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Spring and summer in Tajikistan

Spring has arrived; also in the Botanical Gardens

It’s been over a month since we were last in touch……  No thanks to our Russian internet service providers on which we are so dependent.  But life trundles on here, albeit at a pace that makes us wonder what we will look like when we emerge in October from our Tajik chrysalis into the real world of stress and bits and bytes and innumerable options on the type of coffee we would like to order.  In Khorog, the choice of coffee is simple; instant – with or without sugar or milk.  That’s it!  No decisions over the fat content of the milk, no choice of sweetener and heaven forbid that you can decide on the roast of the bean, its origin or the depth of the froth on the drink.  So, THANK YOU to our friends for maintaining our Western stress levels.  We happily raise our coffee cups to you every morning when we brew our choice of ‘Seattle’s Best, Douwe Egbers, Lavazza, Illy, Peet’s (still on its way we hear but we look forward to it; thanks Bill and Sherry)  … to name a few.   

Truly the Roof of the World; 4,300 m (highest pass) on the way to Murghab

April was an interesting month in GBAO.  We assumed that spring would knock gently at the door; instead it forced itself on us like an unexpectedly fat, squalling, demanding ‘preemie’.  The blossoms were out by mid-April, depending on the altitude.  The lower valleys were two weeks ahead of Khorog, which was two weeks ahead of the Botanical Garden. And everything at 2,500m altitude was 6 weeks ahead of the Murghab, the winter wonderland east of us, close to the Chinese border. Now that the worst of the winter was behind us, we decided that we could ‘brave’ the biting temperatures and winds of this remote region.  So, together with our MSDSP colleagues, Gulnoz and Asadsho, we planned a three day inspection of the tourism product up in this ‘outpost’.  At 3,600m above sea level, life here is tough.
5 am stroll on the Pamir Highway, Murghab town centre

Desolate but spectacular, the City of Murghab. Next stop:China (80 km).

The Murghab is truly ‘the last frontier’.  Yurts and yaks. It is also spectacular.  High valley, totally surrounded by mountains all the way to China.   For a number of reasons, one of which is human habitation and all the negative returns that come with it, there is little or no flora to be found.  The few trees that once were able to eke out an existence at these extremes, have long gone to fuel a fire or provide shelter for the people who dare to live here.  Now the only fuel available to them are yak dung cakes or teresken, a bush that grows at an agonizingly slow pace (less than an inch a year).  The prognosis for this eco-system is not positive.  

Rankul (colored lake); the water is salty and there's very little life in it.

Water too is a valuable resource.  Because of the extreme temperatures, water freezes in above-ground pipes.  So the answer is to pump it up from deep wells.  There are communal as well as private wells everywhere and one sees women filling containers to carry their supplies home for every-day use.   As tourism advisors, we were interested to know how tourists who suffered from altitude sickness were medically treated.  The hospital was a basic brick structure – a legacy of Soviet times.  One wonders what the heating situation was like 20 years ago…. Radiators everywhere, cold and unused.   So there MUST have been a viable plumbing system.  Maybe it has just given up through lack of maintenance? 

Tea (in a conatainer cafe) with the local MSDSP manager (far right) and colleague Asadsho

The hospital too has to access its water from the most conveniently located pump.  Each room has a stove and buckets of boiling water.  Basic first aid is provided and if necessary, the ‘patient’ is driven by ambulance to Khorog.   The drive is a good 6 hours on roads that warrant 4-wheel-drive transportation, and there is no invoice at the end of this journey! 

Container bazaar; there are over 160 recycled containers here.

There is so much to share about this incredible place. Winter lasts eigth months (spring/summer is a short three months between June and August).   Roofs of the Murghab homes are flat.  Owing to the wind that howls through this region, snow does not settle. Same for the rain.  At this altitude, the sun burns everything to a crisp.   Maximum sun block is needed.  The locals seem to manage by covering as much of their faces as they can with scarves.  Everything, but everything, has to be ‘shipped’ in.

