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Published: December 22nd 2010
What was it that made me fall in love with the place? I like challenging and remote destinations, but here Soviet-constructed roads link every settlement to its nearest town; I like culture, but here much of that has, on the surface of things, been lost, men wearing T-shirts and caps, often drinking vodka and almost invariably leaving, at least temporarily, to work in Russia, the old pre-Soviet ways of feeding one’s family having been forgotten. The scenery here is stunning, with several peaks towering above 7000m, but scenery is never the reason I travel or something that endears me to a place other than as a secondary factor. It was, of course, the Tajik people that I found so amazing. Of the fifty five countries I have visited, only the people of Vanuatu and Yap State in Micronesia have equalled the Tajiks in their complete, utter, selfless generosity and hospitality. Not only this but I found Tajiks, for a people whose homeland lies so many thousands of miles from my own, to be particularly easy to talk to, understand and build relationships with. I found them intelligent, usually speaking three or four languages (at least their local one, plus Tajik and
Russian, plus sometimes English) and knowledgeable about the outside world, having made the best use possible of the often meagre means available to achieve an education.
So where did the above traits come from? Are they natural Tajik character or did it come from Russia? A good way to find out is to look at the Wakhan Corridor, a valley divided between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. You cross the river that flows through it on a footbridge and, upon arriving in Afghanistan, gone are the cars, the electricity pylons, the T-shirts, the baseball caps, the drunken men, the schools, the roads, the lively, educated, outgoing women. Suddenly all around you are the sights, sounds and smells of Asia, exotica, poverty and repression. Fruit and vegetables are unavailable. The infant mortality rate jumps to one in three, the highest in the world. Men wear traditional Islamic dress and women either burkas in the towns or beautiful red and purple dresses in the mountain villages. Concrete is gone to be replaced by mud and stone. The gap between villages on either bank of the river is sometimes as little as twenty metres, but that distance feels as though it could equally well
be a hundred years, back to pre-USSR days. The level of hospitality on either side is roughly the same. The level of education and awareness of the outside world is vastly lower in Afghanistan. Both sides are poor but Tajikistan’s meagre and disintegrating healthcare, infrastructure and general opportunities are almost completely absent in Afghanistan. While Tajiks know that they are poor and often refer to this in conversation, I never heard an Afghan directly admit his own poverty.
On a visible level Tajik culture was destroyed by the USSR. Only a handful of traditional houses and the beautifully colourful dresses of the women distinguish it from the rest of the former Soviet Union. The USSR, however, also gave them the education and world-awareness that made Pamiri Tajiks so interesting for me to talk to and so easy to get along with. These two factors would probably have balanced one another out in my assessment of the country as a travel dstination but one other element came into play: while their physical culture may be gone for good, the spirit of the people has, however, been left intact. I hope this little story about my stay in a remoter-than-most mountain
village will shed some light on what I mean.
* * *
Khorog is a small town of single-story concrete houses nestling on the confluence of the Gunt and Panj rivers among the high, brown, rocky goliaths of the Tajik Pamir on the country's southern border with Afghanistan. Public transport to and from the place is non-existent other than freelance drivers who wait around the bazaar until their car is full of passengers: I arrived screwed up into a ball in the back of a heavily-laden overnight meat-lorry from a town called Murghab several hundred kilometres to the north, having arrived there a few hours previously in a hitched lift from Kyrgyzstan.
A section of Khorog's bazaar was devoted to minivans and jeeps waiting for customers to spin off down the country's ridiculously decrepit road network to destinations as far away as the capital Dushanbe, 24 hours to the west on the Uzbek border. These vehicles, together with prospective customers such as myself and others passing through on their way to the food or clothes stalls, thronged a small, dusty, square area of no more than 500 square metres on the banks of
the raging, brown waters of the Gunt.
It was already eleven in the morning and the freezing, 2200m night temperatures were already well on their way to disappearing in the face of the scorching midday ones. I picked my way in between people and machines through the dusty, noisy, overcrowded bazaar, side-stepping reversing vehicles and asking likely-looking drivers if any cars were departing to the Bartang Valley.
"Go to the other taxi stand," people at the bazaar told me, "no cars go to Bartang from here."
"Go to the bazaar," people at the other taxi stand, 300m away, told me, "no cars go to Bartang from here."
I reported this state of affairs to the people at the bazaar.
"Hmm," they replied, "then go to the area in between the bazaar and the other taxi stand."
"Cars very rarely go to Bartang from here at all," people told me at the area between the bazaar and the taxi stand. "If you're really serious then you should take a car to Roshan and walk from there."
My hopes and even my motivation had long begun to wane when suddenly a man offered to help
me. He was exceptionally skinny and dressed in a dark blue adidas tracksuit. Under a shock of jet black hair that somehow managed to give the impression of shooting off in all directions at once while at the same time being reasonably well combed, the eyes of a face set permanently in a rather frantic expression darted all over the place and its jaw ground continually. Within a few seconds of meeting the man I already did not trust him.
"Come with me," he jittered, "I know a cook from Bartang who always knows about all the cars going there."
He led me down an alley lined with brightly-coloured women selling fruit and vegetables from buckets and baskets on the dusty ground. We made a left turn, entered a narrow doorway and ascended some wooden stairs that managed one spiral before emerging on a landing outside a small, one-room restaurant. Inside, he explained my situation to the cook who straight away dropped everything he was doing, led us both out of the restaurant and delivered us through the bazaar to a place where a group of five women were sitting on the ground in the shade of a
small but heavily overhanging tree. The cook shouted something to the women in their language and they said something back.
"Wait with them," he then said to me in Russian before waving googbye and walking back off into the bazaar.
The jittery man spoke with the women for a while in their language then reported back to me in Russian, "Let's sit with them, they're waiting for a car to the Bartang and they've said there's a space for you."
"Are you all from Bartang?" I asked them in Russian, having sat down on my backpack. The skinny man had squatted down next to me and I noticed he smelt strongly of vodka. As soon as I had spoken he rattled off something to them in their language. I got the impression he was translating my question.
"Yes, we're all from Bartang; our village is Basid," a small, kindly-faced woman in her early thirties replied in Russian. "And you, you're not Russian, where are you from?"
