“In my opinion, eight officers out of ten are corrupted in Dušanbe” Tajik police officer, interviewed by I. Khamonov, 2005
My memories of Khorog are fleeting, for such was the nature of my permanence there. We took possession of yet another room furnished with beds with garish quilts and immediately dashed out, in hope of finding a money changer or an ATM. We then left the following morning. What remained are snapshots, a confused collage of pictures that, even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to collate in a coherent order.
Khorog lied in a steep valley shielded by tall mountains, at the confluence of two rivers: Gunt and Panj. From the waterside cafés along the latter one could sit cross-legged on a shaded topchan and gaze at Afghanistan on the other bank, looking exactly the same as our side but feeling incredibly exotic and novel.
We stayed at a house clinging on the south side of the slope, just off a lane pompously named after Yuri Gagarin. Descending from the road dedicated to the first cosmonaut in the world to the river meant meandering through cow-spattered alleys and beneath precarious-looking modern condominiums with tin-red roofs and wafer-thin walls. In the town, as it’s always the case with mountain villages no matter where, everything and everyone gravitated around the main road, still called Leninskaya. Poplars and deep ditches lined both sides, as it was inevitably the norm, and pollen glided on people’s heads with the same inexorability of paratroopers on the night before D-Day.
The Tajik president’s sour mug beckoned from dozens of posters and billboards: there he was holding two girls, looking miserable as himself, by the hands; here he was standing a bit perplexed in a field of red poppies. Land Cruisers of all sorts roamed up and down the main drag, some sporting NGO logos – Red Cross, Aga Khan Foundation, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, even the UN – and some with the tinted windows and chrome inserts that justified the claim, made by a Vice reporter, that “How many kilos did it cost?” was now the new way of asking for prices in town.
Even to somebody as unaware as I was, the fact that Tajikistan stood smack bang across the best path to bring Afghanistan’s crop of opium to the world was obvious, and Khorog seemed to be at the epicentre of it. The town felt one of those Wild West outposts where things could be done quickly, and be undone even quicker. In spite of all its urban refinements – the Aga Khan University, the coding courses sponsored by Microsoft, the riverside cafés – it still remained a village of stomping chickens, grazing cows and a decisively rough edge. To see how rough one only had to look at what happened five years prior, when the head of Tajikistan’s intelligence, General Nazarov, was dragged out of his car on Leninskaya and stabbed to death for a divergence over contraband. As if to prove the point, a sudden gale swept through the valley, chocking at an instant everyone with a tornado of pollen, dust and sand coming in from Afghanistan. In a second refined and urbane Khorog disappeared in the murk, like any yurt encampment in the steppe.
– § –
Somebody pounded the gate of our house, bleating some unintelligible pleading. It was 7 AM of a glorious morning and, knowing that our meeting with our marshrutka driver wasn’t until 7.30 we didn’t move from the topchan parked under a mulberry tree where we were indulging in a glorious breakfast. Only fifteen minutes later did our landlady wander to the gate to find out that it was indeed the collective taxi driver, by now utterly pissed off. Things weren’t off to a good start.
Marshruktas are institutions in the former Soviet Union. The rules might have been different from place to place, but by far and large they consisted of vehicles used as collective taxis, leaving from an agreed location once a sufficient number of punters had been found and cajoled on board. One of the key differences, though, was the definition of “sufficient”. Whilst in places such as Georgia or Armenia it equaled to one bum on every seat, in the Pamirs it seemed that every driver was hell-bent on beating the Guinness’ World Record for the maximum number of men, women and ewes they could cram into their Toyotas. I’d seen GAZ vans with four heads sticking out of the front seat, and Corinne – the German lady we’d taken to Alichur – had told us about when, sitting on the back bench with four other people, she kicked a parcel placed between her feet, only to discover it contained a puppy. Considering these premises, it only made sense for us to choose a marshrutka and not a private hire for the longest leg of our journey, a 600-kilometre marathon that could take anything between twelve and twenty hours.
We drove on to the bus station on Leninskaya where, by tacit agreement, anyone wishing to go to Dušanbe and those willing to take them there met. We waited half an hour and no one had joined us. Another half hour passed, and it seemed that my fear of having to play human Tetris in the back of a Land Cruiser wasn’t going to materialize at all. You see, by picking us up at 07.30 our driver had likely lost the peak hour for the Dušanbe departures. The sun rose higher and higher, the air grew hotter and hotter and the blue drained away from the sky; still, we had no one to share our ride with. Many other cars seemed to be in our same situation, but whilst their owner appeared to take it with philosophy, our driver just grew increasingly pissed off. It was at this point that I realised how staggering his resemblance with Grumpy Cat was, and the name somehow stuck.