Store front window with Asadsho (who lived here for a number of years) standing in the center amongst his friends.
As always, the kids are alright

So, in winter, if the roads are impassable one has to make do with whatever one has.  The local (and only) market is interesting.  Throughout the year, owing to the cold, it is not possible to have open stalls, so containers have been recycled into restaurants, cafes and stores.  Containers of every shape, size and age are being put to use to sell whatever ‘lode’ is driven in from Kyrgistan, Khojand or Khorog.  Obviously, the more durable the product, the more prevalent it is.  There is ample stock of all types of pasta – usually sold in bulk.  Canned meat, fish and vegetables are all widely available, although the quality, ‘consume by’ date and origin is questionable.  Not too much fresh vegetables or fruits are to be found.  Looking around the town one can understand why.  There are so very few trees or bushes.  No need for ‘yard’ or ‘garden’ space here.  Baked hard mud is everywhere.  The color green might as well be removed from the dictionary.  BUT, in spite of this, the most wonderful dairy products are available.  Yoghurt that is so tasty and creamy that it could put the Greeks out of business; cream, milk and the ubiquitous hard, yoghurt cakes made of yak milk.    Yak meat is the staple, as is the fat that accompanies it.   

Container restaurant interior; teresken for fuel in foreground. On the stove, yak meat.

The people are beautiful.  Ruddy complexions with broad Kyrgiz facial bone structure.  Very different from the fine features of the ‘Southern’ Pamiris.  We ask ourselves why people settled here and more importantly, why do they remain?  And for how long can they sustain this way of life before there is not one blade of yellow grass left to feed their yaks, cattle sheep and goats?  When the last six inch bush of teresken has been pulled up by its roots to feed a fire, what then?   

Cool Alichur; between Murghab and Khorog.

On the way back to Khorog, we made a short detour to Alichur, another town in the Murghab, this time at 4,200m above sea level.  (I might add that Gulnoz and I both had altitude headaches for most of our trip.  Jelte’s theory is that women suffer from headaches more than men because men don’t have anything between their ears (!!).  Alichur is a small town of some 1,000 inhabitants, most of them subsistence herders.  Like Murghab town, there is little here apart from basic, flat roof homes, livestock and the occasional yurt.  But again, all around is a wide open vista of snow-capped mountains that takes ones breath away.   
Frozen lake, Rankul, where the yaks and not much else roam....

These are the places where one encounters the true adventure traveller, seeking out the last undiscovered frontier; the hikers, bikers and mountaineers still pushing themselves for the ultimate adrenaline rush.   And of course, the ever-present NGOs.  They/we are everywhere.  

Another busy day on the freeway in Downtown Murghab.

Anyway, we have digressed.   By the time we got back to Khorog (a short three days later, from Khorog to Murghab is only five hours), the entire valley was green.  The trees - poplars, mulberry, cherries, walnuts, peach, apricot, pistachios…. everything is just vibrant with the joy of spring.  The surrounding villages are even more beautiful.  The lilac is in bloom; the narcissi are long gone.  By the time we get back from Dushanbe and Penjakent (from where we write this blog and where Uzbek servers allow us uninterrupted Internet access) we are sure the irises and freesias will have finished blooming.   The Pamiris must take their lead from the flora.  They hibernate for five months of the year after which a burst of activity follows.  Everywhere, people are tending their plots of land, sowing seeds: cucumber, tomato, dill, potatoes, carrots.  Houses that were started last year are being finished.  Tapchans are being dusted off in preparation for the warm, summer days and evenings. 

This is a tapchan; dusted off and looking out over Afghanistan.

Apricot tree in bloom; the first signs of spring

And we look forward to taking possession of the garden furniture we have ordered from local craftsmen, so that we can sit outside in our little yard and enjoy the sound of the rushing river, the wind rustling the poplar leaves and try to identify a few more constellations in the night sky so crowded with stars that it makes us dizzy. 
Another unexpected little ‘joy’; we have a new friend and his name is Wrigley.  Jelte named him because he’s like chewing-gum – difficult to remove.  He’s one of the local cats (unlike our doggie friends, they all appear to have survived the winter).  Every time he hears us in the ‘yard’ (it really cannot be called a garden) he appears out of nowhere and is content to rub himself up against our legs, keeping a sharp eye on the front door for an opportunity to make a quick dash inside.  He hasn’t made it all the way in as yet.  We’re sure he is convinced that it’s just a matter of persistence and time. 
Birthday pic (on the left our colleague Aydigul, now the honey and potato specialist. Her motto: no money, no honey).

