By Callum Taylor
Day 5: Bozai Gumbaz to Chaqmaqtin
After three days of trekking and three nights of camping on the way to the Little Pamir region of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, Marta and I had finally arrived at the Kyrgyz communities we had come all this way for. We had come across some Kyrgyz caravans already along the way, even spending one morning travelling with them, but now we were keen to see them in their homes living their day-to-day lives.
Unfortunately, the first of these Kyrgyz communities, Bozai Gumbaz, was not so welcoming, particularly towards foreign visitors. Even our guide and donkey owner Mobarak told us he wasn’t so comfortable in their presence. We had been told of their less-than-friendly reputation beforehand though, so we didn’t let it distort our expectations for the rest of the trip.
One positive at least to come from camping near Bozai Gumbaz though was the surprise existence of a dedicated toilet block. Since leaving on foot from Sarhad it had been a constant struggle to find a big enough rock or tree to push out some number twos out of sight from anyone in the area. It may have been just a central hole in a concrete floor, but it was nice to let loose in an enclosed space.
When we finished up our breakfast and packed up our tents Mobarak strangely told us to rush ahead with the donkeys on our own as he would catch up. Confused, we helped Eddy and Norm (our donkeys) cross the river as we tried our best to keep dry. We looked back and a few of the men from the settlement had come over to approach Mobarak. It didn’t look like such an amicable conversation, but Mobarak must have told us to carry on for a reason.
He eventually caught up to us and we managed to work out that apparently the Kyrgyz in Bozai Gumbaz take it upon themselves to not allow any pack-animals from outside the the Little Pamir to pass through. Generally, they attempt to force travellers to swap the animals they have brought with them from Sarhad and beyond for local ones, and make them pay for it. Mobarak clearly knew this in advance and with us already far ahead, the locals at Bozai Gumbaz must have given up.
With these troubles now out of the way the three of us were back on the road with Eddy and Norm trotting along. The landscape had significantly flattened out now. No longer were we faced with scrambling up gravelly sandy hills, clinging to narrow mountainsides, or navigating down slippery slopes. To our relief we could amble along, enjoying something a few notches above your average lazy Sunday stroll.
Occasionally we would spot what looked like a Kyrgyz family in the distance, tending to their animals, washing their clothes, or just generally out and about around their mud homes. Funnily enough some of the buildings even had satellite dishes sitting around outside. Did they have TVs? We wondered what was held inside.
Looking down at the ground beneath our feet and it was clear that we were walking through terrain exposed to quite harsh conditions. It was incredibly dry and lifeless, sun-baked by the cloudless sky overhead. Ignoring the grass that clung next to streams coming down from the mountains, it was completely devoid of any colour or vegetation. A real wasteland-like environment.
Despite it seeming like a high-altitude desert, out of nowhere two lakes appeared on the horizon. One of them a smaller, shallower looking lake of a beautiful light blue colour. The other, Chaqmaqtin Lake, the second largest lake in all of the Wakhan Corridor. Chaqmaqtin was a deep blue colour, not dissimilar to that of the ocean itself, and seemed to go on and on, further than our eyes could see.
As we walked along, the backdrop of the snow-capped peaks behind the deep blue of Chaqmaqtin lake was spectacular. Here we were, with this absolutely incredible view of one of the planet’s most unspoiled locations nearly all to ourselves. If you had shown me a photo of this landscape a few months ago and said it was Afghanistan I wouldn’t have believed you.
Around midday we arrived at our first Kyrgyz guesthouse, appropriately named ‘Chaqmaqtin’. Despite the sunny conditions, the wind had picked up making for a very blustery day and upon our arrival there was nobody in sight (besides a few yaks). A knock on the door went unanswered until we saw the blur of a red dress dashing around the corner. Mobarak wandered around and before long a man appeared (not in a red dress), looking as if he had been woken from a deep sleep. He opened up the guest building and we all settled in inside.
It was still Ramadan which probably explained why nobody was out and about. The local man who greeted us however hastily arranged for some bread and tea to offer for lunch which was much appreciated. Mobarak was exempt from fasting as he was tasked with the responsibility of guiding us, so once we saw him digging in we felt more comfortable about eating in front of our hosts.
The man briefly remained as Mobarak said a few words to him before he returned to finish off his sleep. The three of us sat around for a while, relaxing as the wind howled outside. We hadn’t come all this way to sit around though, so instead of waiting for the evening for some life in the settlement, Marta and I decided to go out and explore.
We wandered down from the village and made our way towards Chaqmaqtin Lake. It didn’t look so far away from the doorstep, but nearly an hour of walking later and it hardly seemed any closer. As we finally approached the shore it became very marshy and we were forced to hop along tufts of grass to avoid falling into the murky swampy land below.
The wind was getting stronger and stronger so after reaching the lake’s edge we scurried back towards solid dry land and returned to the village. Mobarak was sleeping so we sat for a while inside, recovering and waiting for the evening. At one point the same man from before came back with some other men and what appeared to be his sons. He was feeling a little more sociable this time as he even managed to crack a smile at our attempts to say some words in Kyrgyz.
Eventually the settlement woke up and there was movement outside. The kids were running around and the women were washing clothes and milking yaks. The men… well the men weren’t really doing anything, but they were awake. Marta and I walked around exploring what we could of this small gathering of mud houses and a couple of yurts. To our surprise they even had a motorbike. Most of the children in particular seemed to enjoy our presence, with one boy loving having our attention. One girl however, was absolutely terrified of us
The women on the other hand were quite reserved and shy. Maybe it was because of my presence as a male, but they would neither maintain eye contact nor even comfortably stay within line of sight from us. However, what we could see of them left us stunned. While the men wore simple shirts and sweaters, the women were dressed in glowing red, long-sleeve dresses decorated with elaborate gold patterns and featuring an abundance of jewellery in the form of necklaces and earrings. Unlike in Ishkashim, and much of Afghanistan, where the women don burqas, the women here wore veils over a raised circular hat. The veil would either be white to indicate they are married, or red to show they are single. These outfits were perhaps the most extravagant and interesting feature we had seen so far of the Kyrgyz people here.