"No, I..." I began, but the skinny, jittery, vodka-smelling man cut me off.
"She's asking you where you're from," he informed me in Russian.
"I know, I
heard," I said to him in Russian, not quite concealing the annoyance in my voice, before replying to the woman in Russian: "I'm from England."
"From England," my interpreter helpfully explained to the woman.
"From what town?" she asked me in Russian.
"What town are you from?" was interpreted from Russian into Russian.
"I'm from Oxford," I answered.
"He's from Oxford," my helper said, shedding some much needed light on my mysterious reply.
"Look," I said, turning to him and smiling so as not to cause offence, "it's OK, I speak Russian and so do they."
He shrugged, as if to say, 'What can you do?'
"So have you already found a car and a driver?" I asked the women. To my astonishment he yet again babbled off a quick translation.
"Yes, we have," she replied.
"Yes, they have," he explained.
"Look," I said in a slightly raised voice and no longer with a polite smile, turning on him and finally losing my temper. I was not sure what I found so irritating about his attempts to help but there was something about him that I did not like
The holy place, Basid
Interestingly they called it their "holy place", not a mosque, and I was not allowed in. From the place pictured in this photo some sort of path or steps ran up the mountainside to another "holy place" about thirty metres higher than this one.
and anyway, why was he sitting with us? Did he have nothing better to do? I had a feeling he was going to ask me for money. "I understand what they're saying," I informed him.
"So do you know what time the driver is coming?" I asked the women. As soon as it was out I realised it had been a stupid question, probably the product of my mild irritation, the heat of the day and some underlying British need for exactitude. There was no way that in Tajikistan anyone could ever no what time anything was going to happen.
"Yes, he should be here soon," the small, thirty-something woman replied optimistically. She seemed to be the most confident one of the group. "In the meantime, just sit here and wait with us!"
"What is your name?" said a quiet voice to my right. The question almost made me jump, as it came in English.
"Edward," I replied. "And you?"
The small, quiet twenty-something girl who had said it answered with a long name beginning with S. I nodded uncertainly, sure that I would never be able to remember it. "In Russian it's Sonya," she added helpfully.
I asked for the names of all the others. As she had done, they gave their full names followed by a Russian one beginning with the same letter that would be easier for me to remember.
"I very like speak English," Sonya said to me.
"Where did you learn it?" I asked.
"I study here at the university in Khorog," she replied.
"She speaks English," the jittery man I had arrived with said to me, "you can talk to her if you want."
"I know, I know, we've already been talking, thank you," I answered, barely even turning to him this time.
"She also speaks good English," Sonya told me, pointing to another woman who looked a few years older than herself.
"You speak English?" I asked her.
"Yes, I am teacher in Basid," she replied, smiling and looking away. Her name later turned out to be Pari.
"She speaks English too, go on, talk to her!" said guess-who.
I was about to do as he said when a much older and heavier-set woman, who had she been Russian I would have termed a babushka, came and sat next to me on my backpack, put her arm round me, said something to me in her language then something else to the rest of the women, all of whom laughed. She then got up and walked away.
"Her husband kicked her out of the house," the jittery man said as though that were some sort of explanation for her behaviour.
Shortly afterwards I managed to slip away while the jittery man was engaged in heated conversation with one of the women, so that he did not notice and try to come with me. I walked round to the other side of the bazaar, found a small cafe and ordered some kebabs. I got quite stuck into them and did not pay much attention to my surroundings. At some point, however, I remember suddenly becoming aware of the loud Tajik music that was playing in the cafe, hearing laughter, looking up and seeing that one of the women who worked in the cafe was dancing while the other two, much younger, were smiling and looking expectantly at me. I cannot say for certain but I am almost sure that the dancing woman was the one who had sat down and put her arm round me underneath the tree recently. I laughed and smiled good-naturedly at her but she immediately waltzed over and offered me her hand.
"Uh, uh," I grunted with a full mouth, shaking my head and pointing at my food. She raised her eyebrows, shrugged and waltzed away. A few minutes later she returned, still dancing and repeated her offer. Again I refused, smiling broadly at her.
I paid the bill after I had finished and got up to leave, but she leapt into my path and blocked the gap between two tables through which I had been planning to walk, again extending her plump and grisly hand towards me. At that I smiled and nervously backed my way around the other side of the table to make a speedy exit, not so much because I did not want to dance with her but more due to the fact that she was actually quite good and I, in my uselessness on the dance floor, would just have embarrassed myself.
Minutes dragged into hours and hours into the whole day, which, by mid-afternoon, had still not provided us with a driver. I had spent the whole day sitting with the remarkably jovial bunch of women who, it had transpired, had come to Khorog to buy stuff for a wedding that was going to take place in Basid the following week. As for the jittery man, he claimed to work for the Aga Khan Foundation and said that he was going to Basid the next day and that we could join him in his vehicle. I did not believe him: his general manner, the vodka smell that his breath carried and the fact that he spent the entire day sitting with us with nothing else to do merged together to provide a strong indication that this was not the sort of person likely to be in the employ of a charitable foundation. What his real goal was though I could not fathom and to be fair to him he had helped me out by bringing me to these women.
"Come on, get your bag and bring it back to my house," he was saying to me irritably by five in the afternoon, "their driver's not coming. We'll go in the Aga Khan Foundation car tomorrow."
"Your driver's definitely not coming today?" I asked the teacher woman. She shrugged, perhaps not wanting to contradict the jittery man.
"No, no, he should be coming," said the small, kindly-faced woman, whose name had turned out to be Zarnikor.
Several times this scene repeated itself with the jittery man telling me to take my bag and come back to his house while Zarnikor said that we should wait a bit longer. Suddenly, at around five thirty, a skinny, middle-aged man in a dusty, creased, tieless black suit that looked like it might disintegrate if I touched it and a small red Pamir hat walked up to us excitedly. He had been waiting with us on and off all day while at the same time wandering around the market.
"He's coming, let's go!" he said excitedly. We all picked up our bags and moved 300 metres down the street to the other taxi stand.
