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“’Tis said to be the highest place in the world”
Looking back, the handful of hours we spent on the road between Karakul and the Tajik town of Murghab were my favourite of the entire journey. It wasn’t because of specific highlights, or some particular memorable points; rather, I felt that the entire journey between those two villages was continuously brilliant; at every corner, the road kept on giving.
We met two cyclists as we left Karakul, indomitable forerunners of the dozens that were to follow them as the season continued, and a man braving the shoddy tarmac on nothing but an old, 1st series Volkswagen Golf. Then the road was ours for hours, dust devils our only companions.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
The landscape was, to put it mildly, a triumph. As we climbed atop Ak-Baital pass, 4,655 meters, we crossed an invisible border between the low-pressure front that had been following since Osh, and what lied ahead. And what awaited us was truly magnificent.
We stood on a rocky outcrop that, had it been in Europe, would’ve made it amongst the top-five tallest places in the continent; yet we were dwarfed left right and centre by mountains that seemingly stretched into the mesosphere. Looking down ahead, it was even better. An enormous valley opened before our plucky little car, so large that the pass we were standing on seemed nothing more than a side entrance. Space, untarnished by human meddling, rolled on for kilometres, until yet more mountains rose sharply to close off the perspective, revealing nothing but the promise of more mountains and more valleys, as spectacular as this one.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Nothing betrayed the presence of man. The Highway’s asphalt had since long decayed into a state not too dissimilar from the dust encroaching it on both sides, and was barely visible. Apart from that, nothing stirred. No houses, no ski pistes drawn onto the mountain sides, no pastures irrigated with sprinklers, no Goddamned skilifts or snow cannons, only the gigantic disco-ball effect of the alternation of sunlight and clouds on the sand and rock.
Rivers, in this corner of the world, are the true Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We were seeing them in their tamest guise, nothing more than bubbling streams of clear water slowly making its way downhill, so shallow that one could ford even the largest of them simply by taking his shoes off and rolling the trousers only halfway up the shinbone. However, one had only to look at the Murghab river’s bed to appreciate their wilder side. The road arrived to a large wound in the ground, where aeons of floods had dug a veritable canyon through the soft ground; a bridge made of prefabricated concrete, which had once linked the two banks, lied in tatters, its pieces dragged downstream by the waters. Undaunted, the Highway had found, as it was to do countless times later, a way around the problem: the old road was blocked by large rocks and fluttering rags strewn across the carriageway, whilst a new set of tracks swerved to the left, down the slope, through the water and then back up again. A solution had been found, but for how long it was anyone’s guess.
We stopped shortly afterwards to fill up the tires. I elected to walk a little bit further. The road followed the course of the valley, gently arching behind a spur that, as we were to discover later, hid Murghab from view. It was approaching sunset. We were in the light but, still, clouds from Kyrgyzstan lurked in the side-lines, exalting the contrast between the golden hues drawn on the mountains to the east and a darkening sky. To my left, growing larger and larger the further ahead I walked, opened another enormous U-shaped valley leading east towards inevitably spectacular mountains. I knew where we were.
This was the very place that caused Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, so many sleepless nights that I could almost picture him tossing and turning in his bed in Calcutta or Simla. This was the place whose occupation by British forces had been implored, suggested, commanded and pleased by hundreds of Russophobe pamphlet-writers in London. This was one of the epicentres of the Great Game. The Pamir Gap.
A wide corridor – the one we were driving along – linked the northern steppe, already in Russian hands, to Wakhan and, from there, to the Panjshir valley, Kabul and the Khyber Pass. Another – the one I was looking at – led to China, if one was to take to the left, or to Pakistani Kashmir to the right. This was the junction, Britain felt, whence the marauding Cossacks could gather and then steamroll down, towards the rich plain of the Ganges.
Britain came to know of the existence of this monumental, glacier-made Piccadilly Circus thanks to one Lieutenant Thomas E. Gordon, one of a seemingly endless rank of British Indian army officers that were granted “shooting leave” and were given a small entourage to ramble around Central Asia to their hearts’ content. It was him who, en route to Xinjiang – or Chinese Turkestan as it was known then – found out that the gap preserved “its even surface right up the high ranges and ridges which stand out and rise from it, without any ondulating or broken ground […]. The appearance thus presented is strikingly like that of high bold headlands rising from the sea”.
This image, contained in his best-selling book (Great Game travelogues were Victorian Britain’s equivalent of today’s vegan recipe books, or J.K. Rowling’s latest novel), was designed to evoke gasps of horror in the Empire-loving readers, for it was all too easy to imagine the Gap as a seaway, and the seaway chock-a-block with Tsarists longships packed with booty-thirsty Cossacks bound for India.
The worries of men with handlebar moustaches who lived 140 years ago faded into the background as I continued walking along the Highway, climbing an imperceptible knoll. Apart for our lonely Toyota, nothing and no one was visible for kilometres all around me. As I stood there I was reminded again of Apollo 11 and of his command module pilot, Mike Collins, the one who didn’t land on the Moon and the one I’d always found the most interesting of that trio of explorers. Of his first solo crossing of the dark side of our satellite, he said: “three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side”. I knew I was stretching it, but standing there I began to have an idea of what he must’ve felt.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
– § –
How does San Miguel must look like when there’s no Clint Eastwood fomenting the Rojos against the Baxters and vice versa? Probably a lot like Murghab, Gorno-Badakhshan.
