Tuesday, September 28, 1999

Wednesday, September 22, 1999

tajik kingdom: traveling the chinese pamirs

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Global Adventure magazine in September 1999).

Blood pumped from the throat of the slaughtered calf with each beat of its fading heart. The Tajiks had it pinned down in the dust between the house and the sewage ditch, and its eyes were white and rolling. I, the murderer, stood by slack-jawed, the offending knife still in my hand. I was trying desperately not to be sick.

The calf took only five minutes to struggle into death, but the Tajiks couldn't wait that long. As soon as its kicks weakened enough that they didn't need to pin it down, Ayoshbek (ai ôsh bek) began to butcher it. To his and his three brothers great amusement, I poured "white liquor" from my throat to the sewage ditch. Nothing for it but to say, Easy come, easy go. This is what you put yourself in for when you show up on the doorstep of a Tajik family and talk them into letting you stay as their guest.

There are only 20,000 Tajiks living in China, along the Karakoram Highway in the Pamir mountain range. But with Afghanistan and Tajikistan torn by endemic civil wars, the Chinese-owned Pamirs are the safest place to explore Tajik culture. The region is best visited en route from China to Pakistan (or vice versa). Travelers coming through Pakistan follow the Karakoram Highway, renowned for its proximity to some of the worlds best glacial treks, from Gilgit to Sust and across the Chinese border to Tashkurgan, in the Pamirs. From there they proceed along the ancient Silk Road to Kashgar, a jumping off point for the Middle Kingdom.

Part of Chinas Xinjiang (New Frontier) province, the Pamir region was first settled by Muslim peoples in 1895, when the British drew out a thin promontory from Afghanistan called the Wakhan strip. Looking for a strong buffer between India and Russia, the British encouraged the Chinese to take and fill out the settlement, which they promptly did. The gross ethnic and cultural differences between these Afghani Muslims (later joined by other Central Asians) and the ruling Han Chinese laid the foundation for resentment that continues today.

Ruchaikh (roo chä eek), my Tajik host, tactfully expressed this resentment just minutes after I landed up on his doorstep, the unexpected guest. "Mao Zedong was good," he said, echoing a common attitude of China's farmers. "When he was around we didn't have to worry about all the Chinese people moving in."

As the name New Frontier suggests, the mainly Han government considers the province an untapped resource ripe for settlement, much as the former Soviet Union viewed Siberia. Rich in oil and mineral deposits, the region has attracted industry and with it a legion of ordinary Chinese looking for brighter futures. Forced into close contact with the Han, the Tajik peoples feel a palpable threat to their Muslim way of life, according to Ruchaik.

Their animosity toward the Han may be one reason the Tajiks like foreigners. Another reason is curiosity. In the isolated Pamirs, the Tajiks have only Chinas state-controlled television to rely on for entertainment and information from the outside world. Nevertheless, there are few home hostels of the kind found in Uzbekistan or Mongolia, probably because of Chinas Public Security Bureau (PSB). Both as a carryover from more zealous days and because Muslims have recently agitated for independence (even detonating a few bombs), the state prohibits foreigners living with local families unless they register with the police first. That doesn't mean that families won't take in travelers, only that they are a little circumspect about it. Penalties for violating this kind of minor regulation are light, provided that the visitor in question is not engaged in smuggling or trying to visit closed areas. The regulations nevertheless make it difficult to find host families because the Tajiks cannot set up hostel businesses without registering with the PSB and applying for a hoteliers license.

With these obstacles in place, travelers can only succeed in finding host families by being brazen. Countless China-trekkers recount stories of going up to doors, knocking, and explaining in elaborate and comical mime that theyd like a bed for the night. A less interesting but easier option is to camp near a village, where much of the grazing land along the rolling foothills is held in common. Herdsmen rarely object to tents pitched on the common, and when they do can usually be pacified with cigarettes.

For travelers unfamiliar with Central Asia, this kind of easy hospitality may seem unbelievable. But like many of the minorities of Xinjiang, the Tajiks view their reputation for hospitality as a crucial part of their heritage. As a case in point, although I showed up on his doorstep with nothing but an illegible note scrawled on the back page of a Uyghur-English phrase book to explain my presence, Ruchaikh's first move was to give me a broad handshake and invite me into the house for tea and nan (bread).

