Disaster by design: the death and partial rebirth of the Aral Sea (Part 2).

I’d seen Serik a long time before we met in the parking lot outside the Altair hotel; in fact, I first read about him on Al Jazeera. Dubbed “Aralsk’s only tour guide”, he’d accepted to be my guide for the day and now welcomed me in his purple Nissan 4WD. He was a man in his thirties, dressed simply in T-shirt, swimming trunks decorated with the Australian flag and shades. A real man of the steppe, he wasn’t one to waste words. Our conversation was to be interspersed with long intervals of deep, but not awkward, moments of silence.
We left at once, cruising through the light traffic of Aralsk – which nonetheless managed to produce an accident, with two Ladas lying crumpled at a junction – and then we drove into the steppe. As we went, Serik explained the plan: we’d drive to a village called Aqespe, near the north shore of the Sea, then off-road along the coast to Zhalanash and then back to Aralsk.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
We trundled along a smooth road, overtaking lorries and slowing down to allow patrols of Bactrian camels to serenely cross before us. The road was a far cry from what I was to experience in other parts of Central Asia and it was the first clue of the fact that, at least in that particular corner of the former Aral Sea, those claiming death, disaster and despair ought to be taken with a fairly large pinch of salt.
We passed villages which, however dusty and remote, featured houses with double glazing and, as Serik pointed out, heating, plumbing and electricity. Some were so new that the crates used to ship the cinder blocks still littered their backyards. All this, said Serik, showed that the shores of the North Aral Sea were changing. The villages were still isolated and the steppe an unforgiving environment, but they no longer were destitute. Families were quietly thriving on cattle – cows, camels, horses – fishing was picking up again, so much so that folks now needn’t use their camels for transportation as most houses had two cars. “One to follow the herds, the other to show off in town” laughed Serik, and I joined him. All this, he said, had been triggered by “the project”.
He was referring to a $80m initiative sponsored by the World Bank that had grabbed the North Aral Sea from the brink of death. It included a mixture of improvements to the management of the Syr Darya waters and, crucially, built a dam across the isthmus that used to link the North and South seas. This desperate measure effectively condemned the South, but the results were dramatic. The sea level rose 6 meters, increasing the North’s volume by 68%; salinity returned to levels seen only before 1960 and wildlife appeared out of nowhere, staging a spectacular comeback.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
I was aching to see the sea, but we weren’t there yet. We bounced along a goat’s path dug between wispy bushes, having left the tarmac a few kilometres prior. Around us the dry grassland stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye dared to go. Where it met the sky, the dark blue sky and the tan earth were blurred by dust in suspension. But for yet another herd of camels, we were alone on the road, a mournful Kazakh folk whispering out the car stereo. A graveyard stood on an imperceptible rise of the otherwise perfectly flat ground. Cemeteries, here, looked like small citadels, necropolis of domed chapels enclosed behind brick walls, huddled one against the other like timorous children, crescents sticking out of every cupola. Behind it, glittering in the sun, was the view I’d been waiting for a good twenty years: the Aral Sea.  We rolled along the cemetery, the sea growing larger and larger to our left. It was a serendipitous locale for a graveyard, I thought, directly overlooking the bobbing water, so much so that I couldn’t take my eyes off the water for pretty much the entire journey to Aqespe. We drove on the former seabed, the pre-1960 coastline on my right, bone-dry and virtually lifeless. The view to the left was as different as night is from the day. A narrow band of green shrubs ran to the water’s edge, where birds of all sizes and shapes stomped, stuttered, flew and floated. If there was to be a symbol of the success of the World Bank project, the fluttering of dozens of little wings at the passing of our car had to be it. Ten years ago, the waters were kilometres away from here and the birds nowhere to be seen.
In the great poker game of the North Aral Sea, Aqespe had to be the one who picked up a 2 and a 7, offsuit. It didn’t really look any different from any of the countless mildly dilapidated villages straddling the whole former Soviet Union: a main drag along which houses lied, tossed in a random order, grey with corrugated iron roofs, trees in the back garden and a veggie patch for peppers and gherkins. Except that Aqespe barely had any trees alive, there weren’t any back gardens, veggie patches and those big, yellow pipes that appear pretty much everywhere in Russia. Or perhaps there were, but you couldn’t see them, for something was in the way of everything.
Sand. Sand was everywhere, in dunes and mounds and impalpable coatings on every surface.
As we drove in, Serik told me the story of the place. Aqespe was a village of fishermen and cattle raisers sitting pretty by the seaside; as the water receded, the dust, blowing from the dry seabed, began taking its place and it seemed that it liked Aqespe quite a lot. Dunes began forming, covering the pastures, and the wind brought more and more of it, until it started laying siege to the village. Bulldozers were called in to fight them off but, year after year, Aqespe was being swallowed alive. A new village had been built, away from the lake and the dunes, but a few homes still soldiered on, and even fewer villages had decided to stay.
Serik parked at the edge of town and I got out. Up until then I’d seen dozens of photos of those Namibian mining towns being submerged by the desert, but this time it was happening right before my eyes. It was an experience a lot more profound than what I could experience out of a photo from Africa, and a great deal more unsettling. Sand made up the main road, sand so thin and impalpable that I sank in it as if I was walking in snow. Sand munched contently at the abandoned houses, and erected walls around the few houses that remained inhabited, trenches dug around them to keep them away from a mortal embrace. As I stood at the only junction in Aqespe, it occurred to me that this was the only place I knew of where one had to go downstairs to enter his own house.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Aqespe lived on. A man with a bucket exited the first house on the right, the one that looked like the next likely candidate to a sandy oblivion. I watched him as he watched me, walking with his bucket to a friend squatting atop a large dune behind us. Another man tended to a string of horses to my left, feeding them and stroking their lucid, shiny fur. A little girl and her siblings shrieked with delight as they played in a pen where a dozen Bactrian camels sat and looked at me solemnly behind their long eyelashes.
I wasn’t honestly expecting anyone to be living here; hell, I wasn’t expecting anyone to be wanting to be here, and I certainly didn’t expect any children to be here. The sight of the villagers made a neat crumpled ball of all the motivations for being here I made in the Altair’s dining room, and sent it flying along a perfect arc towards the dustbin labelled “Bullshit”. Fact was, Aqespe made me feel like a gatecrasher at a funeral.
I hobbled up and down the road, already annoyed at having to walk like a demented astronaut in the sand, not daring to imagining a lifetime of that. I looked at the man who was tending to the horses, thought what he could possibly be thinking about me, about these tourists nosing into his village’s misfortunes, and decided to hightail it out of Aqespe. It wasn’t until Serik drove us back to the shoreline that I stopped feeling like an intruder.
