An Unhurried Journey

"Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world." -Alan Watts

The Snow Leopard

If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Part 1

I step out of the airport, and there it is again.

The rush. The unknown.

I follow the flow of people, trying to blend in. The taxi drivers pick me out anyway. They call me “Brat”.

The air is dense, the light hazy. It’s hot. The lush trees teeming with greenery speak of a strong sun and a lot of rain.

I continue following the people into a car park, intensely aware of everything around me.

I walk through the little park, checking maps.me.

Im looking for the train station. For the train to Samarkand.

I’m alone, think how beautiful it would be to share this moment with her. I touch the crystal, speaking to her.

Everything is an adventure. How do I cross the street? How do I get water? How much is this money worth?

The simplest thing becomes exciting.

Communicating with a clerk, I’m on a different planet. I walk to the train station, but it’s the wrong one. I linger a bit on the street, trying to figure out which bus to take. I eat the local flatbread. It’s nice. The young guy I ask for help with the bus tells me to get in the car, after he finally understood what I want. He’ll take me there. I hoped he would.

“Samarkand good, Tashkent bad”, he tells me. I learn the Russian word for train. Figure it’ll help.

When I get out of the car, a big man approaches.

“Hey bratte, Samarkand?”

“Platzkart!”

We haggle, he comes down, but it’s still too much.

In the train station office, a young, attractive Russian girl tells me there’s no trains left for today. We use google translate to communicate. I ask about tomorrow. It’s too expensive.

Back out, I spend 30 minutes with the big guy. I don’t like him, but I’m exhausted after a night of no sleep. He’s intimidating, and I haven’t been on the road for over a year. I’ve lost it.

I go over my options:

-Either I stay a night here – I don’t want to

-Either I hitchhike – it’s too daunting

-Either I take a bus – where’s the station?

The big guy tells me there’s no transportation, that I have to take a taxi. I walk away, find the next bus stop.

I ask a group of young guys. One speaks English, thank god.

I ask him which bus to take. He thinks for a long time, then tells me he doesn’t know.

But that I can take the metro. It’s right there. I laugh, it’s really right there.

Underground, the station is beautiful.

I ask one guy waiting: “Olmazor?

He says something. I don’t understand. He realizes I don’t understand. He gestures something. I still don’t understand.

The train arrives, I get in following him. On the next stop, he gets out without saying a word. I’ve no clue what’s going on. The people are looking at me. I’m sweaty, haven’t slept, carry a big backpack. When I look, they look away.

I see the map, get it. I need to change stations.

Emerging above ground, one guy is screaming the same word over and over at people. Then at me. I don’t get it, but he seems serious.

I ask him “ticket?”.

He looks at me, screaming once more. His eyes are intense, urgency in them.

I don’t respond. He turns to the next person, screaming.

It’s taxi drivers.

One of them follows me. I doubt he has my best interest at heart when he tells me that there are no buses going to Samarkand, that I have to take a taxi.

In the bus station, I pay for a ridiculously cheap bus ticket and get ridiculously cheap food from a canteen. A teenage girl helps me because I stand around helplessly in front of the food, not knowing how to order. She’s excited to practice her English. I have to make conversation.

Buckwheat, mashed potatoes and hard boiled eggs.

On the bus, thee guys my age offer me white little balls from a transparent plastic bag. I try one. It’s hard and sour and strong and not what I expected. I shrug.

Behind me, somebody breaks open a hard boiled egg on the window of the bus. I love it.

The bus moves, then stops for 3o minutes. Then a guy gets on. Some shouting, angry exchanges. I’ve no clue what’s going on.

4 hours later, we arrive.

I get off, excited, anxious. I ask for the price of a flatbread. In Arabic, because that’s the first word that comes to mind. The guy understood all the same. 

I ask my friends from the bus where I am and how to get to the center. They tell me. 

But I’m lost, and I look lost, so they put me in a car and pay the driver and give me some food.

I talk to the crystal. And to the driver. He speaks broken Russian. I speak even more broken Croatian. He’s a good guy.

When I get out, I see the Registan. It’s beautiful, but I don’t care. I care about sleeping.

***

Crossing no mans land, I feel the shift. It’s palpable. Everything slows down. It’s like stepping into a portal, into a different world.

On the other side, the people look different. The taxi drivers are soft. They still try, but relent quickly. I get into an ancient Opel. I’m in front. Three women in colorful dresses are in the back.