We waited and waited. The jittery man entered into some sort of negotiations with a driver then went off to a nearby cafe to drink vodka with him. When he came back he got into a minor fight with a chubby, moustached man with a strangely puppy-like face who was clearly very drunk. Eventually after an hour it was recognised that the driver was not coming and that we should all go home and meet up the next day.
"Do you want to sleep at my house tonight?" the jittery man asked me.
"No, I'm fine thanks, I'm staying in a guest house," I answered.
"Ok, do you want to have dinner before you go back? I know a good little place near here."
"Ok, why not," I agreed, being pretty hungry. We walked to the back of the bazaar, up a small flight of steps, through a wooden door and into a cafe. We sat down and ordered beef cutlets. I asked for a beer with mine, he for beer and vodka. He then disappeared and came back fifteen minutes later, just before our food arrived. During his absence the owner of the restaurant, an overweight, middle-aged woman with short, curly, grey hair had come to my table.
"Watch out for him, he's a drug addict, he takes heroin. He'll just as soon cut your throat as look at you, trust me, I know, he's my relative."
During her warning a customer at another table had been frowning, shaking his head and waving at me behind her back, in short passing me the message that what she was saying was not true. I was unsure what to believe but was not especially worried: it was still light and the bazaar was fairly busy. Plenty of people had seen me and him coming here together and he had, in fact, stopped to talk to almost everyone we had passed, including a group of militsia. Perhaps the owner at the restaurant had some personal feud with the man, a dispute over an unpaid bill or something. I would just eat my meal, drink my beer and get away from him as soon as possible.
When he came back to his seat he poured us each a shot of vodka, after which he stood up, opened the window next to our table and exploded vomit out of it. He sat back down with a kind of wonky smile that suggested he realised he had just done something disgusting but was too wasted to care. Getting away from him would be easier than I had expected. I quickly made him drink more vodka and even shared my beer with him during the meal. At the end the owner brought the bill and I put down money for my half.
"Edik," he said to me, "I haven't got any money. You know I haven't."
"I didn't know that," I said, "and I can't afford to pay for yours."
"Please," said the owner, "he won't pay me if you don't."
Feeling sorry for her, I put down the money for his food too. I picked up my bag and slung it over my shoulder. As I walked towards the door I realised the owner was engaging the jittery man in conversation and his back was turned to me. I took the chance, sped up, exited the restaurant, went down the stairs and walked away through the bazaar.
As I was walking up the town's main street in the direction of my guest house, another man drew level and began talking to me. This one was dressed in a smart, short-sleeved shirt tucked into black trousers. He was chubby and had a moustache. I trusted him almost instantly and when he invited me to his house I accepted.
"Do you want dinner?" he asked me after we had sat down in his living room. The house was a bungalow, fairly large by Khorog standards, reasonably well-furnished and with whitewashed concrete walls.
"I'm fine thanks," I said, "I've actually just eaten."
"Ok, no problem, just wait a moment," he said and disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a plate of apricots.
"So tell me, honestly, what do you think of Pamir?" he asked. He had sat down and placed his hands palms-down on his thighs. He was on a small wooden chair next to a tiny rectangular table on which the apricot bowl sat, myself sprawling opposite him on a comfortable sofa.
"It's great, I like it a lot. It's beautiful, interesting, the people are very nice. I haven't seen much of it yet though."
"What do you think about it as a place to live, though, about people's quality of life?" he asked, popping half an apricot into his mouth and scratching his moustache.
That was a difficult one. Was he testing me in some way? I would have to tread very carefully.
"Obviously salaries are low..." I began.
"Of course they are," he butted in. Was he drunk? "I get US$500 a month working for a big company and I'm considered very well-off. I have three houses around town the size of this one, built them all myself. But a security guard will get US$70 a month and a teacher US$50. That's why everyone goes to work in Moscow."
I shook my head then finished what I had been about to say: "But in other ways you're much richer than people in the West. You have such strong traditions of hospitality, so much support from your community, traditions of hospitality, strong family ties, fresh air, healthy natural food, almost no crime."
"That's what I think too!" he cried, almost ecstatic. "That's why I'll never go back to Moscow, why I'd rather live here than anywhere else! Here, if I ever need anything, I just have to ask my family, friends and neighbours. Sometimes I don't ask even, like just now, my neighbour saw I had a guest and brought round these apricots from the tree in his garden. And the same for them, if they ever need anything or have a problem, everyone will get together and help. Do you drink vodka?"
"OK, let's open a bottle!" He shouted out something in his language and a moment later one of his teenage sons appeared with the vodka and two small bowls.
"Here's to our meeting, to the Pamir and to everything good!"
"Tell me," I said after the first shot, "it's very interesting for me. Is life better now or was it better under the Soviet Union?"
"Under the Soviet Union life was better for most people than it is now," he said after thinking carefully. "People had enough food without having to leave their families and work thousands of kilometres away for years and years. But now we're freer, we can do business however we want."
"So what do people think of Russia in general? I mean they basically invaded this part of the world. People can't have been happy with them back then."
He poured another bowlful of vodka for us both. "Yes, but they developed our country for us. It's thanks to them that we're even slightly industrialised. Of course, they brought certain problems with them too," he added, nodding at the vodka bottle.
"But before Russia came, everyone had enough food without having to go and work in Moscow, but now they don't. So maybe people were better off before the Soviet Union than they are now?"
"You know why that is? It's partly because industrialisation caused the population to increase, so that now there's less arable land per person. Also, back then we knew how to farm it without any machines or anything..."
"Using traditional methods..."
"Yes, exactly, but that was all discouraged under the USSR until after two generations it had been forgotten completely. People only knew how to farm using machines. Then the USSR collapsed along with our economy and there was a huge civil war. Since then there hasn't been enough money for machinery or to support an industrialised country. People don't know how to work without industry and machinery and that is why everyone who can goes to Moscow."
* * *
We woke up with one and a half empty bottles on the table and finished the last half bottle with a breakfast of home-baked bread. Throat burning, head swimming, I walked to the bazaar with my host where we shook hands, said goodbye and he headed off to work.