Milk tea is almost synonymous with hospitality, and as integral to the Tajik diet as rice is to the southern Han. Whenever a guest arrives, whether from across the world or from a neighboring field, the host brings out a tray bundled in a quilt, inside of which is the days old, dry nan, and a fresh pot of salty milk tea. Made from red leaves, Tajik tea is more similar to English tea than any other in China, especially if you can talk them into giving you some sugar. Tajik nan is thick, dry and hard: an edible stone. Mysteriously, the Tajiks have no interest in fresh nan. Nan is cereal in the morning (broken up and floating in milk tea), bread at lunchtime (munched dry and washed down with tea), and shovel at night (scooping up noodles that taste suspiciously of milk tea). For days in a row, barring the arrival of a prodigal son and slaughtering of a fatted calf, this is their diet, without variation.

Before I finished my tea, Shakurbek (shä koor bek) came in and gave me the high sign. Ruchaikh's oldest son, Shakurbek had collected me in Tashkurgan after an eventful afternoon with the PSB. The two of us had cycled out to the village on matching Flying Pigeons, and finished off matching bottles of "white liquor" at a roadside shack. Though Shakurbek was 36 years old, he had sworn me to secrecy as we wove down the highway: "Don't tell my father we got drunk." We became instant friends in our petty conspiracy.

"This is my eldest son, Shakurbek," Ruchaikh said. "You're lucky you came today. Tomorrow we will have a party because Shakurbek is moving into his own house." I pretended to be meeting Shakurbek for the first time. In a moment, Ruchaikhs remaining three sons, Ayoshbek, Kushi and Amanila, had arrived, and the second conspiracy -- to get me to slaughter my own calf -- had begun.

There was some voluble discussion in Tajik, and then the brothers left me alone again with Ruchaikh. A practiced informant (his family had already hosted an anthropologist), Ruchaikh began to tell me about the design of the Tajik house and its relation to the beliefs of the Aga Khan Muslims. Indicating the pentagonal skylight over the stove, he explained in Mandarin that five is a sacred number for the Aga Khan. "You see the window has five sides. This room has five sub-rooms. There are five platforms on five different levels. There are five outer walls. Everything is in fives."

I was more interested in the ornate rugs and tapestries covering the walls and the platforms than in Tajik numerology, but I nodded politely. Tajik homes center around a main living room that is similar in conception, though not in size, to the Mongol yurt. The entryway and area surrounding the stove is at ground level, and paved with stone, concrete or dirt. This pit serves as workplace, spittoon, ashtray and playpen, sometimes all at once. When tea gets cold, for instance, one of the women will take your bowl from you and sprinkle it lightly around the pit.

Around the pit are the five platforms Ruchaikh mentioned. Each is very similar to the kang (brick bed) of northeastern China, but there is no heating system underneath. Thick Uyghur, Kazahk and Tajik rugs are piled on the platforms, making them both beautiful and comfortable. The walls are decorated and insulated with the same variety of rugs, though now that factory production is commonplace, you may find modern exotic among the ancient. In Ruchaikh's central room, a wall covering of light blue peeks from beneath the hanging rugs. It has a black border with "SOS SOS SOS SOS" written on it and silhouettes of palm trees on alternating yellow and red fields, above each of which is scrawled "Aloha Hawaii."

No sooner had I made these cursory observations than the four brothers, led by the grinning Shakurbek, returned.

"Since you have come from so far away," Ruchaikh announced. "We have decided to slaughter a calf in your honor."

My thanks were obscured and preempted by my pidgin-Chinese attempt to recount the story of the prodigal son and Ruchaikh's sudden, "Let's go."

The calf was waiting for us in the snow. Ruchaikh stood by as the brothers made short work of heaving it to the ground and twisting its head around until its nose was pointed to the sky and its throat exposed. In a detached way, I thought, "Yes, Muslims always slaughter animals by slitting their throats." So from a college course on North Africa and the Middle East. Then Ruchaikh handed me a wickedly primitive Uyghur (a Turkic ethnicity also present in the region) knife.

