Day 94(2): Our first two bad experiences in Tajikistan (and a pretty good one too!)

Yamchun Travel Blog

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Once again: stunning roads along the Wakhan valley

Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Tim & Wim (Belgium), Thibault & Etienne (France)

“Da” said the soldier with a stern face, “yes”.
“Yes, problem”. 
His grip tightened on the Kalashnikov hanging loosely from his shoulder. Then he slowly pointed the barrel towards us.
“Yes problem” he repeated, once again.

I don't like guns. And I particularly don't like guns being pointed at me. As much as I love new experiences, this is one I could have done without. So how did we get ourselves into this mess?

Well, it started all quite innocently. After we left Ishkashim we drove to the Kakha fortress, some 15 kilometres down the road. Part of this fortress is occupied by the Tajik army, but most of the castle is open for visitors (as is evidenced by a sign at the entrance).

On the way to Kakha fortress
The castle dates from the third century BC and is completely ruined, but the views over the valley from the top of the walls are supposed to be great, so we made an effort to climb up.

As we walked up a soldier spotted us and beckoned us to come over. Once we had exchanged the usual “Hello, where are you from?” formalities and he checked our passports, he told us it was quite dangerous to visit the castle because of snipers on the Afghan side of the border. Then he continued saying we had to pay if we wanted to take pictures of the fortress. It all sounded a bit strange and it was clear to us that he tried to earn some extra money, rather than that there is an actual entrance fee to this castle. When we said we would only pay for one camera, since we didn't need two he got a bit more aggressive, saying that we had to pay 5 Somoni (about $1.
Kakha fortress - don't go here!
10) per person. When we told him we didn't believe there was an entrance fee, he changed his story and told us we had to pay a fine because we were in a restricted area. Wtf? He was the one who had beckoned us to come in the first place. “Time to go”, I said, starting to make my way down again, “screw the castle and screw him”.

That was the point where he pointed his Kalashnikov at us. We had to pay or he would shoot us in the leg, he said. We were in a restricted zone, so he had the right to shoot us.
Dammit! I had seen this coming. We had been warned about this by a girl we'd met in the lodge in Khorog. She had a similar experience at a checkpoint where a soldier threatened to shoot her if she didn't pay.
The Wakhan Valley
While 99% of the people you meet in Tajikistan are lovely people, there are some soldiers who have figured out tourists are an easy target for money. And since the soldiers along the frontier are all but starved and have to get by on less than $1 a day, it is not surprising this is happening.
He had demanded 5 somani per person, and we managed to talk it down to 2 somani per person (so 6 in total) and then we could leave. This whole experience had really pissed me off. I mean, we had given him the equivalent of $ 1.50, so it is not the money that bothered me, but it was just the experience. Dammit, why did he have to ruin our wonderful experience in this country? Everybody so far had been so nice, even the other soldiers we had met. The ones we had met the other night when we camped in front of the roadside restaurant had been a nuisance, but at least they had been friendly and honest.
Bibi Fatimah hot springs

A few kilometres on we saw two French guys we had met in Khorog walking down the roadside. Even though they were on a trekking holiday, they gladly accepted a lift from us. They were heading the same way as we were, the town of Yamchun where there are more hot springs and yet another ruined fortress.

The Bibi Fatima Hot Springs are regarded as the nicest in the region. Unlike the Garam Chasma these weren't open air, but instead two small bathhouses had been built over the spring. As we were walking up to the entrance we were greeted by an old man who wanted to know where we were from. Upon hearing I was from Holland we immediately became best friends. This Sunday is the world cup soccer final and Holland is playing the final for the first time in 32 years.
Seven men in a hot tub... sounds a bit like a South Park episode...
It seems all of Tajikistan is rooting for my country. He arranged that we were given what seemed to be a private bath house, where he and the five of us and only one other Tajik could bathe.

He continued talking in a mixture of Tajik and Russian, which we couldn't really understand, but we just nodded and laughed with him. He seemed particularly amused about the French being only 22. The babies had to drink some vodka, he reasoned and before we knew it he had arranged for a bottle of vodka (actually, it was more like cognac) and a cup so that we could drink some while bathing in the hot spring. Hmm, heat, altitude and alcohol, not the best combination.
According to tradition you can't drink alcohol without food, so we were given a can of, well, something, to go with it.
Yamchun fort
According to the can it contained cow. It looked like cat food. It tasted quite like cat food as well, but somehow it was quite nice with the alcohol (which was also surprisingly nice I must add. Normally you don't get alcohol this good in these countries - at least, not for 3 euros.)