We stayed at a homestay that boasted flush toilets and heated showers, both commodities worth boasting in a place where no houses had running water and pumps bought by the EU and the Aga Khan were everything people had to wash and cook. In addition to these comforts, the house featured frosted windows enriched with pineapple motifs and a full set of Angry Birds quilts. The clientele included a young Belgian couple, another small platoon of the army of cyclists scattered along the Highway, and a Tajik trucker who kept us suitably well supplied with vodka over a dinner of cow liver, potatoes and fresh vegetables.
Roll the clock back 200 years and Murghab didn’t exist, save for some nomad encampment, so transient that it didn’t even yield a name. But then came the Great Game, and things changed pretty quickly. We’d seen, along the way, the ruins of a fortified house, built by the river at the time of Tsar Nicholas. It was, however, in an unfortunate position, not quite close enough to the real Piccadilly Circus to control it, and in facts it didn’t last long. What was needed was something like Murghab.
In 1892 a battalion of Cossacks, led by a lieutenant Michail Ionov – who was to gather considerable notoriety in Britain only a few months later – set up camp in the wide plain where we, too, were staying. In little time an outpost was built and christened with the rather unimaginative name of “Pamirsky Post” (if there ever was something that the Cossacks lacked, I suspect that it was marketing skills). It was, however dedicated these rugged men were, a tough place to live in. It snowed whilst we were there, and it was June. “How these Russian soldiers can support existence there is a marvel”, Younghusband – who visited the valley before the Post was built – was begrudgingly forced to admit.
Murghab’s shortcomings couldn’t be ignored, the altitude – it had been USSR’s highest village from its incorporation into the Union until Tajikistan’s independence – had its drawbacks and there was a distinct air of decay, as if it was the day after a natural cataclysm worth of a Hollywood disaster film, but I felt the place growing on me. If I were to say why, I’d say it was the light. I’d read, somewhere, a story that I believed apocryphal but that I liked to think true, according to which “Murghab” was an erroneous Tajik transposition of “Nurkap”, a Kyrgyz word that the first settlers gave to this place when they moved next to Pamirsky Post. Nurkap meant ‘beam of sunlight’ and today, as the sun sunk slowly behind the mountains, I found it an incredibly fitting name.
It was the end of the road for our travelling companionship with Kudaibergen. We hugged and then we watched drive back towards the China-bound truckers’ accommodation. I’d hired him by chance, after having doubts over the paucity of shared taxis on the road we were due to ride on, and I was sad to be parting ways with him.
We went for a quick wander around Murghab as the sun fell behind the mountains. It was late, but the village was buzzing with activity. Be it playing volley, pumping water into buckets or simply standing guard at the army base, undoubtedly knocking one day off from those remaining until the end of the conscription, everyone seemed keen to make good use of the light whilst there still was some (lampposts seemed in short supply). Then, as soon as a cold penumbra invaded the plain, they all scattered whilst the pungent smell of dried dung fires puffed out of the tin chimneys.
Mornings don’t get much crispier than they are at 3,800 meters of altitude. Fumbling with my jacket and boots, both perennially covered in dust, I elected to go out for a walk to see Murghab stretch and get out of bed, my dinner companions nowhere to be seen. The night’s sleet had left a dusting of snow on the upper peaks that border the valley; in the crystalline air of the morning, it felt that one only had to extend his arm to be able to touch it.
A handful of elderly men – ascetic Kyrgyz, serene faces beneath their Kalpak hat, and Taijks sporting long, white goatees – ambled around the dusty sidewalks, studying thoughtfully each pebble, hands tied behind their backs. Besides them, the trickle of kids in school uniform and beanie hat became a torrent streaming towards a series of buildings I’d mistaken, a day earlier, for a chicken farm, erupting in waves of “Hello!” each time the foreigner happened to cross their path. Two women pushed a wheelbarrow laden with a broken table. From the steps of the bank – where no cash was issued – and the exchange office – where no currency was traded – throngs of layabouts oversaw unfathomably Murghab’s rush hour.
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A slender white obelisk stood next to a building housing some obscure public office. A curious blend of Soviet iconography and nomadic artworks flanked Murghab’s monument to the glorious dead of the Great Patriotic War, their names listed scrupulously in tiny font on two dark stone steles. There were seemingly hundreds of names crowding around an eternal flame now long gone. On the other side of the road, slightly below than from where we were standing, a white statue gave us the shoulders, busy addressing a crowd clearly more interested in chatting amongst them than in listening to whatever its message could’ve been.
Lenin’s statue, here, was a lot less imposing – and refined – than its cousin over in Osh. It looked coarse, roughly cut out from a slab of white stone, its expression the one of a man who’d just legged it above the highlands from Kyrgyzstan and all he wanted was a pint and none of this revolution malarkey. Around it, men in civvies and in uniforms kept talking on, ignoring the pleading Lenin, their small sons waving shyly at us.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
We walked into a neighbourhood of hovels that clung on to the escarpment below an Army base that looked as if it’d just suffered a major kitchen accident, judging by the charred buildings and the crumbling outer walls. By accident more than by design, we walked into somebody’s backyard, attracted like moths first by the lime-green carcass of a rare Zaporozhets sedan, then by the views. A massive dog, a hulking beast of sand-coloured fur, rose on all four, sniffed in our direction, sneezed and then sat down again. “Duh, tramps” I could feel its canine brains thinking.
