I have been lost in thought for quite a while, perhaps in what I can only describe as a ‘depression bubble’. A lot of my thoughts have been about the suicidal ideations I have experienced in the past, and how I handled my life the last three years. Needless to say, I have had some horrific images pop up in my head. I have been really pensive about everything in general, and I have cried a little bit more than I have wanted to lately.
My psychologist recently expressed that my coping strategy with distress – razor-ing my wrist to feel pain, and shoving back extra pills to ‘expressly calm my anxiety’ – has been very immature. When I heard those words, I felt a bit ‘slapped’. It was the very first time someone told me realistically that I am literally being a fuck-head (excuse my language) with my life. Other times, I already somewhat knew this from the pain I would see in my loved ones’ eyes when they find me being stupid. Everyone has usually been ‘soft and kind’ to me when I try to do anything stupid.
If I think about it really hard (which I really should not have to), I have a life in front of me. I have people who want to be there for me. I also have the choice to say ‘screw it’, run away and see the world if I really felt so frustrated with life here. I don’t have to hurt or kill myself. Nothing’s ever that bad to warrant killing myself. But still, I question life every so often. Every so often, it hurts so bad and deep that I just want to end it. At least, my loved ones will not have to see me wallow in pain anymore. I can let them be free. I felt that again recently. I wrote myself a letter saying again I just wanted it to end.
But then that’s the point. When a person kills herself, she kills a part of every one she loves. They can never be free. They will be haunted forever. So, no matter how much it hurts, I have to hold on and fight through, because I do not have the right to hold my loved ones in pain for eternity. It’s not my right.
Depression is depression. I just have to continue facing it, and hope eventually that an ‘up’ will come.
Now to finally finish the story with Tajikistan…
After the trek, JH and I were in rough shape. I could barely walk and JH’s stomach was still fairly delicate. At this point, I almost felt like flying us (if we somehow had briefcases of cash) to a different country with white-sanded beaches and over-water bungalows, so we could experience seven days of sloth behavior and what JH wishes for every time – a true ‘vacation’. That being said, the rest of our trip was already booked, so we powered onwards.
After all is said and done, I loved Tajikistan for the scenery of the Fann Mountains. For those seven days, I saw and experienced some of the most beautiful places I think I will ever see in my lifetime (barring the fact that I have not been to Pakistan yet (or really, the rest of the off-the-beaten track world) and I know there are some extraordinarily beautiful mountain ranges and lakes there that might beat the Fanns. (I really want to go to Pakistan, but let’s put that aside for now) For the Fanns alone, I will always hold a special place in my heart for Tajikistan. In some ways I wish I could go back and sit at some lakes for longer, or take in some more of the mountain landscapes. When I am back in an office or home now, and without the ability to be in the woods, I wish I could be in the woods. I really wish I could be in the woods right now. Sigh.
JH and I spent the remainder of the trip on the high-altitude Pamir Highway (i.e. one little piece of the Silk Road journey), spanning south of Tajikistan, passing the border of Afghanistan along the way, a bit of China into Kyrgyzstan. At points, the scenery was really beautiful, but despite injured, tired bodies, this leg of the trip was poorly structured, a bit boring at times and excruciatingly long for others. If you are a biker, you have the stamina and endurance, and the slightest bit of adventure, the Pamir Highway is the perfect long-distance biking trip. We met many bikers and motorcyclists along the way, and biking seemed like it made perfect sense. You travel for long days – about 50 to 80 km a day – but I think you take in the scenery a bit better, and you do not get from village to village as quickly.
The extent of our trip was driving from village to village. If you do not stop to take in the scenery, which in hindsight, we did not have the greatest foresight to do, you just arrive at these small villages incredibly early. Most of these villages do not have much in the way of infrastructure, i.e. you eat, rest, or just walk the village until there is nowhere else to walk. After we walked as much as we could of a particular area, JH and I ended up playing a lot more Yahtzee. At points, I wish I could be out hiking again even with injured legs. We were that bored. But really, first world problems right?
