I am a person who dwells on negative thoughts. I cannot let go of things, and once I get a negative thought in my mind, it builds a home there and refuses to leave. I was never really conscious of this all that much until my last suicide encounter with St. Michael’s hospital in April. The doctor who was observing me kept on describing my thoughts as ‘ruminations’. The more and more I thought about it, I realized that I have an inability to face negative thoughts head on.
This past weekend, without going into much description, I felt a period of defeat. Something I normally love to do became upsetting and difficult for reasons really out of my control. Even though I received ‘support’, I felt more alone than I had ever felt before in a really long time. All that aside, I moved past those ‘moments’, and I will get up and move on and perhaps get back to this activity I love in due course. Maybe one day, I can excel at it again. Who knows. I have stopped the pity party and self-indulgence on that point.
What disturbed me though and turned into ruminations this entire week is that someone really close to me decided to ‘capture’ the exact moments where I felt defeated the most. These were the moments where I was literally breaking – physically and a bit emotionally from a pride perspective. In the most insensitive manner, this person decided to send me these ‘captures’ after the fact. Looking at those ‘captures’, I was riddled and reminded of how I felt during those definitive minutes. These moments have subsequently cycled over and over in my head. Can I control these thoughts? Have I not learned any techniques over this past year of psychological boot camp to combat these periods where demons tear apart my brain? I guess not.
Subconsciously, I know this person had no ill intentions. But this person is (so) close enough to me to know that I harbor ill thoughts easily, I have ruminations and that in many ways I am still unhealthy in the head. It still takes a lot for me to say I am feeling ‘stable’. It still takes a lot for me to take in the negative. It still takes a lot for me to stare at accumulated medicine, and not want to take ‘an easy way out’ some days. I felt increasingly detached from this person because I felt like he/she did not know me at all. That feeling was disturbing since I have known this person forever.
This week I felt unraveled and unhappy. I felt hideously unhappy. I do not even have a ‘quick fix’ because my psychologist is away at a conference, and my psychiatrist appointments have been moved to a monthly rotation. I tried to talk to JH about everything this morning, and of course he thought I was off-side. He always thinks I am off-side. Maybe I am off-side.
Anyways, maybe I should just pop an extra anxiety pill and go to sleep earlier. But first, time to reminisce a bit on our few weeks away, and forget temporarily about the ill thoughts.
Dushanbe & the Fann Mountains
JH and I were originally supposed to go to Iran this year. I had the perfect itinerary planned and we were literally one day away from booking the trip in February when Trump invoked his travel ban. Technically, there were no issues for us to travel there still as Canadians really, but JH travelled to the US frequently for work. He was thus apprehensive about having an Iranian stamp on his passport. Around the same time, I was reading travel blogs committedly. It just so happened that a few days later, I stumbled upon pictures and stories of Tajikistan. Up until this year, I had never really heard of the country. As far as I was concerned, Central Asia consisted of Kazakhstan and Borat. As I read more and sifted through more pictures, I became more and more curious. The country’s landscapes looked unbelievable, and even though it was so close to Afghanistan, there were no real noted dangers for incoming travelers. It appeared to be an up-and-coming travel destination, only unravelling really within the last decade. After a few conversations and very little convincing, JH and I decided that we would replace Iran with Tajikistan and (a little bit of) Kyrgyzstan, and from there, trip planning began.
We flew out of Toronto on August 22nd for a long-haul (business class on points) flight stopping through Istanbul. We arrived into Dushanbe the morning of Thursday, August 24th at 3:35AM. Because of the long flight and the time change, we did not really take notice of how early it was in the morning. The Dushanbe airport was small, and the process to get through customs was fairly straight-forward. JH and I had applied for our visas and GBAO permit (for travel in the Pamir Mountains – another story) a few months back. The customs officer takes your picture, stamps the visa and your passport and you are essentially on your way. Baggage was a mess, coming out of several chutes at once, but we found our suitcases after a few rounds.
Times had changed. I had read at one point in time, women would have to wear a shawl over their hair in the airports. Everything felt liberally free at the airport, and even though I brought a few shawls, I never once had to wear them in the country at all. Kyrgyzstan even felt less conservative. I walked outside with tank top and felt like a prude because I saw girls wearing mid-drift tops.
As ‘adventurous’ as JH and I are, we felt hesitant to travel independently around the country, so we booked an itinerary with ZTDA – the Zerafshan Tourism Development Association. The itinerary culminated in an 8-day trek in the Fann Mountains, and then a 7-day drive through the Pamir Mountains ending up in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Before this all began, we would spend one day in the city of Dushanbe.
