Summer journey westward

The trip starts the way these trips always start, with a very slow beginning at the Dushanbe airport.  For some reason check-in tends to be a slow and painful process, with lines that have nowhere to go, filled with slightly confused travelers that are already sleep deprived, since they must turn up at the airport at 3 am.  This particular morning was clearly going to be more excruciating than normal when I heard those fateful words “the system is down.”  This is bad news at any airport, and in Dushanbe it slowed things to a crawl.  It  took over an hour for the check-in clerk in front of me to process four parties, including myself.  At that rate, it is miraculous our plane ever left.


Two other sub-plots were going on in Dushanbe airport.  Being summer, there are many travelers engaged in the “classic” bicycle trek through the Pamir Mountains of eastern Tajikistan.  Several groups of these were on their way out of Tajikistan with their bikes.  Although this is as predictable as the summer heat, airport staff seemed remarkably unprepared.  While some were told to take their bikes through one unmarked door, I saw another woman told to take her bike behind the counters and lay it on the luggage belt – this of course was a bad idea as the bike was too wide for the luggage belt and she had to stand there feeling like an idiot until a friend helped her get the bike down.  The other bit of theatre that usually happens is when the customs men (they are mostly men) want to “see” your money – it gives literal meaning to the phrase “show me the money”.  Although it is a ridiculous request, I went along to see what would happen…  In the end he saw my small collection of Tajik somoni and US dollars and decided that I probably hadn’t robbed the central bank on my way out.


The sun was up by the time we boarded at 5:30 am, and five hours later we landed in hot and humid Riga, which was crowded with travelers coming and going, but at least is quick to get around and the staff are all friendly and helpful. Even the airport food is good by airport standards.  I said goodbye to friends who had traveled with me from Dushanbe, and boarded the flight to Paris, where the weather was cold, gray and wet. 


Charles de Gaulle airport is a big place.  The 1970s architecture of beehive shaped buildings filled with people-moving, overlapping escalators is charming but the sheer size of the place was a bit disorienting after the living room size airport where I had started.  An inexplicable lack of signs forced me to ask directions several times, but eventually I found the train to my terminal.


The other sub plot in all international travel these stays is of course the security rituals.  They vary quite a bit from country to country.  In Dushanbe they are perfunctory and usually very little happens.  At least I don’t get a hassle about bringing my water on the plane.  In Riga they were very serious – my wallet and passport got a special scan and many people were getting patted down.  In Paris we had the old liquids dilemma – you can’t take the water with you but we won’t confiscate your Nalgene water bottle.  Which means you drink all of it on the spot or find another solution – in this case the inspector produced another bottle to pour the water into.  I half-intentionally forget to get rid of my water before security because the whole process is so annoying, but it is certainly very good for the water sellers at the departure gates and on the flights.


I am always fascinated by the waves of people washing through a large airport like Charles de Gaulle.  People from a hundred different countries, and thousands of different stories.  If you have the time to observe, you glimpse the sheer diversity of international travelers in 2011.  An ever-shifting and moving United Nations.


Onward across the Atlantic to Atlanta, Georgia, I sat near a French family headed for a tour of the U.S.  Starting in New Orleans they would eventually make their way to Boston via Washington and New York.  I am always fascinated but what travelers to the U.S. choose to see, what will form their impression of America.  And how the reality is different from their impression when they arrive…


Finally, the last leg to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  I felt Philadelphia even before I arrived as I sat next to a baseball coach from Swarthmore College who had been traveling around the south recruiting potential students for his team.  Soon we had landed but I knew my bag would not be there.  It was taking a tour of Paris, so I filed my claim and made a check of the belt just in case.  While I was there waiting for my sister to arrive, I noticed a group of People to People Ambassadors who were also returning from Europe.  They had that glow I had seen many times before on young travelers returning from a big trip – excited by their experience and happy to be home.


Above Mirtob between the rain


I am sitting on the 2nd floor of my office with views across the valley as a massive thunderstorm moves in.  A strong wind bends trees over and lightning flashes all around.  The black edge of the clouds moves slowly eastward over Garm, bringing an early darkness.  Heavy raindrops start pelting the windows.


