Published: October 18th 2004
October 18th 2004
Well, since I last wrote... ehm, many things have happened. I guess it's been ten days, but it seems about a month. When I went to the airport to fly the next day, the weather didn't favor me, and the flight was cancelled, so I decided to wait it out till the weather was better. I sat thinking what to do, because I didn't want to stay at the overpriced Great Game Tour Company again, so I decided to try and get a bed in a private flat, Malohats BB which is 5 bucks a night. On the mashrut there, I met a young English student, Ramziyah, and we talked briefly, and I gave her my email, though she looked confused by it.
I got out and tried Well, since I last wrote... ehm, many things have happened. I guess it's been ten days, but it seems about a month. When I went to the airport to fly the next day, the weather didn't favor me, and the flight was cancelled, so I decided to wait it out till the weather was better. I sat thinking what to do, because I didn't want to stay at the overpriced Great
These are some of the people I travelled with
Game Tour Company again, so I decided to try and get a bed in a private flat, Malohats BB which is 5 bucks a night. On the mashrut there, I met a young English student, Ramziyah, and we talked briefly, and I gave her my email, though she looked confused by it.
I got out and tried and had a big game of phone tag with about 6 Russian speakers, and it finally looked like I might have a flat to stay at, but a woman told me to call back in ten minutes, so I went to a nearby internet cafe. On my way out, I ran into Ramziyah, and she told me in halting, very rough English that I had to come with her to a celebration. So I went to the "celebration", and I was even more of a freakshow than usual, with several hundred university students gawking at me and talking.
The celebration was a sort of dance, which is really pretty indescribable. I would exaggerate if I said there were a thousand young men on two football fields, but there were at least 600, and over megaphones the song from 2001: A Space
The mountains behind them are in Afghanistan, but we are in Tajikistan
Odyssey would play, and they would all run howling in pre arranged patterns over the field. Extremely bizarre. I was finally kicked out by a cop for not being a student, and for being the only boy in the bleachers along with 800 girls, and a foreigner to boot. More insanity ensued when I went for a walk around the artificial lake with two of Ramziyahs friends. They were all Badakhshani by the way. Badakhshan is an autonomous region of Tajikistan that has a language as different from Tajik as English is from German, and where 80% of the population makes less than 200 dollars a year, one of the poorest places on earth, and where I was headed next, and am now.
To make a long story short, Ramziyah offered me a place to stay, and I accepted. She insisted that I was hungry, and even though she is poorer than dirt, she insisted on paying for food even while I shouted and begged for her not to buy anything, and even tried to physically restrain her from buying me food, but to no avail. This is the insane frantic Badakhshani hospitality I am now used to. I
In the basketball court outside the house I stayed in
went and sat in on her classes, in a distinctly soviet classroom with a prominent quote by K. Marx in English across the top “A foreign language is a weapon in the struggle of life” and descriptions of England “England has no revolutionary workers party to safeguard the interests of the proletariat, and the common people are open to capitalist exploitation” It reminds me of two nights ago, the 13 year old boy who lives in the flat I’m staying in Khorog asked me for help with his English homework. The question was “who are your favorite writers and poets?” I explained to him what writers and poets meant, and he, a boy who was never alive at the same time as the soviet union told me “I like Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy!” I think Tajikistan and Badakhshan are forever tied to Russia.
Anyway, I enjoyed sitting in on the English class, but then I went to Ramziyahs house, where her aunt lives, and then the hospitality went into overdrive. Ramziyah not only forced on me a ridiculous amount of food, but she also scrubbed my shoes, washed my hair, feet, and socks, and constantly refilled my tea cup,
Me with Anzo and friends
By the Pyanj river that demarcates the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan
and then we went off to some other relatives, an English teacher, house for dinner, since Ramziyah and her aunt are too poor to have a proper dinner, they subsist mostly on nuts and bread, and occasionally noodles. They had fed me a huge amount of nuts, and I’m afraid my visit to the second house was a disaster. They served this gigantic, beautiful, traditional Pamiri(badakhshani) feast, but I had eaten so much at Ramziyahs, I was feeling a little bit ill. I wasn’t really comfortable there either, as we didn’t have much in common (“So Alex, we love Whitney Houston. But you’re from the same country as Whitney Houston, so you must really love her! Right?” “Uhhh, Yes, of course…” “Oh we have 8 whitney Houston tapes, here, I’ll put one on now!” “Ohh, thank you, this is great”) I don’t actually like Whitney Houston, if you didn’t know. I took about three bites of dinner and then I was seriously worried I was going to throw up. Of course, they constantly pushed more food on me, and were offended when I didn’t eat. I finally just helped the teacher with her English and said I wasn’t feeling well and they put me to bed. Then, at 5:30 in the morning Ramziyah and I went to the airport, and the flight was grounded again. So after many crazy situations, and a bunch of bizarre lies Ramziyah made me tell so it would seem our relationship was Islamic appropriate, we went to her friend Ramzees house where I stayed for two days and had a lot more fun, since he and his brother Shamzee are close to my age. Oh yeah, the flight continued to be grounded each day I stayed with him, so finally I decided to take the Mashrutka ride.