Google “Aral Sea” and most of the images returned will be of two kinds: black and white snapshots of waterscapes, and colour pictures of rusting boats stranded in the desert like used props of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Many an Internet source mourned how, one by one, these relics had been met by the flame, being sold by weight to Chinese scrapyards, as if it was a crime for locals to be trying to make a buck out of this misfortune and at the expense of tourists’ photos; long story short, I wasn’t expecting any beached boats to be remaining in the North Aral Sea and, frankly, I was perfectly happy with it. Aqespe had given me enough doom and gloom.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when Serik stopped the Nissan by the water, pointed towards a small hill covered in reeds and empty bottles of President vodka and simply said “Here’s the first one”. I followed the direction of his hand and, indeed, there it was. A rusty hull, some twenty meters long, partially wedged into the coast, prow lapping against the waters of the resurgent sea. I walked towards her, scaring a number of little birds that scattered around, chirping lamentably.
The air smelt of mud, salt and reeds. It echoed with the calls, trills and cries of the birds that loitered on the shore or bobbed along the shallow water, undoubtedly waiting for me to vacate the premises before returning to their occupations. But I still lingered on, for this carcass of a boat was puzzling. Even to someone as clueless to seafaring as myself, she didn’t look like any fishing trawler I’d seen before. She was long and thin, low on the water, with little if any superstructure to speak of, just a long deck with hatchways opening at regular intervals. This I emphatically reported back to Serik once back into the air-conditioned cocoon of the Nissan.
He nodded. “Yes, that was a tanker” he said. A moment of pause, then he asked: “You know about Vozrozhdenya Island, right?” I did. “Well, she used to run supply missions there, gas and diesel”. Vozrozhdenya, Russian for ‘rebirth’, was probably the most inappropriately-named place in the entire globe, a particularly nasty appendix to the already thick volume of Aral-related disasters. Once a small island bang in the middle of the sea, Rebirth island was designed as the location not of a buen retiro for Hare Krishnas, but as the location for the USSR’s most important research and production centre for chemical and biological weapons.
Details about what went down the small, closed town of Kantubek remain sketchy, but over almost 40 years Soviet scientists, who lived there with their families, created, weaponised and stockpiled tons of pathogens – anthrax, bubonic plague, smallpox, brucellosis and more – which was then stored in silos scattered around the island, its remoteness a guarantee of safety.
If only the Soviet economic planners – who clearly hadn’t bothered talking with their Army colleagues – didn’t make Vozrozhdenya become larger and larger, so much so that it linked up with the mainland in the 1980s, when the island became a peninsula. Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union melted away and with her the scientists, leaving Kantubek to fall prey of scavengers and its noxious produce at the mercy of whomever knew about it. A US-led mission neutralised tens of tons of material, but how much had simply gone forgotten and still lurked in the sand?
We drove on, leaving the tanker to its rest, the heat dissolving the memories of sea crossings to an island of secretive evils. The coastline offered solace from the dark thoughts of Vozrozhdenya, until a scene worth of the original “Planet of the Apes” appeared. I got off the Nissan and, like Charlton Heston when he approached the remnants of Lady Liberty in the planet that turned to be his future’s Earth, walked to my relic.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
This time it was a trawler, I was sure of it. She lied on its side; the fo’c’sle had gone, but the quarter was still intact, funnel and hatchways eyeing me. I walked closer, imagining how – had I been able to travel back 40 years – I’d be walking on the seabed, looking up the hull of the ship as her sailors hauled in the day’s catch. A loud crack, coming from my feet, startled me. I’d been walking over a sun-hardened, salt-encrusted mud towards the wreck, and in my daydreaming it hadn’t occurred to me that the mud had gone, replaced by shells. Hundreds, thousands, untold numbers of sea shells littered the shore, piled 30-cm-high in a band sneaking parallel to the waters’ edge, a holocaust of mussels offered to the gods of cotton.
A third relic followed soon, whilst we could still see the previous one lying sideways. It was the entire hull of another fishing boat, its above-deck structure gone or never existed in the first place. She lied at a slight angle, aged but nonetheless looking as if she could still take on the sea which now seemed tantalisingly close. I looked admiringly at its forms, but I was growing tired of doom and destruction. There’s just a number of times you can hear “fire and fury” before it loses its ascendant, and I’d reached precisely that point. I stopped looking at the rusting hull and began noticing other things, signs of rebirth that had so far escaped the spotlight.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Minnows swam furiously in the shallows, joined by other small critters who zoomed back and forth in the brackish waters. Unperturbed by my presence, birds who nested in the ship’s hull flew out of the peepholes or scampered along the muddy banks, picking the critters one at the time. Up above, flocks of larger birds cruised in the blue sky: honing their V-formation, dive-bombing into the sea, or gently caressing the waters before settling for the smoothest landing. I couldn’t see them, but I could feel the presence of fish in the waters of the sea; besides that, Serik had told me that, out of pretty much nowhere, fishing had reappeared and that last year 7,000 tonnes were caught by fisheries all around the North Aral Sea. The dive-bombing birds added to the tally.
I left the rusting legacy of disaster and returned to the car rather contently. From then on, it was only nature; harsh, perhaps unforgiving at times, but nature nonetheless. Villages like Zhalanash, once known for their boat graveyard, looked happier without them, free to be roamed by splendid horses and inquisitive camels, whilst everyone else waited for the sea to return. Outside, the wispy scrubland continued and we bounced along dirt tracks into the steppe; sometimes within sight of the water, sometimes far. The land was big and endless, a flyspeck of the ocean of grassland that started in Mongolia and wouldn’t end until Hungary. I’d seen, on the way there, “Hell or High Water” and it reminded me of the Texan panhandle I’d never seen. I started whistling to myself some Chris Stapleton, but my attempts to exert any influence whatsoever on Serik’s musical choices fell short. A truly post-Soviet flow of hardbass, Kazakh folk and, unfortunately, “Despacito” continued unabated.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
We crossed an imperceptible corrugation of the ground. A tree and a skeletal palisade sheltered an abandoned cemetery, a scene that cried out for a John Ford location scout. Behind it, the horizon was so vast that it felt like I could see the curvature of the planet. On the left, a grey blur: Aralsk, its twin cranes barely visible; on the right, a silvery twinkle: the extreme avant-garde of the returning Aral Sea. Twenty-five kilometres separated them; just 10 years ago, it was seventy-five. Aralsk slept in the heat of the early afternoon. Serik drove in town whilst I still day-dreamed about the birds flying above the water. He spoke of seeing the lake for the first time, of having to borrow a car from friends to see the lake, which he – born and bred in Aralsk – had never seen. I asked him about how it felt when he finally met it, a good drive out of Zhalanash, looking its worst before the onset of the project. “It was great to see the water, but also very sad”. Now, he said, it was better and, should the project be complete, it’d be only a matter of years before Aralsk harbour. “I’d love to see that”, I said. He smiled like a Cheshire cat. “I’ll sure let you know” he beamed, before driving off. Around me, Aralsk snoozed.
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Disaster by design: the death and partial rebirth of the Aral Sea (Part 1).

