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TAJIKISTAN | Tuesday, 6 January 2009 | Views [24289] | Comments [1]

Pleased that I finally had some alone time to read Siddhartha - in a hot springs bath in the middle of nowhere, no less!

Pleased that I finally had some alone time to read Siddhartha - in a hot springs bath in the middle of nowhere, no less!

Although I swear that every bend of the Western Pamirs looks different, the Eastern Pamirs have an even more noticeably unique look. Technically classified as high-altitude plateaus, they remind me of what I imagine the moon must look like. About half of the people are ethnic Kyrgyz, whose livelihoods are primarily based on semi-nomadic pastoralism. As one of the most environmentally fragile parts of Tajikistan (and that’s saying something), the Eastern Pamirs are wracked by bone-chillingly cold temperatures and are generally devoid of arable land – but they DO have the potentially lucrative ruby mines and an alleged underground Russian military base. When I asked why people even live out here, the response was true to CIS form: during the Soviet era, people were settled here to lay claim to the land just beyond China’s doorsteps; since the fall of the USSR, the government has continued to subsidize living expenses to uphold its territorial integrity. Although the quality of life sucks (for lack of better words) for the inhabitants of Murghab, who have little electricity, astonishingly high rates of malnutrition, and few job opportunities, I suppose it’s not a bad move for the sake of national sovereignty: China’s expanding influence is increasingly palpable in Tajikistan, and particularly in the Eastern Pamirs. Still, I find it hard to imagine why President Rakhmon would even care if China took over the area. I mean, it’s beautiful, but more in that ‘barren wasteland postcard’ kind of way.


[Again, ‘whoops’ for the massive delay in posting this, the final instalment of my 3-part Badakhshan trip in August. To get a sense of how much was packed into the few weeks (though I didn’t even write about everything), read all three Badakhshan posts in order. – HS]

Aug 20: Siddhartha Solitude => Leg 11: Murghab to Median to Murghab (see pics #146-161 in gallery ‘Tajikistan – Month 2’)

After spending a chilly night in Murghab (the highest altitude ‘city’ in Tajikistan at 3650 m), we were back in the MSDSP jeep at daybreak, en route to an even more remote settlement called Median to check up on a greenhouse project. I remembered seeing a year-old picture of the Median greenhouse in the office – a Kyrgyz man beaming ear-to-ear at the camera through towering vegetable plants – and was looking forward to taking an updated and equally optimistic photo myself.

When we arrived at the breathtakingly beautiful settlement, surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains and bisected by a bubbling brook, the mood was significantly more sombre than what I had anticipated. The same Kyrgyz man from the photograph no longer wore his infectious grin as he showed us the greenhouse, now with missing windows, bone-dry soil, and a broken water pipe. I shot a surprised look at my colleagues, who seemed to purposefully avoid my gaze, as if in hopes that I would not demand to know how this could have gone unnoticed by our organization’s M&E* radar.

This was officially the first MSDSP project I had seen that could be considered a pretty decisive failure (at least temporarily). I generally view development projects with a rather critical eye, but I was admittedly still in the ‘honeymoon phase’ with MSDSP, having heard only rave reviews of its positive influence in rural Tajikistan since my arrival 6 weeks ago. The greenhouse was a humbling and welcome reminder that even a much-touted organization like MSDSP is not immune to the ubiquitous setbacks that confound development workers the world over.

After spending what was apparently a sufficient amount of time questioning and commiserating with the greenhouse’s keepers, we were invited to take a dip in the hot springs. I looked around, confused; all I saw were yurts and the very cold-looking brook. I caught sight of my boss just as he was ducking into a rectangular dried-mud hut; he pointed his disappearing arm around the corner to what turned out to be the women’s half of the indoor hot springs.

When packing for a road trip that ranged in liberating climate from Afghanistan to the frigidly cold Eastern Pamirs, I didn’t exactly think to bring my bathing suit. Thankfully, I was informed that people don’t wear any clothes in Tajik hot springs. Um, what?! I wasn’t overly comfortable with the thought of someone – perhaps even my male colleagues, if fate decided to serve me up a particularly unlucky day – walking in on me stark naked. I decided to go the conservative route and remain fully clothed (in my head scarf and floor-length kurta, to boot) and instead just give my feet a soak.

To call it a ‘hot’ spring was a bit of an understatement. I might as well have stuck my feet in a tub of molten lava because I’m pretty sure that’s how hot the water was. I’m just glad I was enough of a prude to not have gone ‘all-in’ and that it was only my feet that suffered what felt like third-degree burns.