On the mashrut, I met an English student just back from London, who seemed a little bit too English to me. I’m still not sure I like him after a week of friendship, since he comes from a town where most people really do make less than 20 dollars in a month, and he has a cell phone that costs 250 pounds(500 dollars) a cd player that costs 150 pounds($300) and many other accessories that convey to me an obscene amount of wealth. He’s extremely connected here, and got me a tour of the prison… all of his relatives are cops and wardens and I’m sure all of his money comes from heroin pay offs. Well not sure, but I don’t know what else to think about him. He’s also kind of a ladies man(i.e.: bastard) and he has an annoying habit of repeating the same question to me several times before the answer registers. But he is kind of fun to hang out with, and he’s got the hookup… he wants me to go hunting with him for the endangered Marco Polo sheep… which I think would be cool, but it’s just about the most irresponsible tourism can get. I have a flu right now, and he insists that if we kill a female and I drink the milk, it will cure my flu. I dunno about that, since the other folk remedies of guzzling boiling cotton oil(ahhhhhh!!) and eating gofer kebab haven’t worked too well.
Warning, the prime feature of the next section is my ill timed, crippling bowel illness, so if you don’t like reading about such things, skip it.
So I embarked on probably the most physically uncomfortable journey of my life, pushing my limits of comfort nearly to their limits on this 36 hour journey with 12 people crammed in there with me. 36 hours, and, to be honest with you, I was having some bowel problems, travelers diarrhea, and about 30 minutes into the trip I shit my pants, and it stunk until we stopped for lunch 8 hours later and I cleaned myself up. Oh, and the seat? The seat I was on snapped about two hours into the trip and I had to sit basically on a pole from then on. At the dinner break I went to the toilet in a mud shack, but it was so dark I found myself ankle deep in human feces. I got out of there and washed off my shoes, but I still managed to track huge smears of feces into the van, causing extreme stench for the rest of the trip. No one seemed to mind though, and remained in good spirits as our heads slammed against the ceilings. All along that road each time we stopped for a bathroom break, I couldn’t go off the road because it’s packed with landmines after just a few feet. Also, I have yet to see a toilet in Badakhshan… the bathroom is the mountains. So I took to using the pages from my Russian phrasebook for toilet paper. Hmm, this section is kind of horrible, I think I’ll add a disclaimer at the top.
There were ruined tanks also all along the road, other than the landmines, they were my first taste of the remnants of war. Despite all the physical pain, fatigue, stench, and filth, I was really happy on this trip. No one seemed to mind that I stunk, and they were all still friendly and curious. Bouncing along, a funny little girl, very mischievous, who I’d given a yo-yo, was asked what I was to her, and she said I was her uncle, which I thought was very sweet. We stopped in a couple of small towns, and one unbelievable pleasant chaikhana(teahouse) for lunch, surrounded by flowers and greenery, and the most dramatic scenery, these vertical peaks that seem to dwarf the Alps, certainly the mountains in Washington. Fresh, clean, drinkable water running everywhere in streams, children playing, and warm sunlight on your face, though the snow capped mountains surround you, seeming to be at an arms length, it really seems kind of like heaven here in Badakhshan. Especially since I’m filthy rich here. I met many people on the mashrut who I’ve been in touch with for the past week that I’ve been staying in Khorog, and I’m really glad I didn’t take the plane. Ramziyah taught me some pamiri language before I left, and I’ve been expanding my vocabulary significantly, and it always seems to delight and entertain everyone when I speak. I am really starting to grasp the basics.
