesel wagon. If you have never experienced inhaling Diesel fumes for 5 hours continuously, you can take it from us, the experience is not worth the resultant headache.
|Lunch with tea and sheep's meat|
Back home, we divvied up the fish, chakka and kefir, said our goodbyes and washed the dust and diesel off our bodies. We’re still getting rid of the residue from our lungs but long to go back as well; the solitude and remoteness of the place are unique!!
|Love hate relationship.......|
Two weeks later.....today is the 3rd September. We wonder whether this will be the last blog that we post from Tajikistan. Probably not, as Ivan is yet to arrive next week, and the ‘boys’ will make their hike up the Bartang Valley, across into Murghab and down to Ishkashim (where Christine will meet them). Still, we need to make our presentations (MSDSP is very in to final presentations – there’s always a huge audience) – the ‘act’ is hugely important here and finalize some trainings. Then, the return journey to Dushanbe needs to be made. VSO’s most recent diktat is that come October any car journey between Khorog and Dushanbe must make an overnight stop. If we are lucky (and our employer ‘partners’ are still happy with us after our presentations) and if the helicopter is back in operation, we might be able to get a couple of seats, with our luggage being sent on ahead. Or there still might be a Tajik Air flight. Two nights in Dushanbe for our ‘exit interviews’ with VSO and we’ll be on a flight to the West Coast (including BC) with a stop in Holland on the of 6th October......... watch this space!!