Pamir Highway Part 4: Bulunkul

Day 6: August 21, 2021: The Coldest Town in Tajikistan

After a long day in the Wakhan Valley and a fantastic night´s sleep, it was time to head out on another adventure along the Pamir Highway. 

Today our goal was to drive north, away from the Afghan border, and into the Pamir Mountains for the first time. 

Before leaving the Wakhan, we had one final stop to make. Above the town of Langar lie the second largest collection of petroglyphs in Central Asia. Interestingly enough, I had been to the third-largest set of petroglyphs 10 years ago in at Tamgaly in Kazakhstan. 

Petroglyphs at Langar

The hike to the petroglyphs was brutal. We had to walk/scramble up a steep mountainside for about 20 heart-pounding minutes. Once there, we were disappointed to see that many modern people (not sure if tourists or locals) also scrawled their names into the rocks, essentially ruining it. There are apparently more pristine petroglyphs much further up the mountain. 

Back in the car, we began the long, slow drive out of the Wakhan. As we slowly gained elevation, the terrain changed from the lush valley floor into a deserted and desolate mountainside. 

The river border with Afghanistan, now the Pamir River, was no wilder than a mere creek. But since nobody lives here, the border felt secure. 

The high-alpine border with Afghanistan

Eventually all the plants disappeared. It was just rock and dirt. We passed a military checkpoint as we left the border behind. While the soldiers were checking our documents, a two-car convoy arrived behind us with the yellow diplomat plates. It was the American Foreign Service Officer from the homestay! He and his wife drove one 4-Runner, while his guide drove the other. 

Then we kept climbing up the steep slope. We passed some very rugged sheep herders. Oh goodness what a wild place this must be to live!

After 2-3 hours of climbing, we reached Khargush Pass (4344 meters/14,251 feet). The land was completely barren save for a lake. It felt surreal to be driving at this altitude, which is nearly that of the tallest peaks in the continental United States: Mount Whitney, Mountain Rainier and Mount Elbert. In fact, the many unnamed surrounding peaks surrounding the pass are certainly than these legends. 

At Khargush Pass with Fez

We took pictures and followed the dirt road down the backside. Eventually we reached a PAVED road. What is that?! It is the official Pamir Highway, which we had finally rejoined after our detour from the Wakhan. From this point, we could drive back to Khorog in 3-4 hours. 

The Pamir Highway

However, we weren´t staying on this road for long. After just a minute heading west, we veered off onto another dirt road and took that road 16 kilometers to the town of Bulunkul around 13:00. 

Bulunkul is reported to be the highest and coldest town in all of Tajikistan and it shows. The buildings are all an eerie white color. Vegetables are grown in greenhouses. The air on a typical August day was about 10 C/50F.

Greenhouse in Bulunkul town

As we got out of the car and heard music, Fez looked at us and said with a smile (and he rarely smiles) “It´s your lucky day. There´s a wedding!”

Before heading to any festivities, we checked into our homestay. In the living room, we ate fried fish caught from the nearby lake and watched Tajik music videos. Like in the rest of Central Asia, music videos and concert videos seem to be very popular.

Inside out homestay

The town of Bulunkul is named for the nearby lake (kul is the word for lake in multiple Central Asian languages), so we drove to go check it out. The drive took just a few minutes, but we first had to also find Rajiv who was taken by into a house by two little girls who wanted to show him the menagerie of animals their father shot. 

Bulunkul lake is very desolate. There were some shrubs around. The landscape reminded me a lot of the Owens Valley in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada in eastern California. After a short walk around, we got back in the car and headed to another larger lake called Yashikul. 

Bulunkul Lake

Yashikul is technically inside the Tajik National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so we had to pay a 20 somoni ($1.80) entry fee. Yahikul was surrounded by mountains so that it looked like an artificially dammed lake. But it was natural. Along the road, we passed by a long building that was an old Soviet steam bath. It started to rain, so we headed back. 

Yashikul

Now it was time to celebrate the wedding. We went over to a house with music blasting and danced. The people loved us, especially since I was already a pro Tajik wedding dancer from my time in Hisor. 

Dancing in the house

The party fizzled out and we walked over to the schoolhouse which also had the label “Club” on it. A band was playing, but only a few people were inside. Outside, another group of people was cooking a giant pot of goat and potatoes using cow dung as fuel. It was difficult to communicate, but they said the big party is tomorrow.

At 18:00, our host family served us a small bowl of soup. We were disappointed because the meal was tiny and we were expecting dinner an hour later at 19:00. While eating dinner, we watched some TV. Taliban members were being interviewed by a reporter while they ate and drank tea. Rajiv made the comment that we were actually doing the exact same thing as them. We were drinking tea out of identical glasses, sitting in a similarly decorated room, and eating the same type of bread. I will never understand them, but I now have a vague idea of what their life is like. 

Fez then told us that a concert was going to happen at 19:00. We walked over to the school/club and discovered that the entire town was here. 

People were sitting in rows all along the room. Unusually, everybody had their shoes on. Eventually we were served tea and eventually the lamb and potatoes. The food was simple but tasty. 

After everyone ate, the band started playing and people got dancing. The three of us foreigners all went out and danced. Even Fez showed up and danced! We stayed until very late (which honestly was probably around 22:00). When leaving, we realized that we had no idea who was getting married. Who was the bride? Who was the groom? 

The entire time at the party, I was in disbelief that I was here. I thought of anthropologists I had studied in college who visited remote tribes and gained acceptance. That was me, living that college dream.

The next morning, the sound of drums woke me up at 6:00. When I walked outside to visit the outhouse, I discovered that the entire town was here.

As they cheered, a 4-Runner covered in a giant red ribbon and giant paper wedding rings drove by. Inside was the groom and his friends in tuxedos. He was driving off to “kidnap” his bride from her village and bring her back to Bulunkul for an even bigger party. Ahh- so we were in the groom´s village!

Having seen the rural wedding, I know understand the flow of the Tajik weddings. At an absolute minimum, a Tajik wedding must be two days. The first day of the wedding is the pre-party. The groom´s village parties knowing that they are going to kidnap a bride. Then after they get the bride, they have the ceremony and party even more. More typically, Tajik weddings are 3-7 days. 

For me, the wedding at Bulunkul is everything travel is about: experiencing a new culture, getting out of my comfort zone, challenging myself and having fun! I have found that the most interesting experiences tend to happen in the more offbeat places. That finding certainly proved true here in remote Bulunkul. 

Something that has continued to surprise me in Tajikistan is the hospitality. Our group did not know a single person in the entire village. However, we were invited to a wedding with open arms. This would never happen in the US. If I have a wedding, I would love to love to repay the favor and have someone crash it. 

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