In the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia — one of the highest ranges on the planet — lies the Gorno-Badakhashan autonomous region of Tajikistan.
Spanning almost half the country but sparsely populated, its wide-open spaces can be tough on its people, as one visiting scholar discovers.
Story and Photos by Cathy Raymond
I flip through my passport for the third time to make sure I have the special permit to hike in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region of Tajikistan, a small mountainous landlocked country in the heart of ancient Silk Road trade routes in Central Asia. Determined to beat the sun’s own race to the horizon, I jam my passport into my backpack, gulp down the last swig of coffee, and rush to the airport where I check in for the hour-long helicopter flight from Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, to Khorog, the capital of the autonomous region.
I am about to traverse the towering Pamir mountain range — famously known as the roof of the world. The roof of the world. I heard that the Pamirs are so tall that helicopters are forced to weave in and out of them instead of over them. Sure enough, within a few minutes of taking off, we are surrounded by snowcapped mountains, almost close enough for me to reach out and run my hand across.
On the one side, the Pamirs stretch far into the distance, while on the other the mountains multiply, and the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush ranges rise in the distance in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As I look out the window at the mountains, I think about some of Tajikistan’s more startling geography and demographics. Although the autonomous region covers almost half of the entire country and borders China in the east, Afghanistan in the south, Uzbekistan in the west and Kyrgyzstan in the north, I have heard that only three percent of the entire population of Tajikistan lives in this region.
Despite the low number of inhabitants, there is astonishing linguistic diversity; in addition to Kyrgyz, Russian, and Tajik, nine separate and mutually unintelligible Pamiri languages are spoken in this area. Most of the residents are primarily poor, isolated and self-reliant.
∞ ∞ ∞
Getting a permit for travel in the autonomous region was a breeze after having had to virtually wrangle the country-wide Tajik visa out of the hands of a terse and sullen consular king six months prior in Washington, D.C.
I had gotten a Fulbright grant to teach academic writing to students at the University of Central Asia and had left my family behind so I could spend the spring semester living in Dushanbe and working closely with my Central Asian colleagues and students — most of whom hailed from the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region.
It wasn’t the first separation from my family, but it was the longest so far, and my feelings about being away were complicated. Of course, I deeply love my family. I missed them and felt lonely at times. I loved our Skype chats and even cherished the bad connections and dropped calls. I especially loved having quiet, intimate calls with each of my family members to get caught up on what was happening in their lives.
At the same time, as deeply guilty as I felt about it, I had to admit I also felt a little liberated. Liberated because I was temporarily released from 22 years of keeping the family ship on course: making dinners, cleaning the house, organizing our family calendar filled with doctors’ appointments, track meets, violin lessons, and what felt like an endless stream of after-school events.
Liberated from the twin beasts of depression and anxiety that would sneak through the back door of our house and then roar, demanding to be fed until we all collapsed in an exhausted heap from obeying every command. Liberated because I was blissfully and completely alone and could let my own ship float freely for just a few months.
∞ ∞ ∞
At the end of the semester, I turned in my metaphorical badge and threw together a small bag for the long-anticipated six-day solo hiking trip in the Pamir mountains. I wanted to see firsthand where my colleagues and students came from, and I was eager to explore the breathtaking mountainous landscape I had heard so much about from them.
I spent my first night in a homestay with a lovely family in Khorog and rose early the next morning ready to go. Rumour had it I could find a ride into the Wakhan valley the next morning with a local driver if I headed to the other side of the bridge to the village taxi stand. I wasn’t exactly sure where to cross the raging river or what a local taxi or driver might look like, but I knew the single road into the valley was as rough as they came, so I was on the lookout for sturdy tough-terrain vehicles — heavy rough riders with turbo power and ample space to hold as many passengers and luggage as possible, not the fragile yellow cabs I might have found on city streets in the U.S.
