After backing out of the Muksu, we were left aimless in Murghab. It was a holiday, the first day after Ramadan, but incongruously, we could find food nowhere in the city. Sulyboi invited us to celebrate at his house. There we were treated to a greasy, crunchy Kyrgyz plov, which only our great hunger could force us to feed upon. The next day we headed for Alichur, the source of our alternate ultimate river. Those of you hoping for a story about whitewater had best look elsewhere. The story of the Alichur is one of mild scenic interest, tepid hot springs, and countless yak. After a day and a half of winding, shallow river, the peaty banks opened up into Lake Yashilkul. It was a beautiful, still day. We were plowing grooves through the surface of the lake and distorting the perfect reflection of the mountains with our wakes. At lunch we got out in a little cove and walked up to some springs that were alleged to be hot. It was a nearly perfect experience; someone had built a quirky hut with a wood plank/barrel top/yak fur roof over the spring. The water flowed out of the rocks and filled a little frog-accomodating pool. The pool drained into a bathtub, which drained out of the building and down the hill into the lake. The view was magnificent but the water no more than lukewarm. We sat in it for a few lackluster minutes and continued on.

The next day we reached the end of the lake, where a natural dam had unobtrusively rolled off the mountain and blocked the river. It was less imposing than the Usoi Dam, but we still spent a few hours getting by, as the river appeared and disappeared a few times over the next two miles. We paddled, scraped, and carried as the volume of the flow dictated. Below the dam, trees started again, and the river, now called the Gunt, eventually came up for air. We paddled many pretty miles of class II. We had a hot lunch of noodles by the river in a narrow forest of yellow trees. Towards evening, with the sun preparing to set and glaring in our eyes, we ran about five kilometers of class III-IV. It was actually fun and quite technical, made more so by our inability to look at the sunlit water in front of us for more than a few seconds at a time. When the whitewater mellowed, we passed the beautiful town of Batchor, in a wide valley with scattered, tall trees and rows of snowy ridges on both sides. We continued a few braided miles past Batchor and camped on an island.

We paddled half the Gunt the following day. There was quite a lot of class III. At noon we got to the Chartem Landslide, where some rocks had slid off the mountain and made some steep rapids. The first business was to start a fire and cook our oatmeal; the fact that we didn’t have eight days of paddling on the Muksu didn’t mean we weren’t going to eat eight days worth of food. The only trouble was that we (especially Middy) hadn’t yet gotten over the acute aversion to oats we acquired during expeditions last fall. So Andrew bore the onus of spooning the tasteless mush into his mouth, briefly gumming it once or twice, and sending it down the esophagus. The landslide started out promisingly, if intimidatingly, then dropped off a waterfall and proceeded underground, hastening our decision to portage. We carried around to an eddy not far below and, bellies full of oats, ran the last few hundred meters of whitewater, which ended too soon. In the evening we camped on another island, thinking incorrectly that we would be safe from the scrutiny of children.

The next day there was more class III-IV and more seriously beautiful valley. Around one bend, late in the afternoon, there was a crowd of people by the river; they showed no interest in us. A little hurt, we wondered why. It became clear as we floated by. There was a house on fire, and the whole town had gathered to contend with it. One group was passing water from the river to the fire, another was carrying household effects away from it, and a third was peeling off the metal sheeting from the roof to douse the smoking hayloft. We got out of our boats and joined the bucket brigade, whose firefighting resources included a thermos, a shallow basin, and dozens of pails of more or less suspect integrity. No one seemed too surprised to see us there in our paddling gear, except the children, who seemed skeptical that a house would be on fire and aliens would land on the same day by coincidence. Eventually real firemen came, with a hose, pump, and convincing fireman’s headgear. With the guidance of their spotlessly camouflaged commander, they got the fire under control before it could spread much beyond the hayloft. Once the fire was out, everyone stole apples from the victims’ apple tree and went their own way. For us, that meant downstream to Khorog. The best section of whitewater lay between us and the city; the valley makes a left bend, and over the course of five kilometers, drops around boulders, with the road far above the river. The water, now about 1500 cfs, drops continuously, but no rapid is harder than class IV or even really demands scouting. The boulders make slots and deep green chutes out of the river. Water that leaks out of a diversion above the river falls all around. We had forgotten how fun it was. After the last canyon, when we thought the whitewater was pretty much over, we stopped and slept on a little beach.

The soft sand and warm night made for a good last sleep under the stars. We awoke, ate a sizeable breakfast in anticipation of the long drive from Khorog to our home in Dushanbe, and prepared to paddle the last 4 miles to the Khorog taxi station.

Shortly after the confluence of the Gunt and the Shakhdara rivers, a young soldier on river-right started screaming at us and pointing his Kalashnikov in our direction. We pulled off the river, much annoyed at this young, over- enthusiastic soldier now running down the river bank trying to keep his gun trained on these two multi-colored spies riding plastic missiles down the river. He ordered us out of the boats with the aid of his gun and none from his lazy-eyed fellow soldier. At this point, we established he was not Pamiri but an ethnic Tajik and spoke only Tajik. Upon concluding the proper language, we decided the next logical step was for Middy to start screaming at him in Tajik. We had to see the commander, he said, we were paddling through an army base. The apartment buildings, flower gardens, children running around, and old men watching us from the bridge overhead suggested a public garden. We were reluctant to disembark, and Tajik soldiers are famously poor and bullet-less, so his firepower did little to motivate us. Our new friend then pointed his gun at us and cocked it. What he didn’t understand was that Andrew is a powerful ninja. He also didn’t understand that the action of cocking his gun would discharge the bullet and shell already sitting in the chamber (perhaps his gun functions best with a “fresh” round in the chamber). His limited understanding and control of his weapon compelled us out of our boats. We were shocked he actually had bullets, but we felt a sense of comfort when his lazy-eyed comrade pushed his gun aside and dropped to his knees to locate the ejected bullet now among the stones of the river bank (he eventually found it, blew it off, and put it in his pocket- a bullet saved is a bullet earned, we guess).

Now standing beside our boats, Middy volunteered to take the passports to the commander while Andrew stayed with the boats to ward off prying hands. The soldier was twitching with nerves, malnutrition, or enthusiasm for his valiant capture, and had now largely given up speaking in favor of gesturing with his gun. His mute comrade was listlessly standing behind him. Andrew could not stay with the boats. To drive this point home, the soldier held his gun as far away from himself as possible and winced before firing the “fresh” round into the air, nearly picking off an old man on the bridge overhead. We now concluded the Shooter was crazy. This was verified as he marched us to the base’s jail, and old men told him without hesitation that he was a “crazy idiot” and for shooting, much less at tourists. Everyone heard the shot and as the small window on the prison door slid open, the pair of eyes on the other side looked at the Shooter and said “fucking idiot” before his commander ordered the door open.

We only spent 90 seconds actually locked in the jail, but it makes a clean sweep of countries in the region where we have kayaked and spent jail time. Three for three, A-plus students if this were a quiz. It was not an exam, instead a test of patience. We went to one commander who headed the base and was simply an ass. He dispatched us to a commander tasked with dealing with the situation. This second commander asked us questions, looked at the pictures on Andrew’s camera, and listened to us explain that we had paddled this section of river twice last year without a problem. It turns out the army base straddles the river, and we had trespassed into a “secure” base (weeks earlier a Japanese tourist had accidently wandered onto the “secure” base- perhaps the lack of signs, security, and all the children running around didn’t make it clear to him that this was off-limits base).

As the hours wore on the commander realized we were bumbling tourists, not terrorists attacking this vital military post. Once, the Shooter and his lazy-eyed comrade were brought in and asked to explain the situation. They revealed a different tale: They had “caught” us by shooting us off the river. We contested this promptly, but the commander didn’t seem to care. Alone later, the commander acknowledged that the Shooter was just a trigger- happy teenager who was far from home and very nervous, and he realized the potential weakness in the Shooter’s version of events. Perhaps more revealing about the true scene at the army base was when the lazy-eyed soldier twice had trouble spelling his own name and another soldier could not help Middy read a hand-written account of the events in Tajik-his native language.

But the commander had made a mistake earlier in the day that would affect everyone: he had called in the KGB. They arrived in the form of two plain-clothed guys who couldn’t have more clearly been KGB if they had been wearing placards on a tiara of neon-lights. They were what you’d expect of Tajikistan’s secret information agency: rude, too content with their power, suspicious of everything, and utterly unaware of what they were doing. The two agents fumbled through our gear, eyed photos of the most inane mountainside with great suspicion, and interrogated us by repeating the same questions ad nauseum. Andrew pointed out that the portrait over the commander’s head was of the founder of the forerunner to the KGB, a vicious human who created a violent atmosphere of informants, suspicion, and brutal punishment in early Soviet times.

