Monday, October 15, 2012

Borders, Bribes, and Birthday Bandits

First, patience

Hitchhiking forces patience. The journey truly becomes the experience and the destination is forgotten, or only used as a means to continue the journey. Last week, for instance, Robert and I departed on a trip to Khorog, in the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, and to the Wakhan valley, from Dushanbe. Normally, this trip can be made in a full day's taxi ride or a 45-min flight. For us, it took 6 days.

They were not 6 days of slogging or boredom, however. These 6 days I will remember much more vividly than the moment we arrived in Khorog. In fact, I believe the first question I asked Rob when we did finally arrive was, "Well, we made it. Now what?" Here's a bit of a glimpse of some of what we saw in that first leg of the trip:
First night's camp

Relics of another time

It seems like a sturdy soviet bridge, until you take a closer look at some of those loose cables... 

joining the boys for a ride up the mountain. Robert at right

Mine are the yellow ones
A Tajik mountain home

This was taken just after she ran 200m after us to give us a bag of bread and fruit from her parents

One of the mountain roads, complete with vertigo effect (unintended, but fairly accurate)

Riding with the electrical workers

Chaikhana owner and his grandson poring over the map with us
Cops let us borrow their hat

our last ride to Khorog

Because everyone loves a good puppy photo

We were in the red-orange part, along the bottom.
I spent most of the past week and a half traveling along the Tajik-Afghan border. This got me thinking a lot about the idea of borders and the political, social and natrual oddities they create. I remember paddling with students to the Canadian border in the Boundary Waters in MN. For the days leading up to our arrival at the border, they would ask what the border was like and we would build up stories of little red lights marking the line along the bottom of the lake and lines of hockey players, beavers and mounties guarding the shoreline. Once we arrived, they were usually surprised to find that none of these existed and that, other than a few metal posts along the way and a flag or two, the Canadian side and the American side were almost identical.
The Ishkashim border crossing to Afghanistan

I chose to do most of this trip overland (as opposed to by air) partly because I wanted to see the natural and social changes that occur as I move through these territories. Like my students on the Canadian border, I'm always a little surprised each time I enter a new country. Other than a bit more ink in my passport, some new flags and different uniforms on the guards, each crossing is rather uneventful. Mountains on the Kyrgyz side look a lot like mountains on the Tajik side. The Mongolian desert looks a lot like the Chinese desert. Naturally, the earth doesn't care where we draw these lines, it will always look the same.
bathing in the border. Afghan behind, Tajik in front

The biggest differences that we find are political and cultural. Entering China I was immediately struck by the quality of the roads and the professionalism of the guards. Entering Kyrgyzstan, I lost this, but was suddenly able to access new websites and criticise the government, if I wished. Food and culture overlaps a bit, but Mongolian food will always be a bit more bland and mutton-y than Chinese food, and there are way more statues of Lenin than Mao on this side of the Tien Shan.

Coming to the Afghan border, however, I still had this childlike expectation of adventure, intrigue and possibly danger upon approacing this country associated so closely with war. Once again, I was disappointed. Mostly. There were still donkeys and kids and haystacks and cows, but they were AFGHAN donkeys and kids and haystacks and cows. Somehow that made it more interesting...

Border guards at the Langar crossing. They had no qualms with photographs. You can see the border crossing and the Afghan side behind us


Although this man did help us get a ride, we watched him take a bribe from nearly every car he stopped

We arrived at the Pyanj river late on the night of the 5th. Just before we reached it, we passed another of many roadside checkpoints in this part of the world. As per usual, we stepped out, passed our passports over, and they wrote our names (spelled differently in Cyrillic every time) and numbers in a little notebook. This time, however, the young guard wanted a bit more.

"Dengi." (Money) He said.
"What? Why?"
He made a series of motions and comments to explain that he needed money to write our names in the book, despite the fact that we had already paid for our permits and our paperwork was all in order. Thankfully, he made this request while writing our information in the book anwyay. We played dumb and let him finish his work, until he stopped and pointed to each of us and showed his palm, indicating we each should pay him five monies. Somoni? Dollars? Euros? Who knows. I pulled out my phone and tried the "I'm going to call the embassy" trick again, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night and even if I had the embassy's number (which I didn't), they probably wouldn't be working, awake, or care. Still, he asked who I was calling.
"Pahsolstva" (Embassy)
"Ahhhhh, tsk tsk tsk tsk" He said, shaking his head and handing over the passports.

I have a feeling this strategy might not work forever, but it's served me well so far!

Birthday Bandits

Birthday morning
Mountain on the left: Tajikistan
river: border
Mountain on the right: Afghanistan
 We camped on the beach that night after avoiding another group of militsia looking for a little extra cash, and woke up to some astonishing views of the borderlands. As could be expected, both sides looked pretty much the same, but there was still some excitement about the fact that we were looking at Afghanistan. It was almost as if we expected the Taliban to hop out from behind a rock or witness a drone strike. Thankfully, neither occured.

