Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Murgab, Tajikistan - the ends of the earth

The Eastern Pamir town of Murgab  truly feels like the ends of the earth. As a modern gauge to its remoteness not even the usual soft drink brands have made it out here, although if you bring petrol from the petrol station for the generator, it is possible to use the internet, giving contact to the outside world. The wind whips up the dust and throws it at the low buildings cowering into the hillside. Every second tourist is a cyclist doing battle with the wind. There's not much to do and, like in the Great Game days, we swap information on the road ahead, change money with people about to head to Kyrgyzstan and get tips on good places to stay and eat. There are the usual random collection of people who find themselves in a town like Murgab. The British ex-banker turned fantasy novelist travelling around the world on a motorbike, the Swiss cyclist who has been pedalling for 4 years, people heading to London, Amsterdam or Sydney by bicycle, jeep or motorbike. We try to grab a late lunch in one of the 3 cafes in town and can't work out why the waitresses are ignoring us. Even the other customers try to get their attention to no avail. When James walks into the kitchen to ask to order all becomes clear. They had run out of food but were too embarrassed to tell us.

Bikers in Murgab

Murgab is ethnically split between Kyrgyz and Tajik people. Tajiks look far more Persian and their language is also similar. Again this is the cause of some tension. The town sits on the Pamir Highway built by the Russian military back in 1934. And Murgab was an important military town even in Great Game days. It was here in 1890 that the British Army Officer, Younghusband, makes a reappearance in history, famously being expelled by the Russians soon after visiting.

A collection of ISO containers make up the market in Murgab. From above it looks like an illegal arms fair but actually they are just selling water melons and out of date chocolate bars.

Tajik/Kyrgyz  Friendship monument

Erali our cosy guest house and friendly hosts

Crossing the Kyzyl-Art Pass into Tajikistan

So, just as I had mastered the spelling of Kyrgyzstan we were on our way south to Tajikistan. We spent the day before the journey trying to source a suitable vehicle. Luckily we had become wise to making sure we viewed the vehicle before agreeing on the journey. James rejected one vehicle which was so old that it looked like it should be in a museum. It was a 40 year old Russian jeep known as a Uza and required a handle in the front grill to be turned rapidly to start it. Even then it needed more tweaking under the bonnet before the engine spluttered into life. Eventually, after waiting 4 hours for a jeep driver to show up, we found a suitable vehicle even if time keeping wasn't the drivers strong point.

The following day, after the driver was only an hour late, we headed south towards the Kyzyl-Art Pass. If international reports are to be believed this was the border crossing of choice for heroin smugglers. It didn't seem like a particularly busy heroin smuggling day when we crossed, however. We saw 3 other jeeps and a truck in total. Despite the lack of vehicles, and the absence of any searches, it still managed to take 2 1/2 hrs to have our passport passed from one office to the next (owner need not be present) and then drive the several kilometers of no man's land. I hate to think how long it would take had they had a rush on. On the Kyrgyz side a well bred spaniel ran ferral around the port-a-cabins. I imagined that it had once been a highly trained sniffer dog, donated by some western government. Now, like the wilded eyed border guards wearing a mix of army uniform, trainers and Kangol caps, the dog had returned to its pre-trained self. But both were harmless enough and we made it into Tajikistan without a problem.

Our jeep at the remote Kyzyl-Art Pass border crossing (still in Kyrgyzstan)

Made it to Tajikistan!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The trouble with Osh

On the 10th June 2010 an argument broke out outside a casino in Kyrgyzstan’s second city. Located in the south of the country, in the fertile Fergana valley, the city of Osh dates back to the 5th century BC and has an ethnic split between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The argument last year was over some money and happened to be between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Simmering tensions have long existed between the two communities. The Uzbeks have historically been more urban dwelling people whilst the Kyrgyz have traditionally been nomadic. However, in recent history the Kyrgyz have abandoned their nomadic lifestyles and increasingly moved into urban areas, particularly in Soviet times. In Osh the Uzbek community had well established businesses and spacious homes. As the argument continued on that day a completely baseless rumour was spree by text that some Kyrgyz women, living in a University dorm next to the casino, had been raped. This rumour spread like wildfire within and beyond Osh. Within hours people poured into the city enraged. Four days of violence ensued. Homes and businesses were torched, people murdered and women were forced to walk down the streets naked before being gang raped; as the police did nothing. The official figures are that 487 people died and over 100,000 Uzbeks fled across the border to Uzbekistan. People across Kyrgyzstan were terrified that this would initiate war with Uzbekistan.