The day started with rain and ended with rain, but in between a colleague and I managed to get in a hike to the hills above Mirtob Village about 50 km east of Garm.  It is one of the many valleys that branch off from the main Suhrob River.  An assortment of goats, sheep and cows were scattered over the green hills with a small clutch of children keeping an eye on them.  Higher up, a reddish brown marmot bounced from rock to rock and whistled in warning to his fellow marmots.  Above an eagle was gliding on the rising currents of air.  On the way up we passed through a wet field where three different springs bubble up from the ground and flow clear and cold down towards the village.  Higher still, we find a rainbow of blooming wildflowers, many in the shape of tall bottles.  On the hilltop, we came across a large pile of rocks that was made many years ago by soldiers in training and has since been remodeled by a local bear.


We lounged on the hilltop with our very generous host and guide, taking in the views across the valley to snow covered mountains in the distance.  Then we descended, through the goats, cows and sheep, past the curious childen, and through a shady forest of mulberry trees which were loaded with ripe fruit.  Finally we passed the homestead of our guide’s brother, met his youngest child and were invited in for tea, which we had to decline since we knew we had another meal waiting for us at the guide’s house.  A beautiful afternoon in a very peaceful mountain valley.

Spring snow wrestling

Facing off in the snow

Spring is “Gushti” (wrestling) season in Tajikistan.  This weekend I was invited to a big gushti match in Tojikobod District, site of many great buzkashi matches this past winter.  After a bit of rain overnight, the morning was damp and cold, with low clouds hovering along the sides of the Rasht Valley.  Although the calendar says spring and our staff have been dismantling the coal stoves in the office, I threw on a bunch of layers.  That proved to be a good idea, as we encountered light snow as we drove higher in the valley.  Our vehicle was full of drivers and guards who also wanted to see the gushti, many of the same staff who had been always ready for a day of buzkashi.

Finally reaching the village of Shirichashma, we found a large crowd already gathered outside the local school.  Thick mats were arranged in a large square in the middle, and the matches were underway.  Two matches were happening simultaneously, while other wrestlers sat at the edge of the mat.  I only had a minute to take in the scene before I was grabbed by the hand and led through the crowd to an open area next to the judges table.  It turns out my guide used to volunteer for Mercy Corps and today he was in charge of all the prizes for the winning wrestlers, an important job.

Apparently he remembered the many photos I had taken during buzkashi, and he wanted me to have a good spot for the festivities.  Seated in what passed for the press box, I was in an ideal position to take some photos.  I also was well taken care of, alternately being offered “choi” (tea) or RC Cola.  The wrestling is Greco-Roman syle, with both wrestlers standing and a win only awarded for throwing your opponent fully onto his back, called a “khalo”.  The crowd would go crazy if there was a khalo, or they thought there was one.  The referees were reserved with the khalos, only calling one when it was a clear flip onto the back.

Going for a "khalo"

The wrestlers ranged from about 14 to 25 years in age, and varied quite a bit in size.  It was clear some were well-known “champions”, including one of the referees who judged for more than an hour before taking the mat himself and quickly getting a khalo.  The hometown favorites from Tojikobod competed against wrestlers from the neighboring districts of Jirgatol and Rasht and even a few wrestlers from Dushanbe.  Although a few decisions were disputed, most wrestlers accepted the decisions and there was a good level of sportsmanship.  Only one match resulted in injury, when a wrestler was flipped fully over his opponent and in the process dislocated his shoulder.

As the matches continued, the snow increased but there was never any sign that the matches would be stopped.  Typical April weather in this part of the country.  One of the prize carpets was rolled out to provide a dry surface, and wrestling continued.  My host kept bringing tea, then a blanket, then an umbrella.  I was a bit amazed that the wrestling continued.  Finally after more than 3 hours we were all wet ready to get warm.  We headed for the home of Amirjon, the prize giver, and settled down to Tajik “girdecha” (traditional hearth-baked bread), yogurt, honey, and “shorba” (meat, potato and carrot soup).  All agreed the gushti was “zur” (great), and we headed for home a happy bunch.

