“Milk? Butter?” - The guy just looked at me and did not understand a single word even though I tried in what I thought were the right Russian words.
“Ok, so… Muuuhhh” - I was mimicking two horns with my fingers and imitated a cow.
The guy smiled and pointed with his crooked fingers into the direction of the closed nearby bazaar. Language is definitely helpful but sometimes it is just more amusing not to speak a common one.
In the closed bazaar it was clear where all the milk products were but I was looking for something special - Yak-butter. I knew it exists here but I did not know what sound a yak makes so I had to ask. Luckily yak is a word that is common in most languages and so I found what I was craving for.
For about 30 Somoni I got a liter bottle of a yellow something with a strong taste. I planned to take it along on the next part of my Pamir trip. Combined with strong black tea, milk and salt the butter becomes a perfect starter into the day.
Sadly I had to compromise on the milk, as I had no clue where should I get milk on the way. The solution was sweetened condensed milk available in even the smallest markets on the way. So like this, salty became sweet and my fellow cyclists would be willing to drink it. What I did not know yet is that I would find some good yak butter tea along our way.
That morning after getting the last “essential” food for the coming two weeks we headed off to the State Forestry Agency of GABO to get a permit that would allow us to go into the Zorkul District Nature Reserve. Getting it was easy. We had to drink tea with the women who worked in the office while an official wrote our permits.
With all that shopping and organizing our permits the morning was gone. So we started south for an easy day of cycling. We only did a few kilometres to a hot spring called Garmchashma.
The bathing culture in Tajikistan is strictly gender separated and normally the men have the much better place. So was it also in this place. The men pool was an open air pool that is formed out of natural salts while the women's place is a dark and dirty concrete pool in a closed house.
So our mixed group asked for a private pool which was actually available. But getting in there involved a lot of explanation and convincing. “We are all family and will wear swim suits” we said. But it did not help. Finally the owner (?) of the place arrived and sanctioned this no go.
The water was hot if not too hot and we only managed to stay in mineral rich water for about twenty minutes. Then we had to go to the non private pools that had more reasonable temperatures.
In the open pool there was a slightly different atmosphere. Bathing is done naked and the men talk about god and the world. There was a dedicated part for washing and shaving similar to a hammam in Turkey.
Clean and well-rested we headed towards the Wakhan corridor.
The Wakhan corridor is a piece of Afghanistan that mainly separates Tajikistan from Pakistan. It is a relict from the time when Russia and Great Britain fought over power in the area and was supposed to act as a buffer zone.
That day we did not yet get to the entrance to the corridor so we pitched our tents in a panoramic spot next to the Panj river. Not long after we erected our camp the military came in the midst of a sand storm and forced us to re-pitch our tents about one hundred meters away from our original spot - justification: “Taliban”.
Indeed when you look at the current maps of Afghanistan and the areas that are momentarily controlled by the Taliban (white) you can see that we tried to sleep just 300 meters off Taliban held territory but sleeping 400 meters away does not make it any better. If they had wanted to shoot us they could have done so anyway.
We also learned that the last fighting in this area happened less than a month ago. There were even Russian jets in the area to demonstrate power. As a result of the hyper stressed Tajik military and the Taliban that were in shooting distance we had two young solders lurking around the camp - just ridiculous, if you ask me.
The next day we passed Ishkashim the place at the entrance to the corridor. This town has a famous Afghan border market where it is normally possible to cross to the Afghan side to visit the bazaar without a visa. This bazaar is one of the only ways for the Afghan locals to sell their goods since the trading routes to the other parts of the country are problematic. Sadly, due to the recent and present Taliban situation the border was blocked and we could not get a look at the bazaar.
So we continued without Afghan sandals or memories from this probably extremely misunderstood country. What stayed was the desire to come back and have an in-depth view.
So we stopped at Tuggoz where we knew a hot spring and a castle on top of a small mountain road. As the roads had been quite exhausting and the steep road seemed to be in very poor shape we decided to hire a taxi up the hill.
Fixing the bikes on top the car was a highlight in itself.
Packed like this and with five other guys including the driver we headed for the spring. The drive took 40 minutes and we were happy not to have pedaled up this road which is in a terrible state indeed. To pass the time a one and a half liter bottle of beer circulated in the car but stayed most of the time with the driver.
The spring water was superb and we decided to stay two nights in the hotel to recover from the road. We did not know that the worst part was yet to come.