As the day wore on, the army commander became fed up with the KGB’s bureaucracy and suspicion and kindly waited with us in his office after working hours were over. His investigation was closed, but he couldn’t do anything about the one the KGB was now conducting, and he was regretting involving them at all.

Eventually, we were told the KGB would be keeping our passports and gear and we should go sleep at a hotel; they would find us the next day with more information. We had now wasted a day sitting inside, but there was little we could do. We changed out of our paddling gear, got the agent’s phone number, and left. The next morning we showed up and literally knocked on the KGB office’s door and walked in. Our agent didn’t like this and decided it best we talk on the street outside. We were told to go to the army base where he would follow shortly. Waiting outside, some kids saw us, recognized us as foreigners and sprinted away to return with arms full of apples.

Inside the base, we were interrogated by a higher-up KGB boss, possibly flow in from Dushanbe just for us. He was convinced we were spies trying to “destabilize Tajikistan.” He told us our permits to visit Lake Sarez were not valid, the lake is controlled by the KGB, not the Ministry of Emergency Situations. He wanted to know who our contact was in the CIA and FBI. He said we could go to Tajik prison for 5 years for going to a lake for which we had special permission (trespassing on the army base no longer seemed a big problem).

Around 1pm this ended and we were told to wait for more news at the hotel. Our tolerance for this game and our patience had been exhausted. We called the consulate at the US Embassy to let them know we were being kept against our will.

There was no news that afternoon. Our agent only informed us that “you did not get my phone number from me; you got it from the hotel manager.” Clearly his boss didn’t like the spies or the US Consulate having his secret agent’s phone number, and the agent was anxious to pass off the blame.

The next day there was still no news. We wandered around Khorog, bored, trying to enjoy the beauty.

On day four, we were suddenly called in to the KGB office, told to sign a paper saying they did not beat us or take our money, given our passports and boats, and told to go. We inquired to verify we were completely “free.” The agent said yes but reminded us that he had not given us his phone number, wink wink. The goodbye hugs and kisses were brief, as we were happy to get out of town.

That afternoon there were no cars leaving. We left the following morning. The drive ended up taking us 20 hours rather than 15, but we were happy to be home and free.

Concluding words:

We are done paddling in Tajikistan and will be leaving this lovely land on October 23. For the next month or so we will be voyaging home via Kazakhstan and Russia, slowly returning to the western world. We will miss Tajikistan dearly; it has been a wonderful time here, even counting the annoyances and misfortunes that come with traveling in a place like this.

If you long to re-read old trip reports or see the old pictures one more time, they are currently posted at http://www.pamirs.wordpress.com. On this website you can also find a link to the Russian translation of the blog. Thanks to Yury for sticking with the inglorious but helpful task of translating our prose into Russian, coming to paddle with us, and allowing us to post pictures of him in his underwear. Coming soon to the blog are an “About Us” section and, more importantly, a brief guide to the rivers of Tajikistan which we have paddled or scouted.

As fans of Tajikistan, we’d be very enthusiastic to answer any questions or help anyone interested in the country. Please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Thanks to John Weld for all his work on the website and for IR’s help with some of our equipment needs, emergency and otherwise.


Its all about Kok Jar

After the Garif and Yury’s departure, there was a brief interlude when two friends visited.  There is no ‘normal’ tourism experience in Tajikistan but theirs covered the typical highlights: a night stuck sleeping in the land-mined, no-man’s land between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, stunning vistas, bumpy car rides with local adults kindly screaming an invitation at the passing car to offer tea and a meal in their mud-brick home, and altitude headaches while hiking in the high eastern Pamirs to hot springs only considered hot by the nomads whose only other source of water is rivers flowing directly from ice.  They had a great time.

They left us in the Pamirs ready to paddle.  The first outing was to paddle from the high plains outpost of Murghab down through Lake Sarez to the Bartang Valley.  This route’s intrigue lay largely in the prospect of paddling across Lake Sarez and had little to do with gradient.  Lake Sarez was formed in 1911 when an earthquake moved a mountain into a river.  Ever since then, the lake has been filling.  Now water filters through the Usoi natural dam, named after the village it demolished.   Usoi is the world’s largest dam- natural or man-made, and is considered unstable and, by some, a colossal natural disaster in waiting.  If the dam breaks some estimate that the flooding would wipe away villages thousands of miles away in the deserts of Uzbekistan.  Going there requires special permission which we obtained by watching lengthy repeats of a commander’s son’s amateur judo matches.

We put on the Murghab River in the town of the same name with spectators of all ages.  Behind them was the town of small square mud homes; in the other direction 50 feet of marshy grass near the river and then dry dust rising into hills 13,000 feet high.

The first two and a half days the river wound through the dry mountains, bordered by grasses and forests of small willow trees.  Standing up on land we realized the vegetation forms only a tight border close by the river and is unable to extend too far from the water into the arid, rocky mountains.  We spent the days paddling and occasionally floating in total silence under the blazing sun.

Without whitewater, the highlights stick out: the piping hot Eli Su hot springs, seeing two herds of rare ibex, and freezing temperatures at night.

On the afternoon of day 3, the river narrowed, and big boulders created fun class III slots to run.  A horizon line with a solid rock wall on the right and a long steep slope of scree on the left had us scouting in the cold wind for the first time.  The rapid was comprised of several drops.  The entrance looked good but the last drop had no line that didn’t furiously drop onto rocks.  Middy was edgier than usual- this being the first whitewater since the Garif,- but we both made the eddy on river left above the lip and portaged.  Not willing to let the whitewater go easily, we seal launched into the backwash of the last drop and headed through the class IV downstream.  Half a mile downstream the river went through trailer size boulders with a toilet bowl flushing underneath a rock; again we seal launched in to get every last drop of whitewater and squeezed out between boulders into more class IV.  The whitewater eased as we passed the Pshart confluence and a meteorological station abandoned after the collapse of the USSR.

The wind whipped us, and we paddled steadily to stay warm down easy water.  The sun set behind the mountains.  It was time to get out of the boats as soon things would be freezing.  Rounding a bend, we saw the steep mountainsides fall into flatwater that then stretched around the next bend.  We camped where the Murghab River flows into Lake Sarez.

For the next three days we paddled the length of Lake Sarez.  We paddled in the mornings and relaxed in the afternoons when the winds would kick up.  Our relaxation was occasionally broken by the rumbling of small rock and dust slides falling into the lake, a good reminder of the area’s instability.  The water was crystal clear, forming a blue that we imagined only existed in magazine photos of the Caribbean.  Of course, Sarez was cold as hell.  Our camping locations were exclusively made in the deltas of tributaries, as the rest of the lakeshore consisted of steep slopes feeding directly into the water and no place to sleep.  On the third afternoon on the lake, it started to drizzle which 1000 feet above coated the mountains in snow.  This completed the spectacular scene.

Our fourth day on the lake began with a small paddle to the base of the land dam.  From there we portaged, but not before the three friendly officials at the seismic monitoring station checked the Ministry of Emergency Situations permits that allowed us to be on Sarez (it is closed to foreigners, unless you are willing to watch a lot of judo).  After radioing their headquarters to verify their authenticity, they gave us tea and bread.  This was welcome, as we had underestimated our food rations and been rather hungry since Murghab.

The portage took all day.  Even almost 100 years later the Usoi Dam still has the feeling of an avalanche, with rocks of all sizes piled awkwardly and fine dirt filling in the voids.  Late in the afternoon, we got to the bottom, where the path meets the river, which has just filtered through the dam in small rivulets, joined together, and dropped steeply but has once again started to reconcile itself to normal river behavior.

The whitewater is hardly the story of the next day, but we’ll start with it anyway.  The gorge below the natural dam is narrow and pretty much devoid of life, as if it had already been scoured by a massive dam-rupturing flood.  The river hustles from wall to wall over a bed of small boulders.  The only sign of life were early-warning flood detectors that had been installed by western organizations to give the towns downstream a few minutes to clear the way for a 200 foot tall wall of water to come down the canyon.  There were few obstacles in the river, but it moved fast.  Paddling the first straightaway, we couldn’t help but smile, rolling over huge, translucent waves that seemed to be made of stained glass.  Eventually we reached Barchadev, first on the list of villages to be destroyed if the dam crumbles.  After the previous night, waking to every rumble of rocks falling and thinking ‘now we’re screwed,’ living in Barchadev seemed needlessly chancy.  But then, passing the village, the risks suddenly didn’t seem so gratuitous.  The town is only 10 or so houses, built against a hill in a widening of the gorge with trees all around.  Maybe it was just a while since we’d seen a tree, maybe it was because of the time of year.  There were red and green trees, bright green grass, and the desolate rocky backdrop of the Pamirs and, not far downstream, huge Peak Revolution to remind everyone of the sacrifices Lenin and the boys made to bring us the workers’ paradise we see around us today.  We paddled down from Barchadev, past the Khudara River confluence, through a brief tall canyon, to the town of Savnob.

