murghab

In Which Our Tire Starts Leaking on the Edge of a Deserted Crater

In the morning, the mountains are dusted with snow, as if someone sprinkled powdered sugar on their rocky slopes.

I lie, shivering, on my makeshift bed fashioned from blankets piled on the floor. The wood-burning stove that heats the room went out sometime in the night, probably after the gaggle of giggling girls who’d appeared every few hours to feed wood into the iron belly went to bed.

Today, we’re headed to Murghab, the biggest settlement for thousands of miles. Murghab has come to acquire an almost mythical, promise-land status in our minds, because for days, Januzak’s been promising that all the provisions we ask for will be available when we get to Murghab. Treasures that await us include postcards, stamps, SIM cards, and pens.

I imagine a town with a consistent supply of electricity, and maybe even (dare I dream?) running water. I drift into elaborate fantasies in which I plug in my phone and flush a toilet.  

Wikipedia’s take is more tempered. “With a population of 4,000, Murghab is about the only significant town [in] the eastern half of Gorno-Badakhshan,” it says.

On the road to Murghab, we stop at a crater a meteor ripped into the otherwise featureless landscape. Here, we discover that one of our tires is leaking air.

“Don’t you have a spare?” Vianney asks.

Januzak shakes his head. “I leant mine to another guide a few weeks ago.”

The guide has been dragging his heels about returning it, or maybe Januzak just hasn’t bumped into him yet—the story spins in both directions—but either way, it’s hard to imagine a more inopportune place for a tire to spring a leak in. The landscape stretches out for miles in all directions, totally empty.

I stare at the tire with the glazed-over look of an urbanite who would need hours to locate the button you push to pop a car’s hood. Perhaps sensing this, Januzak suggests I go take a closer look at the crater.

Wow, I exclaim to myself, that’s a hole in the ground!

I feel sorry for Januzak. He has to manage both a leaking tire on the lip of a deserted crater and a woman with the know-it-all sensibilities of someone raised with the Internet.

Tajikistan guidebooks warn of drivers trying to make a quick buck by stuffing too many passengers into decrepit cars that break down halfway through the journey.

“Check the vehicle in advance to make sure it’s road-worthy,” they all say. “Kick the tires; take a peak at the engine.”

My experience with car mechanics is limited to the time my dad made me change a flat tire in the driveway to teach me a lesson about driving in the breakdown lane because, “there was too much traffic in the regular lanes.”

I’m not sure what a “good tire” is supposed to do when you kick it. I’m even less sure what I should see when I pop open the hood. A team of small elves winding hand-cranks? A bunch of wires that explode if you cut the wrong one? My dad, shouting something about a fuel pump?

Back at the car, Januzak unveils his plan. “We will drive to Murghab,” he declares gravely, “but we will drive very fast.”

The ride to Murghab is silent in the way that a full flight turns deadly quiet in turbulence.

Each time we slow down, I think of the air slowly escaping from the rubber tube beneath us, and I think of how desperately I don’t want to be stranded on the side of the road when we’re so close to the bustling metropolis of Murghab.

I remember something Vianney brought up a few days ago. “Have you noticed” he asked, “that, if you go anywhere else in the world, and you tell someone where you’re from, they’ll know one famous person from your country? Like when you say you’re American, people say, ‘Obama!’ Or for me, they’ll name some famous soccer player. But here, people just say, ‘Oh. America.’”

The Pamir mountains are located in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, which makes up 45 percent of Tajikistan’s land mass, but only 3 percent of its population. In the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, Tajikistan descended into civil war. Gorno-Badakhshan, which had never had strong ties to any geopolitical entity, used this opportunity to declare independence. The results for locals were disastrous: targeted killings of Pamiris, violent clashes between opposition groups, neglect of existing infrastructure.

The majority of Pamiris practice Shia Islam in a predominately Shiite country. They follow the teachings of the Aga Khan, a rich celebrity who breeds horses and attends star-studded galas and still finds time to lead a spiritual movement.

The Aga Khan’s development foundation was one of the first NGOs to come in to Gorno-Badakhshan and provide aid after the war ended and Gorno-Badakhshan was reluctantly reintegrated, and it continues to implement relief projects today. Pamiris, in turn, feel understandable gratitude towards the Aga Khan, who, in all fairness, seems like he does a lot of good work, even though he marries models and hangs out on yachts.