A door opened, revealing a man in a zipped-up fleece and pile sailor hat, coupled with the mandatory Adidas tracksuit bottoms. With all likelihood, the owner of dog, courtyard and possibly even of the Zapo. We expected to be kicked out of his property, as it was the norm all the world over; instead, he gave me another example of the second reason why I felt Murghab growing on me. With the naturalness that we’d by now learnt to associate with the locals, he saluted us in the polite Islamic way – hand on heart, “Salaam aleikum” – and then shook our hands, as if it was absolutely normal to find foreigners nosing around his ‘yard, and then proceeded, in a halting English, to introduce us to the views.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
We stood on the margin of the Murghab River plain, at the extreme border of the city; beyond it, no other building dared braving the seasonal floods but for a yurt with a fence and four minuscule minarets – “Ismaili majid” confirmed our unnamed host. Past the verdant wetland, were a lone calf grazed, the ground rose sharply, losing colour as it went. Dark green immediately gave way to a paler shade, and then it was prairie yellow where banks of sand and pebble lied abandoned by the last passing of melt waters. Even that didn’t last long, for a mammoth cliff of rock and snow followed suit. “Gank Mountain” said our newly appointed guide. I was later to search for that peak, but without success; hardly a surprise in a place where there was such an abundance of summits that it defied the Soviet cartographers’ will to name them and the alpinists to climb them.
Before retreating again indoors our host, ever so gentle, pointed up the valley and said “China”. He then looked to the south-west, following the course of the wide corridor, past a few rickety bushes, and said “Khorog”.
That was our next destination.
“I shall wander the wilds of Central Asia possessed of an insane
desire to try the effects of cold steel across my throat”
George Hayward 1839 – 1870
After two weeks of relentless sunshine, departure day opened with the all too familiar patter of raindrops bouncing against the plastic windowpane of the hostel dorm room. We packed up our gear in silence, the mental images of incredible Pamiri mountainscapes fading into nothingness like a PowerPoint effect.
It didn’t happen very often, for me, to be embarking on a journey where the element of travel itself was the aim and purpose of the voyage; in other words, I had – up until now – travelled, covering road (or rail, or air) with the purpose of arriving someplace. Today, to borrow from an often-misused aphorism, the journey was our destination. It was then hardly surprising if, in spite of the gloomy weather, we felt a pang of excitation as we extricated ourselves between omelettes and sticky jam.
There are a handful of ways to “do” the Pamir Highway, which, as the Lonely Planet writer will go to pains to point out, is “the second highest road in the world” (without bothering to mention which one actually held first place). Real travellers would be working their way up its switchbacks on foot, or would peddling overladen bicycles along its long ramps. For both categories, their efforts would be awarded by long hours spent savouring some of the most striking panoramas in the world. Cheaters will be driving or, even worse, be driven. We were cheaters, and of the worst kind, for we would be driven not by a desire to try cold steel across our throats, but by a man called Kudaibergen and his Toyota Land Cruiser.
I wasn’t, and I’m not, extremely fond of car travel. Granted, there are worse ways to go from point to point – coach, or the Piccadilly Line, spring to mind – but thinking automobiles would inevitably conjure, in my mind, images of motorways stuffed with speed cameras, the perennial quest for a parking spot and the relentless tailback aerobics: clutch-first-clutch-second-brake-clutch-first. This time, though, it felt different. I climbed aboard the old purple Land Cruiser with a sense of expectation, for this was the beginning of a long-dreamed trip, I was in a friend’s company and we had a driver who promised to be another.
Kudaibergen was born in Tajikistan, but had the wide, harmonious features – high cheekbones, almond eyes – of a Kyrgyz, and the serene demeanour of a Buddhist monk. We were to spend only one day together and in those hours he revealed himself to be a skilful driver, a great travel companion and an extremely likeable person but – in that Osh parking lot, on the corner of a housing estate – this was still the future. We watched him inspecting is beloved Land Cruiser and then we set off, southbound.
The hills begun immediately after we left Osh. We drove through verdant ridges, following a valley where a torrent had been busy digging a bed so deep, and with such vertical banks, that it felt as if a gigantic meat clavier had been used by a Greek god with some appetite for destruction. This was Kyrgyz country, a land of rich grassland where herds seemingly outnumbered cars 10 to 1. Shepherds’ camps were ubiquitous, with blue metal trailers, Russian-made motorbikes with sidecar and white felt yurt, the latter looking a lot more stable and less likely to rot, decay and fail than any other implement the herders held scattered around the fields.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Travelling with a professional photographer was a novel experience for me, especially if I considered that my arts and crafts skills were bordering zero, and I was being kind with myself. Apart from the constant shuffling of lenses, cleaning of invisible specks of dust, light readings and other activities too technical for my point-and-shoot understanding, there was the restlessness of it. He simply never, ever, stopped photographing, shuffling from side to side in the car and when windows weren’t enough he’d murmur an apology and eject himself from the Land Cruiser’s cab to pursue the occasion on foot, irrespective of whether we’d stopped or not.
In the ensuing lulls Kudaibergen and I would climb out of the car, him fixing some minuscule part that wasn’t exactly the way he or the Toyota designers figured it to be (I was beginning to suspect, to quote a Dilbert cartoon, that he had the knack for engineering) and I’d be standing beside him, soaking up rain but feeling rather upbeat about it. It was at one such stop, then, that Kudaibergen introduced me to one of the most poignant epics of Kyrgyz history in, as I was to learn was his style, a completely unassuming way.
A monument stood on a hilltop just above us, a stylised yurt with the statue of a venerable old man sat cross-legged in front of it. When I asked Kudaibergen who that man was, he began telling me a story of murder, invading Russian armies and the 50 som banknote; curiously enough, the person embodied in the monument was only a passing supporting actor in this epic. He went by the name of Alymbek and he was the datka or righteous ruler of the lands we were travelling through, which he administered on behalf of the khan of Kokand. Alymbek was born in Gulcha, a village where we’d stopped for petrol, and managed to rally and unite his troops against the Tsarist armies, guided by generals such as Von Kaufman and Skobelev, the one who once said that, in Asia, the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter inflicted upon the enemy. “The harder you hit them, the longer they remain quiet” he concluded.