A year on as we drove into Osh in a shared taxi an old Uzbek man silently pointed to every burnt out building we passed. He kept he hand low so the driver could not see what he was doing but he wanted to make sure that we saw the extent of the destruction. No one talks openly about what happened, everyone wants to forget about it and move on. Apart from the ruins, it would be quite easy to travel in Osh without realising what had happened. Many of the Uzbeks have returned and the market is bursting with fruit and vegetables, albeit with stalls set up amongst the burnt out ruins. After staying a while we noticed small things which revealed a continued fear and suspicion between communities; the Kyrgyz taxi driver who drove the long way around to avoid an Uzbek part of town or the suspicions of how communities had made their money with baseless accusations of drugs smuggling.

The situation is incredibly complex and there is no one explanation, many people argue that there is no underlying problem between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities it is the politicians who exploit the different ethnicities for their own benefit and a lazy media who explain every incident in ethnic terms. But combine this with the drugs trade, water insecurity and corruption, and the mix can be explosive. For us, however, our various stays in Osh throughout our two months in Kyrgyzstan were pleasant. Being situated in the Fergana valley, the bread basket of Central Asia, we gorged on fresh fruit and vegetables. When we first arrived it was cherry and apricot season but by the time we left it was peaches and watermelons which could be bought for pennies.

There are many NGOs now working in Osh on conflict prevention and reconciliation but it is an uphill struggle when so few people want to talk about what happened. Moving forward will no doubt be a difficult and painful journey and it is impossible to say which will be the best strategy to take but one thing I am sure over is that  trying to sweep everything under the carpet and ignore what happened is not a long term solution.     

 Osh market carries on despite being burnt last year

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Walnut forest of Arslanbob

After Peak Lenin I was completely exhausted. All I wanted to do was eat and sleep. After such a limited diet I thought I would crave fresh fruit, vegetables and bread but actually my body wanted protein; meat, fish, eggs and cheese. Luckily this isn’t a problem in Kyrgyzstan as kebabs are sold everywhere. We spent a couple of days in Osh, gorging on kebabs and staying with Matt and Maggie, an incredibly hospitable American couple with whom James had already spent the last 3 weeks whilst I was in the mountains.

James had itchy feet, and I want to visit Arslanbob, so despite still feeling unable to brave another long journey we decided move on. Arslanbob is a village in the largest walnut forest in the world spread over 60,000 hectares. It has several waterfalls nearby and most tourists in Kyrgyzstan visit at some point.

We travelled with two Dutch women from Osh and together headed straight to the trusted Community Based Tourism (CBT) office when we arrived for information. The friendly manager came to open it up after we telephoned him and helped us organise a homestay. He informed us that there were currently only another 7 foreign tourists in town. However, whilst visiting the closest waterfall that evening, it was apparent that Arslanbob was extremely popular with domestic tourists. Soon the waterfall became a side show and the foreign tourist were the main attraction. After posing for many photos we managed to escape and head back.

The homestay we were staying in was an Uzbek-style house which was home to an extended family. That evening we ate dinner on the large topgen (covered seating area) with fantastic views over the valley towards the forest. As an aperitif we were given yogurt balls. These are firm little white balls which seem to have been made from old rancid mare’s milk. There really isn’t much that I can’t force myself to eat but these are one. We discreetly throw them into the trees and imagined a pile of yogurt balls gathering at the bottom of the hill from foreigners unaccustomed to this taste.

Every morning and evening our hosts would ask us what time we would like the next meal. However, the meals were never served at the time we specified. Instead they just came when they came. This was fine by me as I still wanted to just sleep and sleep. After a late breakfast we explored the walnut forest. I enjoyed getting lost in the leafy forest. The walnuts would not be ready to pick until October but the trees offered cool shade from the blazing sun. Sometimes the forest opened out into a meadow or field with someone cutting hay but otherwise we were completely alone.

Neither of us wanted to leave, as we felt so relaxed, and I still hadn’t fully recovered, but we needed to continue north to Bishkek for a few days. This would enable James to finish his Winston Churchill Fellowship research in Kyrgyzstan. Eventually we managed to drag ourselves away to endure another long journey.

Dinner at Maggie and Matt's

Relaxing at our homestay in Arslanbob

James makes friends with the toy sellers