Once the initial temperature shock wore off and I changed my strategy to easing in one toe at a time (literally), I pulled out my copy of Siddhartha, the pages of which had begun to curl from the humidity inside the hut. It had been a parting gift several months prior from a friend who I cherish dearly and I found it appropriate to spend my first real ‘alone time’ in Tajikistan finally delving into it. It took me all of half a page to become engrossed in Siddhartha’s life of physical and philosophical journeys and I felt a pleasant calm wash over me as the moment’s solitude allowed me to realize just how lucky and happy I was.

We had planned on driving from Murghab back to Khorog and then flying home to Dushanbe the next morning. I was repacking my bag in Murghab when my colleague informed me that he had forgotten to book me a plane ticket from Khorog to Dushanbe. Hmm. I quickly surveyed my options: a) go with him back to Khorog, wait there all weekend, and catch the next flight on Monday; b) go with him back to Khorog and keep on driving all weekend to Dushanbe; or c) take a much-needed solo weekend to check out what META (Murghab Eco-Tourism Association) had to offer and figure out how to get to Dushanbe later. It didn’t take me long to decide on Option C.

* M&E = monitoring & evaluation, a critical component of development projects. There are several ways to do M&E, but the general aim is to find out quantitative and/or qualitative information about how your project is going and how it can be improved. Unfortunately, many NGOs view M&E as an annoying donor requirement, rather than as a beneficial tool that can help increase the positive and long-term impact of their work. 

Aug 21: Kyrgyz Cowboys and Camel Toes => Leg 12: Murghab to Rang-Kul (see pics #162-168)

Once again, I found myself barrelling down a horrendous road in the wee hours of the morning. This time, it was in an ancient Russian jeep that – aside from the UNESCO sticker adorning the corner of the windshield – could have been straight off the set of the last Indiana Jones movie.


I was pretty psyched for the 24 hours ahead of me. When booking the trip the day before, the META staff member had told me that I would spend the night in a yurt homestay after joining a ‘camel caravan’ of Kyrgyz shepherds moving down the mountains from their jailoos (summer pastures). I had pictured myself lumbering through the rugged mountains atop a noble two-humped steed (at least as noble as such a creature can look), with veteran herders on either side of me watching over their mixed herds in the distance.

The jeep stopped at a settlement comprised of several identical flat-topped dried mud buildings and curiously devoid of the typical Tajik village hustle and bustle I had grown accustomed to. A man stepped out of one home and waved my driver and me inside; a pot of tea and a massive plate of pilov* topped with yak meat appeared shortly thereafter.

They then brought me over to an opening in the settlement in which several villagers had gathered, presumably to witness the imminent spectacle of a foreign girl getting on a camel. When I saw the massive animal emerge from around the corner, I suddenly felt like I had been led into the Coliseum to face Rome’s fiercest gladiator. 

As my eyes warily surveyed the camel’s frame and my brain registered her unexpected immensity, I quickly realized that she was staring at me as if I was the most loathsome being to have ever graced the earth (you might be surprised at how belittled a camel can make one feel if she so wishes). As if to prove just how much damage she could inflict, she put up quite the fuss when I first got on, attempting to buck me off and then kicking at one of the handlers. In case you’re wondering, camels can kick sideways and are not nearly as easy to stay on as horses, what with the notable lack of a mane, reins, and stirrups to latch onto, not to mention a girth too big to wrap your legs even partly around. Come to think of it, getting ON a camel in the first place is not nearly as easy as getting on a horse: first, she has to be kneeling on all fours on the ground long enough for you to get yourself into the saddle without touching her humps; second, you have to hold on for dear life as she gets up on her front legs (tipping you backwards quite suddenly) and then lurches up on her hind legs (pitching you forwards even more suddenly); third, you have to be mentally prepared for her to swing her bulbous head around 180 degrees to stare you directly in the eye as she grinds her teeth and continues to walk forwards. And yes, the latter is indeed as creepy as it sounds.

She didn’t exactly calm down, but we set off anyways, since there were no other models for rent. Our sole companion was a Kyrgyz man wearing a cowboy hat, which struck me as quite a curious accessory in the Eastern Pamirs, where traditional Kyrgyz black-and-white felt hats are significantly more commonplace. He was leading us (or rather, the camel) on foot and by a rope attached to a painful-looking metal bolt through her left nostril. Although I felt horrible whenever he yanked the rope in response to another buck or kick, I don’t know how else he would have prevented her from running off into the depths of the Pamirs. It does not come as a surprise to me that camels are rarely, if ever, fitted with bridles, and I do not envy the person who first tried to get a bit into a camel’s mouth.

I thought back to how the META staff had regaled me with promises of a summertime camel caravan and shook my head at how readily I had let my imagination run wild. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to be riding a camel in the Pamirs – the very activity for which I had declared to the man at Carman’s Photo Shop that I needed a video camera capable of withstanding – but I certainly appreciated the irony in my camel being led by a Kyrgyz cowboy on foot across the moon, in the snow that had started to fall (yes, in August), and in the lack of any discernable life forms, let alone other camels or shepherds, in sight. Somehow this was not what I had pictured.

