Tajikistan Chapter 7

Standard

It was rather a cloudy day, the sun was no where to trace of even at the high time of morning. Regardless of leaden, suppressing sky, the air of early April at the foot of mountain was refreshingly pleasant, giving off the promise of balmy summer days just around the corner.  After a hearty breakfast, as Yuri just wished, feasted on Tajik’s unreserved hospitality with bread, butter, milk, soul milk and sorts of nuts and sweets,  we walked jaunty steps when we were back on the road.

‘I say’, Yuri turned his face while chewing away a green apricot, with one eye shutting almost to a line as if hurt by some high noon summer light, measuring me up with the other  in a popinjay sort of haughty air, ‘as my girlfriend-slash-fiancée-slash-wife, I never got the knowledge if you are good at kissing.’

It gave me rather a start, as a person of plenty ready wit and adroit repartee in most occasions, I lost my retort for a moment, and as embarrassing as it sounded for the pregnant silence in between where a response from me was expecting, I doubled it by chuckling out a semi-laughing ‘Cor’, and even that one syllable betrayed my unbalanced nerve. As one can understand, it’s not everyday an imposter husband ask an imposter wife if she is a good kisser. I started shifting my feet.

 ‘you know’, Yuri, seizing the stern/rudder of the conversation, added on, ‘ as fake as our relationship may be, we still have to look real enough to sell the story.’ He was looking gayer by each minute.

Of course I am a good kisser’, possibly the worst reply ever in the history of bantering, I hurled out, rather eager to dignify my honour in the fame hall of kissing, in fear of a single raise of doubt would asunder/incinerate it onto the ground, and a ‘you will see!’ as a closing remarks, we have to admit, didn’t gain me much wining points.

Yuri, now having won this quick battle of badinage, gave out a triumphant laugh, said, ‘So we will see da?’, as if to ascertain his imminent prize.

My embarrassment of losing the grounds of witty replies was mollified by the arrhythmic sound of an incoming Russian truck. Yuri, wasting no time, stuck out a thumb at it while standing at the side of highway. The truck pulled over, and the ingenious smile of the Tajik driver’s encouraged us to climb to the back of truck where it was empty and open-roofed.

We both agreed that the back of unroofed truck was the best place to be in a hitch-hike trip, with unbarred view to wherever your eyes can reach. I stood up, one hand griping onto the banister, one arm reaching out into the air, letting out a joyous ‘woohoo’, and the sour feeling of lost in a banter fleeing through the wind within a trice. A distant echoing ‘woohoo’ was answered by the valley seconds later. Encouraged by the sound of that, I exchanged a few more rounds of single worded conversation with the relentless parroting echo, rather rejoiced by my new found entertainment.  Yuri came up and stood next to me, pointing to the daunting mountains still crested with snow ahead of us, ‘Annnd that’s where we are going!’. So along the serpentine highway, we were heading up again.

Only a quarter later, we had to demount the truck at another fork, bidding goodbye to the kind driver, watching and waving till the driver and truck dissolved into a blurred image at afar. We blessed his soul.

A jeep from behind stopped besides us in no time. When we made clear the wish to go to Kojand and have no money to pay, the driver, introduced himself later as Ali, a young lad in his early 30s, dressed in a modest grey jacket and washed out jeans, opened the door and let us pour ourselves into the Jeep. I took the spacious back seats alone. It was only after the car had driven forth about a mile later, the reticence, which matches our driver’s demure manner crudely, was broken. Ali, although the baseball cap was overshadowing half of his face, was caught sizing me up through the mirror with much curiosity.  A beam of polite smile crossed my face, I showed my teeth through the mirror back at him, only to hold his shifting yet guileless glances a second before they hid themselves again under the protection of cap rim. He then turned to Yuri, sitting at the co-driver’s seat at this moment, starting to reveal his interest in our relationship, our business in Tajikistan and such. So Yuri, once again, had the opportunity to go over our story, and if I didn’t trust my ears right when I suspected I was introduced as his newly engaged, his mischievous face reflected from the mirror grimacing at me followed by twitching an imaginary ring at his fourth proximal digit certainly verified my suspicion.

The conversation turned out to be short yet not without exchange of pleasantry. Ali was soon restored to his reticent manner and focused solely on the road ahead, which was right now winding us onto the mountain.

Yuri turned back towards me, agreed with my impression on our driver, ‘he is not a man of words’, Yuri said nonchalantly, with no hint of disrespect.

A lot of things can be said without words,’ as I gazed outside of window, the car was passing through a field of dandelions, a field of  bright yellow dandelions chorusing in the balmy breeze, I directed Yuri’s attention to them,  ‘look at those happy souls!’ I shouted out joyously.

Yuri stuck his head out of window, scrutinizing the passing image of those jaunty little yellow elves, replied, ‘Yes, it is rather beautiful. But how would you know if they are happy? They are dandelions.

