Sunday, August 20, 2006

Living with the Mafia

Chris Writes
Just before leaving Kyrgyzstan we stayed with a family, living just 2 kms from the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan border. After a quiet family meal that included sweet butter, fresh bread, appricot jam and boiled-in-milk goat lung, the father asked why on earth we would be interested in visiting Tajikistan. As he put it, Tajikistan is nothing but rocks, sand and vegetationless mountains. Nothing grows there, he told us sternly, as he had lived there for many years. We quickly dismissed his concerns and said it was the people we were interested in, not just the environment.

The next day, after getting our Tajik entry stamp we saw what the old man was talking about. Just over the mountain pass the grass became sparse, the sky a deep blue and the water, running straight from the nearby glaciers, so silty that even trying to use our filter would have been pointless. Looking at each other we questioned our sanity and personal reasons for pedaling forward. We reminded each other of the wonderful stories that friends had told of the Tajik people and their hospitality as well as the beauty of the Wakhan Valley, now over 500 kms to our south.

After leaving our first big Tajik city, Murghab, we understood why Tajik people are reknowned for their hospitality and good natured personalities. While filtering water at a nearby stream, next to the second military checkpoint of the day, Sage, my ever trustworthy cycling partner was invited in for lunch. Not just any old lunch but a full course meal consisting of fresh baked bread, delicious potato and onion soup and endless cupfuls of chai. The half dozen soldiers were so happy to have company as they are required to serve a full two years military service, without holidays or time off. Shortly after lunch the soldiers decided it was time to check out our bicycles and were more than eager to pose for pictures, cradling their AK-47's tightly in their arms and broad smiles on their faces. As our travels took us deeper into Tajikistan we found that soldiers were the ones most interested in having their pictures taken, armed or not, and offered us words of advice about the roads ahead.

Several days later and hours of arduous pedaling into ever increasing headwinds, we started talking about hitchhiking. The scenery was resembling that of many desert scenes I had viewed in foreign movies and the quantity of water that was required to be carried evey day was starting to wear on us. After several failed atempts at obtaining some motorized transportation we finally got what we were looking for, a completely empty Toyota Land Cruiser. The driver and translator were two men we had met the day before, escorting tourists around and now were heading in the direction we needed to go. We gladly accepted the ride and took pleasure in the guided tour as we rocketed down the potholed road. The car ride took us from the dreary, dusty and seemingly lifeless area of east central Tajikistan to the south, our intended goal, the Wakhan Valley, also known as the Pamirs.

Shortly after entering the Wakhan Valley, an area that shares a common border with Afghanistan, we understood why this trip, up to now was worth the hard effort. The tree-lined streets, miles of hand-dug irrigation canals and beaming smiles of the Pamiri people. Not only was there water, but fresh fruit hanging from the trees and more invitations for chai or pleas to stay the night at their homes. At times we had a hard time getting more than 5 kms down the road before countless invitations were offered.

Near the small village of Ptyup, 7 arduous kms and three hours of cycling up steep dirt roads, we arrive to our first natural hot springs. The Bibi. Fatima hotsprings were our intended evening stay for that day and the hard work needed to reach the springs were well worth the price for admission. Unfortunately the hotel at the top was full with tourists from surounding cities so we sullenly turned back and decided to knock on the gates of homes near by, hoping for an invitation to stay the night. Within minutes we had two offers and the offering parties started to debate who should have the honor of hosting us for the evening. Suddenly a neighbor boy arrive with word that the man of the house we were heading towards had just invited 6 strangers to stay the night. With that news the boy immediately took Sage's bike out of her hands and started leading us down the narrow winding path that lead to his house. After storing our bikes in their makeshift garage we were led, in the dark, down a slippry and narrow path to the family's house below. We were the center of attention for the evening and it was not long before supper of chai, fresh bread and butter arrived on the table in front of us. While talking to the father and showing him the photos and postcards from home he informed us that he worked in the hospital several kms below us. That he made the walk to work daily, six days a week and that his pay for the month was $25 (US). He had worked there for several years, acting as a administrator of sorts, helping to keep the plethora of files in some order. His two eldest sons worked at the hotsprings during their summer recess from school to help support their family.

The next day, the youngest son, about 7, lead us proudly to the hotsprings and with pantomimes, described what we should do and where we should go. With a separate bathing area for both men and women we had plenty of time to enjoy the healing waters the surrounding mountains spewed forth. Not sure what to do or expect, I followed the lead of our little guide, undressing and climbing into the hot water. Within minutes there were 12 other men, of all ages soaking around me and talking in a language I was slow to learn. Then a young man, named Marat joined the naked group and asked in perfect English where I was from and what my name was. That was all that was needed to get the party going. Within minutes I learned that Marat was living in Russia, a theater performer and opera singer, there with his three uncles to enjoy the healing waters the spring offered. Once they learned that I was with my "wife" as my cycling partner and I assume the role to help explain why we share a tent, they wanted to know why we did not have any children. Suddenly the bath house errupted in pantomimes and advice spoken in foreign tongues, about how we should go about to conceive our first child. The general consensus was that I must visit the hotsprings for three days, taking care to soak my private parts and on the third day, as everyone demonstrated with overly active hands, lay with my wife for the evening.