I eventually found what I was looking for when I spotted a group of men standing around large, serious-looking vehicles, chatting loudly, burning through cigarettes, sharing colourful stories, and waiting for stray passengers who might be looking for a ride into the rugged terrain of the Wakhan Valley — an untamed narrow strip of land with a river slicing through the middle, separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan.
Drivers had staked their claims to individual routes with a scrap of paper on the dash designating how far they were driving into the valley that day. I quickly scanned the windshields and read the colourful names of Wakhan villages — Ishkashim, Langar, Vrang, Murghab! The men were dressed casually in T-shirts, sweatshirts, khakis and flat sporty newsboy caps—their cross-terrain vehicles clear statements that they were the chosen few who were serious or crazy enough to make repeated trips up and down that rough valley road.
The men spotted me long before I found them, and they circled in as I got closer, peppering me with questions about my travel plans. Where was I headed? How far did I need to go into the valley? I told them my goal for the day was to reach one of the small villages at the beginning of the valley — perhaps going as far as Ishkashim to spend the night in a homestay and to start my trekking adventure the following morning. The drivers sorted things out by themselves, and I was quickly delivered to the appropriate vehicle. I staked a claim to the front passenger seat and silently congratulated myself on successfully navigating my transportation for the day.
I soon realized we wouldn’t be leaving until every seat had been accounted for, so I spent the next four hours talking to the men about their lives and their experiences driving passengers. Later, I knew we were well on our way to becoming friends when one of them personally escorted me (and then also requested the key) to a locked-up shack with a hole in the ground when I shyly told him I had to go.
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The cars were finally filled. I was starting out four hours later than planned, but I was sure the trip would take a couple of hours at most, and I could start hiking that same day. Once we began our journey, however, it quickly became clear that I would need to modify my expectations. This trip was going to extend far into the day.
We started a long series of routine stops five minutes after we left the parking lot. Every time we pulled over, one person would get out, and another would magically appear and get in. Sometimes we stopped in a village, and sometimes we simply pulled to the side of the road and let someone in or out. Other times, one person got out, and two people squeezed in. In one village, Michi, our driver, stopped abruptly at the side of the road, wordlessly picked up a couple of stranded bags of concrete (the transport of which I realized only later he had carefully orchestrated earlier that morning) and tossed them onto the roof rack of the car.
Minutes later, Michi was taking what I thought was a harmless smoke break when a strange man appeared out of nowhere and handed him a large watermelon in exchange for a few somoni. It was a modern-day Silk Road transport.
Michi had an uncanny ability to keep the car filled with people while also transporting a variety of goods across the region, and I realized what a logistical mastermind he truly was.
During the entire drive Michi cranked up the volume on the radio, and Tajik national music filled what little space remained in the car as we pounded our way across the country. As I had expected, the road was rough and tumble, and I remained grateful for the front seat. Bumpity bumpity bump. Swerve to the left, swerve to the right. It was like a square dance party for jeeps. Sometimes it was the oncoming cars, sometimes it was us. Swerve to the left, swerve to the right.
As we drove, I peppered Michi with questions, and he told me how he depended on passengers like me for his income and would make two to three trips per week to Khorog, where he would pick people up and drive them back and forth — up and down the bumpy road. Gradually, I came to understand that a steady network of drivers rules the road, and Michi knew everyone. As the day wore on, he would honk and nod to a car going in the opposite direction. Other times he would stop and get out to hug and exchange goods with the other drivers. It was a well-developed economic community.
After a few hours (and many fewer kilometres than anyone would guess), I asked Michi if he was continuing to Darshai — a tiny village up the road. He kept his eye on the road and mumbled under his breath: “Yeah, it’s my village. You can stay with me if you want. We are not a homestay, but you can stay in our home.”
When I asked if he was sure he had enough room, he simply nodded. We would talk about pricing later. I figured it would be the usual low rate of $15 for dinner, a bed to sleep on, and breakfast.
As we pulled in and unloaded our things a few minutes later, all the kids from the village streamed out of the houses to greet us as if they had been waiting for days for Michi’s return.
