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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.”

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Imgp0678
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.

Middy1
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.

Pop
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.

Ride
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.

Tank
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

Tajikistan:

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+

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Trip report 6

Elevation_graph
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.

002
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.

Summit
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.

003
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.

004
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.

005
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.

006
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.

007
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.

008
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.

009
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…

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Trip report 5

We have returned from our final mountainous venturing to the warm electrical glow and variety of foodstuffs that define our current Dushanbe lives. There is much cold, high-altitude toiling and its rewards to speak of, but our journey begins with a 2-day drive to the Pamirs.   The route is only 250 miles and is the connection between the once feuding western and eastern halves of the country.  It is an unpaved road narrow enough on which opposing traffic can only pass in certain spots.   Knowing the drive would be a long one, we bought out most of the seats in the old Soviet Gazelle van (think olive-green 1950’s toaster on a narrow wheelbase).   The leg room was great until one of the other vans in our little caravan broke, and the population of our toaster rose to 14 tightly packed slices.  We wanted some money back, but the driver didn’t have any- it all stayed with the car’s owner in Dushanbe.   For the next day and a half we bounced along so securely wedged into place we could relax all our muscles and still barely move, a different sort of comfort.

Our circumstances seemed plush when we looked across the Panj River at Afghanistan on day 2 of the voyage.   Our van and its passengers in modern knock-off clothing rattled down the road while on the other side of the river, Afghans in long robes walked along a foot-path that traversed cliff faces on rocks and sticks jammed in cracks.   Later we would be told how both sides of the border were Badakhshani brothers divided by colonial powers; now there is little communication across the border, and the town that had once been the mighty center of Badakhshan, because it fell on the impoverished Afghan side, had only recently gotten electricity.

We arrived in the town of Khorog and made our way to the paradise of quiet comfort that is the small hotel known as the Pamir Lodge.   We called a friend of a friend, and before we knew it we were two vodka bottles into a hilarious evening with Sasha.  He can only be described as awesome.   We would learn that his incredible generosity and kindness were not unique in the Pamirs; his sense of humor and fun, though, would stand out anywhere.

We found a bad deal on a Jeep the next morning at the Avtovoksal and rode it 45 miles up the Shakhdara river.   Despite the starting elevation of 10,000 ft, the sun was out and scalding when we put in.  But in the shadow of the canyons, everything was colder and more serious. There was a short section where the river dropped steeply and continuously among boulders between composite mud walls, but the unexpectedly low volume of water was not conducive to intimidation, and we paddled on through.   It was fun in a place where high water would be murderous.

Downstream was the ‘waterfall canyon’ for which we had driven so far up the river.   We took an earnest look at it with an eye to throwing down but in the end put down only our egos and carried around.  The problem was partly in the drop itself, namely being huge, but mostly lay in the outflow, where liberal portions of water exited via overhung cave.   We all suspected a kayak would not exit as smoothly.

We camped the first night at the mouth of a pretty side-canyon and made the first use of our newly acquired Russian stove, which burns gas, diesel, and jet fuel, but only with the greatest reluctance after lengthy prodding.   The night was cold even with the layers and the sleeping bags cinched closed, but it was the implications for the Muksu river, 5000 ft higher, that really had us losing sleep.

In the morning we decided to hike up the side-canyon, partially, of course, to inspect its magnificence but also to delay putting on wet clothes until the sun arrived.   We were almost immediately stymied by an uninviting creek crossing.  It was clear we couldn’t continue.  As if on cue to show us what pansies we are, two Pamiris came walking downstream, shoes off and pants rolled up to reveal red flesh wading across the partially frozen stream.  They were heading to a nearby town for a wedding; we used our boats to ferry them across the Shakhdara, so they wouldn’t have to walk up to the closest bridge 6 miles upstream.

The paddling that day was a modicum of great fun sprinkled among endless, sandy flats.   The rapid of the day was a triple drop squeezed against the high, river-left wall.  There was a manageable boof, followed by deep, honking chute and a messy drop that bounced off the wall.   Simon, going last, had a seemingly perfect entrance but flipped in the bottom chaos and slammed his head into a rock, possibly even the wall itself.   He’s been acting strangely since, but we’re not sure there’s a connection.