I spent another day hanging around under the trees with the same crowd. Around mid-afternoon a taller than average, skinny, thirty-something man invited me for late lunch in a cafe. He had thin blond hair with a left-side parting whose fringe hung down over his forehead and to the right. Like many Pamiri Tajiks, he would not have looked out of place anywhere in Europe, so light-skinned was he. His face for some reason permanently gave me the impression that he had just pulled some prank and was awaiting the no-doubt hilarious results without making a great effort to conceal his mirth, or that he was doing something cheeky, knew he was doing something cheeky, knew that I knew he was doing something cheeky and was inwardly laughing cheekily because of it all.
"So what are we having?" he asked me as we sat down in the same dimly-lit cafe whose cook had first introduced me to the Bartang lot.
"I'm not all that hungry, I've already eaten a bit, so something small for me," I replied.
"How about the fried beef?" he asked.
"That sounds good," I answered, "let's have that."
He held up his hand to call the waitress over and then suddenly stopped, as if he had just remembered something. "And maybe fifty grams each?" he added, the cheeky hint of a smile never leaving the corner of his mouth.
"Ok, why not," I agreed.
When the waitress came he ordered two plates of fried beef, bread and a bottle of vodka that on arrival turned out to be more like five hundred grams.
"To our meeting, to England and to... to..." he searched for words, having filled our glasses and holding his up to chink with mine. As well as the cheeky grin, I now noticed, as he was looking right at me, a certain dazed quality to his eyes that gave him an air of being slightly more removed from and less aware of his surroundings than he should have been. At the same time he fully immersed himself in our conversation, never once letting it slip.
"To Basid and Bartang," I helped him out on the toast.
"So why did you come all the way here just to see Bartang?" he asked me after we had downed our shots. "There's nothing there, nothing to see and nothing to do."
"Well I didn't come here just to see Bartang," I told him, "although I am very interested in seeing what life is like in a Tajik village..."
"Bartang's not Tajik, it's Pamir. Tajikistan is further to the west. They're different places, different languages, different people. Even here in the Pamir we have different languages - Pamirsky, Bartangsky, Wakhansky," he said, using the Russian names for these tongues.
"And you, where are you from?" I asked him.
"From Basid, of course," he answered. "That's how I know all those people you were waiting with. I just work in Khorog for six months a year to save up then go back to my family for winter."
The food got eaten, the vodka got drunk and Ochi, as he called himself (though I later heard from Zarnikor that his real name was something different but that sounded similar), got a bit more incoherent. At around four o'clock he also got a phone call from Zarnikhor saying that the driver had finally arrived and we should meet them quickly. Ochi took out a note to pay with but I waved it away, saying that I would pay.
"No, no," he said, losing all traces of the cheeky grin, "I invited you here because I wanted to treat you so I'm going to pay."
"But I wanted to treat you, so please let me pay," I countered.
"No, that wouldn't be honest, that wouldn't be fair, you're a guest in our country so I can't possibly let you pay," he retorted.
"Please, I really won't let you pay," I said, waving his money away again, "I wanted to pay for you and I'll be upset if you don't let me pay."
"No, really..." he began.
"Please," I said.
"But it's not honest, it's not fair!" he said frantically, suddenly sitting forward in his chair, wide-eyed and desperate as if realising that he was going to lose the argument.
"It is honest and fair," I said, smiling at him and passing the waitress my note. "Why shouldn't I be allowed to treat you?"
He sat back in his chair, suddenly grinning, as if my smile had reassured him. "Well when you're in Basid you absolutely must stay at my house with my wife and children, I won't let you stay anywhere else, do you hear? You can do whatever you want there, ask for anything, eat anything, treat it like your own home."
"Thank you very much," I said, getting up, "now let's go, quickly."
We found Ratkha, Zarnikor and three young men standing by the road on the other side from the trees where we had previously been waiting. The driver was nowhere to be seen. Almost immediately upon our arrival Ochi suddenly grabbed me with a hand on each shoulder, staggering and swaying, trying to look into my eyes but his own crissing and crossing one another. 'Jesus,' I thought, 'how on earth did he get this drunk all of a sudden?" I glanced embarrassedly at Zarnikhor and Ratkha.
"Listen," Ochi slurred into my face, "you're staying at my house in Basid, do you hear? At my house. I won't be there, but my wife and children will. Treat it like your own home, do whatever you want."
"Thank you very much..." I began.
"So you're staying at my house in Basid, you can do whatever you want," he said, hands still on my shoulders, staggering so much that he was pushing me with him. "I won't be there but my wife and children will."
"Ok, great, thank you..."
"So you understand? You're staying at my house in Basid..."
This went on and on for several minutes, him just repeating this one sentence and me barely having a chance to reply. Soon people were standing around, watching and laughing, and I myself was finding it hard to keep a straight face while Ochi repeated his kind but drunken offer. Eventually Zarnikhor lost her temper and saved me, walking over and prising his hands from my shoulders. He put his arms round me and tried to hug me instead.
"When you arrive in Basid," he said to Zarnikor in Russian, "he's staying at my house, ok?"
She simply tore his arms from me and began yelling at him in the language of Bartang.
"You see, Edik," he said, turning to me, "we have this tradition that when you drink the women always argue with you..."
But Zarnikhor, usually gentle, good-humoured and kind, began yelling at him again and cut him off, tears brimming in her eyes. He turned his back on her, walked back over to me and began repeating his insistence that I stay at his house in Basid. Thankfully, it was precisely then that two acquaintances of his came and distracted him with some story in their language and led him off across the street not to return.
"He has four children," Zarnikhor said, standing by the roadside and wiping the tears from her eyes. "He's here six months a year to work and earn money for them but he just drinks it all away. He just drinks and drinks all day every day until he collapses on the ground, I've seen it myself."
Guilt seethed through my body.
"Did you drink with him?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, only just managing not to hang my head.
"Well you seem OK at least. He must have drunk more than you, or have already been drunk when you met."
Thankfully I was still as sobre as a judge and in full command of my Russian. An excuse still seemed in order though.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realise he was drunk and thought he was just inviting me for lunch."
"It's OK," she said, drying an eye and sniffing.