The aurora was a promise of yet another scorcher of a day, as it’d been yesterday and tomorrow was bound to be, but right now it was fresh and cool as I sat on my pack on the first of Aralsk station’s two platform, making myself the first instant coffee of the day. A bright spot – Venus – shone benevolently in the eastern sky whilst, in the unknown lands laying beyond the railway lines, a canine rendition of the Aida chorus was in full swing.
I’d briefly ventured on the overpass, perched atop skinny pylons, rising above the railyard. The city lied below me, a town of corrugated metal roofs and the odd tall structure: a water tower, the gutted ruin of a factory, the shiny minarets of a mosque, the two cranes of the old harbour. Serenaded by the barking dogs, Aralsk slept.
I sat on my bag, coffee mug within reach and a bundle of printouts in my hands. It occurred to me that it was probably the first time ever that anyone sat, at dawn, under a lamppost in Aralskoye More train station, Staples yellow highlighter in hand, reading a bunch of academic papers with titles such as “Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin” or the more succinct “The Aral Sea Disaster”.
They didn’t make for an uplifting read. With the characteristic frankness typical of academics, the papers described the worst man-induced ecological disaster ever, the story of how economic planning succeeded in dissolving – literally into thin air – 74% of the area and 90% of the volume of the fourth largest body of inland water in the world.
It was a story of superlatives, all of them of the kind that one couldn’t really be proud of, which began at the time of the American Civil War. Conflict disrupted the clothing industry, with the Unionist blockading the Confederate ports out of which most of the world’s raw cotton was shipped. Nations scrambled to find alternative sources and, whilst Britain ultimately settled on Egypt and India, Tsarist Russia had its eyes set on the lands between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. These, with their relatively mild climate, and longer growing season, were to be Russia’s “cotton bank”.
What the Tsar started, Khrushchev improved. Cotton, the “white gold”, was to be harvested en masse by collective farms in what now are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to be then shipped to the mills of Russia and Ukraine and, ultimately, to the world’s markets, earning the USSR precious foreign cash. Between 1960 and 1988 production more than doubled, and the hectares of land dedicated to the crop increased by 40%.
It came, though, at a price.
Cotton, you see, is a thirsty bugger. It requires roughly twice the amount of barley or wheat, and a third more than tomatoes. That water needed to come from somewhere and only the two great rivers, the Jaxartes and Oxus of antiquity, could supply it. Canalization on a pharaonic scale was implemented, and the more water flowed into the crops, the less ended into the Aral Sea. What began as a diversion evolved into a proper water grab that got so extreme that literally nothing flowed from the Syr Darya into the sea between 1974 and 1986, whilst its northern sibling ran dry in 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986 and again in 1989. It didn’t go any better when water actually ended in the sea, for on average the 1980s inflow was one tenth of what it used to be before 1960.
The results of this heinous policy didn’t take long before they appeared and, in terms of their impact, they were well worth of the Book of Revelation. Within ten years from the start of mass irrigation, Aralsk harbour dried up. Dust storms began rising in the air, as the fine sediments of the now dry seabed were whipped by winds into plumes that could be 500km long, so large that they could be detected by satellites, dumping between 40 and 150 million ton of sand and salt – sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, sodium sulphate – on the very crops that were being grown as far away as Turkmenistan. In a band as wide as 100 km around the former shoreline, climate changed. Deprived of the mitigating effect of the sea – which receded by half a meter per year – summers grew hotter but shorter, and winters became harsher and longer, effectively reducing the length of the growing season. Salt crept through the land, making it sterile, and entered the groundwater table, pooling with the salt in the air to wreak havoc in the local communities’ health. As a 2001 article published on “Environmental Health Perspectives” put it, “To have a drink of water in the Aral Sea area could be detrimental to your health”. The quantitative of salts dissolved in groundwater in and around Aralsk could be up to 20 times higher than in North America.
The Aral Sea populations began to suffer from the 1970s onwards. Abnormally high levels of tuberculosis, kidney failure, oesophagus cancer, hepatitis and still births were nonchalantly swept under the carpet by Moscow until the onset of glasnost and, ultimately, the end of the USSR. Still, it didn’t make much difference as the horses had all already bolted out of the stable and the door had, literally, evaporated.
I folded away my papers and crossed the deserted station foyer. By now a rich sunlight streamed into the waiting room, where a woman in a flower-print dress and headscarf slept on a metal bench. On the far wall, above a wood panelling, stood an enormous mosaic, depicting the moment when the men of Aralsk answered Lenin’s cry for help – his own collectivisation policies having triggered an enormous famine in Russia and Kazakhstan, with nomads slaughtering their own cattle rather than seeing it being pinched – and sent trainloads of fish to the affected regions.
A large square opened outside the station, with a luxuriant flower bed surmounted by the white wooden monument of a sailing ship. On my left, behind an old green coach bought second hand from France – and still wearing the marks “Voyages Pyrenées Rousillon” – stood the tan building of Hotel Altair. I knew of another such establishment in town, Hotel Aral, which could either be open or permanently abandoned depending on who you asked; Altair, instead, was very much in business, boasting rooms furnished with the latest post-Soviet décor, non-working aircon and common bathroom where an unseen guest was busy filling the shower with empty beer bottles.
As I sat eating a breakfast of fried eggs and dubious sausage slices, with just a dab of ketchup – I’d been given early check-in and brekkie for less than a tenner a night – I thought at my role there. How ethical was it to be a tourist in what could effectively be described as a disaster zone? Wasn’t it questionable to be visiting a place whose main attraction, whose main claim to fame, was the terrible, man-made tragedy that had befallen it? Had the lake remained healthily in balance, had the want of cotton never diverted these waters, would I have come at all?

I didn’t seek any self-justification in that dimly-lit, slightly greenish room, and I don’t now. I wasn’t a historian, a journalist or a researcher with a higher sense of purpose. My role in being there, besides answering a call that I’d heard since I was six and reading about the Sea on the “Junior Woodchucks Guidebook” was the same one that brought me to the Occupied Territories in Bethlehem: to see something with my own two eyes and, possibly, to understand Aral beyond the articles and damnatio memoriae I’d read so many times. I wasn’t there to peek into other people’s misfortunes, as much as I don’t enjoy photographing homeless people on the street; in fact, my secret hope was to find out that, at the end of the day, things weren’t as dire as the news reports made them to be. At that point of my lucubration my phone beeped. It was time to go.
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“I’ve once been to Kyzyl-Orda, but never to New York”.

