TAJIKISTAN with the Tajik Outlaws...Life ain't easy in the High Pamir

Published: November 25th 2017
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TAJIKISTAN with the Tajik Outlaws...Part 5.

Sherali our guide lives with his wife and two children in Alichur in the High Pamir (see last blog).

Zamanbek (Mr Zee) our driver lives with his wife and four children in Murghab.(our next destination).

In the 4 months of Summer they must work and earn as much money as possible to support their families as Winter is a gruelling 8 months long...temperatures averaging minus 45 degrees Celsius during the day and minus 55 degrees Celsius at night.

In preparation for Winter Sherali buys 3 tonnes of coal and a lorry load of yak dung for fuel. He also buys a lorry load of a woody bush that is used for kindling.

These are burnt in a stove in the middle of their dwelling which has pipes running off it to distribute the heat.

In Winter his wife and he take shifts to keep the fire going, care for the children and sleep. They cannot afford to sleep at the same time as the fire needs tending half hourly and if it goes out they would freeze to death.

Children learn very quickly not to touch the hot pipes...vigilance particularly required as his youngest is a toddler!

But he reports no one has died of cold in his village in his memory...gotta be tough to endure and survive...and survive they do.

He and his family wear clothes that make them look like Michelin Men...boots...leather pants that go up to their chests...very thick fur coats and hats.

But the men are unable to work in Winter as it is too cold.

Last Winter he took his family and rented a flat in a town away from the Pamir as the area is warmer than in Alichur...but folk identify home and usually return from whence they came...unless you are a woman who goes to her husband's village and waits there in Summer till he returns from his work if it be elsewhere.

Sherali studied in Moscow as many educated in Tajikistan do.

One year a French couple that he guided in the Pamir paid for him to spend a couple of weeks with them in Paris. He spoke fondly of the varieties of cheese and food...and emotionless of the avenues and lavish way of life there.

We wondered if a taste of the high life in Paris was a kind thing for them to do...then returning him to his hard life in the Pamir...but he spoke of each day in Paris without emotion as if it was just another day.

No work but all play

The men sit around the stove warming their hands while Denise & I listen...the wind rippling the skins around the hole in the roof of the yurt as smoke curls then disappears into the night...friends chatting...laughing... an honour to be included...with hard men of the Pamir...'twas quite an insight.

In Oz there is a saying, "All work and no play"...Must be tough being inside all the time...What do you guys do in Winter during the day?

As they have thick clothes and coats the men can spend most of their days outside...playing a game with bones.

A shallow hole is dug into the icy ground. 6 sheep knuckle-bones are placed in the hole. A large circle is drawn in the dirt around the hole.

There are minimum of two teams of at least four who stand on the outer edge of the circle holding yak knuckle-bones which are for throwing and are larger than sheep's bones.

A player places his heel on the edge of the circle and throws the yak bone at the hole. He has three throws to attempt to knock a sheep bone out of the hole. If a sheep bone jumps out of the hole he has another throw until he misses. Once a bone is out of the hole a player can throw the yak bone to hit that sheep bone.

Play alternates from team to team, player to player.

The aim of the game is to empty the hole of sheep bones and knock the sheep bones outside the circle.

If a player knocks a sheep bone out of the circle, he puts it in his pocket.

The game continues until all six bones are knocked out of the circle.

If one team has say 4 bones and the other 2, the game re-starts with only 4 bones (2-2), a winning team keeping any excess bones after each round and play continues until one team has no bones...and the winning team has all six.

Sherali plays this game on most days from 9am to 5pm...blizzards permitting...at average minus 45 degrees C.

Me wondering how they could move at all in those clothes...and when does he sleep and do fire duty at home!

Competition in the bone game is so fierce that each Winter about 15 teams converge on Murghab for the Annual Pamir Bone Games Tournament (my name as I cannot recall its real name)...lasting over about 15 days.

Sherali's younger brother is a "professional player representing Alichur" (sounds like a bit of money may change hands).

And no surprise to us...Mr Zee is in the Murghab team!!!

Is there nothing he cannot do?..

Mr Zee casts me a sideways grin...biting his lip...'cos Sherali's brother is so good that Alichur won last year!!!


On the road again

Denise and I did not shower in Alichur...no idea if Dangerous Dave & Merry Jo did...hearty breakfast of semolina and cherry jam...green or black tea as usual...meeting at the others' homestay for a 10am start.

Passing a small yurt village in green meadows where Mr Zee says Hi to one of his sisters then to Ah-Balyk (White Fish Spring)...the hospital of the fish.

Fish swim to this spot from the rivers and streams of the Pamir for their annual spring clean...for treatment and to heal...waters clear cerulean blue...fighting for the morsels we throw to them.

Past rock hills in varied colours...along the ancient Silk Road.

In the 6th century A.D. a leader of a Chinese expedition fell ill and a tomb was built where he died. As this trader was an important person his mausoleum was grand and became a place where other expeditions would camp and some shelter inside...other tombs springing around it.

I gaze in awe that it is still there...thankful there is a wire mesh fence protecting it from graffiti hordes...other than the Chinese border...the only wire fence I recall in the Pamir.

Then to the nearby village of Bash-Gumbaz...stopping to say hello to another one of Mr Zee's sisters and her husband and small child...we'll catch up with the others shortly...Denise taking a Polaroid photo of Mr Zee with his sister...to present to him at the end of the trip as the ultimate surprise.

An addition to the itinerary...across an empty plain to a rocky hill...climbing up to a cave...8,500 year old rock art the sign in Tajik says...of a pig and a bullock and something else.

Sherali explaining the red ochre from the drawings cannot be traced to its area of origin...me wondering what other rock art has perished here over millenium as there were many traces of the red ochre in other parts of the cave.

Having visited numerous ancient places in our travels...the rock art thrilled me...the sun beating down to sap enthusiasm from some who appeared little interested...but not to me.

Vandals had not defaced what little is left here.

Murghab - Mr Zee's home town

We arrive at 3 pm where Shane has arranged a hotel for two nights...declaring that Dangerous Dave & Merry Jo and Denise and I have rooms with our own bathrooms and showers as we had been in homestays separate from the group for a few days.

The others have to share a communal bathroom at the end of the hall with backpackers for at least the first night...no power until later tonight...howls of disapproval from the usual suspects...suck it up folks...that's life around here.

We are on the High Pamir...and Shane is the leader and his edict is clear.

(Don't tell anyone but we insisted Shane use the shower in our room)!

We head out of town climbing a steep slope to a flat desert plain surrounded by mountains for the horse festival but it is 4pm and they are packing up...hundreds of folk around some yurts...we'll return tomorrow.

Denise and I walking through the town down narrow dirt lanes between shanty like dwellings in concrete, tin and clay that have seen better days.

My quest is the mosque I can see on the outskirts...alone in its glory surrounded by ripples of green grass as if an earthquake has been through.

Behind the mosque a stream...women on a small bridge...filling buckets with water then washing clothes and splashing around...reflections mirrored in the water...men with dogs crossing to chat...moments of daily life of this and that.

Shane has come down with a fever today...meds from Dave & MJ...laid flat on his back...attempting to sleep it off but saying he's not missing the horse festival tomorrow.

Murghab Chabysh Horse Festival

9;30am hot & clear...crowd gathering...two small girls in Tajik party gear...one pushing a pram...the other turning...my opening photo...young lad on
Chabysh Horse FestivalChabysh Horse FestivalChabysh Horse Festival

Photo by Denise
a bicycle riding this way then back again.

Two yurts with women bending down...cooking...men chatting in their Kyrgyz hats...kids running around.

Men on horses silhouetted against the brown grainy clime...others wandering in family groups...women with headscarves obscuring their faces or keeping dust out of their mouths or eyes...excitement building...men on horses prancing by.

A stage with a guy on keyboards and two in cowboy hats singing...microphones...Kyrgyz men in front dancing and MJ joining them swinging.

Sherali pressing for the Dancing Car to do what the name suggests...gathering our group together for the grand event.