I yelled with discontent, as if pointing out the obvious,  ‘Look at what color they have! With such a bright yellow they MUST be happy!’

Color has nothing to do with happiness, my dear’,  Yuri gave me an authoritive glance in the mirror, as though no ground was left to dispute with that fact. And it was his turn to point out the obvious to me this time, he added plainly, ‘Besides they are vegetables.’

and whose fault is it that makes us think WE are humans and THEY are vegetables, that we are not one of them, that we cannot get into their mind, speak what they speak, see what they see, feel what they feel.’ I couldn’t let it go.

‘Pure drivel! Of course you are not one of THEM’, Yuri put much emphasis on the last word, continuing explain, ‘They are flowers, drinking rain water, bathing on sunlight, sticking their feet into the dirt sort of vegetables. That’s their whole business. Bring up feelings or sentiments of a dandelion, that’s either a girl’s innocent babbling, my dear!’. ‘Or a poet’s romanticised delusion.’ Yuri added on after half second’s pause.

It’s just labels, isn’t it? Flowers, cats, tables, sadness,…, they are all man-made labels’, I became rather soft hearted now, ‘Men are always in need of naming stuff, aren’t they?’ I asked Yuri.

Yes, we are’, Yuri ascertained my query, ‘it gives a clear definition of everything around us, and…’.

‘and gives you a sense of control, a self-assured power of knowing in everything around you.’ I continued with his unfinished sentence.

‘that’s right’, without being disturbed, I saw from the mirror that Yuri put up a scholarly air. If people get to know him well enough, then it’s not difficult to imagine him in a stately suit, doddering away in a Victorian style library, with hands behind his back, speaking calmly and surely to his disciples, ‘Ahh yes, Classification in labelling, differentiating in language, so we know black from white, tables from chairs, dandelions from roses,…,you see, my dear, the world falls into order with the aid of language…’

Again, I didn’t wait till Yuri finishing his thoughts,  ‘No, the world falls APART with the aid of language. The world disintegrates from  ONE into numerous grids, from coherence into disjoints, from continuity into checkered squares,’. With much despondency I added that, ‘and  we are all eager to fit into those squares, one or another.’

Yeah, but don’t you forget’,  reassuming his eloquence, Yuri quickly added,  ‘it is from desultory one into orderly grids, from rambling coherence into methodical disjoints, from aimless continuity into systematic squares.’

‘I bet back to the days when there’s no language, one can understand the happiness of a dandelion’. I murmured softly as I pressed my face against the window.

The dandelion field had long been deserted behind us.

Silence again reigned over inside the car.

Advertisements

Tajikistan Chapter 6

Standard

Chapter 6

Next morning I woke up by the bustling noise of vehicles speeding down the highway, facing Yuri’s wide open eyes staring at me while I was still lying on one side under his arm. We probably didn’t budge a single bit for the whole night, most because there’s simply no space in this tiny tent to indulge us any luxury move as even to stretch our limbs. I mumbled a good morning to him with an artless smile, the kind that says ‘I had a solid sleep’ itself, wondered if he had the same.

Oh I don’t know, Yuri lied back on his back, clearing a few strips of blond hair that fell on his forehead using another free hand, replied, your breath kept whiffing at my neck the whole time which was quite ticklish.

I exhaled few heavy puffs of air from my nostril while lying in the same position, to verify his claim. You are probably right, sorry about that. I said to Yuri, giving him an apologetic grin.

And you snorted. Yuri added, turned around staring at me again, and a smirk climbed upon the corner of his mouth, with his typical half joking half sincere air muddling the whole accusation.

I did no such thing! I cried out and raised up my head off his arm, gave him a dignified glare, and plumped back on to his arm heavily.

You did. Said Yuri.

Did not. I replied.

The argument didn’t last long before Yuri protested that he needed to stretch his arm for he had been unable to feel it ever since I pillowed on it last night.

I squirmed my way out of the tent first, caught a lungful of crispy cool mountain air. The camp fire had long waned down to a stack of dead ashes. I started scouting around the camp site while there was actually nothing to be discovered, as it was an open land roughly ten yards away from the highway, separated by a thorny fence which proved to be less intimidating as it posed to be so when we succeeded climbing through last night. A lovely shade of green had begun to nourish on those willow trees which were dotted around near our camp. I walked into one, broke off few twigs, writhed them together into a ring, niched few bright yellow dandelion flowers in between, and presented this eco-friendly crown to Yuri while he was putting away the tent, as an apologetic gesture for causing him numb arm, ticklish neck and an unsound sleep.

Yuri made few faces wearing the willow crown. I told him green and yellow suit his majestic attire just perfect. And we were back on good terms.

We managed to climb across the thorny fence, and back on the highway in no time. By the daylight, we made out that the other side of highway was a deep august ravine worn through by a rather invalid trinket flow of clear water. Yuri said it was only morning, wait till the afternoon when the snow from the mountain melted by much warmer sunlight came down, there would be torrent of muddy water gushing through the valley again.

