Travelling the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan
BY EUGENE ANGJAN 20, 2016
Tajikistan is known for its rugged landscape and majestic mountains, which will be especially evident if you pay a visit to its most famous mountain range, the Pamirs. Dramatic snow-capped peaks, breathtaking views of its valleys, as well as sparsely-inhabited towns and villages are all part of what you can see there.
Located in a region called Kohistani Badakhshan, though most people still refer to it by its Soviet-era abbreviation, GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast), the Pamirs lie in the most remote area of what is already a very remote country.
In this article, I will briefly describe some of the highlights of my journey through the Tajik side of the Wakhan Valley, which I undertook in July 2015.
If you are travelling to the Wakhan Valley from Khorog, Ishkashim will be the first town you will encounter. Do spend some time wandering around this small town, for the local children are very friendly. I spent quite a while with a group of boys who were perpetually screaming for me to take their photos!
The Pamiris are renowned for their hospitality and it is normal for travelers to be invited for tea and snacks. Even though there will most certainly a language barrier if you don’t speak Russian or Tajik, the experience will still be very enriching. I am always heartened to observe how people can be so warm and hospitable to total strangers, even when they themselves do not have much.
You can get some good glimpses of the mountains on the Afghan side of the Wakhan Valley too if you venture out of Ishkashim, which is really easy since the town is really quite small. That said, the area near the Panj River, which demarcates the Tajik-Afghan border, is forbidden to foreigners.
Bibi Fatima Springs
About 1km further uphill from the Yamchun Fortress are the Bibi Fatima Springs. Named after the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, the waters of the springs are believed to increase a woman’s fertility. As a result, the hot springs are a popular destination for Tajik women. There are two different rooms in the compound of the hot springs—men and women alternate between them at regular intervals.
Thanks to renovation works by the Aga Khan Foundation, the Bibi Fatima Springs are said to be the most nicely-furnished in the region. There are three guesthouses near the hot springs and I chose to stay in the one closest to the entrance of the springs. Although there are no showers in the guesthouse I stayed in, the hot springs definitely more than made up for it!
Langar is located near where the Pamir and Wakhan Rivers converge to form the Panj River, which demarcates virtually the entirety of the Tajik-Afghan border westwards of the town. The children of the town are also very friendly. Somehow, they all seem to know at least two English words: “photo” and “homestay.”
While wandering around the town, two boys also brought it upon themselves to lead us to a peaceful and beautiful shrine-garden. It commemorates the man said to have introduced Ismailism (a branch of Shia Islam) to Langar, at least according to Lonely Planet.
In any case, the short five days I spent in the Wakhan Valley itself has not only been a feast for the eyes, but a banquet for the soul. After all, the Pamirs is not a place where one can make firm plans well in advance; neither is it a place packed with the conveniences of a well-established tourism infrastructure. As such, travelling the Pamirs demands a certain mindset: a submission, a letting-go.
But in return, it guarantees a definite experience: a harkening to a lost pureness, perhaps, or even more evocatively, a transcendence of time and space. It is certainly a place where you have to surrender yourself to the imperceptible passage of the days and the unbounded vastness of its lands—and therein lies its sheer beauty.
Research and perspective: A Maherali