When we arrived, around noon, our driver was already there with some drunk he had picked up in Khudara, whose role we never discovered.  It was raining and cold there, an unexpected September taste of winter.  We drove from Savnob to Khudara with our two- now there were two- drunk hangers-on in back.  Our driver was a Kyrgyz guy from Murghab with a light green UAZ jeep; he may have been the only person in the world who could have gotten us out of the Bartang Valley that day and- it follows- that year before the onset of winter.  Or he may have been the fearless and irresponsible driver who nearly killed all of us.  But first there was the town of Khudara to deal with.  We told our driver, Sulyboi, that we did not want to stop there, in light of last year’s ripping off at the hands of a Tajik Parks representative.  But we had to drop off the drunkards, then suddenly we had to buy a sack of potatoes, so we spent 20 minutes there, itching to leave.  We saw a few of the guys that had been hanging out, still hanging out this year.  Our car became for a while a sort of town cultural center, gradually attracting everyone to see for themselves.  Luckily, we got out with the potatoes before whatever Khudara trouble could find us.  We did stay long enough to learn that our drivers from last year had some sort of massive car trouble(the Russian word for ‘explosion’ was used) trying to get out of the valley and ended up have to make more than one trip in and out of the valley to repair and retrieve their car.  While it took a year to get the news, the tightness of this karmic circle made us smile as we left.

Now, are you ready to hear about the most terrifying hour of our lives?  Good.  We headed out of Khudara, up the wide, glacial Tanymas Valley towards the point somewhere upstream where we knew the valley’s snowline met our own path.  The road is terrible, but it gets occasional traffic from trucks heading to Kok Jar for firewood.  The Kok Jar pass itself gets far less, maybe one trip a week while the weather is good.  This day the weather was bad.  There were a few moments heading up the river when the car would fishtail towards a drop-off a few feet away.  “Yes,” Sulyboy told us,” a wet road is OK when it’s rock, it’s only with mud you can’t be certain.”  At last we reached the bottom of the pass, where the road climbs out of the Tanymas Valley to our drop-off point for the Takhtakorum Pass portage and Muksu River.  We were in luck, as we still hadn’t reached snow.  We started to climb, and it was immediately clear that this road was no longer fit for vehicular use.  Sulyboy, however, was experienced and determined not to leave his car in the Tanymas Valley for the winter.  And anyway, we couldn’t lose momentum.  We followed the road, which was cut into the side of the mountain a few hundred feet- then a thousand feet- above the valley floor.  There was no room to spare on the road in most places, so the driver kept the outside wheel within a foot of the cliff’s edge at all times.  We came to a straightaway of soft-looking dirt just the width of the UAZ, and what should we see at the end, glistening in the fog?  Mud, of course.  A mudflow had dripped from the uphill side of the road and was narrowing the track and slickly banking the road towards the void. It just got constantly narrower, and we doubted that the road was passable any more.  But we made for the mudflow, fishtailing slightly towards the edge.  Andrew’s rat brain had taken over from more sophisticated but less functional layers of brain and was repeating slowly, ‘ho-ly shit ho-ly shit.’  Middy was quiet and serious but no less certain of the coming end.  He was focused on his task assigned by the driver- to hold the car in gear, Andrew had to hold the 4-wheel drive lever in place.  We reached the mudflow, the narrowest and slickest part of the road, the outside tire maybe one muddy tire’s width from the edge, the car banking outwards, our eyes locked on the road, but the wide valley floor visible through a few low layers of cloud, hundreds of feet below.  We made it through.  But much more was ahead.  A few switchbacks later, and the wet ground turned to snow.  We kept climbing until the tires lost their grip on a steep section, and the car stopped.

We practically fell out of the door.  Middy’s impatience while Andrew first put on his shoes could have been funny, but we certainly weren’t laughing.  We had to dig the snow out around the tires and push the car every few feet.  We had to hand it to the driver; the man could drive, and he lacked no courage.  But then he missed a switchback and began driving on the old road, where we had portaged last year and where we knew the road to disappear in a washout.  This is when we came to understand that the driver’s confidence was not a reflection of his competence or his mastery of the situation but came from something more profound and much sketchier- his personal faith.  So he missed the turn, and Andrew had to run up and explain to him that he had to turn around.  This was possibly the closest the truck came to its destruction.  At several points he started to fishtail towards the edge and only at the last possible moment found purchase and brought it to a stop.  We helped him turn around and get back to the right road.  The rest of the ascent was dodgy but not comparable to the lower stretches.  From the top, Middy stood on the tailgate and Andrew got in the passenger seat but kept the door unlatched and was ready to bail.

Shortly thereafter we came to the turnoff.  We had a decision to make.  It was almost dark, and there were a few inches of snow on the ground, 15 horizontal and 1 vertical kilometers from the Takhtakorum pass.  The decision- Muksu or no- would usually be the most serious decision a kayaker could ponder, but it now seemed like the most trivial we’d ever made, like picking a movie to see.  We were disturbed and elated to still be alive; peering into the darkness and seeing only fog and snow, we could just imagine what was in store for us at the top of the pass.  So we got back into the car and headed for Murghab.

The rest of the drive was exhausting but beautiful.  As we went east, the snow was gradually shallower until it was just a sparkling coat in the headlights.  At 11, we got to the main road and stopped at a guest yurt.  But sleep would not come easily.  After lying in the dark a while, Andrew asked ‘Kok Jar?’ and Middy said ‘yeah.’  We talked a while about what was so unsettling about it.  Kayaking is nothing without fear, and previously, it had been easy to conclude that we could handle fear from the corresponding evening euphoria after a day of paddling.  But far from being satisfied now, we were left feeling uncertain, not even relieved.  Is it that the fear you face when you’re paddling is only an indirect brush with something that is much more serious and ghastly when seen from closer in?  It’s easy to forgot that our version of ‘mastery of fear’ is only a sport.  We’re still scared.

Garif Trip Report

Picking up right where we left off…
We burnt some small dead thorn branches to boil our morning porridge into place and began the trudge up to Pakshif Pass and on the other side: the Garif River. An old road following a contour along the valley’s edge made the intial miles smooth and relatively easy. After 7 such miles, around noon, the road had become a path, and we were at the base of the pass, unable to see the top. What we could see was a steep pile of stones ranging from small-car to pebble size leading up and around a cliff corner. Andrew, trying to keep things positive, estimated it would take us an hour. The shepherds sitting at the bottom of the pass thought this unlikely.

It was our first big walk with loaded boats this year. With this inaugural trek came sore shoulders and much wind-sucking. Clearly, rusty paddling was not the only effect of an inactive winter in Dushanbe. At 3pm we stood at the half-way point looking up to the top of the pass. Our eyes were confronted with a cliff where we expected a steady rise. No paths were cut into the cliff, which now seemed to be guarding the saddle from access. As we walked toward it, we all scanned the half circle of cliffs ahead for a path to lead us to the other side. Just before reaching the base of the cliffs, Andrew spied a path cutting into a dirt section of the ridge and leading to the Garif watershed. A half hour later we were all at the windy top of Pakshif Pass; it was 5pm. Yuri announced it was time for a quick celebration and got out a chocolate bar he had stashed for just such an ocassion. In the cold wind with the light turning grey, we ate chocolate squares and enjoyed the view of cliffs, mountain top glaciers, and high peaks in the distance. It had taken us 5 hours. We hustled down into the Garif watershed and spent the night with two shepherds who were happy for the company and, unsurprisingly, incredibly generous.

The next day began with hopes of paddling but ended only with plenty of walking. We portaged several miles along a shallow, braided river that tunneled through several glaciers. Just when it looked possible to scrape down, the creek began to drop. The majority of the day was spent portaging down a steady descent.

In the early afternoon we reached a major confluence and decided to settle in for the night. In a grassy spot, we saw an old man with one good eye praying. He said he was from the lone village downstream- a totally isolated outpost of 4 homes whose only access to the outside world was a voyage over the pass from which we had just come. Incredible isolation even by Tajik standards.

