The Eastern Pamir is the size of Holland and home to 16,000 people; even that is unsustainable. Murgab, the only town of note, has a market based in aircraft and shipping containers, and a constant pong of burning tesgerine; uber-unpleasant.
We travelled up from the Afghan border, through Bulunkul, Murgab and up to Jailang – don’t look for it on your maps, Jailang is a settlement of three yurtes and two whitewashed buildings at 4100m that are home to an extended family of yak herders.
Wakhan adventures took us along the Panj river, the Tajik border with Afghanistan, for a number of days in September. Forts and potatoes aplenty, but a crossing was ruled out by our guide. “Just a little wade?”, we asked. “They are watching” we were told.
No wading for us then, but an Afghan camel in the final picture seemed to have no problems crossing the border, just as the tonnes and tonnes of class A drugs on their way to Europe don’t every year.
We were waved at by afghans, we saw them cutting hay, even having dinner – but that first question will have to wait, for the time being.
Had you been hiding up a cobbled country lane, 10km south of Mustaphapasha in the gathering gloom one warm summerâ€™s evening in late July, youâ€™d have spotted two British lads. As they forced their rented Hyundai into a muddy parking spot opposite a very small sign attached to an apricot tree that read â€˜Keshlik Monasteryâ€™, you may have caught them discussing where they planned to stay that night.
They had no great expectations of their visit to the monastery. They had had an incredible day, first crawling around underground Christian cities of the 6th and 7th centuries. Later, meeting Yuvus, whoâ€™d shown them carved frescoed churches from a similar period on the inside of rock cones in Soganlu, before inviting them to share a stiff Turkish coffee in his first floor flat. Unknowingly, they had also gained a knife, from two hitchhiking climbing brothers to whom they had offered a lift late in the day.
They had stopped only because there was still light, and their â€˜off-the-tourist-trailâ€™ day had been so great, that they felt dropping in to another spot mentioned only in one line in passing in the Lonely Planet seemed like a good way to pass the time before dinner.
They were to be pretty darn impressed by the time they got back in the Hyundai.
Having met a sensible looking guy at the entrance and negotiated a fee for a tour, they headed straight for a great hall carved from the rock face at least fifteen metres long, ten metres wide and six or seven metres high. Its vaulted ceiling was immediately apparent among the almost pitch black cavern. As was the soot that covered the entire place, due to many a shepherd who had kept warm here in years past. But what was to become visible once Mohammed, their guide, flicked his torch switch was quite remarkable.
Every wall, ceiling and pillar of the exquisitely excavated interior of the 9th century St Stephanos church was covered with frescoes, and graffiti in a plethora of languages. Scenes from the Last Supper, images of Mary, Jesus and Roman Soldiers jumped out in vivid colours. All had been severely vandalized by Russian, Greek, French and Turkish speakers over the past few hundred years. However this simply added to the intrigue and amazement the boys felt at that moment.
Once awed, they headed back into what seemed like bright sunlight, but was in fact the early twilight. Their eyes adjusted, they headed around a total of sixteen Monksâ€™ houses and a dining room, complete with badly worn carved tables and benches sunk into the ground of the hall â€“ another huge cavern. A kitchen, with bread ovens and a carved preparation table was attached, as well as an office.
Mohammed continued the tour, when he didnâ€™t know the correct word in English, he resorted to French, German, Spanish or Italian. His vernacular covered all these and some more surprising languages including Afrikaans.
The delight was ongoing for the Brits.
They wandered amongst Mustaphaâ€™s wheat and onions, marrows and courgettes, speckled about the ruins of houses and chapels almost a thousand years old. â€œMy grandfather lived here, and my father, and now I, with my wifeâ€ said Mustapha, offering them an apricot. They spotted watermelons and apples too, the food seemed endless and varied, and Mohammed seemed both genuinely interested in the historic aspect of his plot of land, as well as the produce he grew there. Heâ€™d cleared out two outbuildings in the past year, revealing far less eroded features of walls and cobbled floors.
The final halt on the tour was a gigantic baptism pool, aside a room of dark columned graves. As if to corroborate the mystery, a Jewish tree of life had been carved into the wall above the baptism pool. It almost became more magical to stop asking questions and just accept the place.
As they left, Mustapha insisted on handing them the name of his Friendâ€™s hotel in Mustaphapasha. The boys had no intention of staying there, but took the opportunity to be once more flummoxed by the filing cabinet alongside his table in the open air under another apricot tree. His surly wife kept quiet and did nothing.