* * *
During the car ride all tears were forgotten, we quickly became fast friends and I got invited to stay at the house of Ratkha and her brother. The skinny, middle-aged man who had been waiting with us sat in the front talking to the driver while I sat in the middle-row seats with the two women. Not only was it the first time I had managed to engage a woman anywhere in Central Asia in more than a few words, but these women were actively and boldly leading the conversation, laughing and joking uproariously. In the back, behind us, three young men sat in a silence that seemed almost intimidated. Pari the teacher and several other Basid folk had gone in a separate car.
"I'm sorry Edik, but when I'm with her I sometimes just can't help it, she's such a joker," Ratkha said, waving her hand at Zarnikhor as she recovered from a fit of giggles. Zarnikhor, however, said something else and she collapsed back into them.
At some point I commented on the fact that an unusual number of people from Basid, and indeed the Pamir region in general, seemed to know English. "In Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, nobody in the countryside knows it," I added.
"During the USSR we had an excellent education system and were known as one of the most literate, educated parts of the Soviet Union," Zarnikhor explained, reiterating something I had heard several people say in Murghab, Khorog and the Tajik Wakhan. "Women especially were extremely well-educated because it was considered that they needed it more, being the ones that bring up the children."
"And how does that compare to your education system now?" I asked.
"It's nowhere near as good as it was then."
We rode on for a while in silence.
"What religion are you, Edik?" Zarnikhor asked me.
"Christian," I replied.
"We're Ismaili Muslims, we believe in Allah and the Aga Khan," she told me. "Everyone in Bartang has very strong faith. Whatever the Aga Khan says, we believe it and do it. You know who he is?"
"I know he's the spiritual leader of the Shi'a Muslims, of whom the Ismailis are a branch..."
"Yes, we have one imam, whereas Sunni Muslims have many, and ours is a direct descendant of Mohammad, forty nineth in that line. The current one is an Englishman. We love our Aga Khan, we respect him, we live our lives exactly as he tells us to."
We stopped for a meal of fried beef at a roadside cafe, the men all sitting at one table and the two women at another. The driver downed a two hundred gram glass of vodka before tucking into his food.
The road badly degenerated after turning off into the Bartang Valley, becoming bumpy, rock-strewn and only just wide enough for our vehicle. Looking around me in the gathering dusk, I decided that "The Bartang Valley" was something of a misnomer. I think of valleys as large, lush, green, possibly even flowery places, the hills on either side rising gently upwards at an angle that would provide just enough exertion for an after-lunch hike. If I had chosen a name for this place, however, I would have called it the Bartang Canyon, possibly even the Bartang Gorge: it was just a black-watered, fast-flowing river, perhaps twenty metres across, whose banks shot upwards in near-vertical cliffs and mountains on either side, the road tucked into the bottom of the left-hand cliff a few inches or feet above the raging water. Everywhere vast boulders had fallen down from the mountain tops and lay scattered around, somehow having found a foothold and clinging to the crazy angle of the slopes or peeking out from the frothing, churning water like gigantic, dark beats coming up for air from its depths. Some of them were bigger than the mud houses making up the villages that appeared in every possible location, those rare slabs of flat land and greenery jutting out into the river from the bottom of the craggy, lifeless cliffs.
We arrived well after dark in a small village still about 30km from Basid, the driver saying that from here onwards the condition of the road was too poor for his car. A few villagers gathered around the car as we unloaded our bags. A rapid conversation ensued between them, Zarnikhor and Ratkha. After a few seconds they seemd to have agreed on something and Zarnikhor turned to me. "Ok, Edik, you can stay at his house," she told me, pointing to a thirty-year old man in blue denim jeans and jacket standing near me. "We'll meet up in the morning."
He was unmarried and lived in another house with his parents but had built this one himself as a house for guests in the traditional Pamiri style - a small lobby leading on to one main room. By the entrance to the main room was a rectangle of floor surrounded on three sides by a seating area that took up the rest of the room, raised about half a metre and covered in rugs and cushions. He introduced himself as Oscar, brought tea and home-made bread and was desperately pleased to have a guest. He kept on asking me questions about my plans, suggesting trips that we could go on together, offering to go to the shop right now and buy some meat to fry, but I could barely keep my eyelids from drooping and could not return his kind-heartedness, interest and excitement. I drank two cups of tea as a polite minimum before apologising and saying I had to go to bed. He leapt up, grabbed mattresses, sheets, rugs, blankets and pillows, made my bed and with a big smile wished me good night and left.
The next morning I woke up as he entered the room carrying a tray of tea and bread. As we ate he told me that Ratkha and Zarnikhor had already found a car in this village that would take us to Basid today. They would come and pick me up soon. We waited for two hours, listening to the heavy rain batter the roof.
"So you built this house yourself?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, "it took me two years. Everyone does the same. There used to be only twenty houses but now there are forty. Everyone earns money in Russia then builds new houses here for their families. Hey, maybe you'd like to stay here with me today, I could show you around, take you to some beautiful places?"
"Thank you very much," I answered, "but I've already agreed to go to Basid with the others and have accepted an offer to stay at their house. Maybe I could stay here again on the way back..."
"Or maybe I could come to Basid with you then we could walk further up the Bartang, all the way to Lake Sarez, it's beautiful, I'm telling you!"
"Thank you but I definitely don't have time to go to Sarez," I said to his obvious, visual disappointment. "I have to be back in Khorog on the 22nd so I either have to walk from Basid back the way I've come, or if there's a car going before the 22nd then I could take that. I certainly can't risk going all the way up to Sarez though. So have you ever been to Russia yourself?"
"Yes, I worked there for one year. I got 12,000 rubles ($390) a month for working in a warehouse. I had to spend 3,000 a month on accommodation, which was one small room with ten of us sleeping next to each other on the floor. And there was another similar room next to ours with ten women sleeping next to each other on the floor. Anyway, apart from accommodation I also had to spend 3,000 a month on food which we had to eat in the warehouse canteen."
3,000 a month from ten people meant the landlord was getting triple the normal amount for the renting of a room.
"Was the food OK?"