You know what I wish right now? Yuri turned around and asked me as we wandered along the highway with our backpack on.

Er ?

I wish to have breakfast. Yuri replied.

Dream bigger next time. I laughed at Yuri’s wish. Oh Wait think I still have some nan left. I reached to my rucksack for some bread.

I am talking about a warm breakfast with a nice cup of tea. Protested Yuri.

Well too bad you don’t have a magic lamp to rub on.

I wished to have a travelling buddy, then there you are. It doesn’t kill to make a wish.

As we walking, squabbling, and drooling over fantasized bread, butter, ham and omelette, a voiced called upon us from behind. It was an old Tajik woman, wearing a modest dark blue hijab and traditional Kurta with a generous taste in maroon, brown and gold. She was carrying one bundle of twigs, branches, dried-up tree trunks over one shoulder, and didn’t put it down even when talking to us. After she made out a sketch of our story, she insisted that her house was not too far from here and we should join her family for breakfast.

She led us through a squeaky wooden door upon which time and weather had carved their marks, into a spacious squared courtyard where three old apricot trees provided enough shadow to the most of the space. Two mud brick walls enclosed the courtyard from the south and west side, a few chicken were running loose sauntering around looking for warms, seeds, pebbles or whatever caught their interests. A young woman in her twenties with a toddler by her side peeped out of the main house after hearing the hustling outside, looked more shy than curious seeing two foreigners with weary faces and rugged backpacks standing in the middle of her courtyard. She hesitated by the door not sure to come out or get back in, until the old woman called upon her and exchanged few lines of Tajik. A beam of earnest smile came up on her face and she picked the toddler and turned around, retreated into the room.

The old lady pointed to a wooden bed with three sides railed up for people to lean on, and asked us to sit there with her. Shortly after we settled ourselves on the cushion sitting cross-legged on the bed which was placed under a lush apricot tree, the young woman who previously briefly greeted us came out again, holding a big tray of variety of treats, Tajik bread, butter, fresh goat milk, solidified sour milk, tea, raisins, dried figs, almonds, chocolate and some home make cookies, unloading them all unto the central carpet on the bed and retreated again. Eat eat. The old lady nudged the bowl of fresh milk in front of me, and urged us to help ourselves in Russian while we were just staring at the food still dazzled, overwhelmed, bombarded by her generosity.

The young woman, introduced as the daughter in law, now had taken off the initial timorousness, standing beside the bed, taking a great interest in me, observing and smiling at the way I dipping the bread into milk. The toddler came out of the house with one hand in a young Tajik lad, lean yet well built toughened by years of outdoor labor work, followed by a slightly older lad with one crutch under his left arm waddle his way out into the courtyard. I noticed the emptiness in one of his trousers.

Later on we made out a general story of this family despite the difficulty of language barrier. It turned out the elder son, whose mobility as we witnessed had been unfavourably confined to the assistance of a crutch, was a victim to the landmine which were laid during the devastating civil war lasted half a decade back in the 90s. The whole family was in large supported by the younger son who worked at a near-by mining factory, the ladies of the house stationed at home, collecting firewood, making cloth. The mother pointed to her maroon, brown, gold themed Kurta, proudly claiming that she made it herself. We complemented on her dress and craft skills.

The daughter in law this time shifted to the bedside and sat next to me. The toddler climbed onto her laps, and then manoeuvred himself to reach out for the nearest bowl, fished out one or two raisins, turned around to his mother and presented his triumph, but the two raisins spoiled onto the carpet when he opened his small chubby fist. We were all pleased at his clumsy gallantry. The young woman smiled coyly, straightened up her child at her lap, picked up raisins from the carpet, blew gently on them before she fed it to him one by one with a motherly attentiveness. The toddler lost interest in raisins in no time and tottered his way to his father who was right now sitting at the two-stairs terrace.

The young mom now diverted her attention back to the foreign visitors, shifting her eyes from our smudged backpacks, to the rugged blue jeans we were on, to the green triangular scarf I tied around my neck, with no intention to veil her innocent curiosity, wander and admiration. When she finally fixed her staring into my mine, she cut few inches of distance, budged over closer to me, and claimed, khah-rah-SHOH! The old woman and Yuri thought we bounded rather well.

When we mentioned to leave and carry on our trip, the old woman told her daughter in law to fetch a white plastic bag, in which later she put almost the rest of packable food left on the carpet, and insisted us to take it for the road trip. The whole family now stood up by the door of the courtyard, ready to seeing us off, the young parents with their toddler, the elder brother disfavoured by fortune with one leg less, the mother of the house with her proud homemade Kurta, and us, total strangers with a bag full of Tajik artless hospitality and generosity.

The young woman suddenly darted back into the courtyard to the nearest apricot tree, reached a lower branch by a small jump. In no time she came back with two handful green baby apricots, and shoved them to me. I must had looked puzzled by her gesture, not sure what to do with those green baby apricots. She picked one, and ate it whole, and gave me an exemplary smile of satisfaction.