The house was typical for the region — a simple, single-storied structure with a flat roof. The inside was intricately symbolic like all other houses in the area, and, depending on who you talked to, represented key elements of either the ancient Zoroastrian religion or Islam, which came to the region in the eighth century.
The Pamiri house is marked by five wooden pillars, a collection of beams, and an ornate symbolic skylight, with one main room divided into three separate areas with two raised platforms. The skylight at the centre of the ceiling is an artistic arrangement of four wooden squares representing the Zoroastrian elements of air, water, earth and fire. I had heard that the outermost square represents fire because it is the first to be touched by the sun. Even the architecture was poetic here. My students had taught me a lot about Pamiri houses, but this was my first time inside one.
One of the other passengers in the car — a young English-speaking French guy — had decided to tag along with me instead of finding his own place to stay. I had a hunch he was banking on using English to navigate his own hiking trip into the valley, and I suspected he needed another day to adjust to the fact that English and French were both useless here. I was lucky to have some Russian to guide me; over dinner and tea, I learned about the grandparents’ ailments, Michi’s plans to leave for Russia to earn more money for the family, and the daily challenges that Michi’s wife Parvina faced caring for their two small children and baby on next to nothing.
It was clear the family’s survival depended almost exclusively on a small patch of land for summer vegetables, and a few chickens for eggs. I knew from my students and colleagues that the Pamiris were notoriously hospitable people; Parvina had likely just served us their last few eggs for dinner. I also knew they might be insulted if I refused to eat their only food in the house, so I swallowed my guilt with the eggs and finished the meal.
After dinner, I strapped on my boots to explore the village and found Parvina waiting for me on the front stoop. She guided me to a small adjacent field where she told me she was hoping to plant wheat the next year, so she could finally make her own bread. As we continued to walk around the property, she shared her life story.
She had been born in the Shugnan district (where they speak the language Shugni — like most of my colleagues and students at UCA), and her husband was from the Wakhan district (where they speak Wakhan — a completely different language from Shugni). She seemed eager to tell me about her life — how she had learned a new language when she married her husband, how she and her husband depended on the land for all their food, how unforgiving the winters were, and how much she wanted to join Michi in Russia, so she could have a little break from the hardship that she felt every day.
She asked questions about my family back home. I found myself, without warning, struck by a sharp and sudden pang of homesickness for all of it: my German husband’s confusing humour, rambunctious yodelling and rigid routines, my children’s quirky shared language that only they understood, colourful updates on university life and friends, our raucous family dinners, the dogs.
At that moment, all the borders and boundaries of the world disappeared. We were just two women standing in a doorway, chatting about what mattered, connected through the desire to love and be loved. To have a place to call home. To feel safe. These were the things that made us human. The things that ultimately connect all of us in the world.
∞ ∞ ∞
After having gone to bed early, I awaken early the next morning. With two days of travel behind me, I am eager to begin day three.
The air is cool, and I tighten the cords on my backpack and head into the village toward the steep seven-kilometre hike to the top of the mountain in front of me. My goal this morning is to reach the ancient Yamchun Fortress, a third-century BC outpost along the Silk Road, which served the dual purposes of controlling the flow of goods across this region and protecting the area from foreign invaders.
Yamchun is also known as the Fortress of Fire Worshippers, harkening back to the days when Zoroastrianism — one of the world’s oldest religions — had a pervasive influence on this part of Central Asia.
I breathe in the cool air and let my mind wander from the fortress back to my Tajik students and our very first field research project together. My Tajik co-teacher had told me that most Tajik students knew little or nothing about conducting research, and he suggested we add a research component to our course. Most of the research about Tajikistan had apparently been done by international researchers—not by locals, so I happily agreed, eager to do my part to protect this tiny part of the Silk Road from modern foreign invaders. I was not a seasoned researcher yet myself, so we all had to learn the steps and take the journey together. I learned by teaching; they taught me by learning.