We drive past green fields, donkeys ploughing through them. The road is empty except for us. Everybody in the car is silent. But not the closed off silence distancing indifferent strangers. Nobody is staring into a smartphone with headphones in.

They simply are. Content with simple being, wordlessly communing.

The driver is driving so slow. I swear he’s doing this to no make noise, because everything is beautifully quiet. I feel I’m in a dream.

He’s radiating calm, deeply settled.

***

At one point, they all laugh about something. I don’t get it.

I ask the driver where I can buy camping gas, but he doesn’t know. After I withdraw money, I visit the tourist information office. Because it’s right there and I need to know where I can buy camping gas.

It’s full of teenage kids. There’s a janitor too. He gives me his phone and I talk to a guy on the phone that speaks English. He tells me where I can buy camping gas.

One of the kids accompanies me to the place. It’s right there, again.

I love the kid. He’s respectful, smart and speaks good English. He helps me to haggle for the price of the camping gas.

On the way to the supermarket, I ask him what the most important thing in life is for him. He thinks for some time:

“To live life honest, without shame.”

He asks me the same question, and I think for some time:

“There’s a woman I want to marry…”

“Ahh, so family.”

“Yeah I guess so…”

I buy one kilo of oats and something that looks like cuscus because they don’t have red lentils and brown ones take to long to cook.

The kid shows me where the minibus station is. We pass through the bazaar on the way. I buy some fruit. The women happily interact with me. They wear beautiful dresses, their long silky hair showing through a loosely worn hijab.

We find the minibus to Shin. To the mountains. Where I want to be.

It’s an old soviet beast. It’s amazing.

I ask the kid to ask for the price. A man on top of the bus answers. He’s loading baggage onto it. I see his face, his eyes. There’s joy in them. I trust him.

I give him my backpack, say goodbye to the kid. He asks if I have a souvenir from Egypt. I feel bad that I don’t, for a second even think of the crystal. I really liked the kid.

In the bus, there’s a lot of people. I try to count. Babies on their mother’s lap and baggage and on every seat at least two people and people on the floor.

We’re all squeezed into each others elbows and knees and butts. I love it.

They all giggle for a moment, looking at me. I look back. We all laugh. I eat two flatbreads.

It’s late afternoon when I get out. In the mountains.

***

I’m in a valley, a river flowing down the middle of it.

I fill up on water, purifying it twice. I see a man taking a dip in the river. I want to do the same but don’t.

Two men approach me. One of them was the guy taking a dip. The other is the local teacher.

He speaks fluent German, invites me to stay for the night. But I need to walk, need to start my journey. The other guy also tries; he’s got vodka. But I need to walk.

I walk barefoot. It’s going ok. The sun is strong, I feel my forearms burning.

I take a break soon and eat fruit. I pass through a village. A lot of people invite me for tea. The bus driver is also there. He also invites me. But I need to walk.

The sun is slowly setting. I see a guy sitting on the path. He accompanies me for a bit.

He’s a funny guy.

Can’t understand why I walk barefoot, can’t understand why I walk at all with my heavy backpack. He tells me to take a car up to the last village and then walk from there. He tells me it’s cheap, just 20 Somoni. I tell him it’s 5. Just to see the reaction:

“Neeeeee!” High pitched, drawn out. There’s incredulity on his face, almost shock.

I laugh. He starts laughing too.

I love his face. He doesn’t take life too seriously. His phone rings. A tiny old Nokia. When he picks up, he yells into it: “HALLO?”

Then again: “HALLO?!”

I can’t help it, burst out laughing.

At some point, he turns around. There’s no goodbye.

***

In the evening, I pitch the tent. Some kids pass by carrying firewood. We take a selfie together.

I briefly heat some oats and fall asleep.

In the morning, it is cold. The sun is not here yet. I wash my hands and face in the ice-cold river. I see a man bathing in it.

I start walking. It’s hard going, always is, the second day. I feel a bit sore, and sleeping out the first night never gets me good rest.

But I know, I just need some time to adjust. 

When the sun peaks over the left side of the mountain ridge, shining into the valley, I take a bath in one of the lakes. The cold shocks me. It rejuvenates me. 

As I come out, a German my age passes, on his way down. We exchange a few words. While the sun is drying me, I watch him slowly disappear.

