Up and down

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst...
Rudyard Kipling. Mandalay.

The place I wanted to visit the most was Tigrovaya Balka (Tiger Valley), a large reserve located on the broad floodplain where Vahsh and Pyanj rivers merged to form Amu Darja. It was the place where the now extinct Turan tiger was last seen in the 1950-s. The entire plain is covered with tugai, lush riparian jungle of Russian olive, giant poplar, willow, and tamarisk. These forests were once common in the lowlands of Middle Asia, but now only exist in some Nature reserves.

Tigrovaya Balka is one of the hottest places in the Soviet Union. The best way to explore this labyrinth of channels, canebrakes, and densely forested islands is by floating on an inflatable mattress. This way you can keep your body underwater most of time. The administration provided me with a mattress and a pile of melons. I put the melons on the mattress, and pushed it into a channel with relatively fast current.

The shores were teeming with wildlife: egrets, spoonbills, pheasants, and red deer of rare Bukhara subspecies. I spent an hour watching a family of golden jackals. The mother searched the bushes for berries and lizards, occasionally flushing small long-eared tolai hares. She obviously knew chasing them would be a waste of time, but her half-grown cubs were very optimistic, and gave it a try every time.

Balka is the last place with a healthy population of endemic shovelnose sturgeon. There are two species of them in Amu Darja Basin, both bright-blue with flat snouts almost as long as their entire bodies. The larger species has a long thread at the tip of its tailfin. They live in muddy water, so the best way to see them is to dive with something heavy in your hands, and crawl around at the very bottom. A third species once existed in Syr Darja river, but is now extinct.

The most spectacular natural event in Balka is the evening flight of mosquitoes. As soon as the sun gets behind a rocky ridge to the west, the sky turns black from roaring mosquito clouds. Tousands of swifts, swallows and nightjars come from surrounding hills to feed on this nightmarish bounty. Snorkel made of a reed stalk comes handy if you want to survive until midnight. After that hour the mosquitoes become less active, so you can get your head out of the water and get some sleep if you don't mind being tickled by small fish. The mosquitoes are only a problem if you spend night inside the reserve, because all houses in adjacent villages are insectproof.

I didn't risk floating into the southernmost part of the reserve. It was too easy to run into border patrol, or get lost and end up in Afghanistan (the city of Kunduz is just forty kilometers to the south). As soon as I finished the last melon, I got out of the swamps and hiked to the east across sun-heated clay hills. By nightfall I got to a road, hitchhiked back to the office, returned the mattress, took my backpack and went further southeast.

Kulyab is one of the most remote places in Middle Asia. The city later became known as a capital of Islamic fundamentalism, and the site of some major battles of the civil war in Tajikistan. But in 1989 it was still a quiet place surrounded by arid plains and low hills. Its bazaar was famous for the best almonds in the area.

Not far from the city are Dashdijum Mountains, an area of strange rock formations and the last surviving site of markhors (screw-horned goats) outside Pakistan. An even more interesting place is a group of three mountains just outside Kulyab. These mountains consist entirely of salt. Hoja-Mumin is the most spectacular of them. Its slopes look like a forest of giant towers, needles, and mushroom-like formations. Funnel-shaped holes lead to a labyrinth of caves. Cave entrances can be found by musical sounds produced by the wind passing through groves of thin white stalactites.

The surface of the salt mountains gets very hot in the afternoon. By the time I was out of there, I was fed up with hot plains and foothills. I decided to go back to the highlands and to hitchhike one more time along the Pamir Highway. I got back to Dushanbe, and took a plane to Khorog, the capital of Pamir.

This pleasant town is located at the bottom of Pyanj Gorge. It is planted with hundreds of Lombard poplars, that look like they are trying to grow out of 2,000-m deep canyon. Streets are lined with stone walls to protect pedestrians from rocks falling from the slopes. The botanical garden (formerly the harem of the Amir of Badakhshan) is the only place in Asia where you can have fresh apricots in late August. Elsewhere they disappear in early July.

The Afghan border follows Pyanj River, and so does the Highway. Walking along the road, I could see peasants on the other side, but couldn't talk to them because of noisy river, and because I didn't speak Shugnan, Rushan, or any other local dialect. That part of Afghanistan was still under the control of pro-Moscow regime, and looked very peaceful.

