I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world. – Walt Whitman (LEAVES OF GRASS)
Bulunkul is a small village in an obvious glacier valley resting at 3,700 meters (around 12,100 ft). After about a 30 minuet drive down a road that obviously doesn’t exist when water rushes down from the hills, you will find yourself on the Pamiri highway, which reaches at times around 4,200 meters (almost 14000 feet). But Bulunkul is by itself out in the middle of nowhere by a beautifully large lake. Its 20 to 30 families mainly herd yaks and maybe fish in the lake. As our host pointed out, there isn’t much to do there. But on the fifth day of our trip through the Pamirs this is where Donald and I found ourselves. The coldest place in the Pamirs.
The night we slept there it was only -3 Cent. which I am told is pretty good for this time of year. I tend to believe it, since in the winter it can get as cold as -61 cent. (That’s -77 degrees F.) In the summer though it can get up to 30 degrees (86 F). Walking around the lake I felt deftly alone. It’s an eerily singular place, where life seems to hold on, but not much of it. Even when standing next to someone else, if you are both quiet, you feel utterly alone in the world. At one point, one of us remarked, “This feels like a post-apocalyptic world.”
I couldn’t help but wonder at this lake, so close to the Wakhan Corridor, which seemed so utterly different.
The Wakhan currently is in harvesting season, and for anyone who has never seen an old school harvest, it’s a must see. Framed by the Hindu Kush on one side, and the Pamirs on the other, both sides of the river separate the wheat from the chaff by throwing it up in the air, having donkeys go around in a circle to help separate, large bundles cut and waiting to be worked with, and all the time beautiful sun shine (at least for us).
But it wasn’t until our car turned off the road on our third day and started heading up a mountain that I really began to understand the true population density. We had been earlier to an Afghan market in between Afghanistan and Tajikistan in Ishkishun which happens every Saturday. It let me see people from Afghanistan and even buy one or two things (sadly I did not buy a big fur vest/jacket thing). I had seen the mass of people even at the end of the market, which was originally set up as more of a place for people to talk (as some of the families were separated in the 1940’s when the border was finally solidified). As we drove through the valley villages kept appearing, one after another. Unlike before hand where there would be sometimes hours between villages here one village ended where the next one began, and as we climbed into the hills I could see that these villages also went up. Even at thousands of meters up the side of the mountain you could still find houses and fields that were being worked.
We finally stopped at a fort that rested around 1200 meters above the valley floor. The view was spectacular, and Donald noted that it felt like something from Lord of the Rings. The walls were crumbling slightly, and as we walked up to it along a narrow path we could see that though it was old (from around 100 BC) it was still remarkably well preserved.
To describe the view from this fort is hard, if not impossible, unless one has the enigmatic gift for lucid descriptive writing. I do not, but I can tell you this: I could not take a bad picture in this fort. The sun was beginning its downward descent as it was nearing 3:30 when we got there and spread out to the left and to the right was the Wakhan. You could see the history sitting in front of you as you stood on that hill in the fort. The fort was created by Zoroastrians, the view of both sides showed Ismaili Pamir houses, and you could see soldiers every once in a while which checked the border created in the late 1800’s between the Russians and British, and solidified in 1940’s on the exact placement.
But when I was standing at the lake near Bulunkul you couldn’t see any of that. A few birds floated by as the wind swept across the lake. On the other side from where we stood we could see what looked like two buildings, but we could not tell how old, or who built them, or even why.
We walked up from the beach back into the mountains to a warm spring (it wasn’t hot at all, it was warm) and as my stomach was feeling good for the first time in a few days I sank into a green covered bath tub in the warm spring watching the frogs jump about and played with my growing facial hair.
Our driver was asleep behind the wheel when we got back to the car, his “mujahadeen hat” over his face. Even as we drove back to the little village looking at the Yaks, the only animal that can survive in the cold of winter, it felt immense and lonely on the roof of the world.