There we were, stuck in between two mighty mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs. The icy peaks rose 7000 metres above sea level. The majestic ranges acted like walls that blocked us off from the rest of the globalised world and it had already been weeks since I last had an internet connection. For all I knew another new war could have broken out. Here I was tucked away in a far away corner of the planet, and all seemed blissfully peaceful and the only sounds came from a herd of goats chewing what little they could find off a nearby cliff face. My travel partner, Joel and I camped out that night and gazed at the Milky Way in all its white washed brilliance against the black canvas of night where even the ice covered peaks shone.
The small town and provincial centre of Tajikistan’s Pamir range, Khorog, lay 6 hours drive away from where we awoke. The long dirt road was precariously carved into the side of mountains. We began to hitch hike, but cars and fuel in this area were sparse and we hadn’t seen a car in over three hours. Walking would take us far into the night and shivering again wasn’t on the top of the list.
An old Parmiri lady invited us into her home for tea. “Halo halo,” she said, gaining our attention. Her toothless smile and gesture were a temporary relief from what seemed like an endless wait. Her mud-brick home was peppered in chips in what resembled bullet holes. We all broke bread, drank tea and ate home made yoghurt – this is what my staple diet was for a month.
Before we said our goodbyes and ventured back on to the road the old lady said something in Pamiri and went on to go into Tajik and Russian as she attempted to communicate with us. It was obvious that we had no comprehension, but this was something she didn’t mind. Her calloused hands grasped ours one at a time as she shook and patted us on the back while leaving. Our weary eyes met and I smiled. Perhaps we reminded her of long lost sons that ventured back home after a long spell of stepping foot all over the world. I would never know.
The sun was gradually lowering and the mountains cast sharp and dark shadows across the Whakhan Valley. Joel and I decided to walk as the thought of a car seemed a little outlandish at that point. The high altitudes made the air thin and the walk tough, our pace was steady. Children working in the nearby fields with their families ran and waved at the two foreigners, which was somewhat still a novelty in this area.
Life was simple out here – by day, it was on the farm, by night it was with family and friends. I imagined for these hard working people things would still be tough, which certainly showed in their dark sun tanned skin and wrinkled faces. Our situation was but a pittance in comparison. Here, life was dictated by the seasons and winter was knocking on the doorstep. The beautiful and vibrant yellow and orange colours of the poplar trees swayed in the late autumn breeze.
Joel and I chewed on the fat of travel stories of times past in distant Bangkok and Tibet. We had both been travelling for sometime at the point and we looked it: permanent bags under our eyes, rough beards, filthy clothes and severe weight loss. It all spoke of a life built on the road.
The sound of respite came in the form of an old Soviet Lada car that struggled to make it up the hill. I looked at the socialist relic from the past on a backdrop of a desolate mountain range and hoped for two free seats. We stuck out hands out and waved downwards – Central Asian style.
The car stopped and there was a batted United Nations Development Programme logo stuck on the side of the car. A Russian looking man spoke to us in Ruski. “Ah, nyet pa ruski. Pa an Angliski. Turist. Khorog?” I said in my horrible comprehension of the Russian language (No Russian. I speak English. Tourist). “Da da da,” he said (yes) and gestured for us to hop in the back. We offered money, but he declined with a smile.
Looking through the dust-covered windshield I witnessed the valley transforming in shape and size battered from millennia of rain, snow and wind. Across the glacier fed river lay war-torn Afghanistan, although here it looked as if it were in a state of consistent bliss. Afghani farmers looked over at the car driving past whipping up dust in its wake.
I’ve always been fascinated with how something as simple as a river that splits a land in two can polarise nations, culture and people so vastly. Afghanistan at points was a stones throw away, yet language, culture, belief systems, cuisine and architecture could not be more different in comparison to Pamiri Tajikistan.
We arrived in Khorog late and night had already set in. No more than a year before this time infighting between local factions, separatist groups and the Tajik government occurred here. Bullet holes remained in the sides of government buildings that were illuminated by flickering streetlights. Pamiri’s never described themselves as Tajiks and vice versa. Ethnic tensions were still high and I had no doubt the Tajik dictatorship would continue to oppress the people of the Pamir’s in the present and future. I thought about the lives lost during the conflict as we attempted to find out bearings within a strange town. Home felt so far away.
Packs of dogs ruled the empty streets and we carried sticks in case of an attack. We heard drunken shouts of vodka induced fight across the river that divided the town. Searching for one of the only guesthouses in the town we ventured through a maze of derelict streets.