After the confluence the river takes the name Darya Susof, and it is here we began paddling the next morning. During the first three miles of easy whitewater we got a good warm-up and floated past the village of Garif shrouded in fruit trees. The river began to drop. We scouted and ran several class IV rapids, and the water level started to rise as the day’s sunshine melted the glaciers upstream. Around noon a series of steep drops warranted serious scouting. The openning drops were runnable but lead inexorably into a river wide undercut with no eddies for escape. From a huge rock high on river right Andrew and Middy saw another couple unrunnable drops. We all portaged high on river left.

We put back in, ran some fun drops of medium size, and arrived at another series of horizon lines. Scouting revealed several slight drops and then a waterfall with some water going under a rock and some falling 10 feet onto rocks; all of the water went somewhere we didn’t want to go. Yuri carried on river left to a point a half mile below the waterfall where a path neared the river. Andrew and Middy decided to paddle down to the last eddy above the waterfall and portage around it on river right. Paddling the final drop before the waterfall, Middy dodged around a stick poking from river left, went off the first drop, and back endered into a fin-rock dividing the channel into two. He pinned between the fin-rock and the shore with his head above water. Andrew saw Middy pin and sprinted to shore to get out his rope. Middy’s knee came loose, and the skirt popped. He swam a final hole which pushed him against the river bottom. Rebounding hard off the river’s floor toward river right, Middy swam and blindly clawed at one of the two rocks before the waterfall. Behind the rock was a small pile of sand. Middy stood on the sand in the eddy, gasping and thrilled that the rock he caught was not the one in the waterfall itself. The back of the eddy slid off the lip; Andrew threw Middy the rope and swung him the last 10 feet to shore. Both were very happy to see Middy standing on that sand pedestal in the final eddy. Middy’s paddle got caught near the shore on some rocks, but his boat, shoes, and camera box came loose and ran the waterfall. The race was now on for Andrew and Yuri, farther downstream, to get the boat. Middy picked his way down the river right shore, shaken and barefoot. Andrew and Yuri retrieved the boat, making its way downstream like a sedated walrus, and Middy joined them downstream. They surveyed the damage. The boat was dented but paddleable, the camera box and shoes were long gone, and several nerves had been frayed. Everyone got in and paddled down. Shaken, Middy tried to remount the horse, but he would remain gun-shy for some time.

Downstream, another series of drops sent Yuri on a long scout on river left. Andrew and Middy waited, more anxiously than usual, to get paddling. Yuri returned and decided to portage after reporting a series of intimidating drops. Yuri’s portage was long and hot but, after a scramble up the canyon’s steep side, was relatively easy due to a path paralleling the river. Andrew and Middy paddled the first drops with Andrew leading and Middy following close behind. They arrived at a twisting rapid Yuri had described and portaged on a pile of boulders whoch long ago crumbled from the river right cliff wall. They seal launched in and dropped into a boiling slot against the right side wall. There was more class IV and a section of river surrounded by huge trees whose branches formed a canopy over the river. It was unlike any other place any of us had seen in Tajikistan.

We camped at another confluence where the Darya Susof became the Garif and agreed, despite the bad taste in everyone’s mouth from Middy’s swim, that this valley was stunningly beautiful, perhaps explaining why those four households choose to live in such isolation.

The Garif River began easy and spread out. We left our awesome confluence campsite and had a long warm- up before the big rapids began again. This was a welcome break after the previous day’s fearsome events, except maybe for Yuri, who would have preferred a vicious thrashing to get the juices flowing. When they did start, the rapids were mostly wide, bouldery, and complicated, though not too hard and aside from the odd undercut, not
too dangerous. We ran almost everything that morning employing the ‘scout n’describe’ method, wherein one paddler sits in the eddy- blind to their fate beyond the horizon line they can see- and tries to put together a mental picture of the rapid below from the scouter’s account of what they may think might be kind of important but aren’t totally sure. For the one scouting, it’s like throwing a stick in the stream to see what will happen to it. Except in Tajikistan there isn’t so much timber available.

There were two portages: a long rapid with undercuts and an ugly waterfall. Middy and Andrew had to portage in shifts due to the recent loss of Middy’s shoes and the pointiness of all rocks, plants, and animals along the route. After the portages, we ran some challenging rapids and some class IV. Around three we stopped to camp, to let the afternoon high water pass by. Middy discovered that afternoon that we had several hundred vertical meters to descend before arriving at the next confluence, but who trusts those old Soviet maps? And what did the Soviets know about science anyway?

The following day around midmorning, we entered a canyon and received a Sputnik-like surprise; 1500 cfs dropping over 300 feet in well under the course of a horizontal mile. Huge boulders had calved off the canyon walls to form nine distinct drops, only one of which we ran that day. But with a bit less water… And a bit more self- confidence… And perhaps a sturdy faceguard… Really, most of the rapids were eminently runnable. No doubt we’ll regret not running them in the course of the reprieve from death we earned by not running them.

Andrew ran #8, consisting of a big, mostly submerged boulder that pushed all the water into the left canyon wall, bringing into being an enormous curler and associated mayhem. The run was graceless but ultimately effective. We all carried the ninth, and arguably most hideous, drop, then paddled some beautiful, continuous whitewater for another mile to the confluence. This was the furthest upstream point Andrew and Simon reached last year, whence longing, upstream glances had inspired this whole brutal affair.

That night it began to rain, but as it undoubtedly does not rain in Tajikistan in September, we all saw fit to eschew empiricism until it came dripping into our down sleeping bags. We paddled all day in the periodic rain. Most of the good whitewater came at the end, in the section we had carried up to run last year. Please refer to trip report 4c, and imagine a little more water. Ensconced in wet down, the night was cold; it’s a mystery to us how geese manage.

The next day we carried up to do the last couple of miles of the Duborso River. It was again great fun and games until Yuri got stuck in the hole at the bottom of a narrow, 8 ft slide. The hole was backed up by rocks on both sides, making a formidable boil that would not let Yuri out, either in his boat or swimming. He recirculated several times before Andrew could get a rope to him and help him to shore. Middy recovered his gear, and Yuri was ready to paddle again. Below the Duborso/Garif confluence, the river is called Sarbog. The first few miles of the Sarbog are fun, big water, similar to the Cheat. And as on the Cheat, there are some holes. Yuri’s second swim of the day (and the trip) came in the biggest of these. He received the pounding one would expect from such a hole but swam out without
(further) trouble.

Due to our taking a two hour break for a hot lunch, we didn’t get to the river’s end until evening. We camped there and in the morning found a car from the nearby town of Novabad to Garm, and then to Dushanbe. Yuri left the following morning for Moscow, and we are left to plan our next assault on the Pamirs- and on our own bodies- and eventual exit from Tajikistan.

Dear All,
We’re back at it and thought you might want to hear about it, or at least see some pretty pictures.  Hope you enjoy.

The winter months in Tajikistan were harsh, and our paddling suffered accordingly.  In the 7 months since our last trip report we only paddled once, and this was a very rusty scramble down our local river in May.  After this first paddle, we devoted ourselves to the children, Tajikistan’s future- everyone loves children.  For two months we ran summer camps for Tajik kids.  The camps were funded by the U.S. Embassy with the impetus to provide a fun, positive boost to America’s image in conservative regions of the Muslim country.  The idea is to fight terrorism before it starts by teaching kids American games, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities.  On the other hand, one of our more skeptical parents pointed out, “great, so now they can climb up walls and then throw their bombs at us.”  The effect of our efforts will remain unknown, but we think we broadened some horizons.  Some campers, when asked to list religions they knew, could only list two religions “Islam” and “infidels”; one assertive young girl wanted to know if, in America, a woman could live alone- without a man- and she was much pleased when we answered it was possible.  However, one adolescent girl in a traditional dress and a headscarf from a seriously conservative village, told us that she didn’t want to go rock climbing (an embarrassing boy’s activity in her eyes) but her father said she had to as this was probably her only opportunity in life to due so- reminding us you can’t judge a person by their headscarf.

For our first kayaking trip we upgraded from Simon, who couldn’t even be bothered to drive over to Tajikistan to join us (despite being practically next door in France) to Yuri.  Yuri hails from Moscow, via Rockville, MD, and he had much to teach us about the Russian manner of expedition.  Lessons included ‘russky buckwheat,’ ‘pain: why it’s just so fun,’ and our favorite- ‘how to pack a kayak in style,’ where ‘style’ is alternatively translated as ‘snugly fitting underwear.’

Yuri arrived early in the morning, registered with the authorities, and we were on our way to the Karatog River in less than 24 hours, an impressive turnaround for Dushanbe.  We got a ride up the river in a military truck carrying motley fellows in civilian clothes and a sack of potatoes to the wilderness to ‘protect the president’ during the Shangai Cooperation Organization summit then going on in Dushanbe.  Secure in the knowledge that the enemies of Tajikistan were stymied yet again, we sat awhile for tea with them at the put- in.

