There's no shade along the Pamir highway. Above 4,000 meters the sun shines extra bright but the wind blows away the added heat. Rain clouds don't often visit that part of the world. Most of the water seems to bubble up out of the ground or run down from surrounding peaks. The feeder streams are always clear but the rivers and lakes are a rainbow of turquoises.
When Walter and I arrived in the Kyrgyz village bordering Tajikistan we were surprised to find Edson, a Brazilian traveler and journalist that we'd met in Osh a couple days prior. Edson was a handsome, soft-spoken, lighter skinned Brazilian with a full head of hair and a full but trimmed beard. He had left for Tajikistan the day before and apparently spent the entire day unsuccessfully trying to thumb a ride at the border town. Few vehicles were traveling the Pamir highway that time of year and in that direction, and those that were were already overstuffed with goods and people.
We spent the night in a single-storied mud-walled home-stay with colorful carpet lined floors and walls. Over the next week we became accustomed to that type of accommodation. Edson was on the last day of his Kyrgyz visa and absolutely had to get out of the country the following morning. We left town at the crack of dawn and began the 30km walk to Tajikistan. Around we got lucky and caught a ride for the second half of the distance to the Kyrgyz border. After the typically-convoluted exit process at an isolated outpost in a beautiful valley, we were out of Kyrgyzstan but still 20km away from Tajikistan.
We were laying in the cool sun 16km up the mountain pass separating Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan when a van drove by. It was the second vehicle to pass in our direction since we entered the no-mans-land. The van had been chartered by an American and an Italian man, and had plenty of space for the extra three of us and our gear. We struck a deal and hopped inside. Soon we were at the Tajik border crossing and in for a taste of things to come.
The Tajik border was more primitive and at a higher elevation than the Kyrgyz one and involved a lot more extortion. For our entire journey in Tajikistan we were frequently stopped—either in the car or on the street—asked for our passports—which were always in order—and often asked for a little "something extra". I could understand all the extra checks if they were looking for drugs, since we were riding the main heroin trafficking corridor, but they didn't search us once.
Tajik people are decidedly more middle-eastern looking than Kyrgyz. They also have more gold-plated teeth, at least what teeth they have. Like most places in Asia even the farmers wear timeless classy suits, though often they and their close remain unwashed for long periods. One aspect you can't help but notice is the overwhelming eyebrows. I saw more eyebrow and unibrow in one week in Tajikistan than I did during any other three months of this trip.
The people in Tajikistan have a few distinct mannerisms. One unique aspect is to freeze with arms at their side when posing for a picture. Another is to completely stop what their doing and look on at cars as if they've never seen them before. Given the low traffic—we didn't pass or get passed by a single vehicle for three days once—I'd infer that this behavior is founded, but the old pastel-colored soviet car frames littering the villages tells a different story.
It was harvest time when we arrived at the village of Zong in the base of the Wakhan Valley just across the river from Afghanistan. Not much can grow in the dusty mountains of the Pamirs. Most people are herders and it seems the only crop is grain for the animals to eat during the winter. The people in the fields all stopped to watch our Land Rover go by. They use donkeys in Tajikistan where horses or machines are used in other countries. Zong wasn't littered with car bodies like the other villages we'd seen.
After finding a place to stay and having a small snack, we all did separate things for a while. The Italian and Brazilian guy walked to the river to get a better look at Afghanistan while I set off wandering the village. I noticed a kitten sitting by a lonely door on the side of a mud-walled dwelling and went over for a better look and perhaps a photo. As soon as I arrived on the side of the house the door opened. A woman in what I took to be their version of a bathrobe came out. She motioned "embarrassed" and I looked sheepish, said I was sorry, and quickly departed.
Around the corner I came across five boys carrying a couple deflated plastic balls. They all seemed to have the distinct facial type which I imagine comes from mixing Russians with Afghanis. One of the boys began motioning to me the basic strikes of volleyball. Bump, set, spike. The boys all especially seemed to like acting out the spike. In what was most likely a joke, they motioned for me to join them. Much to their surprise, I did.
Shortly we came to the volleyball court. It was a patch of gray dust where the rocks had been cleared. Two branches had been stuck in the ground and a make-shift rope net was woven between them. I set my camera on the crumbling stone wall which ran along one side of the court and rolled up my sleeves. One boy produced a pump and began inflating a ball. They divided up the teams: me and the two younger boys against the two older boys. I figured this was fair. After all, I could reach over the net without having to jump.
We had only been playing for a couple minutes when the women from the door with the kitten appeared. "Oh no" I thought. She motioned for my camera. "She must think that I took a picture of her and is pissed." I grabbed my camera off the wall and was about to show her that I hadn't taken a picture of her when she began motioning for me to take a photo of a little girl which she had brought with her and that I'd failed to notice as she was approaching.
Most people in highly-touristed developing countries either hate having their photo taken or want it taken as a means to make money. Either way I'm reluctant to photograph locals and don't get as many pictures of people as I probably should. The people in Zong were quite different in this regard. As I walked through the town later that night I had four different people stop me to take their picture. The woman in her bathrobe simply wanted me to photograph her daughter.
After taking some pictures I went back to the game. The boys were good. Real good. They were disciplined and magnanimous; always bumping when they should bump and setting when they should set, never rushing the spike—which they were all quite good at delivering. I admit that I started off a little easy on them, but I didn't come to Tajikistan to spike a ball on some 12yr old boy. It was evident that they were much better than me and one of the boys on my team gave me the sign "you suck". I understood and motioned that I would go.
I began walking away and had apparently set off in the wrong direction since the boys began whistling and calling to me to tell me that I couldn't walk that way. As I walked back toward the game the boys entreated me to rejoin the group. I motioned that I'd just play a little longer and then I really must be going. I tried a bit harder and the game became more fair. I played a little longer then meandered through town on the way home for dinner.
The Pamir Highway is one of the most beautiful drives I've ever taken in my life. The mountains are young but tall, the hot springs are gorgeous and relaxing, and the landscape is relatively untouched, but the people are the most unique feature in the area. I didn't think I'd come across people living in a less developed or hospitable country than Mongolia, but it seems I have. Life in Tajikistan is different, but like everywhere on earth the people are usually friendly.
If you don't frequent the gallery, now would be a good time to check it out. Also, due to the extreme remote nature of the Pamir Highway, I chose to postpone attempting my anniversary mission. Thanks again to everyone who submitted suggestions, I plan to do something with them eventually!Soundtrack: Burn One Down (Ben Harper)