A Weekend in Iskanderkul

by Cathy Raymond

A trip into the mountains of Tajikistan finds a group of travelers traversing rickety bridges and dark tunnels as they explore remote villages where even food seems to be scarce.

On the first Saturday in April, we caravanned in three marshrutkas, or three sturdy and well-worn minibuses, to Iskanderkul, Tajikistan’s most famous mountain lake in the heart of the Fann Mountains. Denis, our fearless weekend hiking guide whose payment model followed the motto “Pay me at the end of the hike if you survive,” had hired three local drivers to load up their self-owned vehicles and transport a crew of twenty expats living and working in the capital city of Dushanbe to the small village three and a half hours away. As we set off, we resembled a model UN parade with representatives from England, Germany, Poland, Moldova, Tajikistan, India, Switzerland, Italy, Peru, and the United States.

During the drive, Denis entertained us with tales about the area. “Iskander” was the local name for Alexander the Great, and “Kul” meant lake. One day, Alexander the Great’s favorite horse, a majestic white beast, had jumped from a high cliff and disappeared forever into the watery depths of Iskanderkul. On moonlit nights, villagers would occasionally see the white horse emerge from the lake as a ghostly apparition to feed along the shores.

Denis casually mentioned that we would soon be driving through the “tunnel of death.” The famous mountain tunnel had supposedly taken years to complete, and the history of its construction was fraught with mayhem and controversy. For years the tunnel had been an unfinished mess as money continually ran out, and the project repeatedly stalled. During that time, vehicles continued to attempt passage through the half-built wet mess of a tunnel, and they would find themselves swallowed by a dark crypt and surrounded by a steady flow of water, which would fill gigantic treacherous holes and trap cars as they attempted to drive through. A Chinese company had finally finished building the tunnel, and the newly finished passage decreased the overall time it took to cross that section of the mountain from ten hours to two while offering safe, but still frighteningly dark, passage to the other side. As Denis talked, my mind filled with images of the mysterious white horse in the lake and dark and troubling visions of watery death in the tunnel.

A lake in the mountains of Tajikistan

We neared the tunnel, and I sat up straighter in my seat—as if perfect posture could ward off the feeling of claustrophobia I was already experiencing even before we entered the hole in the mountain. After what seemed like hours later, we exited the long tunnel, and penetratingly bright sunlight and spectacular snow-covered mountains that felt close enough to touch burst into view with a ferocious optimism. I shielded my eyes and let out the breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding.

We soon came to a rickety bridge that resembled a tightrope for cars with haphazard looking parallel slats for the wheels. A burly man guarded the entrance to the bridge, blocking traffic to allow one car at a time to pass. He grunted, “One car at a time and only with outside guidance to ensure that the tires stay on the slats and don’t fall through the holes and plummet to the raging river below.”

On countless previous trips, our driver, Bahrom, had repeatedly proven his skill at expertly navigating deep mud and rocky roads in a minibus. When it was our turn, we all kept very still, and Bahrom fearlessly navigated us across. Immediately after the bridge, the smoothly paved road we had been on morphed into a rough, bumpy, treacherous dirt path that wound its way around the mountains. We swerved to the left to avoid giant rocks that had plummeted from the mountain weeks, days, hours, or even minutes before. We veered to the right to avoid oncoming vehicles navigating similar obstacles from the opposite direction. We stopped and waited patiently for herds of sheep, goats, and cattle that had clearly won the battle for equal rights to the road. Children on bikes, women pulling weeds by the side of the road, men sitting at tables chatting over cups of tea. Everyone waved as we passed, and we waved back. We were a UN parade of city vehicles dodging obstacles as we made the painstakingly slow trek to the mountain lake.

We finally reached Iskandarkul. No photos, no words, no online images could adequately represent the blue of that crystal clear lake. We were barely out of the cars when Denis let out his familiar holler, “Leeeeeet’s gooooooo!!” He immediately bounded ahead, yelling something incomprehensible over his shoulder about snakes. After visiting another small lake and the “Fann Niagara,” a 43-meter waterfall, we reluctantly made our way back to the marshrutkas and started the raggedy rugged trip over the mountain and into the village where we would spend the night. We drove on a precipitously narrow dirt road high above the shore of the lake as we wound our way up and around the mountain. Just when we thought we were done climbing, another hairpin curve appeared, and we twisted one more time, one more time, one more time. The road was speckled with stones and boulders that had dislodged themselves from higher up the mountain. I peered out the window into the ravine far below and wondered briefly when the next boulder would come crashing down, and what the odds were that we would be in its path.

The mountain suddenly released its hold on us, and we were flung onto a small bumpy dirt road meandering through an open field. The village children must have sensed we were coming, and they gathered along the edges of the road. They smiled broadly and waved, yelling, “Assalom!”— “Hello!” as we passed.

