Along the Panj River
The Panj River is formed near the Whakan town Langar by the junction of the Pamir River and the Wakhan River. From there it flows for 1125km westwards along the Tajik-Afghan border until it joins the Vakhsh River at the Tigrovaya Balka State Nature Reserve to form the biggest river in central Asia, the Amu Darya. The Panj (meaning five in Tajik) is so called because it got 5 main tributaries. Starting in the east these are the Roshkala River, the Rund River, the Vanj River, the Bartang River and the Kalaiqum River.
in the morning of the 4th of August my guide, my driver and myself left Dushanbe to drive to Kalaiqum. From Dushanbe there are basically two ways to get to Kalaiqum. You can follow the old M41, which is now largely unmaintained and unpaved for long stretches and which takes you over the Sagirdasht Pass (3252m) . Alternatively, you can take the southern route, which is new and mostly paved. Although the latter is about 100km longer than the former it takes the same time, about nine or ten hours to get from Dushanbe to Kalaiqum. On that day we chose the southern route on which you join about 50 or 60 km after Kulob. On the return journey we took the other route, via the Sagirdasht Pass, which is more interesting but is more tiring because of the road condition (even though I was only a passenger in a nice and comfortable Mitsubishi Pajero).
Between Dushanbe and Kulob the scenery is not particularly interesting, the only two points we briefly stopped (well in addition to a lunch break) were the Nurek Reservoir and Hulbuk in order to have a look at Fortress. However, once you join the Panj River the scenery becomes much more appealing and exciting.
Hulbuk was a medieval town that belonged to the Samanid Empire between the 9th and the 11th century AD and in from 1024 it beccame the capital dominion of the province Chuttal (Khuttalan) of the Ghaznavid Empire, a muslim dynasty of Turkic Mamluk origin. Hulbuk was one of the largest cities in Central Asia, but it was abandoned in the 12th century after it was destroyed by the Seljuks after an uprising. The walls of the fortress that can be seen are a reconstruction that dates back to 2004. When I visited beginning of August 2018 it looked like construction was still going on. From Hulbuk we drove to the Afghan Border, where we joined the Panj River, via Khulob and Shuroobod. Shortly before joining the Panj River we entered the Gorno-Badakshan Autonmous Province (GBAO) where we encountered the first of of several police check points on our journey. The crossing into GBAO happened without incident and after a two brief stops at the police check point and then at the military checkpoint we continued on our journey. Thus after a 4 hour drive I arrived in Gorno-Badakshan and I would not leave for another three weeks. In the GBAO it seemed that every time you crossed from one district to another you had to pass a police check point – however, there were never any problems.
Gorno-Badakshan has seven districts, covering about 62000 square kilometers (about 40% of the total area of Tajikistan) with a population of about 200000. 5 or 6 hours after crossing the border into the GBAO we arrived in Kalaiqum where we stayed in the Hotel Roma, which seemed to be a major meeting place for small tour groups and independent travellers.
The day after we joined the Pamir Highway or the M41 and drove to Rushon where I went for my first hike in the Pamirs. My guide Bakir and myself walked up the Pastkhuf Valley from the village of Pastkhuf to Khuf, a few miles up the valley. The amazing thing is that the people living in this valley have their own language, namely ‘Khufi’ one of the many languages spoken in the Pamirs. Unfortunately, we did not manage to get to Khuf as I slipped on the way and nearly went down a steep scree slope. Luckily, my guide prevented me from doing serious damage to myself by grabbing me and so I ended up with a few cuts and bruises. But both myself and my guide had alittle bit of a shock so we decided to turn back. Dinner and breakfast in Rushon was quite amazing especially since it was served under grape vines and apple trees (the food was actually not bad either.)
From Rushon we continued to Khorog, Khorog being the capital of the GBAO region and from Khorog we proceeded to Darshai, a village close to Ishkashim. Between Khorog and Darshai we stopped at the Kakhkaha Fortress in Namadgut, the oldest parts of which date probably from the second century BC. The fortress itself is not that exciting as not much of it remains standing. Nevertheless, it is worth a visit since the views of the Panj Valley from the top are actually quite spectacular. The fortress itself is occupied by the Tajik Border Guards which did not present a major problem since Bakir happened to know one of the soldiers there. Bakir, in fact seemed to know everybody in the Pamirs!!
In Darshai itself there is a shrine (called Oston-i Pir-i Fokhmamad), but the main reason for staying there was to hike up the stunning Darshai Valley. In places the path up the Darshai Valley is quite scary, as in some in places it is only a foot wide and it crosses pretty steep scree slope but is all very exciting and beautiful. In addition you get to cross one of the last ‘hanging passages’ or ‘ovrings’ (paths clinging to the rock face) in the Tajikistani part of the Wakhan Corridor. My guide Bakir and myself only did a half day hike up the valley and back but I imagine it would be worthwhile hiking up the valley further.
There is quite a lot to see along this stretch of the Wakhan corridor. Slightly further to the east, at Yamchun, is the spectacular ‘Fortress of the Fire Worshippers and the Hot Springs of Bibi Fatima. From the Fortress of the Fire Worshippers you can see the Hindukush Mountains in Pakistan, assuming the weather plays ball. The Fortress of the Fire Worshippers is located on a crumbling, rocky outcrop that sticks out into the Panj Valley. The original parts of the fortress probably date as far back as the 2nd Century BCE; when it was apparently occupied by Zoroastrians. The fortifications that can be seen today, i.e. the turrets, the watch-towers and the bastions, were built between the 10th and 12th Century CE. Yamchun Fortress was built to protect its inhabitants of the Wakhan corridor, a branch of the Silk Road, from warring neighbours and opportunistic raiders.
If you follow the road past Yamchum Fortress up the hill you eventually arrive at the Bibi Fatima Hot Springs where we had a dip in one of the hot pools. At the time of writing there were two pools, one for women and one for men (the latter being located to the right of the women’s pool). After having changed in a little antechamber my guides and myself sat down in the pool for a well deserved rest. The pool itself is pretty hot and is fed by a hot spring, emerging from a rock face, and cooler river water. After our bath, feeling well rested and much cleaner, we had a very late lunch at one of the small eateries just next to the spring and afterwards Bakir and myself walked back down to Yamchum Fortress, where our driver picked us up and we drove to our B&B have way down the hill from the Fortress.
The next day, after a good nights sleep, we left for Langar, where we would leave the river Panj to drive inland towards Zor Kul and the Pamir Highway. On the way we passed several shrines (there are quite a few on this stretch of the road) and some beautiful traditional Pamiri houses. Our two main stops were the residenc of the astronomer and scholar Sufi Muboraki Vakhoni (1839-1930). His house was actually one of the most beautiful traditional houses I have seen during my journey. Just outside the museum is the solar calendar he used to determine the start of the Navruv festival.
Shortly after the museum we arrived in the village of Vrang where we went to see the Buddhist stupa which sits on a small hill and is surrounded by caves that served as cells for the monks. Unfortunately, on that day the visibility was much reduced and the Wakhan corridor was shrouded in haze. In Langar we went to see the Petroglyphs some of which date back to the bronze age although the site has been marred by modern graffiti which is a bit of a shame. Nevertless, the old petroglyphs can still be easily seen.