Inexplicable gratitude swelled up our chest when we bade dah svee-dah-nee-yah to the family. we walked the next few miles along the highway rather quietly.

I started to think that William Thackeray, who claimed, with his bitter chronicle cynicism, that, the thriftless gives, not from a beneficent pleasure in giving but from a lazy delight in spending. While the thrifty, who is good, wise and just, would easily turn from a beggar, or deny a poor relation, must never have been fortunate enough to encounter a family like this one, in the most remote, unknown, simplest farmhouse.

Perhaps all it takes to turn William Thackeray around from his bitterness, and cynicism is just a scoopful of green baby apricots.

Tajikistan Chapter 5

Standard

Chapter 5

It was already past midnight when we parted our truck driver. With the help of starry light and a 80 lumen hand torch, we were able to find a camp site half a mile away from where the driver dropped us, despite the fact that we had to climb across a thorny fence made out of bramble like branches, and the barking of two or three wild dogs creeping in towards us, we managed to collect enough twigs, branches, and stumps to make a small camp fire. The cheap bottle of vodka did not live up to our expectations, the effort to swallow it down our throat would dignify what a car might feel like when scratched by a steel knife, and the adding of tomato juice didn’t make it less undrinkable. Nevertheless we brazened it out, and drank it bottom up with celebrative spirit for us making a first stop over in this hitch-hike trip. By the dwindling fire, the haziness of alcohol seeping through our nerves, I started to ask Yuri questions.

–          How did you manage to do all this?

–          Manage to do what?

–          To attempt a hitch-hike trip at night without much apprehension over the possibility that there might be no vehicles at all ready to grab; to make a camp at an unknown turf  in the middle of night while there might be no wood for making the fire and the wolves might take us as dinner. And u did it as if it’s some easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy task.

–          I don’t see it as a task. There’s no apocalyptic judgment at failing doing it.

–          I am depressed.

–          I know.

–          How do you know? Is it that obvious?

–          You are lacking direction.

–          Yes, very correct. So what should I do?

–          Find direction?

–          Quite an obvious answer ha?

–          Life is easy.

–          Is that so?

–          Yes. But it is made difficult by idiots.

–          Suppose I am one of those in your opinion.

–          That’s not what I meant. People are trying to sell the idea that everything is difficult. Those are idiots. If you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more. That’s it.  Easy. But then people make it difficult by throwing a dazzling variety of weight lose pills while stuffing your stomach with milk shakes and chocolate bars. Find out what you want and go for it.

–          I don’t know what I want.

–          I am sure in a few days you’ll be back to normal.

–          By normal you mean I still don’t know what I want but I will live with it with an ease mind.

–          I am sure you have some ideas.

–          I wanna have sex. Heheh.

–          Hmm, not too bad.  Plenty of willing men out there at your service. I guess it won’t keep you occupied all the time, but it is a start.

–          I wanna learn German well, and …. And write a book

–          There you go. Make a plan and then make it happen.

–          Ahh, you sound like a text book, and churchy.

–          I read quite a lot what you would call dreadful ‘how-to’ books.

–          Sure u did, you reek like those books.

–          Do you know what I learnt from those books? How men and women think differently: men are looking for freedom, women looking for love.

–          That’s not true. I am looking to be conquered.

–          To be conquered? That’s love also.

–          That’s more than love. I am looking for someone or Something that can grab my mind as well as grab my heart. Then I will surrender myself to it/him unconditionally and completely.

–          Perhaps You are talking about death.

–          Yes, death is my lover.

–          You know religion is another solution for your lacking of faith, to anchor your restlessness.  You give him that power in an effort to deny your own freedom and your responsibility for the constitution of your own life. Much like death.

–          Yes, death is my lover.

–          You don’t want to be burdened with responsibilities, sufferings, confusing.

–          Yes, I want to break the shackles of responsibilities, sufferings, and confusing.

–          Ha, women and their lust for submission.

–          Aren’t we all like that? Religion is for faithful people; and death for faithless ones.

–          Why don’t you opt for a religion then, I mean at least try to?

–          You mean to warship something that’s our own human’s creation, to give something with unparalleled power so that I could live with ease under the false security that I am being watched and taken care of, to make something so divine and unexplainable and at the same time belittle myself as humble as possible so that I won’t even have the courage to question its authority ? hmm no.

–          Well in a sense, you are right. Religion is more about playing with human’s fear and insecurity, rather than the matter of belief itself. And for that matter alone I think religion has its very reason to exist, especially for people like you, you are a very insecure person, you actually want your voice heard, you crave to be watched over constantly, you yearn for surrender of  yourself into a strong and protective arm.  But either way you choose, religion or death, doesn’t it denounce your own existence?

–          You cannot prove your own existence. It might all be an illusion.

