After Bulunkul, we diverged from the Pamir Highway, which makes a straight shot over the mountains to Khorog, the provincial capital and the first real town on the whole road. We were eventually headed to Khorog, but we took the longer and more interesting route down the Wakhan valley, which straddles the Afghan border to the south.
We first crossed a small pass and descended into the Great Pamir valley. I had seen Zorkul Lake and the other end of this valley from the roadless pass a few days earlier. But now we were 100 kilometers to the west and the water from the lake was flowing down the Pamir River. The river formed the border with Afghanistan, and we could easily see structures like this ancient caravansarai on the other shore. The river was small and isolated enough that I considered swimming across without a visa, but prudence prevailed and I contented myself with throwing stones. To the south rose the rugged Wakhan Range and to the north Marx and Engels Peaks.
We spent the night in Langar, where the Pamir and Wakhan rivers join to form the Panj, the local name for the upper Amu Darya (Oxus). European explorers traced the source of the Oxus to a glacier in the far east of the Wakhan valley, which continues upstream from here in an area fully in Afghanistan and therefore inaccessible to us. Langar is also the site of a 2000-year-old fort and a huge collection of prehistoric petroglyphs, which are gradually disappearing under local graffiti.
The Wakhan people follow the Ishmaili branch of Islam, but there are some interesting echos of previous religions. Animal horns and fire burning rituals grace the shrines, just as they would have done in Zoroastrian times. And there are several Buddhist stupas that date back to the Gandharan civilization long before the religion reached China or Tibet.
The lower Wakhan valley has been a center of trade and civilization for thousands of years. Branches of the Silk Road ran through to cross passes over the Pamirs into China. Water and a milder climate make cultivation possible, though it was striking how much more developed the Tajik side was than Afghanistan just across the river.
This is also the point where the Russian and British empires came closest. The Russians controlled the north side of the valley down to the river, and the border of British India (now Pakistan) ran along the tops of the Hindu Kush mountains at the south wall less than 15 kilometers (10 miles) away. Of course, these mountains added another 5 kilometers (15,000 feet) of vertical relief, so the British fears of Russian artillery rolling over the mountains were largely exaggerated. For ourselves, we were content to gaze across the valley at the magnificent snow mountains.
Forts, shrines, former Buddhist stupas and hot springs kept us busy all day. At the most spectacular fort, Yamchun, our car was blocked by a French film crew, who were shooting an action movie about the Taliban. We walked across the scene and climbed to the Bibi Fatima hot springs, a delightful soak in a cave. Our driver had to wait and got to watch the filming of a scene involving Denzel Washington. Pretty exciting for the resident of a town without a movie theater. (Everyone in Tajikistan knows Arnold Schwarzenegger, though, as soon as we say we're from California.)
Homestays are among the joys of traveling in this area. We chose to stay in simple houses without showers or toilets to get a real taste of life in the village. Often the men of the family would gather around a tablecloth and share stories and vodka. The women would sometimes also join from a safe distance in everything but the vodka.
Pamiri houses are full of symbolism. The main room is supported by five pillars, corresponding to Mohammed, Ali, Bibi Fatima, and the sons Hassan and Hussein (the latter two linked by a crossbeam). Some believe the five pillars also have older roots in the five main gods of Zoroastrianism. In the ceiling, a skylight is framed by four squares representing the elements earth, air, water and fire.
On the third day, we drove the remaining route north from Ishkashim to Khorog, where nice hotels and restaurants were waiting to revive us.