When evening came, we found another fine camping spot that was even a little warmer with the day’s loss in altitude.   The following day we finished the river, through miles of class IV, then III, then into the Gunt River and Khorog.  We took out in the middle of town and made a moving spectacle of ourselves as we hiked the boats to our hotel through gaping mid- afternoon university traffic.

After an afternoon’s rest, we departed Khorog for a second time, on this occasion following the Pamir highway northward, up the Gunt river.  The road, for a change, was smooth, and our fully-laden Volga, kayaks in trunk, ate up the miles quickly.   The Gunt spills off the Pamiri plateau 100 miles or so upstream from Khorog, but most of the interesting whitewater is alleged to be in the lower section of river.   With this in mind, we put on 30 miles from Khorog, with food for 2 days and 2 nights.  The river, at the onset, was pretty mellow.   Meandering gravel bars were punctuated with short sections of sizeable waves and the odd hole to avoid.  Like a Volga on asphalt, we flew through the miles.   At 1 pm, we caught sight of the Shakhdara valley not too far in the distance, and thought we better stop, lest we reach Khorog too soon.  We spent the afternoon relaxing amid house-sized boulders and crags in the warm sun.   As evening approached, we were invited into a nearby house for chai, and as it turned out vodka.  Our host was a wiry, jovial man, and talented sitar player, even when hammered.   Fortunately, his inebriated driving was equally good, as he insisted on driving us the 300 feet back to our camp site.  The next morning, we put on, anticipating the whitewater that the Gunt was saving up for us.   Having covered ¾ of the distance, but only dropped ½ of the elevation, things were going to get steeper.  And steeper they got.   For the most part, the river dropped through continuous, bouldery rapids.  At one point, though, the river constricted to 15′ across, and the water pummeled into a badly undercut right wall before dropping over a similarly nasty hole.   A bit of debating eventually saw us portage.  As we neared Khorog, a nice section was unfortunately dewatered slightly by a dam.   This might have been fortunate for Simon though, who found himself enjoying some more quality time in a sticky hole.  We reached Khorog mid-day, and walked up the hill through town again to the Pamir Lodge.   There we enjoyed our last respite before plunging into the looming Muksu endeavor…
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Waterfall

Wall

Scouting

Rockin

Food_for_a_month

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Trip Report 4c

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Fear not this last report of September’s trilogy. Your rods and cones will not be taxed, and upon its conclusion you will have a month’s reprieve until we send the next clump of vague sentences about far away aquatics.

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The sun was hot when we dismounted our steeds at the final valley we planned to investigate.   Disrobing to head in town for still more food and a ride up the valley,  the neck gasket on Middy’s drytop split in two places. This gasket is the vital feature for keeping ice water from barreling down your neck with every crashing wave.   This was bad news now, but an unacceptable liability for our upcoming and climatic trip to the Pamirs.

We packed into a small Lada with the usual incapability of continuously cooling its own engine and rode up the Sarbog valley as the sunset.   After several axel-to-rock encounters, it was the end of the road for the driver and his chariot.  We were still several miles from the confluence of the Garib and Dubursa Rivers, but we shrugged this off when we spotted and ideal campsite 50 feet away.  Scanning the valley, Simon called us over to see a bear foraging across the river.   The driver departed with, “you know bears can swim, right?”  That night we heard some persistent rustling.  We slept in a tight clump for safety- a tight clump 10 feet from our food its safety.

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The next morning we hiked up to the confluence, crossed the river on the 3 cables that serve as a bridge, and parted ways for a two-day scouting hike.   The plan was for Simon and Andrew to hike up the Garib and branch to explore two tributaries and for Middy to inspect the Dubursa.  As it turns out, paths no longer existed.   Thorns, disintegrating hillsides, rock walls, and single-cable crossings limited Simon and Andrew to only 6 miles up the Garib despite a long day’s bush-whacking.   Stalin depopulated the Dubursa’s valley leaving only local fauna to maintain the path.  Middy fared a bit better making 8 miles.  The reason for Middy’s better mileage was made clear the following morning when he could no longer deny the producer of the fruity mess littering the path and old village where he slept.   After two minutes of morning walking, Middy and a bear met on a high bluff above the river with only 20 feet between them.  Both were very scared.   The bear exhibited good common sense when scared and ran uphill while Middy stood like a deer in head lights amongst the thorns.  Clearly, Darwin did not prevail that day.  Middy walked back with a new urgency and a tic as he constantly checked over his shoulder.