Eventually, a man who spoke English was towed on to the phone, a bit of haggling ensued and we agreed on buying two extra seats at a reduced price and to be joined by a third traveler. We then drove out of town, Grumpy Cat doing a good interpretation of Charles Bronson’s mug, and went for petrol as we waited for the third passenger. I considered introducing Grumpy to the Stones’ hit “You can’t always get what you want” but then thought better of it as a latest-model Land Cruiser, black with black windows and chrome wheels, came to a stop next to us. Grumpy stopped doing what he was doing – which was shoveling wads of chewing tobacco in his mouth – and trotted sheepishly to the car; a black window whirred down, revealing two guys in leather jackets.
I know that I’m way too ready to jump at conclusions, but if those two scoundrels weren’t fervent adherents to the “How many kilos did it cost?” school of thought, then I didn’t know who would. In the worst parody of secrecy ever seen outside of 1980s Turkish B-movies, the players gave Grumpy a small parcel wrapped in masking tape, which he safely absconded in the secrecy of the compartment under his seat’s armrest. Which, if it wasn’t the first place where a narcotics cop would’ve looked, it had to be the second. Still, at least it made us blend in on the so-called Heroin Highway.
Eventually, before Grumpy could add weapons smuggling to tobacco abuse and potential drug trafficking, we were joined by our third passenger. I was expecting a Tajik matron with six bags of onions, so I was surprised to see a lively 18-year-old Dutch girl, Marieke. The perspective of having to carry three camera-toting tourists made Grumpy so livid with joy that he just ordered us aboard, slapped in a gear and got into the westbound traffic.
Much has it’d been since Osh, even here the ‘Highway’ was such only in name but the beginnings were nonetheless auspicious and the mood, with the exception of one, jovial and not even Marieke’s confession of listening to Justin Bieber could spoil it. We stopped at a first of a series of nine security checkpoints, the only one where we needn’t a bribe to go on, and the policeman on duty seemed genuinely saddened by the fact that we didn’t have an expedition logo to stick on his sentry box’s window. We then continued, coasting Afghanistan.
The road followed, for hundreds of kilometres, the course of the river Panj, Tajikistan on the north bank and Afghanistan on the south. To be so close to such a well-known – and for all the wrong reasons – country was an oddly fascinating experience, like taking the wrong exit on the motorway and driving through a seriously dodgy part of town, with the added cherry on the cake of being in an astonishingly beautiful valley.
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The river changed at every turn. One time it could’ve been wide, shallow and placid, so much that you could ford it practically on foot, walking to the Afghan kids playing cricket, God bless them, on the far shore. Turn a bend and it’d be looking all stately and pompous, filling the space between the banks like the big river it’d become in a few hundred miles. Then there would be those places where the road had to be carved out of the cliffs with dynamite and the banks were so close you could roll down the window and caress the other side: there the Panj became a raging, foaming beast, crushing all those thoughts of canoeing down it that you were toying with just a few meters before.
Regardless of its state, life flourished on both side of the Panj. Orchards as well kept as finalists of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show followed each other, peppered with vegetable patches tilled to perfection. Goats and cows chewed ponderously in their allotments, whilst their owners watched us pass by and kids waved. Nature aside, though, the two side of the river had very little in common. Coming from a continent where a border crossing brought little differences besides new road signs, speed limits and propensity to fix potholes, the chasm between Afghanistan and Tajikistan made me wonder whether the border wasn’t a division not just in space, but also in time.
We were travelling on a road that, with a healthy dose of fantasy and goodwill, you could’ve defined ‘surfaced’, encountering sporadic but not infrequent traffic. Above us danced electricity cables suspended from new, shiny zinc poles. Buildings sported fresh licks of paint, which the cynics would’ve said covered the bullet holes of the recent civil war, but still. Shops had refrigerators and coolers, packed with mineral waters and imitations of all Coca Cola soft drinks. On the streets, soldiers in green and yellow fatigues, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, marched at intervals along the border line.
On the other side of the border, though, everything that had to do with human activities was different. For starters, there was no traffic at all. But for a handful of motorbikes, ridden by two or three men in khet partug and skull caps, nothing moved on the road. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that the road itself had a habit of disappearing, mostly when it hit a ponderous rocky spur, or an equally massive overhang. In a few occasions, these natural challenges had been met and dealt with a herculean chiseling effort, seemingly made without explosives but only with sledgehammers, at least judging by the scars on the rock. In a country renowned in the world for IEDs and car bombs, there apparently was no ordnance to be found to open up a road.
