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+