"It was OK. You'd go into the canteen and you only had one minute to choose what you wanted though, the security guard actually timed you. You then had to pay for your food and keep the receipt. They did random checks in the canteen and if you didn't have a receipt you'd be fined and handed to the police. You had ten minutes exactly to eat and then you were back to work."
"So how much did you save each month while you were there?"
"But you earned 12,000 and spent 6,000 on food and accommodation - surely you must have spent some money on buses and metro tickets too or something over the course of a year?"
"No, I never used the metro or buses."
"But come on," I said, almost unbelievingly, "how can you live in Moscow for a year without using public transport?"
"I only ever went to two places - the warehouse where I ate and worked and the room where I slept, which was just across the road."
I wondered how many of these unknown, unseen, illegal communities lived ten to a room across the vast sprawl of Moscow, How many of the rooms in how many of the apartments on how many floors in how many of the blocks in how many of the endless forests of high-rise housing were occupied in this way? Now I understood why some say Moscow's real population is double the official figure of 11 million.
"So 6,000 a month total savings for a year," I said. "What did you do with it?"
"Me and my brother were both there. We both spent that year's savings on his wedding. He married a Dushanbe girl - they need expensive weddings, at least $2000. In Bartang it's much cheaper."
We ate and drank in silence for a while.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay here?" he asked. "We can relax, make fried meat, go walking in the mountains."
"I'm sorry," I said, "I've already arranged to go to Basid, but I'll try to stay here on my way back."
"Great, stay here for two days then, at my house!"
"Thank you very much," I said, "that's very kind of you."
"You see, here everyone's doors are open to everyone. If someone arrives and they have nowhere to sleep, everyone will take them in."
* * *
The car that took us the final stretch of the way to Basid was some sort of Soviet four wheel drive. The roof was leaking badly, had soaked my seat by the time I got in and continued to soak me during the drive. The driver had his own seat but other than that there were eight people in the four passenger seats - two in the front one, someone crouching in the area in between the front passenger seat and the driver's seat and five of us in the back, almost on top of one another. The road sunk into its worst stages of disrepair yet and climbed the cliffs to create a thirty-metre drop between us and the river. I almost lost my cool when we had to drive literally within inches of the precipice to pass a pedestrian going the other way. After we had done so, the driver opened his door without stopping, stuck his head out, looked back at the man who was now several metres behind us on the road and shouted out a greeting to him.
We piled out of the car at a wooden bridge spanning the river. It had perhaps once been crossable by vehicles but now there were so many planks and whole sections missing that even crossing it on foot was not the most pleasant of prospects. The rain had mercifully stopped but the day was as overcast as ever and a light mist hung on the mountain slopes, clouds obscuring any view of the peaks.
"The road used to continue from here past Lake Sarez all the way to Murghab," Ratkha told me, "but floods destroyed it in June. They destroyed some people's homes, ruined a lot of people's fields and crops and left us without electricity. Lots of villagers are working together though, hopefully the electricity will be back in a few days' time. Anyway, we now have to walk the last half hour to the village. That's us, but imagine the people in the Upper Bartang - they have to walk for days."
The village turned out to be bigger than almost all the others I had seen on the way and much longer than it was wide, several kilometres of grass, trees and mud houses stretched along the banks of the river. Somewhere around the middle was a vast area where there was nothing other than an expanse of stones, their hues ranging from the near-black through the greys and almost to white.
"People lived and had land here before," Zarnikhor told me as we crossed it, "but the flood destroyed it all. Let's stop and rest before we go to our houses."
We entered a long, traditional Pamir house owned by friends of Zarnikhor and Ratkha, sat down on the raised area and were brought bread, tea and a salad.
"You see, Edik," Zarnikhor said, "anyone will welcome anyone else into their house, feed them and give them a place to sleep."
"I know, it's lovely," I answered.
"But how do you think we live other than that?" Ratkha asked. "Poorly, probably?"
I gave the same answer as I had back in Khorog about salaries here being lower but people being richer in other ways.
"Yes, I realised that when I lived with my husband in Moscow," she replied. "There it's each man for himself and all they care about is money. When I was there I realised we're far happier than them."
After we had eaten Ratkha and I parted ways with Zarnikhor as she went to her house and we went back to Ratkha's. She lived there with her mother, several siblings and a few children. A short distance away her brother, who introduced himself by the Russian name Kolya, was building a new house with about six other men. Ratkha took me to see him. On seeing me he immediately left his work and came to shake my hand.
"It's great that you've arrived today," he said to me. "Today's a very important day - we've just completed the fifth and final pillar of the new house so we've slaughtered a sheep."
"What's so important about the fifth pillar?" I asked.
"The five pillars represent the prophet Mohammad, his daughter, her husband and their two sons. In Pamiri houses everything means something and everything has to be built in the correct way, with the correct rituals. Every tiny ceiling beam, every section of wall and floor and ceiling means something. Of course not everyone knows all the details so usually in every village there will be one kind of wise man who knows exactly how to do everything correctly and we consult him when we want to build a new house. Hey, let's have a break and go eat some lamb."
All the builders stopped work and we walked over to where various joints of lamb were frying under a tree in an enormous metal bowl over a fire.
"So these guys all work for you?" I asked Kolya as we tucked into some meat.
"No, they're mostly just people from the village helping me out. I'm only paying those two workmen there," he said, pointing at two of the crowd.
"Really? The others are just doing it out of kindness?"
"Of course, and if they ever need my help I'll be there for them straight away."
That afternoon Ratkha busied herself with cooking and Kolya with building. All my offers of help were flatly refused on the pretext that I was a guest, so I decided to have a sleep. When I woke up, Pari the teacher woman was in the house and invited me for a walk around the village.
"This is where the flood destroyed my uncle's home," she said as we passed the desolate expanse of grey stones that sat spookily in the middle of the village. "It cut off the electricity too but we're working so hard on that, it should be back soon."
We walked past three smiley teenage girls skipping down the path together.
"They're coming back from working with the sheep in the mountains," Pari said. "You know, here in the Pamir girls are freer than in Dushanbe. We can do what we want. When I finished school my family said to me, 'now you are free to study or do whatever you want. And when I was studying at university my brother rang me every day to encourage me. I want to go back to Khorog and study a doctorate in November - part time of course, because the people of Basid still need a teacher - but I'd have to pass an exam and I don't think I'm good enough. I haven't been able to improve my English since I left university as there are no books or computers here."