"You want to do the slaughtering?" he asked.

"No. I think I won't do a good job." What I meant, of course, was that I'd make a mess of it, cover everyone with blood, and put the calf through more misery than necessary. My Chinese isn't that good, frankly, and neither was theirs.

"Mei guanxi," said Ruchaikh. No problem: The old conversation stopper.

They paused expectantly (all but the calf), and I was forced to admit, "I'm afraid."

There was a quick, uncritical laugh, and Ruchaikh abruptly took the knife and sawed into the calf's throat, avoiding the sudden spurt of blood and cutting all the way through the windpipe, so that the calf's ragged breathing began to gurgle. "I could have done that," I thought, but I kept my mouth shut.

When the British were debating whether to occupy the Pamir and Kun Lun mountain ranges in the late 19th Century, the military officers familiar with the region described it as perhaps the most difficult and inaccessible country in the world, and advised that taking it for Britain would be folly. For todays traveler, difficult and inaccessible are some of the most attractive words in the language and the area is nearly unrestricted. On the Pakistani side of the border, the Karakoram highway has become one of the worlds most popular destinations both for serious climbers and for ordinary adventurers. It passes by K2, the worlds second highest peak, and six more that climbers rank among the worlds best. The novice-level trek that passes K2 (only possible with a guide) is the best known and most popular trek in Pakistan.

Pakistans trekking season extends from April to October. August and September, when the weather is best, are the most popular months. There are many unrestricted treks, but those routes which reach an altitude above 6000 meters or pass near Afghan or Kashmir border areas generally require special permits that are an expensive headache to attain. Both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have written comprehensive guidebooks on Pakistan and the Karakoram highway, and offer extensive information about the treks available in the Karakoram and how to arrange for guides and permits.

The route to China goes over the Khunjerab Pass (4700 m), which closes at the end of October and may close at any time that authorities deem it impassable. Rock slides are common in rainy weather and many travelers experience altitude sickness -- usually mild. Buses run from Sust in Pakistan to Tashkurgan in China (and vice versa), a 220 kilometer journey. It is also possible to cross the pass on foot or by bicycle, as testified by two adventurous Swiss guys who claimed to have cycled all the way from Greece. The border guards cant believe it, they said, but they let you pass through.

Tashkurgan itself is a rather dull town, particularly if you cant communicate with the natives. Most travelers, impossibly hoping to see all of Southern China on their 3 month visas or scooting off to Pakistan, take a brief look and move on, forgetting that in places like the Pamirs, its not the cities or the nightlife you come to see.

On all sides, Tashkurgan is surrounded by imposing snow-capped peaks. And because China has yet to develop the infrastructure for adventure tourism present in Nepal or Pakistan, precious few climbers have tackled these ranges. Unfortunately there are few, if any, outfitters who offer guided treks in the Chinese Pamirs, though the growing interest in climbing, which has recently garnered coverage on China Central Television and spawned the first rock gym in Beijing, may change that soon. Even well-funded and experienced expeditions face bureaucratic challenges that eclipse those posed by the mountains. Chinas two-time hysteria over Richard Bransons balloon invasion epitomizes the countrys attitude toward foreign adventurers, even the very rich ones.

A more realistic, and perhaps more interesting, travel possibility may be to tag along with a local Tajik trapper as he runs his trapline. The bazaars of Kashgar, 200 k farther into China, are filled with bobcat, lynx and wolf pelts brought down from Tashkurgan by Tajik trappers. Sadly, the Tajiks are not aware of or do not understand the problem of endangered species, so the rare animals living in and around the Pamirs are in mortal peril. Ten years ago a national park initiative was begun on the Tajikistan side of the mountains, but as civil war continues the chances of successful completion of the project dwindle. The threatened species include the Markhor, the Siberian Ibex, the Marco Polo Sheep, the Asiatic Mouflon, the Snow Leopard, the Long-Tailed Marmot and the Asiatic Bear. Even Ruchaikh has the poorly stuffed body of a Snow Leopard in the yurt behind his house, along with several wolves. If he was upset by the depletion of the animal population, it was the sorrow of the hunter whose sport has suddenly evaporated.

