Here’s a quick postscript from Middy detailing some of his travels after the paddling trip came to an end.
How I Spent My Christmas Vacation
It is Christmas, and ten Tajik truck drivers and I are stuck at a teahouse at the bottom of the only pass connecting Tajikistan’s two largest cities, Dushanbe and Khujand. The Anzob Tunnel rests at the top of the pass and is still under construction and officially closed, with a knee-deep stream running down its crooked concrete floor. Seven days ago a series of avalanches on the far-side of the tunnel closed the road. I reached the teahouse two days ago after hiking in a valley to the east, but my ten Christmas buddies have been waiting here a whole week. While they arrived at the teahouse in their Soviet-era Kamaz trucks, I walked 40 miles through serious snow to get to the teahouse– my only route of egress back to modernity and holiday cheer.
From outside, the teahouse’s faintly whitewashed walls are so faded they barely stand out against the brown earth surrounding them and from which they were built. Walking the last three miles of my journey to the teahouse behind 100 yaks and three shepherds, I spotted the faded white building from the barren mountainsides only because of the trucks parked on the dirt in front of its little blue door. The idea of a warm meal followed by multiple options for transportation to Dushanbe pleased me. After the teahouse’s owner and son greeted me, happy I had returned safely from my excursion to the east, they ushered me inside and onto an elevated platform with a soft carpet. In this relative luxury of warmth and softness, I reclined and surveyed the truck drivers scattered around the platform in similar positions of repose. One driver greeted me by telling me the road was “closed-closed,” to differentiate the current physical impossibility from its normal ignorable state of passable-but-officially-”closed.” Thus, before I could savor my meal, I joined the group of the waiting.
I am the only non-Muslim, and the only person who knows, when December 25th rolls around, it is Christmas. Precisely because of these differences, we are curious about each other. The drivers and co-pilots are pleased to have such an unexpected conversation partner, and I am curious about their lives and profession. They kindly simplify their questions if my Tajik language skills aren’t good enough to understand their inquiries. The first line of questioning is about my week-long hiking journey in an isolated valley to the east. The valley is famous throughout Tajikistan for the ancient language and culture that remains there from when Central Asia was a hub along the Silk Road. The truckers are proud of this history but admit without a road up the valley they will never go there. This very lack of access is why the valley’s language and culture have continued to exist for centuries while around them change has been a constant.
While the teahouse is just a one-room, painted-mud hut with a rug and a picture of Mecca on its walls, it is warm and has a TV. Not a horrible place to be stuck, and definitely preferable to being up in the avalanche zone where vehicles are still trapped and temperatures are well below zero. The avalanche has taken anywhere from three to thirty lives. The potentially high number of fatalities is a by-product of the road and tunnel being ‘closed.’ Police at posts blocking ‘closed’ roads in Tajikistan often let cars through in groups; one such informal convoy was hit by the worst of the avalanches. The teahouse truck drivers are sad for the families of the deceased, but they have survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, a violent civil war, and years plying these dangerous roads and simply offer a resigned shrug of condolence.
The drivers’ thoughts don’t linger on mortality for very long, and on Christmas morning they decide snow-chains will be unnecessary to get through the avalanche zone. They begin removing the chains from their trucks’ sturdy tires, and the group decides I will travel with the driver who first assessed chains as unnecessary. He is kind and generous, but his initiative to de-chain seems a touch premature when factors like snow, ice, and 15 metric tons of onions are involved. As all the drivers squat in the cold removing snow-chains held on by twine, I standing over my future driver silently trying to formulate a polite sentence expressing my reservations about removing the chains without any idea about the pass’ conditions. As if addressing my concerns, he looks up at me and promptly gives me my first Christmas present of the day: a pile of snow chains he has just removed and with instructions to deliver them to the truck’s cabin. I like useful gifts, and these chains, when used, are just that. Maybe my grizzled buddies sense this.
They are truck drivers and are easily recognizable as such, just like anywhere. I often marvel at their similarity to America’s corps of drivers. They slump over warm cups of tea like their North American counterparts would black cups of coffee. Conversation heats up over trucks, engines, and women. The first two subjects are addressed like truckers in the states, but their taste in women eludes me. Bare-breasted modern dancers on Russian TV fail to keep the attention of those watching the screen, while a Tajik music video with a waitress in a short skirt elicits a serious debate over where exactly that restaurant is in the capital city and how long it will take to get there after the pass opens. When I see an advertisement (for what, I have no idea) that involves a staged pillow fight between models in lingerie, I look around thinking this will surely create animated conversation and a chance to learn some new Tajik words. Instead, nothing. An hour later another TV ad, with a team of young women in Santa-red bikinis walking through the snow gets plenty of laughs and the attention of everyone. Later, I think I’m zeroing in when a Russian shampoo ad with a naked woman massaging her head and groaning warrants only an ‘Is lunch ready?” look from the two guys closest to the screen. I am left stumped.
