Thursday, January 29, 2015

No shade

Tajikistan doesn't seem to be a magnet for soakers, certainly not for natural soaking. 

But it should be. 

The extreme mountainous regions of Wakhan and Pamir host some of the most remote communities in the world, hemmed between the impressive mountains and reclusive Afghanistan. 
Along the valleys and on the mountains hot springs appear and for centuries have remained largely untouched providing a meagre relief / luxury to those eking out a living from few fields level enough to afford some produce. 
Locals have adopted the one and only way to soak, much to the surprise of tourists: naturally with little or no improvements to nature's gift.
So what follows is a list of astonishment, enjoyment and facing one owns fears. 
Let's just hope that this stays this way as the 21st century slowly will catch up with the Wakhan and no doubt will erode traditions customs and social beliefs.
The following is a rework of the original blog concerning all of Tajikistan. This rework concentrates on the region as described above and expanding the comments concerning the soaking circumstances.
There's precious little information available other than a couple of blog mentions, nothing comprehensive. The few exceptions are this list from,  and a surprise list from alaya travel.

Surprise, surprise
This blog makes a loop through the eastern Tajik
Kūhistoni Badakhshon region (better known as the Pamir) starting from it's main town of Khorugh, (Khorog). 
Due south of this town and up a side road (together 40 km) is most probably the biggest and most well-known hot spring of Tajikistan named Garm Chashma (Gharm Chasma / Garam Chashma, or other variations).

The 2,700m high located hot spring, consists of a larger travertine pool and a smaller bath house. Local soaking traditions are conservative but sans suit.
'The top attraction in this place is the hot spring that runs nearby. The sanatorium has setup a little indoor pool where you can splash around in the 75c degree water, while it’s negative something temperature outside. Sharing the pool with a dozen naked Pamiris (as, we were joined by another jolly group later on) was definitely an experience that won’t fade quickly'.
On the centralasianliving blog there's this entry by a shy Finnish lady:
'It was ladies time to bathe in the outside pool and we headed up a little hill to find this pool behind a wall. There were some local women bathing there. And they did not wear swimming suits. But do not fear, we did. We, the brave, Northern, Finnish people who spend all our lives going to sauna naked carefully covered ourselves. Somehow swimming outside in a hot spring in our birth suits did not feel comfortable. But local ladies were very comfortable and even commented on our swimming suits. 'You don't need to wear one!' 'Oh, yes, I need to!'.
Why would anyone need to?

A much published photo of Garm Chashma, by Carolyn Drake
Other info on her Tajik / Kyrgyz / Uzbek / Turkmen photo project here.

The times which each gender can enjoy the different hot spring pools alternate. It can give cause to some surprises:
'It alternates between men and women, and I'd looked across from the hotel and seen men getting changed, so decided it was safe to go. There was no-one around at the entrance so I walked up the steps in the travertine deposit and was greeted by the sight of lots of naked women. I dashed back down the steps hoping that no-one had seen me; there were no shouts so I guess I got away with it. Abdullah was at the bottom laughing and herded me into a bath house for another soak'.
And  bathing as locals gives strange comments:
'Then next was a bath outside. The bath was huge and full of big guys. There were about 50 of big Tajik guys without shade on their stuff. I couldn't take any photos because too many people looking at me. 
Most of them kept watching me but I went to the bath. Expectedly, I was surrounded by many big guys, and they asked me so many questions, like where are you from, where are you going, why you don't shave your under hair, etc.... It was kind of fun to communicate with such big Tajik guys in naked. Japanese call "Hadakano Tukiai" for going bathing with other naked people'.
Because it reliefs pain, Garm Chashma got a reputation of a holy spring.
'There in the end of the 19th century the local inhabitants built altars - small niches in the rock near the place where water comes onto the surface; they put there various sacred objects and burning lamps'.
More in depth info available as well as a video. Or here