Keshlik rounded off an eye-opening day almost devoid of tourists by Turkish standards, the best the boys had in Turkey. They climbed back into their Hyundai and headed into an evening that was to incorporate chamber music and a twelve-course tasting menu.
What a combo.
I have made up the name Mohammed, as I canâ€™t remember the guideâ€™s name – an detail unfortunately lacking from those few minutes that will last forever in my travelling memory.
The feeling of a fly taking a leisurely meander across my cheek is one of the most infuriating I know. These ones are the non-biting type that like shit and hence I blame for my middle section feeling like one large cork that is being extracted in fifteen directions simultaneously from the bottle of Chateau Magrit that is my torso. Stimulating, yet totally devoid of pleasure.
Theyâ€™re quick too, so thereâ€™s never the short-lived pleasure that is achieved with the successful swatting of the mosquito thatâ€™s diligently filling up with your haemoglobin. At least you win the skirmish with mosquitoes, flies win the war without getting even a knick.
If I wasnâ€™t going on about flies, Iâ€™d be going on about hornets. The worldâ€™s largest hornets infest the restaurant across the square, mottled in the evening sun. Iâ€™d be there if one of Khivaâ€™s endless torrent of summer weddings hadnâ€™t taken over the place for the evening. Bride and groom looking dour and drawn after a dayâ€™s walking around the picture-perfect city under the 40+ degree sun. Still being teenagers, they have the stamina to last.
As it is, Iâ€™m sat under the essential shade of a birch tree. Uzbek pop music to accompany the wedding is pumping away at a volume that is disagreeably loud at 200 metres. There is a passing whiff of chicken shit and children have gathered around the spectacle of a man typing away on his laptop and words appearing on the screen. Never before have I seen word processing as a spectator sport.
I donâ€™t necessarily object to chicken shit; it reminds me of holidayâ€™s on my grandparentâ€™s Newfoundland farm as a child. Iâ€™m the only person I know who feels this way, but on occasions like this â€“ it is extremely useful.
When travelling, the difference is often the mundane, not the well known.
Stroll down the Caspian waterfront in Baku, shop in Calvin Klein and dine in lavish surrounds. Stop by for a game of nard and slip a little something to the police when you skip the lights. Take a $15 taxi ride in the oil boom capital.
Step away to the mountains where scudding clouds, natural gas vents, shit as fuel and washed away roads are more the spirit, visible when you’re not playing nard and funding the police checkpoints – or shelling out for a duvet for the night
Split, yet united by ripping off the foreigner, nard and bribes; that’s how I see Azerbaijan.
Sat on Itamarâ€™s pack, wedged between Jamesâ€™s unwashed thighs and Ramilâ€™s never washed T-shirt and holding up my own seventy litre rucksack to promote the circulation of available air, I cross the Amu Darya at Urgench. Weâ€™re on our way to Khiva, where 150 years ago judgement, as an approximation for justice, was passed and the punishment involved pushing the condemned from the top of minarets on market day to a painful splatty death below. Iâ€™m ecstatic.
Our Daewoo Damas follows an even smaller Daewoo Tico, tea-cosy would have been more a more appropriate name, nipping left then right in an attempt to pass the dawdling piece of powered kitchen quilting. The driver uses the horn more as a keyboard when passing pedestrians, playing out a one-tone melody to ensure they donâ€™t intersect his erratic path. One group of ladies is narrowly avoided as they struggle across the uneven surface in heels to join a dusty bride and groom having wedding photos taken a few metres on. Under her, now slightly off-white but dazzling pleated and frilled outfit, sheâ€™s wearing flip-flops.
The bridge is in fact a series of adjoined rusty floating hunks of iron, variously actual boats, square box sections of plate and actual sections of pontoon, held together with sturdy chains and the grace of God. Where the boats arenâ€™t squared off at the bow and stern, the road zig-zags onto them from the side, before heading off to another section of the pontoon crossing. The whole set-up is reminiscent of a kilometre long game of Blockbusters, with rusty brown winning over muddy brown, just.
We pass the Tico, and cross a six-inch gap in the bridge with the murky silty river flowing some five or so metres below. Our next target is a Volga, best described as a Soviet Cadillac – complete with the sweeping bodywork curves, but eschewing the capitalist tail fins. Itâ€™s orange and carrying a precious cargo of Â£30 worth of watermelons, about two hundred of the large green fruit. Miraculously, none of them fall out as we jerk from pontoon to pontoon. Our driver takes his eye off the prize when avoiding an exceptionally large dent, and a Daewoo Matiz hustles by.