Before we could even start the next leg of the journey, we needed to travel from Zimtud back to Dushanbe. Along the way, we visited Lake Iskandarkul. This was about a 3 hour drive (75 km). I ended up sleeping through most of the ride, but JH managed to take some pretty scenic pictures along the way. Lake Iskandarkul, named after Alexander the Great, is another incredibly beautiful and vivid turquoise alpine lake with mountains in the background. The lake lies at an altitude of 2,195m. I am not sure if it was because there was a boat docked at shore or because there were a couple of buildings around, but this felt like the most touristy lake we went to. That being said, there was absolutely no one around again and we had the lake all to ourselves, at least from where we were parked. The water of course was cold, and there was no opportunity to take a dip. There was an option to walk to a waterfall; however, Farhod explained it would take a few hours round-trip. We also would have to put our hiking shoes back on. My hamstrings and toes felt somewhat relaxed again in flip-flops so we decided to opt out of this additional hike. When we connected to Internet again later onwards, I decided to look up pictures of the waterfall. The waterfall had nothing on the waterfalls in Slovenia, so I am glad we decided to take the lazier way out (at least for that day).
After visiting the lake, we drove back to Dushanbe. It was a national holiday that day, so to our disappointment, the bazaar and most restaurants were closed. We ended up eating at the same tea house we went to before the hiking trip, and retired early back to our hotel – Marian’s Guesthouse.
The next day was an incredibly long day in the car because we had to drive 650 km from Dushanbe to Khorog. I am not exactly sure why this day was structured this way, because the following days were incredibly short in driving length. We could have stopped in a number of places along the way, notably Kalaikhum, and the rest of the trip would have felt much more reasonable in length. Anyhow, we picked up an unreasonable amount of snacks ($25 approximately), and sat in the car with Sino and Farhod for approximately 14 hours. The first half of the trip was comfortable and we ended up falling asleep. We stopped briefly at the Hulbuk museum, which was very similar to the museums in Dushanbe (in terms of what they preserved and displayed).
At some point, Farhod pointed out the Panj River splitting Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We were right near the border. I was intrigued and awake for the rest of the drive, even until it was dark. I loved staring at the Afghani villages, seeing children running around and waving at us, and some even swimming in the thinly split river. The houses looked like they were made of mud and brick. There were some brighter blue and white buildings, which Farhod thought might be either schools or administrative buildings. Afghanis appeared to enjoy riding motorbikes. Their curving roads looked less developed than the curving roads on our side. I bit my tongue however after thinking this because we ended up driving on some pretty rough roads for what felt like eight hours (against frustrating incessantly ending Tajik dance music – Sino insisted on listening to the same playlist on loop). The river was so thin in some areas that it was literally so easy to just jump across and say you were in Afghanistan for ten minutes. I probably might have had the courage if JH wasn’t there to be protective. Or, I probably would have legitimately either 1) went to the Afghani-Tajik border market in Ishkashim (we had to be there on Friday though, which we weren’t; poor planning on my part), or 2) splurged on the visa and made the crossing.
The Wakhan corridor or the mountainous border areas of Afghanistan are perfectly safe. It looks about as peaceful as the Tajik side. We asked Farhod if there were any issues in recent years, and he said no, except for the fact that in Ishkashim, recently, injured soldiers were brought in for recovery, and some tourists got spooked. I wish very much that we crossed the border, but life is what it is. I guess I will just have to continue being jealous of the more adventurous people out there, or wait until times change for Afghanistan.