The theme of our humanities-based course was “Tradition and Change.” We worked with our students to develop research projects that would give them an opportunity to look back into their country’s past with an eye on how traditions had morphed or changed over time. We encouraged them to develop their researcher identities along the way and urged them to carve new paths for themselves and for Tajikistan.
We asked our students to focus on individual elements of the upcoming Persian New Year celebration Nowruz—a Zoroastrian spring festival that originated more than 3,000 years ago and is still celebrated by over 300 million people across Central Asia and other parts of the world.
Some of our students chose to study traditional and colourful costumes, the symbolic significance of food, or the national sports of wrestling or buzkashi—a raucous rough and tumble competition where hordes of men on horseback aggressively fight to carry a goat carcass over a goal. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen an amazing buzkashi match two months before. Still other students researched the songs, myths and poetry associated with this ancient festival.
Over the following weeks, my students taught me how richly diverse and ancient Tajik culture is. Nestled in the heart of the Silk Road routes, Tajikistan witnessed history unfolding on its doorstep and now continued to embrace those traditions, many of them utterly unchanged for thousands of years.
∞ ∞ ∞
I walk through the sparsely populated village and continue to think about my students — how they developed and practised interviews in class, and then went out and took notes on conversations with family, neighbours and strangers. How they studied the food, clothing and storytelling traditions of this ancient festival. How rightfully proud they were when they presented their original research at a conference we organized for Central Asian educators.
They did presentations and sat on panels where they shared their reflections on the research process—where they had struggled, what they had learned, and how they had learned it. How they wanted to learn more. How they self-identified as researchers. In the process of sharing, they became the teachers, while the Central Asian educators took notes on how to teach their own students how to do research.
I marvel at how much I learned from my students—not only about Tajik culture and ancient traditions but also about their modern families and personal dreams. The teacher becomes student. Tradition and change.
∞ ∞ ∞
The dirt road I am on is suddenly much steeper, so I stop and extend my collapsible trekking poles until my arms are at a 90-degree angle when I tap the poles into the ground. I twist the different sections to the right until they are tight and hope my poles will help get me to the top of this nearly 4,000-metre-high mountain. I resist translating metres into feet, but the number “13,000” crowds its way into my head. I take a long sip of water and, before I can question my hasty decision to turn down the offer of a car ride up the mountain, I set off on my way.
As I make my way forward — tap, step, tap, step — I look around and take in the towering Pamiri mountain peaks. White-capped majesty over there. These are some of the highest mountains in the world, butting heads with the Himalayas, the Karakoram Range, and the Hindu Kush mountains in Pakistan.
These ranges have a complete and glorious disregard for geographical and political boundaries as they stretch across China, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. An invisible yet stark contrast to the challenging realities of border crossings, visas and passports, citizenship, and national identity. Checkpoints and questions.
I think about the two Tajik visas tucked away inside my passport, which is now buried deep in my backpack, and then back to Michi and the many Tajik men who are compelled to work in Russia
to support their families. My thoughts continue to drift from where I stand in Tajikistan, across the Panj River that slices through this landscape and into Afghanistan on the other side. Back to 12 years prior, when I worked as TESOL coordinator for the Afghan Higher Education Project at Indiana University and visited Afghanistan to interview possible candidates for graduate degree programs in education. Back to the two years after that helping the Afghan students through their programs in the United States.
I tap and step, tap and step, and the rhythm of my poles takes me back over the past eight years to my work organizing distance English courses and mentoring for Afghan girls and women. Tap and step to my Afghan daughter, a young woman I have developed a close relationship with via Skype over a period of 10 years. Tap and step to Afghan English educators I worked closely with for several years.
Afghanistan. Tajikistan was as close as I could get, so I had applied for a Fulbright Scholar award and set my sights on a country that was linguistically, historically and culturally related, but somehow still completely different. Afghanistan is geographically a stone’s throw from where I am standing, but it is still out of reach.
Now here I am. On the Tajik side of the river. Completely enamoured by the mountains, the culture and the people. It amazes me how a love for a country not one’s own can make a heart surge and pulse. As real and true as any other love.
