Journey to Khorog
This is the plane we took to Khorog. Behind it is the more impressive plane I thought we were taking. No such luck.
For those of you following, I made it back from Khorog to Dushanbe safely. I’ll be headed to Khujand tomorrow. I’ll post about the steps in this journey incrementally as I get to it, embellished with pictures.
The flight from Dushanbe to Khorog becomes dramatic quickly. Dry hills glow red like the western US, occasionally limestone slabs jut out like like stegosaurus spines. We could see snow beneath us within 20 minutes. And I mean right beneath us. At times it seems we were feet from the peaks. From time to time we could see villages on the edge of the river, as if people had tumbled down the mountains with the snowmelt, found themselves in valleys and started cultivating.
I’ve read that often each valley has its own particular dialect. In the course of an hour flight we may have passed over 3 or more language groupings and many separate dialects.
The first glimpses of civilization coming into Khorog were plots of land so steep I mistook the walls for inexplicable signals, like Hollywood signs in a script I didn’t understand. Elsewhere there really was a message in white stones on the mountain-side in honor of His Highness the Aga Khan’s Golden Jubilee.
Khorog itself was spotted with brilliant yellow leaves. It is ringed around by mountains and cut through by the Ghunt river, a tributary of the legendary Oxus, now called the Panj, which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan.
Khorog is a fascinating and contradictory place. It is an isolated city which saw its first automobile in 1940 (now enshrined on the West side of the city), hemmed in by mountains and home to a population that is majority Ismaili, a tiny Shiite sect considered heretical by most other muslims. From this you might think it would be backwards, undeveloped and fundamentalist. You would be wrong. Khorog is arguably the most liberal and forward-thinking city in Tajikistan.
In large part this is due to the remarkable nature of the Ismaili sect. They consider His afore-mentioned Highness, the Aga Khan, also known as Karim Al-Hussayni to be a direct descendant of Muhammed’s son-in-law Ali. This is a major eschatological heresy to other Shiites, almost equivalent to claiming that Christ has returned and he lives in Paris (where His Highness currently resides).
For those unfamiliar with Islamic history, an explanation: the Shiite sect differs from the Sunnis in that they believe that Muhammed passed authority as Imam down to his son-in-law Ali. The Sunnis did not accept this succession. The Sunnis became the mainstream of Islam, the Islam of the powerful Caliphates, while Shiism held on to a more esoteric faith centered around a succession of Imams with the authority to interpret the Koran. Mainstream Shiites are known as “twelvers” because they believe the succession of imams continued until the twelfth, Muhammed Al-Mahdi, was hidden away by God, only to return at the end of time, accompanied by Jesus. Ismailis, however, claim the line remains unbroken to the present day. The current Imam, Shah Karim Al-Hussayni Agha Khan IV, happens to be a millionaire residing in France, a former Olympic down-hill skier, thoroughbred horse racing enthusiast and the founder of a remarkable development initiative, the Agha Khan Development Network. If this strikes you as a bit bizarre, you are in good company with the rest of the Muslim world.
Khorog’s continued existence is largely due to the Agha Khan. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan was thrown into civil war and all lines of transport to the Pamirs were cut off. The Agha Khan Foundation undertook a massive relief effort that lasted for five years, flying in flour, tea and powdered milk for five years, then transitioning into agricultural support so that the region went from producing 15% of its own food to a remarkable 80%. The organizations underneath the Agha Khan Foundation’s umbrella continue to develop the region, most notably the University of Central Asia, which, when completed, will offer degrees ranging from Tourism Development to the Humanities.
Since Ismailism followers a living leader who reinterprets the Koranic tradition and in recent memory these leaders have been quite progressive, it is among the most liberal of the Islamic sects. Ismailism is generally quite pluralistic, and committed to women’s rights. Consequently, in Khorog, you see even more educated women than in Dushanbe. More women wear western clothing, as opposed to traditional dress, and no one wears the Arab-influenced Khijab. My friend Bo asked why it seemed like he met more female university students than male and a teacher in Khorog answered that in local thinking if a family can only afford to send one child on to higher education they will send the girl rather than the boy because women are responsible for the next generation. This place is a remarkable exception to the general under-education of women.
So there are a few things you should know about Khorog. Also, of course it is absolutely beautiful.
Khorog has access to rock climbing, mountaineering, and the 2nd highest botanical garden in the world. The botanical garden is home to a remarkable variety of apples. This kind is purple, with ridges, and is even purple on the inside. Others were soft like plums, or cherry-size and tart. My favorite had an aftertaste of cinnamon.
If that’s not enough to make you excited about apples, then read this article. There’s more to life than Red Delicious.
So yeah, Khorog. I recommend a trip. More on the rest of my adventure once I settle in up in Khujand.