Alymbek datka died early on in our story, killed – in 1862, as I was to discover – in a palace coup in Kokand, where he’d gone to act as a regent for the teenage khan. Despite the monument, he wasn’t the one for whom Kudaibergen had the greatest amount of respect. He indeed fished a crumpled 50 som note out of his walled, studiously unfurled it on the bonnet and pointed a finger at the thoughtful image of a woman, an elderly lady wrapped in an elaborate headgear, half turban half headscarf. She, he said, was Kurmanjan, wife of Alymbek. He might’ve had the statue on the hill, but she was on the banknote, and that was telling.
Born in 1811 from a nomadic clan in the Altai Mountains, Kurmanjan needn’t long to prove that she didn’t fit the job description of the remissive Kyrgyz woman. Aged 18, she was given in spouse to a man whom he’d never seen before; on the wedding day, upon finally meeting him, she decided he wasn’t of his liking and fled back to her father’s encampment, near the Chinese border. Her meeting with Alymbek must’ve been more successful if she agreed to marry him in 1832; they still were together when, 30 years later, news reached her of her widowhood.
Normally, following Alymbek’s death, some other male member of his family would’ve taken his place as dakta, but not on Kurmanjan’s watch. As it was shown in a triumphant scene in Queens of the Mountains, Kyrgyzstan’s only blockbuster, she rose up to power, obtaining the approval of both the khan of Khokand and the emir of Bukhara, the highest authority – politically and religiously – in pre-Tsarist Central Asia, who even met her in person in Osh. Kurmanjan thus became general and governor of her people at the time when being either was a difficult, thankless and possible doomed-to-fail job. The khanate – and all local forms of government – were in facts in terminal decline, suffering an accelerate obsolescence at the hand of the Tsar’s army, which had gained an aura of invincibility.
Her greatest success, I was to learn after that chance encounter in the Kyrgyz countryside, wasn’t won on the battlefield. She didn’t beat the Russians, because she couldn’t; horsemen couldn’t do much against European soldiery. Rather, her greatest achievement was to realise that, and to urge her people to accept the status quo and the new Russian rule coming from the north. It mustn’t have been an easy decision to make, but she stuck to it even when her son was sentenced for arms smuggling and sent to the gallows. By doing this, though, she ensured a light-touch government from the new Russian overlords – who, as history was to show, weren’t above using tactics worth of Attila when faced with rebellion – and, in the long term, the surviving of her people’s customs, beliefs and autonomy. Her skills were recognised by the Russians, who dubbed her Tsaritsa Alaia, Queen of the Alai, a name etched in history in this corner of the world.
Sary-Tash is the last village before the border and, crucially, the last chance for a hot meal this side of Murghab, Tajikistan. As far as cities went, Sary-Tash didn’t cut a particularly flattering figure as we drove closer; oa sunny day, with the vast valley stretching as far as the eye could see, framed by the hulking slopes of the Pamirs, the location would’ve made for a more impressive view, but today’s low clouds and drizzle gave me the distinct impression of having arrived at the end of the world.
Sary-Tash: a smattering of low, squat buildings sprinkled across the plain without a great deal of order or harmony, surmounted by gnarled electricity poles planted at odd angles and seemingly without logic. A petrol station stood at the edge of town like an odd gate guardian, two shy toddlers looking at us from the shop’s doorstep. Yellow pipes snaked all around the village, mostly accompanied by abandoned vehicles. We parked under a precipitation that felt more sleet than drizzle, and got out, following Kudaibergen. Despite its depressed looks, I felt some sympathy for Sary-Tash, for I’d always felt some for that sort of transient, forgotten places, the kind of towns that weren’t given a second glance by visitors; I was born in one such place.
Kudaibergen led us to an izba that didn’t look any different from the ones to its left or right, were it not for a small sign proclaiming, perhaps optimistically, “Hotel”. Inside, past a set of double doors, was a room sparsely furnished with plastic chairs and tables, a counter and a few shelves of non-perishable groceries. A shy-looking girl and a well-used menu, laminated in plastic, finished the ensemble. Hotel, convenience store and restaurant.
Over a lunch of manty, lukewarm Baltika beer and tea, alone in a room with another six plastic tables, Kudaibergen told us his story. If I close my eyes, now, I can see him again: sitting composed, hands on the table edge, eyes down, his pile cap and phone placed on the empty seat beside him, a shy smile on his face whenever he raised his head to look at us. A former assistant teacher of Chinese at Biškek university, he’d to quit academia to serve table in Russia, for the pay for professors was only $100 a month.
“Russia was not good for me” he summarised, rather embarrassedly. He’d lasted two years there, before returning home and – stupidly – I asked why he’d done so. He raised his eyes to meet mine and repeated that it simply wasn’t good, but his looks and hand – mimicking a punch – told me everything I needed to know, so much that I regretted, and still do, asking him that. It wasn’t infrequent, for Central Asian immigrants, to fall victim to real pogroms by the hands of Russian xenophobes, even amongst the law enforcement, and I’d just asked Kudaibergen to remember all of that. Back in Kyrgyzstan he’d applied for an American visa, failed, and resolved to learn English. He had been at it for six weeks now, and already he reached a level that Italian students couldn’t even dream to achieve after years. “Driving tourists helps” he smiled shyly at our congratulations.
We left Sary-Tash soon thereafter and I was deep in thought about what we’d just learned about our driver. We took left as the main highway continued right, and almost immediately our road degraded to a hole-ridden sheep track, whilst snow stuck to the telegraph poles like flies on sticky paper. “It’s worse in Tajikistan” commented Kudaibergen, and we didn’t believe him. But he was right.