 The above photo is on Flickr (2007) taken by Bogsnes:
'Garm Chasma natural hot springs. Tajikistan'.
In a recent description on Lonely Planet, word is that things are changing:
'... and what the tourtit pictures end to miss out is the green surrounding fence and the various new-ish sanatoriumhotel buildings that crowd around the small site. For many westerners it isn't realy worth the 6km each-way diversion from Anderob'.
ing southwards towards the Wakhan border there is the small and little known hot spring of Oudzh. This website notes it's existence. However there is precious little to find on this hot spring. From a travel log of a trip between Khorog and Ishkashim, presumably this refers to Oudzh:
'Back on the road I saw a hot spring flowing into a round pool . Of course I had to jump in; the water was at about body temperature which was blissful on a hot day. From the pool I could see Afghan farmers working in the fields onthe other side of the valley and the snow capped peaks of the Hindu Kush in the distance. It was quite surreal. A local lad turned up who bizarrely spoke French so we chatted for a while and I started to think about getting out of the pool. Just then an old guy appeared, collecting fire wood. I wasn't sure about whether it was appropriate for me to emerge near naked from the pool with him around, so I decided to stay submerged till he was gone. I needn't have worried though; when he'd collected the wood he needed he asked me if it was OK to get in the pool, stripped off and jumped in. We chatted for a bit, then I got dressed and carried on'.
The picture below from the same report as above says it all ....

It's mostly these intrepid journals which come across this hot spring. Like here, here and here.
Holy grotto
Continuing our journey up the Wakhan valley, next is the other famous hot spring of this region, that of Bibi Fatima.

'The full name is the Ostoni Bibi Fotimai Zakhro hot spring, which literally means ‘holy site of the sleeves of Bibi Fatima.’ The story behind the hot springs is that it is believed to improve female fertility. I'm not sue about the fertility part, but the hot spring sure was relaxing'.

'Hot water spring in the Wakhan valley - Bibi Fatima'.
By Kjartans bilder.

Located 7 kms up a steep mountain, this hot spring (set in a cave) again has alternating male / female sessions:
'Mathieu and Yann had the first session, then Myriam and I got to enter the hot spring water with a bunch of cute old naked Tajik women. Women supposedly come to bathe here for help with fertility problems. The water comes directly from the spring into a small cave where a cabin has been built to shelter the cave'.
A previous entertaining experience has been featured on this website. Excerpt:
'When it was our turn, Jess and I made our way into the hot springs with 5 other women. We were in awe of what we saw – not the naked bodies, but the actual hot spring! We stepped down about 10 stairs and found ourselves at the bottom of a cave. Around us were natural cave walls. The steaming hot water is constantly running through this cave, making it always very hot and always very clean. Because so much water is passing through, it makes a perfect pool for relaxing in'.
It actually is a mind expanding adventure, at this, virtually on the doorstep of the least imaginative nation, Afghanistan. From reports after arriving at the springs and waiting each turn, there's a modern looking changing room. After this one steps down into a cave which is then plugged and a bath ensues with hot water dripping everywhere. The more adventurous will wiggle through a small entrance to another cave behind.

Here are just some short excerpts.
'The French are obviously infinitely cooler about this sort of thing than the prudish Brits and I was keen to not let the side down. So without so much of a “Ooh la la,” the bikinis were off and we strolled down to the springs, passing the same woman who nodded and grinned at us enthusiastically, happy to see us in our nude state.
As we walked in to the springs, behind heavy plastic sheeting, I was amazed to see we were now amidst the huge mountains that surround the building and gloriously hot water was pouring down the rock and spraying out, creating natural showers all around us. There were a few other women in there who greeted us with big smiles and encouraged us to sit down.
And so it was with this growing audience, that we were invited to climb into the “fertility cave” inside the rock wall, the very reason that Bibi Fatima Springs earns so many visitors from far and wide. The hole in the rock is about 50cm long and perhaps a little less wide, but it is a good metre or so from the ground.
We watched one woman easily pull herself up to the hole and fall in, agilely folding her body into two. Then it was my turn. Grunting determinedly, I managed to haul myself up legs akimbo, and managed somehow to crawl into the small space, before victoriously jumping out again. And only then, did I remember I was not wearing a bikini'.
A concise report with some good photo's of the experience. 
Then Didacoydiaries:
'We waited and waited for the men to get out of the springs.  Ideally every half hour men and women alternate but after around an hour or so the men still wallowed while the ladies bickered.  This didn’t surprise me as the same thing happened in Garam Chasma. At one stage I though I wouldn’t have time to wait any longer.  Finally, one brave lady beat down the door and went inside to scream at the selfish men. We finally kicked the last man out and I made friends with the ladies we lifted'. 
A photo and story from walkingwithanape:

