Ishkashim to Khorog: The Wheelbarrow & The Customs Officer

Waiting in Tajikistan

When I was stuck in Osh, I met Shaina, an American who had been teaching English in various parts of China over the past five years. She too was attempting to travel the Pamir Highway, but had a very small budget and was hoping to see Uzbekistan afterwards, so she did not travel with Svend, Helen and I. Her “must see” on the Pamir Highway was the Afghani Bazaar in Ishkashim, which takes place on an island on the Tajikistan side of the Pyanj River, but is considered “neutral” territory between the two countries. I had never heard of this bazaar, and since I was not planning on traveling this part of this road until I got sick, I did not think about it much until I arrived in Ishkashim.

Author’s Note: This post is a part of many associated with my trip on the Pamir Highway in June, 2014. For a complete overview of this trip, please click this link.

Also, since I do not have much faith in my bazaar and portrait photography, I used a few photos from Svend and Helen’s blog. You can see more of their photos clicking this link.

Morning in Ishkashim
Morning in Ishkashim

The night we arrived in Ishkashim, everyone at the hostel asked us if we knew that the bazaar would be open the next day. We obviously did not know for sure, but it was established common knowledge amongst the travelers that it supposedly takes place on Saturday, which was the next day. I awoke early on Saturday, chatted with Sailaubai for a bit outside, and took a walk through Ishkashim. The town was noticeably larger than any place I had visited in Tajikistan, and there were also many Afghans walking around in beautiful green robes, giving it a unique feel I had not yet encountered before in Central Asia.

I couldn't help but notice the fantastic mountains of Afghanistan as the bazaar was being set up
I couldn’t help but notice the fantastic mountains of Afghanistan as the bazaar was being set up

I returned back to the guesthouse, and Sailaubai and I drove to the border crossing while Svend and Helen walked. The majority of the other travelers who I met at dinner the night before were there as well. Having faith in the idea that “this has been done before,” we handed our passports to a Tajikstani border guard and crossed the bridge to the island. After a small wait, many of the Afghanistani sellers were admitted to the island as well, the majority of them running to get prime bazaar real estate before others. Within an hour, the bazaar was full and lively of sellers from Afghanistan and shoppers from Tajikistan and beyond.

An Afghanistani man carries his "shop" in the bazaar. Photo: Helen
An Afghanistani man carries his “shop” in the bazaar. Photo: Helen
An Afghani man takes  a break from hauling stuff into the bazaar. Photo: Helen
An Afghani man takes a break from hauling stuff into the bazaar. Photo: Helen

The bazaar was strangely disappointing because, like every bazaar in Central Asia, the majority of goods for sale were from China. Instead of corrupt police, however, there were Afghani and Tajikstani military patrolling the compound, happy that tourists were enjoying themselves.

There were a few stands that had Afghani products, including the flat-topped hats known as pokats. I was examining some souvenirs at a young boy’s stand on the ground in a squat, trying to convince him to give me a discount for buying two of the same things, when WHAM! an intense sensation of pain hit my lower back. I turned to see a man with a wheelbarrow dart into the crowd, in a hurry to resupply another stand and probably unaware that he had run into a human. I looked at the boy who I was in negotiations with who looked at me with a “that must have hurt” look, but also knowing I was squatting in a pretty high traffic area so it should have been expected. He surrendered a free orange “Super Cola” to me as I purchased my souvenirs, perhaps as a sympathy token.

Anyhow, I now have a scar from the time I was in a bazaar in the neutral territory between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and got run over by a wheelbarrow.

The Lone Shashlyk Cook, with the road beyond behind
The Lone Shashlyk Cook, with the road beyond behind

I found Svend and Helen in the food court area, and we were trying to figure out when to leave, when Shaina tapped me on the shoulder. We had last seen her hitchhiking on the road at Sary Tash, so it was a surprise to see her all the way down here to say the least, especially since she had introduced me to the concept of this bazaar. Everything comes full circle, and after saying goodbye, Svend, Helen and I retrieved our passports and started the drive to Khorog.

The Canyon between Ishkashim and Khorog, with Sailaubai's Pajero waiting patiently. Photo: Helen
The Canyon between Ishkashim and Khorog, with Sailaubai’s Pajero waiting patiently. Photo: Helen

The drive between Ishkashim was fantastic, as the canyon’s walls kept getting bigger at steeper above the Pyanj River. We pulled off for one stop at the extremely hot waters of Garam Chashma hot springs, got pulled over once by some feisty police officers, and eventually made it into Khorog.

Statue in Khorog
Statue in Khorog

Things got a bit weird in Khorog. Taking Shaina’s advice, Svend and Helen wanted to stay in town, rather than at the relatively far Pamiri Lodge, so they advised Sailaubai to take them to another guesthouse. They did not like this guesthouse, and wanted Sailaubai to take them to a different one, but the driver wasn’t sure of where it was and refused to be their personal cab in town.

I realized that Sailaubai was probably upset for two reasons, one was that he just had to bribe some police when we got pulled over, and the other is that there had been talk of a tip when we arrived in Khorog when Svend negotiated the price of the trip back in Murghab. Svend and Helen must have forgotten this tip, so they set off to try to find another guesthouse on foot. Perhaps they were in a hurry to beat the rain, or anxious to find a place to stay so they could see some of Khorog, but they barely said goodbye to either myself or Sailaubai, which I found pretty odd after spending six days on the road with them.

This was only part of the eccentricities for me in Khorog. Before leaving Almaty, I had emailed one of my KIMEP Students from Khorog that I was going there in June, unsure of the dates since there was political unrest. The last town I had internet was Osh six days prior, where I had sent her another message about potential dates in Khorog, but nothing exact. When I arrived in Khorog on June 7th, I had her family’s phone number, which I called using Sailaubai’s phone. My Russian was not strong enough to understand her dad on the other end, but Sailaubai was able to translate for me into simple Russian that he was coming to meet us at this first Guesthouse.

The rain started, so Sailaubai and I waited in the car, where I slipped him about 100 Tajik Somoni, or about $20 USD, telling him it was for his family. I insisted he take it after his polite refusal, shaking his hand and telling him he was a great driver and guide. His gruff disposition from paying the police bribe and sudden departure of Svend and Helen changed quickly, and he was more than happy to help me with my student’s dad, who arrived shortly after, and then continued to help me the next day on the drive to Murghab, and then again in Murghab exchanging some money. Sailaubai is a great guy, and I was very happy to have met him.

Mountains above Khorog
Mountains above Khorog

When my student’s father arrived, he, Sailaubai, and I had a three way conversation in different levels of Russian, where I was able to establish he was a Tajikistani Customs Officer who had also been working at Ishkashim that day. He seemed almost angry that I hadn’t contacted him earlier, as he would have been able to drive me from Ishkashim, I think. It was hard to say what he was implying because of language complications. Anyhow, he called his daughter, still in Almaty, and had her tell me that his wife, my student’s mother, was not in Khorog at the moment and it would just be her dad and I if I stayed with him. I thought it might be too much trouble, so I said I would just stay at the Pamiri Lodge, but her dad insisted I stay with him, so I did.

He welcomed me into their beautiful house, fed me plov, and after I went on a walk through town, we watched some MMA and Men’s Volleyball on TV, both of which were Russia versus the USA (I can assure you, after 5 days on the Pamir Highway and 4 days in Osh before that, anything on a television is hypnotizing, even if you have no idea what is going on).

As you might imagine, staying with a Tajikstani Customs Official, who used to be a Soviet Union customs official, was an experience you won’t find in the Lonely Planet. Ask me about it over a beer sometime.


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