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Back at camp, the consensus was to carry our boats up each river a few miles and run the whitewater near the confluence.   Simon and Andrew had seen 6 more miles of fantastic whitewater, but it would have taken days we didn’t have to access it. Farther upstream on both rivers lies an unknown quantity of probably excellent whitewater.   This set us all dreaming as we caught the last of the afternoon sun, and Middy tried to repair his broken neck gasket with part of a bike inner-tube and glue.

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At about 9 am, we packed up camp, stashed our gear, and, with empty boats, walked upstream.  We reached the confluence in 45 minutes, and like impatient kids decided what river to run first.  Even the grey skies and drizzle couldn’t dampen our excitement.  We ferried across the river, and continued up the Garib, the slightly more irresistible of the two.  As the path degenerated into steep, crumbling slopes, we persevered long enough to reach the top of a marvelous pool-drop section.  With four hands on the inner-tube neck gasket, Middy was birthed into a world he hoped would be warm and dry.

The first drop was a fast and narrow S-bend with a large pillow from an even larger rock kicking hard to the left.  Andrew made the line direct, while Simon and Middy were shunted into the boily eddy on the left before completing the S.   The second rapid was a triple step: a 4′ ledge to boof, a slide to ramp in the middle, and finally a 12′ near vertical fall to launch.  If it had been easier to carry back upstream, we could have run this one all day. The last rapid of note in this section was another S:  a hard boof left to avoid a slightly undercut boulder, then through a left slot around a mostly underwater rock.  A few hundred meters of boogie water after this brought us to the entrance of a kilometer long canyon.
As the walls narrowed, a must make sequence of 3 eddies allowed us egress before the river disappeared under a massive chock-stone. A quick portage around this hideous, hideous obstruction brought us into the heart of the canyon.  Two river-wide ledges provided the entertainment.  The second was made spicier by headwall downstream and powerful pillow. Smooth water snaked out of the canyon below, and the river resumed its playful nature.

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The remaining 2km to the confluence was filled with boofs, rock spins, and smiles.  We stopped at the confluence, and ferried across the Dubursa to begin our second leg of the day. After a brisk walk, we put-in just upstream of a footbridge (more than wires, this time).  Though smaller in stature, the Dubursa, like the Garib, was boof-tastic. Every rapid seemed to have a horizon line, if only a few feet, that was tons of fun.  All too quickly, we reached the confluence again.
With the combined volume of both rivers, the Sarbog was powerful, with some large waves and holes, strong currents, and well-defined eddies behind big boulders.  After picking up our gear, the river mellowed out, and the paddle down to the Kamarob was peaceful.

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At the Kamarob confluence, we had just begun the desultory process of making dinner in the rain when Muhammad Azir, a guy our age, invited us to dine with him.   Not hesitating to accept, we were presently in his guestroom, surrounded by carpets, eating plov and watching his wedding DVD.  The plov (beloved national alloy of rice and oil) was middling.   Even sub par plov, however, represents a considerable improvement in quality of life when a cold rain is coming down.

Back at the boats, kids had been messing with our stuff.   They had gone through everything and spilled our juice in Simon’s drybag.  Incredibly, in spite of all the cool things we had to steal, nothing was taken.   The clouds went away, and the moon was like a black lamp lighting up the fresh snow on the mountains we had just left.
In the morning, we caught a coal truck heading up the Kamarob valley.   The river was useless to our purposes.  Where even the most optimistic map- reader could no longer imagine worthwhile whitewater to be found, we left our boats and rode the last few miles to the coal camp.  There we met William, a 26 year-old Brit who has been running mining operations and sundry enterprises around Tajikistan for the last eight years.  We spent the afternoon drinking beer by the river and an appallingly cold evening preparing fish and chips, which were greasy and effective.

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About the Kamarob little should be said.  Low volume.   100 ft/ mi.  It was continuous and shallow but too small to be painful.  The first highlight was a quick stop to buy gift- honey from a bee keeper.   The second was reaching the Sarbog confluence.  We paddled the rest of the Sarbog and camped just above its mouth.   The following day we got a ride with William back to Dushanbe.  Triumphantly we feasted there and have continued in this manner since.  In the course of our gluttony one day, Simon made the discovery that ice cream can be cheaply acquired by the kilo.  Nothing will ever be the same.