I recently attended a training course which, as corporate events normally do, started with an ice-breaker. Every attendee had to stand up, one by one, and declare to the roomful of colleagues something quirky, or unusual, about himself.
When it came to my turn, I stood up, declared my generalities and team and confessed “I’ve never been to New York. But I’ve recently spent two days in Kyzyl-Orda and Aktobe”.
Silence around the room. I was stared at as if I’d just admitted that I liked sleeping  hanging from the ceiling head first as a way to reduce hair loss.
“Kazakhstan”, I then suggested. “Central Asia”, I tried.
No dice. I exhaled and fell back into my own chair, like Dumas’ characters seemingly did every other second.
Hungarians have a saying that’s just the business for Kyzyl-Orda. Az Isten háta mögött. Behind God’s back.
And it certainly feels to be sitting behind the Almighty’s shoulders. But when you’re in a country as big as Western Europe but with 3% of the population, it’s somehow inevitable. Still, the Jaxartes flows leisurely past you. Less than 20% of its inflow will eventually reach the North Aral Sea. It was 0% not long ago.
You’re bound there. But when you’re in a place as big as Western Europe, things take time. It’s 500 km from the bank of the river to your destination.
Better enjoy the place whilst you’re waiting. Join in the locals.
There’s so much time. On your map this leg of the journey is as big as your thumb’s nail. The distance from Astana is longer than your index. And you’ve big hands. Larger than Western Europe.
This is Russia’s Space Country. Gagarin left Earth a mere 300 km from here. Soyuz still lands in the bit of steppe between here and Zhezqazghan. 400 km of steppe is a pretty large landing strip.
There’s so much time. Enough to sit and wait for the amusement park to open at dusk. No one’s around earlier, when it’s 38C. No one but the guy who’s never been to New York, that is.
This is still Genghis Khan country. Today they’re soft drinks kiosks, 700 years ago they regurgitated horsemen bound to destroy Merv and scare Europe gutless.
The station is the fulcrum of this city, or so it seemed at night. But, yet again, there’s time for that.
I used to pore over maps of the old Soviet Union, reading mysterious names. Akademgorodok. Anadyr. Baikonur. Semipalatinsk. Kyzyl-Orda. They exist.
Sixteen hours of train, 1000 km lie between Kyzyl-Orda and Aktobe. A tad less than London to Berlin. Frisco to Vegas.
Aktobe, previously known as Aktyubinsk, feels a lot closer to home, and it’s not just because it’s an hour closer.
One in five is an ethnic Russian. I see fair-headed men, women and children walking, playing, talking and flirting with the almond-eyed Kazakhs. People no longer stop me to ask if I’m Turkish. Perhaps they only think it.
It’s not just the comfort of familiar lineaments. A Burger King does a brisk business and offers free Wi-Fi. I find I cannot resist the luxury of a menu with pictures.
Children mess about on a swing outside the mosque. A wedding is in full swing. Sun sets over a warm (35C) but breezy day. A plane roars in the sky, Astana-bound. Tomorrow I’ll be on it. Never been to New York, but I’ve seen Kyzyl – Orda and Aktobe.
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Out of the steppe.

There are trips we’ve wanted to do for a lifetime, which work their way up to the top of your bucket list. Well, I’ve just crossed one from mine and if I had to distil it in four pictures whilst I get my tennis elbow yet another good workout with pen and paper, these would be it. So long Aral, and thank you for the fish.

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“A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions”, by Peter Robb, Bloomsbury.

Courtesy Bloomsbury publishing
If I were to trawl through my notebooks, through the shapeless lumps of bytes that make the impalpable documents folder in my laptop’s solid-state drive, I’d find a page, or many a .docx files, titled exactly like this post. They all lay where they fell, either crumpled into virtual ball in the “Drafts” sub-folder, or stricken through with a pen tract as exasperated as I was when I did it.
Why did it take so many attempts, then?
Well, one reason certainly wasn’t that I found Robb’s book to be bad. Come think of it, I can fill as many lines as you want slagging off something or someone – I did a guest article over Brexit that had to go through six iterations to keep it below six pages – so that definitely wasn’t the case. What was it, then?
The real motive was that none of my attempts seemed to be any match – or rather doing any justice – to the book of which they were intended for. And, for the record: I don’t think this attempt is going to be any better either; it’s just that I’ve reached the end of my abilities and I don’t want to give up on it. Sure, it’s unlikely that Peter Robb will ever notice whether, somewhere in the dark recesses of the web, “Are we there yet?” has or hasn’t reviewed his book, but not giving it a go seemed to me a bit of an injustice, for this is an incredible piece of literature.
Peter Robb is a writer I’d be giving an arm, a leg or any other organ of choice to be like. I read somewhere a literary critic suggesting that every chapter ought to be gripping and captivating from the get go and, truth be told, every chapter of “A Death in Brazil” felt like a grappling hook thrown surefire to the railing of my imagination, dragging me into a landscape of the mind as colourful as the rainforest that once stood where Rio now sprawls and as enticing as a read of Bangüê’s menu, Robb’s favourite restaurant in Recife. Not convinced? Read these opening paragraphs and if you’re not feeling an almost physical desire to know more, then I’ve bad news for you.
“Like everyone, I went to Brazil to get away”
“Murders happen everywhere and mine most nearly happened in Rio”
“A tribal leader’s daughter, living on the lower Amazon river, became pregnant a long time ago”.
Once captured by intriguing incipit, what followed was only better. This isn’t exactly a travelogue and nor is history or journalism; in facts, it’s all three combined, sparkled with effortless flair and elegance. Robb writes well and knows it, but needn’t rubbing it in your face; he offers you a comfortable voyage, a sumptuous leather chair where to read long, fascinating pages about the forgotten coastal and outback cities of Pernambuco, reaching the poetic summits of Bangüê and Porto de Galinhas. Those lines are the proof that you can describe something, and bring your reader there with you, without having to insert as much as a photo. It helps if you’re Peter Robb, of course.
Sometimes there would be excursions into Brazil’s history, forays rich of anecdotes that canonic history often abandons in the dust – the ridiculous, the shameful, the outright embarrassing – all told with the same vividness that took you to travel to Salvador with the inquisitors, or perches you high up above the Nordeste scrubland, witnessing the last hours of Canudos.
There is, eventually, the double story of Fernando de Collor – of his breakneck rise and spectacular crash – and of Lula da Silva’s long road out of the outback and into Brasilia. I read these pages during the protests against Dilma Rousseff and the Petrobras affair and I couldn’t help myself wishing that a fellow commuter handed me a new version of the book, because all that charade cried out for someone like Robb to tell it.
Do I think I made a good job out this review? Have I given justice to this incredible testament of affection to Brazil? No, I don’t think so. I can’t help feeling like Chuck Norris against Bruce Lee at the Pink Floyd-esque ending of Way of the Dragon, doing my damnest but being unable to match the prowess of the maestro.
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The years of commuting dangerously. Excerpts of life in Transport for London’s hands.