I got a motorcycle ride from local chief of police. In some tiny village along the way we spent half an hour at a wedding celebration, and he got so drunk that I had to convince him to postpone the rest of the trip. I walked to the next place called Garmchashma. It has a hot spring that looks very much like a geyser, complete with beautiful travertine deposits and the smell of sulfur. Pamir is situated in the middle of a chain of volcanoes that runs from Sicily to Java, but for some reason there is only one volcano there (it is hidden in a remote valley in the Chinese part of Pamir).

Next day I took a side road to the southwestern corner of Pamir. Upper Pyanj Valley is broad and dry; there are some old fortresses above the road, said to be built by Alexander the Great. The only town in the area is Ishkashim, cut in two by the border. Just at that moment the Afghan part was being stormed by the mojaheddin. I could watch them take one house after another, despite being pounded by heavy shellfire. I didn't stay to see the outcome of the battle, but later learned that they took the town, killed all enemy soldiers, then skinned all communists alive and dipped them into salt water. It was probably the only time in my life I was glad to live in the Soviet Union.

The broad valley upstream (and east) from Ishkashim is called Vakhan Corridor. It mostly belongs to Afghanistan, and its eastern end is the only place where that country borders China. It also separates Pamir from Hindu Kush. The views of the great range from the road are absolutely stunning. Its peaks are touched by the monsoon, so they are draped into layers of snow and ice hundreds of meters thick. Some of the world's largest avalanches can be seen there. Vakhan Corridor was once described by Marko Polo as the world's best pastureland. But because these mountains are rising so rapidly, it has since become a bit too dry, and the best grazing is now found in Alai Valley on the opposite (northern) side of Pamir.

The road then climbs on the Pamir Plateau to merge back into Pamir Highway to the north. Pyanj is only knee-deep there. Its headwaters are forty kilometers to the east, at beautiful Zorkul Lake. From there it flows down, merging with Vakhan Darja, then with Vaksh, and finally entering the Aral Sea as a stream as tiny as it was in the beginning. Almost all its water is lost to desert sands and irrigation channels.

Upper Pyanj was the best place to cross the Soviet Border. Almost entire length of this 22,000-km long boundary was guarded by barbed wire and chain of border guard posts. Thousands of people had lost their lives trying to get to the other side of it. But here all you had to do was take off your shoes and wade into Afghanistan.

I couldn't resist the temptation, so I got off the truck I was riding on, waited until it left, and hiked across a low ridge and down into Vakhan Corridor. The valley is almost uninhabited: there are only five settlements including Ishkashim, and some Kyrgyz nomads on the surrounding slopes. I crossed it next night and tried to get to Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. But I didn't have a map of the area, so I climbed a wrong pass, and after a long walk over a glacier found myself above a Pakistani checkpoint. I could get around it at night or simply walk in and ask for a political refuge. But I wasn't ready to leave my country yet. Besides, it looked like the borders would be open within a few years anyway. So I walked back, and re-entered Tajikistan near Lake Zorkul, dangerously close to a guard station. It took me two more days to get back to the highway.

Eastern Pamir looks very much like some parts of Tibet, but the Highway is paved, and you don't see any wild animals larger than marmots and foxes. The largest wild sheep in the world once lived on Pamir Plateau and Eastern Hindu Kush. They were first described by Marco Polo. Nobody believed him when he claimed to have seen rams four feet from one horn tip to another (it can actually be up to six feet). They are now extinct in Chinese part of Pamir and almost everywhere in Tajikistan, but can still be seen at Lake Zorkul and reportedly along Karakoram Highway near the China-Pakistan border. Bears and lynxes were common on Pamir only a century ago, but are now extinct because of climate change. The Plateau is rising so fast that it gets colder and dryer every decade. There are still some wolves, ibex, and snow leopards, but you have to get into very remote places to see them.

It was a long drive to Murgab, the largest village in Eastern Pamir. The driver kept telling me about his trip to Ferghana in spring. Just at that time, the first in the long chain of ethnic conflicts erupted there: Uzbeks started killing Meskheti Turks, once forcefully brought there from Georgia by Stalin. Nobody knows for sure why this bloodbath happened. From what I heard, local communists and/or mafia wanted to show their power, and chose a small minority with nobody to protect it.

