Day 5: August 20, 2021: The Wakhan
As the meeting place of China, India and ancient Bactria, the Wakhan Valley has been a key transit corridor since antiquity. Alexander the Great, Marco Polo and countless Silk Road traders have made their way through this legendary valley. For most of its history, the Wakhan has been ruled by an independent Khanate. However, in the 1800´s during the height of the Great Game, an agreement between the Russian and British Empires split the region into 3. Russia (now Tajikistan) took the areas north of the Panj River, a narrow 20-30-kilometer-wide buffer zone containing the south side of the valley and the north slope of the Hindu Kush mountains would be given to Afghanistan and Britain (Pakistan) would take everything south of the buffer zone.
Mao Zedong sealed the eastern borders with China in 1949 and, as a result, the area became very remote and traditional. The Wakhan is considered a top destination in Tajikistan for both its natural beauty and unique cultures.
Fez, Miranda, Rajiv and I left the city of Khorog at 7:30 to head southeast to the Wakhan.
But before reaching the Wakhan, we still had some driving to do. The bumpy dirt road followed the Afghan border. Here, the river was so narrow I could really see the people in Afghanistan. We saw women working in the fields and men riding donkeys to go between the oh-so-remote towns.
Miranda really liked to take pictures and was far more eager than Rajiv and I to stop the car when she saw an opportune shot. While it was nice to get good photos, it was a little much.
About 45 minutes in, we reached the Garam Chashma Hot Springs. These springs must have had a high sulfur content because there were some impressive rock formations. I was reminded of the artificial geyser in Soda Springs, Idaho, USA which had a similar formation. The Wakhan has many hot springs and each one reportedly has a unique health benefit. The waters from this spring are apparently good for skin.
The hot springs are segregated by gender. Each gender gets to access the main hot springs during certain hours of the day. Unfortunately for me, I arrived during the women´s hours. Miranda got to swim in the beautiful pool, while I was stuck in the annex: a tiny indoor pool. The water was nice but nothing special. Miranda said the main spring was very nice!
After a couple more hours of uneventful driving, we reached the town of Ishkashim. Ishkashim is the largest city in the Tajik Wakhan and is also the main border crossing into the Afghan Wakhan. Across the valley is the town of Eshkashim, Afghanistan, by far the largest town on the Afghan-Tajik border. Before the Taliban takeover, Pamir Highway tours would regularly visit Eshkashim. However, on July 4, 2021 approximately 6 weeks before I arrived, the Taliban took the town and the local government fled to Tajikistan.
East of Eshkashim, the Afghan Wakhan is inhabited by just 1,000 people and they are actually Kyrgyz nomads. There are no other Kyrgyz people living in Afghanistan, so these poor people are trapped and separated from the rest of their kind by the 19th century politics. They have nothing to do with the rest of Afghanistan politically, religiously and geographically and therefore, the region has historically been considered the safest part of Afghanistan.
Just beyond Ishkashim, the views got amazing as we entered the main part of the Wakhan Valley. We got our first glimpse of the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan- covered in snow. The Hindu Kush contains multiple mountains over 7,000 meters (23,000 feet). From the road, the tallest peak visible was Afghanistan´s tallest mountain, Noshak (7,492 meters/24,580 feet)
The Wakhan Valley was much wider, lusher, and snowier than anything we had seen so far.
15 kilometers east of Ishkashim, we reached an ancient fortress from the 3rd century BC. Despite being so ancient, the mudbrick walls were relatively intact!
We continued along the valley floor for another 2 hours, stopping often for photo ops.
At 14:00, we reached the Yamchun Fortress. This is the region´s best fortress. It was built by fire-worshipping Zoroastrians in the 3rd century BC. The walls are in fantastic shape. Because the fortress is high above the valley floor, it is the perfect spot for a photo op.
By this point, we were starving. Unfortunately, most of the restaurants were closed. We found one on the 3rd try. They only had soup, but that was okay!
Just past the restaurant was the region´s number one attraction, the Bibi Fatima Hot Springs. The springs are named for Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and are known to increase fertility. Since everyone wants to have more children here in the Wakhan, the springs draw local tourists from hours away.
The hot springs are in a cave underneath a raging waterfall. An epic setting.
The springs are only open to one gender at a time, but the genders alternate every 30 minutes. If it is not your time to bathe, there is another room with the backwash spa water as well as a room for women to pray for fertility.
After 15 minutes, it was finally time for the men to bathe. 12 Tajik men, Rajiv and I all got naked and walked into the epic hot spring cave. The water seemed to flow into the cave via a waterfall. The cave had a tiny second chamber
that was barely large enough to fit a person. One man jumped in there and I felt there was a decent chance that he would never be seen again.
Despite being naked in a room with 12 random men all trying to get fertile, I felt extremely manly by the end of the experience. I joked with Rajiv that I now had a strange desire to raise 5 sons and train them to be MMA fighters.
A little further along, we reached the town of Vrang, which had a local museum. Inside the brightly decorated traditional house, there was a man who demonstrated some of the local string instruments. Some of the instruments were over 150 years old. Rajiv plays the guitar, so he had a fun time trying to jam with our museum guide.
Our final stop before settling in for the night was also in the town of Vrang. Just above the town there was an ancient stupa. However, on closer look, the stupa did not look very convincing. Local children followed us on the walk and tried to sell us rubies. The ruby mine in the Wakhan is famous- Marco Polo even wrote about it in his diary. I bought one of the rubies, although there is a good chance it is fake.
After 7 hours in the car, we finally reached the town of Hisor (not to be confused with the other town of Hisor near Dushanbe where I crashed a wedding). At our guesthouse, we ate the best meal of the entire trip: green soup with herbs and an array of dishes. Very unusual for Tajikistan, this meal was mostly vegetarian.
Also staying at our guesthouse as a US Foreign Service Officer. He works in the embassy in Dushanbe but is on a vacation to eastern part of the country. He and his wife attempted to climb the 6,723 meter/22,057 ft Karl Marx Peak, but the approach was too rugged. His biggest piece of advice during COVID times is to avoid crossing land borders. While all the Americans who have flown in/out of Tajikistan have stayed safe, some stupid tourists have been crossing into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Since the more populated parts of Afghanistan are too dangerous and overwhelmed by the mass evacuation effort currently happening at the Kabul airport, many have tried to cross back over the land border with Tajikistan. However, Tajikistan has closed all its land borders, essentially trapping the tourists. The US Embassy has reluctantly been forced to intervene. He says that these tourists have been taking up a large part of his time.
It was not even 21:00, but we were tired after a long long day in the car.
Tomorrow we would head into the Pamir Mountains at long last.