He looks beautiful with his huge, squared backpack, slightly shifting from left to right as he walks. A little pilgrim on his way.

In the next village, there is an official home stay. Little kids run out and try to sell me wristbands. I rest after the village when one shepherd approaches. He tells me its cold up there. I tell him I have more clothes in my backpack. 

I continue, passing an old man with a big walking stick, slowly making his way up.

The trail is getting steeper, the altitude increasing. Im short of breath. I constantly check my phone to see how much longer it is to the next village.

Hopefully I can get something to eat there.

I take a break and watch two beekeepers tending to their honeycombs. One notices me and smiles. I smile back.

The old man with the big walking stick passes me.

I sit for a long time, then force myself up. I rest again soon after, at a little stream where I fill up on water and lie down.

Just before the village, there is a big, beautiful lake. The trail evens out here, no more altitude gain for a bit. I actually enjoy the walking.

I pass a wild apricot tree. There’s many little apricots on the ground, and with every gust of wind, more are falling down. I try one.

It’s full of life and the most delicious apricot I’ve ever eaten. I sit there for half an hour eating apricots.

***

The village is deserted. The little shops that were marked on maps.me are closed. 

I need a proper meal. I pass a building and finally see some people. I walk up to them, and see many pairs of shoes on the ground. It’s a mosque, it’s Friday.

I ask a man in front if I can eat somewhere here. He points me back to where I came from. I get annoyed, and he feels uncomfortable. He offers to drive me there. I walk away.

Further up in the village, I rest next to a loud stream. The village is built into a steep slope, streams running through it everywhere. There are a lot of little bridges. 

There’s a girl too. She’s young, maybe seven or eight.

She squats on a big rock next to me, eyeing me. I look back at her. Eventually, she comes down and says something. I don’t understand.

She keeps repeating the same thing. I try to interact using sign language. Simple stuff like age or name, but nothing gets through. She has intense eyes, a little crazy in them.

I start cooking this grain that looked like couscous. It’s definitely not couscous.

The girl seems amazed at my gas burner. She gestures for food. I give her my peanuts. She eats some of them and seems happy. She gestures for more, for the not-couscous. But I need it myself. She goes off.

I undercook the not-couscous to save gas and regret it, because it’s still a bit hard and incredibly bitter. I force myself to eat most of it. After a while, I see the girl in the distance. She’s completely lost in her world.

I’m grumpy, because I didn’t find any shop. I was dreaming of bread and now I have this stuff. Every now and again, some men pass by on donkeys. They don’t notice me.

The girl comes back with some herb that I don’t know the name of. She eats it and gestures for me to eat. I eat. It’s really good.

I offer some of the under cooked not-couscous to the girl, but she doesn’t want it. She just looks at me, making faces. I talk to her in English, whatever is on my mind.

Some man shouts to get my attention. I don’t understand him because the stream is too loud. He gestures for me to come and drink tea. But I’m grumpy and don’t go.

I save the rest of the under cooked not-couscous in a plastic bad. Dinner already made. 

As I pack, the girl is angry. I don’t understand why. She threatens to throw a rock at me. I flinch. Then I take a rock and threaten to throw it at her. She leaves. So do I.

I continue ascending. The trail is getting wilder. I see a marmot in the distance. I’m filled with wonder. There is water and streams everywhere. It’s paradise.

I get to the last lake. An Uzbek family is eating watermelons. It’s the end of the trek. But not for me. I want to go over the pass.

I see it, it doesn’t look that bad. I fill up on water, not knowing when I’ll have the chance again. Then I start up.

***

I go slow, so slow. I need to rest every five minutes, I’m so short of breath.

The sun is strong and slowly setting. I see over the whole valley, where I’ve come from. It’s bathed in golden light. I’ve a headache. I wonder if I’ll find a flat spot to camp.

I push myself, further and further. I’m exhausted. I’ve already eaten all the apricots I took for the way. I’ve already drank most of my water.

I see some shepherd houses further up, smoke rising out of the chimneys. I hope somebody will invite me, take me into their home. I feel alone.

I don’t know why I do any of this. I miss her. I hold the crystal. He’s strong.

I go on and on, the top only slowly getting closer. The sun is disappearing behind the ridge. The valley below me is already in darkness. I sit down.

A lot is happening inside. I feel it welling up. I accept. I give myself to this trip. And I cry.

