PAMIR HIGHWAY/WAKHAN VALLEY ROUTE PART 9: YAMCHUN FORTRESS & BIBI FATIMA HOT SPRINGS, TAJIKISTAN
A ravine; deep, steep-sided, narrow, wind gusting through. A little concrete bridge balances over the chasm; a torrent, roaring angrily, gushes just metres below. Also spanning the precipice: a rough-and-ready concrete building of obscure use. It sits just upriver of the bridge. Recessed into the cliff wall, on the far side of the bridge, is a small stone building, with foundations that extend down to the raging torrent below. Apart from the bridge, the two buildings, and the stairs and grandly edged path that brought me here, all else is natural, untouched by human hands. This is a remote part of Tajikistan, a remote part of the world.
We’re way up in the mountains here; the Wakhan Valley lies far below. Looking down the ravine I can make out the wide, rocky, valley bottom; the Panj River, a hundred metres wide at this point, making its way slowly down the valley. On the far side: scree slopes, leading to bare, craggy foothills; above that: distant snow-capped peaks. The snowy peaks look only a little larger than the foothills that lie below them, but it is an optical illusion. The peaks are part of the Hindu Kush mountain range (a name that means: the Killer of Hindus); the nearest summits, situated in Afghanistan (the Panj River marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan), with just a smattering of snow on their upper flanks, are in the 4000m to 5000m range; the more distant peaks, situated in Pakistan (Afghanistan is less than fifteen kilometres wide at this point), the peaks that can be seen lying beneath a rather serious application of snow and ice, are 7000m plus.
Bibi Fatima Hot Springs
I return my attention to the two small buildings recessed into the ravine. They are so impractical and difficult to access they could be mistaken for monk’s hermitages; except monks usually go for minimalist structures, and these blocky things are big and heavy. No monk would live in such a place. These buildings contain the Bibi Fatima Hot Springs. The concrete cube poised over the river contains the women’s hot springs; the stone building contains the men’s. I walk towards the men’s springs. The two guys I am with, Dainéal and Jaan, take a moment longer on the bridge, before turning to follow me. I push open the door and… stop short. I’m confused, seriously confused. Time slows down for moment. Before me stands a young girl, in her early teens, and a small boy, about five years old. Both are completely naked.
Time speeds up again. I let the door swing shut.
‘I thought you said this was the men’s!’ I exclaim, looking at Dainéal. He’s the one who directed me here.
‘It is. Why?’ Dainéal is speaking earnestly. I can’t detect any signs of a prank being played out. Perhaps I am overreacting? Perhaps children bathe with adults in Tajikistan all the time? Just because it is a Muslim country doesn’t mean they can’t take a relaxed attitude to nudity and public bathing, right? I remember being taken aback when, on Parangtritis Beach, on the south coast of Java (Indonesia), I noticed several ten-year girls frolicking about naked. The girls were just being girls, having a great time in the water. When their parents told them it was time to head home, they grabbed their clothes, pulling on dresses that covered them from head-to-toe; a simple, practical hijab sliding into place to hide their hair. None of the locals seemed at all fazed by the occurrence. I remember reminding myself at the time that western countries can be quite prudish in some ways, and public nudity is one of them. Perhaps I’m being prudish again? I’m in a remote part of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan. I have little understanding of the cultures of this region, and zero understanding of their approach to nudity and public bathing. Perhaps this sort of thing is completely fine here?
‘There’s a naked girl in there.’
‘Whaaaaat?’ Dainéal splutters, clearly flabbergasted at the news.
‘But this is where your man at the gate sent me.’ Dainéal is Irish, from the west coast. ‘How old do ye mean?’ he adds. ‘It’s not just wee girls you’re talking about, is it?’
‘It’s just one girl. Maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. And a little boy.’
‘Well… do ye… I don’t know… don’t worry, here comes your man now.’ Dainéal points to the aging gatekeeper who is limping towards us. He motions to the man, waving at him, calling him over.
The gatekeeper, confused by our being bunched around the closed door, urges us to open the door and enter the baths. He continues to walk towards us.
‘Nyet, nyet.’ Dainéal shakes his head. ‘Nyet, nyet,’ he repeats, more loudly, perceiving that the man is about to push past and open the door.
