Tales from KZ

Kazakhstan. Perry. A New Community.

61 Days

Wednesday, January 20 2010

13:33

Today is the 61st day I’ve been out of Kazakhstan and my 3rd day out of Central Asia.  All parts of the trip have been amazing, particularly in thinking about how many people I’ve met, how many climates I’ve jumped through, and how generally smooth it has been.

Tajikistan

Our first stop was Tajikistan.  With two friends, we flew from Almaty to Dushanbe and then went up into the Pamir Mountains.  From the relative tropics of Dushanbe, we hit the minimal to no visibility of the Pamir Highway on one lane gravel roads that serve as the main transit route for huge trucks from China to Tajikistan, only a few meters from Afghanistan and a straight drop into the river dividing the countries.  Daytime on this route is fun, but since it’s often a 14 hour drive, during the Winter you can’t avoid traveling at night, and in our jeep, the lights started to go out while trucks were coming toward us and we were on the river side.  Fortunately, the driver got the lights on before the truck reached us.  The lights lasted for about 5 minutes, then flicked back off.  After an hour of this, you start to ignore the fact that you can’t see.  There’s no need to even shut your eyes since it’s absolute darkness anyways.  You know the river is somewhere nearby and as long as you stay dry, you know you’re okay.

Khorog, the capital of the Pamirs, is an educated city nestled in a mountain valley.  There’s a great deal of poverty and a huge level of unemployment, but the people were incredibly friendly.  After a day of delirious laying in bed and near the toilet from a bad apple, we met our driver and continued on through the Pamir Highway.  The driver, Aleishai, had a small Niva, my new favorite car.  This Russian jeep always looks like it’s going to fall apart.  But, when it breaks – as it did in the middle of the night in the middle of the mountains – a fix is always relatively easily possible.  After a stop for tea and a new engine belt in the mountains, we made it to Bulenkol, a village of around 200, near a beautiful mountain lake.  Tajik yak makes a great midnight meal.  The near universal phrase we heard from everyone from the moment we arrived in Tajikistan was, “Come back in the Spring and Summer, it’s warm and prettier then”.  In Bulenkol we found out why.  The lake is amazing in the Winter, but the 3 km hike starts to get a little chilly by the end of it.  Despite this, I wouldn’t trade our winter hike for a summer holiday anywhere on my travels.

The next day, we continued down the road another couple hundred kilometers to Murgab.  Murgab may have once been a city of factories, slight ethnic diversity (with its majority Kyrgyz population), and a friendly community for tourists, but when we were there the city was simply frozen.  All of the guesthouses were either closed or their one available room was busy due to only having one pechka (heater).  It seems the city received the message that we wanted an official greeting party, since when we went to the bazaar to find a place to stay, three military people surrounded the car, demanded our passports, and provided a nice introduction to Murgab hospitality.  After extraditing ourselves from that reception (with the help of a friend of theirs who drew their attention away), we again had an unsuccessful search.  As a last option, we went to the ACTED office.  One of their employees (who like everyone who works in the near deserted building, hasn’t been paid for at least a few months since ACTED stopped funding a program that was supposed to be sustainable but didn’t last) has a guesthouse and invited us to stay there, as long as we didn’t mind staying in the same room as some German guests.  The place worked out great and these GTZ guys were wonderful, as was the owner.  The next day we planned on camel trekking.  We learned, however, that camels (or at least their owners) don’t like winter, and were scattered around the mountain side.  Instead of driving another 60 km and waiting a day to possibly find the camels, we returned to Khorog and spent a few more days in the mountain capital.

The main problem with our return from Murgab was a lack of money.  Despite a huge investment from the Aga Khan Foundation, in regard to tourism as well as social investment, the banking system in Khorog is not as expansive as the mountains.  Coupled with the holiday, we had a financial crisis.  Between Meghan and I, we had enough money to either go to the Afghan bazaar or return to Dushanbe.  Since it was Saturday, the banks would be closed on Sunday.  But, we really wanted to go to this Afghan market and our driver clearly wanted to take us, as we had agreed to the night before.  When we met him in the morning, we shared our predicament.  Many people had said the banks would be open in the morning, until lunch, so we figured there would be no problem getting the money.  We were wrong.  Fortunately, our driver knew how to break into a bank.

He called a friend – or cousin – who works at the bank.  While we were waiting, another friend of his was walking by (we were standing in front of the only bank where our ATM cards had worked a few days before, and which also happens to be located next to a police station), and they decided to try to get the bank open.  Meghan and I are trying to look unassuming while Aleishai and his friend go through a back alley to what must be the back entrance to the bank.  After about 5 minutes, we cross to the other side of the street, by the Niva, to avoid standing right next to the police officers outside the station.  After another 10 minutes, our driver walks out the front door of the bank.  At least 5 bank staff are inside, waiting for us.  They turned on the ATM machine.  It started fine but even after 10 minutes, wouldn’t let us withdraw money.  They take us to another bank branch, down the street.  This branch has no ATM machine, but a card reader that they say should allow us to directly withdraw from a MasterCard.  Meghan is the only one with a MasterCard, so we run her card through the machine 3 or 4 times.  They can’t get any money out.  We go back to the other bank for one more try.  The ATM works.

Every Saturday, there’s an open bazaar between the Tajik and Afghan borders that requires crossing into a neutral zone between the countries, with no visa needed.  The Saturday we were there was Kurban Eid, a holiday that many thought would entail all bazaars being closed.  We decided to risk it  Driving with Aleishai, we went to the Afghan border.  The bazaar was closed so we couldn’t cross.  But, the Tajik border guards were very friendly – and bored – agreeing to a small photo session, and even smiling for the pictures.

Some pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/pteicher/

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January 20, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment