A few months ago I received an unexpected visitor at work. A fellow NGOer from Paris was in New York and had found his way up to Hartford to talk about Central Asia, one of the regions that I cover. He had spent several years in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan working with both cultural and craft projects. His visit was perfectly timed since I was preparing for a trip to the region in a few months. He was able to provide advice, contacts and of course, stories. After a successful afternoon of networking, he departed with a thank you and the following remark, “Once you set foot in Central Asia, it will be in your blood.” I was intrigued by his statement but not worried. The true indo-phile in me balked at the suggestion that any adopted blood other than India could ever course through my veins.
A few months later I found myself on a 30-hour plane ride that touched down in London, Moscow and finally Dushanbe. The transition from America to Central Asia left me in a fog that was the result of a little more than jetlag. After a night of sleep, a little Soviet hospitality and a reunion with my fellow travelers, the fog was gone and my sense of adventure awoken.
However, the next few days only proved to stifle this sense with waiting, bureaucracy and then more waiting; all typical of emerging nations. Our original plan was to travel from Dushanbe, the capital, to Khorog, an outpost in the mountainous area bordering Afghanistan. The goal of our trip was to perform an artisan and market assessment in the Gorno-Badakshan region of Tajikistan, examining potential for crafts, artisans and markets. Our focus was on the Pamir Mountains that form the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, China and Kyrgyzstan. The trip to Khorog carries travelers through the peaks of several mountain chains and usually lasts about 45 minutes by helicopter. Our trip took 900.
The planes and helicopters that transport passengers and cargo are often cancelled due to cloudy weather in the swallow mountain passes. The alternative route required 15 hours, two drivers, one land cruiser, one Russian jeep, five liters of bottled water and a couple cans of Pringles. There were a few moments when I felt I was in college again, embarking on a road trip to a national park. However, these moments were shattered by potholes the size of kitchen tables and sharp turns that were far too close to the road’s edge and the sheer drop to the roaring Panj River below.
|But once the numbness set in and my eyesight adjusted to the ship-like rocking of the jeep, I realized the scenery that surrounded us was stunning. During the first few hours outside of Dushanbe we climbed low, green hills and watched as the cities and countryside unfolded beneath us. Further along, sharp, jagged mountains sprung out of turquoise lakes, silhouetted
against perfect blue skies.As we drove closer to Afghanistan the mountains rose higher and the Panj river appeared beside us. For last 400 kilometers of the journey we traveled merely 100 meters away from Afghanistan along the Panj, with snow-capped mountains looming on either side. The road turned from pavement to gravel and the number of washed out bridges grew. At times we had to ford rivers formed from renegade mountain run off and pass under unexpected waterfalls.
The landscape was not only beautiful but telling as well. Divided only by a river, as narrow as 50 meters at some points, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have experienced very different pasts. During Soviet control, the Badakshan region of Tajikistan received major infrastructure support from Moscow, along with food supplies and resettled Russians and Tajiks. Since the region’s borders were crucial to Soviet security and hopeful expansion, Badakshan was a hotspot for development and population growth through resettlement programs. However, Afghanistan, on the southern side of the Panj, showed little signs of development.
The only road for hundreds of kilometers was a small footpath, one person wide at points where the cliffs were sheer. Tajikistan’s long strings of electric lines and concrete bridges were not paralleled on the neighboring shore. Even from the jeep I could see that Afghanis still wore traditional clothes and lived in traditional houses, while Tajiks donned western attire and used modern appliances. Although, modernity and westernization don’t always have positive affects, basic infrastructure and electricity can provide opportunities for raising living standards.
|All the visual information set my mind spinning and I soon realized that we had almost reached the end of the journey. When the jeep pulled into Khorog, I was both mentally and physically exhausted, not to mention a little sick from some tainted fish I had eaten in Dushanbe. Within a day, I had recovered and was feeling ready for more information, more beautiful mountains and more history. I was also ready to finally talk with artisans and see some craft. And what I learned and saw was quite interesting….|