The Wakhan Valley and Afghanistan

The car kept climbing to a higher altitude as we drove around the sharp curves on a narrow dirt road up to Bibi Hot Springs. Passing the 12th century Yamchun fort hanging on the edge of a cliff, we finally reached the top of the mountain at almost 11,000 feet.  The only place to stay for the night was home stay, a rundown hotel perched high above the valley, with the mineral waters flowing down a rocky incline. The view was spectacular, the small unheated rooms with 3 single beds placed in a u shape under the windows were not. There were two toilets in the hall, one with a broken plastic seat, the other, a hole in the ground. The only other object in each bathroom was a cold water sink next to the door, 10 feet from the toilet.

The  mother, and married daughter who ran the hotel were terrible cooks but very nice folk.  Mid afternoon, Louise and I climbed down the steps to the women’s side of the mineral bath. We took off our clothes,and climbed again to a lower level, pushed open a door and entered a  pool of boiling hot springs.  As we slowly acclimated to the water temperature, the door opened and three women joined us. The heavy set girl, holding her stomach, tried crawling into a small cave in the stone wall. We had read that these hot springs were named after the daughter of the prophet Mohammed and women came here to boost their fertility. With a few words and gestures, we found out this 37year old woman had one child and was trying to have another baby.  She came to ask Bibi Fatima to help.

Within half hour, the hot springs and roaring sound of water were overwhelming so we left the pools. As we climbed up the hill to the hotel, I was hit with another bout of altitude sickness and spent the next 18 hours in bed. That night the hotel was so cold, we slept in our winter clothesThe only way for me to recover from altitude sickness was to descend below 6000 feet so we moved on to the village of Langar and entered the Wakhan Valley. The  country transformed from jagged mountain peaks and stark villages, into  scenic country roads, lined with tall leafy trees and green fields dotted with white houses.  The road followed the Panja river, which separates  Tajikistan  and the Pamir people from the magnificent Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. Across the river were Afghan villages, impossible to visit but full of mystical and unanswered questions. We watched women wash clothes in the river and men guide their herds along the dirt roads.

We spent the night in a home stay again with three single beds in one room. Unfortunately, the locals do not realize that travelers did not want dormitory style lodgings,  which seem to be the. trend as tourism grows. The traditional village house up in the mountains with carpets and futons on the floor,  would eventually and unfortunately become obsolete. There was one bathroom for us to share. but around dinner time we realized the Russians were coming, exactly three of them, to sleep in the other dorm like room. so now we had one bathroom between 4 guys and 2 gals. We chatted with the thirty something guys, two of them were business men and one a tech guru. They joked about Putin but said that life in big cities in Russia was good. Getting in the bathroom was a challenge but I finally succeeded. About to blame the Russians, I realized after I took my cold shower that the owners of the house had unplugged the hot water heater to save money,

The last six days we had spent 4-6 hours a day stuck in a car, being jostled on horrendous dirt roads. Driving in the Wakhan Valley was a relief but we were still stuck in a car. The last day

we stopped for a night at the highly overrated Garam Chasma hot springs. The tacky hotel complex, supposedly used by the president, was surrounded by a fence with a guard at the entrance. This time we had four beds in the room, a shower without hot water and a restaurant that smelled worse than a school cafeteria.  I had become adept at fasting on this trip. I prefer no food to bad food.

The next morning we drove to one of the nicest places in the country, the town of Khorog.  Free of our driver forever, we wanted a rest from driving, clean sheets, privacy, and hot showers. We found it at the LAL hotel, a cozy family run establishment with traditionally decorated rooms, good wifi and my own room.   Saturday mornings were special in Khorog; Afghans were given clearance to walk across the bridge over the Panja river that connected the two countries, and sell in the special Saturday bazaar. We arrived at 9am, by10:30, it was impossible to move through the crowds.  I realized that seeing the Afghans on this side of the river was not the same as if I was on their side of the river.

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