Work has also made a seasonal growth spurt.  Both of us believe that in addition to learning so much from our host country, we are making a difference in the skills we are sharing with our local colleagues.  Behaviors and attitudes that baffled us initially now make sense to us, given the circumstances and environment that govern Pamiri life.  Take, for example, the Pamiri inability to ‘diss’ a neighbour or colleague.  In a small mountain community that is often cut off from the rest of the country (never mind the rest of the world) it makes infinite sense to nurture good relationships with EVERYONE.  The unspoken rule is ‘all for one and one for all’.  This is their principal survival mechanism.  It extends to finances, food, social networking, employment and family life.   

Raw wool waiting to be cured outside a homestay in Alichur

Food.  We want to close this blog with an update.  Now that spring has arrived so too have some fruit and vegetables.  Lots of tomatoes, carrots (of course) manky looking cauliflower which we think have spent the last four months in cold storage, cucumbers, green onions, the occasional vendor selling heads of lettuce (always a find), parsley (the season for cilantro is over), dill, red radish, rhubarb, green onions, eggplants from Samarkand.  The ‘same old’ fruits are available but one can almost sense the anticipation of the months ahead when peaches, cherries, apricots, fresh walnut, mulberries and a host of other local produce will flood the markets.   
And finally; here’s a recipe that we want to share with you.  Kurtob:  the local equivalent of Italian bread salad.  We love it, as it’s so quick and easy to serve up, especially when we rush back home over our lunch hour.
Kurtob (serves 4)
Half a pound of stale bread of your choice
2 cups of plain yoghurt
4 table-spoons of your choice of specialty oil (olive, flax, grapeseed) or clarified butter
seasoning to taste:  (we use a generous amount of cumin, pepper, paprika, Turkish chilli powder because it is mild)
Salt to taste
FRESH seasonal herbs chopped finely:  parsley, dill, cilantro separately or as a combo.
Chopped fresh tomatoes (two medium size, cucumber (preferably Iranian – 2),
Finely sliced red or green onions (half a medium red onion or 3 – 4 small green onions)
Two cloves of garlic crushed
Juice of half a lemon  
Break bread into a wide salad dish.
Combine the salad veggies and herbs with the seasoning and lemon juice
Heat the oil/butter.  Add the yoghurt and keep stirring to prevent it from curdling.  Heat well
Add the salad to the bread. 
Pour over the yoghurt and oil mixture
Top with herbs
Mix well 
Serve with hot lemon tea and enjoy; welcome to the Pamirs….


  1. Fantastic post! Really enjoyed reading it. Wishing you both a fabulous spring and summer.

  2. test test -- if this works, more to come

  3. Hello C and J, well my test when thru, so I will try again. You have troubles with the internet there, we apparently have gremlins here.
    First the bad news. It is May 18 here; the Peet's coffee left the U.S. on May 1st, but it has not been heard from since. Peet's sent a new batch yesterday. It is quite possible that the customs people in TJ know good coffee when they smell it!
    Your post re the recent trip to Murghab, et. al, was VERY instructive. The picture of the town center (Amer. spelling) and the innovative use of the containers were (wonderful, cautionary to travelers, comforting to those not living there, etc).
    SO, HOW ARE THE TRAVEL EXPERTS GOING TO SELL THIS TO TRAVELERS? Khorug begins to look like a delightful vacation spot in comparison, dead dogs and all. Perhaps you have to keep secret your plans so no commercial venture steals them, but....
    Steve and Manjula are back at sea -- up the Aussie coast and on to the great barrier reef and then --- we will see.
    Oh, and a pepper mill is hot on the trail of the Peets!



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