Traveling through northern Tajikistan into the Pamirs and the Wahkan Corridor, mesmerized by the dramatic beauty of the mountain passes on roads that barely passed as roads, we met cyclists who had ridden across Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan and into Tajikistan on their bicycles. Getting to know two riders, one French, the other Indian, each traveling alone, both admitted traveling on the Pamir highway, the second highest road in the world, was a challenge. Sometimes their fortitude weakened, so they took rides if the roads were
Impassable, the weather was unbearable and if they were sick. All of us were recuperating in Khorog, the only modern town in the entire GBOA region of Tajikistan . A fascinating but exhausting adventure, we had survived 8 days of 800 kms of rough terrain, basic sleeping accommodations and minimal food. But we were in a car, I could not imagine on a bike.
As we drove into Khorog, which is surrounded by majestic mountains on both sides of the river, the new Aga Khan Center is the first thing you see. The Ismaili people, who have lived here for centuries, are Shia Muslims and speak the Pamiri language. They look to the Aga Khan as their leader, as he is believed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. It is not necessary to ask who is funding and staffing the Central Asian university, or building the new hospital, or developing tourism; pecta.tj (Pamir eco-cultural tourism association is managing homestays in the Pamirs and the Wakhan valley). It’s always the Ana Khan foundation. Since the GBOA is an autonomous region within Tajikistan, they can’t depend on the central Tajik government. The Aga Khan group has been a dynamic, educational, and social network that has improved the lives of so many people living in remote mountain villages.
After five days of bodily comfort and good food at the Lal hotel, we finally left Khorog. Hiring a local with an older four wheel drive Toyota, we prepared ourselves for a rough 2 day,12 hour drive on the Pamir Highway. The vistas on day 1 brought up words like magical, surreal, and otherworldly. The road was the opposite, potholed, covered in rocks, sand and dirt. We spent 6 hours being jolted out of our seats. Remembering that Afghanistan was still on the other side of the river, we spotted lush green villages, some with traditional mud houses, others with more modern ones. Our day ended in Kalaikhum, the largest town between Khorog and Dushanbe. We expected a traditional home stay but instead we had been sent by pecta.tj tourism to a hostel with our usual three bedded room. But this time there was one toilet and one shower for 8 rooms. There was a shiny new restaurant built by Aga Khan group that belied the food being served. I swore the cleaning women had been sent to the kitchen after their shift. The Aga Khan had done a good deed, he had bought an espresso machine for the restaurant so in the morning, the bright, well spoken 28 year old manager, Maston, made me a cappuccino. He had learned English working at different tourist hotels in the capital and had just been promoted by the Aga Khan foundation to a more challenging job in Khorog.
The second day the road improved but the magic mountains disappeared and we were back in civilization again. The capital Dushanbe was not exactly a real city. There were wide boulevards and tall, ornate buildings under construction but a silence pervaded. The four story communist era apartments had been painted on the front but the entrances on the backside revealed run down buildings with soot covered walls,dirty windows, and unlit entrances. Few people walked the streets and everywhere there were billboards of the president, Emomali Rahmon. An ex politburo guy from the former communist government, he has been in power since 1992, voted in four times, all the elections were questionable. The country is the poorest of all the Central Asian republics.