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Mr and Mrs. Kara Weld at Immersion Research came through in the biggest of ways and have DHL’ed us an emergency drytop and warm layers to replace those that had bitten the bountiful Tajik dust.   Now Middy can go to the Pamirs, and we have fresh Tajik visas.  We await only re- reregistration and permits for the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast.   As soon as these come through, we’ll head east to paddle the fabled rivers that surge through the colossal canyons at the roof of the world.

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Report 4b

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Turning right from the soupy, brown Surkhob River, we paddled 100 feet up the turquoise water of the Yarkitch River to the town of Khoit.  Our welcoming committee was a few shy kids and a friendly but crazy Tajik who fit all the stereotypes of a mountain-mad gem prospector: big, floppy hat and a desire to talk to us alone about the secret location of mountain riches all the while convinced you, and everyone else, are here to steal his rocks.

Leaving this funny scene out of an old Western, we hopped back into modern economics on an empty coal truck headed to the mine up the valley. Standing in the big metal bed, the ride was long and dusty, but the warm sun felt good, and our vantage point was ideal for scouting the river as we drove.

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An army post mid-way up was not a problem.  The captain’s inspection of our documents from all angles did not help his inability to differentiate “date of issue” from “date of expiration” on our visas.  We suspect these were his first foreign passports and that he might not have been able to read.  Rather than point out this potentially embarrassing situation, Middy and Andrew read the Tajik and Russian to him.  Pleased and maybe a bit flustered, he sent us on our way.

At the confluence of three rivers we got off the truck.  Also at the confluence was a bee keeper’s camp and a young guy with a full beard and long robes eyeing us.  Tajikistan is a country mostly of small hats and clean- shaven young men, especially in the region of Khoit.  The truck left us to make introductions on our own.

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With speed, we met Aub (bearded) and Yakob (small hat, no beard).  Rapidly, it became apparent this was Yakob’s camp, Aub was his brother, and “please come into the honey tent filled with 10,000 swarming bees.” Words of Russian and Tajik competed with the bees for airspace in the small tent as Yakob covered everything there is to know.  He was so fast, energetic, and charismatic that within 5 minutes of getting off the coal truck we had agreed to harvest honey with him once the bees dropped that night.

But first dinner, which arrived with a countdown.  “5 minutes,” yelled a sleepy, local cook.  This sent Yakob and his brother off in frenzy of work: changing the truck batteries and checking the wiring, Picture_018
carrying bee boxes twice their size, bringing in enough firewood to make a bonfire for days.  By the “3 minutes to dinner” warning, they had already done more work than their hired hands did in a day.  When “dinner” was called out, Yakob came flying toward the eating/sleeping tent, dipped a rag in water, wrapped it around the blazing hot chimney of the metal stove, grabbed the rag and the stove’s door handle, and ran maniacally into the tent. With the stove for warmth, we all sat for dinner.  This was our routine for the next three nights.

That first night we helped extract honey from the comb.  Those not genetically related to Yakob struggled to keep up.  Even the fasting of Ramadan failed to slow them down.  They had the energy of busy bees. It was fun until we realized there were two stacks of a honeycomb trays and hours of work to be done.  Now that’s what we call a sticky situation!

The next morning, we each headed up different rivers to scout.  The real motivation was to find a nice, secluded spot to nap.  We reconvened in time for dinner and loaded the hive boxes into an empty coal truck for their night journey to their winter home.

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Simon and Middy’s scouting produced only badgers, bear foot-prints, and the coal mine.  Andrew came back with a report of a small river with narrow canyons filled with whitewater and runnable glaciers.  We grumbled and prepared for an epic day when Yakob told us the river’s name- Piozi.

