Weekend in Ishkashim

Ishkashim Travel Blog

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Afghan traders and an Afghani border guard pose for the camera

Saturday morning, October 25th, happened to be the date of the biweekly Afghan bazaar, about 3.5 kilometers east of town. For one somoni each, Lim, a traveler from Singapore I'd met at the guesthouse, and I hitched a ride to the border post around 8:30 am. Aside from seeing the market, we hoped to find rides to our respective destinations. That early the bazaar hadn't even opened yet, but several people were lined up [sic] at the gates waiting for the border guards to allow them to set up their tarps. After about 30 minutes of waiting, the guards let in all the sellers, roughly one at a time, from the Tajik side. From the Afghan side it was evident that the throngs of people there were also being let in group by group. It didn't take long for the sellers to set up their plastic tarpaulin on the rocks and sand in an enclosed yard directly midway between the border gates in no-man's-land.

An Afghani spice seller
Lim recognized a man he'd stayed with at Yamchun in the Wakhan Valley, and introduced me and it was agreed that I'd head back with him. I was relieved I had found a ride so quickly, and after unwillingly relinquishing our passports to the border police, Lim and I headed to the market.

The size of a soccer field, the bazaar was a series of vendors on tarps selling a random assortment of goods, some of which they likely carried in on their backs from several miles away. There were some sellers specializing in one thing, such as fruit or jewelry, and there were some items only found at one vendor in the entire market, such as Afghan headscarves, carpets and sewing machines. A few people sat disheveled in front of their collection of clothing items, toys and matches, most of which would not even be fit for a "free stuff" box at a yard sale.

In the midst of the Afghan market on the border
Others had impressive collections of multicolored fabric, intricately carved graphite, unusual and fragrant spices, or car battery grease. Among the other goods for sale were such things as stuffed animals, soap, cream (in small juice boxes), cell phones, light bulbs, shampoo, sweaters, cans of warm Pepsi, socks, motor oil, lanterns, nasvai, bras, cookies and Aga Khan memorabilia. One section of the bazaar was devoted to food, and plastic tables and chairs were set up next to cauldrons of plov, shashlyk stands and tables with thermoses of tea. The bazaar hit its high point at around 11:30, with most people arriving between 9-11 and leaving between 12-2. After noon, the winds picked up and it became blustery and cool.
Ishkashim's main street on a Sunday
I last spotted Tabakal, my ride to Yamchun, shortly after I had a cup of tea and two pirozhkis for lunch. Then I waited for a couple hours trying to find him, but despite his unique blue-and-white striped cap, he apparently left without me.

At first I was pretty worried and frustrated, knowing that I would now need to spend the weekend in Ishkashim since I'd missed my chances for other rides and it was universally agreed that transport on Sundays was highly unlikely. Having spent most of the day at the bazaar, I saw it unfold and by the time I left around 2pm, there were only about 100 people left, down from probably 2000 or more at its peak. In my desperation to find Tabakal, an English-speaking girl approached me and asked if she could help.

The basketball boys: Majnun, Dima and Farumuz
I supposed an American amidst Tajiks and Afghanis was pretty obvious, especially with one of my hands acting as a visor to shield my eyes from the blowing dust and glaring sun trying to spot that cap, just to give him the benefit of the doubt. Farida, my new friend, interpreted and asked around to find that indeed Mr. Yamchun had left. I was a little upset, but chalking it up to miscommunication and not insisting on a specific time to meet, I decided I was going to make the most of my weekend in town. By that time it was even too late to score a ride back to Ishkashim with a taxi, so Farida, her sister Oista and neighbor Zohir, started walking back to town. The long, slow walk took about an hour, and I insisted on helping Farida carry one of the heavy boxes she had purchased at the bazaar.
Hangin' by the Pyanj River at the Afghanistan border
All cars that passed us were packed full of goods and had no room for any combination of the four of us.

Arriving back at the guesthouse exhausted and saying goodbye to Farida and crew, I decided it was a perfect and necessary opportunity to wash my clothes and take a shower. By the time I finished my domestic duties, I discovered four tourists had arrived, all having been traveling together in a jeep on the Pamir Highway all the way from Osh, Kyrgyzstan. It was a nice diversion to chat it up with other travelers and it made the relatively slow night pass pleasantly.

Sunday I took it easy and strolled around Ishkashim, which in itself only took about 20 minutes, but I met a group of four boys who invited me to play basketball with them, so with nothing better to do, having reached the end of town, I decided that despite my lack of any type of sports ability, I could manage shooting some hoops with the local kids.

New friends in Ishkashim (Gulshan is to my right; Zuhra with her daughter on my left)
It was actually fun, we just practiced free throws from various angles. The goal was netless and only about 8 inches from the top of my head, so I proudly was able to slam dunk the ball several times. The court doubled as a volleyball court (also netless) and was nothing but dirt, but with enough rock that the basketball bounced with enough inertia that it reached just below my hips.

After the sports interlude, the boys and I walked through a turkey farm and on along the outskirts of town to the banks of the Pyanj, where we attempted to throw stones onto the Afghan shore. Rahmon, the taller and more sporty of the group, threw his stone within inches of the shore, but at least mine was halfway. It was an interesting moment to be standing on the shores so close to a country everyone's heard so much about. The river flowed past so peacefully it was hard to imagine how much war and hardships the other side continues to endure.

It was a little past lunchtime and I was eager to try a local restaurant, so after showing my pictures to Farumuz, Majnun, Dima and Rahmon, I waved them goodbye and headed for the center of town. I counted four cafes and one restaurant in Ishkashim, but the only cafe open did not have food and the restaurant was closed for a private function, so I spent about 30 cents on a "lunch" of tut and coconut cream wafers from Afghanistan and walked back to the guesthouse. On my way I met Zuhra, who I'd first met near the basketball court and who this time invited me to dinner, my first official personal invitation to a Tajik home.

The wafers, which did not contain cream filling of any kind, were dreadful, and resembled spray-foam insulation more than anything edible, yet I managed to down the entire tiny package. I informed the guesthouse owners that I'd be going out for dinner, as they'd been providing meals up to that point. I took a nap, shaved and changed into new clothes before heading to Zuhra's armed with my flashlight as the twilight evaporated into night around 6pm. Zuhra's sister Gulshan spoke some English and their mother, a delightful woman with a radiant and genuine smile, spoke German. Their father, a retiree, sat down and spoke to me in Tajik while Gulshan translated where necessary, which was most of the time since my Russian responses weren't very elaborate.

The main course for dinner was a local favorite called saovs, or basically meat and potatoes in a sort-of gravy cooked on a "bonfire," as Gulshan explained, as the pleasant smoky taste accounted for. They all wanted me to stay, but I promised I would if I passed through Ishkashim again. The mother presented me with a pair of home-knitted stockings, which will be perfect for Christmas time. After we took some pictures and talked more, I was walked back to the guesthouse by two sons of their uncle, who lived nearby. It was a great way to end the weekend in an otherwise dusty, dull frontier town.

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Afghan traders and an Afghani bord…
Afghan traders and an Afghani bor…
An Afghani spice seller
An Afghani spice seller
In the midst of the Afghan market …
In the midst of the Afghan market…
Ishkashims main street on a Sunday
Ishkashim's main street on a Sunday
The basketball boys: Majnun, Dima …
The basketball boys: Majnun, Dima…
Hangin by the Pyanj River at the …
Hangin' by the Pyanj River at the…
New friends in Ishkashim (Gulshan …
New friends in Ishkashim (Gulshan…
photo by: Deats