Back down in the village of Yamchun we had another unpleasant surprise. On the way up we had had to ford through a stream in the middle of town. On the way down this little stream had turned into a broad ditch which was impossible for our car to cross. We parked the car and started talking to the locals to try and find out what happened. They told us we would have to wait for the water to subside tomorrow, or for a bridge to come (or at least, that is what we thought they said).
The ditch the locals had created for us, no way you can drive a three tonne Volkswagen van through

More cars came down, all of which were either 4WD or very light Ladas which could easily drive along the small ledge at the upper end of the ditch.
In order for us to be able to ford through we had to make the banks less steep, so we tried to explain this to the locals. They would not hear of it, if we would make the banks less steep the water would run into the village. This did not make any sense. Steep or not, the banks would still be as high.
Another alternative would be to build some sort of bridge or dam with the treetrunks which were lying down the roadside. The villagers would not accept this either. The trees were not theirs, and the village had no trees we could use.

It didn't make any sense. It was hard talking to the locals, with our combined vocabulary of about 30 words of Russian and 10 words of Farsi, but slowly we began to understand what was happening.
Four wheel drive trying to cross the ditch and getting stuck
The stream runs through the middle of the town and quite a lot of cars travel on this road to go to the hot springs. So I can imagine they have some hindrance of water running into the village. So in all their wisdom they had decided to pull this stunt, in order to force either the owners of the hot springs, or the government, to build them a bridge. The fact that the stream was a man-made irrigation channel providing water for the farmlands of the very same village had probably escaped them. After all, damming or diverting the stream would equally solve the problem.

Then another car was unable to cross the ditch, an UAZ van which normally shouldn't have any problems with such a ditch, but the four wheel drive was broken. Judging from the spinning of the wheels (or lack thereof) it was only one-wheel drive.
Tim foolishly trying to drive through and getting stuck
Among the passengers of this little van were two army officials and we hoped they could pull some rank and call the villagers to order. Well, not quite so, although we did manage to convince them of our idea of making the banks less steep. Now that an army official proposed this idea to the villagers instead of some tourists, the villagers accepted it and they let us do our thing. Nobody would lift a finger to help us. In fact, earlier on there had been at least five people with a shovel, but as soon as we started digging and asking people for help, all the shovels magically disappeared. So we only had the one that Tim and Wim had brought with them in the van. The tiny collapsable spade was little match for the hard, rocky ground, so it was almost impossible to dig off the steep banks.
Locals trying to lift and push the car

After some digging and re-positioning stones the UAZ van managed to get through (with about 20 people lifting and pushing the car). Tim got talked into trying to drive his car through the ditch as well, and obviously he got stuck nose-down in the ditch. Dammit, now what...
Still, none of the villagers would do anything to help us. All the help we got was from the passengers of the UAZ van and a Toyota 4WD which had managed to get through the ditch without any problems. It took us nearly an hour to explain to the people that the Toyota would be strong enough to pull our Volkswagen out and that if the rest of the people would help lift the car, it would probably survive the ordeal without too much damage.

Finally, after a lot of shouting and pointing people understood their tasks, and even the village elders agreed that the men of the village should help pulling and lifting.
Stunning views on the Milky Way at night
It was only after we had gotten through that some people started being nice all of a sudden, if we wanted to come and drink some tea at their house. We flatly refused. We were so pissed off about all of this. The fact that they didn't lift a finger to help us, and hid all the shovels when we had come to a plan to rescue the car, we just couldn't believe it. And I think they couldn't understand why we were so pissed off at them either. Refusing an offer for tea is a grave insult in this region, so what had they done to deserve this? To them it was the most normal thing in the world, I guess.

We drove on in the dark for about 15 minutes, until we found what seemed to be a good spot to park and camp. It was close to midnight when we had finished cooking, eating and washing the dishes.
Wonderful night sky
What a day!


(A few weeks later I posted a warning about what happened at the Kakha fortress on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum and immediately got a reply back from the Minister of Culture of Tajikistan, asking me for more details. It seems hopeful that at least the government is trying to do something about this terrible practice. They might better try paying the soldiers a decent salary, but maybe that's just me being cynical...)

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Once again: stunning roads along t…
Once again: stunning roads along …
On the way to Kakha fortress
On the way to Kakha fortress
Kakha fortress - dont go here!
Kakha fortress - don't go here!
The Wakhan Valley
The Wakhan Valley
Bibi Fatimah hot springs
Bibi Fatimah hot springs
Seven men in a hot tub... sounds a…
Seven men in a hot tub... sounds …
Yamchun fort
Yamchun fort
The ditch the locals had created f…
The ditch the locals had created …
Four wheel drive trying to cross t…
Four wheel drive trying to cross …
Tim foolishly trying to drive thro…
Tim foolishly trying to drive thr…
Locals trying to lift and push the…
Locals trying to lift and push th…
Stunning views on the Milky Way at…
Stunning views on the Milky Way a…
Wonderful night sky
Wonderful night sky
Switching on the air-conditioning …
Switching on the air-conditioning…
Etienne, Thibault and me
Etienne, Thibault and me
Enjoying the cow in can at the B…
Enjoying the 'cow in can' at the …
photo by: Biedjee