“Hello! Hello! You two, come here,” said a Pamiri man that waved at us from a distance. I looked at Joel. “Yes, you come,” he said. We wandered over completely at a loss as to what he wanted. “Man prepare to get mugged and beaten,” I said to Joel with a chuckle.
“Where are you from?” the strange Pamiri man asked us in English. We were taken back by it. “Australia, we’re from Australia. Or how to you say it in Russian? Afstralia,” I said. He looked at us up and down. “It late to be in Khorog. Dog dangerous and people drink vodka take tourist bags,” he said. Ironically, he was drunk, and the stench of vodka sweated out from his pores. “My English name Vlad. Come inside, friend having party. Much Vodka and smoke and more vodka,” said Vlad with a laugh as he extended his hand out to shake ours.
As we walked inside towards the main courtyard of the semi-run-down home, I praised Vlad and his English. We hadn’t spoken to anybody except ourselves for quite sometime now. “I go Europe and study and also do work in Russia. I speak Pamiri, Tajik, Russian and some English,” said Vlad. He took a drag of his cigarette and flicked it into the garden as the smoke from his mouth filtered out through his black beard. “You have place to stay? Welcome to stay here, my friend house. He like guest and wife make bed for you,” said Vlad.
We were welcomed into a spacious courtyard that was covered in pot plants. A not so romantic swing chair sat rusting with one drunk and passed out snoring Pamiri. “Ah, No worry about him. Too much vodka. Welcome come,” said Hussein, the owner of the house, as he introduced himself. Vlad became the quasi-translator. We shook hands with several of the men all smoking hashish and drinking vodka, a potent mix.
All of the men looked older than they probably were. Each face unique from the other – some had Persian features, others had Mongol influences and a couple that could be dubbed as a cocktail of ethnicities. Hussein barked something towards the house. “He asks his wife to bring more food and vodka for guest. You are now guest and must stay,” said Vlad. Hussein turned up the old radio and the speaker spewed out local music that crackled on every beat. “Party start now,” said Hussein.
The vodka was being passed around in a small bowl. Hussein’s wife brought out lamb shashlyk and the fat oozed off the stick it was cooked on. I held the vodka bowl in one hand, drunk it and then took a bite out of a freshly picked apple. This was the Central Asian chaser – where the sweetness overcame the taste of Russian vodka. All the men professed to be good Muslims and completed the standard ritual before eating, but got as drunk as a rehabilitated alcoholic that relapsed. The Soviet influence had left behind more than just language and untasteful architecture; it has left a population of thirty men craving vodka, which fuelled such things as rampant domestic violence and crime.
“What do you all do?” I asked as Vlad translated. “We are all mafia,” said Hussein with a sense of pride, “We take opium from Afghanistan and take to Dushanbe to sell. Mafia good job, money good!” said Hussein. Afghanistan produces the vast majority of opium that is transported across the globe and processed into Heroin. A major trade route is directly through Tajikistan, and one gateway is the town of Khorog. Hussein explained that once they sell the drugs in Dushanbe, the capital, they get taken by his cousin to the border of Uzbekistan and then transported into Russia.
“Are you big or small mafia?” I asked. The vodka was starting to go to my head, and I felt drunk. “Small mafia, family business. Big mafia in Dushanbe, we don’t like them, they take lots of business and money,” said Hussein. All his friends nodded in agreement and by this point I assumed Hussein was the leader of this little posse. Hussein explained that they were constantly in a battle for transit turf with the border troops from both Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which I assume was prone to a fair amount of corruption regardless of his professed battles. “Lots of no police places. We bring from there,” said Hussein. He began to go off in a drunken rant and Vlad struggled to keep up with translations. “I in mafia because it feed my family. But sometimes no selling because USA make trouble in Afghanistan. America no good,” said a disgruntled Hussein while lighting a half burnt cigarette.
The mood died down, and I stopped asking more questions. A drunken silence washed over the group. Vlad got up and searched for something in his bag and smiles lit up the atmosphere again after they saw what he pulled out. He passed around a green substance from a clear zip-lock bag. “Here rub up gum, do not eat, very bad if you eat,” said Vlad. I felt a jolt of sudden energy lift me out of my drunken slumber. “Dancing feel,” said Vlad as everyone else laughed as our eyes lit up. “When drinking and party in Dushanbe we use this to feel good and dance longer,” said Vlad. It was Tajikistan’s replacement for cocaine.