The trails often led to villages, clots of brown homes huddled together so tightly that you’d thought the whole shebang would’ve come crashing down if only one wall was to be inadvertently removed. Something – besides cars or painted walls – was amiss in these villages, but it took me a while to put my finger on it: there was nothing to suggest the existence of an electricity grid there. No poles, no generators, no solar panels, only the occasional satellite dish. There was no recycling of the rusting scraps of modern technology – no truck cab doors turned into henhouses, no containers refurbished into roadside shops – mainly because there were no scraps. Atop a hill I thought that these villages would’ve looked very familiar to Gordon or most of the Great Game players.
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Our ménage with Afghanistan ended abruptly in the late afternoon. Without warning, Grumpy turned right into a rather nondescript road that, immediately, started rising away from the Panj. It meant we were past halfway and for that I was glad, but I also felt a pang of nostalgia at the thought of losing the company of the river and of the enigmatic country we’d coasted for so long. Grumpy seemingly didn’t harbour any such feelings, for he began tackling a selection of switchbacks with the fury of a man who wanted to be in Dušanbe as soon as possible. But, regardless of his hell-bent resolve, we had to stop to have a last look.
We were ascending on the side of a massive valley, large at least a kilometre and long God knew how much, it simply disappeared into the haze. But for a house, it was absolutely empty, with the classic deep gorge excavated by an unnamed torrent in the soft shape dug by a glacier now gone. To our left the valley flowed into the Panj’s, in a spectacle of peerless beauty. Grumpy, however, didn’t seem to enjoy the view. He kept the engine running, calling us and revving up when voice didn’t achieve the intended results. We got the message and ran back giggling like mischievous schoolchildren.
With hindsight, we could’ve stayed there for longer, for barely one switchback had rolled behind our back window that we hit a true Pamir Highway rarity: a traffic jam. A handful of white Chinese trucks and a motley assembly of third-hand off-roaders sat patiently under the sun, their drivers squatting in the shadows for what seemed to be a long time. Grumpy killed the engines and we all dismounted. What followed was an hour stuck somewhere west of Kulob, under a relentless sun, and it turned into one of the most pervasive memories of the journey, made of unfiltered nature, bootleg booze, goat spotters and rocks thrown on the road. But let’s start from the beginning.
A massive yellow excavator had been parked at an angle, effectively blocking the road. Music fluttered out of the cab and the feet of the driver, dangling from a railing, moved in synch with the tunes. Going further down the road smacked me as not being one of the most sensible things to do, for – higher up on the ridge on the right – other excavators were busy dislodging boulders from their earthy embrace, lobbying them down below. The road lied in the crossfire.
There was an air of enjoyment in this transient camp of squatters. No one huffed and puffed, no one complained with the marshal, pointed at the clock or yapped about the delay on the phone. Not a single soul had even contemplated honking the horn. As soon as we got out I was mobbed by a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, who turned out to be a trucker plying the Shanghai-Dušanbe route, one month outbound, one month inbound with a cargo of Chinese televisions. He all but lived in the cab of his truck, adorned with a Tajik hand shaking a Chinese one, and distilled his own rot-gut in there. Ever the charmer, he offered a round of it from an old bottle of Johnson & Johnson shampoo.
Another man, one of those Central Asia businessman kind of guys – loafers, polyester short-sleeved shirt and trousers, fake Oakley shades – tapped me on the shoulder and unleashed a barrage of Russian in which the only thing I was able to understand was “Marco Polo”. Unsure of whether he was inviting me to an impromptu read-out of Il Milione, or whether he was inviting me to play a hand of the American nursery game, I decided to remain non-committing. Undeterred, he fished out a Samsung smartphone whose background screen showed the photo of a large sheep furnished with the largest pair of horns I’d seen not worn by a steinbock. He gestured towards the rocky spur behind us. We’d run into the goat spotters of Tajikistan.
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We made a beeline for the spur behind the businessman and his mate, a tragic-looking small man bundled in military fatigues that he’d must’ve worn since birth in the failed hope of filling them fully. Only the tips of his fingers peeked out of the sleeves. A good half dozen people already stood on the thin ridge, walking in flip-flops inches away from the precipice without a care in the world. Some wore military uniforms, some were in civvies and all seemed engrossed in the search for the elusive Marco Polo sheep. A pair of binoculars appeared, and every palm of the mountain opposite hours was inspected; unfortunately, much to the chagrin of the onlookers, the shifty ewe had legged it into the shadows. Some were genuinely saddened by this.
Back at the front of the queue, somebody decided to weight the scrap metal carried in the boot of their GAZ truck. The slight issue deriving from a lack of weighting instruments was swiftly solved by one of the truckers bringing forward a scale of the kind you’d find at the charcuterie corner of supermarkets; serenaded by the roaring of diesel engines and the thumping of rock over asphalt, the men proceeded to load the scale with parts of a truck’s leaf spring and gearbox. Having done the good deed of the day, the trucker and the scrappers shook hands and returned in the shadow. We, too, resolved to sit there, playing card for a little while until, at precisely 17:57, a joyous scream informed that the road workers had finished trying to demolish the highway for today.