During the remaining day we checked our bicycles and repaired all the broken parts. The roads in the area are really brutal and took a heavy toll on our bikes. Thus, there was the first time that I found a major problem with my trusted bike. I found a hole in the frame where I would normally attach my bottle holder. I was furious and frustrated. I did not know whether I could finish the trip with this kind of problem. Luckily the guys on the hotline of the frame builder were very helpful and guaranteed me that they expect the frame to hold and they would organize a repair or replacement, once I 'd be back home.
Fortunately, there was a stunning view over the Wakhan valley to take my mind away from my broken frame and I calmed down in the hot spring.
The next day was mainly used to purchase all the food we thought to need for the next 6 days - since there are no more shops until Murghab, a frontier town in the north east of the country.
Another highlight that day was one particular peculiar pre-Islamic shrine next to the road. The Wakhan area is dominated by Isma’ilism with influences from Sufic Islam and historical beliefs (encompassing Zoroastrianism and Animism, amongst others). Fore more details read this paper ;).
That night in Langar, the last village in the valley, we were invited into the home of a family where we were served wonderful manti with yoghurt. This is really my favourite food in this area!
The next morning we went for an excursion up the hill to find some petroglyphs. Some boys led us to the place. Sadly it is hard to distinguish the ancient ones from the 20th century soviet copies. Next to the hunting scene you can see a petroglyph of a cosmonaut. At least the view from up there is superb especially the two famous peaks called Marx and Engels.
Back down at the road we had to climb up one more ridiculously steep hill and the local kids saw their chance to earn some Somoni. They pushed us unasked up the hill while we were cycling like maniacs to keep our balance. When we gave them no money they got angry and one even started to throw stones at us.
At this point I want to thank all the tourist ahead of us that gave these boys money. It just does not work like this. Helping a community is easy. Buy local products and if you're not into that just buy at the local stores and give a fair price at home stays. But please don’t give away money or gifts to children that get used to this and then project this behavior on all the other tourists. As cyclists we are extremely exposed to the reactions of these children. I have to say though, this was the first time on my trip that there were demanding people around. It must be much harder in certain areas of India and especially Africa. I also know that this is a hotly debated topic amongst the traveling and development aid community - but this is my opinion.
Getting out of the Wakhan is physically demanding and the roads are in bad shape - or worse. Although we had not made the progress we had been hoping for, we decided to nevertheless make a detour and go into the nature reserve of the Lake Zorkul.
The detour was absolutely worth it, even though I had one day where I felt totally sick. I even went for an anti-biotic because a medical problem in such a remote area can be critical. Over the course of the six days that we travelled on this road we crossed three cars, two of them on the last days. So waiting for help can take a long time.
We were invited into a sheepherder family for dinner and breakfast. This was a real win since we could also buy bread, kefir and cheese from them - all freshly made by the grandmother.
One day we arrived at a camping ground which had a hot spring as well. Of course we had to stay there and when the weather was bad the next morning we just stayed for another day.
The place itself was kind of weird… There where a lot of sheep and yak carcasses lying around the house. Also the sheep head next to the door was creepy. As I learned later on, it helps to keep the evil spirits out.
Not that I was much concerned, but another fact we were unused to, was that our hosts did not seem to care about our privacy. When I woke up one morning there was a woman standing in our room with her baby in the arms just looking at us for a minute or even more. During the day the door opened roughly every twenty minutes and someone came in to look at us or start a conversation. Another example: We were in the hot spring (naked as it is normal here) and two man came in and stared at us for two minutes. But the best one were the boys who watched me when I went for the toilette and then checked if the same stuff came out of my body!
The hunting camp was specialized in hunting Marco Polo Sheep. The sheep are endangered but are hunted in the area because their horns are a symbol of power and part of the religious cult here. We were also invited to go on a hunt and nobody understood why we denied as politely as possible. Sadly, a common language was not available.
As the weather finally cleared up, we went for a long and hard cycling day towards Murghab. The rain from the days before had turned the road muddy and very tough. As I joined the main tarmac road again I went to my knees and kissed the ground (Note from the proofreader: like the pope after flying Alitalia). It just felt sooo good to have this lovely street finish under the tires again. The last kilometres were not easy though, since we faced head wind again. Well, as I said before: Nothing that is worthwhile is easy! But all this just made the beer afterwards feel even better.