Many Pamiri families hang a photo of the Aga Kahn in a location that suggests he’s a member of the family, which is incredibly confusing, because he’s visibly not Pamiri. For the first few days, I’m baffled—do all these families have a middle-aged son who went off to school in the West and assimilated so completely that he sort of stopped being his ethnicity?—and then I realize it’s the same guy, and then Vianney explains who he is.

The tire makes it to Murghab, which is the highest town in the former Soviet Union, and the capital of Murghab District. I’ve been to plenty of capital cities. This is my first time visiting a capital town.

The market, as promised, has SIM cards, toiletries, and the highest concentration of Chinese electronics I’ve seen outside of China, along with giant sacks of rice and the few root vegetables that can grow at high altitudes. The stores have been fashioned out of old shipping containers. Outside of electronics, toiletries, and starchy vegetables, selection is limited.

The wind burns our cheeks as I go from shop to shop, trying to find a battery-powered charger. One store’s inventory is so eerily similar to that of the electronics market in Shanghai that I try speaking to the owner in Chinese. He looks very confused.

Januzak deposits us in a lovely guesthouse, where we meet a French-Austrian couple in the middle of bicycling around the world.

Cycling is probably the most challenging method of circling the globe, but round-the-world cyclists have a way of making it sound both easy and convenient.

“The thing about taking a train or driving is, you don’t really see the scenery,” they’ll say. “On a bike, you see everything. And we don’t have to rely on bus schedules or finding a taxi.”  

They talk about how easy it is to patch a tire or carry a years’ worth of supplies on panniers, and I invariably walk away from these conversations convinced that I not only could, but should, head to the nearest bike shop and resume my journey on wheels. This, despite the fact that I’m both physically and emotionally dependent upon my rigid skin-care regimen.

It’s been particularly bad here: Januzak tells us that on the Pamir highway, cyclists outnumber traditional tourists by a magnitude whose estimation varies wildly depending on his mood, but usually hovers around 2 or 3.

The French-Austrian couple are staying in the guesthouse while the Austrian woman convalesces from a stomach thing. Her French partner sees the starry-eyed looks in our eyes when we ask about electricity. He lets us down gently.

“Yesterday, we had it for a bit in the afternoon,” he explains. “But today, it’s windy.”

I keep flicking the light switch in vain, even though, by now, I know the routine: sometime after the sun goes down, the family will switch on the generator. “If it makes you feel any better,” the French guy offers, “the hotel is 10 times the price, and they don’t have electricity either.”

The owner appears and asks if we’d like to take a shower.
In the movie-version of my life that plays incessantly in my head, an orchestra bursts into a resplendent Hallelujah.

I haven’t showered since Dushanbe. The sheen of grease that covers my hair has me alternating between wearing the headscarf that makes it look like I have underwear on my head, out of consideration for others, or avoiding the few mirrors we encounter, out of consideration for myself.

I float, as if in a dream, to the shower.

I open the door, and a record scratches on the orchestral crescendo. The shower is a bucket of warm water, and a ladle.

There is a moment, when I’m pouring water over my head, when I feel very sorry for myself.  

The thing about peeing into holes in the ground and showering with a ladle is that it’s not insufferable. You adjust. You’re hopeful when you open the plank wooden door, but you don’t sink into the ground in despair when you see what’s inside (also, you don’t touch the ground).

But it also leaves me seeing certain infrastructure as a basic human right. I’m not really sure what to do about this, because I’m not rich, and the only thing I could contribute to organizations like Doctors/Engineers without Borders would be the “without borders” part.

This all brings me closer to understanding the one thing I would have never expected to see, feel, or find on this journey: nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

In the Pamirs, old USSR power and telephone lines that have long since fallen into disrepair line each road we take. As we drive out of Murghab, Norgul points out the villages we pass. “In Soviet times, these places had electricity,” she says. “But today, not.”

It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a Belarusian friend, that I’d never been able to wrap my head around, until now.

We were having one of those not terribly nuanced, surface-level conversations that were the hallmark of my early 20s, and we were talking about Gorbachev: me glowingly, him derisively.

“Some people see him as a coward,” he said, “because he let the union fall apart.”

“Yeah, and that liberated, like, millions of people—including you,” I said.

“Audrey, you don’t understand. One night you go to bed, and you’re part of the Soviet Union, the largest and most powerful country on earth. And the next morning, you wake up, and you’re Belarus.”