– § –
We were on the last straight, or so it seemed. The panorama had changed as we raced other Land Cruisers through the last ramifications of the Pamirs and nothing, not even roadblocks, could stop us as we drove towards Kulob in a glorious sunset; Grumpy would simply oil their wheels and we’d go on. We stopped for dinner at another of those completely random places that seemed to be the norm over in Central Asia, this one featuring two white Lincoln limousines and a bouncy castle in the backyard.
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Speaking of oddities, we weren’t far from where one of the strangest twist of events in the Central Asia’s modern history reached its climatic conclusion in, as it often happens here, a hail of bullets. It was the story of Enver Pasha.
Enver made up one-third of the triumvirate that led the Ottoman Empire to World War I and, ultimately, to its death. His responsibility in the catastrophic war experience would’ve been hard to deny, for he was the Minister of War, as well as the mastermind of the Armenian Genocide. No small feat. Sensing that his fellow countrymen wouldn’t have judged very lightly his tenure – he’d lost against pretty much everyone – he legged it to Germany where, whilst the newborn Turkish nation sentenced him to death in absentia, he became a Communist. His blend of Marxism was mixed with a staunch ethnic chauvinism that he tried to import back into Turkey, only for him to be stopped in his tracks by the wily Mustafa Kemal, later to be known as Atatürk. Defeated by a man greater that himself, Enver turned for help to the only one even worse than him at making friends. Lenin.
In the early 1920s the USSR was in the pits. Civil war still raging, famine, international ostracism and the whole Central Asia in flames. Angered by the end of the Tsarist rule, largely laissez faire in nature, the local populations revolted against the Bolsheviks who, almost without exception, were a) Russian and b) thugs. The steppe, woods and mountains crawled thick with Basmachi, the anti-Russian guerrillas. Against all this, Enver Pasha managed to blag his way into the Kremlin and somehow nobbled Lenin and his posse into believing that he – in spite of his precedents as a senior servant for a monarch like the one they’d just shot in a Yekaterinburg cellar – could be trusted to be sent to pacify the unruly Central Asia. How much I would’ve loved to be the minute-taker of that meeting.
Enver arrived in Bukhara on November 8th 1921. A day later he had already given the slip to his security detachment and had joined the basmachi, whom he’d contacted in advance. Within weeks he’d assumed command of a small army, which at its peak numbered 7,000 and, by using the weapons and discipline he’d learned from the German advisors to the Sultan, routed the Bolsheviks. Less than three months after his defection he’d kicked Lenin’s army out of Dušanbe, going on to attack Bukhara a few weeks thereafter, in a daring 500-km-deep raid. By the spring of 1922 he controlled the majority of the land formerly claimed by the Emir of Bukhara.
It couldn’t go on, and in facts it didn’t. Moscow vied for peace, but Enver’s shortfalls – he was, to put it bluntly, too vain – became evident when he tossed the proposal in the dustbin. He then became committing faux pas, namely by adding an array of self-ego-boosting titles that included Emir of Turkestan, Representative of the Prophet and Son in Law of the Caliph. It wasn’t unheard of at the time (a Mongolian warlord pretended to be Genghis Khan’s brother), but the prosaic Uzbeks weren’t very pleased and began deserting him once Lenin sent down south a better, more organised army.
Less than six months after having entered in Dušanbe, Enver Pasha was forced to abandon it. Chased by the Bolsheviks, he holed up a few days’ march away from the Afghan border, less than an hour north of where we were passing. What happened in August 1922 isn’t completely clear. Peter Hopkirk, to whom anyone interested in these places’ history is indebted, wrote that Enver Pasha was killed in a surprise attack not far from a village called Abiderya, which doesn’t figure on the maps. The Turkish government, who by 1995 had rehabilitated his memory, clams to have found his grave in the village of Baljuvon or, for others, Baldzhuvon. Regardless, the greatest conman of Central Asia lived his last hour not far from where we’d stopped to give yet another golden handshake to the umpteenth police roadblock. I wonder what Enver Pasha would’ve said of such a display of wretched morals.
We soldiered on, floating into an eternal sunset, through hills that, were they lined with maritime pines, could’ve passed for the Tyrrhenian coast. Darkness had fallen when we arrived in Dušanbe, stopping someplace where Grumpy gave his suspicious package, which turned to contain only money, to a waiting scallywag and, finally, led us to our hostel. Mattia, my photographer friend had been running a timer since we’d left Khorog and, when we reached the door of the house, it clocked 14 hours and 57 minutes.
It was a warm night, and we’d just graduated at the frontier school of character.