Getting back to the airport, we were supposed to be picked up from our flight and transferred to our guesthouse upon arriving. Walking out into arrivals hall, JH and I did not see any sign with our names. We then became free-for-all for a bunch of aggressive taxi drivers who went crazy at the sign of seemingly-lost-looking tourists. JH had to control me from becoming super irritable. One taxi driver stood next to us for the next 20 minutes while we tried to call our agency and sort out our ride.
Finally, we met our guide for the next two weeks – Farhod, and our driver Sino (for the day in Dushanbe, and for the week in the Pamir Mountains). Farhod spoke perfect English, while Sino spoke only a few sentences of English. They were both rambunctious in personality, and ultra-hyper and enthusiastic for 4 am in the morning. We would later find out that Farhod was a tourism professor for the Khujand State University, and a contract tour-guide on the side. Sino was from the city of Panjakent, but was originally from Turkey. Sino’s car – a RAV4, was suitably named Maria, I believe, after one of the mighty peaks in the Fann Mountains.
New countries always peak my curiosity, and even at 4AM in the morning, I loved the drive through the quieter streets. The streets were actually starting to pick up a little with people who were waking up early to open up shops or engage in chores. Dushanbe is completely tree-lined for the most parts. The city was seemingly beautiful at night, even though the streets were also lined with a lot of tacky Christmas lights. Farhod and Sino dropped us off at our hotel – Marian’s Guesthouse – for a few hours rest before we would later tackle some of Dushanbe.
Marian’s Guesthouse is a beautiful simple B&B off of a non-discreet alley. It is not the easiest hotel to find, and Sino got lost finding it, not once but twice. We stayed at the hotel once before the trek, and once after the trek. Both times we stayed in the same room. Other details were as follows:
- The room costs $90 USD per night.
- We stayed in a pretty big room with a queen and a single bed, a desk and a TV. We did not try the TV, so I am not sure if there were English channels or not.
- There is Wi-Fi but the signal was pretty dodgy. You can load e-mails, but using Instagram or other data-heavy apps is pretty difficult.
- The room has a remote-controlled air-conditioning system.
- The bathroom is also pretty big. The shower has ample hot weather, but the first time, there was no soap. There was also a bug in the tub. These problems disappeared the second time we stayed there.
- There is a beautiful large pool in the courtyard. We did not have time to use it the first time, and the second time, it was a murky green.
- There is a small garden to walk around in, but it was obstructed by some construction and renovations.
- Breakfast is served in a communal room. There is bread, yoghurt, fruit and eggs-to-order (fried, omelettes).
- There are two adorable house cats.
Farhod and Sino picked us up around 11AM a few hours later. They then took us around to a couple of sights.
What we saw:
- Museum of Antiquities – a number of excavated items detailing the country’s history.
- Museum of Ethnography – displayed traditional Tajik dress and costume.
- Hissar Fort – a re-built 13th century fort, including a small museum. This was the only place JH and I ended up finding souvenirs, since we did not end up going to any large Bazaars in Tajikistan. We went to a ridiculously small one in the Pamirs.
- Rudaki Park, which was also near the large Tajikistan flag pole (second largest in the world next to Dubai) and the Statue of Ismoil Somoni (10th century historic dynasty leader, and who their currency is named after).
We had a few meals that day as well:
- Chaikhana Sharbat – a Khujandi restaurant. Here, we had our first try of the very common cucumber and tomato salad, as well as shashlik (similar to shish kebab) and non bread.
- Rohat Chaikhona – an old traditional teahouse with a beautiful, grandiose atmosphere. We had delicious laghman noodles and cherry compote here. This was also where we saw Farhod drink beer with a few shakes of salt. We had never seen anyone do this before.
We spent another night at Marian’s before heading to the Zerafshan Valley area and subsequently to our homestay for the night in a village called Yakkahona in Artuch. I fell asleep for some of the drive; it was approximately a five hour drive away to this north-west area of the country. The Fann Mountains are actually much closer to the city of Panjakent right at the border with Uzbekistan. Panjakent and Khujand were probably the two big areas we missed on this trip, but in reading they just felt like smaller cities in comparison to Dushanbe. On the way there, we stopped at a local restaurant, which roughly looked like “Capman” but with some Cyrillic characters. Here, we tried Panjakenti Plov – a Central Asian fried rice with carrots – and these rough, hard cheese balls. JH and I ended up disliking plov with a deep passion throughout the rest of the trip. We tried to avoid it as much as possible. The rice was always undercooked, and the dish was fairly oily and under-seasoned everywhere we went. Eating it always made me miss Chinese fried rice.
