“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” - Eleanor Roosevelt ..
Words that absolutely speak to my heart and soul, I needed to enrich my life with new experience and that led me to choose a unique destination not knowing exactly what I would be facing there, But the decision was made and implemented.
In July 5th 2016 Tajikistan was the place I choose for a new experience, despite of all the differences in traditions, culture and most importantly the difference of sects. It is a known fact that 95% Sunni Islam is the practiced religion in the country as declared in 2009, 3% are Ismaili Shi'a Muslims mostly based In the Pamirs where exactly I was heading. Tajikistan is bordered with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Part of former USSR till 1991 when Tajikistan became independent after the breakup which makes Russian their second language, after Tajiki.
Arranging this trip in particular was never easy, I tried to contact many relevant people in social media, who traveled here, not much response did I got. Pamir Horse Adventure (found by Aslisho) were generous enough to arrange my trip, they did it with so much passion till the very last minute of my coming back. Believe me, Tajikistan is a country one can’t travel around without some local help.
When I finally made it to Dushanbe City - the capital and the largest city in the country - I happen to see short height yellow colored buildings, this was indeed a reminder of the classic buildings back home in Alexandria (Egypt). I would say, I felt very much at home right away.I started my trip to Khorog which is the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in Tajikistan . It is there where you get to see the Pamir Mountains, it's also known as “The roof of the world” , the highlight of Tajikistan. By flight it would take only one hour and by road 12–15 hours. Because of the weather conditions, not always flights are available. Depend on luck factor. I traveled by road to Khorog, and it took me 16 hours..
The ride was in shared 4x4 Jeep, the people were all English speaking except for the driver. So, that part of the trip was easy, no communication problem. ”Don’t shoot now, wait till we reach the Pamirs" a passenger with me said while I was trying to shoot the little hills of Dushanbe. Along the way one phenomenon I noticed and absolutely loved, whenever I turned back it felt like mountains are getting bigger and higher. It was like the Pamirs declaring its presence.
Most part of the trip, we were travelling by the Afghan border. It was made noticeable by the Panj River. I felt, the Afghan side was so much different from the Tajik. In terms of people, culture and the landscapes.
Needless to say, the driver was driving too fast for a rocky road. I trusted, he knows what he is doing. And, he actually did. When it was heavily raining, streams of mud were ahead of us making the car to easily slip into the river. The driver negotiated the drive cleverly, I must say.
I experienced all the seasons in a year during this trip. The skies are sometimes bright, other times its cloudy. In the dark,the first 7 to 8 hours were magical and exciting until the last glimmer of light. finally at around 1:00 AM we reached the destination, the driver was kind enough to drop me at Pamir Lodge Hostel.
Pamiri people practice Nizari Ismaili Shiism, a variant of Shi'a theology, which holds that there is an unbroken chain of living imams down to the present day, currently represented by the Aga Khan, the 49th imam.
In 1995 a group of volunteers arranged rocks on the mountains of the Pamirs in Khorog to create a welcome sign to Hazir Imam on his first visit to Tajikistan which said " Welcome Our Hazir Imam" in 2008 the words Golden Jubilee were added.
Staying in a Hostel was quite an experience, One would get to see people like (bikers, hikers, etc.) from all part of the globe, everyone describes their trip with a lot of passion, so many travel stories shared. In the Pamir Lodge everything is made out of wood and brick, other words natural materials are used for construction. The owners are like big family and they are very hospitable and warm, again I was definitely feeling home.
Some of the family members in the Pamir Lodge Hostel, The grandmother in the middle and her grand child jumped in the photo with excitement.
Basically, I was curious about the culture of this region. So I headed on my first day to the city center, where there’s the big market of Khorog, there you can find anything you need from a needle to a rocket.It’s a live place, you can have tasty breakfast and some homemade coffee, I couldn’t help but notice that most sellers in the market are women and girls of young age. But it was no surprise to me, as I can tell how strong women are in this region.
This lady was kind enough to share her personal story, in form of photos and pictures of her sister who went to Egypt & France. She said, “They have been there for their higher studies.”
This blind gifted artist played music so wonderfully, it really touched me. The melody was very catchy.
At the end of the day, I got back to the hostel, and I had to plan my trip to Wakhan. It was then I met Saidbek and Kolya, who supposed to accompany me in the overnight trip..
We continued taking the border road between Tajikistan and Afghanistan which most of it lies in the Pamirs range heading to Wakhan Vally, one of the hardest roads we have taken in that trip. Along most of the way, it’s a narrow gorge with little villages on the side of both countries. In some parts the river seemed dry enough to make you feel you can cross to the other side by just walking. The close relationship and common interests between the two countries allowed them to build a series of bridges to help the traffic and mutual trading.
In the villages on the border of Afghanistan, herding sheep is a common lifestyle on both sides. The shot was taking from the Tajik side.
Shepherds family herding sheep on the Tajik side.
Girls farmers helping their family by cutting the unwanted grass. Something that also very common in the villages to help support the family while schools are closed for summer.
We stayed for a while in a guest house for lunch. One of the traditional Pamiri houses, the traditional Pamiri house might appear primitive on the exterior but once stepping inside the first thing one may notice is the wooden pillars, every corner of the Pamiri house is based on a religious meaning and believe related to Zoroastrian symbolism heritage. The house is the symbol of the universe and also the place of private prayer and worship for Pamiri Ismailis.