Other than this drive (which was very climatic for me), we were otherwise in the car for most of the day. We stopped to take a few pictures, pictures of which I will treasure forever. By the time we got to Khorog, it was pitch dark. There were no restaurants open, so we ended up going to a grocery store where JH and I bought bread and Nutella. I was so hungry that by the time we got to the hotel (Hotel Zafar), I went to town on the non bread. It was actually some of the best non bread we had on the trip truthfully – soft and moist. We slept well that night (at least I did), and it was great just to be able to have a bed to fall asleep to, a warm shower, and Wi-Fi (though not that great of signal).
We woke up the next morning completely rested. JH complained a bit about the bed being hard, but I was grateful we got the one night’s stay in the warm hotel versus a homestay. We had breakfast, and walked a little bit along the river before heading back on the road. Khorog is an administrative town we were told, so there was not much to see. On this day, we continued driving along the Tajik-Afghan border. The drive was supposed to take 4 hours (150km), but I think Sino decreased it to 3 hours. Along the way we stopped at the Garmchashma hot springs, which is supposed to be good for fertility. This was both our first experience with a Central Asian natural springs. Women and men had to be separated so JH and I divided up. There were no women on my side, so I got to experience a large outdoor pool all to myself. The pool was quite beautiful with picturesque mountains in the background and a small waterfall. The water was just the right temperature, and I enjoyed my 15 minutes in the pool. Apparently JH’s experience was a little bit less tasteful. He was enclosed in a small room with a number of men including Sino and Farhod. Everyone apparently also bathes naked (as I too would experience with groups of women later onwards at other springs). JH and I were the only ones who decided to keep it PG, and wore swimsuits.
After the hot springs, we went for lunch. We went to this small place for mantis (dumplings), cabbage soup and samsas (samosas). The samosas were not fresh, and I wish they were a bit warmer. The mantis were delicious, but still not as good as Chinese dumplings. After this, Farhod asked if we wanted to go to another hot springs (for the eyes). We were not that interested so we decided to forgo the second stop, and head straight for Ishkashim.
We stayed at Hanis Guesthouse in Ishkashim. This was a pretty big guesthouse with large banquet facilities and a number of rooms. This was not our favourite guesthouse on the duration of the trip. The place was a bit cold (though the bedroom had a small heater), and the bathroom was far from clean. We actually enjoyed the smaller homestays in the Fanns much more. That aside, the food was good, and I enjoyed the homey stew we had for dinner. One of the owners – Vali – was really nice, spoke perfect English, and sat with us for quite a while after dinner. JH and him enjoyed talking quite a bit about entrepreneurial ventures. The next day, he even showed us around the property.
Ishkashim is a small town. We walked the extent of the town in probably 20 to 30 minutes. Tourists were also not allowed near the river (when we went in Aug/Sept) because, as described before, apparently some tourists had been spooked by injured soldiers brought over from Afghanistan earlier that summer. The market was not really open, and even if it was, I do not imagine there would be much to see. We walked through the stores that were open, and JH managed to buy a bottle of cognac for his dad. We noted the town seemed to be dead, and there was no one around. We found out that this was because everyone in town was attending a wedding at a restaurant near the river’s shore.
We were walking with Farhod when we heard loud cheers and music playing, and saw cars adorned with flowers. We asked Farhod what was going on and he said it was a wedding. He then proceeded to get us an informal invite to the wedding as guests. It was pretty neat to whirlwind into the crowded restaurant, dance through the crowd, and then watch a bit of the ceremony, before being whisked to a table to be included as part of the meal. Their videographer taped our entrance, and the MC announced us to the crowd. According to Farhod, he announced that we were tourists, and tourists are important part of the town’s economy, and as such, they just wanted to welcome us with open arms. JH and I had never been to a cultural wedding, nevertheless as strangers crashing the wedding, so it was a unique experience. Everyone was super nice, and willing to welcome us. If I could have worn a cultural dress, it would have been that much more amazing.
After our experience with the wedding, there was not much more for us to do except walk around a little bit more. We ended up in this little ‘stadium’ or athletic area. We fed some neighbourhood kids gummies, and I ended up taking a winded lap around the race track. We then headed back to the guesthouse, and played Yahtzee for a while before dinner and an extremely early bed time because there was nothing else to do.