–          You are you, you have your own existence, it is impervious to the fleeting thoughts, to the electromagnetic ripples occurring in some unknown mind. You continue to be the person you are from the beginning to the end, without a skip of a single moment.

–          You don’t learn ‘perfection’ by living in nothing but ‘perfection’; you don’t learn the truth of ‘happiness’ without the contrast of ‘unhappiness’; you cannot prove your existence without experience of death.

–          Are you acclaiming that this conversation happening now is not real? That our presence together in Tajikistan is not reality? That our hitch-hike trip crossing the ‘tunnel of death’ is an illusion? The barking dogs, this orchard we sneaked into,  the grass we sat on, they are all in a life form!

–          Yes exactly, they are in a life form, and to be more precisely,  just ONE form of LIFE.  There’re sorts forms of lives out there, what we called DEATH is also one of them.

–          We have no knowledge to claim that is truth.

–          We have no knowledge to claim Jesus born of a virgin womb is truth. There’s certain enigmatic beauty in assuming death as a form of life, just like there’s certain mystical beauty in believing in virgin birth as well.

–          How would you picture the life in death?

–          One simply cannot. The fact that you as a living being in this life is the ultimate limitation to your understanding of other lives : we don’t know much of the life before we were born as more than the life after we are dead. And all the things we fail to understand belong to a higher dimension, including death.

–          Then would you picture the life in death better than our current one?

–          I would say better in terms of we will be able to understand more, including gaining the knowledge of this current life. Like citizens from 3D world would have a better understanding of 2D world, while people from 2D world would never understand the life in 3D, simply because of limitation of vision: all they see are dots and lines.

–          You are basically saying that death is a higher form of life and our current life is a god forgotten rotting pit.

–          Yeah, something like that.

–          You are quite depressing to talk with.

–          I know, I am depressed.

–          Are you suicidal ?

–          No, I don’t think so. I am more scared at the Notion of me possibly taking my own life at any moment rather than death itself . So I never manage to do that.

–          You are trapped by your own reasoning: you want to surrender, yet you are afraid to do so.

–          Yes, I am doomed.

–          You know life is really easy.

–          You keep saying that.

–          As long as you find the sense of your life.

–          And you found yours?

–          Oh yes.

–          Which is?

–          The sense of life is to relate everything around you in the most efficient way to satisfy your own needs.

–          I don’t understand a word of it.

–          Of course you don’t.  Your desponding imagination had consigned you into a shaky grave. Your mind is preoccupied with the hollow lust of submission, while you forgot to engage yourself into any kind of relationships in this world. We are all related to each other in one way or another. No men is an island.

–          No men is an island.

–          Connection, the tangled web we weave,  is what makes our life easy. You know before I met you, I had been travelling alone all by myself  through Pakistan and Afghanistan, three months without talking much to other human beings, loneliness almost encroached half of my soul. Then I wished someone would accompany me during the trip, and then there you are, sitting at that café in Dushanbe, ready to grab.

–          Ready to grab, like a fresh, yummy kebab?

–          Yes, like a fresh, yummy kebab.  Hehe . Are you mad?

–          Occasionally.

–          Because of what I said about you and kebab?

–          No, because I am.

–          Come here.

The wood had long been burned out. It was getting chilly minute by minute. Yuri put up a snug little tent, lend me his blazer and scarf to keep me warm, and I soon fell asleep under his arms

Tajikistan Chapter 4

Standard

Chapter 4

The commitment took immediate effect the very next day, when we packed our backpack in hangover and had a lengthy late lunch at a local restaurant, eating  Osh and Kebabs, over a semi-cynical joke on dating girls shared by Yuri, who opened up ardently after a hearty meal and a glass of fresh sherbet juice.  Later on the conversation moved on to Varzob Bazaar where a couple of beers were consumed before we hit the road heading north.

The first car pulled over beside us was occupied by three young Tajik lads, who let the blasting music of their choice acoustically humping the vehicle. They warmly greeted us when we crammed ourselves into the backseats, and not without much curiosity asked our background and relationship. In reply, as Yuri and I already agreed on for the convenience of travelling together, we naturally posed as a couple who got to known each other at university in Netherland where we both studied. The story of us as a couple were told through out our trip again and again, with a few more embellishment each time. Yuri was pretty happy to brush up his Russian by repeating the story whenever we were asked, while I was contented to leave the conversation with the guys since none of the questions were addressed directly to me, as one could understand in a Muslim culture the female were generally overlooked and shadowed by guys, I redirect my attention to the breath-taking view outside of the car: it was late spring, snow dwelling at the top of mountains lost last winter’s prowess and started to melt as temperature arising day by day, stealthily seeping and conglomerating as gushing muddled torrents into Varzob river, which winded through the south and north Varzob valley. Vegetation nourished by amiable weather and adequate precipitation at the lower altitude of valley bore the presence of affluence,  unruly and abundantly thriving amidst the wildness. After two years living in an artificial city (Singapore) whose whole supports are lavishing capital, and overbearing laws, rules and regulations, a city of consumerism, extravagant landmark buildings, and plastic trees reaching 100meters wired up by neon lights, I was exultant now by each sight of a deserted pebble, an anonymous flower, a donkey greasing by the road…