By 8am our gear was stashed and we were headed upriver.  The carry was only a few hours of thorny misery, and there was little evidence of the onions that give it its name (‘Zweite Zweibel’ if you like). The whitewater began without hesitation.  We flew through a couple drops, then jammed ourselves into piles of rocks along the shore to scout a rapid and route of egress before the first glacier.  Three moves were required to get into the final eddy on the river left before the black mouth of the glacier accepted the water tumbling downstream.  First, small waves and a hole to punch while fading right.  Then hop left onto a sheet of current flowing to a horizon line in the middle.  Third, deal with whatever that horizon line was concealing.  Middy went first and kindly made clear a hidden rock in the first hole by rattling into it.  He hopped the sheet of current but was sent into a backender at the bottom of that horizon line.  Scrambling to bring the boat down, he back- ferried with vigor to make the eddy.  Andrew and Simon took note and followed smoothly.

Fun boulder gardens led us to the second glacier.  Andrew’s thorough inspection the day before confirmed what Simon and Middy had a very hard time believing: it was runnable.  Ducking into a glacial tunnel is like running with flaming scissors on a pool deck; it is everything you are told noPicture_023
t to do.  There was a small pour-over under the glacier, but mostly we stared at the icy underbelly as we floated through.

The river entered a canyon, and we found ourselves looking into the 3rd glacier.  Andrew and Middy hung in eddies above while Simon climbed downstream.  The decision was made through shouts and hand-signals for Andrew to paddle right onto rocks, where Simon could catch him if there was a problem.  Andrew charged hard but couldn’t see the rocks that prevented him from making it.  Simon’s quick motions resulted in netting the catch of the day.  He grabbed Andrew’s boat and hoisted Andrew, boat and all around a boulder to safety.  We were all scared by the close call.  After much analysis, Simon and Middy got out on a small rock pile on the left, hoping it didn’t slide into the river and send them under the glacier.

Big, open drops in a deep canyon followed.  The drop Andrew had most been concerned with after his hike was actually a fun slide and waves.  The fourth glacier stretched from the river- right down to water level but left a nice window along the river- left free of ice.  We proceeded under its second half with the uneasy feeling of directly contradicting instinct and instruction.

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The river opened up, and the sun warmed us as we floated through easy riffles back to an afternoon siesta.  That night we dined with Yakob and crew one last time, exchanged addresses and presents, and said good-bye.

In the morning we started down the Yarkitch.  It was at first easy and meandering- a wide valley and rock gardens.  Presently carefree times came to an end in the form of a triple drop with bad hole, then a long rapid formed by the detritus of a mudslide creek.  It was mostly a test of memory- recalling dozens of small, donkey-punchy drops in fast sequence before being spat from our cowardly entrance line into the main flow and avoiding a large hole.  The rapid went on and on after that, but in a mellower mood, then gave way to more malicious whitewater.

While impatient Tajik soldiers on the ridge across the river gestured for us to ‘just, like, go already,’ we bushwhacked through sharp plants to scout, portage, scout more, and nearly portage again before deciding, incorrectly, that we could probably run it just fine.  The first drop was a left-to-right move that stuffed Middy, and especially Andrew, when they tried to run it from the river- right eddy at the lip.  It was followed by a massive, river- wide hole that could be boofed at a shallow point just left of center.  After that was a last- chance eddy followed by a seriously last- chance eddy, which we all thankfully caught.

There was a short carry from there, but then we ran everything else that afternoon, which amounted to 300 meters of whitewater before we reached a steep, narrow canyon.  We hauled the boats out and camped in a pretty field on the canyon’s edge.  There we cooked our bland food for dinner and again for breakfast.  We scouted the length of the canyon that morning.  The first rapid was the toughest: a boof left, then crashing things and boils pushing right.  Next there was a hole of indeterminate stickiness against the left wall.  We punched that, running a slot between the wall and a huge boulder.  Then the river turned left and a straightaway of holes and breaking waves commenced between high, canyon walls.  These needed dodging, and there were a few important moves to get out of the gorge, but honestly, it’s all pretty fuzzy, locked inside our brains in the file ‘canyon fear,’ every single memory of which will be recalled in a torrent, each perfectly preserved, the next time one of us finds himself alone in a class V canyon.

Below the canyon was more great whitewater, then the confluence with a river that’s hard to pronounce.  While Middy went shopping in Tajikabad (mark how much food shopping takes place over the next two days), Simon and Andrew scouted the tributary.  They hoofed it for hours, across both dale and glen, finding only one short, worthwhile feature- a narrow, overhung, canyon with class III whitewater inside.  This we all ran the next morning prior to heading downstream on the Surkhob towards the next destination.

