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TAJIKISTAN | Friday, 21 November 2008 | Views [4399] | Comments [2]

After our brief jaunt to Afghanistan for the Pamiri Festival in the Wakhan Corridor, Heidi and I parted ways – she back to Dushanbe and I on a work trip with my boss to check up on MSDSP projects. Our itinerary involved traversing a good portion of GBAO in a rather short time span, which inherently required a lot of driving. Again. My spirits buoyed by an unprecedented amount of good fortune (read: no puking, landslides, or falling off cliffs) on the marathon drives from Dushanbe to Khorog and from Khorog deep into the Wakhan and back, I tossed my pack into yet another 4x4 – this one emblazoned with the MSDSP logo – gave my boss the ‘all’s-ready’ nod, and set off on the next leg of my whirlwind trip around Badakhshan.

[Even though the following took place about 3 months ago now – whoops! – events/humorous situations have been remarkably typical of subsequent work trips around GBAO. – HS]

Aug 16: Ethnically Ambiguous in Central Asia => Leg 7: Khorog to Vanj (see pics #50-66)

The first day was a crash course in agriculture for me. I still find it amusing how I wound up in an internship that focuses so strongly on agriculture – a field in which the extent of my experience lies in the simple fact that I went to the U of Guelph and was friends with some Aggies. As a result, pretty much every day is a welcome learning experience, particularly when I’m out ‘in the field’ (literally). I’m also not about to complain about hanging out with cows, chickens, and goats when I’d otherwise be sitting in the office in the capital city.

In the district of Vanj, we checked out a wheat thrasher, heard how pleased the farmer was with his increased efficiency, and ticked the figurative box. We reaped the benefits of highly productive orchards, stuffing ourselves with plump apricots and crisp apples plucked from the trees just moments before. We also visited a few different potato plots, each of which was testing out a new ‘elite’ variety from Holland. Of course, with my preference for local, organic production, I peppered my boss with questions about why these potato seeds were procured from a European gene bank rather than from Tajikistan, or at least an ecologically similar part of Central Asia.

Decades of intensive agricultural production under the Soviet system rendered much of Badakhshan’s already fragile land practically infertile. Over the nearly 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a large part of the population (including doctors, teachers, metalworkers, and so on) has been forced to take up farming for subsistence production; with little experience in agriculture, however, they have unfortunately further degraded the land. Armed with few other options, farmers have been using increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and imported seeds, but have been dismayed to find decreasing yields come harvest time.

Any yields at all, though, were welcome for a while there. The 1990s were witness to a devastating civil war and a widespread famine, both of which spelled ‘crisis’ with a capital C for the people of Badakhshan. Some of my Pamiri friends remember eating nothing but salt and bread for days at a time. In response in 1997, a humanitarian relief organization was established (and soon evolved into MSDSP, the NGO I work for) and prioritized food security as one of its main activities. As political tensions subsided and a shaky national economy began to emerge, MSDSP moved away from relief-style operations and towards supporting independent agricultural production. It obviously still has room for improvement (as evidenced above by a reliance on imported elite varieties and other expensive inputs), but to its credit, it is now moving further still towards promoting organic agricultural production and supporting local farmers’ associations and service providers.

On a slightly less aggy note, I had yet another amusing query in a string of interrogations about my ethnicity while checking out the projects in Vanj. One of the farmers apparently figured I wasn’t saying much because I was shy (and not because I’m not even close to being fluent in Tajik) and asked where in Badakhshan I was from. While in Wakhan, a surprising number of people thought I was Afghan. A couple days later in Ishkashim, others would somehow think I was either Iranian, Palestinian, or Native American. In Dushanbe, a new colleague asked what part of the ‘subcontinent’ I was from (Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh – bit of a stretch, I thought, but apparently I fooled him for ‘mixed’). Back in Canada, still others have guessed Greek, Portuguese, Mexican, and Brazilian. So it seems that I’ve got at least half of the world covered… ah, to be travel-happy and ethnically ambiguous!

