PAMIR HIGHWAY/WAKHAN VALLEY ROUTE PART 8: VRANG, TAJIKISTAN – APRICOT GROVES AND A MYSTERIOUS ZIGGURAT
A gang of boys, age five to ten, each holding onto as many apricots as their little hands can carry, waits for us beside the road as we exit the car. We’re wordlessly offered the fuzzy yellow fruit – the apricots are noticeably smaller than you’d find in a western supermarket – then we are taken in hand and led along the raised, hard-baked edge of an irrigation channel. We skirt around bucolic Vrang, the tiny oasis town shielded from view from this angle by tall stone walls and dense apricot groves. A dusty ridge directly above town is our goal.
I let myself be led along by a five-year-old boy for about a hundred metres before using a bend in the path as an excuse to reclaim my hand; Ami does likewise. They’re cute kids but the cynic in me says if we let this continue they’ll ask for money for having acted as our guides. I’m not a fan of these unsolicited money grabs in general, and I don’t like to see kids used this way. I’m all too aware of the inequity of our positions though, and I begrudge no one for trying to hustle me out of a few dollars. Jaan keeps hold of his child guide’s hand. He’s a compassionate soul; much more compassionate than I.
We pass from one irrigation channel to another, zigzagging our way towards the toe of the mountain – a mountain so vast we can make out only its lowermost slopes, like an ant that can make out just the hoof of the towering giraffe. A few steps up the mountain slope and we are immersed in the arid alpine zone; the fertile valley floor a distant memory. The track switches back and forth, we climb to the dusty ridge we spotted from below, the kids still in tow.
A five-tiered pyramid sits at the edge of the ridge. It’s a stumpy structure; not all that large, and made of the same rock material as the mountains themselves.
What is this thing?
And what is it doing here, in the Wakhan Valley, in the GBAO region of Tajikistan?
Those are good questions; unfortunately there are no reliable answers.
There are some who say it is a Buddhist stupa, and there are others who say it is a Zoroastrian fire temple. Both religions were active here at various points in time, so it’s possible that one of these claims could indeed be correct. But if it’s a Buddhist stupa then it’s an extremely unusual Buddhist stupa, and if it’s a Zoroastrian fire temple, then it’s an extremely unusual Zoroastrian fire temple. Both answers are guesses; both are speculation.
How old is the ziggurat?
Might as well ask the wind.
‘Money,’ one of the boys yells out as we begin our descent back to Vrang.
‘No,’ I say automatically.
‘Skol’ko?’ Jaan asks.
‘Twenty dollar,’ Jaan’s boy replies. Where did he learn English numerals, I wonder?
‘Don’t give them money.’ Ami is walking between Jaan and I. We’ve both had this discussion with Jaan before. ‘It reinforces all the wrong values,’ Ami adds.
‘Money.’ The boy who was originally grasping my hand is back by my side. He snatches up my hand again.
‘No, no, no,’ I say, trying to sound pleasant but firm.
‘Dva dollar,’ he says (two dollars). The price has dropped.
I see Jaan hand over some money; the kids scatter.
‘How much did you give,’ Ami asks, frowning.
‘Doesn’t matter; not much.’ Jaan starts walking away, smiling to himself.
‘It fosters a hand out culture,’ I say, even though I know Jaan doesn’t agree with me, ‘and teaches the parents they can use their kids to scam money from tourists.’ Ami and I feel similarly on this issue; Jaan takes a completely separate stance.
‘How else are they going to get money,’ Jaan replies. ‘Out here?’
He gestures to the lush greenery that is the Wakhan Valley, and beyond, to the Panj River (the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan) and the barren Hindu Kush mountain range.
I can think of no answer.
We cross a larger-than-average irrigation ditch via an old car chassis some thoughtful villager has placed across the waterway. I’m ceaselessly amazed by the ingenuity of the irrigation / water diversion practices of these remote Tajik villages. The water that spills out the ravine next to the village is immediately siphoned off into a network of channels that flow around and through the village, reaching every home, field, and orchard. The irrigation ditches that lead to the fields and orchards are opened and closed as needed. Usually just a few shovelfuls of dirt is all that is required to block a channel; a minute on the end of a mattock all that is required to open the channel back up again.
Vrang is a picturesque, leafy town. We amble silently along the narrow lanes, passing ancient-yet-well-maintained Ladas, peeking into backyards and admiring the micro-orchards we see within. We cross yet more irrigation channels, the ice-cold mountain water burbling merrily as it makes its way through town.
Vrang is not all that large though, and before we know it we are back on the dusty Wakhan Valley Road.
Our exploration of the little town over, we pile back into the car.
‘There was something especially charming about Vrang,’ Ami notes, as we putter along the highway.
Jaan and I nod our heads.
Practical information and how to reach Vrang:
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 option, 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.