"They stopped my truck", the driver said, "and asked if I was a Turk. I said I was a Tajik. They said my mustache made me look like a Turk, so they told me to shave it off, or they would cut it away with my upper lip. Then I met a policeman, a Tajik. He showed me a mountain road back to Tajikistan. If not for him, I'd probably be dead now. He told me that if I saw a crowd blocking the road, I should ram it at full speed and try to break through. Thank Allah, I didn't see anybody on that road."

North from Murgab lies Rangkul (Rainbow Lake). On its shores there's a group of almost vertical rocks, similar in shape to the famous karst hills of Guilin in China. They were formed a long time ago, when climate was warm and wet. On one of the rock faces there is a cave two hundred meters above the ground, with something resembling an artificial stone wall visible inside. There was an interesting local legend about this inaccessible cave.

According to the legend, a few centuries ago a caravan of rich merchants tried to get across the Plateau from China to Samarkand in the middle of winter, and camped at Rangkul. At night, local bandits sneaked into the camp, and cut the tendons of the camels' legs. Without camels, the merchants were doomed to freeze to death. But they didn't want the bandits to get the riches. They started killing the camels, cutting them in pieces, and pressing chunks of meat to the rock surface. Meat froze to the rock, eventually forming a ladder. The merchants carried all their bags up to the cave, and built a wall to protect them from the wind. Next morning, the ladder was melted by the sun and fell apart.

This legend was well known all over the region. In 1902, a Persian millionaire tried to get to the cave using the same method, but fell to death. Finally in the 1960-s a group of mountaineers reached it. They found no treasure and no wall, just a pile of rocks and a vulture nest with one egg. They didn't even know it was the first nest of Himalayan vulture ever found in the Soviet Union. Strong thermals around these rocks make them a favorite spot for vultures. Once I saw something really weird there: an eagle owl soaring in broad daylight.

My next ride was with a group of tourists from Ukraine. They took me to Akbaital, the highest pass of the Highway. From the pass you can drive up a small valley to 5,600 m above sea level. It takes only three hours to climb a 6,000 m peak from that point. It is also the best place on Pamir to see rare Tibetan snowcocks, and one of the best viewpoints. Most of the Plateau, from Muztagata in China to Communism Peak at the edge of Badakhshan, can be seen from there.

The largest of many Pamir lakes is Karakul (Black Lake). It is very salty, dark-blue, and beautiful. Its bottom and shores consist of ice covered with a thin layer of sediment. Thousands of bar-headed geese, gulls, shelducks, cormorants, and other birds nest on its islands.

North from the lake the Highway crosses the most barren and desolate valley in all of Pamir. It is called Markansu, which can be translated as either "River of Death" or "River of Tornadoes". I don't think real tornadoes occur there, but dust devils get so strong that they can turn over a loaded truck. As soon as you cross Markansu and Kyzylart (Red Rocks) pass, you are in Alai Valley and out of Pamir. You can take some rest from the cold winds of the Plateau, and enjoy the gorgeous view of its snow-covered mountains.

There are two more passes to climb before you get to the warm oases of Ferghana Valley. The first one is called Taldyk (Exhaustion), and is very high and difficult to climb. The second one, Chigirchik (Rosy Starling) is all green and merry. From there its a few hours' drive to bazaar in Osh, the best one in Middle Asia.

There are lots of interesting places to visit in the mountains surrounding Ferghana Valley. Walnut forests, apple forests, spruce forests, barite caves, aragonite caves, limestone caves, burning caves in coal layers, and many scenic lakes. There are also some very old cities there: Hujand was founded by Alexander the Great, and in Kokand you can still see a palace where Genkhis Khan's descendants had been living in 12-19th centuries. It wasn't until late September that I finally forced myself to get back to Dushanbe and fly home.

Two months later I came back with some of my friends. We traveled all around Uzbekistan, from Samarkand and Bukhara to Khiva, Karakalpakia, Aral Sea and Ustyurt Plateau. And it was very wise of me to keep traveling around despite running out of time and money. The travelers' paradise called Middle Asia was about to turn into hell for ten long years.

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