By Dora Ohrenstein
It is not easy getting to the Pamirs, and it is even more difficult getting out. Especially if you don’t want to drop a small fortune which I did unwittingly in my luxurious journey in with Yusuf.
I had been intent on getting out by air. It sounded very exciting, flying perilously close to the mountains with highly skilled Tajik pilots. Arrangements were attempted, but strong warnings were given by Yorali that getting on a plane was very difficult, since there was only one plane a day that went back and forth from Dushanbe to Khorog. Very often, however, it didn’t fly, either because of weather conditions or insufficient passengers, so you could never tell when and if you would actually go.
It seemed like I might get a seat on a plane, so we went to the airport, a small building across the street from a tiny landing strip, with a nice facade but no public rooms inside, and no place for people to sit. People stood around in small groups, men smoking cigarettes, women sitting on stoops in groups feeding children. The women and children eat steadily, munching on seeds and fruit all day. After two hours, it’s clear there’s no chance for me that day, and I sat down on some steps next to a pretty blond woman, an economist working for the Aga Khan Foundation, who told me bribery was one sure way to get a seat. Definitely not an option for me. The next day seemed unlikely as well. This meant that I had to go back by shared taxi the following day.
I was staying at Yorali and Zuhro’s home tonight, and at 6 pm, the piano teacher arrived to give 8 year old Akhobir a lesson. When I was introduced as a musician he dismissed the boy and started playing piano for me. A guy in his seventies, he had beautiful big pianist hands, very well trained, and his tunes were mostly a kind of blues from a certain era I couldn’t quite pin down. I suggested we play Autumn Leaves together, we did a nice duet, and Yorali caught it on film with my camera. (Films to be posted at a later date!). Making a musical connection is always a great treat, and I was glad to find at least one tune we both knew so we could share that experience. We did a little improvising together too, with an audience of Yorali and his family and several neighborhood children. Yorali’s daughter, who is autistic, came and sat in my lap while I was singing, she seemed to know instinctively that I was a hugger.
In the morning Yorali took me to the taxi place, which is insane. I am lugging an embarrassing load of bags, we are in an overcrowded parking lot with drivers honking loudly and squeezing their vehicles into a spot no matter what. Milling masses of people are looking for transport. This is how most of the intercity transportation is done in Tajikistan. People and taxis — jeeps of varying levels of quality — mingle in a crowded lot, ringed by food vendors. The Toyota Land Cruiser is the gold standard. These must be filled to the max with passengers from the lot, at which time the taxis leave, or they may not. The passenger’s objective is to get a decent seat, since you’ll be in it over rocky roads for thirteen or more hours. We found one within two minutes of arriving, but after fifteen minutes, the seat was withdrawn suddenly. Then we found another seat, but after a brief commotion, driver and vehicle took off. Yorali turned to me and said “The driver refused to go.” Why? Mystery not disclosed. Now I’m getting desperate, I want to get out of here today (I have a flight leaving Tashkent in two days)! At last a secure seat is found, on the desired vehicle, I am to have the window seat in a car that holds 8, but will carry 11 passengers later today.
In the midst of the madness, the Pamiri are incredibly civil and good hearted, men and women alike. When I suddenly realized I’d left my camera behind, I needed to call Yorali, who might find it at his home. The driver of my jeep, Rustam, gave me his phone to use for 20 minutes and finally came back and said “Madame?”, so I gave it back. The camera wasn’t found until after I left. Hence, no photos for this day. But I couldn’t resist telling this part of the story.
At 9:30 we embark on the long road home from Khorog, in the high Pamirs, to Dushanbe, just under 600 kilometres away. Each kilometer is hard earned over boulder-ridden terrain with occasional spots of pavement. Minimum travel time is 13 hours, but a trip without adventure or misdavernture is rare.
Next to me is a woman of about 40, not slim, who has two kids with her, a teenage girl and boy, both sitting in the dreaded back seat along with a distinguished looked middle aged fellow and a tiny young woman who appears to be a college student. The teenage daughter was very sweet, the only one with any English in the car, and she saved me more than once. On the opposite window from me was a young mother and her little girl, both exceptionally pretty, the mother a non-stop talker with a pleasant voice. The little girl was a flirt and amazingly well-behaved — she didn’t cry once on the long toad trip, probably one she’s done all her life. Mom was very well stocked with boxes of tasty crackers she generously shared throughout the day. In the front seat was our driver, the handsome young Rustam, and his very laid back buddy, as close as I could imagine a Tajik could be to a beach bum.
