Two weeks ago – and I can’t decide whether to lament how quickly the time has passed or marvel at how much has happened between then and now – I walked up into the Fan Mountains of northern Tajikistan, to a region called the Seven Lakes, for four days of hiking, reading and relaxation. I spent my nights staying in homestays with local families through the wonderful Zerafshan Tourism Development Association, an organization that is trying to create the infrastructure for ecotourism in Tajikistan’s Zerafshan Valley. These are some of my favorite shots from the trip.
This is one part of Shing, the village I stayed in on my first and fourth nights on the trail. The town sprawls out on both sides of the river and consists of a number of disconnected “neighborhoods” that center on different parts of the town’s economy. This clutch of mud-brick houses is strung along a road that leads up to a mine shaft.
I was hiking along the valley’s main road, just a little north of the village of Rashna, when Farhod pulled up next to me in his jeep and insisted – absolutely insisted! – that he be allowed to drive me into town. He took me straight to his house, which was perched on a mountainside above the main road, and served me plov and tea while we talked about America, Tajikistan, and a thousand other things.
The village of Padrud, where I stayed with a woman named Zofira and two fascinating Slovenian hikers for the second and third nights of my trip. A thin string of houses crammed between mountains on both sides. The sky has a shape here.
This is how mud-brick construction works in rural Tajikistan. It’s not complicated, really; you just get a bunch of timbers into some shape vaguely resembling a truss, which will hold up the roof, and then you just cram in mud bricks any which way they’ll fit. Later, the person building this house will plug up all the cracks and cover all the timbers with several thick layers of clayey mud. The resulting structure will stay fairly cool in summer and keep the winds out in winter.
“Ei!” A man’s voice, from somewhere off to my left. “Ei!” I looked up, up, up the hillside to my left to see an old goatherd sitting there in the sunshine, cross-legged on the steep slope, his animals grazing behind him. “Откуда сам?” he shouted – “Where are you from?” – the question that has become a familiar refrain of my time in Tajikistan. “From America!” I told him. “America!” he marveled. “Take my picture!” How could I refuse? I clambered all the way up the hillside, took a shot, and held an entire conversation with him while balancing on the balls of my feet and trying not to fall off the hill.
By chance, Foteh and I ended up walking next to each other on the trail – he carrying some seeds to his relatives in a nearby village, I some mildly demented foreigner who decided to walk 75 kilometers for no good reason at all. He let me ride on his donkey almost all the way around the sixth lake!
By the way, do you notice anything about the people here? Almost all the males in this valley are either under 18 or over 40, and that is a very revealing fact. If you’re of working age and want to support your family, you have three options: you can eke out a hardscrabble existence trying to get this dry, thin soil to support agriculture or livestock; you can work in some capacity for the mining company in Shing; or you can go to Russia to look for work. Life here is too tough for most families to sustain. And so, like Mexicans vis-à-vis the United States, you’ll find villages where the entire male population of age has cleared out to go to Russia. Many of the older men have already been and returned.
This is Sohid, a little kid who lived up the side of a steep mountain outside of Nofin. He guided me to the site of an ancient Sogdian fortress on the top of a hill, clambering up fences and bounding over gates in the way of a child who believes he will always be as young as he is now. He loved having his picture taken, and he would stop me every hundred yards to ask for a new “chk-chk,” beaming into the camera every time. Sohid was my favorite of all.