Like everyone else, I use social media to share utter gibberish (think penguins slapping each other, Russian drivers’ antics, Economist articles) and moan. My social media of choice is Facebook and the primary objective of my tirades, the exclusive subjective of my invective when I climb upon the virtual soapbox that is my “wall”, is Transport for London, the agency charged with providing mass transit in the beleaguered capital of this damned island nation.
Yes, I know, how original. Everyone hates commuting, everywhere it’s late and smelly and crowded, join the club. But, well, lend me your ears for TfL, you see, has a gift. Indeed, if finding artful ways of making a complete dog’s dinner of your job was a skill, TfL’s would have a God-given ability to do precisely that. Any mass-transit company can have delays, signalling issues or strikes; only TfL can do it with flair, eleganza and understatement. It’s Basil Fawlty’s land after all.
A couple of years ago, TfL’s constant balls-up were annoying and the random strike actions excruciatingly frustrating. With time and a considerable amount of practice, I started seeing the ironic, for “fun” is too much an exaggeration, side of being a commuter in Transport for London’s hands. A few weeks ago, I stumbled by chance on a functionality that allowed me to trawl through the towering pile of garbage I consigned to Facebook’s ephemeral immortality; here and there, peppered like raisins in a panettone, were snapshots of life on the Tube and buses. I copied them and here they are preserved in their immediacy, so much so that I could still smell the odour of rain, dusty brakes or stale carriage air.


January 6th. The techno-bricklayers
There are three brickies sitting opposite me on my Tube train tonight. All three are big, beefy men wrapped in yellow hi-vis jackets, safety shoes and backpacks resting on their feet. All three are fast asleep and all three are snoring blissfully, albeit with slightly different tones, volumes and rhythms. Had I been Deadmau5 I would’ve fashioned out a techno hit out of their performance.
March 31st. TfL apology masterclass, lesson 1.
“Due to the escalators going down, this train won’t stop at Heathrow Terminals 1,2 and 3”. TfL should really change their strapline in “Always inventing new faults”, they do have some serious fantasy over there.
May 15th. The butterfly effect, TfL version.
How can a “person feeling ill earlier at Holborn”* generate severe delays on the entire Piccadilly Line and basically close down the Uxbridge branch? TfL’s logic always finds new way to amaze me.
*This one requires a bit of explaining. I was in Acton Town, which lies deep into West London, at the fork between the Heathrow and Uxbridge branches of the line. Holborn is next to Covent Garden, some 13 stations away. How somebody feeling ill – not jumping under the train, which sometimes unfortunately happens, but being ill – could cause delay to the whole line was understandable, but closing down the Uxbridge branch was a mystery I’m yet to solve.
November 1st A Bank holiday night bus.
The N9 night bus to Heathrow never fails to amaze. Today’s passengers included a posse of people dressed in panda onesies (how do panda relate to Halloween is anyone’s guess) reeking of alcohol and a whole school trip of Frenchies who realised somewhere between T3 and T5 that the bus didn’t, in facts, go to T4 (“putain” by the bucketful!). If only it wasn’t 6AM, if only it wasn’t Sunday, if only I hadn’t been called on my last day on call it’d have been almost fun. And a special mention to the middle-aged man wearing a very skinny skeleton outfit chasing what I hope was his wife in Turnham Green earlier.
November 5th. TfL apology masterclass, lesson 2.
So, today I received an email from an operations manager on the London Overground apologising from my delay (which I didn’t have) on yesterday’s journey on the Overground (where I actually haven’t been), including detailed explanations and promises to get to the root cause and meticulously eradicate it. Ah, TfL, your uncanny ability of cocking up even when you aren’t culpable of anything is so heart-warming.


January 8th. Physics, signalling and frostbite.
Two are the most important mysteries of the current age: why Newton laws don’t seem to apply to large objects below a certain acceleration and why the Piccadilly Line seem to have a signal failure twice a month and the Heathrow Connect doesn’t. Took me two trains, one bus, 50 minutes and a bit of frostbite more than usual, but I’m finally at work.
January 17th. Car or Casserole?
TfL’s homepage is showing a chicken casserole, which is unusual for what should be an urban transport website. But since they’re so shit at running trains (guess what, there was a signal failure yesterday again!) they might as well stop doing it and start running cooking classes. Perhaps they’ll be better than Ramsay, who knows.
March 3rd. So quick it goes off the rails.
That’s a new one, derailment! I wonder if it happened Michael Bay-style, with explosions and aliens and transformers and scantily-clad girls that cannot act at all… In the meantime, despite the auspicious “good service on the rest of the line”, a train for Acton hasn’t showed up in 20 minutes.
June 26th. Heavens!
Severe delays due to flooding. Yeah, cos it never rains in London.
October 20th. TfL apology masterclass, lesson 3.
Just got a heartfelt, tearful and unreserved apology from a senior manager at TfL for the delays I suffered today on the Hammersmith&City, District & Circle line as they sorted out yet another signal failure. All well and good, but in fact I’ve only been on the Piccadilly Line today, and it was normal (i.e. shit, but not particularly delayed shit).
TfL’s Autumn Special – The Attack of the Pesky Leaves 
Chapter 1 – October 28th
So, leaves have managed to ruin the Piccadilly Line trains’ wheels. I don’t really know how they are coping over the Trans-Siberian or the Trans-Canada railways in autumn, really.
Chapter 1-and-a-half – October 28th
But rest assured, TfL is working round the clock to sort everything out (minus when they go on strike, which they want to do next week).
Chapter 1-and-three-quarters – October 28th
UPDATE! Those pesky leaves have upped their game, now bringing chaos and disruption – and damages due to “lack of adherence” – to the ENTIRE LINE. The government has pledged to send in the SAS armed with leavesblowers; the Iraqi PM was quoted as saying that at least they only have to deal with IS and not with the leaves.
Chapter 2 – November 10th
I know you want it, and here it comes! Another tale from the Tube, courtesy of Transport for London. It’s long, but worth it.
Today, together with many brave commuters, I descended into Hatton Cross station to manifest our solidarity to the Piccadilly Line as it struggles with the Attack of the Pesky Leaves (yes, one week and we still have severe delays, one branch almost without trains and zero fucks given, thanks to the leaves on the track).
I decided not to board the first train, mainly because it was already packed (think Mumbai rush hour) and heralded by the label “NOT IN SERVICE” on the info screen. Whatever. 5 minutes later, another one rocks up, and on we go.
All is good until Northfields.
Picture this. Northfields has 2 platforms, 1 and 2. We arrive at no. 2. No. 1 has already a train, and is disgorging its passengers onto the platform. Our driver announces that the other train is being withdrawn and all its commuters are coming to ours, and we’ll have a 5-minute delay. Packed up like sardines we wait.
After a bit of time we start seeing people coming back on train no. 1, which was due to be withdrawn. Give it another 2 or 3 minutes and our driver comes back and says, “Ah no, it seems that that train is not leaving after all, in fact it’s leaving first”. Everyone but a few of us aficionados jump off and run to the other train, packing it up, a remarkable feat if you could film it from above with a drone.
Train number 1 then tries to close its doors one, two, three, four, five, six – I kid you not – times, then gives up and stands still. Another minute of suspense whilst we ask each other “WTF?” and finally our driver comes back to the blower and says that it’s his train that has to go somewhere, and would we all please piss off. So off we all go, and stay on the platform whilst train no.1 is still there, train 2 is still there, many headless chickens in TfL garb run around and nothing is done.
Eventually train 1 leaves, we wait another five or so for another convoy, and mercifully alight at Acton Town. There, I see people I’d started from Hatton Cross with: train no. 1 has been cancelled as well.
This, and much more, awaits you for prices from £120 a month.
Chapter 3 – December 2nd
UPDATE!!!!! Today it was more of the same. Got at T5’s station, already there’s a mass of people. The screen shows a mass of coding gibberish, then the hour, then nothing. Finally, a man comes to the blower and says “We’ve been told that the next train is in 25 minutes. Sorry folks”. So upstairs I go, get the Heathrow Express, then the Connect to Ealing, then the District Line. As you retreat in your snug and comfortable homes, please spare a thought and a prayer for the Piccadilly Line as it struggles under the Evil Leaves Attack. United we stand.
The Attack of the Pesky Leaves was finally lifted that week, a good month after it started. In the meantime, all 80 or so Piccadilly Line trains had to change their wheels for they’d been mercilessly chewed by the falling, yellowing tree foliage. Such was the threat that city officers had to issue crash helmets to the citizenry when they went through Richmond Park. I haven’t been able to see a tree in autumn with a shiver of fear.


