FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, DEC. 17, 2009
BY 9 IN THE MORNING, the bazaar on a rocky island in the Panj River was a frenetic scene of haggling and theatrics. Afghan traders in long tunics and vests hawked teas, toiletries and rubber slippers. Turbaned fortune tellers bent over ornate Persian texts, predicting futures for the price of a dollar. Tajik women bargained over resplendent bolts of fabric. All were mingling this bright Saturday at a weekly market held throughout the year and, in one form or another, for thousands of years here in the Wakhan Valley, which divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
“Mousetraps, mousetraps, mousetraps, oooowww!” crooned a white-bearded Afghan in the Iranian language spoken by locals from both sides of the border.
“They don’t buy!” complained a high-heeled shoe salesman from Kabul to me, in English.
“They always start the price too high,” a Tajik woman in a blue patterned dress and headscarf whispered as she stood before bright red carpets, appearing seductive against a monochrome mountain backdrop.
As the sun rose higher, I joined the crowds — young Tajik men in sporty shirts and jeans, uniformed border guards, families — seeking shade under rainbow umbrellas to eat rice palov, served from large cauldrons. Across the market grounds, I could see three lipsticked Korean women in straw hats dispensing balloon animals to a captivated group of men and boys.
East meeting West, North meeting South: since time immemorial, the Wakhan Valley, in the Pamir Mountains, has existed at the intersection of trails trodden by nomads, peddlers, pilgrims and, at times, the soldiers and emissaries of great powers. When I’d thought about traveling to see this rugged branch of the ancient Silk Road, it had seemed like an adventure to the far-flung periphery of the world. Now, as I looked around the market, taking the long view of history, it felt more like the center.
During the last century, this long-strategic nexus of Asia, earlier crossed by Scythians, Persians, Greeks, Kushans, Hephtalites, Gokturks, Huns, Arabs and Mongol hordes, became a cul-de-sac at the command of the Russians. In 1929 Stalin’s mapmakers created the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan, a territory about the same size as New York State, 93 percent mountainous, given shape in the artificial (though politically expedient) manner in which all the Central Asian republics were drawn. A Soviet vision of a model Oriental capital was built around the market village of Dushanbe — pleasant and leafy, if dull, with a wide central avenue, pastel-colored buildings, the standard apartment blocks and some grand monuments meant to be honored from afar. (Make the innocent mistake of approaching one, as I did, and you give an underpaid policeman an excuse to seek a bribe to overlook the offense.)
The Soviets brought universal education and health care, but banned the Persian alphabet, erasing Tajiks’ literary history, and outlawed the practice of Islam. At independence in 1991, Moscow left behind an impoverished and fractured country that soon plunged into a bloody civil war. Tajikistan emerged in 1997 corrupt but safe, ailing but reasonably stable. Before long, foreign tourists began to trickle in.
After the three legs of my flight from New York, armed with a visa and special permit to visit the Pamir region, I arrived in Dushanbe during a stifling week last July. The Russians gave the city a rail link west to Uzbekistan, and they paved a road east, toward Kyrgyzstan, that is known today as the Pamir Highway and increasingly draws foreign mountain bikers and motorcyclists.
“Highway” is a generous classification for it. It took me 20 hours to travel the dusty 325-mile stretch from Dushanbe to the provincial center of Khorog in a shared taxi, flat-tire breaks included. The road climbs over craggy, treeless mountains and falls into tidy villages with apricot trees. It is interrupted by several checkpoints, including one in a valley through which heroin and opium are trafficked — and to which, news reports say, militants have begun returning — north from Afghanistan.
At this checkpoint, a burly man wearing fatigues and a Harley-Davidson hat introduced himself as Muhammad Ali, asked for my bag, and called for the dog. Out came a small, floppy-eared lapdog that agents practically had to drag over to sniff my backpack. “He must be starving,” Muhammad Ali joked. “Just open the bag.” I was sent on my way, wondering if those were my tax dollars at work. Last year the United States spent $1.7 million to counter narcotics in Tajikistan.