Aug 17: The Vegetarian’s Dilemma => Leg 8: Vanj to Darvaz to Khorog (see pics #67-100)

We were on the road before dawn to Darvaz, the next district over and the most western part of Badakhshan. A few hours later, we had abandoned the jeep and were hiking up the side of a mountain to a sleepy village basking in the warmth of the morning sun. We stopped to explore a near-finished schoolhouse and I took advantage of the moment’s repose to gaze out at the breathtaking expanse before me. As I watched, rays of sunlight crested the mountaintops and pierced the thin layer of fog clinging delicately to the valleys below. Within mere minutes, the entire vista was awash with a golden glow and I could see patches of lush green trees in the distance being fed by crystal-clear streams of water from the glaciers above. I took a deep breath and smiled as I realized that I couldn’t see or hear anything resembling a vehicle or computer.

A nearby donkey broke my reverie with his cantankerous braying and turned my attention to the suddenly bustling village. My boss had already set off with purpose towards some unknown destination; I snuck one last glance at the idyllic panorama and scrambled to catch up.

Much like in Vanj, we chatted with several villagers about how things were going with their NRM projects. Before I knew it, we were being seated in the middle of a beautiful little ‘courtyard’ of sorts, nestled in the comforting embrace of trees in full bloom and overlooking rooftops of drying apples and apricots and the mountains across the way. In a showcase of Pamiri hospitality (and of the success of their orchard and beekeeping projects), platter after platter of fresh nuts, fruit, honey, and naan were presented to us. I was thrilled with the rare vegetarian-friendly spread and clung to a shred of hope that that would be the extent of the offerings.

Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed shortly thereafter with the arrival of mounds of sizzling meat of unidentified origin. Before I could even open my mouth to protest, my boss said quite pointedly that I “must” eat it out of respect for our hosts, for such meat is prepared specially for out-of-town guests: it was from none other than Marco Polo sheep.

My heart sank. Marco Polo sheep are an endangered species in Central Asia and are pressured by habitat fragmentation and various forms of hunting here in Tajikistan (let alone a regrettable range in some of the most politically hostile parts of the world). One of my wildlife biologist heroes, George Schaller, has taken up their survival as his latest raison d’être (see http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/best-of-adventure-2007/wildlife/george-schaller.html).

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I will go way outside of my comfort zone to be sensitive and accommodating to local cultures and customs. A vegetarian by choice, it’s been quite a struggle here to communicate why I don’t want to eat meat. Rather than jeopardizing the pride of particularly insistent hosts and committing a cultural slight, I have admittedly had a few morsels here in Tajikistan. However, I felt that this time it would not be just a slight bend in my moral convictions. With a background in both cultural anthropology and wildlife biology and a tendency to side with the most vulnerable group in any situation, I was faced with a rather unfortunate dilemma.

I looked down at the plate of Marco Polo meat in front of me, thought of how this would be akin to accepting an ivory necklace in Kenya or a tiger pelt in India, and looked back up at my boss’s and the villagers’ expectant faces. I bowed my head, placed my right hand over my heart in apology, and pushed the plate away ever so slightly. I just couldn’t do it.

[On another trip to Darvaz last week, my culturally sensitive side was further dismayed to find out that this host family was also that of my boss, which explains more than a few things. If I had known that at the time, though, I still would have made the same decision. – HS]

Aug 18: How Do You Solve a Problem Like… 200 Renegade Goats at the Afghan Border?! => Leg 9: Khorog to Ishkashim to Khorog (see pics #101-124)

Retracing the route Heidi and I had taken just a week earlier (though it felt like much more), we drove the quick couple of hours from Khorog to the border town of Ishkashim. The day’s task was to collect 200 Asmori goats that had been shipped to Ishkashim from Kabul, Afghanistan, for an agricultural extension project (this breed was supposedly hardier and produced more milk than Tajik ones). After transferring them to our side of the border, we would bring them to a ‘quarantine’ site in town and collect blood to test each for transmittable diseases like brucellosis and TB. Only after they were cleared would they be distributed to vulnerable women-headed households in several districts of Tajikistan. It had already taken months of bureaucratic red tape to get permission for the acquisition; with the Afghan border guards’ warnings of “problems” with the goats fresh in my mind from a few days prior, I wondered what inevitable debacles we would soon face.

I didn’t have to wait long. Even though my boss had confirmed that two large trucks would be at the border to transport the goats into town, they were in fact nowhere to be seen. After a couple hours of phone calls and waiting around with the border guards, it became clear that attempts to hasten the trucks’ arrival were futile, as the reason for their delay was an acute shortage of petrol in the entire district. Barely batting an eye, my boss sauntered up to the first transport truck he saw waiting in line at the bridge and asked if we could use it for the morning. Half an hour and some presumed bartering later, we had a truck. “Mylie khoob (‘okay good’),” he said, heading off across the bridge on foot without a moment’s hesitation. “I get our goats now.”