Yakkahona roughly translates to “lonely home”. It is a small, simple village, but beautifully flanked by mountains and streams. The following day, we would start hiking out of this area directly into the Fann Mountains. For some reason, I expected to hike today, so I was all geared up in hiking clothes and boots. Farhod and Sino laughed a bit because it ended up being a fairly relaxing day. JH and I spent the rest of the day relaxing, and organizing ourselves for our next seven days in the wild.
The family that we stayed with was fairly nice and gracious. They had a large, spacious home with a beautiful garden. There was a grandma, a couple of daughters with their respective children, and a son. The father I believe was away for work. The son, was expected to, the next day return to Khujand to teach at the University. I think, given the rise of tourism, all the families we met along the way, varied in terms of their interest of wanting to spend time with us. This family mostly kept to themselves, but one of the daughters spoke a few sentences of English, and engaged in conversation with us for a little bit.
Food with this family was a bit difficult. They cooked us plov and served us this sour-ish yoghurt and bread on the side (along with multiple plates of candy). On a positive note, every family we stayed with made some form of homemade fruit jam. Tajikistan does not have much in the way of desserts, so jam was the only way we got a bit of sugar and sweetness over the three weeks. All the jams we tasted were really delicious; this family made an apricot jam.
Despite the food, we had a warm, comfortable room with bed mats. They set up a sauna house – Russian Banya – for us, and we tried to make the most of it. The bathroom was a squat hole, but it was clean and there was toilet paper. The only disadvantage is that it was fairly far from our room, and it was cold at night to run and back forth from our room to the hole. During the day, the son and Farhod took us for a walk through the village and through the farming fields. It was incredibly beautiful, and it was a nice walk to introduce us to the area.
Farhod, inappropriately that evening, showed up for dinner completely trashed. It turns out he shared a bottle of vodka with the homestay owner. We had to sit through an uncomfortable meal with him while he berated the civil war, among other things. The next morning, they made us eggs for breakfast and fried meat for lunch. All the food was really oily. I suspect there was something wrong with the yoghurt, the cheese balls or the oil, and how our bodies reacted to these foods, as JH and I both ended up with food poisoning. JH’s was worse as he ended up throwing up during lunch the next day.
At night, JH and I walked through the village ourselves, and gave a bunch of candy to curious children. I normally do not bring candy on these types of trips, and opt for books and stickers instead, but we had no idea if we were going to see a school or not along the way. At one point, JH and I may have walked onto the driveway of one lady’s house. She stared at us curiously. JH tried to speak to her using his Google translator app, but she did not seem to understand Russian (Tajik would not load – and most Tajiks we were told understand Russian to an extent). We think there may have been an opportunity to drink tea with her, but we will never know. Like most nights this trip, JH and I fell asleep super early around 8:30PM. The next day, we gave the grandma a key chain as a memento of Canada. We bought souvenirs for all of the homestay owners as a small memento of thanks. We waited for our trekking team to arrive with food and materials, and before long we were on our way for a week in the wild.
Kulikalon Lake / Bibijannat Lake
Our first trek was to Bibijannat Lake (approximately 12 km from our homestay). We left Yakkahona around 9AM and arrived at the camp site just before 2PM. What we learned on the hike is that everyone in the world pretty much hikes faster than we do (at least me since we would later learn that JH was feeling off from food poisoning). I thought I was a fast walker, but with rocks and streams, I tended to be more precautious with every step I took. This first hike was not too much of a problem for me, but with each day in the woods, my body became more and more torn apart. I think by the end, I was walking the pace of a grandma, especially since my hamstrings were worn, and I bruised my toes until they were literally blue. For most of this first walk, we were walking along a long, winding road passing the rest of the village into the valleys, and extending into the start of the mountains. The trails were fairly basic – long, winding, and slightly gravelly. The views were gorgeous though – rapids against mountains, and far off in the distance, snow-capped peaks that captured my breath. Once we left the road, we walked along a number of trails curving around the lower elevation of mountain foothills. I cannot remember every single piece of the trail with certainty, so I am going to rely on pictures to help jog my memory.
We stopped for lunch around noon at a rushing stream. The sun was shining very heavily, so JH was determined to find shade. He was rather insistent, and I was not really sure why. He found a shaded area, but there was some garbage there, so I opted for a rock with a bit of sun-shade. We just kind of split into opposite directions, but I could still see him from my vantage point. Our lunch from the homestay was incredibly greasy – fried meat and potatoes soaked in oil. It was not really savoury on the eyes or the stomach. I ate a few meagre bites out of hunger, looked over to JH and saw he was vomiting. He was vomiting intensely. I felt really bad for him because for a while it really did not stop. I rushed over and stroked his back while he tried to intake water. JH has strong willpower, and even though he looked really uncomfortable (and this discomfort would extend into the next few days), we continued onwards under the sweltering sun.
