Sunday, April 17, 2011

Technical Difficulties

Well, I can't blame it all on technical gremlins: first there were about 5 months of distraction that included the final preparations for presenting my malaria research at a conference, a month's "R&R" leave in the US, the usual difficulties getting re-adjusted to life in Dushanbe, two international trips sprinkled in there, and, most distractingly, working full time at a formal job (!!) since late January.

Then, when I finally tried to resurrect the blog, I found that I had some kind of still-undiagnosed local technological problem viewing "West to the Orient," or frankly any other blog on Blogspot.

So I moved the blog to a new location, and I am now trying to come up with a strategy for what to write and how to bring it all up to date. The new address is

I'm even going to post something new there today, so if you see this (and I will let those who I know were reading it earlier know separately about the move and the reawakening), please visit! Hope to bring readers up to date with reports on the (rest of the) Pamirs, the US, Dushanbe in winter, various work field trips to the field in rural Tajikistan, Dushanbe in spring, and Thailand. See you on the flipside!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Apologies for the break – I was busy finishing a piece of writing and didn’t have any spare time to continue the Pamir roadtrip story.

Where were we? We were still on Day 2, having just arrived into Khorog, and were exploring the gardens at the Serena, while Dan napped off his stomach bug. We can cover the remainder of that day plus Day 3 (In Khorog) here.

By about 5 in evening Dan forced himself out of bed to show us a bit of the town, and we went to have a bite to eat and a pleasant time relaxing on the tapchans at the Chorbogh teahouse (operated by the group of Aga Khan organizations, just like the Serena – the AK development network seems to kind of run the Pamirs, or at least Khorog). The teahouse is situated just on the banks of the river Gunt, in a corner of the Khorog city park, with a raised platform hanging out over the river and the icy blue-green water rushing by below.

The town itself feels quaint and small, although it also has the bustling feel of a regional hub, and the center of town right next to the bazaar housed a constant crowd of travelers and touts and small-time sellers and minibuses and SUVs – the marketplace for anyone wanting to depart the Pamir region for west-central Tajikistan and not aiming to pay for one of the very limited airplane seats out of town (meaning almost any ordinary traveler).

Khorog is a border post, founded in the 1890s by the Russian military as the boundaries between British-controlled Afghanistan and Russian-controlled Central Asia were firmed up, so in a sense, although the town is picturesque, it isn’t surprising that it also has a hint of the rough and ready menace of a border station. And maybe because our visit coincided with a holiday weekend, including Tajikistan’s independence day, for which there was a large public celebration in the city park, there was also at times an ever so slightly trashy feel – drunks hanging around on the edges of the park, groups of men ranging around after the late afternoon breakup of the local football match, and literally lots of remaining litter lying around in the park after the main heaps of trash had been carted away on the actual holiday. So Khorog was a pleasant break during our travels but certainly not home to us, as tourists and visitors.

We had a peaceful stay at the Serena, got rested up, and refroze the ice packs from our cooler. Continued to meet up with random travelers you’d never imagine would bother to make their way to Tajikistan, although I suppose that for them that’s the point: the Pamirs in a real sense are the end of the world, following in Marco Polo's footsteps, that kind of thing. On our first evening we’d already met up with a group of San Diego based travelers in Kalai Khumb who were making their way from Osh in Kyrgyzstan (I was surprised, given the relatively recent violence there) to Dushanbe, by way of Khorog. They claimed they’d visited (or would soon have visited?) every country in the world. “There’s a group of us,” their ringleader noted, by way of explanation. Who knew? In Khorog we crossed paths at the Serena with a French family traveling in a 2-car caravan. They had driven overland all the way from Europe and aimed after an exploration of the Pamirs to end up in Tashkent, where their university-aged son had a reservation to fly out in a few weeks’ time.

We also spent a thoroughly enjoyable morning in the Khorog Botanical Garden, perched up on a hill above the Shakhdarya river, on the southeast edge of the narrow town. (Khorog is situated in a narrow gorge, where the Gunt runs westward and intersects with the northward flowing – at this stage – Oxus. It basically has room for one main east-west street on the north side of the Gunt and a few secondary ones parallel to it.) Not much more to report on here except a slow meander through the semi-wild gardens and admiring (and taking snapshots of) the flowers, groves, and the imposing and tacky new mansion the president of Tajikistan has built for himself at the edge of the grounds. (The Serena, where he used to stay, apparently is no longer good enough. But thinking about that made us realize, kind of ickily: ‘wait, if we splurged to stay in the deluxe suite at the Serena, probably we’re sleeping in the same bed where Rahmon has slept!?’)

The brief R&R was good for our peace of mind, and Dan began to feel better. After a phone consultation with our Dushanbe medical provider, he decided to get his hands on some metronidazole, on the suspicion that he’d gotten giardia. We had a moment’s doubt about whether we could find it in Khorog, but then we realized that the prevalence of stomach bugs in this part of the world meant that actually this was probably the easiest medicine to get your hands on in a local drugstore. And we were right. He started to improve after 1 or 2 doses of the meds.

On the negative side, Monday morning we got a phone call from Dushanbe, alerting us that, in addition to the recent 25-man jailbreak and reported suicide-bombing at government buildings in Khujand, there were now reports of a bomb (or a fight? in Tajikistan rumor is king) in a local Dushanbe nightclub on Saturday night. That was slightly unsettling news, although the rational mind would tell you that in the remote eastern Pamirs you’re about as safe from unrest and political violence as you can be in Tajikistan.

Another negative that was nagging at both Dan’s and my mind, as we prepared to set out on our eastern loop through some of the most remote and unprovisioned territory in the country, stemmed from the unfortunate fact that the X-Terra’s “Service Engine Soon” light had lit up just as we pulled into Khorog, and it hadn’t yet gone off. Although the message was ominously vague, after consulting the owner’s manual, we’d established with pretty good confidence that in fact it was primarily a warning about the emissions system. Bad gas from a brief refueling stop in Kulob, perhaps? We weren’t sure, but we convinced ourselves that it probably didn’t mean we were in danger of breaking down. We hoped.

After our second morning enjoying a hearty breakfast in the Serena dining room, overlooking the sunny garden and riverbank, we gassed up again at the much more trustworthy-looking main gas station in Khorog (hoping the possibly bad Kulob fuel might get diluted?), and set out southward on the road toward Ishkashim.