Michi had told me the day before that everyone used to run back and forth along both riverbanks when he was small. That Afghans and Tajiks were able to visit each other easily back then. That things are entirely different now. I stop hiking for a moment and turn back to face the river, imagining the days when simple visits across this porous border were possible.
Wakhan people still live on both sides of the river, and I wonder how similar or different they are today. I reflect on the many diverse languages of the region, and my thoughts drift to the other side of the river to the Wakhi speakers in Afghanistan.
I think again about the randomness of political borders, natural geography and linguistic heritage. About what binds and connects us as humans at the end of the day. Our families, hopes, desires, and love.
∞ ∞ ∞
I continue to plod up the mountain, my mind meandering back to Parvina and Michi from the night before. Parvina seemed ecstatic to finally have a visitor who could speak Russian. The family frequently had unexpected visitors — tourists who knocked on the door, asking if they could spend the night for a small fee. I asked if it felt like an intrusion and she nodded shyly, but added that they desperately needed the money.
Most of the visitors couldn’t speak a word of Russian — apart from thank you, please, goodbye, so their exchanges were mainly non-verbal. I would hear similar stories from people along the way over the next several days. The bittersweet irony was clear: although a steady stream of tourists provided much-needed income to the people of the Pamirs, the lack of a common language between villagers and visitors made the sharing of stories — of humanity — virtually impossible.
When Parvina moved to Darshai, she was suddenly responsible for taking care of her in-laws, her two small children — one just an infant — a now rapidly crumbling house, with a primitive hole in the ground for a toilet, the gardens and the chickens. Michi had often had to leave Tajikistan for long stretches at a time to work as a cab driver 2,500 miles away in Russia to earn enough money to support the family, so she was repeatedly left alone to take care of the entire household. Although she wanted to go to Russia with her husband on his next trip, she wouldn’t dare leave the ailing in-laws alone.
I think again about my husband and our two grown children. How Peter and I had made a conscious commitment to raise our children as citizens of the world.
How we called them Felix and Lena, giving them international sounding names in the hopes they would travel widely and feel connected to different places and peoples.
How we straddled our two home countries of the U.S. and Germany, bringing a child to the world in each country. Placed our binational kids in a Brazilian/German playgroup in Munich, and then formed a German playgroup when we returned to the United States. Encouraged our children to look for scholarships that allowed them to study in Morocco and England.
I reflect again on leaving my loved ones behind to come to Tajikistan on my own for half a year. Struggling to connect across distance and dropped calls but never completely out of sight from each other. Trying for myself to reconcile the push and pull of longing and relief.
We have lived at times like grains of sand, never knowing where the wind might blow us; all of us straddling countries and languages over the years, gradually morphing our family and individual identities into something that transcends national borders and identities. The universe of the world shrinks and expands at once.
∞ ∞ ∞
The winters in the Pamirs are brutal and long, and the small villages are isolated, so getting supplies to carry a family through the cold winter months is incredibly difficult. Most families have gardens where they grow everything from wheat to vegetables to fruits to nourish their loved ones until they can make a rare trip to a store far away.
My students told me that many Tajik men — Michi is but one — go abroad to earn extra money to support their families. Fifty percent of Tajikistan’s GDP relies on these remittances from men working abroad—primarily in Russia—and families are routinely split apart, leaving women behind to care for children, in-laws, fields and flocks.
Virtually every student’s family had a husband, brother, cousin, uncle or father who had left Tajikistan to earn money. Usually for Russia. At least four of my 10 students had done their final field research on some aspect of emigration or remittances. It occurs to me now as I climb this mountain that four out of 10—40 percent—is, ironically, almost the same percentage as the percentage of the Tajik GDP represented by remittances.
Parvina told me Michi was also getting ready to go back to Russia to work. He wasn’t earning enough money transporting people back and forth along the single dusty road in and out of the valley and was planning on leaving his family again soon. She would have to stay behind and take care of his parents, their two small children, the chickens and the house.
