Thursday, 14 October 2010

3. The Eastern Pamir

In the East it's high up and harder to breathe. The country turns from green to absolute desert. There is not much vegetation. Little marmots occasionally run for the cover of their holes. Before they dive in they pause and look around – apparently this behaviour is instinctive, so this is how you can shoot them.
Our first night was in a yurt. These are big tents made of wood and covered in felt, warmed by stoves which seem to come from the 19th century and which are fed by yak and cow dung. There's a hole in the middle of the roof for the chimney: in the day this also lets light in but at night it's covered. A lot of the yurts we saw had solar panels attached, made, like most things in Tajikistan, in China, and providing enough electricity to power a TV and DVD. (Conversation of one nomadic, yak-herding yurt owner: “What do you think of Avatar? I haven't seen it yet.”)

When we arrived at the yurt, the owner's wife was milking a yak, so I asked if I could have a go. It is harder than it looks. The myth that yak milk is pink is untrue. (Maybe it's pink if you go higher in the mountains.) At night I went out to see the stars. Last time I saw the Milky Way properly, I was 18 and in India. I slept well in yurts: it feels nice to be close to the ground.

Next day we arrived in Murghab, a tiny market town of bare white walls. The Kyrgyz' tall white felt hats add to the atmosphere. We spent a lot of time casting roles for a Tajikistan spaghetti Western. Our driver Omur lived here, so we stayed with him.

We headed out to trek next morning. Losing the path on the way up to a pass, we scrambled up the mountainside. The climb was physically easy but the air was so thin – we were at about 4700 m – that we had to stop and catch our breath every minute. The mountain got steeper and steeper, with shale breaking off in our hands. Looking down became unpleasant. When we made it to the top I was as pale as a ghost. This was the time I felt most scared on the journey. We ate biscuits, drank Iranian fruit juice and admired the indescribably magnificent view over the next valley.

Over the next days we headed North to the border and said goodbye to Alessia and Davide. They were great travelling companions. On hearing that he would be sleeping in a yurt, Davide had remarked that he would need a yak to stay warm, to which Alessia replied with the immortal words
“I don't need a yak. I have Davide.”
This inspired the writing of a Yak Song, celebrating the tender bond between a woman and her yak. One recording is still extant.

To make up numbers we picked up Daragh, an Irish guy who had been teaching in China for a year. He spoke Uighur (and hence other Turkic languages like Kyrgyz). We headed South again, stayed one more night in a yurt, and then made our way back to Khorog.

In Khorog we tried to get a plane back to Dushanbe. It was heavily oversubscribed (you just turn up and queue, there are no bookings). At one point our fixer said he would try and get us a lift on the army helicopter. Arianna turned pale but was eventually persuaded that this would ROCK. Alas, the army didn't want to take non-nationals for fear of questions from the KGB. (Yes, Tajikistan still has its own KGB.) Instead, we stayed one more night at a homestay. This was a fabulous place run by a family who were reminiscent of Giles' cartoons. They wore something turquoise, colour-coordinating with the apartment. The grandmother ruled the roost and cooked fabulous meals. There was an aunt who was constantly fighting with the uncle; a downtrodden sister who swept up; and the granddaughter, a schoolgirl in Dushanbe, who told us “all my friends are so Emo! [mimes wrist-cutting]”. Youth culture is truly universal.