A Week in the Pamirs: Part Three, Langar to Ishkashim

Posted on July 3, 2012

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NOTE: This is the third and second-to-last of my Pamir posts. Last one coming soon.

Day 4: Langar to Ishkashim

Early the next day, Anna and I awoke and snuck away into the town. Right before we’d gone to sleep the last night, our guide had attempted to get us to agree to going directly to Khorog again, rather than going to Ishkashim as was our plan, and was quite sour when we refused. He was, we gathered, just a bored kid doing this for cash and did not wish to actually act as a guide, but just to ferry cargo and blast his music (coming into Langar we listened to a blisteringly loud Kyrgyz song on repeat 20 times). He relented only if we agreed to leave soon after dawn, but Anna and I felt that we would do as we liked and see if he left without us (or at least that was my logic).

We’d heard that there were petroglyphs on the cliffs beyond Langar and so we walked to the first dry ravine in the cliffs and found two Langari children who offered to take us up to the petroglyphs. We scrambled up the sides of the cliffs, slipping and falling and trying to keep our footing on the shifting stones and loose sands, going up 1,500 feet. I desperately tried to keep pace with the two kids, who scampered up the slopes as sure footed as the mountain goats and donkeys they herded, often running ahead of us and arm wrestling each other, almost throwing each other off the cliffs. The paternal instinct in me was screaming bloody murder at this, but I kept my silence, trusting them.

Finally, we came upon a lesser incline of baked red rock and found, scattered among newer graffiti, petroglyphs of men on horseback hunting deer with bows and arrows. Six thousand of these rusty red inscriptions scattered the cliffs for almost a square mile and I sat and wondered how and why men would have come all the way up here just to make such carvings. Then I turned around and was struck by what I imagine people throughout history have been struck by. Below was the green stretch of Langar and the confluence delta of the Pamir, Wakhan, and Pyanj/Oxus rivers, and then beyond them as far as one could see the snowy and jagged peaks of the Hindu Kush, stabbing their way down the Afghan Wakhan corridor. The name means Killer of the Hindus, and it seems apt–they are murderous and unceasing. I scrambled down the hill, keeping the Hindu Kush before me and watching them sink into the clouds and past the trees and out of sight.

When we returned, two hours late of our guide’s dictated starting time, he was quite cross. But we brushed it off. If he wanted to bargain hard, we would bargain hard. We, I reminded him, were not paying him the second half of his fee until Khorog, and I would not hesitate to stiff him if he broke the contract, schedule, and itinerary that we shook on. We were not very demanding, I reminded him, and would alter our plans if there was a good reason, but we did not take kindly to dictation by someone who was hustling us a bit. He backed down, which seemed to please the Langaris we had been staying with, as our guide had made himself a bit of a nuisance in the town as well, nearly running people down at the road and blaring his horn and his music.

From Langar we drove to the next town, Zong, where we’d read there was an old Silk Road fortress called Abrashim Qala on the hillside, created by one or another of the Central Asian peoples to stave off invasions by the Afghans and the Chinese. Our guide tried to tell us that the town’s mazar was the fortress and to drive through the town, but after asking the locals, we found that the fortress was actually another 1,500 foot scramble up a cliffside.

Mike had, in yet another travail, been laid low by food poisoning the night before, but Anna and I made the ascent. All along the way, one of these big, healthy Wakhani dogs ran up and down, trying to herd us along, while four men installing a water pipe from the mountain streams to the village called down to us, trying to point out the best manner of ascent along the faded and rocky trails. When we reached the top, we were shocked to find the fort still in use, but not as a fort. The old mud brick walls were butted up against a newer plaster house with terraces for farming root crops. We stood and looked south to the Hindu Kush once more and thought about this habit, so common here, of recycling old buildings and living in historical sights, and then began our descent, chased around by the Wakhani dog.

After Zong, we stopped at Vrang, where we met a young girl named Zaibu who offered to take us up the side of yet another mountain to reach an old Buddhist stupa. The stupa itself, dating back to the 300s AD, was a four tiered ziggarut of a building, surrounded by crunchy white sulfer baked into the ground. At the top was the imprint of a hand, an old shamanistic relic, where Zaibu picked up seven white stones, swung them around her head, and tossed them into the print. The indentation speaks to the religious culture here–the stupa looks nothing like any other Buddhist stupa you will ever see, and elements of it look as if it was once used as a Zoroastrian fire-worship platform, while the Vrangis still use it to practice shamanic (as I think I’ve said before, that’s a rough and pointless word, but the best to use for now) rituals. This region was, for a long time, imbued with shamanistic/naturist/animist legend and ritual that bled slowly into Zoroastrianism with the incursion of Persian peoples, which then bled into Buddhism, which dominated the region until Sufi and Ismaili Muslims slowly gained dominance, creating an idiosyncratic and personalized blended form of faith and religious reappropriation alive and well in the stupa.

Zaibu then pointed across the way to a number of caves carved into the next mountainside, just beyond one of the clifftop graveyards so common in the Pamirs. These, we gathered, were old hermit caves used by Buddhist ascetics and later by guerillas in the war. Then Zaibu took off down the rock face of the cliff, leading Anna by the hand while I scrambled down slowly, along the side, and into one of the hermit caves. By the time I arrived, Zaibu was nowhere in sight, then I heard a noise above. She had climbed up a vertical rock shaft above the hermit cave in her flip flops and was suspended some 15 feet above us, zipping in and out of the caves above us. Meanwhile, the noise attracted small boys from the village, who clambered up the rockface to try to sell us woollen Pamiri socks and slippers, stones they claimed to be famous Badakhshani rubies, and little Pamiri caps (which, we learned, would have saved Mike some trouble as the positioning of the tassel on the cap on one’s head indicates whether one is single, married, or a widower).

After trying to keep up with Zaibu for a time, and failing miserably, we were led back down the cliff to the other side of Vrang, where she called a friend to let us into the local jamoat khana. In broken bits of Farsi and English, I tried to have a discussion with her about Ismailism, which led her to believe that I was an Ismaili–it seems to be common that since Osh, either because I’ve gotten a lot of sun or because I don’t look like the images of Americans one sees in the media here, that people often think I’m from some other culture. After our stop at the jamoat khana, we took a stroll through a big, tree-filled park constructed in honor of the president’s visit at the end of the Civil War, grabbed a cup of tea at the local bar, and then headed onwards.

Beyond Vrang, we hit Yamg, where we found the house of a Sufi mystic, astronomer, philosopher, and musician named Mubarak Kadam Wakhani. Despite severe crackdowns on faith by the Soviets, Wakhani practiced during the height of Soviet influence and I suspect that this recent history of resistance and independent culture may be why the Yamgis have made such a concentrated effort to maintain his house and his traditions–his house is still occupied by a Sufi mystic and master (and a diehard German soccer fan) who maintains Wakhani’s traditions: he plays an instrument constructed by Wakhani and known nowhere else in the world which he claims may only be played for god and is attempting to relearn the process by which Wakhani constructed his own paper from the bark of apricot trees to write his unitarian/universalist poetry and philosophy. Every solstice, when the sun shines through the astronomical sculpture built by Wakhani, he leads the village in commemorations and ceremonies to maintain and refurbish the master’s shrine.

A big beyond Yamg, we found the remains of the 1100s Yamchun Fort, an imposing structure built on a spire cliff and up a ruined staircase separated today from any navigable trail. Though the 1100s are the date given to the fort by archeologists, no one in the surrounding towns seems to agree on the age or provenance of the structure, some claiming it is Afghan and younger, others claiming it is Sogdian and 1800 yeas old. Such is the politics of archeology here–the Kyrgyz residents of Bash Gumbaz argued with their Tajik neighbors over which of their ancestors built the tomb we found, and all flatly rejected the scholastic opinion that it was of Chinese origin. The construction of history and ownership of the land is still contested and vibrant in these areas, so recently independent and so created in and of themselves by the politics and history of the recent age, and it’s often in ruins that the battles of such creation are played out.

Just up the road, we visited the Bibi Fatima Hot Springs, a series of calcite caverns where men and women strip down in separate caves and soak in holy waters. The story, so far as I could interpret it from the locals via German, runs that the waters were once sulphurous and poisonous until Ali and his followers came to the region and saw the plight of the people. Ali then took his knife and stabbed the rocks of the waterfalls and from thereonout holy, pure, and hot water came down into the mountain stream and the caverns in the canyon around it. But the rituals women use in the caverns to increase their fertility, once more, seem more akin to the shamanistic fertility rituals practiced throughout the Pamirs and the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountains.

Beyond the Springs, we stopped at the largest fort we’ve seen thus far–the Khaakha fortress just outside Ishkashim and completely surrounded by cliff face, surmountable only by a steep pass and still employed by the Tajik military for border patrol along Afghanistan. The Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan has felt little if any of the terrors that have engulfed Afghanistan over the past decades, although it is still prime drug trafficking territory, hence the border patrol (although it’s easy enough to infer that this patrol is only ment to keep out traffickers that the Tajik government doesn’t approve of, given how important trafficking is for local economies in this part of the world).

Still, the fact that the region is so heavily influenced by a trans-border culture is obviously of concern to the government. Ishkashim, the regional center of the Wakhan and the official border crossing to Afghanistan, is littered with Tajik flags on this side of the river and Afghan flags on the other, with an unholy number of government buildings, uniformed police and army guardsmen, and billboards everywhere for the now-past 20th anniversary of Tajik independence. Signs of the sovereignty of Tajikistan over the Wakhan are, in Ishkashim, the main attraction and apparently an oppressive part of the economy and the culture, especially given that here, more than anywhere else, you will here the Afghan dialects and see Afghan cultural artifacts on the streets (although Mike and I were told that we could only find Pashtun hats at the large, trans-river Saturday market, which we would miss … we are going out to look for them tomorrow at some Wakhani shops in Dushanbe).

Ishkashim marked the end of another leg of our trip: the end of the Aussies. Throughout Kyrgyzstan, we found predominately Israeli tourists, while from the border through to Ishkashim we found almost entirely Australian tourists, including one girl sitting atop the stupa in Vrang trying to read a book. But from Ishkashim through Khorog, we met almost exclusively Swiss tourists, mainly cyclists. People in the region refer to late June through early August as “the season” and I’m starting to understand that now. The tourists here move like migratory birds, coming in packs of similar nationalities at similar times, possible because of the word of mouth and tourism information in their nation. Hence, it seems, why we get so much circumspection around here, as Americans are a rare breed in the region–it’s not the season for us and we’re a non-local migratory bird.

Despite our super-foreignness, we’ve managed to get by well, though. Tajikistan, for the same reasons I’ve mentioned above about stitching the nation together by force, fearing trans-national cultures, and monitoring the drug trade, has a border checkpoint between every region of the nation and every sub-region of the Pamirs (where they are so ill supplied by the government that, at the Khargush border point into the Ishkashim district, they had no pens and so had to bum one of mine). Yet, despite having passed through over a dozen (no joke) internal border points and having our passports inspected twice as many times, we’ve only had to pay one bribe (10 somoni each) to the military checkpoint outside the capital district, and even then they offered to take an in-kind bribe in cigarettes if we so pleased. I’m quite impressed by the low level of bribe culture in this region, although I have no explanation for it, while I could easily pinpoint it in Kazakhstan.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that by the time we reached Ishkashim, I was admittedly feeling a little invincible. Despite my frailties, shaking hands, weak joints, and the mush that is my brain, my body overall is quite a good one (which I just treat very poorly). But on a better diet in Central Asia, I’ve dropped a bit of weight and started getting a bit more casual exercise and after doing three peaks in one day I found my ability to process air at 12,000-15,000 feet improving, my need for jackets decreasing, my ability to stomach any food and avoid most illnesses flourishing, and my old skill at running down cliffs and keeping pace with locals to be coming back. I’ve not felt quite so healthy in a few years, although I’m far off from the strength and skill of locals. Yet it does seem that the old swamp blood is still in me–I’m made to survive these sorts of environments pretty well.

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