On the other hand, adventures dont always require Gore-Tex. The second day I spent with Ruchaikhs family was the day of Shakurbeks party. By this time, I had decided that Shakurbek must have been their black sheep; he didnt go to work, and he was more than willing to get blotto in the middle of the afternoon. Sure enough, his friends were hardly what one would call devout Muslims. From 10 a.m. when guests began to arrive until 10 p.m., when we adjourned to a wedding reception in a neighboring house, the liquor was flowing. The Chinese favor a sorghum-based moonshine that is crystal clear and smells like kerosene. Not knowing any better, the Chinese Tajiks have adopted the stuff. There is no way to consume it without ceremony -- its not sippin whiskey -- but the Tajiks have a particularly ritualized approach. One man, in our case Shakurbeks younger brother Ayoshbek, controls the bottle, pouring healthy shots into a common bowl and delivering them to whomever he chooses. The recipient, as far as I could tell, is not allowed to refuse.

By the time dinner was served, none of us was feeling any pain, and one of the less distinguished guests had curled up in the fetal position in a corner and passed out. The older kids were tickling his face with bits of straw and sitting on him.

The main course was a dish called hand grab rice (zhuo fan) in Chinese. Greasy saffron rice is served on a large communal platter with stewed beef or lamb in the center. Using your fingers, you take a piece of meat and some rice, press it into the side of the platter to pack it, and pop it in your mouth. The dirty fingernails of your companions notwithstanding, it is very good in a Lawrence of Arabia sort of way.

After dinner, everyone lolled on the carpet, telling stories or listlessly digesting. Now that the young men had exhausted themselves drinking, the older men took over one platform and the women and children sat down to eat at another. Ruchaikh called me over to sit next to him and translated the questions of the older men into Chinese. They wanted to know why Westerners imprison their elderly in hospitals, how common laborers were able to afford cars, whether there were Tajiks in New York, and the following gem:

They want to know if you have dogs in America, Ruchaikh asked.

Yes. We have dogs . . . But we dont eat them.

We dont eat them, either. The Han eat them.

Translations issued in both directions and a spirited discussion began. After a moment, Ruchaikh recapitulated for me. Dog, horse, mule, snake, he said, ticking off the animals on his fingers. We dont eat them.

We dont eat them, either.

Sheep, cow and chicken we eat.

Us too.

I tried to look reflective as Ruchaikh spoke some more with the men.

What about camels? he finally asked.

We have them, I said.

Camels, Ruchaikh said. We eat camels, too.

Soon it was time for the young men to head off to the wedding reception, and Shakurbek called me aside.

If anybody says anything to you at the party, he said. You tell him youre with Shakurbek. Very reassuring.

It was a long walk across furrowed fields to the house where the reception was being held, and Shakurbek and I had to hold each other up to make it. Like any good host, he was drunker than I was, and kept insisting that we stop so that he could express more eloquently and with greater sincerity that he was my friend. I learned to know that these soliloquies had come to an end when he said, Now tell Ayoshbek that hes drunk. Nothing like sibling rivalry to keep you going when every ten steps you find yourself face down in the snow.

Id like to say that the wedding party itself was a fascinating glimpse into the Tajik culture, but Ill tell the truth: The wedding party was terrifying. There were nearly 600 men crammed into a five-room house of the same design as Ruchaikhs. Under dim lights, men danced together in a ring formed by their peers while off in a corner a few veiled women watched. Within a few minutes I went from being a curiosity -- a fool in a Tajik cap borrowed from Shakurbek -- to a bargaining chip. A very good and very relentless dancer grabbed me by the shoulders and tried to drag me into the ring. I was set to oblige him, being a good sport, drunk and not having much choice. Then Shakurbek stepped in and started shaking the guy around by the lapels. I didnt see how they managed to resolve it -- some absurd dance off? -- because Ayoshbek whisked me outside. I guess he noticed me turning white with fear and decided to take me back to the house that had become, in that instant, home.