I ran to the jeep, grabbed my passport, and took two steps before turning back and grabbing my cameras; even though we were at the Afghan border and I was still not keen on being thrown in jail for espionage, surely this was a day not to be left undocumented. I flashed my passport and my best smile at the first line of guards and trotted across the bridge to catch up to my boss, who looked surprised to see me. For some reason, he was still not used to having a girl following him around. He promptly offered to send me to the MSDSP office in town to have a cup of tea with some of the village women and wait until he was done. Although I knew he meant well (according to my favourite Tajik gender norms, at least), I swallowed a twinge of annoyance. Bull$#!%, I thought to myself. I’m not missing this for the world! If he still wasn’t used to having a girl around, he was definitely not used to having a girl around who wanted to be in the middle of all the action rather than waiting placidly in the wings for all the excitement to subside.

We passed the second line of guards at the other end of the bridge and I realized that the truck mix-up was probably the least of our troubles as I finally caught sight of what we had come for – and what a sight it was! Two hundred goats of unusually large proportions milled about the river and the road leading to the customs building, doing what goats do best: devouring everything in sight (regardless of its lack of palatability to other more earthly creatures) and leaving nothing but piles of pungent pellets in their swathes of destruction. Several Tajik and Afghan guards were standing around, literally scratching their heads in awe at the conundrum before them; although I had a sneaking suspicion this was not part of the job they had signed up for, they thankfully seemed more entertained than incensed.

The guards on the bridge waved through the truck that we had spontaneously commissioned, leaving us with the allegedly simple task of ushering the first load of goats onto the bed. I looked at my boss questioningly and he simply chuckled as if to say, ‘And this is why you should be drinking tea with the women’, grabbed the nearest goat by the horns (literally), and dragged him towards the truck. Having all but forgotten that I was at the Afghan border, I resumed my default stance behind my video camera. I knew I was in the clear when two of the guards jostled for position to watch the action unfold over my shoulder through the LCD screen.

The first shipment of goats was loaded up with impressive efficiency and the only three men I knew within a hundred miles squeezed into the front of the truck. Again, I looked at my boss questioningly. As he and the truck pulled away, he grinned and said, “Back later – take care of the goats!” I couldn’t help but notice that he was leaving me at the Afghan border with a couple dozen testosterone-laden guards and a now 140-strong herd of equally potentially problematic giant goats. Hmm. I suppose I was asking for something like this when I refused to be a ‘good’ girl and wait patiently in the background. I readjusted my head scarf and grinned back at him through the cloud of dust kicked up by the truck’s back tires: Bring it on.

For a while, the guards generously helped me keep all the goats accounted for and on the appropriate side of the river and border. However, once they realized that it would be much funnier to watch me attempt to do so on my own, they resumed their astute posts along the stretch of road between the bridge and the customs building. Thankfully the goats lived up to their reputation as herd animals and largely stuck together, moving more or less en masse to subsequent patches of delicacies such as thorn bushes, tin cans, and broken glass. Every so often, a few brave (or stupid) ones wandered away from the herd and tried to cross the road on the right or the river border on the left; if the guards were feeling particularly benevolent at that moment, they would throw some stones at the goats to send them back my way.

And so it went for most of the day, my own little crash course in goat-herding with a specialization in Tajik-Afghan border relations. At one point before my boss returned to collect the final shipment of goats, one of the guards said something about a passport and motioned to me to follow him up to the customs building. My charges seemed more or less content for the time being so I left them in the hands of the other nearby guards. The customs building was a simple but still domineering structure (by nature of what it was, I think) accentuated by a single black, red, and green Afghan flag flapping resolutely in the intermittent wind. To the left, two concrete ‘tracks’ were raised above the ground and bisected by a narrow set of downward stairs to facilitate inspections for car bombs.