Two gigantic golf-ball made of concrete, part of an old Russian radar installation, were the partying gifts of Kyrgyzstan. Then it was only the road, the clouds and us. At times the clouds would lift for the briefest of moments, and our world enlarged tenfold to reveal that the road was in fact running on the margin of an enormous valley dug for millennia by an incomprehensibly large glacier, constellated by boulders the size of houses. In those fleeting moments it felt as if we were space explorers and, all of a sudden, the whole galaxy had opened up to greet us.
Switchbacks soon arrived. The weather closed back in, and the Land Cruiser thermometer collapsed to 20F. By now the road was distinguishable only by a handful of concrete pillars placed on both sides at regular intervals, but more often than not I realised that, had it been me driving, I’d have gone straight whilst Kudaibergen drove us up the bend.
He really looked more in his element that he’d done since our departure from Osh. He wore a pair of old sunglasses, slapped in the low range gears and drove on with confidence but not with cockiness. Two of the protagonists of one of my favourite Stephen King novels, Dreamcatcher, had a gift, the one of finding the right way no matter what, often indicated by a yellow line in the ground; as we climbed higher and higher I began to wonder whether Kudaibergen didn’t see the same thing.
A red billboard appeared out of the murk after clearing the Kyrgyz border, deep into the deserted no man’s land. I couldn’t read what its Cyrillic letters said, but the numerals – 4,282 – were unequivocal. We posed for photos, Kudaibergen joining obligingly, too polite perhaps to point out that the highest spot of the road, at 4,655 meters – was still to come.
If order posts are in any way, shape or form indicative of the country they guard access to, then Tajikistan was definitely going to be an interesting place, in the “raised eyebrows” sense of the term. Officialdom, still enacted with conscience by those who saw us off from Kyrgyzstan, had gone completely out of the window over in Tajikistan. Perhaps it was because there were no glass panes left intact in the first hut we stopped at, marked “Customs”. Out of it emerged a number of men, five or six, who had evidently had to share three full uniform sets: one had the trousers, one the padded coat, another the jacket. The rest was made of Adidas tracksuits and slippers. The only things they all were given were the Kalashnikovs.
The commander of the group asked if three of his men could use our car to reach Karakul, some hours downhill; given that he was holding our passports, the answer couldn’t be anything but an enthusiastic yes. Having increased our party, the only other thing that remained to do was to be stamped into the country, an enterprise that assumed farcical tones. We drove a couple of meters to the kind of garden shed that unscrupulous tenants in London would put up for rent as a self-contained maisonette; here, instead, it consisted of four naked walls, one old school desk cluttered by a Kalashnikov and a register like those of hotels in days gone by, a cast iron stove alimented by cow dung and the least martial border guards ever, to the point that I originally mistook them for truckers having gone a bit too feral.
Our new travel mates wore camo trousers and those leather jackets that were the real uniform of the piece of world stretching from Sarajevo to Kashgar. They didn’t share any of Kudaibergen’s ascetic Mongolic traits, looking instead like Mediterranean fishermen; amongst them they spoke a soft, harmonic language that had nothing of the guttural sounds of the Turkic family of idioms. They were indeed Tajiks, and we’d just crossed not just a physical watershed, but a demographic one as well: from the grasslands to the deserts, from the Kyrgyz world to the Iranian one. The language our newfound companions spoke, in facts, was nothing more than a Farsi dialect.
Generation of travellers passed through these lands en route to somewhere and, almost inevitably, left disheartened comments in their wake. A Chinese pilgrim named Hiuen Tsang, as early as the VII century AD noted gloomily that, since “the soil is almost constantly frozen, you see a few miserable plants and no crops can live”. Marco Polo’s convoy marched through here some six centuries after and clearly time hadn’t done the Pamir any good, for he labelled it “nothing but a desert without habitation or any given thing”. Francis Younghusband, the stiff-upper-lipped Lieutenant of the Dragoons whom I was to meet – figuratively, of course – a few more times down the road wasn’t a lot more congratulatory: these lands were, for him, “desolate” and “barren to the extreme”.
Yet, despite a barrel-load of discouragement spanning centuries and cultures, I was becoming increasingly addicted to these views, to its colours – the browns, the tans, the greys, the whites – and its pure, unfiltered emptiness. Buzz Aldrin’s “Magnificent desolation” was my favourite quote of the Apollo 11 lunar landing party; as we drove on in silence I felt I could begin to appreciate what he meant.
A man-made line, a scar on the pristine ground, ran parallel to the road to our left. It was an endless theory of telegraph poles, but what lied strung between their outstretched arms wasn’t an electric cable; rather, it were lines after lines of barbed wire, four deep. More of it was woven between the poles themselves, creating a net, a cage for the tumbleweeds, a wall separating nothing from nothing. It was a desolating, unsettling view under those dark skies. I felt it was a taster of what Mr Trump had in mind, ready made with less than a fraction of the fanfare, for no Hollywood actor had ever protested against the Neutrality Line as Kudaibergen said its name was, being erected between Tajikistan and China. The impassable Tajik soldier riding pillion above the transmission box grimly commented in Russian, and Kudaibergen translated: the wall lied fourteen km inside Tajikistan’s territory.
We drove on through the desert, crossing path with two trucks riding in the opposite direction, our first companions since the Kyrgyz border. My mind begun to wander, playing on a loop the most memorable rhythms from Talking Timbuctou, the album that Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré recorded together in Mali and that seemed so apt for this place, certainly more than the stale Russian disco that we’d been suffering through since Osh. To our left the neutral line continued, impenetrable, above ridges and plains. Then, by a small gully, a gap appeared. Three poles had fallen, their barbed wire netting bundled in a confused tangle in the dirt. This, I guessed, was why walls don’t work.