The ride lasted less than half hour before those Tajik young lads departed us at a fork, while our interests of direction differed. We carried on with our backpacks, walking along the M34 high way for a while, picking up a cheap bottle of vodka , a carton of tomato juice and some tajik bread at a small shop besides the road. When we hailed a Russian truck stop, it was already getting dark. The driver was a middle aged northern Tajik whose face, like most middle/lower class tajik, was toughened with years of hardship. He let us sit at the co-driver seats as the back of truck was occupied with commodities, mostly beverages from the company he was working at. we routinely exchanged our background stories, using gestures, body languages, and a Russian phrase book that made the simplest conversation in Russian with Tajiks possible. The truck managed to manoeuvre through the darkness quite smoothly, not much of traffic was encountered at night. We stopped for a while at a small cabin served as a local farmer’s house-slash-  a stop-over restaurant for drivers and passengers passing by the highway. Stewed beef and potato served with Tajik bread and Chai were offered on the dinner table, which was more or less like a bed where every guest sat around the food with leg crossed. The truck driver invited us to dine with him, who insisted with such sincerity and heartfelt kindness that we could hardly reject.

Half an hour later, we hit the road again with the same truck. With a contented stomach, after the buzzing of a long day, I started to doze off at my seat until Yuri woke me up suddenly, announcing that we were about to cross Anzob Tunnel, the infamous 5 Km long tunnel locally known as ‘the Tunnel of Death’ for its deteriorated road condition and peril of year-round avalanches. The driver popped some Naswar , the central Asian snuff, under his tongue, to keep him awake and alarm during night drive.  The tunnel certainly lived up to its notorious reputation. The truck was trudging through puddles after puddles of water the moment we entered into the tunnel. Water was still drooping in from jagged rocks both from the ceiling and sides of the tunnel. Accumulated black fumes and exhausts from cars had been  hovering inside the tunnel due to the lack of appropriate ventilation, obscuring the vision even with the headlights on. The side windows of our truck were shut down dead in fear of carbon monoxide poisoning. The driver gave us a genuine apologetic smile every time the truck hit  a notched rock or slumped unexpectedly into a puddle, splashing water furiously besides the vehicle , and bumped us few inches up from our seats.  The dreadful journey continued for about forty minutes before the truck finally maneuvered itself through the exit.  The windows were able to roll down, I stuck my head out , started to engulf the cool, fresh mountain air into my lungs. The temperature had dropped almost to freezing point at night in this mountain region with an altitude as high as over 3000 meters. Tank-sized icebergs were deserted beside the road, an ominous remnant of previous avalanches.

The truck continued trotting uphill for a short while before it made a turn, meandering downwards to the foot of the mountain, where the driver took a lodge to stay over the night.  Yuri and I kindly declined the driver’s offer to stay at the motel,  and made the decision to camp outside.

Tajikistan Chapter 3

Standard

Chapter 3

Even though I wasn’t rushing to be anywhere, it would be great to find  a roof over my head for the coming night. As most of the hotels in Dushanbe were over-priced and potentially bugged due to a substantial amount of American, Russian diplomats used to check in there, and the only couch surfing host I applied, Chris, was out of town for two weeks at that time, I got no one to turn to but the very person who was sitting next to my table, Yuri,  who also appeared to be communicable in English. He was wearing a  starched white shirt with a black-white Arabic keffiyeh around his neck, looked malnutritioned, rather thin and small for the typical bulky tubby European build I had in my mind, and a rucksack, with autographs, drawings, sentence, people’s wishes doodled all over, sitting at the feet of table gave away that he was a traveler as well.  I diverted his attention from his laptop by asking tentatively, ‘hmm, sorry,… excuse me…oh hi…,hmm,… where did you manage to find a place to stay here, if you don’t mind me asking?  The hostels are surprisingly pricy.’

Sometimes a good story just begins with asking the right question to the right person. I’ve asked tons of people, tons of questions like ‘how to get… where is…how much is…?’ during my entire trip, yet there’re only few stick by and waved their lives into yours, becoming a notable figure in part of episodes of your story, unlike those passers-by with ‘what’s-his-name’, skimmed over your life the way a kingfisher skimmed over the water, leaving barely aroused ripples soon disappeared into oblivion. And Yuri was not that kingfisher dissolved into someone’s memory briefly and remained unknown, unmarked, unattended.

