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Zor Kul Military Base: an Abandoned Post at the Edge of an Empire

“After the Russians left, Tajikistan maintained the post for a couple years,” our driver Turat told us. “But they couldn’t afford to keep it up. They sent a couple soldiers out here in late autumn. They were dead by the time their replacements showed up in spring.” This was less than a decade ago.

At least this is my understanding of what Turat said. My Russian sometimes provides fascinating yet false facts and fables.

I guess it was worth a shot to put some soldiers out there after the Russkies took off, seeing as the heroin routes weaving throughout the 1300km Tajikistan/Afghanistan border look like a map of Keith Richards’ circulatory system. I read somewhere unreliable that about 40% of Tajikistan’s budget goes to monitoring that border, but it’s by far the weakest budget of any post-Soviet state. And poor neighbors make poor fences.

According to Turat, this post was staffed with 70 to 100 Soviet soldiers back in the day. It was supplied with vast amounts of coal and was actually quite comfortable. The monitoring guardhouse in the photo at top makes me wonder how often a solitary soldier stood there in sub-zero temperatures, hazarding a smile and thinking, “Man, I’ve got the greatest job in the world.” (The river in the distance in the photo is the actual border.)

The abandoned base has been stripped of anything of value (unless you’re looking for a used set of dumbbells or a villainous, deathray-looking antenna system), but plans are being tossed about to turn it into a national park center and hotel. The compound sits ashore of Lake Zor Kul, the legendary source of the Oxus (now Amu Darya) River, one of the great waterways of antiquity (ask Alexander the Great about it sometime).

Unfortunately it’s apparently literally legendary, as Zor Kul (formerly Lake Victoria, so named by the Brit who declared its significance in the era when intrepid Englishmen scoured the earth for meritorious geographical locations that they could name after Queen Victoria) isn’t actually the source of the Oxus. Instead the river apparently stems from streams further up the valley in China.

But let’s go ahead and pretend I misinterpreted that part of the conversation. That really is the best part of speaking imperfectly in foreign languages: things don’t actually have to always mean what they actually mean.

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