After a half-day’s drive across southeastern Tajikistan’s Pamir plains at around 4,000m above sea level, my fellow travelers and I reached a small yurt camp, the only one we’d seen all day: two yurts about a hundred meters apart. Surely fierce rivals. They always are in situations like this. Or at least by the time I leave they are.
We were warmly welcomed through the heavy, hanging carpet door and refueled with a pot of green tea. The Kyrygz family asked if we’d prefer to sleep in the yurt or the more modern, family-sized nylon tent next door. “Oh, we’d be most comfortable kicking you out of your home for the night into the tent next door, but thanks for asking,” rolled right off the tongue.
An early evening stroll to “get acquainted” with the livestock and muddle about the marshland upstream from us kept us occupied as the family shifted some mattresses next door and prepared a dairy-rich and delicious dinner: yak yogurt, yak milk, yak butter, yak meat, and bread (note: bread cannot be made from a yak).
Slipping out of the yurt before bed we were treated with a light snowfall. It’s been a cold year in the Pamirs.
The father of the yurt family is not a big fan of the cold. The next morning our host and I chatted outside as his women milked the yaks. “Turat (our driver) served in Murmansk in the military. He knows cold. I was in the Crimea. Much nicer.” He raised his binoculars and surveyed the horizon. I asked what he needed the binoculars for.
“Are they a big problem?”
“Sometimes. This year we lost more animals to the cold. In March we lost a few sheep and a yak.”
Turat too had told me about how bad March had been. “It’s one of the only times I can remember the pass to Osh being closed for long; it was shut down for almost the whole month.” The Pamir Highway between Murgab, Tajikistan and Osh, Kyrgyzstan is a decaying lifeline that supplies eastern Tajikistan with almost all of its fruits, vegetables, and even canned goods.
We had a fond farewell with photos before paying a steeper than expected price for the food and shelter. This was followed by a request for a bribe. We were heading directly into a national park that we knew we were supposed to have permits for, and didn’t. Our host insisted that he worked security for the park and of course he wasn’t going to make us turn around; he’d let us off for $7 each. Turat had actually told me of this the night before but the amount seemed incredibly high.
Seeing our hesitation, our host dipped into the yurt and came back out with an official security ID. So, sure enough, the bribe request was on the level.
I was willing to dish out $5 but my fellow travelers rightly said we’d provide $2 each, which was accepted meekly.
It’s always a bummer to be viewed as a wandering sack of money, even though we are. The hospitality was still genuine, but in other, even more remote locations, you can find shelter and food and give the host whatever you think is appropriate, even significantly less than cost, and people will still have been happy to have served you as a guest. Not that I’m recommending taking food out of the mouths of babies, but if that’s your bag, these locations might be appealing destinations for you.
Off we departed through the marshy tracks we weren’t sure would provide sufficient traction to get us all the way down to the Pamir River (the Afghan border), along which we’d drive to lake Zor-Kul, the legendary source of the Oxus (now Amu Darya) River.