In the town of Garm, we bought some food, tried and failed to make phone calls, returned in the morning, still couldn’t, and bought more food.  From Garm, it was a short, whirlpooly paddle through composite rock- dirt gorges to the town of Novabad.  There, we immediately went in search of food, then began our third and last journey of exploration.

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Yes, it’s been some time since you’ve had to interrupt your day to wade through our juvenile musings on traveling in Tajikistan.  The biggest occasion of the last month was the purchase and subsequently constant sporting of plaid man-suits.  Dushanbe has surely never seen such fashionable swagger.   We also paddled some rivers.  Since we’re currently stuck in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, awaiting visa renewal, it’s been decided to send out three shorter river reports over the next week, which will be entitled 4a, 4b, and 4c and should be filed thusly in your email inbox.

Our plan was to explore the rivers that drain south and east into the massive Surkhob River, which flows Picture_002
across central Tajikistan.  About these runs little could be discovered except what we saw on topo maps.  The maps depicted rivers, dropping out of high glaciers through narrow valleys.   Sure, roads were largely absent, but what did that matter?  We were on to something.  The first basin to explore was near the town of Djirgatal by the Kyrgyz border (not across any borders this time, you’ll be glad to hear).    The drive there took all of an uncomfortable day, made tolerable by a cool driver and outstanding scenery.   The driver dropped us off after dark at the Djirgatal airport, on the front lawn of which we could camp without being disturbed.  Almost immediately, however, the police found us and made Andrew come with them to the station with our passports.   Andrew wasn’t totally keen on the idea, but when he got to the station, it turned out to be a jovial place, full of laughter and practical joking.  They asked the standard questions (why are you here?  which country is better, America or Tajikistan? etc) and let him go.

The airport was a great place to stay.   The caretaker let us lock our stuff in the building and occasionally drank tea with us under the trees outside.  The first morning there, a driver with a beroof-racked Niva Picture_003
found us and drove us upriver for our first mission: scouting.   Andrew was dropped off first, to have a look at the tiny Piozi River.  He walked all morning along a low-angle pile-driver of a river until his turn- around time at 3PM.   Having lost the path, but wanting to establish with certainty how much the Piozi sucked, he climbed a ways out of the gorge and beheld an awesome class V straightaway coming out of a narrow, mysterious canyon.   The river dropped through six tight, bedrock rapids, including a 15 footer, then disappeared under ice.  And with that sight, a fantastically arduous day paddling the Piozi was suddenly in the offing.

Simon was tasked with scouting the Tandykul River.   Driving along it, he saw some class III-IV and several gorgeous (“emphasis on the gorge, not on us”- Hoke) short canyons.  Sadly, at the top of the road, they were turned back by a Tajik army post.   Further investigation barred, Simon joined Middy to scout
the parallel Ptovkul River.  There they were dropped off where the road vanishes 10 miles upstream of the Ptovkul-Tandykul confluence.  They hiked up from there all day, seeing a handful of fun drops and a Kamaz-full of continuous, rocky class IV+.   They camped way up in the valley and walked the 20 miles back to the airport in the morning.  That evening it was agreed that, despite the pain involved, the Ptovkul would also have to be run.

For our second mission, we tackled the Piozi.   Sometimes, it’s rewarding to formulate a plan, and then Picture_005
execute that plan with a certain tactical precision.  Usually, though, it’s more fun to formulate a plan, and then forsake precision for a marginal semblance.   So it was with our descent of the Piozi.

Our plan:
6 am: Depart airport
7 am: Begin hike
11 am: Arrive at put-in and descend upper canyon
12 am: Extended siesta to wait for afternoon glacial meltwater
2 pm: Descend lower-river to airport take-out
5 pm:  Arrive at take-out
5:30 pm: Arrive at airport proper.