Feeling fairly self-assured after no major setbacks with the goats and even a brief photo shoot with the guards, I strode up to the main office. A grizzled middle-aged man with noticeably more stars on his epaulettes than my fresh-faced escort emerged before I could enter, practically barrelling me over in the process, and demanded to see my passport. This was clearly not a man to mess with; I presented the document without taking my eyes off him and took a submissive step back, subconsciously covering my cameras with the loose end of my head scarf. Unfortunately, this put me in a rather vulnerable position as an undeniable semi-circle of guards formed around the commander, effectively trapping me against the wall. He flipped through the pages, his hardened expression conveying no semblance of friendliness, and my reserve of confidence instantly dissipated like a drop of water on a hot frying pan. I wiped a bead of sweat from my brow and willed my brain to remember all of the Tajik phrases I had learned so far for the imminent questioning.

He turned back to the main page of my passport and fixed his unrelenting gaze upon me. I obliged his blunt request to remove my sunglasses and managed to avoid flinching as the blistering sun momentarily rendered my eyes useless. “This doesn’t look like you,” he said. ‘Well, it might have something to do with the head scarf and kurta in place of straight hair and a t-shirt,’ I thought as I motioned to my outfit. He asked why I had been in Afghanistan the week before and why I was now trying to sneak across the border on foot. Umm, WHAT?! I hastily explained that I did the former as a tourist to Wakhan and was definitely not doing the latter, instead there quite legally with MSDSP. He must have just arrived, having missed out on the morning’s events and only seeing me sneaking around the riverbed under the bridge (which, come to think of it, probably did look quite suspicious). I looked plaintively at the guards still surrounding me, silently willing them to verify my story to their commander after what I had naively thought was a day of tentative bonding, but they didn’t budge. He squinted and jabbed his forefinger at the main page of my passport again, seemingly finding something particularly unsatisfactory. This time it was my birthday. He pointed again, said something in an increasingly irate tone, and slapped himself in the chest. I had no idea what he was talking about until one of the guards at his side repeated slowly for my benefit, “Roosy tavaloody vai, beestumi Maee, beestumi Maee.” Ah – May 20th – we had the same birthday! A hearty laugh pealed from the depths of the commander's expansive belly and he sauntered away, oblivious to the unease he had just caused me.

Now in the absence of their commander and armed with the knowledge of my date of birth, I spent the next several minutes fielding the inevitable questions from the guards about my (fictional) husband and, subsequently, why I did not yet have children. I think I said something about having just recently been married, which seemed to allay their concerns that I was barren (which is really the only reason they could fathom for my lack of offspring at the ripening age of 22). After deciding that I was sufficiently unresponsive to their courtships, they eventually dispersed, leaving me to breathe a sigh of relief at having averted another potentially hostile situation at the Afghan border. I returned to my humble post in the riverbed as Asmori goat-herder, and – ironically – waited patiently for my boss to return.

Aug 19: Pride of the Pamirs => Leg 10: Khorog to Murghab (see pics #125-145)

We left Khorog once again, this time tackling the lonely road east to Murghab. Along the way, we stopped at the side of the road at a small spring. One of our colleagues motioned for me to come and join him for a drink of water. Despite my initial polite decline (buttressed by doctors’ warnings of cholera and typhoid in Tajik water), he refused to back down. “It’s the blood of the Pamirs,” he insisted. “You must.”

I looked warily at the little stream of water gurgling innocuously from the side of the mountain. A gulley stained bright red nudged the stream over the rock face and into the massive Panj River below. I couldn’t help but laugh at the multiple meanings of his ‘blood of the Pamirs’ line: the water was quite visibly chock-full of iron, probably came straight from the heart of the mountain, and (as I was quickly learning) is a constant source of pride of the Pamiri people. After my Marco Polo faux pas two days prior, I decided not to push my luck with my colleagues and mentally threw up my hands in defeat. Heck, I could probably use a little shot of Fe anyways.

Still to come: ‘Badakhshan Part III: The Eastern Pamirs’





Its Tom! Your story about the border sounds intense! Everyone says their greetings.. all of us here from sem 43! You missed a pot luck at my house =P There was lots of garlic! Manisha says "Its cool" Melissa takes a sip of water and says... "where have you been all my life?".... I look on at whats going on and laugh. Kulin says "I want to be listening to Z 103".... I said no. Raquel would say something but she left with her jewish boyfriend just not too long ago.... and this message has better than average spelling and grammer for standard Tom because Lissa tried to correct it :o) Keep having fun in Tajikistan, come see us soon when you come back!

-Tom and company

  Tom, Manisha, Raquel, Melissa, Kulin! Nov 24, 2008 2:18 PM


so beautiful i was bron there

  sayed Jan 24, 2010 2:49 PM

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