The path was not really kind. We barely found any sun-shade, and even if we did, it would last for about 10 seconds. The shrubbery was not tall, so the sun attacked us with all of its strength. Luckily, this day’s hike was not too long. The latter half of the afternoon was a succession of small-medium length rocky uphills that eventually led us to a sequence of lakes, each more turquoise and beautiful than the next. From a distance, we saw Kulikalon Lake, which we would later visit in the afternoon. We also saw Warm Lake, which was apparently supposed to have tiny bits of thermal qualities, making it ‘warmer’. After a few hours, we finally arrived at our system of lakes – Bibijinnat Lake. Bibijinnat Lake made for a great campsite. It reminded me of Jurassic Park, notably the area with streams and mountains where the Brontosaurus would roam and play. It was a beautiful, peaceful, and vividly green campsite. Directionally, I had no idea where we were facing, but we set up our tent across a stream. It was here where we also met some of the rest of our trekking team:
- Our cook, assistant guide and basically a sweetheart of a man – Khurshed. He greeted us with bowls of ramen (or what they call Russian noodles). This perked us up a little.
- A mountain man and shepherd / porter – Hick Mattalo. He always asked us if we were “okay” with an enthusiastic two thumbs up. No matter what the weather was (even -10 degrees Celsius), he slept outside.
- Two donkey handlers – Another man named Sino and Hick Mattalo’s son (whose name I regrettably forgot to capture in spelling).
JH and I rested for a short while. I was worried about his stomach problems, but he seemed up for a walk in the afternoon. So, we grabbed Farhod and asked him to take us back to Kulikalon and Warm Lake. Before this, he took us to the “general store tent” where we bought more water for the trip. In each area, there was generally a general store tent until Mutnoe Lake, where we needed to rely on boiled stream water and purification tablets. We were already familiar with the terrain so we moved a little quicker (still not quick enough for Farhod who kept on running ahead). Maybe it was the time of day, but Kulikalon was not as beautiful as some of the other lakes we saw. It had a dramatic mountain background, and the waters were glimmering, but it lacked both the magical turquoise shine and clarity that I seek for because Lake Ontario disappoints me every single time. Nonetheless, it was still beautiful and worth the trek backwards.
I pretty much loved every lake we saw on this trip, and they reaffirmed my obsession with bodies of water. After all, all the pain and suffering was to see these particular bodies of water. In the end, for me, it was all worth it to experience the moments of complete silence and peace with JH except for the odd stroke of wind, and to capture some incredible photos. For the most part, we saw maybe one (if even) or two groups of tourists each day, so it was like the mountain ranges, trails, lakes, etc. were all to ourselves. To me, that’s just pretty amazing for a travel experience where everywhere else in the world is completely saturated, and you have to fight crowds just to get a perfect picture (Angkor Wat and Ha Long Bay resonate strongly in my brain as the worst places in the world to get a picture).
Despite Farhod’s precautionary warnings, we decided to take a dip in Warm Lake. In the end, only I ended up fully immersed in the lake, and that’s only because I tripped getting in, and fell completely head-first in. It was definitely not warm. This early on in the trip at a lower elevation, cold water did not matter. It actually felt really refreshing. We did not end up swimming in any other lake for the rest of the trip, so I am glad I got to say I went swimming in at least one Tajik lake in my lifetime. We took pretty much the same trek back, but I think we curved around the other side of the lakes (this would be our start the next day).
With the exception of temperature changes (from somewhat cold to very cold), evenings were pretty much the same each day. We would walk around the campsite for a little bit, exploring the area. If there was still light, we would play Yahtzee (JH printed out scoring sheets and bought some dice; what an adorable man). We would be somewhat hopeful on what dinner would be (I think it was pasta plov this first night), and then we would go to bed super early around 8 to 9PM.
That evening, both our bodies broke down, and we each experienced some (more) unpleasant food poisoning. Luckily for me, the stomach issues ended after this day, but poor JH experienced a tougher day the next day. From this point onwards, we refused to eat meat and dairy for the rest of the trek. At one point, we were only eating bread and requesting ramen for breakfast because we were so afraid of the fragility of our stomachs even after having taken Dukoral and stomach meds. This was a hard trek, and food poisoning only compounded everything.