The five supporting pillars, symbolizing the five members of Ali's family: Mohamed, his son-in-law Ali, Mohamed’s daughter Bibi Fatima (Ali's wife), and their sons Hassan and Hussein.
A man we met in a village later in Bartang, who was painting and maintaining his own house, explained to us the structure of the house and how those 5 pillars were constructed. He says it was the only thing that survived the recent earthquake in the Pamirs in that house.
A skylight, the design of which incorporates four concentric square box-type layers known as 'chorkhona' ('four houses') representing, respectively, the four Zoroastrian elements earth, water, air and fire, the latter being the highest, touched first by the sun's rays.The middle of the house is open to the sky.
A picture of Prince Karim Aga Khan the IV almost in every single Ismaili house.
Shi'a look to the Imams—the blood descendants of Ali and Husayn—as their legitimate political and religious leaders."He's the 49th imam after Ali. "We Ismailis see him as the imam of our time." Said Dr. Ali Mohammad Rajput, whom I was lucky to meet during my stay in Pamir Lodge Hostel.
Musician Musawal Minakov's house in Bartang constructed in the same pamiri traditional design. Old and many different instruments was kept there, I was told that his music was for the people and religion, The house is full of pictures of other artists as well who shared his passion for music. Now it's considered as a museum for it's value.
In local homes It doesn’t matter if you pay or not the locals for their hospitality. If you pay, that’s fine but if you are a traveler and you need food and shelter they will never hesitate to open the door for tourists and backpackers and accommodate them, I felt it would be rude if you did not accept their generous hospitality.
Mr. Chorshanbe the owner of the guest house
And his beautiful daughter standing under the skylight which I believe is a source of energy to everyone under it.
When it comes to food, we have to take a pause, I was told before I travel that I will find all kinds of healthy natural food, and yes that’s exactly what I found. Fresh meat and vegetables, very tasty fruits, the way everything was cooked reminded me exactly of the country side in Egypt. It is a bit heavy, but very tasty.
I never had in my life this much tea to drink, as I did in those 7 days, red and green tea. In Tajikistan you never cross a group of people or a house without an invitation for tea, tea and tea. And it is not like you take one cup and that’s it, it is a continuous, I finish and they pour more. tea. Sugar is not very much needed, which is very convenient. Imagine taking sugar for each cup I drink!
We passed through the Yamchun fortress is which probably the eldest monument in Wakhan built on the top of the cliff overlooking the valley. The fortress dated to 3-1 century BC and had thick stone walls and round watchtowers. According to local legend the fortress was built by kings.
A point contact of Himalayas, Tian Shan, karakoram, Kunlun and Hindu Kush ranges. It is well known by the name Pamir Knot can be seen from the Yamchun Fortress, it is the point where Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan can meet in one picture.
We continued driving to the other home-stay, where we will spend the night. Yet another beautiful traditional house, another beautiful and kind hostess that served us delicious dinner, once again.
Talking about the kindness that people have shown towards me can go on forever, They never expect you to return a favor, They never wait to be paid for helping you, and worth mentioning is I have never met one person there asked me for money to be photographed, which I can say is a common behavior in many countries, that concept simply does not exist in Tajikistan.
Mrs. Muneera and her husband own that beautiful house which they share it with guests.
Never saw clear sky like this in my life, I can easily see the Milky Way, it is so legible.
Saying good bye to Mrs. Muneera and to the Wakhan, heading north to Bartang.
It was a weekend and everything was closed, but this 75 years old man with a beautiful soul who does metalwork for living left his comfortable seat and opened his workshop for us. He wanted to show us what his daily routine was in his workshop. He loved it , and it seemed that he has no intention to stop for a small matter such as age.
Afterwards, he of course invited us for tea - as all Tajik people generously does - and we chatted a bit with him about his old days. ”Before, when you go to the market you can find everything, Now you go to the market and you find nothing”. He said in a sarcastic way. Then he started talking on how the country economy is slowly developing, but it is happening, he can't be more right . being an independent country is nothing but a great breakthrough, progress can be predicted in the near future.
Back to Dushanbe I was lucky to take the very old plane I mentioned in the beginning, It flies twice a day - if the weather is clear. They call it the scariest flight since the plane is really old and it goes above the mountains, which occupy 90% of the country ground. You can see Tajikistan on one side and Afghanistan on the other. But to me it was quite normal but I strongly recommend ear plugs to avoid the engine noise that may hunt you for few hours after.
In Dushanbe, where most Sunnis Muslims are, women wear scarfs differently than the Pamiri women, but even though, as a Sunni Muslim myself in the Pamirs, wearing a head cover my own way was not an issue. Regardless of the current religious sectarian tension, Sunni and Shi'a Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries in different places. Tajikistan is definitely one of which.
In all my travels, I never felt any regrets choosing my destination, although it might seem to others less common or less interesting! And they repeatedly ask questions like “Why there? Aren’t you afraid? “ etc… Well, why not! and I am not trying to be brave here, I have met travelers who showed me that I’m only on the edge of my comfort zone still, when I actually thought I was out of it! I only wanted to explore and inspire others to take unusual steps to explore as well specially ladies. If only people know how big the world out there and you may see wonders by only deciding to follow your heart. And I will always say this, DON’T let anyone change your mind when you are about to do something you believe is unique.