Silk Road 20: Langar, Bulunkul Tajikistan; Sept 2019

By Ali Karim
This post is part of a series called Silk Road Tajikistan Sept-Oct 2019
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After the long ride through the high desert of the Eastern Pamir mountains the previous day, we slept well and comfortably. Sher’s House Inn was recently built and so was modernish and comfortable; beds, heating, hot showers, etc. The only drawback was that the bathroom was outside, even though it was a western flush toilet. The next morning, after breakfast, Sher (son of the owner of Sher’s House Inn) told us more about Alichur; a stopover on the old Silk Road before Bulunkul.

Langar, Tajikistan, Sher’s House Inn in Alichur
Sher’s House Inn in Alichur

Alichur is a jamoat (municipality) and town in Murghob District, GBAO, Tajikistan. The population of the jamoat is about 2,000. The name of the town means Ali’s curse and is reputed to have been spoken by the prophet’s son-in-law Ali on a journey through the area, on account of the harsh climate and penetrating winds there. The town itself is small, flat, barren and totally devoid of any vegetation. No trees because it is above the treeline at 3991m or 13,100ft altitude. The population is 75% Kyrgyz and 25% Pamiri (Ismaili’s). Sher said he knew some Pamiri’s and took us to meet the Khalifa. He asked a few Pamiri’s about the Khalifa, and they informed him that the Khalifa had left for Murghab for a visit. The other Pamiri’s invited us to their home for tea, but since we had just had breakfast, we politely declined, and went back to Sher’s Guest house to pack up and leave.

We gave the hitchhiker couple from the previous night a ride, and went west (right) off the main M41 Pamir Highway, on a dirt track to Bulunkul and Yashikul, a couple of lakes & village about 20kms away. Some scenes along the way.

Langar, Tajikistan, Yaks grazing on the plains in the shadows of the mountains
Yaks grazing on the plains in the shadows of the mountains
Langar, Tajikistan, Interesting eroded mountain landscape
Interesting eroded mountain landscape
Langar, Tajikistan, Soon we arrived at Bulunkul; a small freshwater lake that was stocked with carp fish during the Soviet times.
Soon we arrived at Bulunkul; a small freshwater lake that was stocked with carp fish during the Soviet times, to try start an industry here. Unfortunately, it failed.
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The entry way to the park is financed by USAID and AKDN

After a brief stop here in this “moon-landscape”, we carried onto Yashikul, another lake about 2kms further. This was a National Park, and we were supposed to pay a fee, but since there was nobody at the “gate” to take the fee, we simply drove on

Langar, Tajikistan, Entrance to Park to get to Yashikul; it was not manned
Entrance to Park to get to Yashikul; it was not manned
Langar, Tajikistan, Closer look at the sign at the entrance; this Entryway was financed and set up by USAID and AKDN
Closer look at the sign at the entrance; this Entryway was financed and set up by USAID and AKDN
Langar, Tajikistan, Yashikul lake road and landscape. The road led to another very remote small village
Yashikul lake road and landscape. The road led to another very remote small village
Langar, Tajikistan, Beautiful Yashikul, and reflection of the mountain
Beautiful Yashikul, and reflection of the mountain on the lake effectively washing it out

Yashilkul (Yashi kul translates as ‘green lake’ from Turkic) is named so after the color of its water. It is much larger than Lake Bulunkul and ranks as one of the Pamirs’ most beautiful lakes. The lake formed many hundreds years ago, when a strong earthquake caused a landslide that blocked the Alichur River. The water from the lake flows over the dam’s southern extremity to give birth to the Gunt River, which in some 200 km distance confluences with the Panj river, near the city of Khorog.

This was where we dropped off the hitchhiking couple, and after admiring the beauty of raw nature here, we headed back to Bulunkul village.

Langar, Tajikistan, Bulunkul Village, in the middle of nowhere
Bulunkul Village, in the middle of nowhere

View of the moonscape here

Nestled here, in a plateau in the center of the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, more than 12,500ft (3,800m) above sea level, there are a small cluster of houses of Bulunkul village. These houses, home to 46 families, of which 45 are Pamiri’s (Ismaili’s) & 1 Kyrgyz family. So effectively a 98% Pamiri (Ismaili) village. Bulunkul has the dubious honor of being affectionately known as Central Asia’s coldest town, a place where temperatures as low as -81°F (-63°C) have been recorded, without taking wind into account.