The gatekeeper strides past, taking no notice of Dainéal’s protestations, and yanks on the handle. He stops short, as I did just a few moments earlier. I take it, from his actions, that the naked girl is a surprise guest, an unwelcome one. A volley of what sounds like abuse spurts from the gatekeeper’s mouth. He shouts at the girl, ordering her out. The girl yells an appeal. The gatekeeper backs away, letting the door swing closed.
‘Adeen minut.’ He points a finger at the door, then wags the finger back and forth disapprovingly. He ushers us away from the door.
We catch his drift, and retreat to the far side of the bridge while we wait for the girl to get dressed and exit the hot springs. She appears a moment later, dressed in a bright pink tunic of a light, silky material that covers her from head to toe. A scarf patterned with a leopard skin print has been pulled over her head; a thin, purple veil pulled over her face, covering all but her eyes. She skulks past, dragging the small boy behind her.
We enter the springs. There is a small antechamber, in which to get changed, and, below that, the main pool. The pool water is about nine parts cool river water, and one only part naturally heated aquifer water, but it is still uncomfortably hot and difficult to enter. I slowly, cautiously, make my way to the far side of the pool, before quickly dunking myself up to the neck. Better to get it over with in one quick movement. The warmth seeps into my skin, into my muscles, my bones.
Dainéal and Jaan slide into the pool, each exhibiting pained expressions as they enter the steaming hot water. I’m suddenly reminded – stricken with the thought – that none of us have showered in days. The villages we have been staying in haven’t been equipped with shower facilities. It’s not the way they do things here. Here they wash themselves in hot springs, like this one. This is essentially a giant, communal bath. Luckily the pool is continuously refreshed with clean water from the river, otherwise it would get pretty grotty pretty fast.
When I get out of the water, twenty minutes later, my legs feel weak, drained of energy. It’s a slow stagger to the small, dusty car park that services the springs.
A kilometre down the road (the roads of the GBAO region of Tajikistan are ubiquitously spectacular, but they are also quite terrifying, especially to an engineer, as they are hand-built, using nothing but shovels and hoes, and positioned on the edge of sheer cliffs), while still high up in the mountains above the Wakhan Valley, we pull over to admire the decaying ruins of Zamr-I Atish Parast, also known as Yamchun Fortress. Built on a narrow spur of rock that juts out and up from the mountain, with just a single bridge connection, Yamchun fortress would once have been all but impenetrable. Now, with the bridge long gone, crumbled to dust, the fort is all but inaccessible.
There is little information to be found on Yamchun Fortress. The original fort may date as far back as the 2nd Century BCE; there is speculation it was occupied by early Zoroastrians, and that it contained a fire-worshipping temple. The fortifications that can be seen today, the arrow-slit ridden turrets, the watch-towers, the bastions, are from a much newer incarnation, built between the 10th and 12th Century CE. Yamchun Fortress, the mightiest of all the forts in the Wakhan, was built to protect its inhabitants from warring neighbours and opportunistic raiders – the Wakhan Valley was an arm of the Silk Road, connecting the Pamirs and western China, with Bactria, India, and Persia. Marco Polo passed through the Wakhan corridor circa 1271 on his trip to meet Kublai Khan.
Yamchun Fortress is built from stone and soft clay mortar, and positioned atop a crumbling, highly erosive, rocky spur. The years haven’t been kind to the fort. The rocky spur it sits on has eroded and broken away, bit by bit; Yumchan Fortress is slowly disintegrating, slowly falling apart. The region is also highly prone to earthquakes, and landslides. It’s a surprise the fortress has lasted this long. I don’t like its chances either. I feel very fortunate to be seeing it now.
Dainéal, Jaan, and I sit on a rocky platform above Yamchun Fortress, each lost in our thoughts, taking a moment to absorb our sublime surroundings.
We are still in this pose when I become aware of a herd of sheep, making their way along the narrow mountain road. There are about fifty or so sheep in total, baaing frequently as they trot along, the little bells around their necks jingling softly as they move. Then they are gone. Coming up behind them, switch in hand, is a young shepherdess will a familiar leopard skin print scarf pulled over her hair.
Practical information and how to reach Yamchun Fortress:
The Pamir Highway / Wakhan Valley is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, in particular cyclists, and deservedly so. Tourism in the region is still in its most nascent of stages though, so don’t arrive ill-prepared.
A basic level of Russian is highly recommended (it isn’t the local tongue but it is a handy second language spoken by a reasonable proportion of the population). There is no public transport, although you may be lucky and find a share taxi going in the direction you’re headed. Otherwise you’ll have to arrange your own transportation.
More transport info here.