Alauddin Pass / Alauddin (Alovaddin) Lake
This next part of the trek was classified as a “difficult day”. It took JH about 7 hours, and myself closer to 8 as I struggled with the downhill portion. We reached an elevation of 3860m on this day, and so we could feel the burden of the elevation on breathing and moving quickly. The first half of the day was steep uphill around hairpin curves. The terrain was gravelly but not unmanageable. I found uphill to be fine, but I think it took a toll on JH, who was suffering from the food poisoning. It was on this day that we met an Israeli couple who were also travelling around Tajikistan (but for a month). They were not the fastest trekkers either (but they were carrying elephant-sized packs), and for a while it seemed like we were helping each other set pace (because Farhod had run ahead again with no surprises). At some point, the gravelly uphill turned into rocky grass that eventually elevated into the highest point for the day. The scenery was spectacular, and the pictures below only somewhat depict the magnitude of how little a person could feel against such atmosphere.
We had a short lunch break (of bread, because it was once again ignored that we did not want to eat salami and cheese), because it was a long trek downwards to get to Alauddin Lake below. JH went first because he wanted the opportunity to take a nap and try to sleep off the poisoning. I was fine with this because I knew he was suffering. I did not quite realize how steep the downhill was though to get down to the lakes, and at some point, I really missed him and his encouragement. For the most part, from using as much leg and knee strength as possible, I made it halfway down to the lakes with a decent pace. I caught up to the Israeli couple, and was moving with them on pace for a little bit. My knees at one point started to weaken though and buckle, and I could not grip my feet as properly on the sandy dirt. As a result, I kept on tripping. Farhod and Kurshed subsequently kept on insisting that I rest and recoup, so we moved really slowly down a seemingly unending trail of hairpins, steep curves downwards, eventually into a trail of rocks. After what felt like days (but was probably around four hours) in scorching sun, we finally reached camp.
This was one of many instances during the trip where I would feel defeated about myself. Later that evening, at dinner, Farhod made me feel horrible about myself, saying that I looked tired on the trail. He said I could handle uphill, but a lot of this trip is downhill, and I looked really tired going downhill. I do not know why I did not defend myself, but I almost wish that he was not there and I could have just finished the trail in peace on my own even if it took me an hour longer. He even berated me right in front of the Israelis. I felt humiliated as a human being, and I had to hold my tears back in front of complete strangers. To add to this, this is not the first time he would make me feel like less than a person. He acted really patriarchal, and for the most part, I could never finish a sentence around him. He mostly acknowledged JH. Nonetheless, this first time, I tried to shake it off. JH and Farhod talked about different routes, but I countered them. I said I booked to summit the Chimtarga pass, and we were going to do it. Despite feeling less than human, I was determined to finish what I started.
JH was feeling better from his rest, and we took an evening walk to Alauddin Lake which was a few minutes’ walk away, right across a sketchy log bridge from our campsite. To note, this was one of the larger campsites we set up at. It had a covered dining tent, and even some washroom (squat hole) stations. Alauddin Lake – whether in the evening or in the morning, is probably one of the prettiest places I have ever been to. The lake just glimmers and all you can hear in the background are rushing rapids and a faint bit of wind. It is the definition and paradigm of peacefulness. Despite how awful the afternoon was, I was grateful for the opportunity to make it to Alauddin Lake. We would later find out that the lake was accessible by day-trip (via a day trek), but after all is said and done, that is not really the point. I wanted to do Chimtarga. We did Chimtarga.
Given we were at higher elevation, the campsite was cold in the evening, and we were eager to go to bed early after dinner. The next few days, though better for me (until Chimtarga pass), would unfortunately become progressively more difficult.
Alauddin to Mutnoe Lake
The next day, we had to hike 10 km approximately to Mutnoe Lake or “Muddy Lake”. The naming convention was appropriate as this was probably one of the uglier lakes we saw during the trek. Once again, the hike was not easy. Most people do not do the Chimtarga trek, and usually end at Mutnoe Lake. Mutnoe Lake becomes a day trek round-trip, since it only takes about 3 to 4 hours one-way.
We walked on rocky trail around the back end of the lake, ascending into rocky uphill, which led to a beautiful turquoise waterfall. The trail then curved abruptly into steep uphill on sandy, gravelly rock. There were rounded corners with thin ledges for footing; so, for the first time in a really long time, I felt a bit of vertigo. From what I could remember, neither Stok Kangri or Kilimanjaro (nor hiking in Peru or Myanmar) had such steep footing, or at least during the day time where I am more conscious of my surroundings around me. Obviously, I could not look backwards or below, and even if I took that one quick peek (which I unfortunately did), all you see is a steep fall below until the next ledge which cannot really support a human being rolling downwards. So, if I thought about it, if I fell rolling, I would just literally roll until the bottom. For these moments of anxiety, I developed a bit of a chant in my mind. I watched JH’s footing in front of me fairly carefully. I would then grip my feet slowly into the gravel, chanting “calm down” in my mind, while trying to regulate my breathing and heartbeat. If my feet slipped, I gripped my walking poles with force, while trying to keep my head focused. Eventually this section ended, and we were on a less steep trail for a while.
