Jonathan Hibbert-Hingston and his wife Beth work for Operation Mercy in Khorog, Tajikistan. Jonathan will be giving a lunch-time lecture for the RSAA about some of their experiences in September.
It was a slightly hazy afternoon when Nemat and I left our village on the outskirts of Khorog to go and look for his cows. Khorog is the principle town of the Gorno-Badakshan region of Tajikistan and our village sits at the base of the mountain range that divides the Ghund and Shogdara valleys. Everyday Nemat takes his cows across the Ghund river and lets them graze freely on the other side. In the late afternoon he goes back over the river to collect them.
I have been living next door to Nemat for the last three years and he has been wanting to take me on this daily outing for a while. We walked through our neighbours’ gardens with the last of the apple blossom falling from the trees. The Indian Golden Oriols, a bright yellow bird the size of a large thrush, called to each other from the poplars that line the edge of the village before the path descends down a steep bank to the river. In the last week it has turned from a bright aqua-marine to more of a gun-metal grey as the snow and glaciers higher up have been melting in the early summer sun. We crossed the rickety bridge and headed straight up the mountain.
We followed a stream flowing in gully vertically down the mountain. The snowfall this winter was very heavy and this stream has not flowed for many years. The surface we walked on was very loose from the multiple avalanches that we had watched tumble down the same gully only three months previously. Already, though, mountain herbs had started to sprout out of the debris.
Having climbed for about thirty minutes we stopped by a little dry stone wall. Already a good 300m above the village one of our enterprising neighbours had enclosed some land, terraced it and was growing alfalfa and grass for his cattle. He had even brought up cement and made a cistern to keep it all watered. From that point we had a fantastic view over the village and the rest of Khorog.
Immediately below us was the village and then, raised slightly above and beyond it, was the massive construction site for the new University of Central Asia (UCA) campus. Nemat explained that when he was growing up there were only ten or so households in the village, but when the Aga Khan got permission to start the UCA project many people were relocated. Now the aerial view of the village is a jumble of blue, red and metallic rooves. The UCA initiative touches many lives in Khorog. Nemat works as a security guard for the German government and UCA car mechanic’s school in another part of the town.
Beyond the UCA lies Khorog which lines the river for about half a mile either side of it for about six miles until the Ghund empties into the Panj, which later becomes the Amu Darya (Oxus of old). The late afternoon light was reflecting off the confluence and the mountains of Afghan Badakshan, still covered in snow, towered majestically behind. Through the haze it was as though we were looking at a reflection in an ancient mirror.
We carried on climbing, stopping occasionally to look through the binoculars for the cows or to check wild rhubarb of ripeness. All around us now was wild sage and thyme, dwarf grasses and bubbling streams. For six to eight weeks of the years, these brown and barren mountains become shaded in green and life breaks forth in the wilderness.
Eventually a wall of rock indicated that we could climb up the stream no further so we descended a little way to pick up a canal path. For centuries Pamiris have been building canals for staggering distances at dizzying heights. For most of the summer these canals show up as green strips running along the mountain sides. They bring much needed irrigation to fields and houses. This canal was either built or renovated by Nemat’s grandfather and traverses the mountain for at least ten miles. The stretch that we walked along was in bad need of repair should it hold water again but provided us a welcome break from walking on scree and debris.
We continued along the path for half an hour, or so, and still no sign of his cows. Now we could see up the Shogdara valley which has a relentless wall of snow-capped peaks heading south east from Khorog. Below these was the Botanical Garden of Khorog. A beautiful park which, when established, was the highest such garden in the world.
Nemat was now in regular communication on his phone to see if any of the neighbours had seen his cows. In between these conversations Nemat explained to me that when he finished his new house he wanted it to be a homestay for tourists and help organise transport for them around the Pamirs. He also shared a dream for his two-year-old son to one day attend the UCA as a student.
The shadows were getting significantly longer when, eventually, Nemat decided it was time to drop down a level. We descended to a flatter area that, in Soviet times, had been used to collect rocks for building at the Botanical Gardens a little way beyond it. It was grassy and had huge boulders scattered around. Hiding behind these boulders were his cows.
They obediently walked in-front of us as we made our way back down toward the river knowing that, after dark, this mountain side would be visited by wolves. When we arrived at the bridge a man came toward us holding a wicker bird cage. He stopped at the far end of the bridge and let out a mountain partridge which promptly ran under the bridge. The man then crossed the bridge and waited on the river bank whistling. The party trick would have worked like a charm had the partridge, wanting to re-find his mate, landed and re-entered the cage. Unfortunately, took off, circled the unfortunate owner and continued down the river. Nemat and I left the man wandering up and down the river bank whistling for his lost partridge.
We walked back through the village with the cows and shut them in the shed at the back of Nemat’s house. As with so many communities in the world, modernisation casts its shadow in terms of dress, schooling and even paid employment but separating people from their roots in nature and the mountains does not happen so quickly. Nemat’s understanding of the herbs of the mountains might not be what his father’s was but still, beneath the venire of cell phones and western sports brands, is a mountain man – a true Pamiri.