KHOROG, a relaxed town of 28,000 in the heart of the western Pamirs, sits across the Panj River from Afghanistan. Its isolation largely spared it from the civil war of the 1990s, but a humanitarian crisis crippled the area after Soviet handouts came to an end. A savior came in the form of a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself, the Aga Khan, a Swiss-born businessman who owns racehorses and a yacht club on Sardinia and is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim sect to which most Pamiri people have belonged for a thousand years. The community-supported charitable organization over which he presides, the Aga Khan Development Network, resuscitated Khorog, which now has two universities, new construction and a young, optimistic population.
Winters can be long and raw, but in summer the balmy air, rustling fruit trees and pedestrian bridges spanning a jade river make Khorog a nice base for exploring the Pamirs. Through an agency, I had arranged to meet a driver and translator there to guide me for a week, first south to the Wakhan Valley and then through it to Murghab, a town in the eastern Pamirs. We would sleep at a network of homestays.
The next morning we set out in a former Russian Army jeep, leaving the Pamir Highway to head south on a paved road along the Panj River, which defines much of Tajikistan’s 830-mile border with Afghanistan. Brown, gravelly slopes rise steeply from the river toward snow-capped peaks beyond view. The rustic adobe homes and donkey trails that I could see on the opposite, Afghan bank seemed suspended in a different time.
The Pamir region was renowned in antiquity for its rubies (technically, spinel) and lapis lazuli. The most famous mine, Kuh-i-Lal — though closed to the public — came into view above the road. It was the source, I later learned, of the 170-carat Black Prince’s Ruby now in the Imperial State Crown of Britain.
At a turn, the white crowns of the Hindu Kush appeared, and we entered the 85-mile-long Wakhan Valley, a fertile quilt of wheat fields along the Panj River, “situated among the snowy mountains,” as the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang described it.
I arrived at the Saturday bazaar, with its mousetraps and fortune-telling, by 9 a.m. and stayed until the island began to empty, in early afternoon. I talked with a blue-eyed Afghan policeman sporting Bushnell binoculars and a Leatherman toolkit and later passed a Tajik boy wearing a cap that read “Berkeley, Califopnia.” He reacted indifferently after I explained that I actually came from there. I realized that such sights are probably no more remarkable today than, say, a Chinese visitor here in the sixth century encountering Italians in silk shirts, or a Sogdian seen with the latest gadgets from the army of Alexander the Great, who crossed the Panj River in 329 B.C. At this ancient intersection, surreal juxtapositions of globalization date back for millenniums.
In the town of Ishkashim, adjacent to the market, we visited the crumbling remains of a sixth-century caravansary — an ancient motel for Silk Road travelers. Then we drove on eastward in the Wakhan Valley, passing roadside shelters decorated in pebbled mosaics conveying messages of Soviet propaganda, until we reached the remnants of a sprawling stone fortress occupying a prominent rock above the Panj. A plaque in Tajik and English explained that this was the King’s Castle, constructed in the third century B.C. by the Siah-Posh, a tribe of black-robed fire-worshipers (probably Zoroastrian), to defend the Wakhan from intruders.
I followed the small footpaths meandering among the ruins and thought of Samarkand, the fabled Silk Road oasis in Uzbekistan whose restoration has stripped much of its character, and Kashgar, China, overrun by modern Han society. The contrasting authenticity — and fragility — around me here was reflected on a plaque: “Your responsible treatment of the sites during your visiting them is appreciated as your contribution to the preservation of historical monuments.”
I spent two days exploring the detritus of history littered across the Wakhan Valley: rocks with Arabic inscriptions, petroglyphs, imposing fortresses, stones that were once arranged to determine the spring solstice and hot springs rumored to boost female fertility (I was the only man visiting these).
