Along the Afghan Border

Ishkashim Travel Blog

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The beautiful Pyanj River and Afghanistan on the other side

My first taste of the true GBAO (as the Gorno-Badakshan region is still abbreviated) travel experience was a rollicking marshrutka ride along the Pyanj River from Khorog to the border town of Ishkashim in southwestern Gorno-Badakshan. Famed for its Saturday Afghan bazaar, Ishkashim is the main town in the Wakhan Valley and as I was to find out, the last bastion for cell phone reception in the area and devoid of any Internet connections.

After rushing around Khorog in the morning, I crammed in the last remaining seat in a full marshrutka, facing backwards and sitting in the middle. Within less than a minute, we were bumping along the rocky road headed south, my leg and butt muscles working overtime to keep me from falling into surrounding passengers' laps.

The Central Asian jump-start method
Two girls sitting across from me began giggling as I smiled to them and soon we were attempting to communicate in a series of broken languages. The Tajik-Russian-English phrasebook I'd bought in Dushanbe came in handy as an icebreaker when Nasiba, the girl sitting directly across from me, asked if she could have it. After relinquishing the book and signing it, we tried to make small talk. Her friend Nazarmo, who looked almost exactly like Lindsay Lohan, jumped in and occasionally the two traded whispers and snickered frequently as we made our way along the bumpy road. Nazarmo kindly shared with me some tut, or dried white mulberries, which seem to be the popular snack in these parts.

One of the most stunning views of the trip happened to occur when we stopped to assist a helpless Lada, which was surrounded by five men looking cluelessly under the hood.

Afghans carrying bundles of kindling through the high mountains (this is an extreme close up from across the river to a point very high on the opposite cliff)
Taking advantage of the opportunity to get out and have a decent look at the scenery, I was amazed to find that we were in somewhat of a wide gap completely surrounded by high, rocky mountain peaks and a portion of the Pyanj below that was filled with large boulders. The vivid turquoise currents rushed through the narrow spaces between the large rocks. The air was cool and pure and the sky azure. We paused for about 40 minutes while a team of men attempted--three times--to push the ailing Lada down the hill so it could start and resume its journey. Before they were eventually successful, an old man who had joined us at the previous stop, pointed across the river to a point near the top of one of the mountains on the Afghan side. I didn't understand what he was saying and didn't see at first, but then I noticed a few moving specks and realized with awe that there were people walking down the side of the mountain.
The stinky but pleasantly warm Garm Chashma hot springs near Anderob village
I could make out three people, carrying sticks or straw, carefully skitting down the nearly vertical veneer. We then spotted four or five other people walking along a thin but more level path, where they eventually met. Even the Tajik passengers were stunned to see how their Afghan neighbors lived.

According to my unreliable guidebook, the trip was to take three hours, but the time was doubled due to frequent stops for benzin (gas), nasvai (the semi-narcotic substance almost all men stuff in between their teeth and gums every chance possible), passenger pick ups/drop offs, assisting broken down cars or random chatting. It seems that everyone on the marshrutka knew everyone we saw in every single town along the way, and so some passengers stopped to briefly see relatives along the way. Lucky for me, one of our stops included a 14-kilometer roundtrip detour to the famed Garm Chasma, a natural hot springs just off the road from Anderob village. The site was easily visible by its phosphorescent yellow-green color and a bubbling spring at the top. There was plenty of time to climb to the top of the formation and get a glimpse of the acrid sulfur-smelling water steaming and gurgling from its source. Rumor has it that the water is said to cure skin diseases, and although I had no current ailments, I rinsed my hands in its warm, mineral waters. I can only report that aside from feeling comfortably warm, it only provoked one of my hangnails to bleed. Perhaps touching the water requires first a dermatologic condition.

The journey continued, past continually spectacular scenery of sharp rocky cliffs, rushing Caribbean-blue rapids, villages on either side of the border filled with adobe, stone or thatch houses, and occasional herds of sheep or cattle and boys riding donkeys with sacks of flour and grain. We encountered only about 15 vehicles during the entire 6-hour trip. Since it was my first rough ride of the trip and the scenery so amazing, I hardly took notice of the length and relative discomfort of the ride. We rolled into town about an hour and a half before dusk, with the girls helping me find the guesthouse at the end of town. I was relieved that I decided to take public transportation rather than hire a private jeep, and beamed excessively at the adventure the day had blessed me with.

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The beautiful Pyanj River and Afgh…
The beautiful Pyanj River and Afg…
The Central Asian jump-start method
The Central Asian jump-start method
Afghans carrying bundles of kindli…
Afghans carrying bundles of kindl…
The stinky but pleasantly warm Gar…
The stinky but pleasantly warm Ga…
photo by: Deats