Saturday, September 23, 2006



Next morning, before departure, Dr. Ali Mohammed presented me with four apples, and I was again in the road. By then it was impossible to foretell that these apples were going to be decisive in securing my entrance to China. After twenty minutes waiting A Nissan truck pulls by. The trucker is a man from Peshawar, sporting a white shawar camisse and dark bushy beard. It could be said that he has looked for a truck like him, judging by the hairy look of hundreds of metal chains that hang down the front bumper. The bearded man and his fellow had alarming levels of testosterone, and during all the trip to Passu didn't fail at spotting any of the women of questionable sex appeal that were tending the fields, with a happiness only matched by Columbus sailors at spotting land. Even if the truck was going all the way to Sost, the last Pakistani settlement before China, I decided to stop in Passu to photograph the immense glaciers that literally reach the road here. I had to wait an hour before hopping into another Sost-bound truck. This time, one of the drivers was an educated person who spoke English and Arabic. Unfortunately, he mistook my curiosity for Arabic language as curiosity for Islam, and therefore tried to pack it and sell it. He insists that Islam is the only religion that prepares us for the life that will come after the inevitable apocalypses. He was rather surprised when I told him that almost all other religion predict the same sequence and that more than one prophet promoted the same after hour. So focused was that man with the life after death that he was hardly sensible to the subtle harp of the present moment. He additionally committed a classic local contradiction, and with the peculiar logic of intolerance, he stated that all Muslims were brothers, and that the Ismailies were not Muslims. Otherwise, as most Pakistanis, he was a soft and overwhelmingly kind man who would have never rise a finger to kill a fly.

Sost was a typic border wasteland redeemed by the exotica conferred to it by the parked Chinese tracks waiting to unload, their incomprehensible characters an advance of the forthcoming world on the other side of the Khunjerab Pass. Before crossing to China I had another piece of challgenge for myself, namely, visiting the most remote Hospitality Club member I have heard of, excepting those in Antarctica. Alam's mail, confirming his readiness to help in his native village of Zoad Khon, in the Chapurson Valley, had come as a surprise and a challenge. Firstly because Zoad Khon didn't turn up in any normal map. Secondly, because when it did turn up in a trekking scale map, it resulted that Alam lived in the last stretch of a valley extending all the way north from Sost to Afghanistan's Wakhan corridor, a particularly cut off area where Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan are all within fifty kilometers of each other. While smooth buses or are usually enough to make it to European member's doorstep, reaching Alam's home demanded walking twenty kilometers in the darkness, with the flash of my camera as only defense against the rare but probable snow leopards, before miraculously meeting a jeep out of any schedule. Chapurson Valley was only "opened" to foreigners in 1999. Despite this, the isolation of the valley acts as a filter, and only eighty foreigners make it here every year. Its 2000 inhabitants, who share Wakhi as their mother tongue with thir neighbors of Northeast Afghanistan, peacefully make a living from growing weath, potatoes and tomatoes.

Most probably, Alam is the only cosmopolitan man in the valley. He is fully entitled to the adjective, not only for speaking English, but mainly for having an e-mail address and the only computer in the valley. Internet? That will have to wait, since post, land telephones and mobile coverage have been on the queue for even longer. As a good Wakhi, he receives me with a salted tea, and introduces himself. Only looking at Alam, a long haired, strongly built, easy laugh man is enough to agree that the matrix of the traditional Wakhi suffered a mutation at the decisive moment of creation. Mountain guide, musician, poet, but principally, horseman, he seems to know each valley and stream of his country, and has even discovered new mountain passes into Afghanistan. Besides the tourism related activities Alam bids to improve education in the area, and believes that local kids should not be disadvantaged having never confronted a keyboard. It was thanks to his contact with a North American benefactor that his village became the first in the valley with running water.

Naturally, it was Alam to advise me to walk 10 km further to Babagundi, a hamlet near the Afghan border used as meeting point for trade with Kyrgyz nomads from the Wakhan corridor. In this corner of the world the Pamir mountains keep modernity at bay, and harbour the last breezes of the Silk Route. It's six hours walk, among fields where complete families harvest wheat manually using curved knives. Finally, there it is, Babagundi: a dozen stone huts, a meteorological tower, and some twenty obese cows grazing within a large fence. Once in the "center", landmarked by the teahouse, the encounter couldn't have been more direct: three men with baggy pants, boots, Cossack style caps and knives by the side organize in the windswept ground a whole diversity of objects, from carpets to cooking pans. A little to the side, another two stitch flour bags. They are Kyrgyz nomads! And the fat cows, yaks. The first I ever see. Mi arrival has coincided with that of a caravan of twenty yaks, led by eight horsemen. As I drink the tea that eventually came from some side, I ask my self: what century is this? As Richard Bach, I start to believe that time is an invention of mortgage salesmen and car designers. On their way to communism, places like the DDR achieved, instead eternity... The image of the stretched eyed, red worn skin, and angular beards, loading flour bags in his yaks, belongs to no time. They have traveled five days on horseback, bringing with them sheep and goats, and yak cheese, to trade for all sort of objects from shoes to lighters. Every object is precious back in the Pamir Mountains. Visiting a doctor implies a week trip by horse. This seclusion redounds in self-medication, a record maternal mortality and opium addiction rate. Communication is difficult: the Kyrgyz have never seen foreigners and smile nervously. Their language is XX % Farsi, language I can only understand by a XX%. In spite of percentages playing against us, one of them, called Talaualde, makes an extra effort invites me to ride his yak. The Kyrgyz anchor their yaks by using ropes that, in one extreme locks the beast's nose holes and, in the other a heavy stone. May the wind not blow them away. Another of them, older and involuntarily hilarious, carries a key tied to his jacket by a yellow thread. Looks like a car key. I spent hours trying to think an object a nomad would need a key for.

A goat was slaughtered to seal the trade, and both parties ate on the ground after praying together. Witnessing the killing didn't, as expected, resulted in me becoming vegetarian. Apples and candies were distributed, the first ones being pocketed among the nomads with resolute speed. After lunch the Kyrgyz went on loading their yaks with rolled carpets and the Pakistanis their jeeps with yak cheese, just thirty meters away, but several worlds away.

Two days later I crossed the Chinese border in a pick up of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, being legally forbidden to cross the border independently. Cyclists on the route faced the same interrupted liberty. On the Chinese side the road becomes smoother, and enters a plateau surrounded in the distance by the wide, rounded, Pamir Mountains. Austerity is such that makes one think of the Nemesis of a condemned Eden. Double hump Bactrian camels obstruct at times the road, and the Chinese custom guard at Taxqorgan lifts in havoc the bag with the four apples Dr. Ali Mohammed had given me and asks, clearly upset at the apples: "What is this?" (Will continue).


Corey said...

Hello Juan,

i found your blog through a digihitch article and thought i would bid you farewell and safe travels as you journey through the various reaches of Central Asia and Western China. It was good to hear you speak of the Kyrgyz people as they are very close to my heart.

I spent two months in the capital city of Bishkek and i long to go back and visit the many friends i made while staying there.

And yes, i did notice (once outside of the city) that life was much simpler and ruled less by time and more by community. It was really quite beautiful.

Thank you for documenting your journey, it may inspire me to do something like your doing in the near future.

Peace, Corey Hau

Juan Pablo Villarino said...

Thanks for the comment Coery, I have never been in Kyrgyztan itself, but no doubt that my next journey across Asia will take in the Central Asian Republics....

please, send me you email so I can include it in my monthly newsletters (if u wish)

Send it to;

Buenos Caminos (Good roads!)