Small shrines to Ismaili holy men line the roadside. Each has its own legend, and is ornamented with special stones and curled ibex and sheep horns, symbols of purity under Aryan and Zoroastrian religious traditions, which predate Islam in the region.
Men, women and children strolled up and down the road between their villages and wheat fields. I offered lifts to old ladies in colorful embroidered skullcaps who showed gratitude by touching my chin and kissing their hands.
In a village called Yamg, we turned in where a sign announced a museum, and a teenager named Nasim opened the building with a key. The museum is in the home of his distant ancestor Muboraki Wakhani, Nasim explained, a little-known mystic poet, musician, astronomer and prolific Ismaili scholar of the late 19th century. Inside, artifacts from the ages were displayed, none behind glass: a tattered gold-and-blue imam’s robe, purportedly from the 12th century; 15th-century Chinese copper kettles; clay jugs from the storied Uzbek city of Bukhara; pipes, knives and yak horn cups; Stone Age beads; wooden stringed instruments carved into crude human figures.
Nasim invited me to his family’s house for lunch, and we followed him down a dirt pathway. Wheat, apricots, mulberries and dung lay on the flat roof to dry. The stone-and-plaster architecture was typical of traditional homes throughout the Pamirs, rich in symbolism that includes elements of ancient Aryan and Buddhist philosophy. For Ismailis living here, the home is itself a symbol of the universe and serves instead of a mosque as a place for prayer.
Nasim’s father, Aydar, mustached and wearing a track suit, led me into a main room divided, according to tradition, into three areas signifying the kingdoms of nature: animal, vegetable and mineral. Five supporting pillars represented the five members of the family of the prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali: the one for Muhammad, left of the entrance, is traditionally where a newborn’s cradle is placed and where newly married couples sleep.
Light beamed in through a skylight framed by four concentric square wood layers, representing earth, water, air and fire. Under it Aydar’s daughter laid a spread of raisins, peanuts and berries, potato and corn soup, fresh round flatbread and salty milk tea, which is passed and received with one hand to the heart. As Marco Polo noted, the language in the Wakhan Valley is different even from the Iranian dialects spoken in other Pamir valleys. But Aydar spoke some English and Russian, which was translated for me. I asked him how long his family had lived here.
Aydar told of a legend about a hotheaded emir in the 15th century who killed an entire family save one boy, who fled north, married and had three sons. One son returned to the valley years later, and eventually the two others followed with their families; these were Aydar’s ancestors. The dates were vague, but I was awed by a family story that began 600 years ago.
After lunch, we continued on to the nearby village of Vrang, where children were tending sheep below a tiered stone stupa built on a rocky perch by sixth-century Buddhists. “Buddha, Buddha,” Somon, a local boy, said, cupping his hands in a pantomime of meditation. He volunteered to guide me up to the stupa’s ancient rocks. I sat there looking at sunset over the Pamir crest, coloring the valley from on high like light slanting through clerestory windows, at moonrise above the Hindu Kush — and at Somon, who was eager to climb down. “Homestay?” he asked sweetly, pointing to a faintly lighted house in the birches below. I followed him there.
“Having left this place, and traveled three days, always among mountains,” a man “ascends to a district which is said to be the highest in the world,” Marco Polo reported 700 years ago, describing the climb north from the Wakhan Valley to the 13,000-foot-high desert plateau in the eastern Pamir from which several major ranges — the Himalaya, Karakorum, Hindu Kush, Kunlun and Tien Shan — fan out across Asia. The same journey took us three hours in our temperamental jeep, passing Stone Age petroglyphs, a lone Soviet watchtower, two Swiss mountain bikers and (across a tributary of the Panj, demarcating the border) Afghan traders leading a caravan of double-humped Bactrian camels.
“Along this high plain, which is called Pamier, he sees neither habitation nor verdure,” Polo went on, and until late in the Soviet period, the majority Kyrgyz population that endures this extreme realm known to early Persians as the Roof of the World remained mostly nomadic. The few permanent settlements today have a weathered, frontier character: tin roofs, rusty vehicle parts, satellite dishes.