Then I hear a murmur of water behind me. I get excited, go looking for it. I find it, rejoice. I would have been in trouble without it. 

The pass is taking much longer than I thought. On the top, I ask a woman if I can pitch my tent somewhere here. She says yes. I find a flat spot and set up camp. 

I force myself to eat some more of the bitter not-couscous. I’m completely exhausted and completely happy. I snuggle up in my sleeping bad.

After some time, in the night, a man comes. I worry he’ll send me away. He has a gentle voice and invites me for supper. But I’m not hungry.

***

The next morning, I wake up early with the first light. I take a selfie before walking.

After a while, I pass through a little settlement of shepherds. They live in simple stone huts, next to a stream, coming directly from the melting ice of the peaks.

The dogs bark, the kids look, the men are already gone, herding the cattle. 

I walk over wild hills, not exactly sure where the way is. The profile on my shoes is bad, I keep slipping.

I rest behind a stone, when suddenly goats and sheep appear. Soon after, two boys appear. 

They are running around, yelling at their livestock. They come to me. The old one is shy, the young one talks to me. We walk together for a long time.

I’m angry because the pass is taking much longer than I thought, and because my shoes are bad.

At one passage, I almost fall, can’t move for a second. The weight of my backpack makes everything worse. I take the shoes off. The young boy takes my hand and helps me across.

We rest together, mostly in silence, them staring at me. I take a picture of them.

The descent takes a long time. I realize I’m way off trail, have to find my way down, slithering and sliding. I fill up water at some trickle.

In the next valley, I find three Russians hiding from the sun behind a bush. The face of one man is extremely sun-burnt. They have bicycles. They mostly push the bicycles, they tell me.

The valley is narrow and winding, I like it. The river is moving fast. I go inside, holding on to a rock. The current pulls on me, I put my head under and start counting. I make it to eight. It’s incredible. A rebirth.

I find a beautiful place to camp and eat oats, for the fifth time today because I’m not eating the not-couscous again. During the night, I wake up once and see somebody walking with a strong head torch.

***

The next morning, I start reading. I haven’t so far.

It’s takes me away into a different world. Whenever I read, I go in that world. It has a nice rhythm, walking, then reading, then walking.

The valley is beautiful. And for the first time, I’m open to the beauty. Let it in.

On the other side of the river, I see a tiny village. The houses are built into the mountain. It looks untouched. A man signals for me to come and drink tea. But I don’t go.

Later that day, I find some people sitting in front of their house. On maps.me, it says this is a restaurant. I ask them for food and get seated.

I get two kinds of bread, one home made rye, one white from the “magazin”. I get a tray with jam, Russian candies, caramelized peanuts and some savory nut that I’ve never eaten before. After a while, I get potatoes and beef. I eat it all, then I lay down and rest. Then I eat some more.

There is a father and a son. The son speaks some English. He shows me a picture of where he lives. When he leaves, he takes a bottle of Coke with him. I watch him go. The bottle falls out of his bag soon after.

The father likes to talk to me. He teaches me some Russian. He asks about my crystal. He disapproves of me filtering the water in his land. His eyes are foggy.

He tells me to stay, there’ll be plov in the evening. I don’t know, am torn. I like it here, but it’s only noon, could walk some more. I postpone the decision and read and nap.

There is a mother and daughter too. They mostly avoid me.

In evening, I feel groggy. I ask the father if I can bathe down in the river. He gestures for me to follow him.

We walk in silence for five minutes, crossing a big bridge. He shows me an ancient Lada on the way. It’s his. Then he shows me where I can go in. 

I submerge myself completely in the icy water. Under, it’s a different world. The current is roaring. I let it take everything, and when I come back out, gasping for air, heavy water dripping off me, I fall in love with Tajikistan.

I go for another round, just because it’s so good.

***

I stay.

I see how they take a huge lump of dough, put it in a pot, and put the pot upside down on coals. I see how a boy on a donkey brings sour milk. I see how the women prepare dinner.

I eat plov, but I’m so full and not used to the meat that I stay up most of the night digesting. 

At one point in the night, I hear the daughter exclaiming. The father gets up and tells me to look. Then I see something I’ve never seen before.

A string of lights is slowly moving across the clear night sky. We marvel at it. Later, I learn they are SpaceX satellites.

