A Week in the Pamirs: Part Four, Ishkashim to Dushanbe

Posted on July 3, 2012

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NOTE: This is the fourth and final of my posts from the Pamirs. Stuff on Dushanbe and the jump into Uzbekistan coming very soon!

Day 5: Ishkashim to Khorog

We left Ishkashim fairly early and set out direct for the nearby city of Khorog, making no stops on the 2.5 hour drive. Admittedly, I was eager to get rid of our guide there as he’d simply grown more and more unpleasant and pugnacious the further we went, and I was tired of having to translate between Mike and Anna through German to him, always being the bad guy and the one who had to pick a fight. So onward to Khorog we went.

Khorog is the capital of the GBAO region as a whole and the largest city on this side of the nation, clocking in with just over 20,000 residents and two internet connections (although they blink on and off often). We took the day in Khorog to stock up on necessities like water and food, take in a soccer game at the local stadium, grab some cash at the rare ATM, and check the internet, then, after arranging through the owner of the lodge we were staying at (constructed to benefit the jamoat khana in town) for a ride to Dushanbe the next day, we parted ways for a while.

Perhaps that was a mistake as immediately thereafter Mike underwent another of his Pamiri travails. He decided to take a run (Khorog is only 6,000 feet high so the air is much easier on our lungs here, and the town is small and good for running), but went shirtless. Not fifteen minutes into the run, he ran into three men on a dirt road whose eyes went wide. NO! They screamed at him, gesturing for a shirt, and then making gun hands and miming shooting him. Mike took the hint and went back, only to cross paths with an armed policeman.

The policeman eyed Mike for a time until Mike, rather wisely, imitated the Pamiri greeting, putting his right hand over his heart and his left over his liver (the word for them is the same, and the liver is medically and culturally just as important as the heart here) and bowed his head. The cop blanched and returned the gesture and Mike made it back to the lodge unshot.

The rest of the day passed with little of note, save for a fine Indian meal.

Day 6: Khorog to Dushanbe

We had to make a mad dash for the border of the GBAO on the 30th given that our special permit for travel in the Pamirs would expire at 11:59 pm that night. It’s quite unfortunate, that, not because we missed much (Rushon, Vanj, and Darvaz are the only towns between Khorog and the border, really), but because handling the ride from Khorog to Dushanbe in one day was bone crushing.

Said, the owner of the lodge at Khorog, introduced us to a man with a Pajero willing to take us on the 17 hour drive to Dushanbe starting at 7 pm and arriving in the capital around midnight. The driver, whose name we never got, was a tall and quiet man (uttered almost no words), an exceptionally skilled driver, gentle and considerate, and never once tried to hustle us for cash. He kept his agreements and even refused to let us buy him lunch and dinner. He travelled in a caravan with his friend, a minivan driver who we know only by the logo on his shirt, “Nintendo Guru,” who helped us buy food and find our way in small towns.

But even that couldn’t help the road. From Khorog to Dushanbe, it sometimes feels, as Mike puts it, as if the potholes were strategically and systematically placed there by the central government to trip up drivers. Sans seatbelts, we jostled and bounced in the back of the Pajero, bracing where we could, but often still feeling our spines crunch into the bases of our skulls. Our necks grew stiff and our guts churned, leading one member to suffer severe nausea, which we could not treat as the bumps would never end. The dust never stopped and by the end of the drive we were several shades darker, our hair matted to our heads.

I have spent nine hours in the floor space of a pickup truck, held myself into the bottom of a flatbed bucking like a mad horse, and hidden in the trunk of a car for hours on end. I’ve had some shit rides and some shit nights in my life, but the ride from Khorog to Dushanbe, we all agreed, was the most taxing, painful, exhausting ride any of us had ever taken. Even half a day later, I feel battered and weak, although I’m faring better than others.

Still, the drive was amazing. The Pamirs kept up their desolate glory with larger waterfalls and bigger landslides of boulders blocking off all but a narrow stretch of road, more sheer drops into the canyons, etc. The Pyanj churned into an ashen grey foam and rocked up against its banks with foam and rage. And then, suddenly it wasn’t there. Suddenly we turned and found ourselves in the foothills, Shire-like rolling green cut with red embankments and mounds of hay, sprinkled with tin-roof villages. And then the hills were gone and we were rolling over plains, intermittently finding paved roads and electricity, gas stations and futuristic, sleek modern buildings.

Dushanbe at midnight, though, proved a challenge. Like most of the region, map reading is not common so our map proved useless and none of us had a phone useable in the area, nor do addresses work well considering that most locals don’t leave their neighborhoods often and streets are rarely numbered or labeled. We spent perhaps an hour trying to find the home we were staying at, a couple of Pamiris living in the city who run a guesthouse. But we finally found it and passed out.

Day 7: Dushanbe

At present, as I write (although I won’t post this until later in the day when I find an internet cafe with decent connectivity), I’m at the house we found late at night. All my clothes are in the laundry and I’ve just washed a fine layer of dust and slime off of myself. Mike and Anna are still zonked out, sleeping off the past week. We’ve managed to buy a big bag of plums (great plums in this region), some water and bread and will lay low for the evening. Mike and I have met a Brit who lives in Morocco where he manages his own farm and guesthouse and does the occasional consultancy job–he seems a nice man and perhaps we’ll grab a beer with him in the evening shade by the pastel Soviet-era opera house. Tomorrow we shall explore (there’s supposed to be a great Tex-Mex place here, which I need to test, and we need to find Pashtun hats) and then the next day we’ll cross the border to Uzbekistan.

The trip is winding down. We’ll move into Samarkand, where I’ll probably write again about Dushanbe and the border, then off to Bukhara, the old Khwarizem region, Tashkent, and then home.

Spokane, see you in two weeks.

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