Last year’s attempt on the Karatog had been a success only insofar as we lived, and to avoid the high water, which had linked consecutive drops into long, sickening rapids, we scheduled this year’s descent a few weeks later in the year.  The results were mostly as we had hoped: manageable rapids.  The first several miles of the river were class III, allowing a fine opportunity to furiously polish our decayed paddling skills.  Then the river began to drop; right away the lower water made a difference, letting us run two thirds of a bouldery triple drop, only the last drop of which we had done the year before.  Andrew got right back into last year’s groove by accidentally running it backwards.  We camped below that rapid, on a beach under trees, with warm wind blowing from downstream.  Certain sleeping aficionados declared it the Best Sleep of 2008, pending further data collection.

The next day was full of great whitewater, some of which we even ran. There was a long lead- in to the deadly 40- footer.  It consisted of an 8 ft ledge above a shallow, slanted finger of rock landing on a fast ramp leading up to a 10 ft ledge falling in large part on a rock, followed by an easy move in front of a huge undercut, a big rooster- tail rapid, and one last tall drop; then there were two river- right eddies and the falls.  A casual glance revealed the eddies to be enormous and flat- indeed, nearly stagnant with inviting, calm water.  But after the last drop, while scrambling back from the left side, watching the river peeling off the cliff from the corner of the eye, it turned out that the last eddy was guarded by a flourishing curler, fed in large part by water surging out of the boily eddy itself.  Andrew caught the eddy with little room to spare; the others wisely began their portages one rapid farther upstream.  The whitewater continued in this manner all day.  Some rapids we still portaged, but many were rendered runnable by the lower water.
The third morning started with some unexpected action.  Although we had already paddled through all the class V, there were a few easier miles to go, followed by many miles of class II-III to reach the road.  Yuri, who considers misfortune an indispensable part of his warm- up routine, flipped and pinned underwater on a boulder in the first rapid.  The only way to gain his release was apparently a salvo of ferocious headbutts to the rock, which he quickly administered, leaving him with a bloody and soon- to- be- swollen nose, and a broken camera.  However, he didn’t drown, and not drowning is one of our highest priorities when kayaking.  The rest of the morning was fortunately less eventful.  Around noon we arrived in the town of Shakhrinau and were greeted by the group of teenagers we had met there the previous year.  We found a ride back to Dushanbe and presently began preparing for the next morning’s departure to the north.

We managed to spend only 13 hours in Dushanbe.  The next rivers were a short stretch on the upper Zeravshan River and then a hike into the Garif River (note: last year we used the name Garib as it appeared on our maps, but locals corrected us to Garif which matches many of the villages in the region that also end in “–if”).  After scouting and paddling the bottom several miles of the Garif last year, we believed the rest of the river could potentially be one of Tajikistan’s best; paddling the entire Garif was one of our major goals for this year.

We haggled for a driver to pick us up at 2am and take us to Ajni, a major town at the bottom of the Zeravshan valley from which we would get another ride up the valley itself.  The driver arrived late and decided he wanted more money.  This was a frustrating early morning haggle that wasted much time and resulted in a little more money for the driver.  Finishing our first haggle of the day at 330am, we sped off at such a rate as to arrive at the small cross-roads in Ajni before there were any taxis to take us up the valley.  Around mid-day we haggled again and got a ride up the Zeravshan.  Our driver was a young Tajik guy who was actually on vacation from his job driving a dairy truck between Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia.  His driving style was indeed slow and steady like a big-rig conductor, but this at least gave us time to enjoy the view and ponder the world of this young man from a mud-walled hut with faded blonde highlights driving us up the valley on his vacation.

The drive finished at about 10 pm near the town of Vodif.  We slept well on the shore of the Zeravshan. The next day began as days usually begin when sleeping near a Tajik village: you hear people and farm animals; you slowly wake up; a villager comes over to chat while you’re still in your sleeping bag; you are invited to eat and rest in their home; you decline politely; they bring you a delicious wheel of fresh baked bread as a departing gift; they watch you pack and dress; you speed away on the river, waving back to the villagers waving and watching you go.

The upper Zeravshan is a large rumbling river that speeds over a sand and gravel bottom.  From Vodif we paddled to Pakshif.  Early on there was a mile- long canyon beginning with large boils surging and bouncing off its walls.  Midway, the river- right side of the canyon opened to a tributary, and a large fin rock divided the river in two.  Rivers don’t often have fin-rocks dividing them, so its newness caused us to look twice, but the rapid turned out to be simple on both sides of the rock.  The canyon continued with more water bouncing off canyon walls until it finally funneled into a deep hole on river left.  We opted to sneak and land in the backwash of the hole that was jetting out through narrowed canyon walls.

The river then whisked us downstream.  A second canyon arose. We got out to scout and a posse of young boys who were working the fields came over to chat.  The scouting proved the canyon to be simple boil-bouncing fun.  The scouting also gave the kids time to try on our gear and sit in the boats.  Our ideas of silly didn’t really match- for them just sitting in a kayak was a silly sight, but for us their solemn expressions when wearing a helmet big enough to protect two of their heads was the most entertaining.

The canyon proved a fun bounce which Yuri particularly enjoyed.  There was one other rapid with a hole under a bridge and possibly a troll to match.  We could see most of it but thought it might be good to scout.  This proved unnecessary after Andrew fell out of his eddy and ran it accidentally, then flagged us through a simple drop with a hole having more bark than bite.

Late afternoon, we disembarked and, under the sardonic gaze of resting donkeys, began trudging our gear through potato fields on our way to the Garif River.  While the potatoes had more eyes, we got plenty of stares and smiles trudging through the town of Pakshif and into the hills toward the pass.  Some of the less hearty viewers tired of watching our slow progress up the steep incline, but some stayed true and watched us for the full hour it took us to get out of sight and around the small bend- a total distance of about two miles and 700 vertical feet.

We made a small fire and slept on the slope, wondering which of the distant mountain saddles was our pass.

Here’s a quick postscript from Middy detailing some of his travels after the paddling trip came to an end.

How I Spent My Christmas Vacation

It is Christmas, and ten Tajik truck drivers and I are stuck at a teahouse at the bottom of the only pass connecting Tajikistan’s two largest cities, Dushanbe and Khujand. The Anzob Tunnel rests at the top of the pass and is still under construction and officially closed, with a knee-deep stream running down its crooked concrete floor.  Seven days ago a series of avalanches on the far-side of the tunnel closed the road.  I reached the teahouse two days ago after hiking in a valley to the east, but my ten Christmas buddies have been waiting here a whole week.  While they arrived at the teahouse in their Soviet-era Kamaz trucks, I walked 40 miles through serious snow to get to the teahouse– my only route of egress back to modernity and holiday cheer.

From outside, the teahouse’s faintly whitewashed walls are so faded they barely stand out against the brown earth surrounding them and from which they were built.  Walking the last three miles of my journey to the teahouse behind 100 yaks and three shepherds, I spotted the faded white building from the barren mountainsides only because of the trucks parked on the dirt in front of its little blue door.  The idea of a warm meal followed by multiple options for transportation to Dushanbe pleased me.  After the teahouse’s owner and son greeted me, happy I had returned safely from my excursion to the east, they ushered me inside and onto an elevated platform with a soft carpet.  In this relative luxury of warmth and softness, I reclined and surveyed the truck drivers scattered around the platform in similar positions of repose.  One driver greeted me by telling me the road was “closed-closed,” to differentiate the current physical impossibility from its normal ignorable state of passable-but-officially-“closed.”  Thus, before I could savor my meal, I joined the group of the waiting.

I am the only non-Muslim, and the only person who knows, when December 25th rolls around, it is Christmas.  Precisely because of these differences, we are curious about each other.  The drivers and co-pilots are pleased to have such an unexpected conversation partner, and I am curious about their lives and profession.  They kindly simplify their questions if my Tajik language skills aren’t good enough to understand their inquiries.  The first line of questioning is about my week-long hiking journey in an isolated valley to the east.  The valley is famous throughout Tajikistan for the ancient language and culture that remains there from when Central Asia was a hub along the Silk Road.  The truckers are proud of this history but admit without a road up the valley they will never go there.  This very lack of access is why the valley’s language and culture have continued to exist for centuries while around them change has been a constant.

