Monday, May 23, 2011

Wakhan Do It

Tajikistan is a poor country. It has the 7th lowest GDP of any non-African country, has no industry to speak of (one large aluminium smelting plant, though the ore has to be imported from abroad), few mineral resources worth mentioning (a handful of gold and silver mines) and only 7% of the country is arable land (whereas 50% is comprised of mountains). Its long and porous border with Afghanistan that the government cannot possibly effectively control makes it an important conduit for drugs. The evidence of the drugs trade can easily be seen if you take a ride north from Dushanbe along the Varzob valley where tasteless modern mansions line the river, the vast majority, according to my Tajik friends, built using drug money (the rest from government corruption). The only export Tajikistan has in any quantities is cheap labour for Russian construction sites.

As you can see from the map, mountains are the one thing Tajikistan has in abundance.

Nevertheless the mountains, which make infrastructure investment particularly expensive, are also the country's potential route out of poverty. First there is the incredible tourism potential from hiking, mountaineering and adventure sports. There are few countries that can compete in terms of wild, unspoilt, mountain landscapes, although Tajikistan unfortunately hasn't made it yet into the consciousness of any but the most independent travel companies. On top of that the Pamirs control a large chunk of Central Asia's water resources. Although this doesn't change the situation agriculturally where land is the limiting factor, it means that Tajikistan has the potential to be a huge exporter of hydro-electricity. As it is Tajikistan suffers from chronic power shortages, blackouts and rationings, especially in winter since it is dependent on a single hydro-electric dam built during the Soviet era (as an aside, the Nurek dam is the tallest in the world, as high as the Eiffel Tower). The government is looking to address the issue with the construction of the ambitious Rughan dam, which would, when completed, take over the mantle of tallest dam in the world. The problem is Tajikistan, being such a poor and small country, doesn't have the resources to properly carry out a poroject of such magnitude on its own. Yet that is exactly what it is trying to do. Unwilling to become the thrall of a larger country - the Nurek dam is majority owned and run by the Russians - it is insisting on financing the project itself, with no strings attached. This means that construction is dogged by delays as the government regularly runs out of money and has to suspend work (much like how private houses are built here too) and then tries to raise money in unorthodox ways. The most controversial was a nationwide obligatory purchse of shares. Every adult had to buy $50 worth of shares in the project, with government employees having the amount stripped directly from their salaries - a pretty hefty blow for teachers who are only earning $40 a month. (This move brought quick and heavy condemnation from the world community and IMF and so was halted.) I passed the site on my way east and although I'm not an expert on dam construction, the 2015 completion date seemed rather optimistic. This struggle for energy independence has also soured relationships with Uzbekistan, or at least Uzbekistan's paranoid president/dictator Karimov.

Be that as it may, the mountains, and the Pamirs in particular, are the main reason why foreign tourists visit the country. The Pamir Highway, which starts in the town of Khorog on the Afghan border and snakes its way over 700km all the way to Osh in Kygyzstan, is one of the world's most famous and iconic roads. It’s a testament to Soviet engineering, passing as it does numerous 4000m+ mountain passes along its route. The highway and the Soviets helped immensely in opening up the region, and the nostalgia for those days is evident in the numerous statuesque Lenins that can still be spotted in towns in the region and the Communist flavour of many of the names of the highest mountains: Peak Engels, Peak Karl Marx and Peak Lenin - only Peak Kommunizma has been renamed to Mount Somoni (although many people still call it by its old name.

Good ol' Len. A bust of our favourite Communist revolutionary in front of the municipal buildings in Ishkashim.

My first stop in the Pamirs was actually off the highway in the Wakhan valley to the south, along the border with Afghanistan. The Wakhan Corridor, as it is known, the thin sliver of Afghanistan that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan, is a creation of The Great Game played out by the Russian and British Empires so as to have a buffer zone between them. The wide valley is bisected by the thin blue line of the Panj river (although at the moment it's more of a muddy brown) with the Pamir range and Tajikistan to the north, and the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan to the south.

Looking east along the beautiful Wakhan valley as seen from an ancient Kushan-era fort. Tajikistan to the left (north) and Afghanistan to the right (south). So near and yet so far.

