Day 3: August 18, 2021: Jizeu
After a solid breakfast at the homestay in Rushan, Fez picked up Rajiv and me at 9:00. We had spent two long days on the road, but today was short. We drove for 20 minutes along a good paved road and then cut north away from the Afghan border up a treeless arid and steep river canyon called the Bartang Valley. The stark scenery here was somehow even more dramatic than what we had seen the past two days.
The road was dirt and at times was questionable, but Fez was a gifted driver. 45 minutes later we reached a random cable footbridge over the raging Bartang River. There, Fez dropped us off, handed us a white envelope of cash, pointed across the river, and said “Go find Gulsha”.
With that, Fez sped off and we were on our own. We also had no idea how far we had to walk.
Rajiv and I walked across the wobbly bridge and set off on our journey.
On the far side, we saw the pulley that was used to pull hikers over the river in a box before the bridge was constructed in 2017.
The path towards Gulsha, who lived in the village of Jizeu, started out flat as we contoured the river. But then we cut up a side valley and began the uphill climbing.
The combination of hot weather and largely treeless terrain made the hike difficult. We walked mostly on rock fashioned into a trail. Every so often, the trail would hit the creek which did have some much appreciated tree cover.
After approximately 2 hours and 500 meters of climbing later, we made it to the village of Jizeu. The 15 houses were made of mud-brick and used cow dung as insulation.
At the second house, we were approached by a very short middle-aged man who spoke to us in perfect English. He said he was Gulsha. We didn´t have any real way to prove his identity since there was no cell coverage, but he seemed very nice and name dropped Fez and Khudoguy, the organizer of the trip, so we figured it had to be him. We then handed him the envelope of cash.
Gulsha and the rest of Jizeu live without electricity. They only can get power from small solar cells which they use to charge their cell phones which don´t really work.
Gulsha has a wife and 3 children. None of them spoke to us – I am not sure if it was because they didn´t know English, cultural reasons or because Gulsha is an exceptionally talkative man.
The three of us sat down underneath an apple tree and drank some tea, as is tradition in this part of the world. In much of Asia, there seems to be a single dominant type of tea. However, in Tajikistan, most places will give you the choice of TWO types of tea: green and black. If a place doesn´t offer the choice then you typically are getting black tea, so when given the choice I always choose green for variety´s sake.
As we sipped and gossiped, apples started falling from the tree. Two hit me and actually hurt! Luckily, none hit my head.
Gulsha´s wife then served us lunch. The highlight was bread made from an oven 8 meters from the table. Bread is served at every meal in Tajikistan and í generally will judge a place based on its bread. Gulsha´s wife´s bread was the best bread in all of Tajikistan. Not only was it still hot from the oven, but it was crispy on the outside but soft on the inside.
The rest of the food was also delicious. Gulsha memntioned that all the meat and vegetables come from his family´s efforts. They are really living off the land.
At 15:00, Rajiv and I left the village to go for a hike. We continued another 5 kilometers up the valley. Along the hike we passed by two more lakes and two more villages. The scenery was lush!
Our hike ended at a lake full of cows. One of the cows seemed to really like me. It licked me and even posed for selfies!
Back at Gulsha´s we settled into our traditional home. The room was covered in carpets and is set up to host big groups.
Dinner was soup with rice along with dried apricots and candies for dinner. Very tasty! Gulsha talked with us about tourism in the area. He says that the different nationalities that visit all like to do different things. The Americans and Western Europeans like to see the scenery and are very interested in learning about the culture. Americans usually have guides, but Europeans seem to travel independently. The Russians are very interested in mountaineering and are largely uninterested in the culture. He said that there are more western tourists than Russian/former Soviet Union tourists, which surprised me.
Gulsha also mentioned that he would love to have a road to Jizeu. Some of the older tourists struggle with the 2 hour hike. I told him that I think a road would ruin the tourist market here in Jizeu. For me (and for many), the appeal of Jizeu is that you can´t get there by road. Otherwise, it will be just like any other town in the region.
As we prepared to go to bed, a French couple arrived out of nowhere asking for a different homestay. True to Gulsha´s stereotype, they also had traveled here independently.