I looked over at Joel with a hint of excitement, but his eyes began to water, and his facial expression was twisting. He stared up, “Fuck,” said a gasping Joel. He ran over into the garden and began violently vomiting. Everyone burst out into a flurry of drunken laughter. “I tell him not to eat, but he eat! You tourist funny, never listen,” said Vlad laughing. One of the other men helped Joel and Hussein’s wife brought over some water, but someone protested and said “Vodka!” instead.
My watch had hit midnight. We had lost track of time, and I wondered what had happened during the last four hours. Hussein walked over to his car, a jet black Jeep that looked relatively new. Drug money would have paid for it. They wanted to drive and turned on the car with Eminem’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” blasting from the speakers, infuriating both the neighbours and barking dogs. This was the modern day Tajik gangster in his element: drunk, high and listening to a decade old record rolling through the picturesque mountain town of Khorog. “Come drive my friends,” yelled Vlad. This was a risk I wasn’t willing to take, and Joel had just finished vomiting and felt like shit. We decided to pass up the suicidal offer.
We rested our heads on the mattresses Hussein’s wife had prepared inside their home. The walls covered in carpets with intricate details, this was a sign of wealth in the region. It had been a long day, and I needed sleep. We had a flight to catch the next day.
The silence was deafening, and the room was bare except for a tiny hole in the wall. Behind the hole, someone worked and exchanged money for tickets. I never saw a face, only a hand that snatched crisp US dollar bills. This was the Tajik airways Khorog office. Our Uzbek visas started within a few days and time was of the essence. Driving to Dushanbe would take close to two days, but this flight that would take us through the mountains, not over them, shaved transit time to a mere three hours. The tickets were only issued for that day; it was first in first served.
Joel and I waited outside the tiny one-room airport, which was locked up. A lone soldier stood smoking a cigarette in a state of boredom while sporting an AK-47. A black Jeep drove past; it was Vlad, he stuck his head out, “My friends you left early this morning before we wake up. Good time last night,” said Vlad. I explained that we were heading to Dushanbe and were waiting for the plane to arrive. The nearby guard looked skeptical and all of a sudden was alert.
“Can you take box of fruit to my cousin in Dushanbe? Small box,” said Vlad. I stayed silent and instantly thought of drugs. “Yeah sure,” said Joel. Vlad replied with a hint of satisfaction and said he would be back in a moment. “Man, what the fuck are you thinking?” I asked Joel, “Yeah I kind of regret saying that. It was stupid I wasn’t thinking,” said Joel. The doors opened, and we went inside the tiny one room terminal after our tickets were checked. The soldier said something in Russian to us and pointed to where the Jeep was, but the only word I could understand was “Nyet” (no).
A dozen people waited within the airport. Vlad was back outside attempting to get our attention. We pretended not to see him. He was trying to get inside, but an old lady and the soldier that checked out tickets refused to let him without a ticket. He took the last drag of his cigarette and flicked it at the window towards us. “Man, this is fucked. We’re going to be put in some old Soviet prison and get our ass virginity taken from us. Horrible thoughts,” said Joel. I couldn’t help but laugh. “Gulags here we come,” I said trying to lighten up the mood. Another black Jeep pulled up, and Vlad pointed over to us saying something to a partner of his.
Another soldier armed with a handgun strapped to his waist next to the old Soviet hammer and sickle belt buckle opened the doors that led onto the empty airstrip where the tiny plane waited. We picked up our dirty backpacks and walked towards the plane where the pilots were doing a final check up on the propellers. Vlad and I locked eyes for a moment, and he raised his hand in the form of a gun and shot at us. I felt as if I just dodged a bullet.
Boarding the plane, the mood lifted as the ethnic Russian captain said after seeing two foreigners on board. “Do not worry, I fly MiG plane in glorious Soviet Union. We get to Dushanbe safe through mountain!” said the Capitan as I chuckled. “Get that Soviet army cap you bought and give it to him. It’d make him so happy,” I said to Joel. “Mother Russia never forgets heroes,” said Joel jokingly. I peered through the plane's small window, and the Jeeps began to leave.
What if it was fruit and now we were the culprits of his cousins serious vitamin C deficiency for the week. We would never know. All things considered moments could have turned out much worse and in retrospect, it was a mixture of hospitality mixed with fear, curiosity and ultimately a surrendering to a series of moments some more unfortunate than others.