It’s 5:30am and after lying in bed all night, sleepless from both the strange Central Asian bacteria inhabiting my stomach and the sheer excited anticipation of my coming journey, the time has now come for what will be one hell of a ride. Kenjal, my trusty driver, arrives on time in his battered, white 4WD, his gold teeth shine in the morning sun as he greets me with the traditional “Osolom Aleikum!” “Vy gotovi? (Are you ready?),” he asks me in his thick Tajik accent. “Da, konechno, poyekhali!” (Yes, of course, let’s go!”) I reply with an enthusiasm that reveals the true extent of my American naïveté. And we’re off! Cruising past the suburbs of Dushanbe, I gaze out through the cracked windshield at the denizens of this small Central Asian capital getting ready for the hard, hot day ahead. Women with unibrows (some kind of fashion statement here, no joke) sweep the streets with handmade brooms as children ride to and fro on the backs of donkeys, smiling amidst the dirt and the poverty in which they have been fated to live the rest of their young lives. Kenjal, gregarious even at this ungodly hour, begins to interrogate me about my life in America with an intense curiosity that is understandable given the fact that there are only 450 of my compatriots (including embassy staff) currently living in this far off outpost of the former Soviet Union.
“Are you married?” he asks me to kick things off (typical first question in a country where family really is everything).
“No, I’m not married,” I curtly reply, knowing exactly what’s coming next.
“YOU’RE NOT MARRIED?!!” Kenjal is simply astonished. “And how old did you say you are again….25? A man your age should be married, you should have five kids by know.”
“I know, I know” I say giving him a response I have already practiced a few times, “It’s just that in America we get married later in life. We grow up a lot more slowly than you do in Tajikistan. It’s a very different culture. So, are you married?”
He smiles mischievously and says “Of course! Not only am I married but I have TWO wives. One in Khujand and one in Dushanbe. I also have nine kids.”
“Wow,” I say, still recovering from the shock of the whole polygamy thing. “Two wives and nine kids, you must be a busy man! Is it normal in Tajikistan for men to have more than one wife?”
“No, not really. But, you have to understand, I’m a bit of a hooligan.” He gives me a knowing wink and continues, “I don’t have that many kids, at least not for a Tajik. During Soviet times Tajikistan was famous for having the highest birthrate out of all the republics. My brother, for example, he has 19 kids… all from one wife!”
I keep smiling although at this point my heart is going out to that poor, poor woman somewhere in the Tajik hinterlands who has spent most of her adult life in a constant state of pregnancy. I take a break from our strange conversation and look out at mountains growing steeper and more beautiful with every minute. Wide, flat, and nicely paved, the road at first is sheer pleasure. This is Central Asian sightseeing at its best, its most luxurious. I’m loving every minute of it as we get deeper in the countryside, the river beside which we are traveling now nothing but pure whitewater. About an hour and a half into the drive, the road is still paved and I’m thinking to myself, “This isn’t so bad,” when we hit our first delay in the journey. “Kitaitsi rabotayoot,” (the Chinese are working), Kenjal tells me, and for the rest of our trip he will utter these two words like a Buddhist mantra.
Apparently, the Tajik government contracted out a series of major improvements on the M34(the “highway” between Dushanbe and Khujand) to a Chinese construction firm and all of a sudden there they are , these Kitaitsi who will be our companions for the next 11 hours. They work like automatons, welding, digging, hauling, laying concrete, asphalt, tar, gravel…I’ve never seen such roadwork in my life. And the conditions in which they live…my God! Felt tents that look like nomadic encampments litter the barren hillsides. It’s like some kind of industrial revolution-era workcamp, a place where men work so hard that the life simply oozes out of them. Even for the Tajiks who are accustomed to tough conditions, the filth in which these unfortunate Chinese make their meager livings is simply shocking.
First delay..not so bad…15 minutes for a little dynamiting operation. 20 km later, after passing President Emomali Rahmon’s highly gaudy roadside palace (I think this is number 11 or 12…slightly reminiscent of a certain Iraqi dictator who also had a penchant for overdone architecture and numerous residences) the asphalt reaches its end and the fun begins. We enter the Anzob Tunnel, an unventilated work in progress that feels like going down a mineshaft. No lights, no ventilation, just a lot of old Soviet trucks spewing toxic diesel fumes as we maneuver through the small lakes created by mountain streams gushing out of the rock face. After the tunnel we hit our second delay…a lot worse than the first. We eat plov(national dish of rice, carrots, and some kind of meat) and drink green tea amidst the breathtaking scenery of the Fan Mountains as the Kitaitsi lay asphalt on the road for 3 hours. Sheer drop-offs of thousands of feet keep me awake and terrified for the next 180km as we maneuver through the treacherous heights of the Shakharistan Pass. All along the steep mountainsides the wrecked and rusted carcasses of unfortunate vehicles provide silent, eerie tesimony to the hazards of the M34. I breathe deeply and trust Kenjal…even though he is slightly crazy and can’t hear very well, he sure knows how to drive. Finally, we descend down our last mountain and cruise the broad, flat plains of Northern Tajikistan. Soon, a big smile comes to my face and the sweat on my palms begins to dry up…after 350km of the worst roads I have ever traversed in my 25 years, I have reached Khujand at last!