We continued walking around, playing with the kids. Plenty of dogs were also roaming the settlement which pleased Marta until we were warned to stay clear of them. A dog bite out here would be rather inconvenient. As the sun slowly dropped below the horizon we took one last look over the village before the temperature dramatically dropped and we took shelter in our room.
Dinner arrived well after sunset much to the delight of our now starving bellies. A giant serving of rice accompanied by bread, yoghurt and yak milk tea was much appreciated. We assumed this would become our standard meal while we were out here. Meat was too valuable to eat and since nothing grew out here what other options did they have? Another man working in the settlement joined us and we soon mastered the art of picking up rice with our hands.
Later on we were relieved to have a roll-out mattress ready for us to sleep on inside, especially given how cold it felt outside. We pulled out the sleeping bags and settled in for the night, feeling surprisingly cosy given we were out in the mountains of remote Afghanistan.
Day 6: Chaqmaqtin to Erali
After the best night’s sleep since leaving Sarhad, we woke up refreshed and thoroughly enjoyed another serving of bread and yoghurt. Our hosts came in for a chat and Mobarak arranged with them to hold onto our gear for the next few days as we would eventually pass back through here. With no need now for our gas bottle or tents, we gave them our unnecessary weight, much to Eddy and Norm’s delight.
We thanked the men for their hospitality, hoping that they would pass on the message to the women as well who I assume did the cooking. The chief of the village was more than happy with the 1000 Afghani note (~US$15) that we offered and then we were once again walking through the dusty plains of the Little Pamir. To our surprise, the small streams around were completely frozen over. It must have been very cold overnight.
With Chaqmaqtin Lake and the Hindu Kush mountains on our right, and the Pamir mountains to our left, we sauntered along, occasionally stopping to appreciate the surroundings. Mubarak sang in the background along with the music on his mobile phone, the donkeys munched on the grass whenever they were given a chance, and we speculated what else was ahead of us while the odd collection of ancient Kyrgyz tombs popped up here and there. Life was good!
Along the way we made a quick stop at a half-way settlement to say hello to a few of the locals. While Mobarak chatted away to one of the men, Marta and I were accosted by a young boy and girl who were thrilled to get a photo. The girl in particular was an interesting character as she dragged a sack full of yak dung around to be used as fuel for cooking and warmth. Her face repeatedly changed from confusion, to joy, to frustration, and to determination. The unsung hero of the Afghan Kyrgyz.
Our next stopover was the village of Erali, home to the well-known Kyrgyz elder of the same name. We arrived around midday to Erali and a few other men gathered outside amongst a huge flock of sheep and goats. We were welcomed in to the guest room with a handshake and set our things down. Mobarak had a short chat with everyone before they scattered back to their own rooms.
Marta and I went outside to walk around and soon enough we found ourselves surrounded by the same flock of sheep and goats. There were dozens upon dozens of them here, and that’s without mentioning the yaks that were out grazing in the distance. A symphony of baaaaa-s rang out all around and we wondered what they were all saying about us.
As we walked through the village we were surprisingly invited into one of the rooms where a few of the locals had gathered. Inside there were two doctors who had come from Ishkashim (or further) to provide check-ups to a few people. Erali in particular was getting a lot of attention, which came as no surprise given he struggled to walk around unaided and was clearly quite old. In the meantime a baby slept peacefully in the corner in a handmade bassinet. At least three generations all in one room.
We thanked them for inviting us in and went back outside as Erali needed more private attention from the doctors. Before we could walk far though another little home across the river caught our eye and we were again invited inside. A young, teenage girl was operating an old-fashioned manual sewing machine to sew together some fabric for the women’s dresses. A man and women who we assumed to be her mother and father joined us and thankfully Mobarak arrived to help translate as much as he could. Watching how they make the clothes here was really interesting, it was a great look at life inside the family home.
Amazed at how life goes on here, Marta and I went for another short walk before returning to our room for the evening. To pass the time, I drew up a round of dots and boxes and absolutely thumped Marta at it until she was in tears and refused to ever play any game with me ever again. I took great satisfaction in this.
Later on Erali returned with a box of medication which the doctors had given to him before they left. There was only one problem though, it was in English and doctors had no idea how to administer it. Erali hoped we could explain how to consume them, so with our non-existent knowledge of medicine we read the box, took an educated guess at what to do but explained we had no idea. Give us our doctorates now.
Dinner thankfully came out at a much earlier time than when we were fed the previous night in Chaqmaqtin. Again it was rice, bread, yoghurt, and yak milk tea, and again it tasted reasonably nice given the rudimentary nature of it. Another cold snap set in outside so we settled in and prepared for sleep. Unfortunately, a local man took a bit of an obsession to us and wouldn’t stop staring, so it was a bit uncomfortable for a while. Once Mobarak decided to call it a night though he finally gave us some breathing space.
Two days of Kyrgyz hospitality had been an incredibly interesting introduction to life here so far. From what we had read previously online, Erali village was as far as most tourists on longer treks made it to. We could already see that here was more welcoming compared to Chaqmaqtin village, which in turn was far nicer than Bozai Gumbaz. Our guess was that the fewer tourists that a village receives, the more welcoming they are. Hopefully that boded well for the next few days.