The next day, we drove to Langar. On the way, we stopped by the Yamchun Fortress which had beautiful views of Afghanistan and the Wakhan Corridor. Farhod said I could walk the Fortress in sandals, but it is quite rocky with areas that are steep going down and up. I would recommend running shoes even though the walk is short.
After this, we went to another thermal spring Bibi-Fatima, which is supposed to be good for fertility. This time, I had to share a cave with some naked ladies. It was enough bush for me to last me a life time. I left after a few minutes because it was a bit too stuffy. I liked the other hot springs more because it was outside. We ended up in Vrang for lunch. We went to a Pamiri house for lunch, where we had a rice soup and buckwheat plov. After lunch, we visited Muborakkadam, a sufist museum, which looked at the ancient solar calendar and Badakshan history.
After this, we arrived in Langar very early in the day. JH and I later learned there was a hike on the way we could have went on to see petroglyphs on cave walls. Farhod never told us about this, so we ended up roaming another small village for hours. We took pictures in the hay fields set against Afghani mountains which was really beautiful. JH ended up playing volleyball with neighbourhood kids. It was pretty adorable. We then ended up back at the homestay. There were other travelers who we ended up talking to – two Dutch couples travelling together, and an older German couple. One of the ladies was extremely well travelled (went to pretty much everywhere we mentioned). She suggested we go to the island of Reunion (near Madagascar!!!) for the hiking and the food. It is definitely on my bucket list now.
We had a delicious meal of pizza for dinner. It was one of our favourite meals. This was actually our favourite homestay as well. It had a good, clean shower and bathroom. The food was delicious, and the owner (Del Lut Khan) and family were really nice. The bedroom was cold, but there were ample thick blankets. The only thing I wish was that our room was not so close to the bathroom. When we left the next day, we gave them a keychain from Toronto (we did this with all the homestay families), and in return they gave us Badakshani woolen socks. With that, we were on our way again.
The next day, Farhod told us to wake up early because we had a 7 hour drive ahead of us. We ended up at our final stop around 2PM, so after all was said and done, JH and I were not happy with how the day was structured. The first part of the drive looped around the Wakhan Corridor, and it was absolutely beautiful to see the Afghani mountain ranges (far-extending into Pakistan) up close and personal. I do not know why I did not ask Sino to stop for multiple pictures, but we drove right past all the ranges, and I barely got any pictures. I was mad at myself, and ruminated on this point for days. For a few days, I cried for quite a while because I knew we were never going back. Anyways, when we got back to Canada, I got over it, but the ruminations did get the best of me. Lesson learned is that whenever I want a picture of something, I just need to make my voice heard and ask to stop. JH and I ended up sleeping for a while on the drive, so when we woke up, the landscape had already changed.
The landscape was vast and kind of lifeless. Pamiri mountains were not that attractive – no snow peaks, and they were mostly brown in colour (this would change over the next few days of driving). We were high in altitude (3500m) so the weather started to become cold again. We stopped at this white boxy looking house for lunch. Farhod was excited for us to try fish here, but it looked really dried-and-fried up. So, JH and I settled for these soup dumplings called Pelmen. This was probably one of my favourite meals on the entire trip. It was just so homey and delicious, and the dumplings were seasoned really well.
After lunch, we drove by Bulunkul and Yashikul lakes. Bulunkul was the bigger of the two, so we stopped to take pictures. It was really quite beautiful and vivid blue – no photo editing required. This was the actual pigment of blue emanating from the waters. The fauna around the lake was also interesting. It looked like grass or seaweed, but felt like contradictory dry-icy grass when you stepped on it.
