The differences could not have been more stark. There are two towns within five kilometres of each other both called Ishkashim. The one in Afghanistan was dry, dusty with unpaved streets, ramshackle buildings, irregular electricity supply and the streets dominated by ambling men. In contrast, the paved roads of Ishkashim in Tajikistan were lined with elegant, tall poplar trees, neat buildings, and smartly dressed men and women were seen in numbers. The only similarity was the desire of residents to know about the Ishkashim on the other side of the border.
It felt good to be back in Tajikistan.
The next morning my driver, Mendibay, one of the many Kyrgyz living in the Pamir Mountains (the Pamirs), arrived at the guest house sporting metal caps on his teeth often found in the region. His Mitsubishi Pajero was a luxurious comparison to my battered transport in Afghanistan. The roads in Tajikistan were far smoother and enabled a much faster journey, and I would often glance towards Afghanistan and espy the twisted, rough tracks that I had travelled the week before.
Our journey would take us into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and there are two possible routes. The first is along the famed 41, the Pamir Highway, whereas the longer southern route skirts the Afghanistan border. The most rewarding drive is this south road due to the dramatic scenery and attractions on the way.
No comforts on the Pamir Highway
The two most impressive sights on this southern route were the quaint museum in Yamg dedicated to the Sufi mystic and musician Mubarak Kadam Wakhani. His grandson, Aydarmamad, is the builder and curator of this small memorial. I was treated to an exquisite recital on some of the instruments carved by Aydarmamad, his playing was superb. The most spectacular site was the ruined Yamchun Fort which sat atop a steep escarpment and commanded stunning views along both sides of the valley.
I met eleven other foreigners on the road to Kyrgyzstan, travelling by either bicycle, motorcycle, or car. These were the most impressive group of travellers I have met since my time in North Korea. To tackle this route requires a person to totally immerse themselves in their travel environment.
There are no familiar comforts; all food is either Tajik or Kyrgyz (no Western fare at all) and essentials such as flushing toilets or running showers are the exception rather than the norm. It was pleasing to be surrounded by others that shared my approach to travelling.
After sleeping for the evening in Langar, we commenced our ascent to the Pamirs or as the locals term it, the “Roof of the World”. The first week of June is the spring migration (Kuch and we frequently passed herds of animals being ushered along by weary farmers. Many seemed to travel long distances to keep their livestock alive.
We were often travelling at heights of approximately 4000 metres and with no trees it was a most barren landscape – far less visually appealing than the dramatic peaks and deep valleys during the rest of my time in Tajikistan. A recent snow resulted in still frozen lakes and bleak mountains with receding fingers of snow, even though it was now summer. Once we joined the M41 (the Pamir Highway) the road conditions improved markedly and remained that way for the remainder of the trip.
Prior to arriving in Murgab, the Pamirs’ major town, we halted at a fascinating Ah-Balyk (White fish) spring, a Chinese tomb, and some Neolithic cave paintings. All of these would have been more enjoyable had a ripping mountain gale not made conditions terribly uncomfortable. Due to the minimal vegetation, even a zephyr would cause clouds of dust and dirt to coat everything in sight – I have never been in a dustier environment in my life.
This strong wind also caused an alteration in my plans.
A camel trek in Murgab
Upon arriving in Murgab, I was met by the ebullient Saidali of Pamir Guides. He had organised my transport for the entire time in Tajikistan, and was very attentive and eager to ensure that I enjoyed my visit. Saidali had organised a two night camel trek near Rang-kul and staying in yurts. But the unseasonal winds prevented the erection of any yurts, and this news, combined with my concerns about the cold gales, saw my camel trek reduced to a single night.
Saidali quickly became more than an organiser, he became my friend. After the camel trek I stayed with his family where I was introduced to his family: his wife, three children and his mother. You could tell that there was a lot of love within this house, and it was shared with me as well. The youngest daughter, Rahima, and I developed such a bond in a short time that she was in tears when it came my time to leave.
Arriving in Rang-kul I was introduced to my camel, who was without name, so I called her “The Nameless One” (referring to the main character from the computer game, Planescape: Torment) and her handler. She was moderately sized and in the process of shedding her brown winter coat. The journey began and continued under brilliant blue skies with a glaring sun.
This was the first Bactrian camel I had ridden and their wider girth meant that my legs were spread at a most uncomfortable angle. After half an hour of sitting in this position, the pain on my inner thighs and buttocks was becoming increasingly worse, and I eventually had to dismount. Walking beside a camel was more pleasant than riding atop one, even at 4000 metres, so I split my time evenly between both activities.
The journey was amongst some of the most barren landscape you are likely to see. It was deathly quiet bar the wind and the noisy gurglings and whinings of The Nameless One. Whirlwinds of dust danced in the distance as we plodded along the hard ground devoid of any shelter with nary a tree in sight. The only flora was the occasional brown shrub and the lightest shading of green near watercourses. Naked mountains sporting different brown hues rose to peaks occasionally painted in snow. I was amazed that any animals, let alone humans, could live here.
But live here they do, and farms infrequently found, including those housing yaks. We visited one, and it provided the culinary discovery of Central Asia; the butter from the beautiful yak is the finest and richest I have consumed. After two hours, we sighted the farm where we would lodge for the night. The lack of terrain features made judging the distance difficult, and it took far longer than anticipated to finally reach our destination. All present, including The Nameless One, were relieved to arrive.
The mud-brick farm buildings contained two extended families of approximately 15 people. Their livelihoods depended on the livestock of sheep, goats and two camels housed without sturdy mud-brick pens. A stream flowed past their houses that provided some semblance of greenery, and dated machinery – namely a motor vehicle and motorcycle – provide their transport.
This was a Kyrgyz family and since I knew no words of Kyrgyz and they knew no words of English, it promised an interesting evening.
A harsh life on the roof of the world
The host family lived in a small one-room home. The household consisted of a husband, wife, one young child and a brother, presumably of the husband. With the approaching evening making the outside conditions increasingly cold, I remained indoors and watched the world of a Kyrgyz family in the Pamirs. Reclining on the rug it was as if I was invisible, for the family went about their business without paying any heed to me at all.
There was little laughter, the tone of most conversations reflected the sternness of the environment. Everything felt sombre, as if after decades the building was reflecting the emotions of the souls contained within. The only levity was confined to the antics of the young child, and I am sure even that too will evaporate over time.
There was but a single light source into the cluttered, dowdy interior; a single window of hard reinforced plastic. I surveyed the room where their entire possessions lay – cups and plates rested in a blue cupboard, whose paint was partly peeling. Drying clothes hung across the ceiling, and a tall pile of mattresses dominated one portion of the room. Almost every item I saw was functional, there was nothing superfluous. Save for the solar powered battery and television with DVD player, this abode could have easily passed for a home from 50 years prior.
I busied myself cleaning my camera from the day’s dust and dirt. Upon seeing this I was handed two binoculars to clean. The lenses on both were filthy, and it took at least 10 minutes of cleaning to bring one to a sparkling state, but the other that resembled an antique museum piece suffered from a clouding of the glass that could not be removed.
Smoke emanated from the iron stove nestled in the corner of the room as the animal dung burned within. The entire room was almost without sound as the wife quietly prepared dinner. The skies outside darkened and the male family members gradually filed in, the chores for the day now concluded.
Dinner consisted of rice, bread, and a stew that contained vegetables and a sprinkling of meat. We all squatted on the worn rugs beneath the feeble yellow light from a single globe, and everyone ate intently, noisily slurping their stew and tea until all was consumed.
After dinner, the same room was transformed into a bedroom, and it was the wife’s role to attend to every household duty, which included making beds by placing many layers of blankets on the floor for the men folk. This was “women’s work” as I was later informed.
I originally believed there to be a strong delineation of roles; men undertook all farm tasks and women all house duties. This was an incorrect assumption for the next day I saw the wife assist the husband herd goats into a pen.
The sun had barely set two hours prior when everyone retired to sleep, with the husband, his brother and the camel handler in beds next to mine. It was only next morning that I discovered that the wife and child slept in the car outside, which I suspect was due to my presence. Had I known this I would have offered to sleep there instead, but am sure this offer would have been refused.
A lesson in life
Drinking far too much water during the day meant a visit to the bathroom in the evening, but there was actually none, not even a squat toilet nor latrines; one just wandered to a designated area far from the buildings and answered nature’s call. Dropping one’s pants underneath the midnight stars with a gusty, frigid wind numbs protruding anatomy parts in a short time. And this was summer, I am sure that there must be an alternative in winter for such exposure would be dangerous, but with no common language between my hosts and I, it was not a question that could be asked.
I returned to the warm, stuffy room and regarded my surrounds. A sense of amazement washed over me, and not for the first time today. On occasions the places I visit seem so surreal that it takes time for the reality to be realised. I mused at my incredible fortune because I can enter their world and it is nigh impossible for them to walk into mine. I displayed images of Australia with photographs from my computer and from my passport where each page cleverly includes depictions of Australian life – such as animals, nature and recreation activities. However, it cannot compare to my immense privilege of physically entering another environment.
Everything about life here was concentrated on the necessities of living – working, cooking, cleaning, eating, and sleeping. It was an endless cycle with no apparent levity or respite – all activity was for necessity; nothing for indulgence. In places such as this, someone does not marry for love, they marry for survival. Without the support of a family, one could easily perish. I explore the world mostly as a loner, and when not travelling, I tend to lead a solitary life. This would be impossible in the Pamirs.
I have always considered myself a lucky person, but never more than now. It is common for me to appreciate the simplest necessities of life, such as running water and electricity. I too greatly value that every facility for me is at hand – if food is short, a supermarket is a short walk away; if I am ill, a doctor is always nearby. But not as regularly apparent was the immense freedom that comes with living in a prosperous society – the privilege to choose a path in life, whereas in many countries, there is but one choice.
Perhaps something can be learned from those who have only one choice; the value of relationships over possessions, the joy of simplicity over complexity, and the contentment of wisely choosing life’s path amongst the many that are on offer.