Monday, May 05, 2008

Three Stans - Ishkashim

Ishkashim, May 5, 2008 cloudy and about 65

The last 2 1/2 days define what travel is all about. Let me go backwards! Look at far SW China....running out of it is a razor thin corridor of Afghanistan called the Wakhan illusion is that China is the mother, the Wakhan the umbilical cord and Afghanistan is the still attached baby. Get a good map and it will make sense. Aysegul and I are now is Ishkashim a town both in Tajikistan AND Afghanistan, the last town traveling east in this bizarre, superbly jammed with snow capped peaks utterly extraordinary part of our world. I am attempting to send this from the Aga Khan Foundation, the "lord highness' of the Ismali people who inhabit both sides of the border. We are based at the Serena Inn built by His Highness and as a matter of fact I not only sleep in his bed.

We left Dushanbe a 530 AM Sunday for the Air Tajik fights to/from Khorog high in the Pamirs have been cancelled because of "clouds".....the drive is astounding: leaving the capital on a normal road, it deteriorates into a rocky dirt track for 125 km. Our driver Hami looks rather like a wizened troll.

Suddenly we reach the PYANJ (pee-ange) River, quite a roaring stream like the Arkansas around Canon City...and on the other side of the river for 350-odd km Afghanistan is to our times close enough to wave to children...the land looks peaceful though the villages are stunningly poorer than the ones in Tajikistan. The Soviet Union definitely brought a level of prosperity here as well as utterly liberating its women. No wonder there were so many Soviet sympathizers in Northern Afghanistan. Traveling with us is the very pretty late 30s wife of the best friend of the Khorog travel agent, his daughter and her friend...returning home to the mountains after studies in Dushanbe...all speaking wonderfully creditable English. At one big town we break for lunch at the university roommate of Amahl, the mother.....lovely fruits, cold roasted chicken, apricot and cherry juice, kefir and yoghurts and home made bread all around.....then on the road again which has deteriorated one point we drive on jagged stones under a sizable water fall...I do not exaggerate. Next: VOILA we hit a superb stretch of 3 lane cement highway built by Turkish Aid. It is Tajikistan there are police checkpoints about each 50 km....this helps create employment and also hopefully helps stem the opium/heroin trade from IS May and the poppy fields are in full bloom red to the horizon across the Pyanj. Dusks falls and it is not safe to drive the road which has turned back into a rutted track.We stop at a little town, Kolekum, where Amahl's husband has a friend. The guy, dashing and rather suave has room for everyone but me and the driver in his house. So we large lodged in a sort of guesthouse next door....which we share with about 10-12 Tajik army noncoms who lounge around and try to use their ultra limited English with me...again, utterly surreal. Tajiks by the way are very good looking people...the women remind me often of the late movie star Teresa Wright....the men look at bit like the late Cornell Wilde.

I sleep amazingly soundly though snores come from every part of this two story wooden house. Breakfast is brought at 5:30 AM including fine homemade bread actually warm from the oven with home churned butter, local honey, kefir and yoghurt and Nescafe. Nescafe in Tajikistan seem to have a soignée cachet.....Aysegul reports that her house (where she slept in an enormous room with the three other women) was lovely and comfortable with all of the mod coms. We had no electricity in ours but I had my trusty LL Bean flashlight and lo and behold there was a western styled toilet. No hot water, no shaving.

The topography becomes wilder and wilder.....jagged snow capped peaks in literally every direction....well cultivated valleys (in Afghanistan too) and many adobe-type houses looking oddly like a Central Asian Santa Fe. Lorraine poplar by the thousands (they are quick growing and their long timbers are prized for construction). There are lots of roses in the villages, bluebonnets and huge forsythia bushes. The apricot and cherry trees bloom. I am an awfully long way from home.


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