Monday, July 30, 2007

I just *knew* diplomatic status would come in handy at some point!

So this weekend was supposed to be my adventure weekend. I was going to get out of Dreary Dushanbe and into the mountains that Tajikistan is (comparatively) famous for. I had hooked up a travel partner that spoke Russian. We had plane tickets to Khojand for Friday night after work. What could go wrong?

For the first day and a half, nothing. We flew up on Friday night on what could generously be describes as a rickety Russian built Antonov. Most of these things are a generation old and feel it. One actually crashed this weekend in Russia proper, and Russia and the former Soviet countries actually had a worse airline safety record than Nigeria in 2006. Anyway, this plane shook. And the cabin wasn’t really pressurized, so it was a little tough to breath at 20,000 feet. And it was beastly hot. And the approach to the runway was a little rocky, as in it seemed like the pilot figured out at the last minute that the runway was actually 500 feet to the left of where he was aiming. But no worries, landed safe and sound, took a taxi to town, and checked into the Hotel Leninabad. The hotel was fine except for the mosquitoes and the fact that the room didn’t have a shower. But eh, this is an adventure right?

So the next morning we were up early to see the largest statue of Lenin left this side of the Urals, 22 meters high, and then set off on our adventure proper. We took a minibus to the town of Istaravshan, with its historic mosques and hoppin’ Saturday bazaar. The people on the minibus were fascinated by us. They asked a million questions, my two favorites were “Does your father get paid on time?” (a bit of a rarity here) and “How much does the Tajik government give you to be a tourist here?” They were shocked and appalled that we weren’t getting anything. Why the hell were we here then? One guy was so outraged he paid our bus fare.

The bazaar was neat, huge enclosed space that smelled vaguely like tea and soap. They sold everything under the sun, from dried fruit to car parts to a real-life butter churn. (No joke, we actually saw women on the side of the road churning butter.) I took a couple pictures, one of a table selling hammers and sickles, one of the watermelons (this country is saturated with them this time of year), and one of the old guys selling snuff. This guy was very emphatic that it was really stupid to take pictures of watermelons, and that he made a much better subject. We then walked around the old town, saw the old mosque, hitched a ride with an agricultural NGO consultant from St. Paul, Minnesota, and set about hiring a driver to the two day trip through the mountains back to the capital.

Now getting the right car and driver is important. The car has to be sturdy enough to make it up the hills, and the driver has to be a decent enough human being not to leave you at the top of the pass unless you give him $100 and one of your kidneys. The market was nuts and thank goodness the person I was traveling with spoke Russian. We finally settled on a German built Opel driven by a gold-toothed guy named Xoet (pronounced Hi-Oat and meaning “life.”) Little did we know that we had just signed on to the Tajik tour of our lives, chauffeured in the Magical Amphibious Opel by the Indomitable Xoet himself.

A little background on the trip. We were leaving from Istaravshan and going across the Anyi mountain pass (3300+ meters) and to the lakeside town of Iskander-Kul, where we would spend the night, before crossing a second higher pass the next day on the way back to Dushanbe. The road has been having a little bit of a rockslide problem of late and is in the process of being rebuilt by huge teams of Chinese laborers. As a result, two sections of road on either side of the Anyi pass are closed to traffic during daylight hours while the crews work. Someone had told me this before I left, letting me know that it would add 8 hours to the trip if I got through at all, but eh, this is an adventure right?

So we set out. We hit the first part of closed road, but Xoet was ready. He drove down the hill and into a river bed that ran parallel to the road. This wouldn’t have been as big a deal as it turned out to be had it been a DRY riverbed, but someone had forgotten to mention this to the river. It was here that we got the first taste of the Magical Amphibious Opel. Xoet just drove through the river. There were sheep and goats grazing on the banks that didn’t even blink as we cruised through. I guess this is a standard practice. Xoet just smiled and told us to think of all the German engineers that had put some much time and effort into designing this beautiful machine. How they would be crying if they could see it now!

Anyway, we made it through the river and back up onto dry land. Then we hit our first real checkpoint. It was manned by a Chinese guard that didn’t speak any language other than Chinese and was not under any circumstances going to let us cross. We would have to wait four hours until 7 pm, then we could continue the last 6 hours through the treacherous pass to Iskander-Kul. Now Xoet hates the Chinese. He resents the fact that there are no jobs in Tajikistan and more than half of the male population has to go to Russia for part of the year to try to squeeze out a living doing manual labor, but thousands of Chinese are imported to do local construction. And there is no way that this Chinese guy is going to stop Xoet from showing his extra special American tourists the pass during the daylight. We would miss the panoramas of the mountains!

So Xoet kicked the Opel into low gear and took off up a dirt track. We eventually came to a farm house. Xoet set us up with a couple of bowls of delicious fresh goat-yogurt (which I would sadly soon discover all too vividly was also un-pasteurized) while he checked out the lay of the land. Back in the Opel. Down into another river, through the river bed, around an un-manned Chinese roadblock and onto the closed road. We drove past the construction crews, who were a little bewildered as to how we got there, and up to the edge of the roadblock on the other side. Here is where we hit a little snag. The guard on the other side was *pissed.* We shouldn’t have done what we did. And he was going to be damned if he let us pass. We needed to turn around and go back.