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The moonscape is spectacular and a must visit.

In Bulunkul there is one school, one shop, and one medical station for emergencies. And although there are 46 families, there is really just one family. Otherwise, they cannot survive. Their main source of life is their yaks; which provide them milk, milk products, meat, heat from dried dung, and warmth from its wool. I just cannot imagine how people can live life here in such a harsh environment.

We met Afzal at the entrance to the village and asked through our guide Sherali, to take us to the school here, and he kindly obliged.

Langar, Tajikistan, Afzal took us this this building which was the school
Afzal took us this this building which was the school
Langar, Tajikistan, Signage at school entrance
Signage at school entrance

Inside the school, we were welcomed by the staff; it was lunchtime, and the kids were eating lunch. Some images in the school

Langar, Tajikistan, Grade 1 class
Grade 1 class
Langar, Tajikistan, Kindergarten class
Kindergarten class
Langar, Tajikistan, 18 kids in the school and 4 staff. The UN World Food Program was supporting the parents to provide daily balanced meals for lunches.
18 kids in the school and 4 staff. The UN World Food Program was supporting the parents to provide daily balanced meals for lunches.
Langar, Tajikistan, Older grades
Older grades
Langar, Tajikistan, The red bucket had Apricot soup for lunch
The red bucket had Apricot soup for lunch

A video in the classrooms

The staff here spoke very little English, and the children spoke no English. This is a school for kindergarten to Grade 4. For kids to go to higher grades, they have to go to boarding school in Khorog or Rushan, larger towns in GBAO. We went outside and said our goodbye’s to the schoolchildren and the staff.

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There is no Cellphone or internet service in the area

This nice little village of Bulunkul had wooden poles here, that used to carry electricity and telephone service; but have been unused for many years now. Power now comes from solar panels. There is no cellphone or internet service here; just like in all the Pamirs. Life cannot be easy here, yet the locals appeared content, happy. We have had no cellphone or internet service since we left Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Langar, Tajikistan, Bulunkul village
Bulunkul village
Langar, Tajikistan, The poles used to carry electricity and telephone service, but now are unused.
The poles used to carry electricity and telephone service, but now are unused. Note the solar panels

We left Bulunkul, to join the Pamir highway, further south from where we had exited it to drive to Bulunkul. Some scenes along the way below

Langar, Tajikistan, Road from Bulunkul back to the Pamir highway; unused electricity/telephone poles still standing
Road from Bulunkul back to the Pamir highway; unused electricity/telephone poles still standing

Drive with us & check out this moonscape

Langar, Tajikistan, Vast desert high altitude plain
Vast desert high altitude plain

360 degree views

We stopped for a picnic lunch at Chukur kul (deep lake); and had tea, sandwich and biscuits that Shearali had brought from Sher’s House Inn in Alichur that morning.

Langar, Tajikistan, Admiring the view at Chukur kul lake and stretching our legs with a short hike at 4000m (13,100ft)
Admiring the view at Chukur kul lake and stretching our legs with a short hike at 4000m (13,100ft)
Langar, Tajikistan, Rest
Tailgate picnic at Chukur kul
Langar, Tajikistan, At Kargush Pass (Pereval Kargush, 4300m (14,100ft)); bikers heading north towards Alichur. We were heading south to the Wakhan corridor and the snow capped Pamir peaks in Afghanistan
At Kargush Pass (Pereval Kargush, 4300m (14,100ft)) on M41; bikers heading north towards Alichur. We were heading south on this Pamir highway to the Wakhan corridor and the snow capped Pamir peaks in Afghanistan that can be seen in the background
Langar, Tajikistan, Lake Khargush (Osero Kargush) had a strange green color; algae? Note the moon
Lake Khargush (Osero Kargush) had a strange green color; algae? Note the moon

Soon, we arrived at Khargush military checkpoint, where our passports and visa’s were checked. No photo’s here 🙁 . And finally we arrived at the Panj river, a major tributary of the Amu Dariya river. The Panj river runs west and forms a considerable part of the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan; and is turquoise in color. At this point, the altitude had reduced slightly to 3,900m (12,800ft), and the weather had warmed up a little. By this time, we had adjusted to the high altitude, and felt no altitude sickness any more.

Langar, Tajikistan, Our road meets the Panj river at Khargush. Afghanistan is on the opposite side.
Our road meets the Panj river at Khargush. Afghanistan is on the other side.

We were now driving westwards towards Langar, the next village we were due to overnight at. The road ran along the Panj river, so we had Tajikistan on our right, and Afghanistan across the Panj river on our left all the way till Khorog and beyond. Sherali told us that the Afghan’s living across the Panj river were also Pamiri’s (Ismaili’s) and were family with the Pamiri’s on the Tajik side; because before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the closing of the border with Tajikistan, the Pamiri’s crossed freely across the Panj river for family visits and trading. So they have the same language, culture and religion (Shia Muslim Ismaili), but for many years now, were separated involuntarily. I was fascinated and excited to be so close to Afghanistan, and below are some scenes along the way.

Langar, Tajikistan, Shepherds on the Afghan side of the Panj river
Shepherds on the Afghan side of the Panj river

Then, to our immense surprise, we saw a small caravan of traders and donkeys laden with goods on the Afghan side; just as they used to, during the time of Marco Polo on the Silk Road. Unreal and totally unexpected; what a wonderful experience.

Langar, Tajikistan, Caravan on the Afghan side, reminiscent of the Silk Road times
Caravan on the Afghan side, reminiscent of the Silk Road times

I could not believe my eyes, so we stopped and watched them for a while and tracked them. Soon, they came to a small structure, and unloaded their donkeys and took the good inside. This was a real Caravanserai; ones that we had only read about in Silk Road history books. Amazing. And to think that they still ply the same routes, in the same way, all these 700+ years later. We were transported back in time….Fascinating.

Langar, Tajikistan, Caravan of traders arriving at the Caravanserai
Caravan of traders arriving at the Caravanserai to stay overnight
Langar, Tajikistan, Caravan and Caravanserai in the harsh landscape; perspective
Caravan and Caravanserai in the harsh landscape; perspective
Langar, Tajikistan, Unloading the goods from the donkeys
Unloading the goods off the donkeys
Langar, Tajikistan, And letting the pack animals eat and drink
and letting the pack animals eat, drink, rest

While we stared at the caravan, they went about their work and checked us out

We waved goodbye to the Afghan caravan and drove on. Some scenes below

Langar, Tajikistan, View of Afghanistan mountains on left; some very sparse and few trees along the Panj
View of Afghanistan mountains on left; some very sparse and few trees along the Panj
Langar, Tajikistan, Lo and behold, we came across another caravan; this time a horse caravan on the Afghan side
Lo and behold, we came across another caravan; this time a horse caravan, again on the Afghan side
Langar, Tajikistan, Horse caravan perspective
Horse caravan perspective on the landscape
Langar, Tajikistan, Lone biker in remoteness; probably happy its downhill
Lone biker in remoteness; probably happy its downhill
Langar, Tajikistan, Filling up on fresh drinking water from underground stream
Filling up on fresh drinking water from underground stream
Langar, Tajikistan, Spectacular Pamir mountains on Afghan side, reflected on our hood
Spectacular Pamir mountains on Afghan side, reflected on our hood
Langar, Tajikistan, Mountain road on Afghan Pamirs
Mountain road on Afghan Pamirs; landslide in the middle?
Langar, Tajikistan, Tajik military post (green roofs) and Afghan military post (blue roofs) face each other across the Panj river
Tajik military post (green roofs) and Afghan military post (blue roofs) face each other across the Panj river

We arrived at Misha’s Guest house in Langar village late afternoon and settled in. This part of GBAO is now 100% Pamiri (Ismaili)

Our trip so far

Langar, Tajikistan, Krygyz travel
Krygyz travel
Langar, Tajikistan, Tajikistan map till Langar
Tajikistan map till Langar

More on Langar and Ishkashim next