At some point, we reached Mutnoe lake. It was rather anti-climatic. It was cloudy outside, and the lake was cloudy. It was set against cloudy mountains, so the entire atmosphere was rather grey and bleak. I mean, for the most part, we had great weather and no rain whatsoever, so there was nothing to complain about. The distinction I am trying to make is that it was just not that really monumental of a lake to visit especially after Alouddin lake. The campsite was set up around the back-end of the lake, closer to the summit trail for Chimtarga. In order to access the campsite, we had to first tackle a set of boulder valleys. JH was great with these given his gymnast balance, but I had to get on my butt and hands at some points to get from taller to shorter boulders safely. It was like maneuvering through an obstacle ropes course, but way more difficult. This was also the first time I had to jump across waterfall rapids (with many instances afterwards). This was pretty scary. You are literally looking at rapids coming down fiercely, and you have to jump across two to three slippery looking rocks. Kurshed would usually set up a train with JH and I (and our walking poles) to get us safely across. As per usual, Farhod would be nowhere to be found (because apparently he was scouting out the surroundings), or else standing in a spot that visibly looked more dangerous for us to access. I literally wanted to punch him in the face too many times.
Our campsite felt like it was in the middle of nowhere in a land of rocks. We were above 4000m in elevation so it was fairly windy and cold. We were treated to a meal of spicier ramen, which made us feel more positive. The team made a bonfire that evening, and we went to sit with them for a little while despite how cold it was outside. I am pretty sure they had a good laugh out of this, but they all pressured JH and I to ride one of the donkeys. I had never ridden one before, so at least this is one more experience checked off some list.
JH and I played some more Yahtzee to waste time, and because of the cold temperature and lack of area to explore, we went to bed super early. By super early, I am pretty sure this was one of the nights we went to bed at 7PM.
Chimtarga Pass / Base Camp
The team was moving extraordinarily slow the next morning. JH and I noted how daunting the ascent looked to get to the pass / base camp – basically, this little narrow strip of a path on a steep looking mountain wall – so we decided to head off by ourselves first to get a good head start. After all, it was going to be challenging to get to 4750m that day, and we were told it was going to take between 5 to 6 hours. Similar to many days, JH and I had to tackle a boulder valley to actually get to the start of the trail up the mountain. After time, I was slowly getting used to picking out the safer looking rocks. I was not as fast as JH, who bounced from rock to rock with ease and balance, but I was feeling less apprehensive with shiftier rocks and the idea of boulder valleys to begin with. I stopped using my walking poles in these areas, and maneuvered between jumping from rock to rock where it looked easy, and using my hands and upper body to move from rock to rock where there were seemingly wider jumps. At one point, we kind of got lost in the maze, but at this point, Farhod and the team were catching up, so we watched their hand motions, and finagled ourselves out of the area. Then, the actual trail began. The trail in some ways was very similar to the Mutnoe trail from the previous day, but it felt a bit more steep, and more like a perpendicular wall where you had to push your ankles and heels to the extreme to stay up-right.
The trail started out with steep up-hill on gravel, and then subsequently, more steep up-hill on rock. Once again, I had never summited in day light, and the path formed a thin ledge, so I experienced slight tinges of vertigo. Similar to the day before, I kept on my eyes locked to JH’s footing, and chanted my mantra to regulate my breathing and anxiety. At one point, we were so high that I felt a bit of panic. JH kept on saying to me not to look down or behind me, so I did not. This steep section took us awhile, but we finally made it to flat ground. We were high in the sky, and all we could see around us were ranges set against the clearest skies. At this point, we were so high that we were also seeing more ice and snow. It was beautiful, but the trek was not done. We had to jump across more rushing rapids to get to the pass. I felt like these rapids were even more intense because it took the whole team to create trains with hiking poles to get everyone across. We had to cross one slippery section, and to my clumsy luck, I slipped and slightly cricked my back. Luckily, the soreness went away after a day. Finally, after a bit more flat gravel, we finally reached the pass, and descended slightly to base camp (4400m) for the evening.
Throughout all of this, and up until we reached base camp (which was probably the prettiest viewpoint), we could see ranges for miles and miles. I am not sure what belonged to Tajikistan, and what belonged elsewhere, but all I could see were colourful mountains, snow-capped mountains, mountains that stopped your heartbeat, landscapes that made me want to cry in awe. JH and I had to slow down and just take it all in. It was truly breathtaking. It was even more beautiful I think at sunset by our base camp because the sky exploded with powdery pink hues.