In a flash, I suddenly remember how it felt to live apart from Peter when he took a job in D.C. for two years in 2007. We decided the kids needed continuity, so we didn’t uproot the whole family. Peter went to D.C., and the kids and I stayed in Indiana and held out as best we could. I had two jobs, and gradually started to feel like an unravelling thread. Barely managed work, kids, laundry and dogs.
Weeks would go by without visits, and the family felt splintered. Our marriage stretched almost to its breaking point. Disruption came again just a few years later when Peter found another job in a neighbouring state. This time we decided to pack up and move the entire family to Missouri. We feared our marriage would not survive another separation, so we left community, friends and lives behind and made the excruciating move westward.
I had virtually forgotten or suppressed that combination of pain and yearning until I saw the shadow of it cross Parvina’s face.
∞ ∞ ∞
As Parvina and I talked, village children had dashed in and out of the house, and I asked her whose children they were. She smiled and, with a broad sweeping gesture of her hand, told me that the children belonged to everyone.
That evening I belonged to those village children. They quickly incorporated me into their group, and we moved like a school of fish as they gave me a tour of the village. At one point, we stopped and took a picture together on the short stretch of road that passes through the village. We moved together along a stone wall, past the few simple houses in the village, down to the river, and back to the only road available for people to get in and out of the isolated valley. We communicated with gestures and laughter, and they taught me a few phrases in Wakhi. One of the children spoke a few words of Russian —enough to bridge the remaining verbal distance between us.
One young girl dashed away to fetch a volleyball, and they asked me to join them in a game. It was a windy day, and the ball kept flying into the fields, but we laughed and ran and played. I didn’t know it yet that day, but as they embraced me—a stranger—in their midst, they started to steer my free-floating ship slowly back on course.
∞ ∞ ∞
The air is getting cooler and thinner, and I stop to sit on a rock by the side of the road. This hike is challenging and slow going, and my lungs are straining for air. I wiggle out of my backpack and open it up, digging past my passport to the bottom for my inhaler. One puff in. Hold it. Out. I sit on the rock and look out over the valley below.
I take another draw on my inhaler and slowly strap my backpack on again. I grab my poles and stand up slowly. A shepherd in a nearby field calls to me, and he quickly approaches, closing the distance between us in a second.
I wave and smile. “Hello!”
He continues in Russian. “Do you speak Russian?”
“Yes! Good afternoon!” I am again grateful for this linguistic gift in my mind and mouth.
I start hiking again, and he accompanies me part of the way up the mountain. I smile to myself as I reflect on how effortlessly he and all the others who have stopped to chat with me navigate this terrain. It is theirs, after all. My challenged lungs and I are just passing through.
I push my limits and continue my hike to the top. I haven’t given myself enough time to adapt to this altitude, and I feel it in my head. Dizzy and achy, but I try not to focus on it. I don’t plan on staying at the top very long, and I am pretty sure the danger of altitude sickness is minimal. Occasionally a jeep with tourists will blast by me and kick up a cloud of dust on this rugged road; each time I briefly consider flagging them down for a lift to the top, but that would defeat my purpose, and I keep my hands firmly placed on my trekking poles. One foot in front of the other. Tap, step, tap, step.
After two or three hours of slow hiking, I finally reach the top and see the Yamchun Fortress emerge in front of me. The ancient ruins stretch across the landscape, and I can easily imagine the fortress in all its glory. I am standing in the heart of the Silk Road, and I stop and imagine traders and conquerors passing through this inhospitable terrain. I am in awe.
A group of Chinese tourists is waiting for me at the fortress. They all wave, and I hear them call out, “You made it!” I smile and join the group. They quickly form a circle, close in around me, and point their cameras in my direction. I am a rare animal in a zoo, and I hear the cameras quickly clicking as they take several shots and pummel me with questions: “We passed you on the road. Why are you here alone? Did you walk the whole way? Why are you doing this? Where are you from?”
