At 6 am on September 21st, seven students and I crammed into two jeeps and headed east. Although it was still hot in Dushanbe, we carried backpacks filled with sweaters and jackets; we were told that it would be cold up on the “Roof of the World.” Our excursion to Badakhshan would take us across Tajikistan and back, a seven-day journey through the Pamir Mountains, some of the highest in the world.
The first day took us east from Dushanbe past the Nurek Dam, the tallest dam in the world and a pillar of Tajikistan’s economy, and then south to the city of Kulob, the birthplace of President Rahmon and now one of the most important centers of political influence in Tajikistan. After Kulob, we joined the Panj River along the border with Afghanistan and made our way into the mountains. Nine hours after leaving Dushanbe, we stopped for the night in the town of Qal’ai Khumb, a common stopping point for travelers heading to Badakhshan, and whose alternate name, Darvaz, means “gateway.” Before bed, as we sat together on a hill above our guesthouse, we watched as the moon rose over Afghanistan.
The next morning, we set off along the Pamir Highway toward Khorugh, the capital of the Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Province. The highway, hardly more than a single-lane dirt road, wound us along precarious cliffs that only grew steeper and steeper. As we ascended through the mountains, each valley that we came to seemed even more dramatic and beautiful than the last. After seven hours on the road, we arrived in Khorugh, a charming town of 28,000 set between the mountains and covered in poplar trees. We ate dinner next to the river and spent the evening learning to play Durak, a Russian card game popular in Tajikistan.
The next morning we set out to explore Khorugh. We had heard that Pamiri socks were famous, so we headed to the bazaar to put our haggling skills to work. On the way, we noticed that there seemed to be even more government propaganda on billboards and posters in Khorugh than there was in Dushanbe. Badakhshan, isolated from the rest of Tajikistan by the Pamir Mountains, has had an interesting history, including an occasionally fraught relationship with the central authorities since Tajikistan’s independence. During the Tajik Civil War in the 1990s, the local government in Badakhshan declared independence, and just last year fighting broke out in Khorugh between government forces and local powerbrokers. After exploring the city’s central park and a local museum, and with an excessive number of brightly colored Pamiri socks in tow, we headed back to the jeeps to continue our journey.
Over the next two days, we continued along the Panj River and the Afghanistan border, climbing higher and higher through the Pamirs. On the way, we stopped to look at ancient petroglyphs and explored shrines used for fire rituals so old that they pre-date the introduction of Islam in Central Asia. We bathed at a local hot springs, and we climbed up to a crumbling fort with a vast view of the valley, said to have been one of the greatest defense fortifications in the ancient Wakhan. We drove through dozens of tiny villages, catching glimpses of daily life along the way: a boy choosing a sheep from the flock that would be the night’s dinner, a woman tending to the crops in the small plot of land that she owned. One night, at dinner, our host and his son treated us to a traditional Pamiri song played with local instruments, and our driver took this opportunity to teach us how to dance like a Tajik. After dinner, when we walked outside, the night sky was so clear it felt as if you could see the entire galaxy.
Our final day exploring new territory took us along the Wakhan Corridor and up to the Pamir Plateau. Here, at around 14,000 feet, vegetation largely disappeared, and the landscape became a wasteland of rocks and dust. At that altitude, the air was so thin that we had to catch our breath after walking just a few feet. In the middle of the Plateau, we stopped for a break next to a small, murky pond surrounded by hills. Standing in that dusty, desolate valley, miles and miles from civilization, I had the eerie feeling that even the stones here were lonely. I realized then that this was the most isolated place on Earth I had ever been. I was truly on the Roof of the World.
After crossing the Pamir Plateau, we descended back to Khorugh and spent the next two days on our journey back to Dushanbe. None of us were ready to go home. We had spent a week traveling across Tajikistan, a country no larger than the state of Iowa, but there was still so much left to explore. “Oh my god,” said one of the other students, as we made our way back to Dushanbe. “We missed Murghab. Okay, now I have no choice. I’ve got to come back…”
Posted by Aaron / 10.15.2013