Our execution:
6:15 am: Our driver arrived and we loaded boats quickly, making a sharp getaway.
7:30 am:  We reached the terminus of the road, 2 km or so further than we expected thanks to Russian automotive excellence and skillful driving.  We rigged up our webbing boat-backpacks, and started trundling up the valley at river level. Slowly to be sure, we made steady progress.
9:30 am: We reached the confluence of a small, but distinct tributary, and had a rest.   A man passing by on a donkey gave us 1.5 liters of yoghurt in a soft-drink bottle.  We stashed in the river, to be picked up upon return.  2 km further up the valley, we reached the end of the easy walking.  From here, the trail Picture_009
climbed more or less straight up the side of the valley before resuming its upstream progress in a rolling traverse.   The walking pace slowed, and the frequency of our rest stops increased.
1 pm: We reached the downstream edge of the canyon Andrew scouted.
1:15 pm: We went a little further and saw that a fourth glacier, as yet unseen, swallows the river mid-canyon.   Unlike the other glacier fragments, which are in a wider valley bottom, this one looks to be possibly unportagable.
2:30 pm: Still high above the river on the traversing trail, we reached the downstream edge of the glacier, and dropped the boats to scout.   An extended scout revealed that the glacier was, indeed, unportagable, but we did find a feasible access to the river just below the icy obstruction.
2:45 pm:  We dragged our boats downhill until the slope became too steep, and then lowered them in 2 pitches onto the very ice that deterred our paddling.
3:45 pm: Walking cautiously across the ice, we finally arrived at our put in for the day:   a narrow canyon with churning grey water from the cavernous mouth of the glacier.  We suited up, wary of the time and rising water levels, but not wanting to make any mistakes due to haste.
4 pm: Andrew seal launched 10′ into the gorge, and ran the 200 yards or so to the first corner. Simon and Middy followed shortly thereafter, and ran the 6’ledge on the corner somewhat hideously.   The silty water belied its depth, and they both bottomed out on the launching pad, dropping over the ledge haphazardly.  Another 30 yards and the river tumbled around another bend; this one was nasty.   The water dropped through a hole against an undercut and overhung left wall, with a piton rock blocking the right side.  Unfortunately, the only portage was across the river, and no eddy there was suitable for a Picture_010
boat.   With an upstream belay from Middy, Simon stepped out on to the rocks, and then took a cautious step into the boily eddy, before spring out into the narrow but swift current. With a couple of frantic free-style strokes, Simon grabbed the rocks on the other side safely, if not gracefully.   We lined the boats across, and Middy and Andrew took the same icy plunge, belayed by Simon across the river.
5 pm: From here, our luck changed.  We reached the marveled section that Andrew had seen on his scout.   This is what we were here for.  A clean right channel dropped 4′, then squeezed down a narrow chute on the left. A few seconds to recover, before the another narrow slide with a big pillow off the right wall.   Next, the piece de resistance:  a beautiful 15 footer, into a boily, mist sprayed pool.  The exit from the pool, and canyon, was via a pushy double S-bend.   For a few brief moments, particularly in free-fall, we forgot about the pain of the portage, the icy swim, or the impending darkness.  Emerging from the canyon though, the sight of the 1 st of 3 must-portage glaciers renewed our sense of urgency.
5:30 pm: After carrying over top of the glacier, we found the nature of the river changed considerably.   Steeply tilted, the river bed was comprised mostly of small and medium sized boulders that provided ample opportunity for some bone-jarring boat abuse.   There weren’t many eddies, but it didn’t matter; we only stopped to pick up our yoghurt.
6:15 pm: We crossed the second glacier as we did the first, and paddled downstream in much the same temperament.
7:00 pm: Above the last glacier, the river steepened slightly, and a good boof came in handy.   Crossing this last ice-bridge, we were practically in a run.  Passing the last terminal obstacle was of some relief as the darkness rapidly enveloped us, but the 7 miles of ensuing class II-III was still some of the most intense whitewater we’ve paddled.
8:00 pm: We reached the confluence of the Tandykul, and the Ptovkul shortly thereafter.   In the darkness, we navigated the river by sounds and shifting shapes in the nebulous night.  The volume of the river (no pun intended) sounded imposing, but the river bed was gentle and braided.   Still, it was hard not to be on edge, fearing an unseen wire, pipe, or rebar wreckage.  A few times, we played impromptu games of Marco Polo when one of us would get separated down a different channel.
9:00 pm: By now, we figured we were in the vicinity of the airport, so we stopped paddling, and climbed up the steep embankment.   What lay before us was a vast plateau of corn and potato fields, beyond which somewhere lay the airport.  Finding a route through the maze of fields, roads, and irrigation ditches was tricky and often painful, especially without an obvious landmark to steer towards.
10 pm: Eventually though, we crossed the landing strip, and made it back to our base, exhausted.

