Escape from Khorog
Well, my time in Khorog had to come to a close eventually. However, on Friday I received a call from the Cultural Affairs Officer at the embassy, warning me that there were reports of bandit attacks on the cars going from Khorog to Dushanbe. I was practically forbidden from taking the overland route.
I may have mentioned that Khorog is isolated. There are only two roads across Tajikistan from Dushanbe to Khorog. One goes through the Rasht Valley, which is totally off limits due to instability in the region. The other runs close to the Afghan border in the South and is now apparently prey to occasional armed robbery. This leaves travel by airplane. But it had been cloudy all week. This may not seem like a problem, but the planes going in and out of Khorog fly by sight at fairly low altitudes over the mountains. So even partial clouds can ground the flights.
Historically, Khorog’s isolation has both protected it and made it vulnerable. The Pamir’s inherent inaccessibility has preserved traditions and peoples that have more or less died out in other regions. In the Pamirs you can find people with blond hair and blue eyes. Local legend has it that they are descended from Alexander the Great, but more likely they are the genetic heirs of the Scythians, a nomadic people who likely came to the Pamirs as early as the 5th century BC.
The Pamirs’ vulnerability is of more recent origin. I wrote earlier about the food crisis during Tajikistan’s civil war and the Agha Khan’s relief flights. Without the regular shipments of flour, tea and powdered milk, Khorog could not have remained habitable. The provisions were enough to make shir choi, milk tea served with bread, which is what Bo’s family has every morning, and often in the evening too. During that time nearly every piece of usable land was planted with wheat and vegetables, including the city park. The current park was restored by the Agha Khan Foundation once the crisis was over. Even now in Khorog empty lots that would go to weeds in Dushanbe are planted with squash and lettuce.
Though my situation was considerably less dire, I got my own small taste of Khorog’s frustrating isolation. Friday I turned in a copy of my passport to the coordinator at the American Corner, who “knew someone” who could maybe get me a ticket. Though I had recently been trying to stay longer I suddenly wanted to get going, to get to Khujand and start work. To make it worse by Friday evening I could tell I was running a fever.
Saturday morning broke (along with my fever) clear. But the plane was full. Bo and I visited the Afghan market and got a peak over the river at Afghanistan. Below is me in the Pashtun hat I bought. Behind me is Afghanistan.
That evening I became sick again. But in the morning I got the call I was waiting for. I had a ticket. The American Corner Coordinator had a sister-in-law who knew someone at the airport. She had told him that if I didn’t get a seat on the plane that day I would miss my flight to America. I bought the ticket, went home, then received a phone call saying the plane was leaving earlier than scheduled. With a few immodium in my stomach and a hasty farewell from Bo’s house I hustled to the airport and boarded the plane just in time. Back to Dushanbe.
Note to potential travelers: if you find yourself flying over the Pamir mountains at barely-sufficient altitudes with a stomach bug still tying knots in your intestines, I suggest Faure’s Requiem as an appropriate soundtrack. It offers an appropriately grandiose yet soothing musical accompaniment.