Saturday, September 3, 2011
Upon a Road Less Troubled
If memory serves right—and my memory always serves left when I want it right especially taking a nosedive whenever I return from the rarified environs of our planet—I had put in my last post from Dushanbe towards the centre of July. And then I had plunged into an adventure that took me to a place that I have dreamt of since childhood. Surfacing only the past week back in the Delhi heat that is making me disparately desperate to seek an escape, hence my creative juices have been running dry ever since, and when they had been overflowing I was too far away from a computer, electricity, net connection and civilization in that order.
So here I am your chronicler and story teller and your companion on roads less traveled and much troubled, which often leads us into travel travail tales of titanic tapestry. Taking up the thread where I had lost it last. Join me now from where we had parted, if you had indeed joined me before; but if you haven’t even then this is a good place to begin our journey together. After all with a lost soul like me, how much more can you get lost than you already are. So any place on earth is a fine place to begin and conclude our journey and on that fine morning when I started off towards the Pamir, with three gorgeous women and a reticent omniscient driver for company all packed within the confines of a shining Toyota Landcruiser I had presumed that for once my road would be less troubled – little did I know then as you would discover!
For those who may wonder where am I right now for my creative juices to flow again, then I am still within the heated precincts of Delhi; aha; but then how come I am found here tapping on the keyboard, then my friends, it is a long story that I can only tell you briefly; for I wasn’t given any choice in this matter at all by one who is my choice. I know this sound like a riddle for it really is; but that’s another story and has little relevance to our four intrepid travelers and one dare devil driver who are now cruising along the pampered and poked Pamir Highway blasting the morning breeze and the road with songs of laughter and joy. So let’s begin…
There were some minor glitches but then they are always there. Our driver named Gadon (don’t ask what that means) speaks no English and barely understand any, Laura speaks several European tongue and a smattering of Persian but no Tajik or Russian. Patricia had spoken Russian three decades ago and whatever Russian was forced down my throat 23 years before had all been digested by my system by now while Christine just sat silently like the dainty lady she is eyeing our completely disastrous attempts at striking up any sort of communication with our driver except the sign language.
While we enjoyed the rushing scenery of green and brown I wondered about the notorious check posts en route as we were headed for the restricted province of Badakhshan. The first check post posted no problems. Gadon, armed with our passports and GBAO permit disappeared inside the wooden box with few militia hanging around listless. Gadon emerged triumphant shortly waving us all inside since we would hop out at any opportunity to stretch our legs and limbs. At a roadside stall Gadon picked up a ripe watermelon of massive proportion.
Within few hours we started climbing up sinew mountain path with sheer precipices on several sides. I eye the distant ranges through which our road cuts like a silvery ribbon, twisting and turning, appearing and merging and shimmering all along like the magic trail of a meteor. We crossed sleepy villages, lazing hamlets, gushing waterfalls, corn and sunflower fields and orchards full of plump pomegranates, apples, grapes, apricots, peaches and plums. At several bridges we spied abandoned Russian tanks half-submerged in the rushing streams, sitting like a giant toad. What amazed me that no one had yet taken them apart and sold off for scrap. Even after twenty years of independence, Russian relics were there to see and remind the Tajiks of their turbulent dominion.
The place where we stopped for lunch had three eateries side by side, the first manned by a manly man, the second by a manly woman and the third by a gaggle of beautiful Tajik women all within their bloom. I headed for the third while Gadon wanted us to get into the first. After a brief battle I gave up in favor of Gadon, may be he gets some commission from this one. But while leaving I did visit the third shop and bought few boiled eggs from the pretty girls, who giggled at my hat and antics.
After crossing our third check post, Gadon suddenly started waving his right palm in front of his face in such animation that I thought he had been bit by something or he was about to collapse and wanted one of us to take the wheel. I looked closely but he was smiling and staring out of the windshield simultaneously. Then he pointed out with his index finger and again waved his palm upon his face. So following his index finger I found a sheer cliff with an exact silhouette of a man’s face. Sharp forehead, beaky nose and high pointed chin… goodness I almost cried, it was such a remarkable shape. It reminded me of El Capitan Nose.