In the morning, I leave fast. The father tries to get me to stay for breakfast, but food is the last thing I want. Especially when he shows me its more fatty rice with meat. 

I ask him how much, he says something I don’t understand but I understand to mean: Up to you.

I give him 20 dollars, and he’s happy. When I said goodbye, he won’t really look at me. Something is going on, but I don’t know what. Maybe he’s sad to see me go. He really seems to enjoy having guests.

After some minutes, I brush my teeth. I obsess if I’ve given him too much.

I continue on descending. I pass bigger villages. I see women washing clothes in a muddy river. 

One car stops without me asking for it and they tell me to get in. Two guys on their way to work.

They give me a small little white ball, gesture for me to put it in my mouth. I put it in my mouth. It’s hard as stone, so I take it out of my mouth.

I get out and pass through another village. I’m on my way up again, up another pass. The streets are practically empty and the few people I see seem sad. They ignore me.

Except further up, I hear singing. Two women with big baskets filled to the brim with apricots pass me. They bow a little and gesture for me to take some apricots. 

Even further up, I take a break. I eat some of the father’s homemade bread. I eat it very slowly, watching cows come up to a little stream to drink. A stout, fat women comes to shoo them away.

***

I have to force myself to get up.

I try to take a shortcut through a big field of huge boulders. It ends up taking much longer because I have to climb and jump and traverse through them. I’m frustrated at first, then I actually enjoy it. It forces me to be present.

The sun is high now. My forearms are burnt. I walk along a dusty road.

I pass a kid in the middle of nowhere, just standing there. He says something, but I’ve nothing to say back.

The map says I’m approaching the top now. It’s getting steep. Farmers are tending to fields of greenery.

A kid on a donkey passes me. He looks at my backpack. He asks if I have a donkey. I shake my head. 

I say “skolka”, pointing at his donkey. He shakes his head. But he doesn’t understand. I don’t mean to buy his donkey, just to figure out how much a donkey costs.

I make it to the top, feeling good after the exertion. My body is slowly adjusting.

On the ridge a couple Russians pass me. They have two kids on donkeys. They rented the donkeys from a shepherd with a red shirt not far form here.

I continue on, expecting a source of water that was marked on maps.me.

I reach it shortly after, nothing more than a trickle, but it’s enough. I fill up on water and eat the rest of father’s bread under a tiny tree.

After a while, two boys come up to the trickle with a big canister and begin filling it up. They look at me shyly. I smile at them.

It takes them a long time, so long I’ve already finished my water and need another round.

I go up to them and we talk a little. I like them somehow. I’m in a good mood.

They leave, and they leave their canister, because it’s still filling up.

When they come back, they are three. They take the canister, but it must be 15 kilos. They try, one after the other, but none of them can carry it more than a few meters. They try to take it together, but nothing works.

I get up and walk over. They become silent when they see me, like a flock sparrows when they spot an eagle overhead. 

Suddenly, I freeze in my track, standing very straight. They tense up, not knowing what I’m up to. I salute them, like in the army.

They start giggling, one salutes me back. I relax, take the canister and bring it back to their camp. It’s right there.

Outside, a young guy my age greets me. He has a red shirt on. He invites me inside.

I clean my feet with some water before I enter.

***

Inside the dim, ramshackle structure, held together with rags and cloth, five men sit around in a circle. In the middle is food. There are a few women in the corner next to a stove.

The guy in the red shirt speaks some broken English. He tells me to sit down and eat with them. I sit. 

There are boiled potatoes on one plate. Macaroni on the other. A cucumber and tomato salad and some yogurt and white bread on the side. I’m not hungry since I’ve already eaten, but I nibble a bit to be polite.

We talk a little. One of the men in the circle looks exactly like a former colleague of mine. Like a twin brother.

I’m amazed and tell this to the red shirt guy. He translates it to the others and they all laugh, except for the twin brother. 

He’s got a curious vibe about him. Reserved somehow, yet not unfriendly. Calm, but slightly dangerous. Like he’s missing a piece that makes a full human.

I ask the red shirt guy how much it is to buy a donkey. The men talk. They all eat with their hands. Every now and again I look over to the women. One has a big growth in her face. 

“One man will sell you his donkey for 100 Dollar.”

And then it begins. I feel a pull inside myself, a smile coming over my lips. I’ll buy a donkey.

I ask some questions. What does he eat – the greenery on the ground is enough. How much can he carry – 100 kilos max.