Day 4: August 19, 2021 The Big City
We slept very well before getting breakfast of porridge. Gulsha gave me 20 somoni (about $2 USD) and asked if I could pay for his phone bill in Khorog. I said I would.
Rajiv and I then walked down the hill to meet Fez at the planned 10:00 pickup time. Fez showed up as promised and we headed into the car. It took 1 hour to drive through the canyon and one more hour along the Afghan border to reach Khorog. As we entered town, we caught a glimpse of the famous weekly border market where people from both countries can sell goods in the no man´s land. Unfortunately, the market has been closed since the Taliban retook control.
We checked into our homestay which has wifi. Then we hit the town.
Khorog is the largest city in eastern Tajikistan with a population of 30,000.
Khorog is not a normal city. It has almost no income of its own, however it is one of the most beautiful and best educated in all of Central Asia. This is due to the charitable work of the Aga Khan. Pamiris are Ismaili, a chill version of Shia Islam that is led by a man named Aga Khan. The Aga Khan was born in Switzerland and lives in France. His father was a Pakistani diplomat and his mother a British socialite. He has been married twice: to a British supermodel and Belgian socialite. The Aga Khan is best known in the Western world for his horse racing exploits. This does not seem to be the right background for someone to be the spiritual leader of over 15 million Muslims, however, he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and is the grandson of the previous Aga Khan. In addition to being the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, he also is a successful businessman who has amassed a fortune of 13 billion dollars. Through his fortune, he has singlehandedly transformed Khorog (and presumably other Ismaili towns around the world) into a beautiful town with many institutions. Khorog has the finest hospital in the region, a university and multiple graduate schools, and a brand-new Ismaili Center. The Aga Khan has also recommended that everyone learn English. As a result, all the locals in Khorog can speak English.
Khorog also has a huge police presence. This is due to the the famous 2012 uprising from local warlords. The result of this uprising is a tight government control.
Rajiv and I ate Uighur lagman noodles at a restaurant before vising the busy market. As the largest market in the region, it has a wide draw.
Then we walked over to the Afghan consulate. The building is still run by the old Afghan government. Before the Taliban takeover, this was one one of the easiest places to obtain a visa to visit Afghanistan – and many tourists did. I wonder what they are doing and thinking now.
Next, we visited the beautiful city park, which was also built by the Aga Khan. He personally dedicated the opening. The park is beautiful and very out of place. In fact, Rajiv thought it was one of the prettiest parks he had ever seen.
We then stumbled on a gorgeous modern building that looked completely out of place for rural Tajiksitan. Opened in late 2018, the Ismaili center is the Aga Khan´s newest addition to the town. We were lucky enough to get a tour where we got to learn more about Ismaili Islam.
Ismaili have several unique beliefs among Muslims. The first is that they do not have mosques. The prayer room in the Ismaili Center is a space for prayer, but it carries neither religious significance nor sanctity. Ismailis also do not celebrate Friday as a holy day. Additionally, Ismailis are more flexible about religious adherence. Many Ismailis drink alcohol and women rarely cover their heads – even in the Ismaili center.
That said, Ismailis certainly still pray, they still study the Quran, and they still believe in traditionally Islamic values. I do not know what other Muslim groups think of Ismailism.
The timber-clad building itself was stunning. The bottom floor contained the prayer hall, social hall and locker room. There was also a library where men and women were taking computer literacy classes. On the upper floors (accessible by an elevator!), there were school classrooms and remote working facilities for visiting professionals. The place was as nice as any building in the US.
Before the Ismaili Center was built, the land was a soccer field. Now 10% of the Khorog visits the building every day for prayer. This center has clearly brought the town together and created a new sense of community.
By the end of the tour, I felt like Ismailis seem like a really great religious group.
Rajiv and I returned to the homestay where we met our final companion, a Swiss lady named Miranda. She had just completed a 14-day solo hike through the Bartang and Wakhan Valleys and was excited for a “chill few days” in the car before heading home.
She must hardcore because her “chill few days” is my adventure!
We rested up for our big day in the fabled Wakhan Valley.