A Week in the Pamirs: Part Two, Murgab to Langar

Posted on July 2, 2012

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NOTE: This is the second in my series of posts on our time in the Pamirs. Probably one or two more posts to go. Hopefully by the time they’re all up I’ll have something on Dushanbe and the trip to Samarkand.

Day 3: Murgab to Langar

In the morning, I sat down with our guide and we planned out the itinerary for the day. Given how bad the roads were, I’d sat down with the map and attempted to plot out some stops in towns that would give us a time to stretch, take a walk, maybe hike into the hills to see some views of the Pamirs you can’t get from the main roads. The guide looked at my route and said that, yes, this would be no problem, we would still make it to Langar, our destination for the night, in good time.

We attempted to stop by the bazaar, but found everything closed. It was, we were told, a national holiday marking the end of the Civil War that day, and even though they were the losers the Pamiris all celebrated peace. Women in long white robes and tall white hats sat all across the town’s main road preparing for some kind of celebration. We left before it all started in earnest, fearing that we might get trapped in town and hoping that we could find drinking water and food at some later town.

A couple of hours later, we stopped. We stopped in the middle of the highway, in the middle of nowhere, and the guide pointed out the window. “Bash Gumbaz,” he said, and then asked if he could keep driving now. I was confused. I pulled out the map and saw that we’d already passed our first stop, Chatyr Tash, a giant square carved rock that dominates the horizon in the valley, and now it seemed the driver had not driven to our second stop but past it and was pointing back towards it in the distance, insisting that we go forward. I pointed to the map and showed him the error, but he insisted he had made no mistake.

This is when we started to realize we’d been hustled. Our guide, we gradually realized, had no idea where anything was past Murgab and was intent on traveling straight across the main road with no stops. For the next several days, he would breeze through towns, hoping we would not notice and denying he had done so when we called him on it, attempting to cut our trip short and get us to Khorog, the last major city of the Pamirs, in as little time as possible so he could dump us, pick up someone else, and make a few more bucks. This would not be a problem save for the fact that we were paying for all his expenses plus a profit mark-up for him on a daily basis and he intended to pay none of it back if we arrived early.

After a heated argument in German, I convinced him to go back and stop in Bash Gumbaz as originally planned, just on principle, and with much grumbling he did so. We were rewarded for our persistence. In Bash Gumbaz, we forded town small rivers and about three kilometers outside of the town found a crumbling Chinese tomb, marking the highest point of Chinese influence in the region. Our guide dropped to his knees and prayed, while Mike, Anna, and I stepped around the ruins, finding a few intact inscriptions and wide vistas beyond of the salt flats and rivers of the valley.

From Bash Gumbaz, we moved westward, passing Ak Balyk (White Fish Lake). The name, it turned out, was literal; we stopped in the next town of Alichur for lunch, just before the road breaks between the Pamir Highway and the Wakhan valley, and found that the little cafe served fresh, juicy, fried white fish. 12,000 feet above sea level and eating fish, it seemed a bit odd, and I couldn’t help but remember the old saying, don’t buy fish out of the back of a truck with Iowa license plates.

From Alichur, we passed Sassyk Kul (the stinking lake) and Tuz and Chokor Kuls (the salty lakes), each one mistaken for another lake by our driver, who grew very confused when we reached the fork in the road that turned towards the Wakhan Valley. He had never, I discovered, been to the Wakhan, and he had never really learned how to read a map (we’ve learned the hard way that apparently this is just not something they teach in schools, and maps are not common, so they’re not of great use in the region). After some argument we discerned which was the correct road and drove off the pavement, onto the bumpy dirt of the Wakhan Road, climbing up into the Khargush (donkey flesh) Pass.

The road into the Wakhan was littered with little caves, stone shrines, ram horns, and the occasional giant boulder with bore holes run through it, such as to make it look like a bone. Such porous and smooth stones breed legends of ancient dragons who once roamed the Pamirs and the Wakhan especially and who were slain by Ali–this being born of the strict adherence of Wakhani Pamiris (on both the Tajik and Afghan side of the border) to Ismailism.

After the Khargush Pass, the Wakhan Valley opened up before us, divided by the Pamir River into a northern Tajik side and a southern Afghan side. The contrast of the two sides of the river was stark, with concrete and old stone dominating the Tajik side and mud-brick and hay dominating the Afghan side, but both sides are shockingly fertile, green and leafy, dotted with small villages and every now and than a sign left by the Aga Khan.

The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismailis, single-handedly prevented mass starvation in the Pamirs during the Civil War with airlifts and border drops of food. Since the end of the war, he has been active in rebuilding roads and bridges and running electricity between towns, in restoring traditional farming and local industry, and in helping the Pamirs to become a self-sustaining region. We saw one of his signs as we drove into Langar, where we slept for the night.

Langar was a breathtakingly beautiful town. Well fed by mountain streams, the town lies at the juncture of the Pamir and Wakhan rivers and stretches along their union into the Pyanj River (the upper Amu Darya, or Oxus River, for those classicists out there), it is lush and densely cultivated with yellow mustard flowers, roots, sage, and pink-flowering trees. The town stretches up onto the sides of massive hills at the base of the peaks of the Pamirs, and it was on one of these hills that we stayed, in a 150 year old Pamiri house owned by an old woman named Nigina.

A Pamiri house is marked by such: A central room with five pillars, probably formerly Zoroastrian symbols, but now taken to be representations of vital Ismaili figures. Facing from the entrance of the room, in the back right corner is the Muhammad pillar, followed counterclockwise by Ali, Fatima, and then two smaller pillars for Hasan and Husayn right next to the door. In the roof is a skylight for fire smoke to pass through, girded by four wooden blocks representing earth, wind, water, and fire, the four major elements. Almost every house has a picture of Ali with a lion and a photo of the Aga Khan. The center of the room is a low floor covered in an “unclean” sheep’s wool rug, while three raised platforms are used for eating and sleeping and are covered by “clean” yak’s wool rugs. Guests of honor are placed as close to the pillar of Ali as possible.

The layout of a Pamiri home is similar to that of the jamoat khana, the Ismaili prayer hall, which replaces the function of a mosque for Ismailis in the region. The only differences being that the far left platform has a built in cooking basin and the wooden blocks on the ceiling are inscribed with calligraphic Persian/Sufi poetry in a jamoat khana, and that the outside of the jamoat khana are often done up in colorful murals. Outside the jamoat khana in Langar was the mazar, or burial shrine, of Shoh Kambari Oftab, the man credited with bringing Ismailism to the region. The shrine itself was quite small, but marked, as are all buildings of importance, with a number of rams’ horns sunken into the plaster of the walls, signs, I was told, of power and potency.

Back at Nigina’s, the old woman sat near us as we drank tea by the pillar of Ali. She assumed, given how close we sat, that Anna must be my wife and so made a bed for us. We did not object, knowing that it is usually easier for men and women alike to be married in such cultures. Mike, on the other hand, did not think about this and made the mistake of telling Nigina that he was unmarried.

Thus began another of Mike’s travails: Nigina shot up and ran into the next room. We heard excited chatter and the word “America” tossed around and then a young girl, perhaps sixteen, named Maryam who spoke in a raspy little voice was ushered out to meet Mike. That night, Mike snuck out of the main room and into the room Anna and I were sharing (we’d stolen an extra mattress so we could have different beds) and he climbed into the larger bed with me, free of the risk of accidentally agreeing to any marriages, although his presence in our room was noticed, and we are sure that now the entire village of Langar thinks Anna is my beard.

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