* * *
After an enormous dinner of fried vegetables, potatoes and bread, we sat around in one of the two rooms in Ratkha and Kolya's house as the last of the day's light faded.
"Of course no one here really wants to go and work in Moscow," Kolya was saying, "Russian people aren't the friendliest and they hate us Tajiks more than anything. But it's just something you have to do, unfortunately. Of course it would be nicer to stay here with our families, where it's clean and we have good food. Moscow's so dirty and crowded and we have to work constantly, we literally have no free time there, and Russians simply don't know how to cook, their food's terrible. But here we have to do what's necessary, take matters into our own hands if we want to feed our families. No one helps us out here, especially not the government. We have to help each other, like the guys with my new house, the guys working to put the electricity back and those working to repair the road."
"Is the government helping to repair any damage from the flood?" I asked.
"No, we're doing it all ourselves. Tajikistan must be the number one country in the world for corruption - they just take everything for themselves and give nothing back. But what are your impressions of the Pamir, anyway? Of Pamiri people?"
I had to tread carefully here as the straight truth might sound too much like flattery. "Hospitable, kind and friendly. Also, I was surprised because it's so far away from England but it's so easy for me to talk to people, understand them and build relationships. The people are very helpful too, so many people have helped me despite the fact that I'm a complete stranger to them."
"People here are good because they have faith," Ratkha told me. "I love and fear Allah. I try to help people all the time and always do good. I try not to do anything bad because I'd be afraid of Allah's punishment. People need faith. I think if you don't have faith, you get lots of criminals, drug addicts and alcoholics like in Moscow."
The conversation continued for a couple of hours as Kolya asked me question after question in an attempt to quench his apparently almost insatiable appetite for information about England, while at the same time demonstrating that he already knew infinitely more about my country than I knew about his. Did I consider England to have real democracy? Did I support the Queen? Had I travelled by the Channel Tunnel? Such topics continued until about eight o'clock, when everyone climbed under their blankets and went to sleep.
* * *
The next morning, shortly after I had woken up, Ratkha knocked on my door (they had insisted, much to my embarrassment, that I have one entire room to myself while the rest of the family slept in the other, so that I would not feel crowded, as Kolya said) and called me into the other room for breakfast. She put a teapot, a mug and three plates in front of me - one piled high with freshly fried wedges cut from the potatoes in their fields, the second overflowing with a mix of fried vegetables from their fields and a huge circle of thick, hot, freshly baked bread on the third.
"Come on, won't you help me with all this food?" I asked, seeing as everyone else was eating only bread. "There's no way I can finish so much and besides, I don't like eating on my own."
"No, no," Kolya answered, shaking his head and smiling, "we only eat bread for breakfast, it's what we're used to. Enjoy your meal."
What to do? Would they be offended if I did not eat enough or would it look greedy if I ate too much? Perhaps they secretly wanted to have some but thought that I as the guest should eat my fill without worrying about whether or not they wanted any, and therefore were telling me they wanted only bread? In that case it would be extremely rude of me to eat too much. How much would be enough not to offend them but would leave enough for the huge family afterwards?
I ate for a few minutes, making no noticeable indent on the portion sizes, then held out the plate to offer Kolya, who again refused, then Ratkha and then the children, all of whom refused without hesitation.
I continued eating past the point of being full. The deliciousness of the food was urging me on while my manners and bursting stomach advised against it. Two to one, the manners and bursting stomach won the day and I announced that I was full while there were still reasonable portions left on all three plates.
"Why have you eaten so little? Why haven't you fiished it?" Ratkha asked. The surprise in her voice, Kolya's firmness of tone when he refused the tasty fried food and the children's apparent lack of interest in it almost had me convinced that they really had only wanted bread for breakfast. After all, their bread was ridiculously tasty. But it could also have been an extremely genuine, traditional, selfless and heartfelt display of hospitality from the entire family.
After breakfast I went on a one hour walk past jagged, towering walls of mountains somehow shaded in a puzzling array of reds, pinks, browns, greys, and oranges. Once I heard a sound like an explosion and spun around to see dust drifting up from a spot on the other side of the river where a small part of the top of a cliff above had collapsed and fallen. When I reached an area opposite a village on the other bank I turned back, confident that I had worked off at least a small proportion of the breakfast, feeling marginally less bloated and determined to eat only a light lunch in a few hours time.
"Ah, you must be starving after such a long walk!" Ratkha exclaimed upon my return. "Go inside and finish off the rest of your breakfast!"
"No, really, I'm so full, in fact I've even eaten far too much, I really couldn't manage it..."
"Nonsense, get inside and finish it off."
For some reason - probably a mixture of not wanting to insult her hospitality, suspicion that she was busy and wanted to be on her own, not knowing what else to do and weak will in the face of such delicious food - I went inside, sat down and ate the food.
Afterwards I tottered outside and sat down near where Ratkha was cooking on a fire protected from the wind by a wall of stones. We made small talk for a while and, although she smiled and was very friendly, she also came across as somewhat cold. There were no more jokes and laughter as there had been on the car journey and she was addressing me by the polite, formal Russian word for "you" instead of the friendly, familiar one as she had been the previous day. I understood the reason immediately: here in Basid, surrounded by her family, it was unsightly for a married woman to be on such friendly terms with an unknown man. When it had been Ratkha and Zarnikhor together on the way here and we had only just met it had been fine, particularly considering Zarnikhor's cheerful and jovial temperament, but now it was not.
"Anyway Edik," she said to me after a few minutes, "it must be boring for you talking to a woman. Do you want to go and chat with Kolya?"
"Isn't he busy building the house?" I asked.
"Of course, but he'll still be happy to chat to you," she replied.
I walked over to where they were building the new house. When Kolya saw me he came down and said hello.
"Did you have a good walk? Where did you go?" he asked.
"Just to where you can see the next village across the river. Can I help you at all? I asked, indicating the house with my hand.