Karakul Lake appeared behind a cloud, first like a pale blue mirage, and then gathering more and more credibility as the road drew us closer. A collection of ramshackle buildings lied as an afterthought on the near shore, pale against a dark mountain background. Karakul village looked as if a slow-moving monster had hit it, and then spent some time chewing ponderously the remains. Amongst the inhabited compounds, walled fortresses with seldom a window facing the rocky roads outside, lied the gutted shells of abandoned houses: roofs caving in, doors missing, walls blackened by the smoke and anything of value long since gone. Our Tajik companions dismounted and walked towards a military installation, a forest of antennae lying behind a low, sun-bleached wall. Barely a soul stirred around the roads, not a splash of colour adorned the place. Kudaibergen grabbed the steering wheel. “It’s hard to live here” he said, looking into the distance. “Very, very, cold”. We believed him.
We drove to the shore. With the exception of two lonely-looking cows, we were alone. Clouds raced each other across the sky. It was dark and cold on our side of the lake, but the island standing in the middle gleaned in the sort of light that Vermeer would’ve used for one of his paintings. I had jotted down a number of quotes from travellers who preceded us on this route, Younghusband being one of them. Remembering that he’d been along these shores, I fished out my notebook and read his impressions as he stood on the foreshore one day in 1891.
“A terrific wind was blowing, washing the water into waves till the whole was a mass of foam. Heavy snow clouds were scuttling across the scene and through them, beyond the tossing lake, could be seen dark rocky masses; and high above all this turmoil below appeared the calm, majestic Peak Kaufman”.
I closed my notepad and glanced around. Kudaibergen was ready to go, having tended again to his car; around us, it seemed that nothing had changed from when it was a young Dragoon lieutenant, not us, to be standing on these shores.
There are many sayings about the excellence of Osh
Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, India
“Older than Rome”. “Established by Alexander the Great”. “No, by King Solomon; Suleiman Too is named after him”.
The two youths at my hostel couldn’t quite agree on who established the Kyrgyz town we were in but, regardless of which near-mythological figure could be credited with fathering the city, they both agreed on the fact that Osh was older than Rome. “3000 years old” they nodded in unison.
It was hard, for me, to find clues to back up what my hostel friends were claiming with such vigour in this restless city of a quarter of a million people. Rome, Istanbul, Jerusalem: all have fields of ancient ruins scattered around the modern urban texture, proof of a long history of settlement; here, I couldn’t see any detritus left by the generations of men and women who lived in this corner of the Fergana valley. All I could see, from the bus we hitched a ride on, were plots of land – dark, rich, fertile soil – tended by hand by men in blazers and women in headscarves, and the flotsam of the Soviet civilisation: a graveyard of white Ilyušin airplanes, gutted Russian trucks, an abandoned yellow tractor.
We drove along a road shaded by a neat row of poplars, the lower half of their trunks scrupulously painted white. It was early morning, but already the heat washed the blue out of the sky and blurred the horizon, where the hacksaw silhouette of mountain peaks, as barren as the valley floor is lush, rose to close abruptly the perspective.
We drove past throngs of women draped in long, colourful dresses and men with towering qalpaq hats, looking ageless with their high cheekbones and delicately elongated eyes. We pushed forward past a large roundabout where the little traffic there was tried – and succeeded – in generating chaos. A large statue loomed above the carousel of metal plates and exhaust fumes.
“This is Manas, our national hero”. The lady who volunteered to deliver us to town pointed a little hand towards the statue, now receding into the traffic, and smiled. She was a diminutive figure, cutting a very neat appearance in her knee-length skirt, white shirt, navy cardigan and crop haircut. Her distinctive, beautiful Kyrgyz lineaments are arranged in a perpetual smile, and she spoke a near flawless Italian with only the lightest of accents. We’ve met on the airport bus in Biškek and, upon arrival in Osh, she guided us through the mob of cabbies to her waiting nephews, one of whom – much to my dismay – wore a Juventus cap. She’d been providing a running commentary of the road and the country ever since the van left the airport parking lot.
A rare gap in the poplar formation allowed for a quick glimpse of the mountains to the west. Her hand was ready to indicate loosely in that direction, towards a vertical landscape deducible in the distance: “That’s a nice area for trekking and camping, a region that’s 99% Kyrgyz”. For someone grown in PC and diverse Europe, this mention of purity is somehow surprising; that’s when it hits me that all the toponyms and stories, she’s told us are indeed related or originating from the Kyrgyz people, with nothing at all said of the other communities inhabiting this valley, be them Uzbeks or Tajiks. I prodded her for suggestions on places where to sample the Uzbek culture, so prominent in Osh, and her blankness was palpable. No, she said after a while, she didn’t really know much about “that lot”.
The valley where Osh lied is a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, a wide corridor funnelled through the high Pamirs, carved up by the Communist colonialists into three separate republics, successively morphed into independent states: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Like in much of the colonialized world, at a stroke of a pen the occupying power united enemies and separated friends in the best divide et impera tradition; it only was to be expected, then, if the Fergana valley saw the worst ethnic unrest in the region.
Osh went up in flames twice in thirty years – literally – even though we’d be hard-pressed to find traces of it as we strolled along Masalieva street, busy with traffic and shoppers and workers adding garish ornaments to shops and restaurants. The root of the violence lied in the same noxious cocktail of perceived social injustice, economic disparities and deep-rooted jealousy, whipped up by hate propaganda. In this particular twist of the recipe, the Uzbeks played the part of the urbanite minority, politically under-represented and marginalised but punching above its weight from an economic point of view. From their point of view, the majoritarian Kyrgyz community lamented economic misfortunes and the lack of ownership of the lands they were cultivating.