The team loved it as well, and they were all taking celebration photos. Farhod told us that the Chimtarga pass summit was a rarer trek for incoming travelers (and Tajikistan is not entirely well-travelled to begin with), so summiting the pass was a neat experience for the porters as well, especially now that they had smartphones with better cameras, and were able to capture photos to show family and friends at home.
As the sun went down, the wind started beating and it was freezing. That night, we slept in subzero temperatures. It was difficult to sleep because the wind kept on beating the tent violently. I did not dare to go to the ‘bathroom’ that night for fear of falling over from the wind. My bladder suffered, but it had to adapt. I was not leaving the completely enclosed cocoon of my sleeping bag. Funny enough in the morning, we woke up to a beautiful shining sun and a light, calm wind. I felt positive this morning because I had a few good days prior, but little did I know that this would be my hardest day, and another day of defeat to add to my roster.
Chimtarga Pass to Bolshoi Alo Lake
The day started off with ramen. I was so sick of eggs, and we did not want to eat meat, so we requested ramen for breakfast. It was not as good as ramen at home of course, but it sufficed for what little we wanted to eat. Lucky enough JH’s food poisoning seemed to have gone away, but we were still both experiencing bubbling stomachs and less-than-enjoyable biological patterns. It also did not help (for me) that we both smelled in general.
This day was essentially the hardest day. We started up steep up-hill on loose scree. When you get to the actual top, you are facing beautiful views, but essentially looking at the next challenge, a cliff facing your path downwards.
At this point, we were almost at the top, so there was really only one way to go – down. I only took one picture (JH took much more), but pictures and videos do not really capture the magnitude of how hard this descent was. JH thrived because he skis and is not clumsy and unbalanced, but I suffered this day. It was actually this day that my toes became blue, and hamstrings turned numb. I do not remember exactly how I survived through the Kilimanjaro descent (Stok Kangri, I was pretty much evacuated half-way down), but nothing felt as long or challenging as this downhill. Literally, at the top, you are facing a cliff that looks almost perpendicular because it is so steep. The terrain interchanges every hour (for about 5 to 6 hours) between sandy, slippery red gravel to hard rocks.
JH taught me a number of techniques. For the sandy, slippery red gravel, I had to take big, surfer side steps – back and forth, back and forth. For the hard rocks, I had to ski on the heels of my feet. The latter came more naturally to me. Everyone said to lean back and take big steps, but this felt foreign to me. The former movement especially freaked me out and I kept on tripping and falling. So, JH at one point took my hand, and we went down together. I feel like sometimes I take JH for granted. But it’s moments like these – whether it is really severe like where I want to kill myself, to slightly less severe with teaching me to get down a mountain, to remember how patient and strong he is, and how he is always there for me. I am so grateful for him. The team – Kurshed especially – was also super helpful, helping us with our bags and such where we needed them (Farhod still not very much; he mostly complained at our pace and ran ahead per usual).
At some point, the descent finally finished.
We had to walk around a long, curved bend to reach a shepherds rest. Here, we ate biscuits and tea, and then had to hike two more hours to Bolshoi Alo lake. The hike was thankfully straightforward – at first. Then we were climbing through rocks again, jumping streams, climbing yet more rocks, and getting me through more sandy, steep downhill. We brought enough water, but we were both still dehydrated like crazy by the end of that day’s trek. I think this was also compounded by the fact that we only ate biscuits for lunch. Our energy was completely depleted. By the time we reached the lake, we were both completely exhausted.
This is not to say I was not grateful. Bolshoi Alo lake was a beautiful vivid turquoise lake in between more mountain landscapes. I loved it second to Alouddin lake, and I was grateful to have seen it because it is only accessible through the pass (and not via day treks). We took lots of pictures before sunset, and subsequently woke up early to catch sunrise and the prettiest reflection of the mountains on the water before another tough day….but at least, our last day.
Zindon River / Valley to Smaller Alo Lake to Zimtud Village
On this last day, we had to complete our descent. It was marketed as a 7-hour day, but I think it took us about 9-hours since we were both completely spent. The day started off with a sea of boulders. I did not mind the boulders so much, but it still took time to figure out which rocks were steady, and to move through the valleys safely without falling head first. At this point, my toes were also both swelling from the day before. The nails were completely blue, and both toes were puffy and irritated. The pain was tolerable, but it was a bit hard to walk quickly, never mind the fact that our legs were completely raped back and forth from the last week. The sea of boulders was followed by only what I can describe as rocky downhill (which JH helped me crush again), another valley of smaller rocks, followed by another sea of boulders. At this point, we were getting to lower altitudes, so the trails were becoming less steep, but most of them were ledges near rushing rapids, so the vertigo kicked in again. My knees were feeling really weak, so I was moving really slowly.