March 23rd. Dog-watching.
50 minutes of Piccadilly Line (instead of 30) because “There’s a dog on the tracks and we need to watch out for it and for those looking for it“. After leaves, wind and snow it’s now time for dogs. Coming up next, frogs and caterpillars.
March 30th. Mixed signals.
There must be a new edition of the TfL Excuses Handbook off the press, because we’re reaching new heights of poetry! After the ‘dog-gate’ incident, today we were treated to a “Awfully sorry for the delay to your journey ladies and gents, but unfortunately the train ahead of us has been given the wrong signal by the signal controller and this is forcing a general re-set. We’ll be waiting for approximately 5 minutes” it was more like 10 but whatever, I spent it thinking at a man with ping-pong rackets in each hand, one with “STOP RIGHT HERE” and another one with “GO AHEAD MATE” who accidentally raises his left hand in lieu of the right.
June 13th. When it calls, it calls.
New #TfL delays today! Train pulls up at Acton; commuters travellers and those stupid wheelie bags pile in. Then we stand there, idle, doors open, for a good 5 minutes.
At that point a sheepish voice comes to the tannoy and apologises for the delay, saying “We’re trying to source the driver“. The question that comes to mind is how on Earth did the train arrive to Acton in the first place, but this is #TfL so anything is possible.
Minutes pass, the voice on the tannoy advises us to use another train. Finally, doors close and a rushed female voice appears on the blower. It’s driver. “Sorry everyone, I had to go to the toilet and couldn’t get back into the station“.
July 7th. The incredible self-combusting Hounslow East station.
You see, TfL reads your mind. It knew, it really did, that it’d been a long time since I’d been to Hounslow last, and that it’d been an equally long time that I wanted to ride the no. 81 bus to Slough. So, what did #TfL do? It instructed the Piccadilly Line to set itself alight at Hounslow East at peak hour, so all of us commuters, flyers to Heathrow and disruption lovers could savour the experience of walking Hounslow streets hunting for cabs or, as it was my case, sampling the delights of the 81! Thanks a million dear TfL!
July 13th. The birth of the Boomerang Train.
New developments from #TfL! After months of frantic thinking and sleepless nights, they’ve invented the Boomerang Train. What the hell is it, I hear you asking?
Well, it’s damn simple. Take a train, like the Piccadilly Line going from Arnos Grove to Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 & 5. Make it arrive all the way down to Hatton Cross, two stops before its finishing line and the chequered flag, and… Make it come back! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the westbound train arrived on the eastbound platform, a man on the tannoy said “Sorry folks, this is returning to where you’ve come from, please get off” (well actually he didn’t say sorry), those going to LHR got off and us returning home got on. Simple as that, another #TfL innovation!
July 26th. Marshmellows or Else.
Dramatic reconstruction). TfL Piccadilly Line depot, morning.
Managers: “Come on guys, play nice and go to work”
Staff: “Nope! We want marshmallows!”
M: “Be real guys, you already make 50k* a year and Bob can drive his train whilst wearing a ‘MAFIA’ hat” (Bob nods*).
S: “We want marshmellows! M-arsh-m-ellows!”
M: “We ain’t got no marshmellows and they’re bad for your teeth. We’ll give you raspberries”

S: “Fuck raspberries! MARSHMALLOWS!”

(Managers shake heads)
S: “Ok then, we’ve got the trains and we’re taking them home with us. Ha!”

another great day riding the world’s best, most efficient, least striking and cheapest mass transit system in the developed world.
*Before you accuse me of being a scab or a slimy servant of the masters, here is some insight on TfL drivers’ T&C. And here’s some more in case you don’t trust the Torygraph, and why would you indeed.
**Bob mightn’t be his real name, but there’s one Piccadilly Line driver, normally driving at 6AM or thereabouts, who is particularly proud of sporting a baseball hat with such a logo written in large silver letters on it. I somehow suspect it isn’t TfL standard issue.

Posted in Europe, London, Odd ones out, Public Transportation, Random memories, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

A strange capital for a strange country. Dušanbe.