I soon got a feel for her unusual gait and she tried to buck me off and kick her handler with decreasing frequency. The snow began to fall more heavily and the wind picked up strength, cutting through my four layers like water through a sieve; I laughed through chattering teeth at the contrast with the previous day’s hot springs and plunged my mitt-less hands into the thick fur on the camel’s front hump. I surveyed the bleak, expansive land around me and marvelled at what a random moment in time this was; with that thought, I patted my mount’s sinewy neck, attempted to not look completely out of my element, and settled into my uncomfortable saddle for the next five hours.



* Pilov is a traditional Central Asian dish that also goes by the name of ‘osh’. In Tajikistan, the standard version consists of rice cooked in oil with bits of carrot, onion, and garlic mixed in and topped with chunks of meat (usually beef, goat, or yak, depending on where in the country it’s prepared). Rare variations on the ‘mixed-in’ ingredients include chick peas, pomegranate, and raisins.

Aug 21-22: Yaks, Yurts, and Yoghurt  => Leg 13: Rang-Kul to Murghab (see pics #169-179)

By the time the yurt settlement in which we would spend the night emerged across the moonscape like a mirage, I was quite ready to dismount and curl up next to a wood stove. John Wayne had nothing on me – you don’t know bow-legged until you’ve ridden a temperamental camel for 5 hours.

A young girl led me staggering towards the ‘toilet’, which was again a bit of an understatement. I squinted through the churning snow and wind at the facilities and feigned a smile back at the girl to indicate that I would meet her back in the yurt. I did not particularly want an audience for the string of profanities poised on the tip of my tongue. The toilet was less a toilet than a big scoop out of the land with a few unstable planks of wood jammed into opposite sides about a foot above the bottom. The pit was at least deep enough so that while squatting precariously on the wooden planks, only one’s upper body was visible across the plain. Thankfully it was frigidly cold and the remnants of previous patrons, around which one had to strategically position oneself to avoid contact, were more or less frozen; I would not have been keen on frequenting these facilities in the heat of summer when the smell would have been nearly unbearable (though I suppose the absence of walls provided a fair amount of ventilation).

I returned to the yurt and took in my new surroundings. Yurts are traditional Kyrgyz dwellings transported along nomadic routes to and from jailoos. They consist of large cylindrical frames of latticed wooden poles that are draped with yak hides and thick mats of pressed felt, and decorated with swirling Kyrgyz designs and various animal parts. The circular interior is kept immaculately tidy with specific places for korpachas (thick blankets), table settings, and other household items of daily importance. From inside the yurt, one can look straight up through the circular opening in the middle of the ‘roof’, through which smoke from the wood stove used for heating and cooking escapes.

The host family had two young daughters and a year-old son, who was bundled up so tightly that I wondered whether he could move. Through an intriguing combination of Tajik, Russian, English, and hand motions, we managed an equally intriguing conversation about the Marco Polo sheep hunting industry, life in the Eastern Pamirs, and, surprisingly, life in Canada (though why shouldn’t the cultural exchange go both ways?). The reliance on local livestock and foreign imports was underscored as we dined on sheer beringe (milk rice), yak yoghurt, and naan*. As we listened to Kyrgyz music videos, notably provided by a solar-powered DVD player, the father brought out a small META guestbook to sign. Previous tourists had come from Western European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands; I was the first Canadian.

I settled into bed on the floor and was grateful for the immobilizing cocoon of heavy korpachas bestowed upon me. I don’t think I moved an inch (couldn’t have if I wanted to) and fell asleep contemplating the precarious tensions inherent in eco-cultural tourism. My driver and I departed the following morning in our Soviet jeep, taking the high road (literally) over mountain passes near the border with China and back to Murghab.


* Since the land and climate of the Eastern Pamirs are not hospitable enough for agricultural production, staples such as wheat flour and rice have to be imported from nearby Kyrgyzstan or elsewhere in Tajikistan.

Aug 23: From Russia, With Love => Leg 14: Murghab to Khorog (see pic #180)

I said my goodbyes to the lovely Pamiri family I had bookended my camel trek with in Murghab and hopped into a marschutka* for the 6-hour drive back to Khorog. A Russian journalist was the only other passenger coming from Murghab, but we would pick up several more along the way.