He turned out to be couch surfing at a German’s house, and he hooked me a place in the same house after getting consent from the host over the phone.  So accommodation problem solved.  As a token of appreciation, I accompanied him to a  beer factory , and bounded well over several rounds of freshly brewed beers. The rest of afternoon went smoothly under the influence of alcohol: we climbed to the top of Victory park, only to catch a military parade practice for the celebration of victory over Germany during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), and some young Tajik couples making out at the back of mountain. The 165 m tall Dushanbe Flagpole, the tallest free-standing flagpole in the world,  was definitely an eye catcher  even from miles afar. Its Guinness record height beat the 162 national flagpole in Azerbaijan and the 133 one at Turkmenistan, touting there officially as a symbol, as President Imomali Rakhmon said, ‘to consolidate the achievements of Tajik’s independence, peace, unity and national harmony.’ The testimony and the flag are all majestic, and grand, yet it wouldn’t cover the fact that Tajikistan is still the poorest of the 15 former Soviet Nations.

The rest of day saw us drinking in front of Ayni Opera with a local celebrity whose pictures was abundant on the road side ad boards when he did a commercial for tele company. A proper first day in Tajikistan thus ended in between warm conversations, cool beers and salted cheese strips. In the midst of drunkenness I gave the commitment of accompanying Yuri on a hitch-hike trip to Khojand, the capital of northern Tajikistan, given that I was more or less on a self-exile journey whilst no concrete trip plan had ever been laid out, I surrendered the authority of decision making to whimsy, drunkenness, or whoever happened to sweep into my way.

Tajikistan Chapter 2

Standard

Chapter 2

‘International’ is flamboyantly patronizing to be used in the Dushanbe Airport, which largely looked like a temporary, poorly staffed bus station went into an unsuccessful transition.  Despite the discouraging décor, I received my first welcome in Tajikistan when one of the immigration officers slipped a small note into my hand furtively, looking right into my eyes full of warm expectation and what I later learnt typical Tajik kindness, ‘welcome and call me’, with a broken accent he said to me while I was about to gather my backpack.  As I opened the paper slip, a string of numbers revealed, a tingly butterfly was stirred in my stomach by such a flattering gesture. I got flattered all the time, ‘you have huge eyes! They really stand out’, ‘your hair looks like just survived a fire, all singed and curly, almost unnaturally beautiful’, ‘you are a bit of chubby, but on a non-threatening side’, ‘you have an adorable British accent when you are trying to look sophisticated’, etc, but been left with a number from a government officer the moment I landed at a foreign country, that was the one hell of deal to me, I immediately felt sexy and sophisticated at the same time. So I looked back at him, with a convincing smile, ‘sure, I will’, then turned my back, walked out of the airport and never saw him again.

Finding a place to stay in a totally strange city after midnight is not an easy task, especially when you didn’t make any reservation, had no GPS, had no graphical nor statistical information regarding any useful information that may help you feel less intimidated by the emptiness and darkness of the street outside of airport. In short: I was Tajik-Ignorant. The only thing of any value at all was a copy of outdated Lonely Planet Tajikistan I downloaded from some doggy Chinese website, so I showed the taxi driver several hostels on the LP, yet none of those rang any bell to him, as for one the LP I got was from five years ago and some of the hostels didn’t even exist now, for another apparently most Tajik read Cyrillic script instead of Roman alphabet.  And it turned out that repeatedly speaking English louder didn’t make the case easier here. After lengthy communication in two different languages separately, (like a chicken squabbling with a cat over the topic of weather, much fun! ), the driver finally dropped me off at a mid-range hotel, a bit of out of my budget, but since the front desk suddenly spoke German to me after I explicitly expressed my wish to get a cheap room in English, I went exultant and practiced my poor German, exchanged the idea of taking a cheap room, protested the price she offered, since that was all I can manage in German, I took the room in the end.  The room turned out to be the most luxury one I’d ever stayed during my entire trip: exquisite Afghanistan carpet covered the entire apartment, and yes, it was actually an apartment style, with a huge living room that large enough to hold a Sunday communion, a bedroom with queen-sized bed covered by handmade Tajik blanket with the most dazzling arabesque-like patterns and mathematically sophisticated  geometry interlacement, and a modern bathroom that later tested to be less effective than it looked like. Exhausted, I crashed on straight at bed, buried myself by the comfy Islamic style blanket,  chewing on the thought of Aladdin (somehow) before long subsiding into complete unconsciousness…

I checked out of the next morning as my budget was complaining since I bled my wallet by literally buying this Tajik visa and choosing to fly over instead of crossing by land. Walking along the nicely tree-shadowed Rudaki street with my backpack and observing this most beautiful capital in central Asia for the first time by daylight, I felt refreshed and exhilarated, inside out, from hair tips to toe nails. The idle neoclassical buildings at both sides of the avenue reminded me of some laid back small town of Europe, looking cute and stately at the same time; Indo-European looking Tajiks paid me a great deal of curiosity, suppose because of my odd Asian face, awkward hair, outlandish outfit (to them, as the majority Tajik girls wear what I would call multi-layered pajama, covering till the ankles,  largely neglecting the beauty of female shape,  but airy, cozy, and with sorted bright color; while I was wearing a checkered shirt, blue Jeans, and a pair of red Nike sneakers), and my huge backpack. As I was in a non-grumpy mood, also had nothing to be grumpy about, wasn’t rushing to anywhere particular, I project a huge I-come-in-peace smile to whoever was locked into my eyes for longer than 3 seconds.

