Licorice, peas and explosions

I had an incredible day in the field yesterday. We traveled to Ishkashim to choose sites for a cross border river erosion project. The road to Ishkashim is along the Pyanj River, which also acts as the erratic border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The scenery is constantly breathtaking, especially as one catches the first glimpse of the Hindu Kush. We stopped for a while at the bridge which is a border crossing, just outside of Ishkashim, to wait for a co-worker from Afghanistan. I was slightly overwhelmed at the thought that I was standing at one of the focal points of the opium trade. After getting in trouble from a few large border guards with AK-47s slung over their backs, we decided to head to Ishkashim without our co-worker. On the drive down, the locals in the car were surprised at the heightened level of military personnel scattered along the road, presumably due to the ‘rising militants’ in Tajikistan and the summit meeting which took place the day before (the third bomb in a week exploded in Dushanbe last night).
At the office in Ishkashim, we were greeted with chai and cookies as we discussed with the engineer where the erosion is the most severe. Within our timeframe we decided it was a better idea to slowly head back to Khorog and stop at villages on the way, rather than venture further into Ishkashim territory. On the way past the border-crossing, we were finally able to connect with our co-worker who explained crossing was unusually slow, once again due to the heightened security.
The first two villages we visited had a similar story: a dam and canal was built in Soviet times but has since been washed away. The only thing that is predictable of the mighty Pyanj river is that it constantly changes its course. As I walked along a precarious river bank, half of which had recently crumbled into the roaring river below, our engineer described how the land now under water was once a forest. The same story applied to the next villages that we visited along the river.
Upon returning to the car, we were shown how to dig up licorice root and chewed on it for a few minutes to extract its sweet juice.
The driver (who loves the fact that I have a Muslim name) insisted that I see the hotsprings along the road. So we stopped in a small village and walked through a run-down garden to two small buildings, one marked with a M for men the other with the Cyrillic zu for women. The hotsprings themselves were rather gross and small…I definitely was not enticed to jump in! But the garden did have apricots trees, and by this time were all starving and there was no prospect for food up the road. So we shook the trees and ripe apricots came crashing down, cracking as the hit the dirty ground… I ate them anyways.
We then stopped in a village which had some representative high pastures and hillside erosion problems. The community had experimented with terracing which had been successful for a few years, but now was also succumbing to erosion. Shortly thereafter we stopped at a mineral spring, where a women was frying some fresh caught fish from the river named ‘Malinka’ which I’m pretty sure means small… they were delicious! So after being refueled by fish, bread and chai, we visited our remaining sites. One high pasture site was off the main road up a valley. The road was uncomfortably precarious …one of my local co-workers repeatedly warned the driver to turn around (this was after we saw the remnants of a tractor which had fallen through the road, crashing into the rocky river bed below). But no, the driver just kept going. At one point, we were driving behind the world’s oldest bull-dozer type thing, that was creating the new road to replace the one that now lay 100 feet beneath us. Seriously this bull-dozer was ancient, I was told it dated back to before the Russian revolution, and I believe it > photo to follow!
Anyways, we made it to the village, whose road and bridge were built from the compliments of CIDA.
On the drive back to Khorog we were once again held up by a road block, this time because the Afghans were dynamiting the mountain facing us to build a road. So after waiting a few minutes (we found some wild peas in the wheat field beside the road) we saw a huge explosion and giant cloud of dust. After passing, we stopped in a co-workers village outside of Khorog where we sat in an orchard oasis, eating kilos of ripe apricots and white mulberries (Tajikistan’s specialty). Grassy green slope with a small stream running through to the village below, children climbing the fruit trees and learning that one must eat the inside of the apricot pit to avoid getting a stomach ache after eating so many of the sweet fruits… it was a perfect ending to the day.
After arriving in Khorog, Allison and I were invited out to the ‘Mafia’ pizza parlour (still not sure why it’s called that, but I’m afraid there’s a good reason for it), where we enjoyed too much greasy cheesy pizza and too much vodka, before the restaurant was turned into our own private dance floor.

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One Response to Licorice, peas and explosions

  1. Stefan says:

    You give a good example for what is an important slogan in current river training in Europe: Rivers need space. Our alpine rivers have been fixed to streched river beds but we see every year that rivers change their course during floods. And very often they are fixed again with a lot of financial investment.

    I am a bit worried about your permanent hunt for food ;-)) By the way: Mulberries were traditionallly alley trees along our roads in Burgenland, there were even white ones (So you see why it is said that the East starts at Viennas Naschmarkt). But now most are gone, first because roads have to be made wider and second because the fruits are a danger to the traffic on asphalt.

    Hope you find yout dailly share Stefan

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