PAMIR HIGHWAY/WAKHAN VALLEY ROUTE
BASH GUMBAZ, TAJIKISTAN
How do people survive out here?
It addles the brain.
Granted, there aren’t many people out here, but the fact there are any at all is mind-boggling. The odd whitewashed cube, a farmer’s hut, a storage shed, recessed against a decaying shale butte; or out in the open, on the flat grassland, next to a tiny stream, looking minuscule in this immense, open landscape.
Many of the valleys are desert-like, stony, sandy, arid beyond agricultural use. But where there is a stream, fed with milky ice melt from nearby mountain peaks, there is grass. And where there is grass, there are yaks.
This is how people survive out here.
The herds are small. Twenty to thirty at most. But it’s enough, I suppose. Enough to make it all worthwhile.
‘Stop?’ Satbai has been watching us. He knows we’re interested in the yak herds. Already he’s slowed the car, predicting the answer.
We get out of the car. A herd is nearby, separated from us by a shallow stream. No humans in sight. No yak herders. No need to keep a close eye on the herd, I guess. Not much yak burglary up here.
The yaks are aware of our presence, but feign disinterest. They keep their heads to the ground, chewing and chomping, sucking up grass.
These yaks are wearing their summer coats. Their hair is long and shaggy, but nowhere near as long as shaggy as it would be during winter. Their horns are long, sharp, gleaming.
We walk a little closer. Now they look at us; a spark in their eyes, theirs is not the dull, mindless gaze of the domestic cow. There’s life in these beings. They’re not angry, not scared, not threatened. Not yet. They can handle us at this distance, especially with the shallow stream acting as a natural barrier, but they’d object to us coming any closer.
Jaan, of course, wants to go closer. He walks right up to a group of five or six yaks, stops about ten metres away.
One of the yaks, a big rangy bull with mean horns, the alpha male, takes a sudden interest in Jaan. It turns to face him, raises its head defiantly, eyes locked on Jaan’s.
That’s close enough, the alpha yak is saying. Come any closer and I’ll trample you into the dust, I’ll mash your soft body into a soggy pulp.
Jaan takes another step. The bull flicks it head.
Jaan stops. The two look at each other, sizing one another up.
Without taking his eyes off the bull, Jaan reaches ever so slowly into his camera satchel. The alpha yak flicks its head again. None of the other yaks have moved since the stand off began; they look our way with interest. Jaan, his eyes still locked on the alpha yak, raises his camera, slowly, slowly, slowly, till it is level with his eyes. The yak flicks it head a third time, the threat evident.
Jaan takes the shot.
He continues to stand there, even after putting his camera away, enjoying his moment, his connection, with the yak. Eventually the alpha yak tires of the game, and turns and wanders away. Jaan smiles, pleased with his victory.
Where there’s grass, there’s yaks. And where there’s grass and no yaks, there’s golden marmots.
Hundreds of them. Plump, beaver-like creatures, found in alpine grassland, usually between 3,200 and 4,500 metres elevation. With almost no neck, and pudgy stomachs, they take on the semblance of couch potatoes; fat from relentless feeding over the spring and summer months.
They live in communal burrows, guards standing at attention, selfless, working for the benefit of the colony. The guards stare at us angrily as we approach, offended that we would dare come near them, but their courage evaporates when we get within 50 metres of their homes, and they disappear from sight. The rest of the group, alerted to our presence by the guards, do likewise. A few stray marmots, caught foraging further from home, return to their burrows with surprising fleetness of foot.
These creatures have learnt to fear humans. A wise learning, as they’re prized by hunters for their meat and fur.
We deviate off the highway, make our way to a small, spread-out town. Bash Gumbaz: a loose collection of houses; white cubes, Spartan rectilinear huts, sitting squat on the plains, looking solid, old, a part of the bleak landscape. They’ve stood here for decades, been through the worst of the weather, endured it all.
No one in sight in the town. Everyone is indoors, sheltering from the bitter wind, even though it’s still just the start of autumn. We drive past silent houses, along deserted streets. Only there are no streets here, just dusty, neglected, void space between scattered houses. We exit the village without having seen a living soul, ford a small boggy stream, continue overland to the toe of the nearest butte. Here, overlooking the valley, overlooking Bash Gumbaz, is the Chinese Merchant’s Tomb.
The age of the tomb is unknown.
Exactly whom the tomb was built for is also unknown, but it is purported to be that of an illustrious Chinese merchant.
Just a lonely tomb, empty, open to all; free to anyone who wishes to pass through its entrance, free to anyone who wishes to examine its decaying stone and mudbrick walls, free to anyone who wishes to ponder the passage of time, and think back on the life of this nameless, faceless, forgotten human. A fate we will all share, one day.
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