The military aws always quite friendly with rides
What we did see, though, was a clear military presence on the Tajik side (the Afghan side was mostly just little villages connected by a dirt path). Whenever we asked any Tajiks, they told us that relations between the two countries were great, absolutely no drugs ever crossed the border (definitely not true), and the soldiers were there just to protect Tajikistan from terrorists.

Afghan police car

'Merican made. Unfortunately, they stopped every few km to fix something...
We never saw any terrorists, or drugs, but we did witness this: a ride from the Afghan police dropped us off at a congregation of trucks, soldiers and people along the shoreline. There was a boat in the water shuttling large metal pipes and bags labeled "cement" from the Tajik side to the Afghan side. At first we thought, "oh wow, a smuggling operation is being busted by the military! As soon as we were out of the car, however, the Tajik officer told us to grab our bags, not take pictures, and walk away quickly. Every time we glanced over our shoulders until we were out of sight, he waved us on anxiously, clearly not excited by our presence. Clearly nothing was being prevented by these soldiers, but we didn't get to stick around long enough to get the full story...

Trying to take a photo without looking. You can sort of make out a truck on the right (Tajik) side of the river and collection of people on the left (Afghan)

The rest of my birthday was spent inching along the border, getting invited to a funeral-type party, and eventually camping in the mountains near Vanj. No vodka or crazy celebrations, but a good birthday.

Our host. His wife died a year ago and this was the memorial party

Tajik kids lookin cool
They cut the ears off the dogs when they are puppies, some say it's to keep them from fighting, others say it's to mark them, hard to tell.

check out that balance

your standard old Tajik man


Bargaining and Bigotry

footbridge in Khorog

The next day we were up early to get to Khorog, and soon found out that we wouldn't be able to hitch into the Wakhan valley due to lack of traffic, so we started trying to find a taxi. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, so nobody wanted to go. Fortunately, we are white, so everyone wanted our money. After standing on the side of the road for a few minutes, we got a crowd of taxi drivers swarming around us, offering prices and destinations in rapid succession in Russian and a little broken English. Exhilarated by the language practice, I kept bargaining for a while until I realized that they all wanted hundreds of dollars and thought that we actually had it. I told them we weren't interested, and a few of the more talkative turned to inter-cultural communication instead, still trying to win us over.

"Where are you from?"
"America, and Ireland."
"Ohh! America! Barack Obama, da?"
"Da, da."
"[something about the election coming up]"
"wow, I'm surprised you've even heard of it!"
"[who is better, Barack Obama or the other guy?"
"[well, neither's perfect, but I think Obama's less bad."
"Obama?? But he is N****r!"
At that point, I waved him off and he drove away laughing. This was only one of several "N****r" comments I heard over the next week, in reference to Obama and Michael Jackson.

Wakhan valley - the Hotel California of Tajikistan

Wakhan valley. Tajikistan on the right, Afghanistan on the left, and the tips of the mountains in the distance on the left are Pakistan
We finally succeeded in getting a ride and a taxi to Langar, at the end of the Wakhan valley. In the taxi, I realized why I like hitchhiking so much. Half the time you're in a nice comfy truck cab with tons of space and sometimes even a bed. If the driver stops, you're not too worried about it, because you're riding on charity anyway.  When you pay for a taxi, however, you end up with dozens of people crammed into tiny spaces with all of their stuff, then you add a puppy and a few shots for the driver before taking off on a bumpy ride.

the 13th addition to the land cruiser. The other 12 were human
Langar was beautiful and our hosts were great, telling us to not worry about the price (since the taxi just dropped us at his friends' hotel without asking us where we wanted to go), and to enjoy our stay. Then, they added the caveat that the next taxi won't come for a week.

"You can check out any time you like..."

We decided to ignore that last little tidbit and do some exploring of the area on our own before we started hitching, or walking, back to Ishkashim and Khorog and the more-traveled parts of the world. In the end, we made back to Khorog after another 3 days of hitching, walking and finding taxis and another 2 days from Khorog to Dushanbe by taxi (before our taxi driver got arrested at a roadside check and his car impounded, leaving us on the side of the road), truck and foot. Here is a tour of those adventures through photos:

Chatting with Wakhani women near Langar

Exploring the Ratm fortress
Wakhani woman and children
Hot springs in the building to the left

A typical farm. Lots of hay in these parts

Wakhani boys
Showing them their photos
Kata (Germany) inside a Pamiri house. Each of the five pillars represents one of Muhammad's sons (or a zoroastrian deity, depending on what timescale you're talking about). The two pictured are Hussein and Ali, I believe.

Yamchun fort, overlooking the Afghan/Pakistan mountains

The view of the river from the fort. Afghan on the left, Tajik on the right

motivational/nationalistic Tajik signs were everywhere. I think this one just says, "welcome" though

This is why I got my rabies shot: to cuddle with sleepy stray kittens

Mosque in Kalaikhum

Hay ride along the border
Looking at Afghanistan

Tajik police diong some target practice while we wait for a truck

waiting for our host to get home, enjoying some comforts of the city

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this. The pipe and cement were probably a Craigslist deal.... Thanks as always for taking your time for such a great narrative. Chuck