Dance area clear...me loping in with the rhythm of a camel...just like at Timbuktu...turn...weight on one heel...finger beckoning...band into it...Denise grooving towards me...chests touching...shoulders rotating Ethiopian style...legs pumping...crowd cheering...Naddya, Dave & MJ scooting in dancing...kids joining...the Pamir enjoying another party day.

Panting and pooped retreating after our frantic foray...the young children continuing the groove with sensational moves.

The sun beats down...skin frying...fantastic portraits...lots of standing around.

Eventually the crowd stretches down both sides of the horse track...police and officials pressing us behind rope lines...men in green bandanas on horses with numbers on bibs on their chests and backs...lining up.

Then they are off...11 horses flashing by...across the brown desert...disappearing around that distant hill...climbing that mountain slope...5 kms into the distance and eventually heading back...crowd bunching...cheering each rider in...two actually neck and neck fighting for minor placings...stragglers limping in...the crowd cheering...slapping of backs.

I chat to Policeman or two...not letting me photograph them...Naddya videoing me with two of them...not minding that.

We decide to head back to the hotel at 12:30pm for lunch...Tajik girls with ice creams...an ice cream vending machine behind one of the yurts...tempted to join them as the sun beats down.

But Denise & I have suffered gut issues since Dushanbe...blaming the lamb with cream sauce we had at the Ukrainian...gotta be so careful what you eat when traveling...gut aches and the trots not worth a local dairy product to get short relief from the heat.

Gathering to head off outside a yurt ...a man approaching Shane..."Are you the Travel Camel?"

It was Joan Torres a guy from Barcelona who Shane had been in email contact with but never met...recognised Shane's hat...Shane staying to have lunch with him and his girlfriend while the rest of us headed back.

Shane & Joan TorresShane & Joan TorresShane & Joan Torres

From Barcelona...recognised Shane's hat
and I were knackered so after lunch we had a sleep, a shower and declined to go back to the Festival for the horse wrestling and bride/bridegroom races that afternoon.

See Dangerous Dave & Merry Jo excellent pictures of that in their blog Horse Festival at the Highest Level and Leaving the “Cloud” in Murghab .

Sometimes when travelling one has to make a decision whether you do or whether you don't.

Ours was we would have probably got heatstroke if we had gone back. MJ saying there was a lot of standing around. So notwithstanding I missed some sensational pics...our health was worth missing that.

Shane however was not so lucky...suffering for days after...his fever raging...and now he has heat stroke as well.

Did I regret missing the afternoon at the horse festival?

No...I had a private photo session with the prettiest young woman in Murghab for my forthcoming Faces of Tajikistan blog.

Do I regret it?

Nah...no way...no regrets...only smiles looking back.

Relax & Enjoy,

Dancing Dave

Additional photos below
Photos: 105, Displayed: 30



White Fish Spring

26th November 2017

Ice cream.
Another great blog. I loved the intro about the winters and heating - an often overlooked part of travel experience due to not many folks visiting through the colder months. I do like the sound of eating ice-cream in a yurt full of Tajik girls - but a regular coffee will have to satisfy for the time being. Dave
26th November 2017

Ice cream
Thanks for commenting Dave. The sharing of daily life by locals is the bud of travel for us. The telling of life in the Pamir one cold windy night in a mountain yurt and how to play the bone game was like a flower opening for us...beautiful and revealing in so many ways. The best part was they were willing to share it with us.
26th November 2017

The air is thin.....the smiles are bright
Dancing One......great descriptions of a fabulous part of the journey that once again transport us back to a magical place.....many thanks....The Dangerous One
26th November 2017

The air is thin.....the smiles are bright
I thought Tajikistan would be a revelation Dangerous One but I had no idea how beautiful. As we work our way into the High Pamir day by day the images and experiences got better and better. How privileged are we that locals were happy to share it with us?
27th November 2017

It's cold alright!
Gee, i thought we are cold in Calgary with - 30C. Amazing how people make a living at that bone chilling -50c. Great story, Dave! I am on road, cuerwntly traveling through Chiang Mai...may not be able to read always. Bear with me pl.
27th November 2017