The road is more empty and less crowded, long stretches of fields, streams, valleys, cliffs, mountains and then suddenly a little patch of lush green, few tin roofed houses, orchards, and children and women sitting by the roadside washing carpets, clothes or donkeys on the street. Broken down vehicles and mini vans, axle rolling on ground, oil leakage, burst tires, etc were in abundance proclaiming the condition of the highway. Whenever human presence (except those in uniforms) materialized we waved and were waved back with equal gusto. At a maize field, a group of ladies literally lined up throwing their bosom out and waists in, posing for Christine’s lens. We crossed several cycling groups, mostly from Germany, Poland, Swiss, Italy, UK, etc and one antediluvian pair of great grand mom and pop slowly chugging up on the steep mountain path towards the highest pass on the way to Badakhshan. But for my respect for their zeal and dignity, I would have gladly offered them my seat and hopped on to the roof of our car.
As we climbed higher the air cooled and my spirit lifted. The road became narrower with longer zigs and zags. Suddenly the vast slopes appeared decked with endless carpets of yellow and pink and violet flowers. We soon crossed the Khaburabot pass at 3252 m and then zapped down the other side and made it to Kalai Khum in about 9 hrs from Dushanbe.
It was dark by the time we reached and in the darkness we found our guesthouse where we were paying 20 $ a night including food. The frothing Pyanj River flew next door and it roared unseen within the surrounding darkness. At the guesthouse we found three Italians whom Laura had met earlier, on their way to Murghob. We exchanged some niceties while dinner was being served. Post dinner Pat decided to unfurl, Laura decided to curl while Chris and I decided to twirl around the little town. Walking in semi darkness we witnessed a marriage. The bride was cute, the groom and his friends were totally drunk, and the guests were happy and inebriated. The night passed in a twinkle.
Next morning breakfast is a sumptuous offering of assorted breads, naan, chicken sausage, single fried eggs, honey, tea, coffee, raspberry juice, watermelon and thin cut cucumbers along with a bucket full of toffees. We soon crossed a bridge over a rushing gorge and had our first proper sighting of Afghanistan across the Pyanj River that formed a natural border between the two nations. Now we were inside the Pamir. Locally this region is called Bami Duniya or roof of the world and in Persian Pamir means ‘rolling pastureland’ and for obvious reasons, since most of the mountains and cliffs seem to be made on stacks of rock layers, the Chinese call them ‘Onion Mountains’. On the map the road is marked as Pamir Highway or M41 and it is supposed to be one of the greatest road journeys in the world. I could see why!
Most places the road is less than a road but more than a trail, it has bumps, ditches and glitches aplenty with skyrocketing cliffs on one side that could collapse any moment and the black turbulent river on another where if one fell would certainly be doomed. There are curvy curves, blind ends, and land and rock slides, overflowing streams all along. Air is cold and crisp with the typical clarity of the mountains. Perched high above from the road are tiny villages stuck to the steep slopes wherever a stream or spring has emerged. Pamir Mountains are a world like no other; home to Marco Polo Sheep, ibex, snow leopards and at least half dozen confirmed sighting of Yeti or the abominable Snowman, the place is the stuff of legends. There are several peaks above 7000m and many above 6000 with plenty of possibilities for new routes and first ascents.
Gadon keeps us grounded with his eyes on the road while we peer out of the windows and enjoy the breathtaking scenery, waving intermittently at the passing hamlets. The contrast between the two nations separated only by a river couldn’t be more stark or apparent. On the Tajik side, all thanks to the Soviet occupation, there are roads, electric lines, proper houses, mobile towers, 4X4 vehicles (mostly in good conditions), well groomed and healthy people dressed in modern apparels, etc while on the Afghan side there’s only a faint foot trail and barely any signs of anything else. There is no electricity, no plumbing or water supply, the villages are all made up of mud houses and all the people we could see wore the typical lose salwar kameez with Persian cap or turbans on their head. All the women wore full body burkhas. I wondered what did they think of the Tajik side as they would stare across the river, barely couple of hundred meters away, from their dark houses into the well lit ones.