After the multitudes of advice we were invited to visit Marat and his wife, who lived just two days from the springs in the town of Boybar. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity we quickly cycled to the village and were amazed as countless relatives poured out onto the small village street to greet us and take our bikes from us as we were lead to Marat's summer house. There he and his wife made us a late lunch and then wisked us off the meet even more of his relatives. As it turned out, the village was originally named after his family and most of the village had family relations to his. His 4 uncles all insisted we visit each of their homes and meet their families. One of the uncles rushed off to open his store and retrieve several bottles of vodka, beer and wine for the evening festivities. His eldest uncle had a striking resemblence to the "Godfather" himself, Marlon Brando. It was like shmoozing with the Mafia, if we needed something it appeared within minutes, no questions asked. What was intended as an evening of festivities turned into two days of flurried activity as we were taken high into the surrounding mountains for fresh mineral water and watched as the family fished in the heavily silted river with long nets stretched from bank to bank. On the final day, we bought the family a sizeable sheep. Marat and his uncles tried to convince me I should do the honors and kill the animal but in the end I chickened our and was simply a by-stander, watching in awe as two of the uncles sharpened their knives, prayed and held the animal down. Most of the family was there to witness the event and within one hour the goat was fully dressed and on its way to the boiling pot of water waiting above the roaring fire.

Most of the family was there to witness the event and within one hour the goat was fully dressed and on its way to the boiling pot of water waiting above the roaring fire. That evening the family, in all seriousness, suggested we buy some land and build a house. For as little as $500 (US) and three goats the family and all the village neighbors would show up, and for three days build us a summer house. The suggestion was passed from uncle to uncle with additional suggestions made on what size of home we would need, especially in relation to how many children we would be having. In the end we politely declined but the dream of owning a home of my own in the Wakhan Valley still shines bright.

Further down the valley, bellies full of fresh meat, we passed from friendly village to friendlier village. Never sure what to expect or how the people would surprise us next. We visited two additional hotsprings and I received similar advice from the bathers in each, pantomimes and all. The days in the Wakhan valley were short, never more than 30kms and the lunch breaks lasting several hours as we usually spent them in the homes of local families, adopted for an afternoon. As we progressed to the big city of Khorog, past the bridge leading to Afghanistan, the road went from decent asphalt to patches of desert sand and potholes large enough to swallow a small child. We cycled slowly, often carrying a watermelon, strapped to our rear rack, waiting to enjoy its ripeness at the next stop. The evenings were usually spent in the homes of friendly families and often the neighbors and their neighbors showed up to view the pictures and postcards of home we brought along.

After three and a half weeks in Tajikistan we decided we needed to move on, our visa was almost expired and China, Pakistan and Nepal where waiting to be explored.

Leaving Tajikistan and reentering Kyrgyzstan proved to be entertaining, at the very least. While cycling up to the Kyrgyz border, already late in the evening, Sage was greeted by one of the two military border dogs, running straight at her, intending to have her for dinner. She managed to defend herself with the bike between here and the vicious K-9 while the border guards, wearing bullet proof vests and holding AK-47's stood by and watched. After our hearts slowed to that of marathon runners, we handed over our passports for viewing and proceeded on to the next building for our customs inspection. There we were greeted by an 8 yr old and his 6 yr old brother who informed us that the commander and the others were having dinner and we would have to wait for them to finish. With daylight dwindling and our butts aching, Sage informed them that they better get someone out here now or we would be going on our way, customs or no customs official. We waited two minutes then proceeded to the gate. Immediately the youngest boy ran ahead and with outstreched hands yelled "No Go" but it was too late. Sage already had her bike on its side, pulling it under the gate. Once the boys saw our determination they simply opened the gate and let me pass. It was nice to know the Kyrgyzstan border was guarded by two young children and no officials.

We are now in Kashgar, China, getting ready to leave for Pakistan. The ride here consisted of long days through scenery that never seemed to change, and headwinds likewise. At the Chinese border, we had to wait for 4 hours as the Chinese officials had their lunch, practiced drills and cleaned the border house. Once in China we did not know what to expect as our first encounter with the Chinese officials was less than pleasant. Only kms down the road though a large truck slowed in front of us and a man and woman jumped to the ground, smiling and waving us to the other side of the road. They proceeded to share their ownly melon with us the only shade available, next to their truck.. The young couple, having been married only 3 months were more than happy to have us as visitors and as a parting gift, gave us 20 yuan and would not accept anything in return, only saying, "Welcome to China".


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