27 Aug, 2009
Posted by: Scott In: The Rally
Nestled between the mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan and bordered by the Gunt River, Khorog is the capital of the GBAO (Gorno Badakshan Autonomous Oblast) region of Tajikistan. As the location of the Aga Khan Central Asia University it is home to one of the most educated, English-capable populations in all of Central Asia.
Getting into the city before dark for once, we set of to find accommodation. About to turn onto the main bridge into the back of the city we were stopped by a waiting policeman. Figuring it was yet another document check I readied my papers. He came over to the window and pointed in front of us, towards what I thought was the license-less Mercedes rounding the corner. Ahh–another cop wondering about our lack of a front plate. I tried to explain that in Michigan we only have one license plate, in the back of the vehicle, as I had dozens of times before. He kept pointing in front of the car, and told us to open the hood. I did, and get out to look inside. It turns out that he wasn’t pointing to the Mercedes in front of us but rather to a big puddle of liquid that had gushed from our car as we were about to make a turn. Our radiator hose had finally burst and there was a large hole in it. We got out the duct tape and temporarily fixed it before thanking the cop and heading on our way. We checked into the Pamir Lodge, started by a local Pakistani professor a few years back. The price was right ($6/night), and the staff (including the professor’s son and wife) was English speaking and very friendly. There was another Mongol Rally vehicle in the parking lot, and we introduced ourselves to the Scottish team hailing from Aberdeen. We ended up having dinner at a nearby restaurant, where we met the other members of the Aberdeen team along with a local kid, Imomdad, that had been helping them out with things during their stay. We also met a cyclist from Switzerland who was on his way across Central Asia. Cass, Collin, the cyclist, sat down together and ordered some drinks. The food took a while to come out, and the portions were a bit small, but it was cheap and tasted great.
We had planned to spend one night in Khorog before setting off on the Pamir Highway, but ended up extending our stay a day because of needed car repairs. During breakfast a team of young Israeli travelers checked into the lodge and proceeded to mostly keep to themselves off to the side of the deck. Another group of three twenty-something travelers that sat next to use for breakfast we immediately recognized as Americans (well, one of them was–the other two were from Western Canada). Turns out that the three of them were on vacation from Kabul, Afghanistan, where they worked for a telecommunications company. They, along with most of the other ex-pats stationed around Afghanistan had been either told to or encouraged to leave the country because of the threat of Taliban violence during the Afghan elections set to take place the following week. Because of this they had a few weeks of vacation and were traveling Central Asia for a bit.
We arranged to meet the three later on at Hotel Serena for some food and drinks and set out to get our car repaired. First we set off to find Imomdad, the boy from the previous night, thinking that he may know a good mechanic in the area. The Scottish team was nice enough to leave a map to his family’s shop on our windshield that morning, and we used it to find his whereabouts. He gladly agreed to direct to a mechanic and off we went. The mechanic’s ‘shop’ was actually just a field with a bunch of cars in it, with one pit dug into the ground for under-chassis inspections. The mechanic fixed our brake sound, which was actually just a loose control arm, with little problem. As for the radiator overheating, we would have to get a new hose from a nearby shop to replace the leaking one. We also had him check the underside of the car, where he found a small gas line drip, which he patched up with my electrical tape, and pried our exhaust a bit farther away fron the gas tank to prevent the constant rattling we had recently been dealing with. He finished up pretty quickly and I asked how much he would charge for his services. Through Imomdad I found he was asking for 100 somani, which was quite high (about $22). We bargained him down to 80 somani and left to go back to the lodge. Imomdad, who had translated for us during the entire process, told us that the mechanic told him that we were rich anyway so he could charge us a lot more than usual. He said that the mechanic usually charges 25-50 somoni, and many times will do work pro-bono. He didn’t think that was right, but what were we to do in such a situation?
We parted with Imomdad and the three of us went off to the Serena Hotel around 3:00PM. The Serena Hotel is a small yet classy place right outside of the city that was built so that the Aga Khan would have an appropriate residence to stay in whenever he visited the region. The Aga Khan is the religious and spiritual leader of the Badakshan people, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. Although he lives in Switzerland he provides education opportunities for ‘his people’ and basically single-handedly supported the entire region during the Tajikistani civil war that raged during the mid-nineties. Many of the region’s inhabitants have a picture of their beloved khan on their person or in their vehicle.
The other three weren’t there yet, so we sat outside and proceeded to order food and drinks. The setting was very peaceful, in a shaded garden, right across the river from Afghanistan. The others joined us in time, and we ended up staying there until it got dark, drinking and talking the day away.
The next day we had breakfast at the lodge before departing on the Pamir Highway.
Pictures have been posted in the gallery.