While the teahouse is just a one-room, painted-mud hut with a rug and a picture of Mecca on its walls, it is warm and has a TV.  Not a horrible place to be stuck, and definitely preferable to being up in the avalanche zone where vehicles are still trapped and temperatures are well below zero.  The avalanche has taken anywhere from three to thirty lives.  The potentially high number of fatalities is a by-product of the road and tunnel being ‘closed.’ Police at posts blocking ‘closed’ roads in Tajikistan often let cars through in groups; one such informal convoy was hit by the worst of the avalanches.  The teahouse truck drivers are sad for the families of the deceased, but they have survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, a violent civil war, and years plying these dangerous roads and simply offer a resigned shrug of condolence.
The drivers’ thoughts don’t linger on mortality for very long, and on Christmas morning they decide snow-chains will be unnecessary to get through the avalanche zone.  They begin removing the chains from their trucks’ sturdy tires, and the group decides I will travel with the driver who first assessed chains as unnecessary. He is kind and generous, but his initiative to de-chain seems a touch premature when factors like snow, ice, and 15 metric tons of onions are involved.  As all the drivers squat in the cold removing snow-chains held on by twine, I standing over my future driver silently trying to formulate a polite sentence expressing my reservations about removing the chains without any idea about the pass’ conditions.  As if addressing my concerns, he looks up at me and promptly gives me my first Christmas present of the day: a pile of snow chains he has just removed and with instructions to deliver them to the truck’s cabin.  I like useful gifts, and these chains, when used, are just that.  Maybe my grizzled buddies sense this.

They are truck drivers and are easily recognizable as such, just like anywhere. I often marvel at their similarity to America’s corps of drivers.  They slump over warm cups of tea like their North American counterparts would black cups of coffee.  Conversation heats up over trucks, engines, and women.  The first two subjects are addressed like truckers in the states, but their taste in women eludes me.  Bare-breasted modern dancers on Russian TV fail to keep the attention of those watching the screen, while a Tajik music video with a waitress in a short skirt elicits a serious debate over where exactly that restaurant is in the capital city and how long it will take to get there after the pass opens.  When I see an advertisement (for what, I have no idea) that involves a staged pillow fight between models in lingerie, I look around thinking this will surely create animated conversation and a chance to learn some new Tajik words.  Instead, nothing.  An hour later another TV ad, with a team of young women in Santa-red bikinis walking through the snow gets plenty of laughs and the attention of everyone.  Later, I think I’m zeroing in when a Russian shampoo ad with a naked woman massaging her head and groaning warrants only an ‘Is lunch ready?” look from the two guys closest to the screen.  I am left stumped.

Around mid-morning Christmas day, I ask my future driver if removing the chains before even seeing the pass is wise; his response is a cough. He does a lot of coughing.  A career truck driver, he is in his 40s but looks to be more like 70.  Like all of the drivers and most of the population here, the cracks in his hands are so deep they can never be cleaned and could hold a quarter up on its edge.  In other ways he is like truckers back home and even shares some of their habits, adjusted for Tajik culture.  He likes his nose, local chewing tobacco, and sleeps like a baby after popping a wad of nose big enough to, speaking from experience, make my head spin for a straight hour and induce vomiting for at least half a day.  But his ability to slumber with a stimulant shouldn’t surprise me, as he perpetually seems to be the most comfortable person in sight no matter how or where he is crammed.  This requires amazing flexibility for a man of his years.  As if to reinforce this impression of incredible suppleness, I watch him melt out of his truck’s driver’s seat with a leg up near his shoulder and stunning fluidity.  To meet his needs of comfort and flexibility, he wears a grey and powder-blue tracksuit and never changes it–but then again no one in the teahouse has a change of clothes.  It is hard for me to imagine him in any other setting or as anything but a truck driver, but this is proven unjust when I hear him saying cute things to his 3 year-old granddaughter on the phone in a warm, enunciated voice: “Hello, my dear little granddaughter. Do you know who this is?  This is your old grampy. How are you?…”

My driver’s main chatting buddy in the teahouse is another driver who looks like Spock and has the same curt delivery of factual information. When a young co-pilot sees Paris on the news and tells me, “America!” Spock orients his face and ears toward the boy and frankly interjects, “No, Paris is not in America.  It is the capital of France.” No one laughs, and I resist chuckling and asking for an autograph.

Traditionally in Tajik culture, names are not used much; when introducing yourself you do not give your name and only after you’ve gotten to know someone would you ask their’s.  To get around this people are often referred to by titles like ‘teacher’ or ‘driver’ or a description.  The teahouse owner describes the driver I’m to travel with as “the one with the mustache,” but by my count at least four others have serious mustaches.  After a week of waiting, the mustache count is rising rapidly.

Across a bridge, in a different one- room, painted mud- hut, is the police station that blocks us from the pass. Inside is one of the few incorruptible police in this country. The officer asks excellent questions about the American Civil War and reveals he’s a liberal sort of guy, describing his busy, neonatal doctor wife and how he often assumes the traditional women’s work at home of cooking for the family.  He mans the post day and night for his five-day shift.  The officer is the only person to wish me happy holidays.

Just before lunch, I get my second Christmas present–a false alarm that inspires the drivers to fire up their trucks and race the 100 yards to the police station’s gate (a piece of metal cable with debris stuck to it to make it visible at night) that is barring them from the pass. The drivers’ job is to go, and the policeman’s job is to tell them not to.  The situation heats up as the drivers rev their engines and bark at the cop stopping them.  The route by which his replacement is to arrive has also been closed, so his five-day shift may soon grow much longer.  Thus both parties are irritable, and the standoff ends with everyone grouchy and back in their respective rooms.

In these respective rooms, there are two primary tools used to kill time.  One is modern cell-phones on which everyone fluently speaks 2 – 4 languages.  The other is their version of the Swiss Army knife, a multi-purpose toy that is at its root useful: matches.  Balancing my useful gift of chains from earlier in the day is an intellectually stretching series of lessons on untraditional uses of the match: toothpick, Q-tip, light for the long-drop toilet, and entertainment when thrown onto your buddies.

When lunch does finally come, my future driving companion tells me to have some Tajik spring water–a specialty of this mountain country, especially for drivers coming out of Tajikistan’s flatter, drier neighbors to the west.  Looking forward to cool, fresh water, I tilt back the little bowl of clear liquid and to everyone’s delight deliver a mouthful of vodka to my tonsils.  After I cringe and choke it down, I join in their laughter.  This gets everyone talking, and at one point they ask me a question about race-relations in America and the possibility of interracial marriages.  After I give them my best answer, they immediately have another question: “Have you slept with a black woman?”  Like with most truck drivers, even in the Muslim world or Utah, you can bet premarital sex is an acceptable topic of conversation.

As Christmas evening brings darkness to the barren valley, it is the police officer, not Santa, who brings joyous gifts.  He is bundled and jolly in a unicolor suit (albeit grey, not red) when he delivers sodas and canned fish to appease the drivers after the day’s skirmish. The drivers are placated and effusively thankful, as is their obligation in Tajik culture.  Not the news everyone had hoped for, but the result is a boisterous feast of special foods, with all of us tucked inside out of the cold.
We could be any fun little family in our one-room mud teahouse, sprawled on mats gossiping, eating, and avoiding the crisp cold that grips the snowy crags around us.  We all drink from the same few tea bowls, which to me feels almost familial.  As Christmas winds to a close we share toys, and I am reminded of an age old truism my father first told me: “American binoculars are fun, but playing with an ancient-Soviet blow torch wins out any day.”

Here is our last missive.  The hijinks may continue for us here in Tajikistan, but you won’t have to read about it every week.  Our last river was the Obi Khingou.  The truth is that if we’d had a more convincing rationalization than just some blisters and a leaking boat, we would have opted to head straight back to Dushanbe.   We were all burned-out and feeling soft. The thought of another week of paddling through frigid mountains failed to inspire us.   In the absence of positive motivation were inertia and an unwillingness to admit our utter pansy-hood, but these were enough in the end.

With our driver from Djirgatal, we explicitly confirmed and reconfirmed the terms of our agreement, wary of more mid- journey discord.   We loaded his Toyota pickup and rode down the broad Surkhob valley to the Obi Khingou confluence and up the relatively attenuated Obi Khingou gorge to Tavildara.   Along the way, we picked up our food cache, which had been safeguarded for the last three weeks by the exceedingly friendly proprietor of a highway stop.

In Tavildara, Middy instantly found a truck headed further upstream.   We threw everything, ourselves included, in the back with the enormous spare tire.   The driver and his associates were good guys, with whom we had the chance to acquaint ourselves over the course of the thirty hours that it took to travel the next forty miles.   They were heading up the valley to buy potatoes, or coal, or whichever was available.   We all spent one night with a family in a town along the way.   In the morning, that town’s potatoes were proclaimed inadequate, so we could continue on our way, once the truck’s flat tire was taken off and as soon as enough people were rounded up to push- start the Kamaz’s dead battery.   Right after they made a short detour for five tons of coal.  In late afternoon, when all was ready, we resumed our crawl along the river.   On the way, we picked up an old man, who was traveling to an ancient Islamic shrine upstream, all his luggage in a plastic grocery bag.   We all sat atop the coal, huddled in the wind under a sky of low clouds, and tried to explain to each other the mutually- unfathomable motivations for our respective pilgrimages to the headwaters of the Obi Khingou.

At last we came to the town of Sangvor, at the confluence of the Obi Khingou and Obi Mazar rivers.   Our put- in.   We were dropped off in the dark, in the middle of town, the beginnings of a huge hassle if this were some town in America.   But this was Tajikistan, where an invitation is always at hand if you just stand still for a few seconds.   Shortly we were offered help with the boats, a bowl of warm milk, and a night in the guestroom of a nearby house.   Wanting mostly to escape the cold, we hastened to accept.

The next morning we waited for the sunshine to reach the river before putting on.   Knowing much of the river was flat and the remaining rapids small from lack of water did nothing to inspire or accelerate our movements.

Bouncing down the first 8 miles, we imagined the river with more water and the potentially sizeable whitewater.   All the while we paddled small rapids trying not to get our hands wet.  The river became flatter, and we spread out, each daydreaming as we gently paddled down to warmer elevations.

Thin wires ran overhead from one bank to another: zip-lines for the wood harvested on the other side of the river from town.   A small section with big boulders and a couple class IV drops caused us to get our hands wet and question our commitment to paddling in the cold.  This chaotic interruption ended in flatwater that flowed steadily through the most vegetation we had seen in Tajikistan.

Our mileage for the day was large and, to celebrate, we afforded ourselves extra sausage; from a quarter of a sausage the size of three hotdogs per night on the Muksu we had graduated to a whole sausage a night on the Obi Khingou.   Luxury perfectly meeting culinary fatigue.

The next morning, again, we waited for the sun.   The day began and ended with flatwater.  In the early afternoon, we passed the town of Tavildara and some whitewater interrupted our game of ’20 questions.’   One rapid had the unexpected surprise of substantial amounts of an old bridge.   Perhaps a perilous remnant of the civil war or the Soviets.   This second day we increased our communication with the valley’s children through clear, articulated finger gestures and words as they threw rocks on us from bridges.

Another sausage on our last evening sleeping out.   We enjoyed the feast and lingered around the campfire as cars and trucks passed on the other side of the river in the only spot wide enough for 2 vehicles abreast.

Simon cried. Andrew held his hand. Middy sang a Cat Steven’s song.

Our last day kayaking had the biggest whitewater in a deep, final gorge.   Our only scout of the Obi Khingou was the entrance to this canyon.  A bunch of small pour-overs led to a steep curler and hole that dropped into a giant, convulsing rooster-tail.   For Andrew and Middy the experience was much the same: ender or flip respectively, and then get shot almost entirely out of the water by the rooster-tail.   Simon, ever wisely noting the previous results, adapted his line and gracefully descended.  From there the gorge was fun waves and drops until it opened to the last braided miles.

We saw a bird with a wingspan around 10 feet.

Where the blue/gray water of the Obi Khingou met the brown Vaksh River, we got out in the sand next to the road.   Months earlier the Obi Khingou had been as brown as the Vaksh.

After getting changed, we shouldered our boats one last time, and hiked up to the roadside town of Komsomalabad.   We passed time sitting around a table in the shade, where we could keep an eye on our boats in one direction, and an eye out for passing traffic in the other.   We were joined by a militia officer with bloodshot eyes and a Cheshire-cat grin below a sketchy moustache.   Naturally, he was steaming drunk.   He produced some weed, and a piece of graphing paper to roll it in, but we declined politely, fearing entrapment among other things.   He pointed up the hillside, in the direction of his house, where the new road would pass, he said, after the Rogun dam was completed downstream, and the valley flooded.   We wondered if the lower canyons of the Obi Khingou would drown in the floodwaters as well.

It took only 3 hours to find a suitable ride passing through.   We put our boats in the back of the empty Kamaz, and piled into the cab up front.   Normally, Kamaz rides are a last resort; uncomfortable and notoriously slow as they haul several tons of onions, potatoes, or some other sundry up the road.   Carrying only our three kayaks, though, the Kamaz covered the distance to Dushanbe quickly.

Back in the bustling capital, we’ve been re-acclimatizing to the urban environment.   The former restlessness that accompanied our bureaucracy-bound time in Dushanbe is gone.   Without another trip to the mountains to make us impetuous, we’ve been content to relax and recover.   Cuts and blisters that have been open for weeks are now beginning to heal over.  A course of anti-biotics will hopefully rid us of the microscopic companions that have no doubt been tagging along for the duration.

In a few days, Simon will head back to Edinburgh, leaving Andrew and Middy to find NGO work in Dushanbe.   We’re not sure when we’ll see each other next, but rest assured, destinations for the next trip have already been discussed.

Trip Vital Stats:

39,400 vertical feet descended

15,400 vertical feet ascended during carries

592 miles of river paddled

185 miles of river scouted

72 miles carried

28 rivers investigated

21 rivers paddled

11 first descents

13.2 lbs of grapes eaten in 24 hours

4.4 lbs of lamb meat eaten in a single sitting (followed by 2.5 lbs of ice-cream)

Tajik Report Card
For our final act, we have summoned all our egotism and glory to compile a report card giving quantitative assessment to all.

Simon- Pro’s: glacial rescue of Andrew, culinary foresight(bullion cubes)
Con’s: incomparable flatulence, poor plaid-suit care- this is a privilege, not a right
Overall Grade: B+

Middy- Pro’s: early rising camp-fire starter, daily grape eating freak show, the only expedition student not to lose bowel control
Con’s:  premature moustache shaving, uncontrollable gas
Overall Grade: B-

Andrew- Pro’s: improved fire-starting skills, carried excess rice burden
Con’s: over-commitment to mustache and its ideals, hideous bowel-stench
Overall Grade: B


Wildlife: when in attendance is fidgety and won’t stay still despite showing occasional glimpses of promise. B-

Food:  has all the resources to be a fine asset but fails to meet its considerable potential. D+

Landscape: is of an unpredictable temperament: often providing stunning performances, but also tormenting visitors and guests’ efforts to get to know it better. B+

Government: distracts everyone and is itself rather naughty.  Government is a bad student that occupies way too much class time.  C-

Militia:  great eye for design and fashion.  Usually very friendly and chatty, but can be a real hassle.  Could work on literacy. C+

Tajik people:  Kind and outgoing.  Ingenious at repairs even when they have caused the problem.  Exceptionally giving and hospitable, except when punching Andrew in the mouth.  A-

Whitewater:  Heavy on the donkey-punching, but generally sets a fine example for other rivers to follow. A

Tajikistan:  GPA with curve: B+

Trip report 6

So at last we were heading to the Muksu, the river that lay monumentally before us, darkening any thoughts of a sunshiny future, making long- term plans seem speculative and premature.   The “hardest river of the USSR.”  But in the end, the challenge of the Muksu lay almost entirely in getting there.

The first leg of the journey was a fifteen hour drive from Khorog.   We found a sturdy- looking Russian vehicle piloted by two friendly- seeming Pamiris and paid them half of our agreed- upon price before embarking.  We drove all day and spent the night in the house of a family 30 miles short of our destination.  In the morning, our drivers refused to continue, citing the poor mountain roads and their low fuel.   We considered these complaints to be tardy for the negotiation process and withheld the second half of the money until we could find a ride the rest of the way.   This went over poorly.  All morning we argued with them and rehashed the pieces of our broken agreement.  Eventually they tried to take our boats.   Andrew grabbed the one they were taking, and the odium of the co-pilot truly blossomed.  While Andrew struggled to match Russian adjectives and nouns for case, gender, and number, the co-pilot grabbed him by the collar and started punching him in the mouth.   Meanwhile, twenty Pamiri townsmen had gathered around, and it was our best guess that their sympathies lay elsewhere.  Simon simultaneously restrained himself and the co-pilot, and we quickly reached an agreement to pay them some of the money.

It wasn’t until they had left that the townspeople asked us why we had ever hired such crazy drivers and found us another ride, albeit an exorbitantly priced one.   Before leaving, an opportunistic national park representative found us and charged us $100 to cross park land.  In these cases, what can you do?   Feel outraged for sure, but then hopefully, move on.  We got an UAZ ride to the dismal Kok Jar, alleged by our map to be a “forest of outstanding beauty” but more aptly just a “forest that’s still standing.”   This early stop added six miles and 1,300 vertical feet to our hike, but to distance ourselves from the last twenty- four hours, we were happy to take it.