Snow in the mountains

After two weeks in southern Tajikistan and Dushanbe, it was time to get back to Garm, my base in the mountains of the Rasht Valley. The winter has been unusual for its lack of snow, but this weekend we are starting to make up for it. Been snowing since yesterday, with more than 20 inches (50 cm) on the ground in Garm. Even an hour outside of Dushanbe in the high plateau it was a winter snowscape of ghostly white trees and more snow falling. As we drove east, we could tell this was a long-awaited snow because there were decorated snowmen in two different places – not so common here.

Here at our Garm residence, it’s been like moving into a house for the first time – I am taking over the “warm” half of the house from my colleague who left for the US. Although for some reason I am still sitting here with a hat on inside (our coal “pechka” must be low – time to call the guard).

Being a Sunday, we are on our own to make dinner. I had come back with Russian pasta (yes, it’s edible) and one of those jars of mixed vegetables (tomatoes, onions, garlic, etc) that are common in the former Soviet Union. As always in winter, the challenge was to spend as little time as possible in the outdoor kitchen. This objective was not helped by the fact that the incredibly low quality Chinese matches would light for 2 secs then go out. I had assumed that the match was a technology humans had mastered a long, long time ago – but my experience here shows that is just not true. After the second flameout I had to adjust my technique and light the gas right away – finally dinner was in progress. Yes, I was wearing my fur hat and could see my breath in the close-to-freezing air, but we would eat!

Mountain art

Tavildara Valley is a place of loops and swirls.  One mountain has elaborate, multi-colored curves covering its top third.  Another appears to be bending in the wind.  Below left, fractured slabs of rock rise hundreds of meters in the air from the surface of the Inghob River, bending gracefully as they rise.  On my first trip, my attention was drawn to one of these peaks where snow had lodged in ever expanding circular patterns, giving it the appearance of a giant rose.  Now, in warmer weather, the extent of the geologic artistry is clearer.  The combination of glaciers grinding away and wind and water on the rock  has created a gallery of mountain art.

An Afghani

Friday afternoon – Driving north from the town of Shaartuz, a wall of dust follows us, one of the “Afghani” storms that periodically roll across the border this time of year.  It paints the entire sky in the same hue, a hard-to-describe color somewhere between yellow and orange.  The sun vanishes, and the mountains on either side of the road are dark forms below the curtain of dust.  Reaching Dushanbe, I look back and to the southwest the sun is setting in a hazy mixture of city dust, pollution and the remnants of the “Afghani”.  It is a shimmering orange ball that hovers just above the trolley wires and apartment blocks.

Crossing the pass / The trek

Approaching the high plateau

Last weekend three of us left Garm for a long-planned trek across the mountains to the south.  My colleague Janice had been mapping the route for months and talking about it for at least as long.  The days preceding our departure made us wonder if the timing was right – a cold rain had fallen for three days, with snow at the higher elevations where we planned to be.  The sky had cleared on the morning of our departure, although cold temperatures were still with us.  We spent our first morning making our way north and east to our jumping-off point in the district of Jirgatol.  Along the way we took breakfast at the house of Mirzobek, our fourth trekker, stopped at two farms to check out horses (Janice is a horse-whisperer or something like that), and picked up our two guides, Hamrobek and Yusuf.  Both guides work for the Tajik park service, one in Park Jirgatol and one in Park Tavildara.  The guiding business is very slow compared to the days when hundreds of hikers followed these routes and just as many attempted to scale Peak Communism.  Their only recent work was taking two Englishwomen across these mountains over eight days, fuel and gear carried on horses.