I am still breathless and only now starting to recover from the strenuous hike, but I laugh and do my best to keep up with their questions.
They are travelling in a modern Silk Road caravan: five Chinese tourists, two Tajik drivers, and two jeeps. I ask if they are continuing to the Bibi Fatima hot springs one kilometre farther up the road. If so, can I catch a ride with them? I don’t think I have the energy to walk even one more kilometre up.
One of the women is clearly the leader. Although she is dressed casually in shorts and a T-shirt, she has a distinct air of authority, and she briskly orders the group around in what I think might be Mandarin. I don’t need to understand the words; her body language speaks volumes. You—there, you—over there. Then she turns to me and, switching effortlessly to English, orders me to the second vehicle as she points to one of the men in the group.
“You — go with him in that car!”
I happily comply and pile into the car with the others for the short drive to the hot springs. My legs are starting to stiffen already; I am eager to sit in the hot water.
Men and women bathe separately, and the three Chinese women and I are first to go into the changing room, where we strip off all our clothes and ease our naked bodies into near-boiling water. They chat in easy, playful tones and take pictures of each other while using a small square towel to take turns covering their breasts.
I sit in the hot water and close my eyes, reflecting backward from the present moment. How I found this lovely group of Chinese tourists and am now sitting with them in a natural thermal bath. How I made it up a steep mountain with my own two legs and saw the Yamchun Fortress with my own eyes. How someone offered me a ride on a helicopter in and out of the mountains to reach the Pamirs. How I worked for a whole semester with such amazing colleagues and such inquisitive and talented students. How I got a Fulbright and set off on my own.
The three Chinese women and I have been in and out of the piping hot water three times, and the men are anxious to have their turn. I imagine the words they say as they bang on the door in rhythm with their speech.
“Dry off, get dressed, LET US IN!” Boom, boom, boom.
I reluctantly dry off using a T-shirt from my backpack as a towel and get dressed as quickly as I can. My legs are miraculously strong again, and I am ready to continue my hike through the valley. I ask the leader of the group if she would let me ride with them just to the bottom of the mountain. I will go left—deeper into the valley—and they will go right, toward the city.
I sit in the backseat and chat with the driver and the only other passenger in the car. The driver is Tajik and speaks Russian, so he and I converse easily about his life, my life, and his desire to go back to school. The Chinese man in the passenger seat speaks into a handheld device and then holds it across the seat in my direction. A mechanized voice haltingly spits out the translation: “Do…you…speak…Russian?”
He motions for me to answer into the handheld translator, and I reply simply, “Yes.” He nods and continues to ask a variety of questions. Most of what he wants to ask gets lost in translation, but he is determined and makes several attempts to get the machine to understand what he wants to say. We somehow manage to connect in a short conversation.
As we wind our way down the mountain, I am struck by the distance from the top to the bottom. How the road twists and turns. How I managed to climb up it. The Chinese man hands me his cellphone and speaks into the device again. The device spits back in a robotic voice:
“Give… email. Will…send…photos.”
I quickly type my work email into his phone as we reach the bottom of the mountain. I don’t expect I will ever see his pictures, but I am touched by his generosity and thoughtfulness. I take the device from him and speak into it.
“Thank you. I enjoyed meeting you today.”
He puts the device to his ear as my words are translated into Chinese, and he smiles. “Yes, yes,” he says in English and points to his chest and back to me as he nods.
When we reach the bottom of the mountain, the driver hops out and pops the trunk. I grab my backpack and smile at my new Chinese friend. The driver appears at my door as I get out of the car, and I see that he is holding four bottles of water.
“Take these!” he says in Russian. “It is warm in the valley, and you should drink lots of water.”
I thank him and load the bottles into my backpack. As I tap and step deeper into the valley, my thoughts float out above the vast mountainous ranges which surround me, and I see my worlds become one. Something within me shifts slightly. I am ready to set sail for home. ♦
American by birth, Cathy Raymond proudly calls herself a global citizen, and counts her time in Tajikistan as uniquely special.