Two centuries ago, the Great Game between Britain and Russia was just kicking off as Muraviev and Moorcroft battled to reach the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva first. Then, the goal was as much to saturate the unpenetrated central Asian markets with each empireâ€™s products as it was to retain or acquire control of India.
Now, the Asians are most definitely winning the new great game. Our taxi driver points to the crazy Matiz and communicates with us in Pigeon Russian. â€œVery good, Korea-Uzbekistanâ€. He points at a Lada passing in the opposite direction: â€œRussian â€“ no goodâ€, and asks me whether Ford is an American or British brand; weâ€™ve only seen one on the whole journey. Itâ€™s a story mirrored in Turkmenistan, from where we crossed into Uzbekistan, except there (whilst talking to an LG employee) it was: â€œHyundai, this is my favourite Korean company, Samsung is my second favourite, LG is thirdâ€. Joint venture foreign policy is the twenty first century annexation.
We reach the last link of iron and summit a 10 ft muddy mound, following a bus that, thanks to a clever and practised diagonal driving technique avoids grounding in almost cartoon style. Reaching the far bank, clothes and bodies are being washed in the still blisteringly hot late afternoon sun. Our driver hands over the official bridge toll of 500 som, about 15p. The new bridge is clearly being built, but whether the rusting pontoons sink before itâ€™s finished is a matter of local debate. This is not the largest fee we are to face on the 40km dusty dual carriageway from the Amu Darya to Khiva. That tax goes to the smartly dressed policeman, in pressed green trousers and a square hat, who whistles and waves at us with a luminous orange stick further on. He takes the largest purple Uzbek note of 1000 som.
We stop for a few minutes just outside town to untangle bodies and bags with the intention of offloading some of them. Many other minibuses are doing the same, but the stallholders of the nearby water and snack mountains stand idly by. Thereâ€™s no rush to sell the bag-blocked and bus-confined tourists a slightly overpriced but much appreciated bottle of tepid water. Sitting in silence, serving no-one and waiting seems to be of greater importance
Itâ€™s hot – between forty and fifty degrees outside; it has been every day since we left Europeâ€™s last outpost of Dolce and Gabbana and wifiâ€™d Baku two weeks or so ago. So much so that I now see having achieved any form of hydration at 7 p.m. as evidence a productive day. And Iâ€™ve got the enviable afflictions of mosquito bites in triple figures and bowels as loose as the Honduran constitution.
Pains aside, people here look far more Mongolian than Persian or Russian, and although we are a long way from the entrepreneurial streets of Bangkok, weâ€™ve crossed the historic Oxus. Mighty and for centuries landscape defining, it has me excitedly following in the footsteps of many Great Gamers, and not that many others from lands afar.
Iâ€™m ecstatic, for we really are in central Asia now.
xela (quetzeltanango) and surrounds, guatemala, june 3rd 2009
Water dictates life in the Guatemalan wet season; and May is most definitely the wet season. Biblical downpours arrive each day, after four if you’re lucky, eleven if you forgot to pray to the Virgin Mary yesterday. Either way, you can be assured that it will basically start raining around lunchtime every day – for six months.
Between damp days focused on the daddy of Mayan ruins at Tikal, and the flowing red lava of Volcan Pacaya we are heading to San Andres Xecun, 30km from the rutted tourist trail at Xela in the Guatemalan highlands. The town’s highlights are straight out of children’s television: two bright yellow facaded churches. One has a mutli-coloured dome and a front is adorned with a selection of pink, purple and azure berobed saints, with monkeys (complete with hair!) poking out from between their legs – as if the colour hadn’t quite sealed the garish deal.
A young lady wafts the flies from her baskets of bread in the square abutting the church; she pulls me aside, “Where are you from?” she asks. “I’m English” – she smiles and spouts her love for the English and all things English. She has friends there and can speak the language she tells me. “We should be speaking in English then so you can practice!” I say; we’ve been conversing in the colonial tongue until now. So she does: “Jesus is my saviour; I love Jesus with all of my heart; I must repent for all sins committed on this earth to achieve eternal life in heaven”, I’m just a little stunned at the rote religious outburst.
The conversation moves onto films. She loves the cinema, and takes the bus to Xela regularly to see the latest Hollywood movies; “I love Mitchell Douglas”, she tells me. Well, maybe they’re not the latest blockbusters – but my bread selling friend still has disposable income of a sort.