With our whole team assembled, we debated several routes with maps spread on the wooden “tapchan” of a house in village Minboloq.  Decision reached, we headed up the switchback road towards  the high “iloks” (pastures), arriving at a small shepherd’s camp after sunset.  Temps were below freezing, snow covered most of the ground, and we glimpsed the large masses of sleeping cows scattered around a handful of yurts as we approached.  My first night in a yurt!  Two thin wooden doors swung out at the entrance, and an iron “pechka” (stove) generated both heat and smoke just inside the door.  A metal chimney poured smoke into the air above the yurt from the burning cow dung mixture in the pechka, but enough stayed inside to create a constant smoky haze.  I was reminded of the mud huts I had often visited in African villages. Our first night on the plateau was a slumber party, with all six of us sleeping on a rough mat stuffed with hay in the center of the yurt – except for Janice, who wanted to “test” her sleeping bag on the cold mud floor (she survived).  Before turning in, I asked one of our guides where to find the latrine.  He made an all-encompassing gesture with his hands and said: “Hama Jo!” (Everywhere).  Thus trips to relieve oneself meant strolling out past the cows and over the crest of the hill.  Digging a hole in the frozen ground was out of the question.  At night the walk was cold but just enough moonlight reflected off the snow to avoid the ubiquitous piles of dung.

Packs on, Two Rivers – Day One

In the morning we stumbled out of the yurt into the clear, cold air.   The first walk to the edge of the camp held a special reward – a stunning

Sunrise from the yurt

view of the sun on the tops of the mountains to the east.  The bounty of all those cows filled our breakfast table:  steaming bowls of fresh milk and freshly whipped butter.  As we packed our gear, took a few photos and said thank you, the shy daughters of the household giggled and stole glimpses around the sides of the yurt.   One guide stuffed in the back of the Landcruiser, we drove past a crystal blue lake, beautiful but

The "ilok"

fishless.  Descending a small incline, we entered a high mountain valley that stretched away in all directions.  The scale of the landscape made us feel like visitors to a very foreign place.  At the very center of the valley a herd of about thirty mares grazed.  Apart from them, the valley appeared empty.  We passed another shepherd’s settlement, this one recently abandoned after the season’s first snow.  Simple mud brick structures and a few pieces of fence were surrounded by the still-black soil that had been turned by many animals.  As we descended towards the river that separated us from the next plateau, we passed along a stream whose water had crystallized into small forests of icicles.  It seemed as something from Lord of the Rings.  Down we went, reaching the river plain and encountering twoKyrgyz shepherds and their dogs.  We stopped and piled out to greet them, and discovered that one of our guides knew them.  Very quickly one of them had agreed to bring his horse to help us carry some of our packs up a steep incline on the opposite side of the river.  A few minutes later our party of seven people, two horses and two dogs set off bade farewell to our driver and set off through the dry terrain covered by brown grass.

We each had a range of mountain experiences.  Janice, who had schemed to make this trip happen since arriving since arriving in Garm three years ago, had completed several multi-day treks in the mountains and high pastures of Tajikistan.  Josephine, our finance guru, had recently spent ten days in the Pamir Mountains in the east of the country.  My last long backpacking trip had been in the Denali region of Alaska.  Our fourth companion, Mirzobek, lives in the hills of Rasht District and like any Tajik from this region knows the mountains.  Despite our experience, all of us were a bit wary about what awaited us.  We crossed our first river on a wooden bridge, then it was up and up, returning to the high plateau (elevation ~ 10,000 feet).  Lunch was next to a perfectly clear pond set into a steep hillside as we descended for our second river crossing.  This one was all about the horse – over and over, our one full-grown horse ferried people and packs across a rushing, milky-white glacial river.  The dogs were much less eager to cross, and waited to the last possible moment before plunging in and paddling furiously to reach the other side.  By the time we reached the plateau again, the sun was fast setting as Alijon and our horses turned around and headed back.  We learned there was only one suitable place to camp (with water and wood), and it was over an hour away…not a situation we wanted to be in, but our options were limited.  Yusuf and I set off at a fast pace to get camp set up before the

First bridge

rest of the party arrived.  Even so, darkness caught us as we reached a section of loose rocks that made the going difficult.  While we moved fast, I had to pause a few times to admire the snaking river glowing in the ¾ moon far below us.  Fortunately our tired party all reached safely and soon were huddled around a fire attempting to stay warm, though a persistent wind tried to suck away any warmth we could generate.

The Ascent – Day Two

Morning light revealed that we had camped among massive boulders near the head of a narrow gorge, just before it split and climbed towards higher ice and snow.  Descending steeply, we headed towards an ice bridge over the rushing river.  The ice bridge had formed where an avalanche had fallen and a path had been hollowed out beneath by the river.  It felt very solid in the middle but I would not have ventured to the edges.  As we crossed we noticed the paw marks of a large bear that had preceded us.  Once across we began our long ascent towards the pass that would take us into the Tavildara Valley.  After endless switchbacks over loose rocks, we reached a spring at the edge of the “saddle” and stopped for lunch.  The panorama around us of mountains and glaciers above the winding river valley was stunning.  We looked back and the large ice bridge was already a speck.  We spied what appeared to be the easiest and quickest way up, but were soon informed that we needed to move up and across the snow.  At this point, we thought the pass was not far above us, and did not realize just how much snow was ahead of us.

High valley

As we climbed above the snow line, the combination of altitude, steep slopes, and soft snow slowed our pace.  Higher up, winds began to funnel down from the pass, creating wave patterns in the pristine snow.  All around us, it sculpted the snow into graceful curves and overhangs.  Apart from the wind, all was silence.  Much of our afternoon was painfully slow –  step-by-step progress across the north face of the mountains towards a pass that remained elusive each time we reached a false summit.  The tracks of a wolf went straight up the final slope, but our guides insisted that we follow a switchback path to conserve energy.  In one direction of walking, all was shadow and the wind felt that much colder.

Snow Sculptures

In the other, the setting sun cast long, long shadows on the snowy slope each time we crossed into its rays.  Each one of us focused on taking the next step through snow that was close to a meter deep in places.  At last, we stepped into bright sunlight and the expanse of the Tavildara Valley spread out beneath us, framed by mountains on either side.  Despite the whipping wind, it was a spectacular view.  After a few photos, the low sun reminded us of the need to get down and find a campsite.  Descending the south-facing slope in the relative warmth of the sun was far easier than the climb, though we knew temperatures would be dropping as soon as the sun disappeared.  Our destination was a shepherd’s

Land of snow and rock

hut that might have wood nearby, but it proved too far to reach and we pitched our tents along an old road near a small spring.  Without any hope of a fire, we all dove into our tents to keep warm.  The scene was cold but beautiful – a full moon lit up the snowscape, and we drifted off to the steady roar of the river a hundred meters away.

Descent to Langar – Day Three

Our final day on the trail dawned bright and clear and quickly we were moving again.  The sun warmed the dirt trail, and the smell of mountain herbs filled the air.  Late in the morning we encountered the first resident of Tavildara, a shepherd who had been sent up to check on our progress.  He and his two donkeys were waiting by a spring as we wound down the center of the valley.  Having skipped dinner and breakfast, we were ready for a warm meal.  Using alcohol and a bit of firewood we soon had hot tea and noodles to go with the last of our cheese, sausage and tuna.  Renergized, we placed a few of the packs on the donkey and climbed down the long ridge that separates the villages of Nusoni and Langar.  To the west we could see the winding path of an irrigation canal that hugged the steep hillside like a narrow set of

Climb to the pass

railroad tracks.  Below us a few young boys shouted from a pasture where they watched over a herd of goats, individual houses began to appear, and the sound of roosters told us we were close to civilization.  Eventually we entered the orchards and farmland above Langar and rounding a bend the village spread out beneath us, homesteads set among large trees and farmland on a flat expanse perched above the Inghob River gorge.  At the base of a final steep trail we found our driver Abdurahmon and our friend Saimuddin waiting to give us a big welcome.  Together we walked along a narrow, rocky track along tall, sun-dappled poplar trees into the village and the Tajik hospitality that awaited us.

Looking down on Tavildara