This morning - several days home from Central Asia - I read of six killed in Afghanistan. This was not the Afghanistan I just left. The Afghanistan where I had just spent ten days was free of conflict - no Taliban and no ISAAF troops. Rather, the Central Asia Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Aga Khan Foundation were the active players: in education, training local rangers, providing health services and bridge/road building.
Northeast Afghanistan is a tit of land between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China, mapped by Europeans in 1895 in an effort to provide a Afghan buffer zone between Britain and Russia. This is a really a land out of time: The people of the Pamir are Ismaili, a moderate Muslim sect with little of the militancy found in other parts of the world. I had run into Ismailism along the Kararkorum when earlier in Pakistan. The Spiritual leader, the Aga Khan was educated and lives in the West, supporting his adherents through his Foundation.
This was a twenty day tour, starting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, another escapee from Russian rule, having the style and class of a Soviet refugee. There were five us of us, including our leader, a well traveled Danish ex-pat, who managed the logistics, the supplies, the cook, the local guide and four drivers. The two other women had traveled with her before: a London doc and an Irish architect cum photographer - then the Just-Traveling-Through bearded Aussie guy who had taught, some here and more there, throughout the world in earlier years. We ended up sharing sleeping spaces, in one configuration or another.
Few foreign tourists wander into the Corridor, mostly trekkers and mountaineers. Per the guesthouse logbooks, Poles had been recent visitors. While we were there, a group of Canadians were starting their several week trek into the mountains. Our group drove about the area on most challenging roads, to the end of track that melted into the glaciers. Several of our group attempted to check nearby petroglyphs but were overwhelmed by the overflowing streams. I settled for visiting neighbors, who offered tea and yogurt.
The AKF and Norwegians sponsored a series of guesthouses, certainly more comfortable than the teahouses I slept in in a prior trip across Afghanistan in the lower Four-Forty - this now was the upper Four. Beds were either that, a single bed, or a carpeted/matted, platform, With facilities of a sort: Western toilet atop the hole in the ground or a standard squat number or simply, the hole in the ground. Water, yes! Cold, and sometimes warm water, for Hindu shower.
We drove down some of Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway before crossing over the Panj and moving to the Afghan side of of the border. Anyway you want to describe it, it was basic. Countryside was pristine, peaceful, beautiful, awesome. Many Splendored Mountains! The people were friendly - Salaams were cheerfully exchanged. Hospitality was a big thing. It was offered. It was expected.
Yet, they were were not totally isolated: Solar units and satellite dishes popped up across the landscapes; the electric light bulb in our guesthouse was a modern energy saving one. Near one place we stayed, Pakistan workers were building a detention facility - also near the conservation center focused on tracking the Snow Leopard.
We and the Canadians financed an afternoon’s game of buzkashi, which involves a headless goat, some horses and their riders. So far as we well could tell, our cook, a wild horseman who could manage upsidedown riding, won.
We were able to spend time in several schools with both boys and girls in attendance. However, the girls left early on for they had work to do at home, while often the boys were able to stay later. Built by the Greg Mortenson group, they were were not always fully staffed by the government. I talked with one set of parents who were very pleased by the education offered all their children. We also talked with the doctor and several nurses at one of the local clinics.
There were several efforts to set up craft work spaces for the women. They appeared barely used. Four hand sewing machines were still boxed. The space seemed most used when visitors came to town. Otherwise people worked in their homes or brought crafts to your place. The women were not traditionally covered but wore colorful red based garb with great freedom of movement.
There were, to me, surprisingly few check points. There were police but no Army around. All the Border crossing, processing was done by hand. A couple of officials, a couple of scribes, and some hangers-on. In our two Land Rovers, we drove about the Corridor, our drivers conquering the rocky and wet river crossings, with aplomb and a minimum of blown tyres.
Ah, food. We brought our own, along with our high riding cook, who came up with more creative ways to fix canned this-and-that. Once we left Tajikistan, there was no fresh whatever. Muesli, dried and canned fruit and juice for breakfast, tuna and pasta and canned vegs for lunch and dinner. Once back across to Khorog, Tajikistan, hot shower and omelet for breakfast.
By the time I got back to Dushanbe, I had a intestinal problem - I rarely get sick but I was wiped out at the end of this trip. I had, accidentally but fortunately, a two day layover. I spent time in bed though did get out the last evening for an Operatic performance of “historical significance” - totally unintelligible to me though I did figure out a hero an a villain.
It took me several days and three flights to wing my way home. On the last, from South Korea to San Francisco, I was lucky enough to have a vacant seat next to me. For the next few months, I'm home per Sam's demands - he's been a good patient cat throughout my travels and it's time to listen to his request.
An expensive trip - in fact the most expensive trip I’ve undertaken. It’s been an expensive travel year - back to the dull roar next year. Cost over $5000 for the tour and another $3200 for airfare. Cat care
cost $930 - but he's worth every penny - and visas and permits close to