'As the fifteen minutes come to a close we all make out way up the small steps. I wanted to get a photo of the cave however one man remained in the water. You could hear some of the women banging on the door and impatiently I grab my GoPro camera and make my way to the steps of the cave. I get the attention of the naked elderly man in the water and point and my camera and signal him kindly to step aside for a second so I could get a picture of the beautiful cave. The man understands what I mean and repositions himself to stand directly in front of the cave, holds his tackle and lets out a big smile. I shrug and snap the shot of the cave and the Tajik and make my way outside to the waiting women'.
'As in Turkey, the locals set about making sure the girls experienced the spring “properly” which meant dunking them under the hot “showers” of spring water pouring into the pools from crevices above and blessing them both (presumably, given the place’s reputation, in order to improve their chances of having babies…) When we all got out Sarah and Nat were both feeling a bit overwhelmed by the experience. Nat was ushered into the “medical room” where they insisted on taking her blood pressure'.
'Meanwhile yours truly was marched over a rather unsympathetically designed stark concrete bridge to a grotto. A rickety door, a slippery floor, and a dark chasm of blackness and steam, it seemed more akin to Tajik ghost train than a relaxing therapeutic experience. Inside voices echoed from the dripping walls, and figures could be seen splashing and wallowing in the murky water. Stripping to what I considered a respectable level, I entered my watery grave only to be grunted at to remove my offending items to reveal my other offending items. Unabashed I strode in and scolded my feet in blistering heat, and politely edged my way to the far side of the pool at which, having seen enough of the my intimidating stature, my fellow bathers up and left, leaving nothing but ripples, and silluettes of their hairy backs'. 
'Sjoerd, thinking that there might be another pool walked towards a door. I heard a local say that it was the womens bath in Russian, but before I…could…utter…the..words… Shrieks and screams! Sjoerd quickly closes the door. He apologized as best he could through his bemusement. Thankfully, the male (we think father) watching the door for his females didn’t want our heads for it. We left before he could change his mind. Back in the car, we had to ask Sjoerd what he saw. He claims that most were in bathrobes and in the process of dressing, but the couple that weren’t ‘were surprisingly nice to look at.’ 
'When we arrived at a small building which appeared to be a grotty public toilet with a stream littered with empty Decore bottles leading out of it, we stopped and asked the lady standing outside where the gariache vada was. She beckoned me over and opened the door. Inside the 2x4m room, about 15 naked ladies stopped what they were doing to look up at me. She indicated that I should go in there and Chris should go into the next door which was padlocked from the outside. Chris entered his bath to find two naked men scrubbing each others backs and decided to keep his speedos on for the experience. I shoved my way into my bath and decided it would be rude to keep my speedos on'.
There is another bath house here, maybe a recent / past addition. Biedjee:
'He seemed particularly amused about the French being only 22. The babies had to drink some vodka, he reasoned and before we knew it he had arranged for a bottle of vodka (actually, it was more like cognac) and a cup so that we could drink some while bathing in the hot spring. Hmm, heat, altitude and alcohol, not the best combination.
According to tradition you can't drink alcohol without food, so we were given a can of, well, something, to go with it.

According to the can it contained cow. It looked like cat food. It tasted quite like cat food as well, but somehow it was quite nice with the alcohol (which was also surprisingly nice I must add'. 
It includes this photo:
Seven men in a hot tub... sounds a bit like a South Park episode...
Here's a very short video (less the soakers).

There's a waterfall nearby as well as views over the Wakhan valley and the nearby Yamchun fort.

Heading westwards from Bibi Fatima there are yet more mentions of hot springs. Zong hot spring is located
between Vrang and Langar / Lyangar.
'Zong has loads of hot springs which we liked the sound of. We found a nice homestay run by a friendly woman who spoke a bit of English, then set off to the hot springs to have a wash before dinner. It was actually quite a mission to find the springs; we climbed endlessly up and down steep village paths, but we got there eventually, completely freaking out the lads from the village who were already there'.
The travelwakhan website is very clear:
'There are several things to like in the little village of Zong, but the hot springs are not towards the top of that list.
If you want something other than lame bathtubs in wooden sheds, though, perhaps head to the hot springs at Yamchun or Shirgin instead!'
Not everybody agrees:

Hot spring bathhouse in Zong village. Men on one side, women on the other. Nice way to end the late afternoon.
Others note:
'At a village hot spring in Zong, the water is cleaner than we are, that's all that matters'.
This includes a photo of the interior.

Along the valley should also be a hot spring named Darshai (source).

So now we are heading upstream upto the Pamir. Let's start with travelwakhan's mention of Shirgin:
'The Shirgin Hot Spring is not nearly as nice as Bibi Fatima. Essentially it is a wooden-floored room covered by a tarp, with piped-in spring water constantly refreshing a man-made pool. The hot water is just as relaxing, though, and a great refresher after several dirty days trekking through the area.
(Note that, like with other hot spring areas in the Wakhan Corridor region, men and women will be strongly discouraged from entering together and so your travel party may be forced to split up. This is just the way things are here, so go along with it.)'.
Shirgin is just outside of Lyangar, which might help (source), where the road splits, one continuing along the Wakhan into Afghanistan, the other along the Pamir.

Continuing up the Pamir valley one eventually reaches the town of Murghab
Murghab itself has it's own bathhouse, though unclear whether or not this is hot spring fed. But it has a sauna (source).

Surrounding Murghab though are many hot springs, making things very complcated. There are the hot springs of Issyk Bulak (Issyk-Bulok) near the village of Bulunkul and the Yashikul lake, in the Madyan (Madiyan) valley. Or so I am to believe.

In fact there are many hot springs:
'Near the Alichur estuary there is a hot hydrogen sulphide spring named Issyk-bulak. The water wells up from four geysers located along the foot of the granite mountain, with temperatures reaching 71 °C. The spring is surrounded by ruins of clay buildings (probably tombs), and local residents consider it to be holy. One small clay construction has a pool for collecting hot spring water'.
There's this photo (source) which can be attributed to Bulunkul (source):

Other hot springs seem a little less inspiring, though it might be the same as above:
'a DIY hot spring – a small shed with a bathtub in the centre with a small black polythene pipe flowing into it. The place looked pretty filthy so despite having not showered for several days we decided to give the spring a miss'.
Some springs are more of a hot spring puddle as below. It's aptly named geyser ...

the first shower we took after days of cycling in Pamir

However this website also notes the geyser, but the picture seems at odds with above. Another puts the above as the hot spring of Ak-Jar, which this reporter notes is just a trickle ...

er is said above, Madiyan hot spring is not located there. It's seems also to be more well-known. Lonely Planet
'Incredibly isolated, and usually unmanned (thus de facto free), the springs consist of two covered concrete basins fed by water that is so hot as to be only just bearable. This mixes with a cooler inflow when water levels are high enough'.
I mean at least I could find some more accurate information. But it does seem to contradict the above, so let's put this down as a totally different hot spring. Here's a good visit report from goatsontheroad. And the below:

A few hours from Murghab there are Madiyan hot springs. They are located in a gorge next to a small river. These hot springs were very popular with tourists until a few years ago, when a landslide blocked the easy road to them. The roads to them through the mountains which we took are rough and then there is a path down the gorge to the river. The hot springs buildings were quite old and rusty, but it was still a great experience and the views were absolutely beautiful.

Apparently they are very hot. Very remote. Free. And are attached to two non-functioning greenhouses.
Can't withhold this great photo:

The Madiyan hot springs are a few hours drive from Murghab, Tajikistan. A couple of unmaintained greenhouses are situated next to a river. The site is a tourist destination because of its hot springs. Photo taken on July 24, 2012. 

It's suggested in a UN doc that it has ecotourism potential. It's current status though is described as follows:
'Hot springs are developed, with a bathhouse, greenhouse, cafe and yurt camp'.
  An experience:
'After spending what was apparently a sufficient amount of time questioning and commiserating with the greenhouse’s keepers, we were invited to take a dip in the hot springs. I looked around, confused; all I saw were yurts and the very cold-looking brook. I caught sight of my boss just as he was ducking into a rectangular dried-mud hut; he pointed his disappearing arm around the corner to what turned out to be the women’s half of the indoor hot springs.
When packing for a road trip that ranged in liberating climate from Afghanistan to the frigidly cold Eastern Pamirs, I didn’t exactly think to bring my bathing suit. Thankfully, I was informed that people don’t wear any clothes in Tajik hot springs. Um, what?! I wasn’t overly comfortable with the thought of someone – perhaps even my male colleagues, if fate decided to serve me up a particularly unlucky day – walking in on me stark naked. I decided to go the conservative route and remain fully clothed (in my head scarf and floor-length kurta, to boot) and instead just give my feet a soak.To call it a ‘hot’ spring was a bit of an understatement. I might as well have stuck my feet in a tub of molten lava because I’m pretty sure that’s how hot the water was. I’m just glad I was enough of a prude to not have gone ‘all-in’ and that it was only my feet that suffered what felt like third-degree burns'.
Others also describe it as relaxing or too hot ...  