We crossed one big military base and then a bridge across which one could enter Afghanistan and then another town and finally sighted the deserted runway of Khorog (the headquarters of GBAO). There are many stories about this infamous runway and it is rumored that during the Soviet era this was the only airport for which pilots were paid risk money to fly in and out since one could never predict what would happen. Presently the flights from Dushanbe only operate if weather permits and it seems the weather doesn’t permit most of the days. You can’t book ticket in advance for this route and have to queue in the morning and then jostle and wrestle till you get to the counter, only to be told most of the times that the seats are full or overfull. They do allow at times double passenger meaning one can sit on someone else’s lap. Even if you do get to buy a ticket, it isn’t a guarantee you would fly and they have a policy of no refund. So take your chances if you wish to fly to Khorog. We were far happier with Gadon piloting us through.
Khorog turns out to be a typical one central street township with totally unimaginatively architectured buildings on both sides. It sprawls on either side of the Pyanj River that runs through. There are pathways and driveways for crossing. As one enters the town, you cross a bustling taxi stand, followed by the main bazaar, then banks, and few imposing buildings, football fields, and parks. Typical Soviet design and entirely monochromatic in contrast to the brightly colored dresses of the people and women on the streets. We finally reached our Khorog abode of Laalmo Homestay. Two kilometers away from the bazaar, across the river, LH was a dream come true to my fruitarian appetite.
We sniffed the scent even before we found it. LH has a garden full of apricot, raspberry, cherry, peach, apple and grape foliages along with dahlias, sunflower, lilies, bougainvilleas and bushes of tiny red flowers with white stems. All the fruit trees were full and ripe, bending under their loads. While my companions sprawled around, I hopped inside the garden and ate to my heart’s fill. The cool breeze and the snow capped mountains around only heightened my desire to taste everything that I could as if there was no tomorrow. Soon the lady of the house came out to greet us.
Laalmo Muborakkadamova is a big Uzbek Mama with a bigger heart that is simply overflowing with milk of human kindness and with three gold capped teeth on her upper dentures when she smiles she really dazzles radiating like the moon and she speaks moderately good English. Her daughter speaks better English and helps her mother to look after the guests. LH is super clean, smells divine and the the shower has a bath tub; rooms are cozy and comfortable. Anyone visiting Khorog, I strongly recommend LH. For me the obvious winning point was the orchard and the gardens. Soon she served us an ensemble of jams and preserves made out of her garden produces along with soft breads, tea, dry fruits, lollies and another dazzling smile. We sat on the large wrought iron carpeted divan outside under the berry tree and jumped in the festivity. In the evening I went out for a walk along the river lined apricot orchards and joined the ladies in picking the fruits from ground. Dinner was sumptuous and the way I was hogging, I felt that this time at least I was sure to gain weight. She served the special pudding of Khekhst, the famous Pamiri dessert that a newlywed wife prepares for her newly henpecked hubby. It can be prepared otherwise too, as today. Made of flour, butter, milk and sugar, it is solid and really sweet. Nothing like I have tasted before.
With Gadon’s flight taking off at 6 am, breakfast was served sharp at 5.30 and what a spread it was! Only Patricia and I ate, the balance I tucked inside my pack, after all no point in wasting such good food since in the days to come we would be frightfully short of such delicacies. As we left, the sweet lady and her daughter came to see us off and she handed me a large packet of freshly plucked apricots, apples and grapes all at no cost at all. We now drove due south following the serpentine Pyanj River all along. Intermittent signboards cautioning landmine areas added some thrill to the journey. Broken tanks here and there now part of the landscape. We crossed few foreign cyclists pedaling slow and hard on the uphill road and one solitary pair of hikers who seemed merry despite the toil and the apparent road to nowhere. There were loosely scattered bus stands, each decorated with stones depicting some Pamiri landscape or wildlife. Around 3 hrs later we sighted the bridge just short of the village of Ishkashim (Tajik side) where we would cross into Afghan side. This bridge now offers the only safe international land border crossing into Afghanistan.