We struggle up the hill in town to the second yellow church. The late morning sun still has the upper hand over the gathering storm clouds and dries the brightly coloured wools dyed by the local people to make so much of their clothing, traditional in style. Yellows, reds, blacks, whites adorn the teracotta rooftops.
“Jesus is my saviour; I love Jesus with all of my heart; I must repent for all sins committed on this earth to achieve eternal life in heaven”
The view under the forced dappled light of the overcast day is tremendous.
Back by the monkey-clad church, I ask my new friend if many tourists come through. “Yes, in minibuses in the afternoon, maybe three or four a day”, she says, “occasionally larger buses”. San Andres is unusual, and not just for its sunny hued churches. We haven’t been approached by kids for money, nor have we had fifteen chicken shaped over-gloves shoved in our faces when we were desperately seeking an umbrella; I haven’t seen a single souvenir stall. The residents have no want or ambition to turn their sentence in the guidebook into a paragraph. There is no overhyped market or non-existent relics; it’s a market town with yellow churches and wants to stay that way.
I bid my bread-selling, Jesus-fearing friend goodbye, and jump in our taxi to the day’s second off-the-beaten track location. Our taxi driver, we later discover, has no idea why we would like to go to Palmar Viejo and has no idea what is there; but a dollar is a dollar and he plans to drive us. He is the jovial sort and we picked him from a bunch as the car comprised only one piece, and even sported a flash of black and white squares to imply its commercial life; it’s doing him and us proud so far. He joked and beeped a number of people as we sped along the route. “That’s my brother, he’s also a taxi driver” he commented, ” it’s much easier than working in the fields”. Sure thing.
We wind down a good road into the lowlands and pass transport moving ordinary Guatemalan labourers to or from the banana plantations; the clouds begin to drop their load. Damp flat bed lorries move 30 men, women and children protected only by a flapping plastic tarp. In a scene deserving of the caption ‘survival of the fittest’ a young girl is left uncovered by the wanting sheet – she looks irredeemably miserable.
Later in the day, the eastbound carriageway of the Interamericana will be impassable where a landslide had submerged the road in mud; a tuktuk scrambling like a new born lamb persuades our driver to turn around. He thoughtfully waves his hand from the window as he u-turns, and heads the back to the nearest point at which the central reservation can be crossed. It’s useful for the dodging traffic to know there’s a landslide ahead, and not just lost Brit driving on the wrong side I suppose.
Once we’ve crossed over to the passable side, the hand is retracted and the window raised; a minibus driving down the wrong carriageway doesn’t need an excuse here as we dodge yet more seemingly unfazed motorists. We rejoin our carriageway past the blockage and continue having avoided collisions with monster lorries by a narrow, but safe margin.
Back on the steep road that leads to Palmar Viejo, we see tens of handmade signs advertising the services of local brake mechanics and a chap wanders past with a transmission on his back. They are kept in good employment by the strewn trucks we pass, who’ve puffed their last breath until they get much needed mechanic medicare.
“That’s my brother, he’s also a taxi driver” he commented, ” it’s much easier than working in the fields”. Sure thing.
Further deluges of water cascade as brown opaque watser floods down the hillside in canyons that somehow flow under the road and out the other side; it is an engineering marvel. The road is a foot under water in places in the towns. Where it’s not, a torrent spurts vertically from the overworked drains and onto the road to top it up.
We are headed to Palmar Viejo, dubbed the Pompeii of Guatemala by the paragraph in the guidebook; it should have been a line. One evening in 1990 the river cut a canon thirty metres deep straight through the town. The altar of a church stands on one side of the gorge and the entrance door of the nave on the other. Two mercilessly rickety bridges provide a route to collect firewood.
Having wandered a little aimlessly with no sign of he aforementioned church, we approach a group of apparently lounging gents. One of whom agrees to walk us to his old home. He shows us a school, houses, and two churches – all derelict for 20 years and now deep in the jungle. Then, he disappears off into the undergrowth, transient – as indeed his settlements seem to be. The village was moved in 1990 and there are now three settlements: Nuevo Palmar, Viejo Palmar and Ruined Palmar Viejo. Come back in twenty years for two more incarnations.
Poverty, discomfort and hard manual work shape the lives of the people of the Guatemalan highlands, but water truly defines it. It dictates when you can travel, when electricity is on, when you can see beyond your nose, and sometimes even whether you and your fellow villagers will live or die.