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.
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.