I have traveled with Oriz on the Pamir Highway twice: both times in October. As a guide, Oriz beautifully manages to balance professional guidance and friendly companionship. His knowledge is extensive, but he caters his guidance to the interests of his tourists. On my second trip I was traveling with old friends from university, and the memories of us hanging out with Oriz at the guesthouses stand out as particularly cherished. Another one of Oriz\’s virtues as a professional guide is his flexibility and ability to arrange complex excursions. I can speak for his flexibility in the Wakhan altering our itinerary to find the ideal place to spend the night for photography. We canceled one night in Langar and stayed one night in Yamk (spelling?) instead. I can not recommend Oriz enthusiastically enough. If you are looking for friendly companionship that will show you the most generous and sincere aspects of Pamiri culture, Oriz is the man. If you are looking for professionalism in guidance, Oriz is still the man.
I was in Tajikistan 2 years ago and had the pleasure of meeting Oriz (ExplorePamir) and must say it was one of the most delightful trips I have had. The warmth, hospitality, attention to detail, cultural and historic knowledge of the sights we saw…all made for a unique and memorable trip. I have now travelled to 166 countries and this was one of the most enriching experiences thanks to the commitment and service demonstrated by Oriz
Two miles above me ….and across the Pamir River…the 4-mile high glacier tipped fingernails of the lower Hindu Kush (Killers of Hindus), searingly white against the blue canopy, scratch towards the stratosphere. Behind me, even the lower monoliths of Tajikistan challenge the clouds. Weeping great torrents of melted snow and ice and tiny sparkles of sediment, they water and fertilize the wheat fields and fruit trees of the valley before sinking downward to join rivers and eventually drop dusty memories of the peaks into the sea .In the roar of water are the whispers of mountains to be.
We are in the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of colonial era British and Russian arrogance that separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A five minute walk and 2 minute frigid dip in the Pamir River would put me in that country, ‘Killer of Empires’, unconquered. Beyond Afghanistan is Pakistan and the East. The West ends here. This is as far as Alexander got in his ego driven march from Greece 2300 years ago. Its beauty may have stunned even him.
We have spent the night at a homestay in the village of Langar, perhaps one of the most prodigiously. beautiful spots on earth.
This morning the others have opted for a climb up another thousand feet to see Bronze Age petroglyphs. Knees and lungs overrule the brain and I stay behind to wander through the village.
Layered down the steep slope to the river, the village is not architecture but something more fundamental, grown out of nature, and like all great human solutions, inevitable. This is the way the houses in this place should be, of the mountains (stones) and earth (mud bricks). They are flat roofed and undemonstrative, humbled by the Hindu Kush.
I walk down paths between the mud and stone walls, the dust tamed by dew. Unshorn hummocks of wild roses sweeten the cool air. Water, captured from the mountain torrents, is everywhere, flowing, flooding. Narrow irrigation channels carry the massaging sibilants of the running water. This is the sound that my memory tags onto these villages and all of Tajikistan.
An irrigation channel edges my path. A teenager plops a stone into the flow. It diverts under a fence to nourish his wheat field. He notices me with a smile and a nod. Like most of the people in the valley, he is exotically handsome. (As Luis says ‘Even Sophia Loren would be ordinary here’.) One strand of the fabled Silk Road ran through here.. Millennia of traders, travelers, invaders have left their genes. His handsome face is the happy result, a distillation, the best of humankind . His smile and gentle right-arm-over-his-heart gesture are pure Pamiri.
Returning his smile and greeting, I step across the flow to look at his field and mountains beyond. My footsteps release waves of wild sage.
Later, I wait for the others at the ‘village store’. It’s a row of colorful dresses and somber trousers hanging on a clothesline behind a narrow wooden bench. Huge trees provide a roof and shade. Running water is the soundtrack. ‘My name is Ruslan’ says the 12 year old manager. Need gum, candy, electric tape, socks (thin, from China or thick, colorful and hand knit in the village), batteries, phone cards, a string of sausages (of a lurid and toxic shade of pink)? ‘Come to Ruslan’. Many do in the hour I sit there in the shade. Some take their change in bubble gum or candy.
The others arrive, way out of breath, on shaky legs and both red-faced and ashen…rather a good trick. ‘Told you so’ whisper the knees and lungs. The photos of the petroglyphs are beautiful. I have no regrets I have the sound of water, the smell of wild roses and sage, a gentle smile that carries the history of the Silk Road, and a taste of business Pamiri style in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Two miles above me new waters start their journey.JUNE 20 AFGHANISTAN
The border guard takes our passports…
…and stuffs them into a pocket in his camouflage uniform. Maybe 20, he tries to look official and stern, but his handsome peach-fuzzed and guileless face defeats him. He almost smiles as he gestures for us to continue. We trust him with our passports, turn and cross out of Tajikistan and, like Alexander 2300 years ago, cross the Oxus River and enter Trans-Oxiana. The names have changed. The Oxus River s now the Panj. TransOxiana is Afghanistan.