Between 1989 and 1990 the Soviet economy spluttered, coughed, rumbled and finally gave up like the antediluvian Kamaz trucks belching exhausts on the Navoi street overpass. A fragile economy and strong state security were what prevented both communities from beating the respective daylights out with their cahiers de doléances; when both started vacillating, there wasn’t much standing in the way to violence. And violence indeed did erupt. June 4th, 1990; a rally of ethnic Kyrgyz marches towards Lenin Kolkhoz, in the outskirts of the city. This was an unusual collective factory, for Uzbeks ran it, which probably was the reason for the rally, whose main request was redistribution. It ended in fisticuffs, which then functioned as the proverbial spark that lit the whole tinderbox.
Within a day the whole Osh region was in flames. The police, which in a totalitarian state you’d imagine being akin to an all-seeing eye, broke up along ethnic fault lines. Three days of killing, raping, burning and pillaging – worth of a Genghis Khan invasion – ensued, until an exasperated Gorbachev sent in the Red Army. By the time the tanks arrived, though, a thousand had died. Swift justice was brought by the infant Kyrgyz republic, but very little was done to the underlying problems that precipitated the situation; they were left untouched, to heal by themselves or to grow gangrenous. Judging on what happened twenty years later, it’s fair to say that they didn’t improve at all.
It was June again. Kyrgyzstan was in turmoil after what went down as the Second Kyrgyz Revolution ousted president Bakiyev only a handful of weeks prior; on June 9th it was again time for Osh to witness another orgy of violence and score-setting. Alleged economic mistreatment, past wrongs, cupidity motivated bands of Kyrgyz thugs to attack the Uzbeks, who in turn retaliated or fled to their ancestors’ homeland. There were reports of soldiers and policemen aiding the Kyrgyz, something the government always vehemently denied; however, by the time order was eventually restored, more than 2,000 laid dead in the streets or in their charred houses, and 400,000 fled to safety in Uzbekistan.
I visited Osh almost on the eve of the anniversary of the first riot but nothing, in this sometimes shabby but nevertheless lively city, belied the importance of what happened here some 27 years ago. It is a strange city, Osh: it doesn’t seem to have a centre around which the city revolves; or, rather, it has one, but it isn’t what you’d normally expect, a square or a boulevard. It’s the bazaar.
From high up on Suleiman Too, or even from the Navoi street viaduct, Osh bazaar looked like a post-apocalyptic encampment, a tangle of alleyways sheltered by ramshackle roofs made of coloured tarpaulins or odd scraps of corrugated iron; from street level, it presented a maze of passages, clogged with people and with the overspill of hundreds of stores and workshops. It was a place where to walk gingerly in a dusty penumbra, with the occasional pool of sunshine spotlighting a sack of flour, heap of biscuit or menthol crystals.
There were heaps of round naan bread, baked with a sprinkle of salt, pepper or poppy seeds. There were cakes, sacks of biscuits, lump of dark beef meat hanging from hooks oscillating in the warm air, the comings and goings of flies only intermittently disturbed by the butcher’s flyswatter. There were sacks of black tea, spices, bottles of detergent manufactured by Unilever, light bulbs, paintbrushes, candles and nylon garments sporting all conceivable pirated permutations of the Adidas logo, and then some more.
But what was literally ubiquitous, to the point that stall after stall after stall was creaking under the weight of it, were the freshest, ripest, most beautiful fruits and vegetables I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. Such was the triumph that even the most modest of the kiosks would have mopped the floor with the sanitised, bubble-wrapped, plastic-enclosed pathetic excuse for fruit on sale in the poshest of London’s supermarket. The cornucopia yielded by the Fergana valley – whose adjective of choice by anyone who wrote about it, “fertile” is very much justified – was for everyone to behold. Pyramids of apricots, mounds of blood-red tomatoes, buckets of raspberries and mulberries, tight formations of purple plums and crates of apples were enough of a spectacle for me to walk besides them with the same rapt expression of fashionistas outside a Hermès boutique, or techies beside an Apple store.
We strolled along a scruffy boulevard, one of those that must’ve looked impressive in the architect’s renderings before the cost estimate was given to the client. Behind the trees, enclosed by fences decorated with the Kyrgyz flag symbol, relics of the town’s Soviet past emerged like flotsam after a squall, all at different stages of reappropriation by the nascent Kyrgyz national identity. Neoclassical buildings, their wedding-cake looks and plastering gliding to the ground in large, vaporous flakes, mingled with nude concrete behemoths, big, squat, squared shapes sitting grumpily amidst flower beds, their appearance rekindled by coloured ribbons with traditional Kyrgyz motifs. A large stone monolith stood in a park, a bronze frieze showing not the unstoppable advance of the people but Kyrgyz horsemen launched in an unbridled gallop. A dull façade has been redecorated with bas-reliefs styled on the artwork of the Soviet cosmonaut iconography but, instead of rocket-men and leaps to the starts, it showed men, qalpaq on their heads, playing qomuz and women holding horses by the bridle. Everything was being rebranded to fit with the dominant ethnic group’s culture, with little mention or space for those minorities – like the Uzbeks – that made forty-five per cent of the town’s populace.
A rare street sign catches my eye: Ленина. Even without speaking – or reading – Russian I could understand that this was Lenin Avenue. In the midst of a pervasive nationalistic rebranding, Lenin Avenue had been left untouched, and there was more to come. In fact, at the end of four lanes of tarmac void of traffic, facing an empty square pock-marked with white signs used to line up troops in parade, stood a statue of the man himself.