On the mashrut I met a lovely girl, Nargiz, and I’ve been staying at her flat with her two brother and cousing, Farod, Mahteen, and Anzo. Her aunt also sleeps there, and sometimes other cousins do too. There is electricity for between 4 and 8 hours each day, at seemingly random intervals, and they don’t have running water. The toilet is just a latrine, and I have to wait until late at night if I don’t want people staring at me. When I went to the public showers with Mahteen, a group of 3 boy just stopped bathing and followed me around, watching me wash myself. Sometimes it really gets me down, how poor they are, but their hospitality is still extreme. I’ve been taking on American cooking projects as an excuse to buy them food, as their diet consists mostly of potatoes and onions. I insist that I want to bake cookies, which they don’t know about, and buy 5 kilos of flour and sugar, and make one batch of cookies. Or I make scrambled eggs and buy 2 dozen eggs and 2 kilos of sausage and leave the leftovers for them. I spend about 7 dollars a day on food, which feeds all 7 of us very well, but I’m afraid they are growing dependent on me. It’s so frustrating, I mean, they have enough but they are so unhealthy… their diet is just awful, totally imbalanced. Ohh yeah, and it’s true, bread is holy. Everyone freaked out yesterday when I almost stepped on a breadcrumb. I want to spend a lot of time talking about various customs, but I am writing so much. I am also learning pamiri dancing each night, which is a lot of fun. You know how when there’s a power outage and everyone is brought closer together by playing games and talking instead of watching TV? It’s like that here every night, we play games, tell stories, tell jokes, wrestle, have contests, sing, make beats and dance to them, have truth or dare style games and prepare food over wood fires, every single night. It’s really beautiful how close everyone is. A great quality that seems to have evolved through the power problems is that everyone is really easily amused, and entertaining is quite easy. We spend a lot of time teaching each other language when the power is out.
It’s very male dominated, and I am getting very used to super subservient women. I helped paint the flat yesterday, that’s a mans work, but the women do all the house work.workeverything else. Wow, there is so much to tell it’s overwhelming, the culture is just so different, and it becomes more and more clear as my status as guest here slowly shifts to that of resident. I’ve been trying to continue my travels for about 3 days now, but they just keep insisting that I stay, and I’m so happy just spending time with them and hopefully helping them out, I haven’t got the gumption to go just yet. Plus, not having to pay for accommodation is really helping out my budget. I’ve been exploring around the town, it’s very small and most people know each other. I have a few destinations I have to visit to see relatives of friends I’ve made. I don’t know what else to say, everyone wants to invite me to their houses and the traditional pamiri houses are very beautiful. I trust that everyone who reads this will try their best to visit Badakhshan, as I really believe it is one of the greatest places on earth. Everything is absolutely wonderful, except the economy. It makes me wonder if the economy improved to the level of the US economy if there would be the same set of problems we have in the US, of neurosis and alienation from family and society, and the shameless materialism. Christ, it would take me weeks to fully describe the culture here, and this internet is costing me dearly, so I have to go for now. This is the first time the internet has worked in a week, and the power has gone out 5 times since I started writing. I have to write in Word and save every two minutes and six and seven times, I just lost two scraps of progress. Well anyway, today I am going to play pool with Sino and Nargiz, and tomorrow I am going to climb one of the vertical mountains that surround this town and it’s aquamarine river, which you can drink from with no problems, by the way, amazing water here. I really can’t write enough, readers ought to send me personal inquiries about specific things and I can describe in more detail. Oh yeah, no one seems to give a shit about politics here… and they don’t really know the difference between Australians, Americans, and English, and I’ve encountered no prejudice or deceit of any kind. I’d almost forgot to address the ‘danger’ issue. Though I’m 4 kilometers from Afghanistan at the moment, I’ve never felt safer anywhere in my life. Hygiene is probably the most dangerous thing here, and there are no landmines here for at least 200 miles. It just seems like the most preposterous and frustrating thing in the world that people think that there is any danger here whatsoever. The war is long over and the peace is more wholesome than any Los Angeles will know during my lifetime. I don’t have the verbal power to dismiss concerns for safety in Badakhshan with the force that they need to be dismissed with. Please come to Central Asia and see for yourself before you judge it at all. I thought before I came here that it was slightly dangerous and that I would need to be careful, because of people constantly haranguing me to ‘be careful over there.’ Interestingly, none of the people who warned me had ever been within a thousand miles of here. Even if I wasn’t careful, the people are so wonderful I strongly doubt any harm would ever befall me. Please don’t base your opinions on anything you hear in the media. “stan” just means “land of” and this could just as easily be called Tajikia or Tajikland, and then everyone would probably think it much safer. Arghh. Very silly all of that… I just finished reading 1984… don’t be part of a fear driven economy, come to Tajikistan and help create some economic equilibrium in the world by spending your money here. Love to all,
The power went out 3 more times while posting this