In the 44 years since my last trip here (though that was way to the south and east beyond the Hindu Kush) Afghanistan has been at war. The Russians invaded, the Afghans defended, the US supplied the rebels with weapons to fight the Russians. After a decade of death and destruction, the Russians, like every invader before them left, defeated. The rebels became the Taliban and created a repressive extremist fundamentalist Islamic state that enslaved women. The US invaded. The Taliban fought back with the same weapons the US had given them to fight the Russians. The Taliban are driven out of Kabul, the capital. A hazy government claims control of the country. And so it goes, as it has for millennia. Afghanistan has never been totally defeated.
The Hindu Kush protected the lands to the south in the past. It protected this northern valley from the violence of the last several decades. It’s a safe place to travel and also perhaps among the most traditional parts of the country.
This river valley, whatever its name, was for thousands of years one of the strands in the complex braid of trade routes we in the west called the Silk Road, linking China and Europe and thousands of villages and cities in between. Here it was simply the road from this village to the next one for traders carrying the stuff of life.
The trading pattern endures. One day a week, at the few spots along the river where there are bridges, the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan disappears. Culture, history, and need trump politics. A huge market takes over the Afghan shore of the Oxus/Panj. The goods are primarily essentials: pots, pans, soap, towels, the western style clothing of the young. Much, if not most, of it is ugly and poor quality effluvia of China’s vast industries, flowing down the valley from Afghanistan’s narrow connection with far southwestern China at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor. Sublime silks (more valuable in Rome than gold back then), exquisite porcelains, furs, knowledge have been replaced by sleazy synthetics, plastic buckets, cheap ‘hoodies’, and really short-living cell phone batteries. It’s what these people want and can afford.
There are some flat topped felt Afghan hats and sheepskin vests, (fleece intact) piled on the ground. Oriz, our guide, buys one of each for a few dollars, as gifts. Large rectangles of low quality but bright red and patterned wool carpets from Iran patchwork a field next to the covered market. Tajiks use them on the large platforms that serve as dining rooms and beds in homes and restaurants. We’ve eaten on them, sitting cross legged.
A thousand years ago traders carried ethereal scrolls of brush and ink landscapes on paper or silk. Today, a flat-hatted cajoler drapes a huge image of a pine tree over his shoulder. It’s one end of a forest printed on plastic ‘cloth’, a cash and carry landscape of whatever length that fits. We’ve drunk tea and slept under these shiny murals in the guest houses.
Tourist trinkets are few. The Tajik don’t need them and very few foreigners get here. Nicole, the sole woman of us four, finds two rings that fit her slender fingers. We pass.
The Afghan traders, mostly men, are dressed traditionally in tunics and trousers under woolen vests and topped by flat wool caps. Are only the handsome ones given market permits? ‘90% of the men here are drop- dead gorgeous’ drools Nicole. ‘I think I should move to Afghanistan’.
I think its more like 95 percent. A quartet, tall ruggedly handsome, strides by. Two have eyes of ice blue. While brown eyes, straight dark hair and bronze skin are the handsome rule, the rule breakers are heart breakers: eyes from grey to golden to hazel to ice blue to my favorite…and the rarest…jade green….smolder below thick dark eyebrows and long lashes and out of faces, creamy to caramel, some framed in long soft ringlets. These are faces, all strong and memorable. It has taken thousands of years for our human DNA, crossing and recrossing barriers, to produce this glory. Is this what we’ll all look like in the far future when DNA has been given its full run?
We wander in the crowd . The languages, Tajik, Afghan, Russian (the lingua franca of the former Soviet Republics north of the river) are impenetrable background noise, though we get the gist: See this ! Good price! Take a look! This is not meant for us. We are largely ignored, not likely to be customers.
Then, out of the din: ‘Welcome. Where are you from?’ He’s a middle aged man, bearded, and distinguished in his traditional tunic, trousers, vest and flat hat. He us a teacher of literature. His English is serviceable. What he wants to tell us is clear: ‘The Taliban very bad. They do not let women go to work or school.’ And shakes his head. There is great sadness in his face. What can I say to someone who has lived through that horror and who knows it exists still? He says goodbye gently, with that sweet hand over heart gesture that so moves us. It seems to me he may be holding his heart from breaking.
I take few pictures after that and none that support my impressions. It feels intrusive. Nicole has a major zoom and promises to send me some of her photos. I can photo shop through the drool.
Three hours after surrendering our passports to our border guard we cross back out of Afghanistan. He’s still there at the Tajik side of the bridge. Smiling slightly, he retrieves our passports from the same pocket, nods, and waves us into Tajikistan.
‘We will go back again, you know’, whispers Luis in my ear. ‘How about Spring 2016’?