The first few hours go by pretty well, we stop for lunch, I manage to find the squatting place with the help of the other women. There are frequent stops for security checks — both Tajiks and Uzbek governments like to harrass their citizens on the road to promote the idea of “security” — and I notice that Rustam and buddy are hopping out and tinkering with the car quite a bit. Apparently there’s a lot of spit and glue in this sleek looking Toyota Land Cruiser. At the time I found it worrisome, but writing this, I realize, this is just how they do it. They are used to keeping the vehicle working on the road, not pulling into a gas station for a repair job. This is driving in the raw elements, and what brings it home are the cars over the edge that I saw both ways, in and out of the Pamirs.
We came to a spot where a small bridge over a stream had collapsed with a heavily packed station wagon upon it. The wagon had begun to slide down into the water, but was not yet too far gone. Rustam made a dash off the road to avoid the broken bridge and the pack of cars that had gathered, and drove down to the stream, but stopped short when he saw how deep it was. He got out of the car and stomped around on the boulders. A smaller car than ours came by and went through with flying colors, then we did too. On the opposite side of the bridge, we stopped to become part of the rescue mission. A big truck soon appeared and was hailed, ropes were tied from the rear of this vehicle to the front of the car sliding down the bridge, and it was heaved out and on to the road with great dispatch, an impressive display of mountain mechanics, applauded by all observers, probably about fifty people.
Soon after, at a police stop, we were asked to take a man on board, a common practice — the police expect and get bribes from drivers, and one of the ways to buy them off is to take a passenger if they ask. The police are very nice young men and never display meanness, it’s just how the system operates, and it’s good to have police as friends or relatives in Tajikistan. This man became the 11th person in the vehicle, in my row. He spread out in typical guy fashion in his seat, while we three women sat glued thigh to thigh. We took a turn off the main road and started climbing much higher, the road getting skinnier and rockier as we gained altitude, a bit unsettling. The new guy suddenly called out Stop! and pointed his finger at a steep drop ahead of us. Everyone got out of the car to see — it was a car over the side of the mountain, empty of passengers. I didn’t go over to look.
Soon after, I had a bit of a breakdown. Rustam turned around and saw me with a very sad face. I was worrying that this detour would mean coming into Dushanbe in the middle of the night, that Kamol might not come to meet me, and whether I’d find a hotel at that hour. Rustam asked me something – probably “wassup?” and I burst out with tearful anxiety, but couldn’t explain what was on my mind, sharing no language with anyone in the car. The teenage girl was trying her best but the level of emotion kept her mum. Rustam and I got into a small spat, and his buddy in front seemed to make a joke at my expense. We were only into our eigth hour at this point – it was about 5 pm — 5 or more to go.
Now I realize seeing the accidents and near accidents everywhere was penetrating my psyche. After awhile, though, the incredible beauty of where we were got to me. These were the high pastures of the Pamirs that I’d heard about but hadn’t seen. People took their animals to graze up there during the summer, camping in huts for a couple of weeks at a time. It was a very gentle landscape, surprising given the crags one sees looking up from below. No people or animals were in sight, just a vast and majestic landscape.
The extra man was finally dropped off in a place like no other I saw on the trip: a small settlement way up on a very high pasture, where people were living in tents and riding horses. Horses are a strong part of the mythology of the Pamirs, but I had not seen any horses except this once.
At dinner, we all sat around one big table and Rustam at once made peace with me, which I saw was the custom here, a very nice one. Greasy lamb stew was served, which tasted heavenly. Then back in the jeep, for hour upon hour of driving, chatterbox doing a good job keeping the men in front alert. We all dozed on and off, getting into a zone that’s like a dream but not quite, because you can’t sleep very well going over crumbling boulders. I remember a front tire was replaced some time in the middle of the night. At a police check point I groggily open my door and see something drop out from under my feet to the ground, but can’t focus enough to think what it is. Bottle of water probably, never mind. But 5 minutes later I realize it’s one of my shoes and make a big fuss about going back to the police hut to get it. We go back, I rush out of the car with one shoe on, several others follow with flash lights, but the other shoe has disappeared. The police have no clue. It seemed a terrible tragedy at the time. Now I wish I had kept the other shoe as a reminder of the incredible journey I made this day.
At about 1:30 am we arrived in Dushanbe, much earlier than I had expected, and I emerged barefoot on the city pavement to find Kamol waiting. Back to the Soviet Hotel which seemed like an old friend, one you had trouble still liking, but I was in a very forgiving mood.