Our final destination for the day and where would be staying was the village of Murgab at 3,618m. We stayed at the guesthouse – Ibragim Anara. We were the only guests there. The family consisted of a mother and daughter (and we saw a son at some point in the night), and they were really nice. They prepared us a coal fire to keep us warm, and dumplings for dinner. We were given a room with two beds, linked to a charcoal fireplace. The washroom was located outside. It was a western-style toilet, but you need to manually flush using a bucket of water.
JH and I once again walked the extent of the village. We gave candy to children, and went as far as we could up and down hills to see different parts of the village. We passed by the mosque, a statue of Stalin, and visited the bazaar. The bazaar was barely functioning, but we ended up visiting the few stalls that were opened. JH bought some candy from a nice vendor who offered us dry fruit. The next day when we went back, I bought a pair of socks because I was running out of warm laundry. The following morning, Farhod took us to the one hotel to eat fresh samsas. It was quite a wait for the place to open, so we ended up walking to the one tourist attraction just outside of the village – the Yak House. This was mostly a handicraft museum and shop, and there was not much to see. Needless to say, JH and I did a lot of aimless exploring and played a lot of Yahtzee during this latter of the trip.
The next day, we drove 300 km (approximately 4 hours) to Karokul Lake. The landscape started to become prettier as we approached the China border (or technically “No Man’s Land”) with colourful striped mountains and snow-capped peaks here and there. Once again, the drive was relatively quick, so we ended up in Karokul in the afternoon. Unlike Murghab, our guesthouse was full of people – biker groups, cyclists and hiker / travelers like ourselves. Farhod managed to book us a room, which was great since we saw one room with what looked like 10 people sleeping on the floor back-to-back. Our room had a charcoal fireplace which was nice because it was even colder here than in Murghab. There were two bathrooms – one was an elevated squat hole, and the other was a squat hole with a western-style toilet seat. Our room was really far away from the bathroom, so it was a tough journey to take a pee especially in the cold night. We had dinner in a long dining hall, everyone seated cross-legged. The food was okay, but we had better meals in other homestays. The one thing I loved about this homestay was that they had this homemade spread that tasted like caramel, but looked like red bean paste. It was so good, and I kept on slathering a bunch on bread, and eating that versus the actual meal.
In the afternoon, JH and I explored the extent of the lake. The landscape was gorgeous – snow-capped peaks all around, and the water was shimmery blue. The lake could have benefitted from some boat trips. I really wish we could have paddled or something to see some of the mountain landscapes closer in person. JH and I played around the Pamir highway road near the village for a little bit. He laid down on the road pretending to be dead. I pretended to run. We tried to make the most of our time. Before we knew it, we were watching sunset. It was really beautiful.
When we left early the next morning to head for Kyrgyzstan, we caught sunrise too, and it was even more beautiful. The red and orange hues just lit up the lake and mountain landscapes. As bored as I was with this half of the trip, I will never forget how beautiful the scenery was. It would have been neat to do a bit more hiking in this area.
The drive to Kyrgyzstan would end up taking the whole day. It took a while for us to get over border security (they tore apart the car, and dogs ran up and down the seats trying to sniff out drugs), and Sino was pretty slow in driving once we crossed the border because he was afraid of being pulled over by Kyrgyz police (“not his roads” is what he said). We arrived in Osh by late afternoon, checked into our hotel, and then we explored the city (the Bazaar, Suleyman’s Mountain, and dinner) with Sino and Farhod. Then it was time to say goodbye.
The next day, we flew to Bishkek. I won’t say much about Kyrgyzstan only because we barely touched it. We did what we could really with 1.5 days. I know that Kyrgyzstan has its own beautiful mountains, valleys, landscapes, but we missed it on this trip in order to see the extent of Tajikistan. Anyhow, in Bishkek, JH and I explored the city by ourselves, ate some good food (“Gamburgers” and some more ethnic food at a place called Faiza), and spent a lot of time shopping in the bazaar. We ended our day early in the hotel so we could pack and relax. And with that, our love-hate trip in Central Asia was over.