"No, no," he replied, smiling so broadly that I was pretty sure he wanted to laugh, "you're just here to relax, we've got enough people helping out here already."
After a few minutes of small talk he excused himself, saying he was busy but the following day he would have more free time and would like to go for a walk and show me around the area. I went back to where Ratkha was cooking, sat down and began to scribble in my diary.
"You see how poor we are?" she said to me, pointing at her little fire encircled by stones. "Especially now that there's no electricity. They've just forgotten about us, the government, the rest of the world. Lots of people have tried phoning them to say we have no electricity, that houses and fields have been destroyed, that the road has collapsed, but they won't come. They've just forgotten about us, left us to fend for ourselves. We pay taxes for this land and for electricity, can you imagine? And they won't even repair the road. We have no road coming here! Only one bridge and about fifteen metres of road need repairing, you saw it, but they won't do it. No road means that our one tiny shop is empty, the medical point has no medicine and that's just us, imagine the villages further up the valley! Some of them have to walk for days to get there and they're worse off than us anyway - they can't even grow fruit and vegetables up there. We have ill people here, my mother for example, and my sister can't even stand up because she's just had a miscarriage. We're just praying that someone comes to repair that road and as for asphalt, it's not even possible to imagine that in some future century we might actually have asphalt!"
There was silence for a while.
"Do you know what I feel like eating?" she asked. "Fish."
"Me too," I replied. "I can't even remember the last time..."
"We don't have much here. They've got a lot at Lake Sarez though, further up the Bartang."
"I guess it's like a protected area and illegal to fish in though?" I asked. "Maybe that's why they have security up there and why foreigners need a special permit to go there?"
"No, security is there to monitor the lake in case of danger..."
I suddenly remembered reading about Lake Sarez before my trip. It had been formed in 1911 by an enormous earthquake which destroyed villages and created a 3km long, 550 metre high natural dam that was keeping the lake where it was. In 2004, however, a survey by the World Bank had concluded that this dam was unstable and that if it collapsed the biggest flood ever witnessed by human eyes would occur, destroying villages and roads as far away as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
"They say if it breaks we'll have one hour's warning and will have to climb those mountains there," Ratkha told me, pointing to the tallest nearby mountains that, I was pretty sure, were still more than an hour away. "But there was no warning for this last flood and no help afterwards, so how can we believe that there will be any for the next?"
"Aren't you afraid?" I asked. I was trying to picture a 3km wide, 550 metre high wall of water compressed between the narrow walls of the Bartang Valley / Canyon: it would be a tidal wave of unimaginable proportions and speed.
"No," she answered, "we have faith. Let me tell you a story, a legend about how Sarez was formed. There was a village there of very rich people. They didn't believe in Allah, only in money, and led lives of debauchery. One night though, a ghost appeared to one of them and told him that his people had to stop this way of life or face the consequences. The next day he told everyone but they just laughed at him. For three days in a row the ghost appeared to him, he spoke to the people and everyone laughed at him. On the fourth day the ghost told him to collected his things and to go climb a nearby mountain. The man asked if he could quickly get his son but the ghost said no, only his possessions. As the man was climbing the mountain he looked back and saw that there was now only a lake where his village had been. That's what my grandparents were told by their grandparents, who were alive at the time. Even today, people say you can hear children crying from underground in that area. We have faith though, so we don't believe something like that could happen to us."
I spent the rest of the day writing down all my impressions, thoughts and conversations since that first day I had come to Khorog bazaar looking for a car to Bartang. In the evening we discussed possibilities for how I would get back to the town: I had to be there in three days time to get a car to Dushanbe from where I had a flight booked to Ukraine. It was decided that I should try to get a lift on the next car possible, as they only went once every few days and it was not worth risking missing my flight.
* * *
The next morning, after the same breakfast as the previous day and as Kolya and I were strolling around the village together, he stopped to talk to a man who was about to leave in a car. We went into a house to ask the driver if there was an extra seat for me and he said there was. Kolya and I began walking quickly back to his house.
"It's such a shame you can't stay longer," he said as we climbed over some rocks. "I would have loved to go walking with you to Sarez, or the next valley or just up into the mountains a bit. We haven't had enough time to properly relax together. If only you'd come ten days ago, my brother was here visiting from Moscow, we had parties, killed animals, mainly just relaxed together. I'm sorry you've had such a short time here and that I've been busy with the house. Next time you come I promise I'll be less busy.
Back at their house they gave me a huge bag of dried apricots, another of mandarins and another of apples. Ratkha's mother brought out a huge, knee-high pair of thick, woollen, multi-coloured, intricately-patterned socks that she had knitted herself and presented them to me. I tried to refuse the fruit, saying that I had eaten so much I was not hungry, but they would not hear of it and pressed the bags into my hands. When for a second I was alone with Kolya I tried to give him some money.
"Please take this," I said. "I would really like to give you a present too but as I'm traveling I have nothing to give other than money. It's a tradition in England that we always give a present to our hosts when we stay at their house, so I'd like to give you this."
Kolya's eyes changed almost imperceptibly, a kind of blank, detached look appearing in them that might even have hinted at a barely noticeable hostility.
"Put that away, I won't take it," he said, looking me in the eyes. Ratkha came in and he turned away. She saw what was happening and stopped.
"Listen, I know it's your tradition not to accept money from people," I pleaded, "but can't you make an exception here? You'll make me feel a lot better if you let me keep with my tradition and give my hosts this present, although I wish there was something else I could give."
"We didn't invite you here because of money," Ratkha said solemnly.
"Stop it now, Edik," Kolya said, a slight note of impatience even present in his tone. "If you offer it one more time we'll take offense."
"I just wanted to say thank you somehow," I said, retracting my outstretched hand with the notes in it. "You've been so kind and I've had such a nice time."
"It's ok," Ratkha told me, "we understand you've been happy here."
Outside their house, in the shade of a tree whose fruit, they told me, had no Russian name as it was found only here, we said our heartfelt goodbyes. Smiles abounded, all coldness and awkwardness gone now that the money had been forgotten. Alone I walked out of the village, past the collapsed road and over the destroyed bridge to where a little white box of a car was waiting to take me away.
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