Gadon turned off the road towards the spiked metal gate on the bridge. A pair of young soldiers smiled at us while swinging the gate open. Gadon cautioned us not to take out our cameras. We crossed the bridge and reached into the no man’s land, the buffer zone between the two nations. The border between Tajik and Afghan is rather porous and obfuscated and large amount of drugs are smuggled and traded into Tajik on its way to the west, hence the Tajik militia is always on the watch while the Afghans didn’t really care.
Gadon dropped us outside the customs house, shook our hands and left. In all possibility we would never sight him again. During our one night stay at Khorog we befriended another individual named Otambek, who would prove to be of immense value and aid on our return.
The Tajik custom was customary, a smart man named Shodi and a smart woman named whatever, both interested more in Bollywood than anything else. They had a brief look at our bags and let us pass. The immigration was manned by three burly men in uniform, each thinking he is the latest incarnation of Rambo and behaving like one, especially with the ladies looking on. After few more minutes we were let through and then a short walk of few meters and suddenly I stepped onto the Afghan soil. Slipping back by 30 minutes in time zone in one simple step and a childhood dream come true for me. But for the gun totting Afghan border guards I might have genuflected upon the ground and kissed it like the promised land of Mecca. It read exactly 9 am Afghan time on my watch.
The Afghan border police personnel seem jovial and smiling, they speak to us in Persian and upon learning I am from India (Hindustan) they embrace me like a brother. One of them speaks few words of Urdu and we manage somehow. They are amused at seeing one male with three women and the huge amount of luggage we carry. We get our visas stamped and baggage checked. They are thorough and we are not allowed to carry the petrol that we had bought in Khorog for our expedition. Then comes a surprise; we have to take a compulsory dose of polio vaccination. We swallowed the bitter drops and carried our bags to the other side of the bridge and then be on proper official Afghan soil.
We meet a smart young fellow named Adab Shah, who is there to receive Laura, while we would be met by someone named Farhad, whom Wakhan Tourism, our support agency had sent for us from Eishkashim Village. Adab speaks fluent English with an American accent and he would prove an asset in the near future. He departs in a ramshackle vehicle with Laura. Our guy arrives sometime later inside a broken Toyota corolla and declares himself utterly ill and he looks it. We pile ourselves and few of our bags and chug along the road that is nothing more than asphalt and rock and gravel all bulldozed beneath a bulldozer and road roller. So we jump and bump forming lumps on our head. Finally on an upslope the vehicle stalls and stops, belching out dark rancid smoke from all its orifices. We get off; push the vehicle till it starts. Green fields start appearing and high rise mountains, brown below, white above tower all around.
Our carrier rattles and rumbles, we jostle and jest, slowly but surely we gain ground and mud huts with broken walls and roof lines up on the sides. Dirty disheveled kids, rider less donkeys, wild horses, plastics and human waste fill up the horizon. We finally reach the village bazaar, which was as shanty and dirty a bazaar could be but barely any people since there are barely any people to begin with. After the bazaar the road dips down along a stream and we sight a towering wall of ice on the horizon as do few other white peaks peek at us from different directions. We see a signboard of Central Asia Institute, the organization that builds and runs school all through northern Pakistan and Afghanistan along with Greg (Three Cups of Tea fame). Wading another stream over big boulders we finally reach our guesthouse named Juma and Marco Polo. The vehicle just reaches the guesthouse gate and finally dies down with a sputter stutter and a big shudder.
A rotund smiling man (who later turns out to be the owner) and a smiling giant (turns out to be the cook) emerge from the gate and help us carry our bags inside. The giant picks up two of our bags, easily weighing above 50 kg as if it were filled with feather and leads us in.
And with that we conclude our journey upon a road less traveled and much more troubled. And before I forget, for all the risks and perils to life and limb we endured during our passage from the border to the village guesthouse, we had to pay 20 $ to the driver for all his trouble.
The journey will continue further… but now I need my rest since writing this piece has been no less exhausting than the journey itself. So don’t go anywhere and I shall be back soon after a short non-commercial break.