Orange line: Our route, Pamir Highway and detour south.
Yellow line: Karakoram Highway.
A, Alichor; B, Bozai Gumbaz; F, Faizabad, I/I, Ishkashim/Ishkoshim; K, Kalaikhum; L, Langar; S, Sarhad (near Broghil Pass).
We made contact with the Wakhan Corridor when we followed the Pamir River to its confluence with the Wakhan River. At the point where the two rivers join to form the Pyanj River the elevation is about 9,500 ft above sea level. By the time the southernmost point in the river is reached the level is about 800 ft lower. For most of this section the river is broad and there are in many places islands used for grazing. This turning point is the end of the Wakhan corridor appendage to Afghanistan.The road follows the Pyanj River due north. As it flows north the river becomes more turbulent because the valley narrows and the level drops some 4,700 ft. Before the river swings to the southwest it takes a Z detour through a narrow gorge with near vertical walls. The photograph shows a trail along the Afghan side of the gorge. On the Tajik side the road in many places has been blasted out of the cliff face. At Kalaikhum (1,200m/3,934ft) we left the border and the river to climb over a high grassy plateau region and eventually reached our final destination Duschanbe.
The Gibraltar of the Hindu Kush. In Part 1 in discussing the consulate at Kashgar I noted that in 1891 Francis Yonghusband, on his way back to Gilgit from a grim winter of diplomatic isolation in Kashgar, made a detour over the broad Wakhjir Pass (4,847m/15,836ft) and to his surprise encountered Russian Cossacks. He was informed that this was Russian territory and politely ordered to leave. Cables were sent back and forth between Simla and London. In London Lord Rosebery, shortly to become Foreign Secretary, declared: “Bozai Gumbaz is the Gibraltar of the Hindu Kush.” There was no backing down. Gurkha troops were sent to Bozai Gumbaz from Gilgit and Younghusband, with his added troops, sat out the crisis on the Wakhan side of the passes through the Hindu Kush to India. (See Patrick French, Younghusband. 1994; Chs 6, 7.)
The Cradle of Our Race. The next major player in the Great Game was Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1898-1904. He hsd become deeply suspicious of Russia’s motives while traveled extensively on Russia railways and in Afghanistan. There was however diplomatic progress. In 1893 the Durand line was drawn to establish the border of Afghanistan with India (still a festering issue.) In1894 Curzon probed the boundary by crossing the Wakhjir Pass, with permission from Kabul. He probably wanted to find out what in practice Russia was doing, but he took the opportunity to investigate the source of the Oxus. A river “believed to have rocked the cradle of our race.” He settled as the source a glacier towards the Hindu Kush that feeds the upper Ab-i-Wakhan River. By this choice he discounted Lake Victoria on the Pamir River, mentioned above, and also the Chakmak lake area that feeds the Murghab River. His account in the Geographic Journal (Aug and Sept 1898) led to a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.
The Innermost Heart of Central Asia. In the Soviet era the Russians seem to have accepted the Wakhan boundaries, however the source of the Oxus was still of interest in the postwar World War II period. In 1948 the noted climber Bill Tilman left the British Consulate in Kashgar, after indulging in a little climbing with the outgoing consul Eric Shipton. He aimed to brighten up the travel to Gilgit by detouring from China into the Wakhan valley by the Wakhjir Pass and exit by a pass through the Hindu Kush. On the Oxus question he wrote: “Speaking as a Mountaineer, the only fit and proper birthplace for this mighty river of most ancient fame is the ice-cave…at the innermost heart of Central Asia.” Unfortunately he trusted in the remoteness of the area and did not worry about Afghan intransigence. He was arrested and imprisoned as a spy by the local authorities. He was eventually escorted to a high and inconvenient border pass and discharged into the newly created Pakistan – minus his notebooks and passport. (See W. H. Tilman. Two Mountains and a River. 1949. Ch 13,14, 15. Tillman is my source for the Curzon visit.)
Our brief say at Khorog, the capital of the large eastern Gorno-Badakhshan egional, provided a morning when there was no immediate departure. It was a moment to review, to ask the question: What had we not expected? As tourists it was easy to see only the wonderful setting. There was a pleasant garden with a view across the river. To the left was the confluence with the Gunt Rriver, to the right the new suspension bridge to Afghanistan. But what were we not seeing?
Our first surprise; The Russian Influence: both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are still firmly bound to Russia. The normal post-Regan narrative in the USA is that these former components of the USSR remembered the Soviets as oppressors. But the separation was in 1991 and the pain of most of those who suffered has died with them. The next generation remembers the Soviet period as providing work and economic stability. With separation the factories closed. Now large numbers have to travel to Russia to find employment and the remittances sent home are an essential part of their economies. Russian is still the necessary common language of the region. The USA ships almost half its essential military supplies to Afghanistan via air from Bishkek and by road from western Tajikistan, but, in general, it keeps as low a profile as possible and provides some cultural support.
The economic condition of Tajikistan has not been helped by the civil war that began in 1992 a year spurred on by Islamic beliefs and clan loyalties. The Pamir region starved in 1992-3 as the result of a blockade. Russian troops moved back to the Afghan border. A cease fire in 1996 and a peace agreement in June of 1997 left Tajikistan one of the poorest countries in the world. As might be expected, the drug trade flourishes.
Women shopping at the Afghan market near the Khorog bridge. Afghan selling boots.
As to the place of education: A letter just received by my wife (Betty) from a former student from Pakistan described his summer visiting his family, wandering in the Hindu Kush, locating Sufi shrines and taking a university course. He writes: “The course on Allama Iqbal's Urdu poetry was a treat in its own.” … “Though things [in Pakistan] look really bad and sound even worse, I have my hopes pinned on the students studying in the universities. They are very passionate and want to see Pakistan prosper and they are willing to work hard and smart for it. I could sense the frustration these kids had with the current state of affairs. I understand that action is harder than just talking but a lot of students have taken the initiative to improve their worlds in their own way and I can see the rest following soon. Honestly it is hard to explain but it was very encouraging to spend a couple of months in the university.”
May we also be encouraged.
Betty and I attended the above Barfield Lecture at Yale in May. It had been enthusiastically organized by two students: Anna Kellar and Mari Oye. We talked to them afterwards. At Yamg on August 12 as we were waiting for lunch what should happen but that the same two enterprising students walked into the guest house. Tajikistan was providing them with the chance to use their Yale studied Farsi (the Tajik language is a form of Persian.) Anna's perspective on her trip is contained in her blog for August 2010. (Also, check out the watermellon song. )