Later on I rested at a posh café in the center of town, which gradually  became the most frequented place I ever visited in Dushanbe, whenever I needed wifi or had nothing particular to do in mind.  Sitting at the umbrella shadowed table facing the Rudaki avenue, as the only major street for a capital city, Rudaki seemed surprisingly idle, hardly reminding the hustle-and-bustle of any capital. I ordered a pot of tea,  the only thing I’d ever ordered in this café for the next dozens of visits, for it was the cheapest price that you can pay for an out-of-portion amount of time you get to dwell in a café. It was from there I met Yuri, a what he described himself as ‘shit-headed’ (which was also literally true judging from a Bill Bailey hair style, no matter it just came out to be like that or he chose it purposely out of personal fashion preference)Dutch, with whom I began one of the most memorable journey of my entire trip.

Tajikistan Chapter 1

Standard

Tajikistan

Chapter  1

Obviously being a Chinese in your own country doesn’t grant you much of privileges at all,  especially when you mix yourself within a situation which also has been dipped by your foreigner companions, like applying a tourist visa from Kyrgyzstan/ Kazakhstan consulate in Urumqi. So after few unsuccessful visits at the consulates (I tried speaking English for the whole time before they spotted out I am a downright Chinese from my passport; I flashed my Singaporean student pass;  I flung my wriggly curly hair back frivolously to one side while speaking English and flashing my foreign student pass at the same time to the lazy-eyed officer sitting behind the counter, who, to my dismay,  remained an apathetic attire the whole time, and none of those gimmicks landed me a green pass ), also intimidated by the onerous application procedure listed specially for Chinese citizens,  I switched back to be a downright Chinese as my passport would like me to be, and did what most Chinese would do before travelling, I contacted a travel agency.  After managed to haggle down a few nickels, like chiseled out the ice dregs from an iceberg,   I was cornered down to the consideration of Tajikistan Visa as it was the cheapest choice given the situation.  So I buckled up, emptied my wallet,  crossed Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan off my travelling list, enlisted  onto my notebook a capital TAJIKISTAN, a country which I knew nothing of except being the neighbor of my-plan-to-visit Kyrgyzstan. And I walked out of the agency office, feeling much poorer than I walked in, and much elated, exultant, exhilarated about a new journey in coming.

One week later, I got a little green paper with Russian scripture ticked to my passport. And I flew to Tajikistan immediately.

I continued my lifelong campaign for the love of alcohol even on the plane, 32 000 feet above the air, pitch black outside of window, half of passengers sank into slumber by the diligent autonomous sound of engine while the plane insidiously flitting through the darkness, I asked for some Merlot.  The book I was reading,  the Way of All Flesh,  became a bit of bleary as a result of two-rounds-of-wine-drowsiness and after-midnight-drowsiness out of diurnal instinct. I leafed to the page, where Samuel Butler described a life living backwards, starting with death, then growing younger and younger before we entering into the wombs to end our lives. I tried to follow Butler-like kind of thought, and it only opened a jar of worms, my mind was bombarded, under the influence of  ethanol needless to say, by post Butler-like questions: would that make the afterlife a beforelife in our current time frame? Would that make people pay more attention to beforelife as they are so concerned currently about afterlife? Why didn’t people cast the same amount of curiosity to afterlife as to beforelife, even though we come up insensibly and go down insensibly equally and we know no more about the end of our lives than about the beginning, yet one can find zillions of literature depicting ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ without daring to dabble even a raw draft of beforelife?… Would people who ‘previously’ resided in Heaven grumping about  starting living a life on earth backwards?… Would those risen from Hell, after being tormented, tortured and burned, be grateful about starting living a life on earth backwards? …Hmm, what would a beforelife look like?… hmm, What would My beforelife look like? … Hmm, I think I’d like to be a grape, perky in green, luscious in purple, and if handled properly even at a decaying stage I can ferment myself into salacious liquid, the most delightful, enjoyable companion of all mankind, no matter if they live their lives in a  backward or forward fashion, like I am enjoying the companion of my before-life now…

The captain suddenly decided to bring me back to real life from my grape-afterlife-butterfly-wine dream by striking alert all the lights inside the plane cabin. I straightened up, put away my Butler book, and the empty wine cup, opened up the window shield, the dotted little lights, symbolizing the great civilization of human activity, under the contrast of night darkness were flickering rather peevishly down on the ground. Few minutes later, the plane landed me at Dushanbe International Airport.

Three hours of flight, three hours of time zone difference, I was back at the time I set off.