By Dora Ohrenstein

After crossing the border into Tajikistan I stayed in the town of Penjikent, where there are some historic sites, that, sadly, I didn’t get to see. The hotel was a dilapidated ex-Soviet hotel that seemed to have no other visitors, OK but a little creepy. To cheer myself up I put on my brand new silver slippers that I bought in Urgut.

In the morning I took a shared taxi to Dushanbe, a 580 kilometer drive over deeply rutted mountain roads. As a foreigner able to pay a higher price (about $20) I was given the front seat. In the back sat two men and a woman. Her teenaged boy was put in the luggage compartment at the back of the hatchback, piled high with luggage, into which he had to slither. He smiled through it all. Everyone was very nice but only one fellow had a handful of English words.

The mountains we crossed are dry and dusty, with only distant snowy peaks suggesting a more inviting landscape. It was very hot in the car, and there were no stops for water, bathroom, or food. The road was dire, but the driver very assured. When we went through an endless dark tunnel, bumpy, flooded, with uncoming cars emerging suddenly from the gloom, I thought we’d gone to purgatory. Never was a light at the end of a tunnel more welcome. I had been told the ride would be 4 hours, and well into the 5th, I was reaching a stress point. At this point the driver pulled into car wash and we stood around for 25 minutes while his car got a thorough wash. When we continued and it turned out my Tajikistan contact was waiting for me only 5 minutes away, I was gnashing my teeth.

My subsequent travel in Taikistan was arranged by De Pamiri Handicrafts, and their representative in Dushanbe, Kamol, cheered me up right away with his brightness and charm. We spoke a mix of German and English. He took me to another Soviet style hotel, then we went to dinner at a Turkish restaurant and had a tasty meal costing $11 for two. Then we drove around looking for an internet cafe, as I was desperate after being out of touch for several days. Finally we returned to the hotel, only to find that my key would not work. We demanded help from the floor manager, who very reluctantly left her TV program, then I repacked and moved all my stuff. Next morning at 7 a.m. I was to leave for the 13 hour journey to the high mountains of Pamir.

For this arduous trip over one of the most treacherous roads in the world, De Pamiri had hired a very sober and experienced driver, Yusuf, with a top of the line 4-wheel drive vehicle. At the time I didn’t know how much this was costing, as I’d only been given the cost per kilometer, without knowing the actual distance. First we passed a vast rolling plain where herds of animals grazed. Till now, in Uzbekistan, I hadn’t seen large herds. Driven mostly by young men, the animals were very casual about walking on the road. The roadside encounters happened 4 times or so along the way, and each time it was a thrill.

Then we came to the Pamirs, passing through a landscape of massive geological drama: the Pamirs are part of the Himalayan range, with towering jagged peaks, huge boulders, sharply cut, boldly striated rocks, and the wild brown river Pansch, which we followed for mile after mile. At places the tremendous energy of the river crashing down on its boulder foundation is so intense that its surface roils like a furious sea. On the other side of the river is northern Afghanistan, far from the war, where I saw villages and people looking just like those on the Tajik side. Into the 9th hour, the reaction is more to the sheer scale of this dominating, not very hospitable landscape. There were few humans around. I watched the slim footpath on the opposite site of the Pansch for hours, and saw only the occasional wanderer.

Yusuf’s brow furrowed in concentration as we proceeded on the shaky ride. Due to a rainy summer and a hot August, the river was running very high, and in several places had obliterated the road. Yusuf drove through these flooded sections with great care. It was brutally hot and there was no place to get cold water — the locals drink from springs and waterfalls, which I’d been warned to avoid. We stopped twice for quick meals in two larger towns on the route.

At around the 10th hour we arrived in the Rushan district and Yusuf started picking up passengers on the road, local folks trying to get from one village to the next. First was a woman who told a sad story of her husband losing all his money after the Soviet collapse, then dying of a heart attack; then two mothers with four little girls, one of whom got sick in the car. At one small village, a woman came running up asking for help for a man with a badly hurt arm, and he and a friend came into the back seat. The man was crying out with pain. A few minutes later we came to a spot where the river had come well over the road, and a truck lay with its entire front end in the river. It turned out this man had been driving that truck. He told Yusuf that shortly before a Chinese truck had gone into the river and both truck and driver had been lost. Luckily, this was not made clear to me until much later, after Yusuf had successfully negotiated the passage safely. We could do nothing for the poor man but drop him off where medical help was available. After this incident, Yusuf lit a cigarette, the only one I saw him smoke.

At long last, after nightfall, we arrived in the small village where I was to meet Yorali, my De Pamiri host, and stay the night with a family of artisans. It took me two days and about 20 hours of mountain driving to get here. Yorali gave us a fine welcome, introduced me to the family, and I entered my first Pamiri house. Every home in the region has the same structure, a square shape with two layers of platforms extending from the walls, curtained bedrooms tucked into the corners, and a multi-layered, symbolic configuration of squares in the ceiling leading to an opening at the top. There are no chairs; people sit on cushions and bedrolls which are moved around as needed. It was a beautiful house and the table was set with typical Pamir fare: fruits, nuts, roasted lamb, home made yogurt and jam, bread and tea. The mountain air was cool and fresh, and the property surrounded by abundant fruit trees. Even the musty outhouse couldn’t dent my sense of awe. It was an enchanted end to a strange and powerful day.

Penjikent restaurant view

Creepy hotel

Dorothy’s not in Kansas any more

Light at the end of the tunnel

Roadside stream

Afghan village on the opposite side of the Pansch River

Yusuf and Toyota Land Rover

Another Afghan village, this is a very special one built by the Aga Khan Foundation

Our passengers

Chinese roadbuilders working in the heat of the day

Ceiling of Pamiri house. Most homes share this structure, an important feature of Ismaili life