The Silk Road, China

Friday, 8 June 2007

A night in a cave in Tajikistan

The trouble with crossing the border by land is that a hut in the middle of nowhere doesn't tend to have some of those facilities you take for granted in an airport. Armed with just an out of date Lonely Planet (which describes Tajikistan as "cutting edge adventure travel" and consequently devotes just a few pages to the entire country) we crossed the border near Samarkand, heading for Penjikent in the north of the country.

We left the friendly Tajik officials in their portacabin behind, both wrinkling our noses in disgust at the yogurt balls (probably mare's milk) that we had so kindly been offered.

What we knew: that there was some trekking to be done in the Fan mountains; that the currency was the somoni; the exchange rate in 2003-4; and that in the same year the minimum wage had been trebled to $1 per month.

What we did not know: what the current exchange rate was; whether we had to use the black market to change money (in Turkmenistan you'd undervalue your money by four times if you didn't); where we might stay the night between the border and the capital Dushanbe (more than a day's drive away); anything at all about Penjikent; and finally whether it was a problem with we had neither a sleeping bag nor a tent between us.

Many of the answers were of course to be found in a chaikhana (teahouse). Having installed ourselves there, we then proceeded to glean as much information from the as we could from the poor waiter who was trying to serve everyone lunch. He went and asked someone at the table opposite the exchange rate: this person later turned out to be the clerk at the bank. (Given the next question about the black market this was a little bit embarrassing.) He changed a small amount of Uzbek for us so that we could pay for our tea and he pointed us in the direction of a hotel in Penjikent which turned out to be a dirty flight of stairs with no one at all at the top of them.

We were sure that already we knew enough about Penjikent and so determined to head for the mountains. There seemed to be a shaky consensus that a bus would leave at some point in the afternoon towards a village called Panjrul which we knew to be trekking distance from the trail head. After one of the best Plovs we have had in Central Asia (this one had chick peas and vegetables in addition to the standard fried rice with mutton) we set off for the bus stop.

The journey to the village was extraordinary. It took more than two hours to travel 30 kilometres (I think I could take on that pace with a pair of trainers) and just when we thought the minibus was bursting at the seams, somehow another gaggle of fifteen women by the roadside managed to squeeze in. There were literally 40 people in the bus: 25 seated and 15 standing. Needless to say, we were a source of immense amusement.

Menacing dark clouds were looming overhead as we drove east: this was not on the programme - our books had told us to prepare for "frighteningly high temperatures." The rain began to pour and finally the bus came to a stop in a tiny village and we found ourselves the only remaining people on it. We had negotiated our ride this far, but - particularly in light of the weather - were quite keen to see if we could go further up the valley to a village called Artuch. Known accommodation was a further 6km slog further up the valley from here, and it was already late afternoon. The driver saw our plight and duly extracted 5 times what we had paid so far to go what amounted to one fifth of the distance.

By the time we had bumped our way up the rocky track the rain had stopped and the sky had begun to clear. Things were looking up; we could walk the 6km to the Alplager (base camp hut) with our packs. Meanwhile, a young girl nearby continued to stare at us as if we had just stepped off a spaceship.

At this point a man approached us and suggested with hand gestures and pidgin English that we stay in his house ("sleeping?") and do the walk in the morning.

Artuch village

Delighted, we accepted and tucked into some delicious noodle soup. Over supper Haratcha told us he could offer us a guide and even a donkey to carry our packs.
We debated both for some time, wondering whether we could make it with our full 20kg packs (books, books, books!) across a 3800m pass, finding shelter for two nights along the way. This was the ideal option, as it would get us much further down the tortuously slow road towards Dushanbe. However, it later transpired that even if we would make it, the donkey would not. Therefore, we opted for a return trip to the pass with lighter packs and no donkey.

At this point Haratcha presented our guide to us with a flourish...

... Afrosyb, his 15 year old son who had been standing there all along!!!

The next day we began the trek up. We walked across deep green alpine meadows and crossed countless icy streams, all the while surrounded by the steepest mountains I have ever seen. The sharp contrast to the flat, tan coloured desert and steppes of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan made the towering mountains even more impressive.

We passed the Alplager after an hour or two, and then the track narrowed to a steep and winding rocky path that seemed to give way under every footstep. The altitude was also surprisingly hard going, but after a good 7 hours walking we finally the high altitude plateau where we would spend the night.

Once again, the weather had closed in, and we wondered how we would cope without a tent. Afrosyb showed us the solution: a cave!

Your room, Sir....

Afrosyb had wandered off to catch some supper in the turquoise blue lake, so we kicked back by the fire in the cave and the snow began to fall outside. Towards the end of the afternoon the sky cleared to reveal the dazzling white 5000m peak in front of the cave. A spectacular sunset followed...

Afrosyb had caught supper in a simple but highly effective way. He placed a net over a hole at the centre of a stone dam he had built across the stream and walked around the pond poking under stones with a stick and making noises. This is fishing as it's meant to be; it was very little effort and delivered the goods!

Freshly caught fish

At this point our fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach began to unravel a little ... As night fell the temperature dropped like a stone. We both put on EVERYTHING we had and climbed into our borrowed (and not particularly warm) sleeping bags and proceeded to shiver our way through the night. To cap it all, the next day it emerged that our 'guide' had brought way too little food (i.e. bread) with him and furthermore deemed that the sugar he was carrying was his and not ours! (Sugary tea is always a good energy boost).

So we completed our climb to 3,800m on starvation rations, literally spinning out tiny chunks of Snickers as long as we could. Food REALLY tastes good when you actually need it... The view from the pass was spectacular (photos on the proper camera, sadly...), and we felt no small sense of achievement; we had climbed 2,000 vertical metres from the village.



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