Wednesday, 22 September 2010

2. The Bartang and the Wakhan

In Khorog we fixed ourselves up with two other Italians to share a UAZ jeep down the Wakhan valley. Before meeting them we decided to hike up the Bartang valley for a day or two. This involved negotiating a ride in a Chinese-made Cherry minivan. We ended up paying about double the local price, which isn't really so bad a deal. The drive up the Bartang was beautiful but hair-raising. Sometimes the van felt as if it would fall over sideways, sometimes we had to get out and clear stones from the road, and once we were the first to test a newly-rebuilt wooden bridge. When we got out, one of our fellow passengers invited us into her cousin's house and we had our first taste of Tajik hospitality. Marifat spoke good English (and Russian and Pamiri and some Tajik) and was trying to find a job in Khorog.

We walked up the valley towards Ravmeddra, but by now it was late and we started to look for a house which was supposed to be open for hikers. Surely the one with no door and nothing but straw inside wasn't it. An hour later, as night fell on the steep and narrow path, we decided that probably was it and headed back there. We lit a small fire and fell asleep, woken only by the occasional bat and by the lumps in our backs, which Arianna described as "Tajik stone massage".

In the morning, we found ourselves in a deserted village. A local guy came by to gather hay. We couldn't communicate much but when Arianna said she came from Italy he smiled and said "Berlusconi!"

We got back later that day, stopping only for a couple of hours with the local police, who had a disagreement with our driver, and met our Italians that night. Davide and Alessia had been working in the embassy in Afghanistan and had got married in Kabul. (Most travellers in Tajikistan work in development of one kind or another... or are mountaineers or serious trekkers.) We asked them about Afghanistan. They were very informative, and very pessimistic. Bullet points: everything has got worse since the fraudulent presidential election; the Taliban control about 60% of the countryside; there are no good solutions.

Next day we set off. Our redoubtable jeep driver was called Omur. Lots of people report driver nightmares. We must have been lucky: Omurbek* is fast, safe and knows everything about the area. He is also quite a cool dude and has a great cowboy hat. Omur lives in Murghab and is ethnically Kyrgyz, like most people in the Eastern Pamirs.

The Wakhan valley runs down the Tajikistan-Afghan border. Like all the Pamirs (valleys) in the region it has its own language; these split off from each other before the European languages did. The Wakhan language is called -- what else? -- Wakhi. Under the Soviets people learned Russian. Now there is a push to teach Tajik: not necessarily an improvement, in the eyes of many.

Our first stop was in Ishkashim, in a homestay that was well on the way to being a proper hostel. In the morning we visited the Afghan market, which is held right on the border under the auspices of the Tajik police. (Exciting moment: seeing your mobile picking up an Afghan network.) The Afghans made the Tajiks, with their Western hairstyles and jeans, look rich. Then we rocked on down the valley, stopping at hot springs, fortresses complete with modern anti-personnel mines, and Buddhist temples, until we reached Langar. That was the first night you could really see the stars.

* -bek means something like "Mr."

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A moral victory

In Tajikistan, I argued with Arianna about Europe versus the US. It's an old chestnut. Arianna thinks the US is a hideous capitalist maw where the poor sell their kids to Walmart as frozen turkeys. I know the truth -- the US is a glorious country of Freedom, unlike Europe which is inevitably doomed to Euro-Islamo-welfaro-infertili-sclerosis. So, in the spirit of Rousseau's remark in the Social Contract --

"What is the end of political association? The preservation and prosperity of its members. And what is the surest mark of their preservation and prosperity? Their numbers and population."*

-- I bet her that there were more immigrants from the EU to the US than vice versa. "No way", she said. "Five times more", I said, as a proportion of the source area's population. And we bet a dinner on it.

The best estimates of migrant stocks I know come from the Global Migrant Origin Database, which comes out of Sussex IIRC. Actually, for our purposes, OECD stats would be fine. We did the calculations today while waiting for our follow-up vaccinations. (PS: Arianna, Malta is so in the EU; others, therefore these calculations are slightly inaccurate.)

Divided by EU population, which can't possibly be more than 500 million, so let's say it is that: 0.9%. (Actually, according to Eurostat, it is almost exactly 500 million.)

TOTAL IMMIGRANTS FROM US TO EU-27 ... 571 706. Accidentally including Croatia.
Divided by US population of about 300 million: a paltry 0.19%.

OK, not five times, but four times. I owe you dinner, but the moral victory is mine!

(NB also: not much is changed by excluding Eastern Europe.)

* though Rousseau excluded "naturalisation or colonies" as external aids.

Bullshit from many angles

Some facts about the THES universities rankings story, in case anyone in the UK was wondering.
  1. Five out of the top fifty universities is a pretty good score, given that we have about 5% of total OECD population.
  2. If your universities slide in a single year, this is unlikely to be due to a sudden collapse in quality. It is more likely because the ranking method has changed, which is just what happened in this case.
  3. It seems exaggerated to call the THES rankings "the major global benchmark of worldwide university performance", as the THES editor does.There are several different rankings out there. The most respected, I would say, is the Academic Ranking of World Universities published by Shanghai Jiao Tong university. In the 2010 version, the UK gets five out of the top fifty spots... and the same number in 2009... and in 2008.
  4. Previous THES rankings seemed crazily pro-UK to me. Four out of the top ten universities in the world? Seventeen in the top 100, with the University of Manchester beating UCLA, and Bristol beating Northwestern and Berkeley? I don't find that plausible.
Summary: this non-story should be headlined CHANGE IN METHODOLOGY CAUSES RANDOM DRIFT IN PROXY FOR DIFFICULT-TO-MEASURE VARIABLE. For useful information about university rankings, see Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

1. Dushanbe to Khorog

 When we arrived at Dushanbe airport, the scary plane ride to Khorog wasn't going, so made our way to the taxi station where you can hire 4WDs for the journey. The station was dusty, dirty and poor, with a store selling biscuits and tea, and the first of many very disgusting toilets. I felt happy as soon as I got there.

We cut a deal for 150 Somani (35 EUR) per person to go in the back of a Mitsubishi Pajero. The hierarchy of 4WDs is, in ascending order:
  1. UAZ (pronounced Wox) - basic green Soviet-era jeeps, but very fixable
  2. Pajero
  3. Toyota Landcruiser
Our driver Petrus turned out to be super reliable, driving safely but fast when he could -- not often -- and bribing cops smoothly at the ten or so checkpoints we hit during the ride.

Tajik roads are dreadful. At best they are like a very old English country lane. At worst, it is more comfortable to drive off-road: the bumps in the road are harder to anticipate. After a few days, we got used to constantly being shaken up and down, and it became oddly soothing.

We got to Khorog in 15 hours, which the guys at the guesthouse said was an incredibly good time. Every few hours we stopped to stretch our legs and buy fruit from village kids, or eat. It was Ramadan, but you don't need to fast if you are traveling: despite this, one of our fellow-passengers did. He was a Tajik returning from Moscow. Emigration to Russia for work is common in all the stans, and a lot of people bemoan the brain drain.

A lot of the road passes along the Afghan border, which is formed by the Amu-Darya (Oxus) river. The difference is striking: Tajikistan seems poor, but it has roads and electricity. Afghanistan looks unchanged since the middle ages.

We arrived at the very nice Pamir Lodge, around midnight, and got the last free room. In the morning, Khorog looked poor and messy. (But next time we arrived, on our way back from Murghab, it would seem large, rich and colourful.)