Having cleared this confusion, I see that there are also references to Eli Su hot springs with photo's depicting Madiyan ...

Completing a loop from the Wakhan & the Pamir, returning to Khorough one can visit the hot spring of Jelandy (Jelondy, Dzhelondy). 

What can we expect? Expedition-east
'We found the sanatorium. This is a soviet style health center. It has rooms where you can sleep, and like turkish baths. The hot water came from the ground out of the hot springs near by. When you got close to them, you could smell the sulphuric smell, if you don’t it, it smell like rotten eggs. We checked out the sanatorium from the inside but we found it both a little bit unclean and decided to check out the town of Jelandy'.
 Didacoydiaries again:
'I stayed in the Sarez Sanatorium.  I got my own beautiful room with twin beds and on suite bathroom for 1 frikking dollar (how I got it this cheap is beyond me).  Hot springs on tap and a kitty cat on my bed made me so happy.
Throughout the evening I got persistent knocks on the door from drunk men.  I eventually moved the table across the door.  Thank goodness I did as someone banged and yelled at me at about 2 am and tried to bash down the door. . . maybe that’s why I only paid a dollar'.
Following this link is a photo of outside of bathing complex.

Hot springs at Jelandy

Some people make odd cultural discoveries while soaking:
'We arrived in Jelandy in the late afternoon, where we checked into the local truckstop / hot springs. We were pretty keen on more hot springs, but were disappointed by the grotty settings: lots of men (including one carrying a large rifle), public baths with tiles covered in about 2 years worth of scum filled with luke warm spring water. We hadn't bathed in almost a week, otherwise we probably wouldn't have entered the pools. Myriam and I didn't even take a pre-bath shower, a taboo, since we were covered in dirt (this really grossed Mathieu and Yann out when they heard). We also made an important Tajik cultural discovery pertaining to shaving. We had already observed that Tajik women don't shave their legs nor their armpits, but after two naked public baths we were able to conclude that there seems to be widespread shaving of another part of the body...weird (note this was mainly Myriam's discovery)'.
More than 120 km due south of Murghab is the 'undeveloped' hot spring of Shaimak (Shaymak / Sheymak). It describes as follows
'A road runs east of Murghab to the Qulma pass and Chinese border. The road splits near the border and one route follows another valley south towards Afghanistan, past several summer nomadic camps. At the end is the Kyrgyz village of Shaimak, where home and yurt stays may be organized, and a few kilometers further, an undeveloped hot spring'.
 A (photographic) experience:

In small building was small pool with hot water, it was ugly as hell but after 5 days wihout water...

Besides a hot pool inside there is also a pool outside next to the cold lake.

Nearby should be a hot spring which is named as Bakhbur, near the Aksu river (source). Only the one mention, though it does click through to a photo.

There is but one mention of Jarty Gumbaz (Jarty Gumbez / Djarty Gumbez) hot spring. Apparently located near the Zor-kul lake.
This blogger mentions:
'Greeted by a fresh and bright morning I sped along to Jarty Gumbez, a hunting camp with hot springs. After a brief chat with bemused locals I continued onwards and literally upwards'.
In the original blog, I mention references to hot springs in/at Sheulk, Sarhad, Sargez, Ararakar and Kipkut. However it now dawns on me that all these may well be located in Afghanistan! Oops. As the Afghan's have always had a high degree of independence, this part of the Wakhan was meant to shield the British empire from bordering directly with that of Tsar ruled Russia. Or vice versa ...

And then a new feature; orphaned hot spring photo's. Following are two photo's both located in the to Wakhan, but of unknown location, even though I have the source. By the looks of this, they are the same hot spring. Does anybofy know where these are located?

Warming up in a hot spring in the valley – our first wash in a while! 

The third is a seperate location, possibly away from the Wakhan. The drawing should give enough idea of it's location:

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