It stood on a granite plinth so tall to resemble a small ziqqurat, incongruous in his heavy coat and three-piece-suit under the relentless beating of the Central Asian sun. An arm – as wide as a young tree – stretched northwards, undoubtedly in a pose that the artists thought inspirational, but that to me looked more dismissive. In that hot afternoon, Lenin’s open arm made him look like as if he’d just thrown in the towel.
Journalist Tiziano Terzani toured the dying Soviet Union in 1991, seemingly serenated by the clangour of Lenin’s statues being dragged down from their pride of place. Homages to the father of the nation were ubiquitous throughout the USSR, yet – as Terzani skilfully narrated in his Goodnight Mr. Lenin – they fell with the same rapidity of rainforest trees before the loggers’ chainsaws. Why did this one survive?
Perhaps the answer lied in the enormous flagpole erected in front of the waving statue, from which fluttered a crimson flag, a banner that didn’t bear a hammer and a sickle but the delicate, stylised yurt frame that is the symbol of the Kyrgyz nation. Perhaps Lenin’s statue was spared so that it could stare, for eternity, at the flag of a nation that he actively tried to dissolve in his pursuit of the new homo sovieticus but that, ultimately, survived him.
Sunset fell over our last day in Osh. Tomorrow we would leave this city of contrast, of 4G SIM card sellers rubbing elbow with gold-toothed babushkas, of murals commemorating the 1980 Moscow Olympics and Toyota billboards, bound for the Pamir Highway and to what Lord Curzon, India’s viceroy, defined the “frontier school of character”.
A somewhat prolonged absence from the blogosphere could mean only three things: a) writer’s bloc, b) inspiration gone dry or c) having gone travellin’. With the partial exception of a food poisoning from the office canteen – which is deeply ironic – I can proudly confirm it’s point c). And it’s been one of the best destinations I’ve had the privilege of going to. It’ll be a while before anything around the Pamirs will appear here, because I’ll give my damnedest to do this place justice.
There are street food sellers on Nuwara Eliya’s main street. If one is to walk outside the market, where the porticoed sidewalk shrinks to the width of a catflap, he’d see how a food cart has been parked in the resulting awning of the street, sheltered by the building from the endless maelstrom of traffic that chokes the town.
Street food was, at that point, my biggest chagrin about Sri Lanka. Truth be told, I must admit that thing mustn’t have been that bad if that was my only misgiving about the country, but I was starting to develop a bit of a despondency towards the spongy samosas and soggy pakoras that seemed to be the only snacks on sale on the country’s roadside stalls, both so spicy to render my mouth anaesthetically insensible to all other tastes for a period up to a hour.
I’d noticed this stall at least twice by the time I’d stopped to give it the chance to redeem the nation’s hawkers. The samosas were fresh, cooked in a metal cauldron emanating a spicy ziff that managed to permeate the air, momentarily drowning the smell of over-ripe meat coming from a couple of market stalls away. A queue of locals was another positive sign for quality, I reasoned as I lined up to make my deal. Fifty rupees, 25 pence, changed hands and a toasty package ended up in my palm.
I moved away a few paces and tried the purchase. The samosa was hot and fresh but, yet again, a bit of a letdown. A roaring dragon of chillies erupted out of the tame-looking vegetable filling, covering all possible tastes – potatoes, peas, even the cooking oil – in a thunder of read heat. It doesn’t happen often to be thinking at somewhere in London as someplace where food is better than it is abroad, but for the umpteenth time in this trip I found myself reminiscing fondly of the hole-in-the-wall shop in Hounslow, a few blocks from Heathrow airport, and of its Southern Indian samosas.
Days later, as I rummage through my backpack, a ruffled square of paper ends up in my hand. It’s the samosa wrapper. Unlike previously it’s not a leaflet ripped from a newspaper, smudging me – and the food – with ink. It’s, instead, a page from a child’s notebook, carefully ripped and scrupulously glued into a creaking sachet, still stained by the oil of its former content. In a corner are a label,“Richard”, and the space for a teacher’s mark.
I remember having dumped the wrapper, for there were no bins around and now, as I try to smoothen it out with the palm of my hands, I’m glad I didn’t. Both sides are decorated with sentences, scrupulously numerated, penned in the flourishing – and for me unintelligible – Sinhalese alphabet. At the bottom, like marginalia in a medieval codex, the unknown kid beautifully added two drawings. A turtle and a bicycle, with ribbons hanging down the handlebar.
I clean my newfound treasure the best I can and then fold it neatly in my trousers’ pocket. Days later, as I sit on the plane heading home, I’ll be reaching for something in the same pocket and, yet again, my fingers would find the half-forgotten wrapper. Yet again I’d be spending a long minute holding it in my hands, thinking fondly of the country whose street food might be a tad disappointing, but which came with such humble, yet fascinating, wrappers.
It was meant to be a busy afternoon. I’ve spent the day delivering a course, the first time in my life being a trainer rather than a trainee (if only my mother could’ve seen me!) and I’ve returned to 60 emails that have piled up in my inbox, house chores and, if ever I get the chance, the mammoth task of making a review of Peter Robb’s A Death in Brazil that I can find worth of such a masterpiece.
But then I went on YouTube and I stumbled upon a new song by The War on Drugs, and everything got waylaid. Because it’s The War on Drugs, because it’s 11 minutes long and because it’s the third time I’ve heard it, just listening to the melody. Since I’d like you to join my sudden decline in productivity, here’s the song itself.