The journalist was visiting the former Soviet Socialist Republics as part of a “Russian friendship” mission. I tried not to smirk at this proclamation, especially since the embers of the Russian invasion were still burning in Georgia**. She noticed my distaste and was admirably quick to agree that it was a bunch of propaganda, but was still having an unabashedly grand time traveling around Central Asia and the Caucasus on her newspaper’s tab.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that she crowned Georgia as the most beautiful country she had ever seen – and she’s been to an impressive number of them. Considering I couldn’t have found the country of Georgia on a map before the recent war burst onto headlines as the potential trigger of a 21st century Cold War, sending shivers down the collective spine of the West, I was all ears about what she had to say. Apparently it’s got everything from pristine lakes, forests, and mountains to ancient castles and world-famous wines and cheeses. When I regained internet access a few days later, I promptly wikipedia’d it and was further amazed that I had never heard about the incredible biological, cultural, linguistic, and gastronomic diversity in this tiny country. If there hadn’t just been a war there, I might have caught the first plane to Tbilisi strictly out of curiosity.

* Marschutkas are a popular form of public transit in Tajikistan. They are essentially miniature Chinese vans that jam as many people as possible into them on specific routes around the cities and country and distinguish themselves with custom horns not unlike cell phone ringtones. Marschutkas in the city cost an even 1 Tajik Somoni (approximately 30 Canadian cents), but the cost of rides from the city to other parts of the country are up for negotiation, to be agreed upon before departure. My ride from Murghab to Khorog cost a reasonable 60 Tajik Somoni ($17.50).

** I realize that Georgia by no means has her hands clean either, with what could be considered attacks on South Ossetia preceding the Russian invasion. Still, the Kremlin’s resurging tide of imperialism is undeniably lapping at the shores of the former Soviet Republics.

Aug. 25: Family Ties => Leg 15: Khorog to Dushanbe

After a wonderfully relaxing sojourn at my fellow intern Erin’s place in Khorog – complete with much-needed BBC news updates on Barack Obama’s running mate, the war in Georgia, and the closing ceremonies of the Olympics – I caught a 4x4 ‘taxi’ back home to Dushanbe. I was pleased to learn that the other passengers were relatives of the driver, which meant that he would be more likely than marschutka drivers to approach the perilous roads with caution and that we would take the safer but slightly longer route through Kulyab*. Fine by me – it was a gorgeous day and I was in good company, so I had no qualms about tacking on a few extra hours to the typically 15-hour drive.

I spent the first couple hours fielding the standard questions about where I’m from and why I’m not married yet (I didn’t feel the need to make up a fictitious husband this time), as well as some wonderfully random ones. My favourites came from the unusually tall pianist-turned-doctor perched in the seat behind me; he would tap my shoulder every so often, cock his head to one side with a solemn yet thoughtful look, and ask things like, “What information do you have about Michael Jackson? [Pause.] I heard he converted to Islam.” Needless to say, I gave up trying to keep a politely straight face after that one.**

The rest of the drive was comfortably uneventful and dotted with the typical Tajik stops that I had grown accustomed to – for traffic-jamming herds of sheep and goats ( youtube clip coming soon ), for a bathroom break and tea, for RC Cola bottles full of fresh honey, and for a 10 kg sack of dried mulberries (which, not surprisingly, promptly spilled all over the floor of the back seat). The woman sitting beside me showed me pictures of her husband and little boy and, true to form, insisted that I visit her home and young family in Khujand, the main city in the north-western part of the country. Like so many first-time mothers here in Tajikistan, she looked my age, which never fails to make me stop and consider how radically different some parts of my life can be from my female Central Asian counterparts.

I still haven’t gotten used to the whole ‘you’re not a woman until you’re a wife’ mindset (literally: there is only one word for both woman and wife). Sometimes I’m so inundated here with queries of marriage and kids that I feel like if I was Tajik and not married and pumping out the babies by the age of 25, I might as well grab my burlap bag and dozen cats and settle into the nearest rocking chair for a life of spinsterhood. To be fair, not all of Tajikistan has such deeply entrenched gender norms. Pamiri women are usually well educated and get married in their mid-twenties, but women in Rasht Valley (Tajikistan’s conservative stronghold) have it much worse. On a recent field trip to Rasht, I was told that until very recently, men would not marry women with more than an 8th grade education. In a country that places so much importance on family, I can hardly imagine the social pressures such women must face.

We arrived in Dushanbe in the middle of the night and I tried not to wake my family as I finally crawled into my own bed. As much as I love being on the road, it’s always nice to return home.

* Kulyab is the main city in the south-western part of Tajikistan and recently celebrated its mind-blowing 2700th anniversary, making it one of the oldest cities in Central Asia.

** Funny enough, it's now true. One morning in November, my boss had me in a fit of laughter when he read an article to me about MJ's conversion to Islam. His new name is Mikeel Ibn Youssuf Abu Imir Al-Gahri Jackson.




I wonder why you have insisted so much to visit Pamirs, if you did not understood anything you have seen and experienced there.

  Chn Dec 28, 2009 4:50 PM

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