With hindsight, it was surprising that we had no plans for Dušanbe; it was meant to be the last leg of our journey, a simple stop-gap, an interlude between the last leg of the Highway and the flight home. In a tightly-packed schedule, Dušanbe stood out with a simple question mark. Not knowing what to do, we began by walking the city.
It was only fitting that a strange nation had a strange capital. From an architectural point of view, Dušanbe was a confused melange of styles, a hosh-posh of half-hearted Soviet cityscaping – the usual wide boulevards and stuccoed buildings – combined with Tajik profligacy under the form of one-storey compounds only minimally more florid than those of Murghab. Here and there this texture was peppered with examples of a new style that I’d christened “New Tajik Stalinism”, the country’s approach to the sort of megalomania that seemed all the rage throughout the region as newly-independent nations tried, with various degrees of success, to build their own national identity.
It so happened that a stroll in Dušanbe would begin under the shades of a tree-lined alley, where buildings like TSUM Magazin and the Opera stood sentry, dusty relics of a long-gone colonial past. It would continue past neat rows of houses, each with their own bread kiln, pergola and veggie patch. A quick traverse of the bazaar would ensue, where the stench of over-ripe meat soon gave way to glorious mounds of fruit and bread, and where storytellers patrolled the stalls, playing the komuz and picking raspberries for bulging buckets. It would then end in a downtown park, contoured by official buildings looking like a cheaper, hurried version of the White House, under the watchful eye of a colossal statue of Ismail Somoni, in the shadow of the world’s largest flag, obviously hanging from the world’s tallest flagpole.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
It felt all but genuine and all but open. A cloud of circumspection hung above the city, something we hadn’t seen elsewhere in the country, not even where the Afghan border was a handful of meters away, and the Taliban rumoured not to be too far behind.
Our cameras drew a lot of attention. Security guards stopped us in the bazaar, struggled with our GoPros and then kicked us out. Cops chased us away from monuments, or waved us closer if they caught us approaching something even remotely official-looking. All was done with indolence and half-heartedly, as if they had a job to do but, really, couldn’t be arsed to perform it.
It felt a greater deal more serious for the locals. Conversations with the throngs of youths who loitered about the hostel proved that the longa manu of the law weighted a great deal more on them than on foreigners. I sported a long, ruffled beard, fruit of weeks without so much of a razor. This, they told me, wasn’t allowed for them, who were required – by law – to shave, lest a goatee led automatically to Salafism. For similar reasons, youngsters under the age of 18 weren’t allowed to attend the mosque, or even pray. Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, was allowed only for pensioners. Tajikistan preached atheism to teenagers and, if the reverse psychology that works so well for all schoolkids was to be followed, was succeeding in being the only country making religion cool to the eyes of millenials.
It wasn’t long before the atmosphere began to infect us. We stopped bringing cameras with us, and learned to change sidewalk whenever we spotted more than three cops hanging around together. What lied behind all this secrecy, this paranoia? Banning religion was only likely to make it more desirable to those who were prevented from approaching it and as far as photography went, it was anyone’s guess. It was possible to understand that, perhaps, those gigantic murals of President Rahmon weren’t to be photographed, but what about the apricots at the bazaar, or the Arc de Triomphe-Esque monument to Ismail Somoni?
Perhaps the reason was that, like it’s often the case with fabricated heritage, the link between Tajikistan and the great Samanid king was a feeble one, and that the powers that be didn’t want to trump it too much, lest its cover was blown. Or, perhaps, it was a long-lasting inheritance to the Soviet Union, whose motto seemed to have been “Prohibit and intimidate first, think second”.
Posted in Asia, Central Asia, Tajikistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part V.

To Dušanbe.

“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.
Click on any photos to start the slideshow.
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.
Click on any photos to start the slideshow.
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.
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The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part IV.

To Khorog.