It's cold alright!
Calgary to Chang Mai sounds like quite a contrast Tab. Enjoy your trip. We found the heat of the days in Tajikistan brain sapping especially in the lowlands but Winter in the Pamir would be life threatening for me...even if they let me join the bone game! My next blog has the best landscape pics in my opinion by far...rivals the best in the World...so I hope you don't miss that. Happy travels.
27th November 2017

So interesting reading about the details of the yurts, I've always wanted to stay in one. Sorry to hear that you and Denise had dodgy guts on the trip, I know getting sick is sometimes unavoidable - but what a pain in the bum (literally) it is :( I'm intrigued by Merry and Dave's first aid kit! I'll need to ask Merry for an itemised list...
27th November 2017

We brought a pharmacy. Dave & Merry Jo brought an apothecary...drugs not otherwise available to man. Effective though!. None of the food at the homestays caused any problems Ren, That's probably because we made sure everything we consumed was just cooked and hot. All except the home made apricot or cherry jam which was worth risking dying for!
28th November 2017

Great Post!
28th November 2017

Great Post!
Thank you for your comment. An insight into life in the High Pamir. Enjoy.
28th November 2017
Every Pamir day is a party day

Amazing picture
Love it!
28th November 2017
Every Pamir day is a party day

Amazing picture
Well spotted Nina & Markus. When clicked on to enlarge it has a wow factor for me. We like it so much it is our Christmas card image this year.
30th November 2017

Transporting me to the past.
Once again thank you for telling the story of our adventure together. Missing you both. What a grand trip in the High Pamir's. It was terrific meeting the families of our friends. Denise's horse festival photo is perfect... better watch out she's coming after you. :) Wish we could fly Sherali and Mr Zee in to visit us. That would be great fun.
30th November 2017

Transporting me to the past.
The recent past I hope MJ. The adventure continues...watch this space!
1st December 2017

And here I thought Sweden was cold :p
Minus 45 Celsius is a killer, respect to those that are tough enough to survive it! I actually spent the first half of the post thinking that maybe the usual suspects had calmed down and decided to join the fray on enjoying the region for what it is. Seems I was mistaken. :-p Great blog as always! I look forward to the next one!
1st December 2017

And here I thought Sweden was cold :p
I could not even imagine minus 45 let alone minus 55C Per-Olof. I understand Murghab is the coldest place in Tajikistan and has recorded minus 60C before. The coldest I have experienced is about minus 20C in China...I was the only one at the carved grottos that day! But you Swedes are tough...minus 20C for you is probably a fine day!
2nd December 2017

Horsing around in the roof of the world
There was such a festive spirit amongst the people of the High Pamir at this horse festival - it was a joy & privilege to be part of it. This is same place where Merry Jo on-gifted Tara Cloud’s scarf, so fitting & deeply personal - great times shared with our dear friends Dave & Merry Jo xx
2nd December 2017

Horsing around in the roof of the world
Great times...great folks to horse around with...shared memories of the High Pamir...priceless.
10th December 2017
Every Pamir day is a party day

Party day
Girls will be girls . Love it !
11th December 2017
Every Pamir day is a party day

Party day
This is one of our favourite photos of the trip Lynne. Fills me with the children's joy whenever I see it. Transports me every time.
10th December 2017

Winters Tales and Bones
These people have such hard lives as you say ..I wondered what the Russians ever did for them when they were part of USSR. The Bones games sounds like a version of English Lawn Bowls !!
11th December 2017

Winters Tales and Bones
Some feel they were better off under Russian rule Lynne. They all had jobs, compulsory education and accommodation. Yet did they have an independent spirit that we all enjoy. That I don't know. Bones like lawn bowls...interesting take and I can see what you mean.
23rd November 2018
Every Pamir day is a party day

This is a great picture! Perfect for a Xmas card for sure!
25th November 2018
Every Pamir day is a party day

Every day is a party day
One of my favourite pics I have ever taken, Andrea. So many conjectures it conjures up. And for me so special as it is in the high Pamir.

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