Stranded in Kul
A few days ago we traveled to a village high in the hills, reached by a winding road that took us over an hour to traverse. Halfway up we came across a fully saddled horse standing in the middle of the road, no rider to be seen. The sound of our engine spooked it a bit, and it took off up the road. Every few minutes we would catch up, then it would take off at a gallop again. Eventually the horse turned off the road at what we supposed was its home. Our driver thought that it was all easily explained – the horse had been scared by a dog, gotten loose from the tree it was tied to, and decided to go home – of course!
This village, called Kul, gave us the full measure of Tajik hospitality. First we were invited in to the home of a former Mercy Corps volunteer, which was little more than a large shipping container. But inside a stove was burning and the walls were lined with brightly patterned carpets. Traditonally Tajiks eat on the floor, and an array of plates, cups and teapots were already laid out on the plastic tablecloth. It turns out that the family had just received some friends and were well-prepared for our unannounced visit. The highlight of the visit was a huge homemade cake that our host’s wife had made – it was delicious and we were all given multiple servings. Tajiks say that visitors are a gift from God, and we felt that kind of hospitality everywhere we went.
For our assessment we met with groups of men and women (separately) in the village mosque, which is the only space large enough for group meetings. The village leader greeted us warmly at the gate of the mosque, and made sure we were well-supplied with tea throughout the meeting with the community members. I was a bit surprised to be served locally-made yogurt (really good) with bread while we were there.
By the time we finished our meetings it had gotten late in the afternoon and it continued to snow heavily. After a brief discussion we decided it was wiser not to attempt the narrow, winding road in the snow with darkness not too far away. Our hosts in the village were thrilled with this decision, as they had been urging us to stay overnight since we arrived. First order of business was to make a call to our teammates that we would not be making it back. This required walking with the village leader to the top of the highest hill in the area, holding up his mobile phone at arm’s length, and moving in various directions until we found a signal. It took several calls and lost connections, but eventually the message was sent.
We were taken by our host to his father-in-law’s larger place, and shown our sleeping quarters, men at one end, women at the other end of the house. But there was too much excitement to just leave us to rest, and the men stayed up talking for an hour, the women for several more as I was told the next day. I made a visit in the night to use the facilities (outhouse on the edge of the property) and the snow was still coming down heavily. Despite the frigid conditions, there is always a certain peace and quiet when a heavy blanket of snow is on the ground. We slept in comfort that night under very thick blankets, with just enough heat still coming off the wood stove in our small room. In the morning we were fed well yet again and set off in our Russian Niva down the mountain. After 100 yards we were already stuck, but the villagers quickly found the solution – we all grabbed a bumper and lifted the entire car out of the rut and onto firm ground. The rest of the trip was smoother as we passed through the beautiful winter landscape, finally reaching the valley and rejoining our colleagues.