At some point, Farhod and Kurshed stumbled upon a Russian family who were camped out somewhere near smaller Alo lake. The father of the family was mountaineering one of the complex peaks. They were really nice and invited us for tea, chocolate chip cookies and homemade gooseberry compote. This was a blessing in disguise since JH and I were sun-scorched, abused and hungry from not having any lunch. We spoke mostly to the daughter who could speak a few words of English. She said that the rest of the trek was really easy, and this gave us hope. The break was really warranted, and it was nice just to sit in shade and make up for depleted energy. We were grateful for this family’s kindness and generosity.
I think at this point it may have been 1 or 2PM. We did not end up at the pick-up point until closer to 5PM or some point where the sun was coming down. The rest of the trek was much longer than anticipated because of how slow and awkwardly I was moving with my toes. We passed by the smaller Alo lake, which was anti-climatic. We moved quickly past it because at this point we were just looking forwards towards the end. We climbed more boulders. We then came upon a death-defying rapid jump, that I could only describe as there “is no amount of insurance that can cover this”. There was only one stone, and it looked slippery like you would not believe because it had a bunch of wet moss all over it. I had to do pretty much a lunge jump to get to Kurshed’s vice-grip hand on the other side, praying I would not slip. We made it across – I think JH took a video. The picture here below makes the rock look much bigger than it actually felt.
Finally, we reached a valley, and the trail was flatter for a while. Unfortunately, there was no sun-shade, so we were scorched by the sun. I did not wear a hat (idiot) so my scalp and forehead were fried by the end of this trip. Lesson learned is to wear a hat so your forehead does not flake (among other horrible things that can happen to you with too much sun exposure). For the next few hours, we faced a lot of thin ledges, curving around long and windy trails. There was more downhill. I cursed throughout all of it. Then, we faced one area where the ledge was so thin that JH told me to grip and face the wall, plie, and shift across the path. It could barely fit my one foot going forward, so we plied across. We saw a wider path below us, and argued with Farhod about what trails to take going forward. We suspected he got us lost a number of times even, or took us through unnecessarily difficult areas for what were probably not shortcuts. Anyhow, the rest of this trek was a blur to me really (counting on pictures for this), but we crossed up and down the valley until we finally saw a bridge. Kurshed pointed at it emphatically and smiled to us. There, up the bridge was the car that would pick us up for our homestay. It was like that point in the desert walk where you see an oasis and it is not a mirage.
The trek was finally done. Thank goodness. The car then drove us 12 km (on a super rocky and rough road) to Zimtud village.
That night, we stayed at the homestay in Zimtud. It was a beautiful, large and clean homestay run by a kind, elder gentleman and his family. He could only speak a few words of English, with his favourite phrase being “no problem”. He kept on saying it to JH, laughing all the while, and it was adorable. The homestay had a shower, and JH and I were eager to use it after seven days of rotting pee-stained skin, hair and who knows what else. To our surprise, Farhod went first. JH got really pissed and went off on him. He apologized, but we still felt it was fairly inappropriate for the guide to go before the clients.
We were starving, so food with the family felt like nothing but a blessing. They made delicious berry compote, which I completely demolished with bread. They made us a beef stew on request because we did not really want to eat plov (first ofer). After dinner, there was tea and watermelon. Watermelon also felt like a blessing because after a week of eating ramen, biscuits, and other unhealthy food, fruit was all I wanted. What was really nice about this evening and this family is that the man and his wife, Kurshed and Farhod sat with us after dinner. We spoke about what we were thankful for; Farhod apologized again, and I got to thank Kurshed for being so patient and helpful with us. He was a really kind man, and we were grateful to have him on this trip with us.
For the first night in awhile, JH and I had a good sleep. Our room was warm, and the sleeping mats were comfortable. In the end, I do not at all want to say that I regret this trek. It was hard, and I felt like a failure a lot of the time. But now, as I think about it, I got through it with JH’s help and encouragement. I saw some of the prettiest places in the world, captured pictures of these places, and went on another adventure with the love of my life. So, at the end of the day, I feel blessed to have gone through the experience because I think that it made me infinitely stronger. I will look back to this part of this trip with fondness always. For now, the story ends here, but after this we headed to a different mountain landscape and another kind of adventure in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the story of which I will tell another day. (Note: this is only a meagre fraction of the actual photos we took).