Sunday, November 18, 2012

CHAPTER 2: My Getaway to the PAMIRS

Hey folks,

It’s been a while.  So I recently spent two weeks travelling through GBAO aka Badakshan aka the Pamirs.

For the visual learners, here’s a public link to my photo album: Tajikistan 2012/2013 - A Journey to the Jewel of the Pamirs

A quick background: Badakshan is an autonomous province covering the eastern region of Tajikistan. GBAO has had quite a rough history since Tajikistan’s independence in 1992. This was also the same region where severe violence occurred this past July. So I travelled through: Ishkashim, Murghab and Bartang Valley; however spent the majority of my time in the spectacular city of Khorog.

From my perspective, the most mind-bending thing of Khorog was how the government there is Ismaili. The army is Ismaili. The teachers are Ismaili. The shopkeepers are Ismaili. The drivers are Ismaili. But so are the vulnerable - they are Ismaili. The wrong-doers too, are Ismaili. I had never been to a city or region which is 100% Ismaili. Here the whole spectrum of society and its positions/roles was filled with Ismailis. Fascinating to wrap your mind around.

En Route to Khorog

I travelled from Dushanbe to Khorog via Tajik Air (referred to some as Tragic Air) which is an 18-seater plane used back in the Soviet times. Travel guides mentioned that this was one of the only flights, where Soviet pilots were paid a danger premium to fly. Although none were on my flight, travellers are permitted to bring sheep/goats with them in replacement of their hand luggage. The other options for travel between Khorog and Dushanbe are by Jeep (quite a rough drive as this lady describes) or by the AKDN Helicopter which I was fortunate to get a seat for on the way back! As soon as I flew into Khorog, I was bombarded by Welcome Hazar Imam/Golden Jubilee Mubarak messages stone-engraved onto the side of the mountains.

Khorog: The Ruby of Badakshan

The city of Khorog, surrounded by mountains really feels like a land a little bit closer to the heavens. Although night falls early and it becomes dark by around 6pm, I wouldn’t really feel the darkness because a multitude of stars hung right above me. Every night I sat outside for a few minutes trying to recall what I learned back in Astronomy 101 attempting to point out constellations to some local friends (I definitely made up a few of them, but they definitely didn’t know this). Day or night; it was a great environment to be in to think about life, creation or simply to just take in how stunning our world is.

The city was also filled with wild dogs. In a 5KM radius there had to have been at least 100 dogs up and about. Some were big and vicious and some were the size of my shoe. As a former Globe and Mail newspaper delivery boy, I wasn't too thrilled about this but naturally, I quickly overcame my fears.

Some Highlights:
  • Spent Weekend 1 of 2 in Murghab for a wedding celebration; Murghab is 3650 meters high, no cows/chickens (they eat yak meat/butter and drink yak milk), hardly any trees, a very small selection of fruit and EXTREME temperatures. Winter temperatures would reach -50°C and summer temperatures would reach +40°c. Strong winds blow all year and severe storms could appear suddenly. Staying here for a weekend gave me some perspective on real challenges people face in day to day life.
  • Spent Weekend 2 of 2 in Bartang Valley in a village named Basid. Basid was the first place in Tajikistan where this is absolutely NO cellphone reception, NO USB-internet reception and very limited access to outlets or technology. Spending some time here was a nice reminder of how life used to be in the stone-age.
  • Experienced the natural hot spring, Jelondi Chasma; an indoor tub of sulphuric water at extremely hot temperatures. Apparently very beneficial for your body/skin.
  • Regularly attended an informal Jamatkhana (Mosque) in a region called Upeday. Ceremonies were led by a Calipha and the inside of the JK was designed like a Pomiri home (five pillars/chorkona roof) with incredible Quranic wooden engravings.
  • Drank from the Nasir Khusraw spring
  • Played a few 5 on 5 outdoor basketball games with locals
  • Mastered Tajik Dancing 101
  • Visited the Golden Jubilee Porshniev Darbar Site
  • Led a workshop to Grade 9/10 students at Aga Khan Lycee on “Thinking Globally in Career Planning"
  • Taught English for one week to Upeday Ismaili Volunteers

A few takeaways from the trip:
  • Language barriers can’t stop laughter – Learning Tajik in Dushanbe was challenging enough for me but Badakshan had its own other 6 languages in the various districts! I didn’t attempt to learn the language in such short time but was still able to get my messages across quite well through over-emphasized/non-verbal communication tactics and of course a smile.
  • From Canada to Honduras to Kenya, I’ve always found the same sort of things can make kids laugh which is always fun to test out. The iPad really does wonders to entertain; young or old.
  • Poverty is a mindset – If you look at the data on the poverty levels in Badakshan you would see extremely low numbers. (By far, the poorest Post-Soviet Country) What really surprised me during my travels to GBAO though was that I could NEVER feel it. The poverty is disguised in their hospitality. I’d constantly be invited to people’s homes; I’d be given gifts/food for the journey. It was hard for me to classify people and their families as ultra-poor. Exceptional hospitality is really in the Pamiri people’s DNA.

Until next time,


Flight from Dushanbe to Khorog via Tragic Air; An 18 seater Soviet Plane

 The Khorog Botanical Gardens Viewpoint

 The view en route to Murghab

Murghabi woman trying to sell me Yak (rare/wild cow) milk

             Group Shot with wearing our Kyrgz toqi gifts

Nasir Khusraw spring (NK brought Ismailism to Tajikistan approximately a thousand years ago; there are many Nasir Khusraw based traditions within the pomiri Ismaili rituals (i.e. Chirag Roshan funeral ceremony)

One of the cuter looking dogs

Holding some gifts for my mom given by the Calipha's mother from the Upeday JK

Their response to funny faces I made at them

The recently built outdoor basketball court! So amazing.

Khorog City dogs

Words don't do this one justice... 

My Khorog Guesthouse Mother, Kholog Shezan

The view of one of the mountains on the helicopter ride back to Dushanbe; Looked like a sand mountain!


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