Around mid-morning Christmas day, I ask my future driver if removing the chains before even seeing the pass is wise; his response is a cough. He does a lot of coughing. A career truck driver, he is in his 40s but looks to be more like 70. Like all of the drivers and most of the population here, the cracks in his hands are so deep they can never be cleaned and could hold a quarter up on its edge. In other ways he is like truckers back home and even shares some of their habits, adjusted for Tajik culture. He likes his nose, local chewing tobacco, and sleeps like a baby after popping a wad of nose big enough to, speaking from experience, make my head spin for a straight hour and induce vomiting for at least half a day. But his ability to slumber with a stimulant shouldn’t surprise me, as he perpetually seems to be the most comfortable person in sight no matter how or where he is crammed. This requires amazing flexibility for a man of his years. As if to reinforce this impression of incredible suppleness, I watch him melt out of his truck’s driver’s seat with a leg up near his shoulder and stunning fluidity. To meet his needs of comfort and flexibility, he wears a grey and powder-blue tracksuit and never changes it–but then again no one in the teahouse has a change of clothes. It is hard for me to imagine him in any other setting or as anything but a truck driver, but this is proven unjust when I hear him saying cute things to his 3 year-old granddaughter on the phone in a warm, enunciated voice: “Hello, my dear little granddaughter. Do you know who this is? This is your old grampy. How are you?…”
My driver’s main chatting buddy in the teahouse is another driver who looks like Spock and has the same curt delivery of factual information. When a young co-pilot sees Paris on the news and tells me, “America!” Spock orients his face and ears toward the boy and frankly interjects, “No, Paris is not in America. It is the capital of France.” No one laughs, and I resist chuckling and asking for an autograph.
Traditionally in Tajik culture, names are not used much; when introducing yourself you do not give your name and only after you’ve gotten to know someone would you ask their’s. To get around this people are often referred to by titles like ‘teacher’ or ‘driver’ or a description. The teahouse owner describes the driver I’m to travel with as “the one with the mustache,” but by my count at least four others have serious mustaches. After a week of waiting, the mustache count is rising rapidly.
Across a bridge, in a different one- room, painted mud- hut, is the police station that blocks us from the pass. Inside is one of the few incorruptible police in this country. The officer asks excellent questions about the American Civil War and reveals he’s a liberal sort of guy, describing his busy, neonatal doctor wife and how he often assumes the traditional women’s work at home of cooking for the family. He mans the post day and night for his five-day shift. The officer is the only person to wish me happy holidays.
Just before lunch, I get my second Christmas present–a false alarm that inspires the drivers to fire up their trucks and race the 100 yards to the police station’s gate (a piece of metal cable with debris stuck to it to make it visible at night) that is barring them from the pass. The drivers’ job is to go, and the policeman’s job is to tell them not to. The situation heats up as the drivers rev their engines and bark at the cop stopping them. The route by which his replacement is to arrive has also been closed, so his five-day shift may soon grow much longer. Thus both parties are irritable, and the standoff ends with everyone grouchy and back in their respective rooms.
In these respective rooms, there are two primary tools used to kill time. One is modern cell-phones on which everyone fluently speaks 2 – 4 languages. The other is their version of the Swiss Army knife, a multi-purpose toy that is at its root useful: matches. Balancing my useful gift of chains from earlier in the day is an intellectually stretching series of lessons on untraditional uses of the match: toothpick, Q-tip, light for the long-drop toilet, and entertainment when thrown onto your buddies.
When lunch does finally come, my future driving companion tells me to have some Tajik spring water–a specialty of this mountain country, especially for drivers coming out of Tajikistan’s flatter, drier neighbors to the west. Looking forward to cool, fresh water, I tilt back the little bowl of clear liquid and to everyone’s delight deliver a mouthful of vodka to my tonsils. After I cringe and choke it down, I join in their laughter. This gets everyone talking, and at one point they ask me a question about race-relations in America and the possibility of interracial marriages. After I give them my best answer, they immediately have another question: “Have you slept with a black woman?” Like with most truck drivers, even in the Muslim world or Utah, you can bet premarital sex is an acceptable topic of conversation.
As Christmas evening brings darkness to the barren valley, it is the police officer, not Santa, who brings joyous gifts. He is bundled and jolly in a unicolor suit (albeit grey, not red) when he delivers sodas and canned fish to appease the drivers after the day’s skirmish. The drivers are placated and effusively thankful, as is their obligation in Tajik culture. Not the news everyone had hoped for, but the result is a boisterous feast of special foods, with all of us tucked inside out of the cold.
We could be any fun little family in our one-room mud teahouse, sprawled on mats gossiping, eating, and avoiding the crisp cold that grips the snowy crags around us. We all drink from the same few tea bowls, which to me feels almost familial. As Christmas winds to a close we share toys, and I am reminded of an age old truism my father first told me: “American binoculars are fun, but playing with an ancient-Soviet blow torch wins out any day.”