The red shirt guy actually tries to talk me out of it, says I don’t need a donkey. But I buy the donkey. 

***

It’s a big happening. They give me some instructions I don’t understand and watch me walk away with the donkey.

I tell the donkey I’ll be good to him, speak to him nicely. He walks slowly, or not at all. I have to pull him. When I do, the harness jams into his eye. I try to fix it, but it doesn’t last for long.

I try to ride him, but it’s messy. He doesn’t care, just wants to eat. So I get off and pull him again.

I get lost, trying to find the way down. We are in the bushes, following goat trails that lead to nowhere. We have to go back up, through thick needly trees. My backpack falls off. I am overwhelmed.

I strap the backpack back on him, and we find the trail again. Soon, the backpack falls off again. Behind me, there is the twin brother herding his cows together with his dog. He has a big walkie talkie. 

Wordlessly, he fixes the backpack, showing me how to tie it on properly. I thank him and try to remember. 

I get lost again, turn back around looking for the right trail. There are a lot of goats and sheep and cows and dogs and shepherds around. They all look at me, some laugh.

My phone freezes when I try to figure out which way to go, and unexpectedly dies. I worry. It won’t turn back on. I take out my power bank and the phone works again, but I’m still lost.

I turn around, go back again where I’ve come from. I apologize to Jacob, he seems annoyed.

I find the twin brother again, and the man that sold me the donkey. They show me the way.

And they tell me to let the donkey go first. Not to pull him. I don’t get it, thinking how will the donkey know where we need to go. 

Then twin brother shows me. He seems like he’s starting to like me.

He slaps Jacob on his back, making a guttural sound. Jacob starts down the trail. After a moment, twin brother makes another sound, this time hitch-pitched and drawn out. Jacob stops.

I am amazed, thank the guys and begin heading down. Only that Jacob doesn’t seem to care when I make the sound for him to stop. So I have to run and chase after him when he gets too far ahead.

He’s amazing at going down, very fast. I wonder how he doesn’t trip. 

I am happy not have to carry the backpack. It makes me slip less.

Sometimes he stops to eat, then I slap him a few times on his back. He doesn’t care, so I slap harder. Then he moves again.

When we’ve descended the pass, there is a lake and a few donkeys and a few cows. I let Jacob be with the other donkeys while I take a dip.

The other donkeys leave as I am in the lake. Jacob follows them.

I have to chase after him.The backpack falls off him, almost landing in the lake.

I strap the backpack back on, but I forgot what twin brother showed me.

***

We continue descending into the next valley. It’s narrow, with many gentle streams running through it. 

Women are working the fields, harvesting golden crops of wheat. Smoke is starting to rise out of the chimneys of the little houses, the sun slowly setting. There are cows ambling over the little green hills.

Jacob doesn’t want to cross over a wooden bridge, and I, too, wonder if it could even carry him. A woman shakes her head too and gestures for me to cross further up.

But further up, there is no bridge, just a part where the river comes down knee high. I gulp and look at Jacob. He seems ready.

I pull him across, moving slowly because the current is strong. I struggle a bit to keep my balance, but Jacob doesn’t. We get out the other side and continue on. 

I eat the rest of fathers bread while I walk behind him. We are going slightly up again, and Jacob stops often, left and right, grazing.

He doesn’t care so much when I slap him. I get frustrated. I notice how exhausted I am, it’s been a long day. Struggling with Jacob is too much now, I need to rest.

I stop at the next flat spot, tie Jacob down, on the long lead so he can roam and graze and I loosen his saddle for the night, the way the shepherds showed me.

I set up camp and become aware of how beautiful this valley actually is.

A short, fat woman passes by, herding a few cows, carrying a shovel on her shoulder.

She points at my tent and says something, but it’s not in Russian. I’ve no idea what she’s saying.

Then she points at Jacob and says something else. I’ve still no clue what she’s saying.

I tell her Jacob is mine, then she starts walking towards him. I follow her and she points out how I’m walking barefoot. She passes Jacob and I realize I was following her for no reason. She simply walks away.

Before I go to sleep, two men pass and give me some bread.

***

In the morning, there’s a puppy running around the tent. He’s curious about me, but won’t let me pet him.

I eat the bread the guys gave me last night before setting off with Jacob. I feel slightly sick in my stomach. I count the days until I’ll see her again.