The inhabitants on both sides of the divide are Ismaili Tajiks. The Ismailis are a breakaway sect of Shi'ite Islam and are known for their relative liberal views. As Tajiks they look (southern) European though they share the heavy tan and ruddy cheeks common to most peoples that live at high altitudes, such as the Tibetans and Quechua - the valley floor being at some 3000m. My first stop was the regional centre of Ishkashim and I was lucky to stumble across the fortnightly Afghan Bazaar held in the no-man's land between the two countries - the only time the two communities get to interact (despite sharing a language and faith no Tajik I spoke to had ever been across to the other side of the border, despite the distance being less than a stone's throw). I was there before the border gates were opened with the, mainly female (since all the men are in Russia working on construction sites), Tajik stallholders huddling, clutching their wares. As soon as the signal was given the gates were unlocked and the ladies flooded across to bag themselves prime spots to snare the punters. A little later the male (the Tajik authorities refuse to let across fully veiled women and the Afghans refuse to let their women go around without their burqas) Afghan vendors in their distinctive shalwar kameez came across to set up their stalls and sell their cheaper wares to the Tajiks (high petrol prices in Tajikistan make all commodities expensive), although, like everywhere, the majority of articles on sale were Chinese, with some Iranian goods thrown in for good measure. The atmosphere was friendly and good-natured and the two communities seemed to get along well, which, along with the unlikely and unique landscape, made this one of my favourite markets anywhere.

The Afghan bazaar has perhaps the most intriguing location of any market I have ever seen: in the no-man's land between two countries, on a dry river bed and flanked by 6000m mountains. It just doesn't get better than this.
Colourfully clad Tajik women doing their shopping at the Afghan bazaar. The full-face headscarves are practical to keep out the dust borne on the insistent wind, and not a religious statement.
An Afghan salesman demonstrates how to apply natural eye-shadow. Despite their image in the West Afghan men are very much in touch with their feminine sides, regularly using henna to dye their beards and polishing their nails.

I then took the bus further up the valley to Langar, the last settlement in the Wakhan valley. It was only 113km, but the journey took 5 hours as the fully-laden bus continually stopped to pick up and drop off passengers. It was OK with me as it gave me time to admire the majestic views of the Hindu Kush across the border. I also got to chatting with my neighbour, a local girl who was working in Dushanbe and coming back to visit family. She was educated, liberal, had her own job and was still single at 27, totally unheard of in the rest of Tajikistan, but accepted in the Ismaili community. However there are limits to liberalism and she was genuinely shocked and concerned for my well-being when she asked me what religion I was to hear that I had no religion. The village of Langar is a picture postcard of rural idyll, with neat mud-brick houses and small, family-tended fields of wheat and potatoes, the odd orchard of apricots and apples and handfuls of cows and goats in the yards. Nevertheless this is not enough even for subsistence and every family has at least one member in Russia sending back remittances (sorry if I sound like a broken record, but working abroad is such a huge part of life in Tajikistan - according to some estimates one and a half of the seven million population of the country are working abroad and sending back remittances). The pace of life is slow and it's hard not to do as in Rome.

Despite the poverty the rules of hospitality are very strong here and it was hard to walk for more than a few minutes without being invited into a home for some tea or sour yoghurt (not an insult, but a local staple). I generally refused because I felt bad accepting precious food from people who could ill-afford it whilst, in comparison I am unbelievably wealthy. Nevertheless I did accept on a couple of occasions so as to be able to see the inside of a traditional Pamiri house and talk to them at more length. Despite looking rather unappealing from the outside the houses are generally bright and cosy on the inside, decked out with colourful rugs and blankets and with light provided by a characteristic square skylight. (For more info on Pamiri houses and their symbolism check out this link.) Every hose also has a picture of the Aga Khan, the Ismaili's spiritual leader, hanging prominently in the main room. During one such invitation I was told of a wedding being held that evening and informally invited to come along.

Such an opportunity was too tempting to pass up and so I turned up, rather sheepishly, but was quickly ushered into the main room where the celebrations were being held. It seems as if the whole village was present in the small room, measuring only five by five metres. Since Ismailis are more easy-going the celebrations were a mixed affair, with both men and women present, sitting on raised platforms around the sides of the room. The bridal pair took pride of place by the north wall, the groom in his best shiny,  polyester suit, and the bride covered in a large, red cloth so I'm not sure how much of the evening she actually managed to experience. There was music in the form of a keyboard player and a singer with the volume on the four, oversized speakers turned up to 11. In the centre of the room a small clearing was created where up to four people could dance at a time. As an honoured guest I was of course expected to dance and made a couple of stabs at flailing my arms in the air whilst shuffling around, which met with howls of approval. As the evening wore on the dancing got more and more boisterous, at least from the men who were all showing the effects of a tad too much vodka. The women, on the other hand, looked more than a little nonplussed because even though Ismailis are moderate and allow drinking, it is still forbidden for women (as is smoking). Funnily enough none of the men I spoke to about this could see the hypocrisy of it.

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