This was a problem. The guard spoke only Chinese. Xoet was apoplectic. All his hard work and only a flag studded string separated him from the pass. He gunned the car a little at the string, but the guys around grabbed a bunch of rocks. Xoet backed down. The drivers waiting on the other side of the string thought this was hysterical.

So I decided that it was my turn to try to fix the situation. I got out of the car with my United Nations passport that I use for official World Bank travel. It reads in part “The Secretary-General of the United Nations requests all those whom it may concern to extend the bearer courtesies, facilities, privileges and immunities which pertain to his (or her) office, and to facilitate by all suitable means the journey and mission on which he (or she) is engaged.” And it fortunately says this in all six UN languages, including Chinese. I smile and hand it to the guard. He reads it. Apologizes. Gives Xoet the look of death, and lets us pass. Xoet was very proud of me. Off to the pass!

The trip up to the pass was on this narrow winding road with great vistas. We stopped on the way up to do a little hiking because Xoet knew that the other side of the road was going to be closed and that we weren’t going to be able to wiggle through that one. The top of the pass itself was a great view of the mountains. Then we hit the second block. Traffic was lined up because it had been closed all day. Xoet sneaks as close to the front as he can. He tells us to be ready. We aren’t exactly sure for what, but we stay close to the car anyway. At 6:30 the guard whistles that he will lift the gate. Xoet yells for us to get in the car. We pile in and Xoet guns the engine. We blast past the other cars and take off down this narrow winding pass edged by a sheer cliff, Xoet yelling “Rally Car” and “Schumacher!” The situation is this, the road is partially blocked by landslides, and in many places only one car can pass at a time. When they open the gate, they let traffic in in both directions. It is key to get as far down the mountain as you can before you meet on-coming traffic. (Xoet gave us a beautiful demonstration of this as we almost smashed head on with a car coming the other way as we swerved around a bolder. The roads are all dust so it is like driving in a blizzard. We didn’t see the second car until it was nearly on top of us.) At one point when we were waiting to get though a narrow point, one of the Chinese laborers jumped in the car with us. We couldn’t talk to him, so he just rode in the back with me for a while until he signaled that he wanted to get out. Can you imagine something like that in the US?

So we traveled along for another couple hours before reaching the lakeside hotel. We are hot and sweaty and filthy from the trip. All we want is a shower, some food and to crash. Now the cabins are described as “rustic,” as in no running water and the distance to the nearest pit latrine is best measured in kilometers. Super. Xoet brings us a couple bottles of river water to wash up as best we could. Dinner consisted of eggs, sausage, bread, more goat-gurt, and a bottle of horribly sweet local brew. And we had to drink the whole thing going around with toasts on every glass. Xoet had been disappointed that there was no decent vodka, I was secretly relieved. After dinner we collapsed, with my travel partner and I taking one room of the cabin and Xoet the other. In the morning we found him sleeping in his car. He said that he doesn't like to sleep alone, so at least he could sleep with his car.

Here’s where the wheels come off. I when I woke up I was feeling a little funny. We walk around the lake a little bit, see the President’s summer house, and by the time they set off on a hike to the nearby waterfall, I am downright green. Xoet pulls out the cushion from the backseat and puts it under a bush for me to sleep on while they hike. By the time they are back, I am puking my life up. I spend the rest of the day curled up on the backseat in the fetal position, having to ask Xoet to stop every hour or so, so I can get re-acquainted with whatever I tried to eat or drink in the last hour. It was a long 7 hour trip through the second pass and down.

What little of the trip that I was able to see from my little ball of torment seemed nice. This pass was higher and there was still snow. Xoet brought me a snowball to put on my forehead. At one point we were driving next to a cliff still covered in ice despite the broiling temperatures. And the view of the Fan mountains from the top of the second pass was incredible. We stopped to get gas again too. The fun part of getting gas is that they have old-fashioned gas pumps, not that they work, the gas is just stored in jars on top of them.

Eventually we made it back to Dushanbe, paid and thanked Xoet, promising to pass his contact information on to anyone that would like to make the trip (let me know if you are interested). I went back to my hotel, thanking my lucky stars that World Bank consultants are well taken care of, and took a long hot shower. I felt a little better, and by the time I went to bed, I was able to keep water in my stomach again. I’m on the mend!

So I think this will be my last entry for a couple weeks. I am headed back to the US on Thursday morning, and I am hoping for my sake that nothing interesting enough happens in the next couple days to be worth writing about. Next stop, as far as I know, is Indonesia sometime in September.


Mohamed said...

Sell me your UN Passport? I pay with petrodollars.

Anonymous said...

I'll keep this in mind - I never knew a UNLP could actually be useful!

shane said...

That is an astonishing number of cliches packed into one little story! Good on you! Way to abuse that UN travel document too. And Westerners wonder why people don't like us.

Kristen Himelein said...

Dear Shane,
Thank you for your comments. I will be sure to toss you one of those airplane bottles of Tanqueray as I whiz by you on the immigration fast track line next time we are in the same backwater. (I wouldn't want those Easterns to have a monopoly on hating me now!)
Much love,