Having not seen us the night before, our driver came the next morning at 6 am again.   Fortunately, he was agreeable to heading up the Tandykul a little later, so we passed out for another couple of hours.  By 10:00 am, we were suited up and ready to paddle.   Our driver had dropped us off just upstream of some Picture_011
tempting hot-springs.  The army had spared us a walk-in by denying us access any further upstream; we didn’t argue hard.   The gradient of the Tandykul is pretty mild, but what she lacks in adrenaline pumping whitewater, she makes up for in scenic beauty.  In other words, it was perfect river for the day after tackling the Piozi.   The Tandykul cuts its way through a series of narrow canyons, with 100+ foot walls and swirling currents.  We stopped at a beach to relax, and scout a side-canyon that had some interesting drops, interspersed with some slightly nastier rocky sections.   Runnable, we concluded in the end, but not by us today, so we headed downstream.  We passed the confluence with the Piozi at a much more reasonable 2 pm.

We were all still fairly beat from the Piozi the next morning when we took off for the Ptovkul.   Our driver and his fishing assistant parked the car, and we started hiking our boats and gear upriver.  Although frequently waylaid by yogurt-proffering yurtsmen, we managed five km before fatigue and cold virus stopped us for the day.

We were presently invited by this kid to tea at his family’s yurt.   He spoke only Kyrgyz and rudimentary Tajik, but Middy managed mostly to keep the conversation going over the next four hours.  Tea gave way to grease soup, goat ribs, and, as inexorably happens in these situations, after- dinner camel rides.   Picture_004_2
Camels are huge, much taller than horses, but with a little septum prodding, you can get them to kneel.  When they stand, there is a frightening forward jolt, so it’s helpful to be securely jammed between humps with a fistful of dusty fur in preparation.   We each got a ride around the family’s camp, then bid them all good-night.

We carried in the morning through the center of the sun to the top of the hard whitewater.   The water was no joke.  In fact, we portaged back downstream past the first stretch of gnar before putting in above a fun, bedrock rapid.   Below this, there was an almost- clean double drop in a miniature canyon.  The water hustled through a chute and dropped nine feet, more vertical on the right, more hole on the left.   Then, after 40 feet of fast current, it squeezed between walls and dropped another eight feet, creating a big boil off the right wall but little in the way of a hole.

Middy and Simon ran it nicely.   Andrew spun out at the lip of the first drop, ran it backwards, and pinned to the bottom of the river, a hefty share of the who’s 1200 cfs  was pouring onto his skirt.   The force of the current eventually pushed him off, and he managed to get his skirt back on in time to run the second drop with a boat- full of water.

After this drop, and one more clean one below, were miles of eddyless, bouldery rapids.   They were the worst kind of piton-in-every-wave, non- stop dropping.  We ran most of it, boat scouting more than we should have.   Simon flipped at one point mid-chaos and cut up some knuckles but somehow rolled up with his upper body in place.  We all portaged one long, disorderly section in the company of herdsmen, who figures out how to change the angle on our paddles and nearly did Middy and Andrew in.   The river rose with the long, slow hours, and at the end of the day, we were squinting into the sun reflecting on 1500 cfs of chaotic, brown water.  We pulled off seconds before sunset.

In the morning we paddled a few last miles of class IV, followed by fifteen easy miles into Djirgatal.   Functioning on a marginally conscious level, we ate the afternoon away under the airport trees.

The following day we said good-bye to our driver and received surprise hugs from the airport caretaker, who was overcome emotionally by our gift of 50 somoni (like, $15).   We packed all our stuff into the boats, paddled the last of the Koksu, and turned right on the Surkhob River Superhighway.  Drifting along at 12-15 km/hr, conversation turned to the Muksu, which river’s high Pamiri glacier supplies most of the Surkhob’s 7000 cfs.   We all agreed that paddling the Muksu at the latest- possible, miserable, deep- freeze date was preferable if it meant less water pumping through those canyons.

In late morning, we got to Khoit, the second valley of our mid- Tajikistan journey..

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