“Recent years have struck a final crippling blow to the roadlessness
of Kirgiziia […]. Instead of isolated districts there is now one connected and unified economic whole.”
M.M. Slavinskii, 1935
A minute man waited for us in the dusty courtyard. He stood up as we returned from a walk into town, looked at the landlady – who nodded vigorously – and came to greet us. He pistoned forward a hand, beamed a smile and said “My name Komron, driva”, succeeding in introducing himself and exhausting his English vocabulary at the same time. Still, it was a lot bigger than my Russian one.
In spite of the klingonesque assonance between their names, Komron and Kudaibergen, our two drivers up to that point, couldn’t be more different from one another. Our Kyrgyz friend was tall and slender, his Tajik colleague short and stocky; Kudaibergen was pale and hairless, Komron looked as tanned as a Sicilian fisherman and seemed the kind of chap who’d shave at 6 AM and could do with another pass of the Bic before the clock hit 10.
They did, however, have some common traits. Both were young, quick to smile and desirous to communicate, even though the language barrier seemed more akin to a tall wall. Both had a quiet adoration for their vehicles, which in Komron’s case consisted of a tattered Hyundai minivan, toughened and robust but seemingly no match for the road we were on. Both, finally, wore as much Adidas garments as humanly possible, with Komron going to the extent of sticking two gigantic copies of the brand’s logos on his van.
A couple of gesticulating conversations later and we were ready to go. A sharp bend to the left was all that was needed for Murghab – whose last inhabitant we were to see was a Kyrgyz man riding a sidecar – to disappear as if it’d never existed. We stopped at a check-point in the large, verdant valley and piled out of the van while Komron went on to negotiate with the officers of the law. The checkpoint consisted of a prefab hut, a pole strewn across the road, two cops, a truck with two drivers and a three-legged-dog.
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Pretty soon the trip assumed, for me, dreamy connotations, whether because of the panoramas of canyons and dried-up salt lakes or because of the effect of breathing unburnt petrol (which the van seemed prone to discharge into the cab rather than into the combustion chambers) I didn’t and don’t know. In any case, it was hard not to be carried away, yet again, by the spectacle of nature kindly offered by Tajikistan.
The sun was shining and we were careering down a large valley. Around us cliffs of sedimentary rocks, stratum after stratum of organic matter orderly stacked like pancakes, were thrusted skywards at impossible angles. I ransacked whatever memory of high school geology remained in the colander of my brains, and remembered that sedimentary rocks were typical of the seabed, being formed by the remnants of millions of years’ worth of dead mollusks and fishes. Yet here they were, arcing their way north of 5,000 meters. Amongst them, canyons appeared almost without warning, and down them we descended, the Highway zig zagging between the walls of clay powder, bringing a crippling blow to the “roadlessness of Kirgiziia”.
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Every now and then we encountered large snowfields, where the streams still had to work their way through walls of the white stuff. In other occasions a turn revealed a panorama of soft rolling hills covered in white tiger streaks against a backdrop of tall mountains. We were travelling along a time machine, dancing between summer and winter – with a sprinkle of spring thrown in for good measure – in the space of a valley.
We didn’t encounter any vehicles up until Alichur, but that didn’t mean that we were absolutely on our own on the highway. A herdsman cruised in the opposite direction, conducing two sturdy ponies somewhere we can only imagine. Flocks of sheep hunted for grass amongst the rocks. Two men with bulging packs on their shoulders worked their way towards Murghab. I found myself envying them deeply, wondering how it must’ve been to be able to walk instead of driving, savouring and discovering anew the views that we could see only briefly through the windows of our van.
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It is cliché to say that a place has a certain “frontier-town-feel”, but it was a platitude that fitted Alichur like a glove. Dusty roads with walled compounds raising from the ground as if they were excrescences of the Earth, a smattering of tin-roofed buildings with faded posters hanging from their walls, a school with a skeletal playground, the usual jumble of telegraph poles. A man in bicycle drove past us and, when asked by Komron about the whereabouts of the bank, looked at him as if he’d just confessed an irrepressible desire to stroll across town clad in a mankini and plastic flippers.
Corinne, an intrepid pensioner from someplace near Hamburg, had hitched a ride with us. She was travelling on her own and had her eyes set on the Wakhan valley, the large corridor separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. We, instead, were going on along the Highway proper, towards Khorog. Now, it would normally be preposterous of me to claim the paternity of good, perhaps even crucial, ideas – “He got it. Just one minute too late” could well be a good epitaph for my tombstone – but this time I can safely claim that if the German Federal Foreign Office didn’t have to mount an international search-and-rescue mission for Corinne they had to thank yours truly. See, her idea was to get us to drop her at the actual junction for the Wakhan valley, some 50 kilometers south of Alichur and whilst I appreciated her “Good-things-happen-to-good-people” attitude, I was feeling a lot less Hakuna Matata about the prospective of leaving somebody alone on a road where we hadn’t seen any car yet, on a high mountain pass, with only the shelter that could be granted by a Jack Wolfskin fleece jacket. Long story short, we managed to persuade her to leave us at Alichur and to check into a house marked “Guest House” in blue letters.
Past Alichur the road became a lot worse for wear, but the views were something out of an Andean altiplano. Dry lake beds mingled with specs of water of a turquoise blue, whilst the mountains brought up to the rear as we climbed up and up again. In one of the most surreal experiences of the entire journey Komron, who had no idea of our nationality, chose this precise moment to play Toto Cotugno’s most famous song. We bounced from pothole to pothole with him telling anyone who’d cared to listen that they’d better let him sing, for he was a real Italian, as mountains and salt pans and desert rolled past our windows. I knew that Toto Cotugno, together with other 1980s Italian pop stars, had gathered something of a following in the former Soviet Union, but to have the peninsula’s answer to Tom Petty bleating out of a car stereo in the middle of the Gorno Badakhshan region of Tajikistan was uncanny. It felt like finding Paul Newman’s own salad dressing at a roadside café in Vietnam, or discovering a Nickelback fan amongst the Taliban.
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The junction for Wakhan came soon afterwards, and it looked exactly as I thought it’d be: high, exposed, forlorn and absolutely lonely. I spent the briefest of the moments congratulating myself for having spared Corinne from this, and then I found myself floating, weightless, above my seat. We’d hit the mother of all potholes; a crater, in fact. Komron stalled the engine and, with the same urgency of a parent who’d seen his child fall off the swing, catapulted himself outside. We followed soon.
We looked under the bonnet, and then waited a little for the dust to settle and Komron to bring a torchlight. To our left, a ridge was all that separated us from the road leading to Afghanistan; it was on this road that, in August 1891, one of the periodic incidents of the Great Game flared up.
Protagonist of this diplomatic crisis was, once again, the ineffable Francis Younghusband. The mop-mustached lieutenant was in Kashgar, keeping a close eye on the perennially scheming Cossacks, when he caught wind of a possible Russian occupation of the Pamir Gap. Somebody had to check it out, and that somebody was him. Gathering just the most basic necessaries – tents, servants, pack horses and field kitchen – he set off at once, crossing into the country from the Wakhan valley.
It was less than a day’s gallop from where we were standing checking our Hyundai’s radiator that, on August 13th, 1891, Younghusband pulled his tent’s flap open to see twenty or so Cossacks, guided by six officers and preceded by the Tsarist flag, trotting towards his encampment.
These were, without a shadow of a doubt, gentler times. Had this sort of Mexican standoff happened today, it’d have inevitably escalated into a firefight, or a drone attack, or even worse a live Facebook video. But this was 1891, when women wore tweed gowns and men starched collars, even in the heat of the African jungle. Younghusband, in facts, saw the approaching Cossacks and reacted by ordering his butler to fetch one of his business cards – I can almost see them, arranged in a neat pile inside a mother of pearl box – and to bring it to the Russians. Because even if it was true that they were in the no-man’s-land between Turkestan and Afghanistan, manners were still manners.
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What followed was as Victorian as the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Younghusband and his Russian counterpart – who turned out to be the same Colonel Ionov who was to establish Pamirsky Post – began a wood grouse ritual made of reciprocal invites for supper, toasts to Queen and Tsar and furtive glances at each other’s gear to see who’d brought more bling. Younghusband was delighted to note that his quarters were more luxurious than the Russians’ (and I could imagine his book’s readers at the news, caressing their mutton chop beards and muttering “By Jove, that’ll teach the Ivans!”) but he was forced to admit that their catering – which included plenty of vodka, brandy, wine, fresh vegetables and stews “Such as native servants from India never seem able to imitate” – was a lot better (and here I could see his readers slamming their fists on the armrest, cursing the damned sepoys).
It was all for nothing. Three days later, as Younghusband was about to call it a night, he was visited by thirty Cossacks, still headed by Ionov, who informed him that the brief season of their high-altitude dinners and toasts in French to their monarchs had come to an end, for he’d received orders to escort the Brit back into China, a duty that, he hastened to add, “very much disliked to perform”. Younghusband could do nothing but obey, and the whole affair would reverberate across diplomatic channels from London to Calcutta and St. Petersburg as soon as it was made public, but not too soon. First, the two sat for another champagne-showered dinner again, because they might’ve been in the Pamirs but manners were still manners.
We, on the other hand, had no champers, no quarters, no fresh vegetables, no delicious stews and certainly no manners. It emerged that the car suffered nothing wrong, much to Komron’s relief, and soldiered on. Soon we began losing altitude as a series of fast switchbacks delivered us in a cloud of dust and hardbass music to lower grounds. Life, there, was flourishing. Huddled between barren mountains and ogled by snowy peaks, our valley grew greener and fertile by the meter. Orchards, woods of tiny poplars, villages and flocks whose main preoccupation was to stand still on the asphalt began appearing one after the other.
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We followed a torrent which grew larger and larger until it flowed into an artificial lake; then a bridge carried up a ravine, morphing into a crumbling viaduct, partially encased into the mountain side. Large slits opened on the vertiginous drop as we bounced along the concrete road, again losing altitude. Finally, things we hadn’t seen in a while appeared: sidewalks, houses with more than two stories, billboards, cows munching on the lowest branches of mulberry trees planted by some city council. We’d arrived in Khorog.
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The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part III


“’Tis said to be the highest place in the world”
Marco Polo
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.
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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.
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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.
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– § –
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.
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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.
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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.
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