It’s slow going. Without a clear trail to follow, Jacob ambles left and right. It drives me furious. I feel the energy going crazy in my body, need to calm myself. It’s too much. I just have to lead him and go slow.

When we rest, I give him an apricot. He seems to like it, munching on it. I watch him a long time. Suddenly, he spits the pit out of his mouth. I laugh.

I feel weak. It’s the altitude, the different food, the different environment, the hassle with Jacob; everything’s bit much.

I rest a long time at a lake. I let Jacob graze on the long lead, periodically re-tying him. I read and eat oats and doze.

After hours, I see him just staring at me. It’s time to move.

We are on a plateau, have got a couple of hours of straight walking ahead of us until we reach the next pass. I wonder if I can sell Jacob. I want to be free.

The plateau is almost completely void of people. I set up camp very early on the foot of the pass. I don’t have the strength to do it today. There’s another lake, icy peaks just above.

I cook some more not-couscous because I need something else than oats or bread. I cook it a long time, but it’s still disgusting. I force myself to eat most of it and get inside the sleeping bag early.

It gets cold fast when the sun sets.

I wonder about how much I miss her. All this time I’ve spent working on myself, freeing myself, and here I am needing her.

But I understood something about partnerships. It just popped up, on a sliver platter, when I was walking today.

The tricky balance of giving myself fully, yet not loosing myself.

***

The next morning, I break camp. It’s freezing.

Under my tent, I find hundreds of little bugs. They squirm in all directions. I watch them for along time.

I wash my face in the icy stream. It’s crystal clear, coming directly from the melting ice.

My hands get so cold when I filter the water, I can’t feel them anymore. The skin on my face is sun-burnt and dry from the cold.

I eat some oats, warming my hands on the pot. They hurt. 

Jacob has somehow put off his saddle during the night. I saddle him again. He seems as sick of me as I am of him.

We start ascending.

It’s steep. I spot two figures making their way up. And a lot of goats and sheep.

I feel stronger again. We make progress.

Only that the backpack falls off Jacob again, together with the saddle. I swear, yell for him to stop, but he doesn’t. I swear more.

A shepherd, a beautiful, delicate rifle slung over his shoulder, comes over, just as I am trying to put back everything on Jacob.

Wordlessly, he takes over and helps me. His hands are leathery and strong.

I ask him if he wants to buy him. He shakes his head but whistles loudly. 

Soon, his friend arrives. The friend asks me how much I want. I tell him 60 Dollar.

He asks where the donkey is from. I tell him. He says he doesn’t have this money. Then he asks where the donkey is from, again. 

When I reach the top, I see the two figures from before. It’s a couple my age, but I lay down and close my eyes for a long time.

The view is stunning.

I see over the peaks on my left and right. Brown and red, sun burnt and barren, the mountains, tipped in white, stretch on endlessly.

There is an azure lake on the bottom of the other side. Maps.me says there is a guesthouse too. This means food.

I go.

***

Every ten minutes I check the phone to see how much progress I’ve made. It’s painfully slow.

We meet a teenage boy on his way up with four fully laden donkeys. He’s constantly yelling, spurring them on, slapping any of them that stray.

I realize then what traveling with a donkey actually means.

After we’ve descended, I arrive at the lake. And the guesthouse.

A man comes out to greet me. I immediately ask him if he wants to buy Jacob, for 60 Dollar.

He asks how much I’ve paid for him and where I’ve gotten him. I tell him.

He says: “50 Dollar.” I say: “50 Dollar and food for today.” We shake hands, and I feel so relieved.

The food is bad. Stale bread, fatty plot and fatty soup with potatoes and a piece of meat. I long for father. But it’s something.

I meet the couple from the pass and talk to them. They are from Slovenia. It’s nice to talk to someone that not only shares a language in common with me, but also a world, a horizon.

I walk around the lake. I’m happy, because tomorrow I should reach Dushanbe and have a break from trekking.

I start reading a book on shamanism. To understand it better, to understand her better.

I get into it, like it. A lot feels familiar to me. But some part not, they stick with me. 

It talks about helping spirits.

Beings between me and the ultimate source. They can take many forms. Ancestors, ascended masters, angels, animal spirits, mythological beings.

It’s not a new concept to me, but in a way it is. I notice how I’ve never really connected to any helping spirit.