We finally pulled into the driveway of a large house and were greeted by the owner, who had been awaiting our arrival. We hopped out of the vehicles, anxious to get cleaned up, use the bathroom, and hike around the village before dinner, and the owner asked which of us could speak Tajik. I did my best to converse, but my Tajik was generally limited to questions and answers about family, health, and the location of the bathroom. He seamlessly switched to Russian, a language I luckily had a better grasp of, and asked me to tell everyone that everything had worked perfectly up until the second before we had arrived, but that now there was mysteriously no running water, no toilet, and no heat.

A village in Tajikistan blending into the side of a mountain

No one seemed to mind terribly that we were now basically camping indoors, and off we went to explore the village on foot. Small houses dotted the landscape, and some brave soul had taken the trouble to construct a perilous looking bridge across a raging river. Rickety slatted bridges seemed to be all the rage here. The only thing keeping the bridge from swinging completely loose from its moorings were two cables that stretched from each side of the bridge to two large boulders in the river below. At the head of the bridge was a sign in Tajik, Russian, and English announcing that it was absolutely forbidden for more than one person to cross the bridge at a time. I briefly thought of our last encounter with a rickety bridge as I made the shaky trek to the other side, wondering who had managed to construct the bridge in the first place, how they had secured the cables to the boulders in the rushing river below, and how secure those cables actually were…

By the time we all returned from our explorations, the twenty of us gathered in the large house for dinner. Two things quickly became clear. We didn’t have enough chairs, and…there was no food. Denis quickly took stock of the situation, shot his hand into the air, and announced loudly, “I’m going to get a chair and some food from the village!” And off he went in a marshrutka with one of the drivers.

As we waited for dinner and the chair we all stood outside and watched the sun set and the moon rise above the mountain behind us. The mountain was a wall of rock that seemed to shoot directly out of the ground right behind the guest house. It felt like a film crew had rolled in a magnificent backdrop for an outdoor shoot. In the meantime, someone had discovered a crate of beer in the back of one of the buses, and a party erupted in the driveway. Who needs food and a chair? We had beer!

A village in Tajikistan blending into the side of a mountain

After chairs had been organized and food had been devoured, we moved to a raging bonfire behind the house. Denis shouted and pointed to a stranger who had emerged from nowhere. “People! Listen to me! We have a musician here! He is from Kazakhstan! He has hitchhiked here from Kazakhstan!”

We gathered around. Denis told us the Kazakh hitchhiker was collecting musical instruments from all over the world, and he was in the middle of a hitchhiking journey that was taking him across Central Asia. He had no money and wanted to see how far he could get by relying solely on people’s generosity. He had gotten as far as our village earlier that day and had been unable to find a ride out.

When I asked if he had any instruments with him, he quickly disappeared and then reappeared with a mouth harmonica and a didgeridoo. He started playing the mouth harmonica, and it reminded me of the overtones in Mongolian throat singing. Then, he started playing the didgeridoo. I wondered what stories the didgeridoo might tell about its journey from Australia to Tajikistan if it could talk. He finished his concert and told us he had already collected 110 instruments during his travels. He could play them all.

The next morning, we all defrosted from a freezing cold Tajik mountain night, and I realized I was hungry. Bear hungry. If I don’t get something to eat NOW, I will eat you alive hungry. And I needed coffee. To my amazement, after the minimal meal we had had for dinner the night before, there were pots of steaming hot coffee waiting for us on the table and gorgeous bowls of porridge, freshly squished berries, never-ending plates of fried eggs, and the most delicious, hot, homemade bread I had had in years.

After breakfast we hiked in a new direction—along the front of the mountain and into the damp forest. The sky was overcast, and it was cold. Two and a half hours into the hike, we came across a mini village of tiny stone houses in the mountains. The stones for the houses had been gathered from the surrounding area, the roofs were dirt, and the doors to the houses were held shut with a metal pin or a stick. Clearly no one was worried about robberies here.

A modest structure seen while traveling through a village in Tajikistan

Denis explained that the shepherds in the village would take their families and their sheep here each May and that they would live off the land and let the sheep graze until September. I stood next to the houses and tried to picture my own little family living on the mountain for five or six months out of the year. It was so peaceful and serene, the river rushing by below, the mountain above. Tempting.

As we wound our way back towards the house, the sky turned dark as rain started falling. Without a word, we picked up our pace and made it back to the house before the thunderstorm hit.

Lunch was a traditional Tajik feast of Osh, a kind of greasy rice dish with carrots and fatty meat, tomato/cucumber salad, and green tea, or as Tajiks like to say, choi kabud.

When we were done eating and chatting, we reluctantly packed up our bags and loaded up the marshrutkas. The magical weekend had flown by, and it was time to head back over the mountain and through the woods to our now familiar home, Dushanbe. Denis turned to the group, cupped his hands over his mouth, and yelled, “Leeeeet’s gooooooo!!”

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