The Story Behind The Photo: Rang-kul, Tajikistan

Family home – near Rang-kul, Tajikistan

Family home – near Rang-kul, Tajikistan

“My camel lumbered over some of the most barren landscape you are likely to see. My camel was moderately sized and in the process of shedding her brown winter coat. Apart from the wind, her gurgling and whining was the only noise that be discerned at this altitude of 4000 metres. The sky was a brilliant blue and contained a glaring sun, whirlwinds of dust danced in the distance as we plodded along the hard ground devoid of any shelter with nary a tree in sight. The flora was the occasional brown shrub and the lightest shading of green near watercourses. Naked mountains sporting different brown hues rose to peaks occasionally painted in snow. I was amazed that any animals, let alone humans, could live here.

But live here they do, and farms are infrequently found, including those housing yaks.  We visited one, and it provided the culinary discovery of Central Asia; the butter from the beautiful yak is the finest and richest I have consumed. After two hours, we sighted the farm where we would lodge for the night. The lack of terrain features made judging the distance difficult, and it took far longer than anticipated to finally reach our destination. All present, including The Nameless One, were relieved to arrive.

The mud-brick farm buildings contained two extended families of approximately 15 people. Their livelihoods depended on the livestock of sheep, goats and two camels housed without sturdy mud-brick pens. A stream flowed past their houses that provided some semblance of greenery, and dated machinery – namely a motor vehicle and motorcycle – provide their transport. This was a Kyrgyz family and since I knew no words of Kyrgyz and they knew no words of English, it promised an interesting evening.

The host family lived in a small one-room home. The household consisted of a husband, wife, one young child and a brother, presumably of the husband. With the approaching evening making the outside conditions increasingly cold, I remained indoors and watched the world of a Kyrgyz family in the Pamirs.  Reclining on the rug it was as if I was invisible, for the family went about their business without paying any heed to me at all.  There was little laughter, the tone of most conversations reflected the sternness of the environment. Everything felt sombre, as if after decades the building was reflecting the emotions of the souls contained within. The only levity was confined to the antics of the young child, and I am sure even that too will evaporate over time. 

There was but a single light source into the cluttered, dowdy interior; a single window of hard reinforced plastic.  I surveyed the room where their entire possessions lay – cups and plates rested in a blue cupboard, whose paint was partly peeling. Drying clothes hung across the ceiling, and a tall pile of mattresses dominated one portion of the room.  Almost every item I saw was functional, there was nothing superfluous. Save for the solar powered battery and television with DVD player, this abode could have easily passed for a home from 50 years prior.

I busied myself cleaning my camera from the day’s dust and dirt. Upon seeing this I was handed two binoculars to clean. The lenses on both were filthy, and it took at least 10 minutes of cleaning to bring one to a sparkling state, but the other that resembled an antique museum piece suffered from a clouding of the glass that could not be removed.

Smoke emanated from the iron stove nestled in the corner of the room as the animal dung burned within.  The entire room was almost without sound as the wife quietly prepared dinner. The skies outside darkened and the male family members gradually filed in, the chores for the day now concluded.  Dinner consisted of rice, bread, and a stew that contained vegetables and a sprinkling of meat.  We all squatted on the worn rugs beneath the feeble yellow light from a single globe, and everyone ate intently, noisily slurping their stew and tea until all was consumed.

After dinner, the same room was transformed into a bedroom, and it was the wife’s role to attend to every household duty, which included making beds by placing many layers of blankets on the floor for the men folk.  This was “women’s work” as I was later informed.  I originally believed there to be a strong delineation of roles; men undertook all farm tasks and women all house duties. This was an incorrect assumption for the next day I saw the wife assist the husband herd goats into a pen.

The sun had barely set two hours prior when everyone retired to sleep, with the husband, his brother and the camel handler in beds next to mine.  It was only next morning that I discovered that the wife and child slept in the car outside, which I suspect was due to my presence.  Had I known this I would have offered to sleep there instead, but am sure this offer would have been refused.

Drinking far too much water during the day meant a visit to the bathroom in the evening, but there was actually none, not even a squat toilet nor latrines; one just wandered to a designated area far from the buildings and answered nature’s call.  Dropping one’s pants underneath the midnight stars with a gusty, frigid wind numbs protruding anatomy parts in a short time. And this was summer, I am sure that there must be an alternative in winter for such exposure would be dangerous, but with no common language between my hosts and I, it was not a question that could be asked.

I returned to the warm, stuffy room and regarded my surrounds. Everything about life here was concentrated on the necessities of living – working, cooking, cleaning, eating, and sleeping. It was an endless cycle with no apparent levity or respite – all activity was for necessity; nothing for indulgence.  In places such as this, someone does not marry for love, they marry for survival. Without the support of a family, one could easily perish.  I explore the world mostly as a loner, and when not travelling, I tend to lead a solitary life. This would be impossible in the Pamirs.

I have always considered myself a lucky person, but never more than now. It is common for me to appreciate the simplest necessities of life, such as running water and electricity. I too greatly value that every facility for me is at hand – if food is short, a supermarket is a short walk away; if I am ill, a doctor is always nearby.  But not as regularly apparent was the immense freedom that comes with living in a prosperous society – the privilege to choose a path in life, whereas in many countries, there is but one choice.

Perhaps something can be learned from those who have only one choice; the value of relationships over possessions, the joy of simplicity over complexity, and the contentment of wisely choosing life’s  path amongst the many that are on offer.”

June 2013

My blogs about Tajikistan:

On the Wrong Side of the Law Tajikistan 1
A Perilous Journey Tajikistan 2
A Lesson in Life on the Roof of the World Tajikistan 3
The End of the Road Tajikistan 4