Dushanbe is much smaller than the other Central Asian capitals we’ve been to, quieter, and much more soviet. There are no real tall buildings so the skyline is dominated by a set of neo-classical pale yellow “twin towers” and the world’s now second-largest, 165 meter flagpole complete with a flag that apparently weighs 700 kilos. Authoritarian flair also shines through in some of Dushanbe’s boastfully ambitious projects such as the world’s biggest teahouse and a moon being named after it. When we were there, Facebook was blocked because of backlash against the government when a man who had a birthday party –which is illegal in Tajikistan— posted pictures of it and then received a fine. Yet Dushanbe still managed to grow on us. Slow days and new, close friends made the Tajik capital seem familiar and a chance to actually try to understand Tajikistan made a week waiting for visas into an opportunity to figure out what defines this country at Central Asia’s southern edge.
Every time we stop in the Wakhan valley, someone comes to greet us. In Namadguti, a Wakhan village on the southernmost edge of Tajikistan, this someone is Borye. It’s almost dusk and we’ve slowed down outside a magazin where people are congregating as the day ends. The fields a hundred meters up wave in the wind as people walk to and from their houses in the hills. Borye approaches me intently, asking in a shout if I speak Russian as if it was an order rather than a question. His eyes are sunken back and his face is a slight shade of red. He’s obviously had a couple drinks but seems generally to be in a good mood. When he realizes I can’t speak much Russian, he walks over to Jie and another man moves in to shake my hand. He asks if I speak Italian, which I find a bit out of place for this tiny town, but he himself also looks the part: dark hair, thick eyebrows, about 6’4” and built like André the giant. I say no –I cant remember much from my one j-term class at Middlebury— and try to build some other sort of conversation when I hear Jie’s voice over the intercom. “This guy’s asking if we want to stay at his house,” he says referring to Borye, “I’m not so sure, but what do you think about it?”
I’m not sure either. In principle it doesn’t seem like a great idea to stay with drunk strangers, but not an hour ago we had been talking about how much of a shame it was that we’ve turned down so many other offers to stay at peoples homes. Sometimes we’re just blindly stuck to a preconceived plan, other times it’s just been way too early in the day. I reflect briefly and look over.
“Ok, lets do it,” I reply. “I’m sure he’ll be an alright guy.”
The Wakhan valley cuts the line between Tajikistan and Afghanistan along the broad grey waters of the Panj River. It’s a line that’s as arbitrary as many in post-Soviet Central Asia, drawn straight through the southern Pamir, leaving two sides of the same people feel as if they were completely different. It’s a border that winds and crawls through roads of sand and dirt in places they were never meant to go. It’s a path blasted through the rock on the Tajik side, one literally carved into the cliff on the Afghan side. The Wakhan is completely different than the rest of the Pamir up until it. The desert red, brown, and khaki have been traded for a lush ochre, green and blue. The fields are full, framed by tenacious snow mountains that have pushed right up to the rivers edge. Houses burst forth in perfect complexions of white and pale turquoise. The roads are full of children that come out to not only wave but also dive into the road for high-fives. It might just be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. A dreamscape realized.
Conditions in the Pamir change fast and unforgivingly. Just like Tibet last month, the weather at altitude whips and flows through the valley in quick spurts and intense torrents. The first day in the Pamir starts off like the last day in Kyrgyzstan ended: we wake up to a bright sun, but are quickly covered in hail, freezing rain and snow –none of which last for more than ten minutes. Unlike Tibet though, the road in the Pamir is as fickle as the weather. From Karakol the Murghab, the road is mostly paved, which to be honest is surprising to both of us; however, it’s definitely not paved well, and sudden, deep potholes at 60km go about as you would expect. Other times the road devolves suddenly into rocks. At it’s worst it’s like an amalgamation of small river stones where you slide and skid at the slightest turn of the handlebars. I can’t blame the roads themselves though, life out here, constantly fighting the elements is bound take its toll. On long pavement stretches we come across multiple places where the tarmac has fallen out a large chunks; this might just be a place that people were never meant to go, a part of nature that was never meant to be conquered.
The eastern Pamir is one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. In our first day here we get snowed on twice, hailed on twice, rained on intermittently and have crossed three rivers on washed out roads. But the psychical battle is not the most prominent feeling on entering the Pamir. Instead it’s the overwhelmingly alien ambiance of the place. The isolation and desperation of entering somewhere that doesn’t feel like it belongs on this earth. As we crest over the ridge out of the Tajik border at Kyzyl-Art it’s this feeling that sinks through the marrow of my bones.
photos, words and illustrations
©Nathaniel Brown and Jieming Sun, 2015