Tuesday 5th June.
We woke quite early in Landy, part way along the Wakham Valley in the village of Zumudg (less than 1000 inhabitants) which lies between the mountains of the Hindukush on the Afghan side of the river (Panj/Oxus) and the Shakhdara range in Tajikistan, which include Karl Marx Peak (6723) and Engels Peak (6507). I really get the lure of the Wakham Valley.
We were welcomed by brilliant sunshine as I peered out between gaps in our Blidimax blinds and saw a whole posse of villagers waiting near the back of the car, to see what would emerge.
It is a bit weird to be dressing and cleaning teeth etc with people just the other side of our screens including an armed soldier. So we got dressed quickly and hoped they would not knock until we had both got our clothes on!
Jim went off to explain our presence, whilst I sorted out the kettle and my breakfast. At this point in the day, all the flags affixed to the side of the car were intact and Jim did his usual explanation of our project using the flags as visual aids. A common query was why we did not have a flag of Gorno-Badakhshan after Tajikistan? It was becoming clear to us that these people, although taught in Tajik at school, spoke Wakhani at home and felt their link with Tajikistan was less important than their own regional identify.
Whilst we were drinking our tea, one of our visitors raced off on a bicycle with a cheery wave and to our astonishment returned a few minutes later with a loaf of freshly baked bread. We reciprocated with one of our donated bags of crystal sugar! The tradition of hospitality to strangers is very strong here.
The plan today was to visit one of the largest and best preserved forts, Yamchun and also the adjacent Bibi Fatima hot springs. As we had not acquired a Lonely Planet guide, we did not really know what our day would bring. We had been told that vehicle access to the Spring and the Castle was impossible and we prepared ourselves for another long walk at high altitude.
However, they had not really known about the capabilities of Landy and when we saw the uphill sign to our ports of call we did not hesitate. Out we jumped, popped on the 4WD locks and engaged 4WD and we went onwards and upwards. We knew Landy would cope with seriously steep narrow tracks and that we could cope with narrow ledges and vertiginous drops. (I think we actually reached 4,000 metres here - check GPS)
Stunning does not really cover it. I will just drop in a few photos of the Yamchun Fort and you can decide for yourselves.
Arriving at the fort, I decided that the pedestrian route up looked distinctly iffy. Needless to say I could not deter Jim and the best I could manage was to force him to take a walking pole and I perched on an overlooking rock with bated breath for his return. (Photographing the view).
The fort at Yamchun dates back to the 2nd century BC Grecobactrian Empire and was extensively refurbished in the 8&10th Century by the Muslims. It has massive views over the Silk Road and protected the Wakham Silk Road route and enabled taxes to be collected from traders!
Although we understand that it ceased to be occupied by the 13th Century in any fortified way, there were reports as late as 1838 of Zoroastrian Fire Worshippers living in the castle at Yamchun.
The hot springs were further up and we made our way to the end of the track and went to investigate. I am so glad we did because it was a seriously good experience. The water was bath hot and almost uncomfortable. Men and women had separate pools and the changing facilities led down into the natural pools. Local people were there using the facilities and I suspect that it is only tourists that are charged about 1 euro each to enter. The guys in charge were really helpful and in spite of the instructions received I still managed to walk into a pool full of naked young men! I soon found the other pool full of naked young women! I felt a bit overdressed in my swimming costume. It was warm and clean and just amazing floating around in a hot drippy cave with half a dozen local women.
As we came out of the Spring, wet togs in hand, we met up again with our travelling friends we had encountered in Ishkashim and arranged to find them later in the day when we camped in Langar. Their trip and itinerary had been put together by the PECTA office in Khorog.
Jim then took me to one side and reported that the car had been vandalised. What had actually happened was that our Tajik flag had been ripped off. I guess for some Nationalists, our lack of a Gorno-Badakhshan flag was just too much. We now have a sticky gap!
Whilst enjoying the Spring, we were invited for coffee by a woman from Khorog, visiting with her family. She had taken a Government owned holiday home just near the springs, which she could use for free to provide a holiday for her with her daughter with special needs. The support is minimal and she needed a well earned rest. Her daughter really loved soaking in the Spring. Mum worked for the Government Cultural organisation trying to promote and sell local handicrafts from the shop next to PECTA in Khorug. She had excellent English and was very hospitable.
Returning to our car for the second time, we met the three English guys from near Shaftesbury that we had bumped into in Kalaikumb, and every place we had been to since, arriving at the Springs in their old Toyota Hilux. It too had literally risen to the challenge of the remote springs and fort.
Unbelievably we then met Shukrona and her family from Rustan who had, the previous evening, stopped to assist at the accident site. This involved lots more requests for photographs.
We did not have far to go today as we planned to stop in Langar some 60 kilometres away at 2,800 metres, before tackling the seriously high passes that will take us across to Murghob, which are above 4,000 metres. We were probably at 3,400 today at the Bibi Fatima springs, but 4,000 plus is another level. We are both a bit out of puff and slightly light headed and have had very slight occasional headaches, but so far so good in terms of altitude sickness.
(Remember folks we are driving and not really having to exert ourselves massively unless it takes our fancy.)
As we drove through villages on the way to Langar, children and adults alike waved as we passed through. Sometimes looking for a ride and more often just showing amazing amounts of goodwill to those passing through.
A lovely day ended when we decided to camp up in the parking area of a small homestay outside Langar, where our new friends from Singapore who previously worked for the World Bank in Washington, are staying.
We get a meal and use of facilities for 10$ each, without having to pay for an uncomfortable bed. Sounds good to me.
Surrounded by lovely poplar trees, a bubbling brook, warm air, a light breeze with views of the snow capped mountains all round, what is not to like?
The following day, in Langar, we were due to walk up to the highly fancied, Engels Meadow, which is a staging point on one of the highest peaks locally. In the event I was told it was six hours up and six hours down, suffering under the heat of the sun and the effects of high altitude, so Jim and Jean-Paul left just after 6am to tackle it, accompanied by a fasting driver and left me at home to relax under a tree and catch up on chores.
This allowed Jim to have a field day and discuss Thomas Picardy’s Capital and development economics to his hearts content.
Whilst waiting for the intrepids to return in the comfort of 2,800 metres, I peered at the map to see what the next few days have in store for us. And whilst I don’t doubt that Landy will take up to 4344 metres in her stride, we will be constantly at 3630 metres or above for the next week or two unless winched off by helicopter! Tomorrow night we should be in Alichur at 3863 metres. Let us hope that acclimatising gradually actually works. Rest assured that we will let you know.
At around 4.30pm Jim and Jean-Paul returned in the fancy Landcruiser and tumbled out of the car looking slightly worse for wear. Jean-Paul remarked that the walk had taken them beyond their limits and Jim heavily panting collapsed into a chair demanding water. It was to take him a full hour to recover!
He clearly had problems with altitude sickness over the last hundred metres of the climb and managed pretty well given that it was in excess of 1000 metres up and a 10 hour walk in the blazing sun. He did say that I would not have made it as it was quite a strenuous climb. It took Jim a while to tell me anything about the walk, he later revealed that they saw some petroglyphs and an aquaduct to assist in irrigation down below. They also came across more prehistoric Petroglyphs.