We rejoined the Pamir Highway in the Alichur Valley, a 40-mile-long thin grass steppe ringed by low, rounded mountains, where Kyrgyz families come to graze their animals, setting up summer yurt camps. “Authentic” would only lamely describe the timeless, pastoral serenity of this place, or suggest the bliss I felt on my first star-filled night there reclining on hand-woven carpets by a warm iron stove inside a yurt, dipping bread into freshly churned yak butter, listening to Kyrgyz spoken in hushed tones.
Farther east, at Besh Gumbez, we visited the domed ruins of a caravansary and later passed a caravan of Chinese trucks laden with inexpensive household goods, parked beside the road. The drivers, Uighurs from Kashgar bound for Dushanbe, crouched in the shade beside the tires with a propane tank and a box of peppers, preparing lunch. In antiquity the caravans carried exotic luxuries like silk, jade, porcelain, furs, dyes, tea and spices; what a different sense the phrase “made in China” evokes today.
We split off the Pamir Highway and spent the next four days bouncing across a stark moonscape on jeep tracks that connect remote shepherd camps. One morning we saw a family out in the open air near their adobe home, rolling damp, matted wool into felt for the walls of a yurt. Curd balls lay drying on the roof. The grandfather, Mamajan, wearing a cardigan sweater and knitted skullcap, invited me for steamed meat dumplings and tea.
“Are there places like this in America?” he asked in Russian, waving around at the craggy, mineral-stained earth.
“Yes, a place called Nevada,” I replied.
Mamajan filled and refilled cups of green tea as we dabbed warm flatbread into bowls of butter and fresh yogurt. His grandparents were from present-day Kyrgyzstan. They were rich, he said, before the Soviets took their sheep. Mamajan was a bookkeeper during the Soviet period. He switched back to farming after independence and sells wool and meat, and dung for winter fuel.
By the age of 19, Mamajan claimed, he already had nine children. “You’re 32?” he asked me. “Why aren’t you married?” No explanation I could offer would suffice.
“ALL kinds of animals abound,” Marco Polo noted here, “in particular, a species of sheep with horns of three, four, and even six palms long. The horns are heaped up in large quantities along the road, for the purpose of guiding travelers during winter.” They still are, but the world’s largest sheep — named after Polo — is now endangered. I encounter only traces: their footpaths and magnificent skulls, strewn eerily across the barren landscape. Foreign hunters, mostly American, pay $25,000 to bag one. We passed a hunting camp that is temporarily closed so that sheep numbers can rebound.
My last homestay, on the far side of Tajikistan, was at an isolated yurt pitched on the edge of an expansive valley facing a spectacular panorama of the serrated Wakhan Range, in Afghanistan. Beyond lay Pakistan and just east of me, over a lofty pass, China. There, six years earlier, on a trip across that country, I had stayed in a similar yurt with Kyrgyz hosts and was left to imagine what existed across the border. I now stitched the two experiences, years apart, into a single panoramic image.
It was here in the Pamirs where Russia’s territorial expansion confronted Britain’s defense of India during the 19th-century geopolitical rivalry known as the Great Game. Both sides dispatched players — maverick officers and ambitious explorers, often in disguise — to chart Central Asia’s wild terrain and win influence. A final flashpoint occurred over the mountain in front of me, where in August 1891 a British agent crossed paths with his Russian counterpart, who claimed it as the czar’s and threatened arrest. Four years later the powers agreed to make that narrow valley between their empires — the Wakhan Corridor — a buffer belonging to neither, and it is still part of Afghanistan, a panhandlelike eastward salient of little importance.
The Great Game came and went, part of the historical tides weathered forever here, in the romantic heart of Asia. I could hear the enduring pulse of that heart around me in the whistling wind and the calls of children corralling the sheep for the evening.
“Andy, come,” my host hollered from the yurt. “Dinner is ready.”