Our newer, nicer driver dropped us off at the bottom of a pass in gale force winds and late afternoon sun.   He eagerly pointed out the best footpath; the road was long he said and wished us safe travels with a gift of bread.  We harnessed the boats to our backs as before in Tajikistan. Maybe it was the added weight of enough food for almost two weeks, maybe it was the screaming wind, but we all staggered those first steps. Ahead loomed two passes taking us up to 14,800 feet and at least 20 miles as the crow flies to the Belandkyk River, that might be frozen.

Consciously we were late in the year in order to avoid the extreme floods of the summer.   We were late even compared to other Russian paddling expeditions.  The winter cold and a potentially dewatered tributary that would take us off our feet and into boats and the Muksu, the Belandkyk, seemed like a small price to pay for the assurance of lower water on the Muksu.   Thinking about all this only made the boats heavier as we sucked wind up the pass.  We hunkered down for the night in a flat spot most of the way up the pass and tried not to speculate about the future.

The morning began with headaches from the altitude and cracking ice out of our water bottles for cooking water.   The headaches went away with time; carrying something about half our body weight warmed us up.  A slight redefinition of terms is necessary at this point.   Carrying was not a continuous motion but rather a repeating cycle of 20-50 feet of walking then a 30 second break to parse oxygen from the thin air.

By mid-day, we reached the valley leading to the Takhtakorum Pass.   The ground was fine dust, scattered with cow and sheep dung.  We dropped our boats and dragged them behind us to give our shoulders a break. By evening, we were at 13,200 feet, and our Russian stove required a cleaning to start.

Frozen water bottles, headaches, and the cold were fast becoming routine to our mornings.   The next day saw more trudging.  If you didn’t fully catch your breath during a short rest, you would lose it after your first two steps and have to stop again.   We hiked in jackets, hats, and 2 layers of warm clothes.  Andrew spotted 4 Marco Polo sheep wearing nothing but fur.

The next morning we reached the pass, or “summit,” and looked into the watershed that had occupied so much of our thoughts for the past months.   Wind had blown the ice on a small lake at the top slightly to one side and, exhausted and shoulder sore from carrying, we paddled a half mile in the exposed water, carefully avoiding any splashes or drips.   The descent was tough- over large, sharp, black slate rocks- but short- 825 feet and 4 miles.  Days ago it had become too cold to rest for long and enjoy our breaks; we just wanted to schlep on and start paddling.

Finally, the Belandkyk.   Thick ice covered the edges and the rocks but water flowed in the middle.  Not enough to paddle but it looked promising for the next day once tributaries joined in the fun.   After lining our boats, we settled into the four walls that remained of a shepherds’ hut and discovered a valuable trick we would use for the remainder of our Tajik travels: sleeping squished together provides warmth.
The valley was spectacular and seemed to end directly in mountain tops.   We saw a herd of ibex and were becoming convinced a sasquatch- size marmot was pilfering our food at night.  Our stove, and now fuel pump, required multiple cleanings to work every time.   There was an almost full moon.

The next day was a tough one, as the Belandkyk disappeared all together- either from freezing up or going underground.   We started to wonder how long we would be walking.  That night, our edifices slowly deteriorating, we slept between two walls of loosely stacked rocks against a cliff.   It snowed on us, which was beautiful but added an unnecessary shockwave to our morning headaches.  Our hands now had a dry black sheen from dirt and the crisp air that we had previously seen on shepherds, but the snow seem to coat the land and our troubles with an attractive layer.

Cresting a rolling hill, we saw people at a large cabin.   Our minds sifted through possibilities of what on God’s green Earth people would be doing high up in the mountains that time of year besides the obvious, like watersports.

Their greetings were friendly, and as we approached we noticed western items and then a guy talking on a satellite phone.   They welcomed us warmly with tea and food and revealed they were a hunting camp presently occupied by Norwegians and an Italian.  A helicopter would come for these clients in a couple days and replace them with new people all of whom were there to hunt species we are pretty sure are endangered.

At one point conversation became heated by politics, which could not have been more surreal when through the window was snow and 20,000 foot peaks.   They invited us for the night, but when we opted to catch the afternoon glacial melt and begin paddling, they advised us about a cabin downstream.
With three and half hours of daylight to cover the distance to the hunting cabin, we hastily packed our boats and geared up amidst the on-looking Tajik guides and staff.   We thanked them for their hospitality, bid them farewell, and commenced the “paddling” leg of our journey.  The first few miles involved more pushing off rocks and ice than actual strokes, but we were relieved to be unyoked from the burden of carrying.   The air was cold, and almost immediately a veneer of ice coated our life-jackets, dry-tops, and pogies.  We paddled hard to stay warm, and to secure a night of warmth in the cabin, whose stove and well-stocked woodpile awaited.   As dusk approached, we got out occasionally to scan the valley for the hospice, but to no avail.  Even with a push well into twilight, the cabin failed to materialize.   Defeated, we snapped icicles from our helmets, frost from our beards (some expedition members more than others), and braced ourselves for a cold night under the tarp.   On the upside, in our rapid decent we had crossed the snowline, and saw small shrubs for the first time since the far side of the Takhtakorum pass.  On the downside, Jack Frost was not to be outdone so easily, and we passed the night slowly as snowflakes stealthily settled around us.

We started late the next morning to allow the river to rise and to let our frozen gear become pliable, if not dry.   The paddling picked up where it left off; rocky boat abuse and cold hands.  We reached a short canyon section of the Belandkyk mid-morning, where an iced-over narrow drop forced us to portage up a snowy embankment and seal launch back in below before resuming the frustrating downriver battle.   For a second time, we crossed the snowline, and were heartened by the return of full-sized vegetation.  That night we celebrated the advent of fire like Neolithic cavemen, while simultaneously lamenting the new-found split in Andrew’s boat.   That nocturnal asshole Jack Frost paid us another visit, and we awoke to more snow, another late morning of gear thawing, and temporary boat repair before setting off.

By 11, we reached the foot of the massive Fedchenko glacier, one of the longest in the world, and the flow more than doubled to about 1,000 cfs.   The next section of river, a pre-curser to the canyons of the Muksu, wandered from side to side of the wide U-shaped valley, 20,000 foot peaks in the distance.   An upstream wind kept things chilly, especially for Andrew, who’s boat routinely took on submarine properties after parting with its patch at nearest convenience.  We found a sheltered campsite in the afternoon, indulged in another fire, and speculated about the infamous canyons of the Muksu for one last night.

Late the next morning, we found ourselves on the threshold of the first of such canyons, 300′ above the river, watching the river disappear around a blind corner.   Middy returned from scouting, stymied by a scree slope even an ibex would baulk at.  With no other options, we looked at each other, shrugged, and got back in our boats.   Guarding the entrance to this canyon was a stalwart rapid with 2 beastly holes in quick succession.  Fortunately, we all caught the must-make eddy on the lip of the first hole and portaged without incident.  During the portage, we saw footprints in the sand likely belonging to a Russian group rumored to have been here two weeks prior.  These signs of voyageurs on the same route gave us a bit of comfort, but perhaps detracted slightly from the sense of remoteness.   We rounded the bend, finding only more beautiful canyon, and runnable rapids below.

Our deliberately late season run on the Muksu seemed to work all too well.   And we found little of the ferocity that had lurked in the back of our minds for months.  The rapids were largely fun, though committing, and it is easy to envisage the maelstrom that would accompany higher water.   As it was, we boat scouted most rapids, except when Andrew had to empty, in which case he’d give directions to Middy and Simon, e.g. “If you back-paddle at the lip of that drop…no, no, closer…closer…closer….yeah, you can see a big rock below the ledge.   Drop off side-ways in front of it.” (see photo with waterfall and boat against rock)

Since we were behind schedule getting to the canyon section of the Muksu, we had cut back our food rations to allow a couple of extra days.   Sooner than we expected though, the canyons opened up after only a day and half, and we passed the first signs of civilization, Tajiks panning for gold.   After a marathon, blister-inducing day, we reached the Surkhob River and paddled in to Djirgatal, where 1 month prior (report 4a) we had explored the south flowing rivers.  We feasted on our excess ¾ of sausage before heading into town.  We met our old friend Ismonoli, who let us back into our home away from home, the Djirgatal Regional Airport.   There, we rested a day before driving to our final river, a late season classic, the Obikhingou…