I set the intention to connect, ask them to come and show themselves.

The book also talks about nature. How everything is alive, has spirit, and how everything is connected.

When I pause reading and look around me, I see the same trees, the same mountain ridge, and yet they’re not the same. Now, there is something else. 

I see how beautiful it is here. I feel it, within myself.

How did I not see this before? I look around me for a long time, enjoying the beauty, enjoying the feeling.

I realize how this is always around me, but how I’m rarely open for it.

Because I’m hurrying, struggling, thinking about money or calculating how many days are left.

The man that bought my donkey wants 40 Dollar for a taxi to Dushanbe. I start walking.

***

I get to Dushanbe the next day only thanks Misha.

I was walking down a long road in a boring valley making slow progress getting burnt by the sun. After hours, there came a big 4×4. I signaled, and it stopped. The driver got out immediately, rummaging around in the back seat to make space for me. Before I got in, I ask: “How much?”

He stops what he is doing to look at me. A slender man with fine, blond hair bound back into a ponytail. 

“EEEEEEE”, high-pitched, incredulous. After he sees that I still don’t trust: “For free, of course.”

I notice how hard I am, and feel stupid.

When I get in, I am greeted by fletched teeth and growling. And a snap just in front of my face. 

He calms his dog, I squeeze in between all the backpacks and gear and random stuff in the back, and we are off.

There’s a woman in the front passenger seat. She has long blond hair and wears a tight black top with tight black leggings, leaving little to the imagination. Her forearms are burnt.

We start driving, and I shuffle a bit to the front and ask where he’s from: “Tajikistan.”

She looks back and says with a smile: “I’m from Russia.”

I make some small talk. He responds, but doesn’t waste many words. He asks one or two questions, and then it’s silence. I don’t particularly mind, sit back, relax and tremendously enjoy to be in a car, even though the road is bumpy and he drives fast. There is good music playing.

They talk a lot in Russian, and every now and again she gives me dried fruit and nuts. I haven’t eaten today, and I haven’t had anything resembling fruit in more than a week. I’m in heaven.

The drive down the valley is long. I would have never walked all of this in a day. Then, we get to the main road, to something resembling civilization. I see gloomy soviet apartment blocks.

He says I can come all the way to Dushanbe with him, just that they will take a break on the way and do a little hike to a waterfall, but I’m welcome to join them. I happily accept.

We drive along the main road. It’s pass after pass. There’s mountains and more mountain. We drive through a few small, narrow tunnels that are pitch black. In the middle of the road, there’s cows looking for shade.

We do a little hike to the waterfall. I ask for their names. Misha and Sasha. And I ask Misha about life in Tajikistan.

“It is hard to find the money for life, but every day it gets a little better. I like it here because of the nature. I spend most of my time in the mountains.”

Which isn’t hard, since more than 90% of the country is above 1000 meters, and more than 60% is above 3000 meters. Tajikistan is the third highest country on average, after Nepal and Bhutan.

What about politics?

“The politicians and normal people life in two different universes. But we don’t mind as long as they don’t mess with us.”

Tajikistan went through a long and disastrous civil war after the soviet union collapsed in the 90s. It threw the country back decades. Ever since, they’ve had a kind of a benign dictator (pictures of him photo shopped in field of roses are everywhere) providing the only thing people seem to care about: stability.

What about the relationship to Kyrgyzstan?

“They seem to always want a piece of Tajikistan. And they seem to not know who they are.”

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan had some border disputes ever since the collapse. The recent flare up is the worst in a long time, with dead military personnel and civilian casualties, resulting in the closure of the border, disrupting the infamous Pamir highway, one of the highest roads in the world. Kyrgyzstan had had three bloody revolutions since in the last 20 years, and consist of many different tribes, with different ideas.

We get to the waterfall. It’s at the end of a tiny, wild gorge with a somewhat hidden entrance. It’s a beautiful place with cool temperature. They both refresh under it. I want to as well, but don’t.

They make a picnic and share snacks with me. They never engage or ask me anything, but offer everything they have to me and answer happily when I ask them something. They talk to each other in Russian.

Within me, a sensation is coming up.

I notice I’m slightly tense. I notice I don’t behave freely, naturally. There’s a line between being polite and excluding myself.

The sensation is taking on more form. Deeper down, there’s anxiety about being exposed, fear of being made fun of. 

But it’s so distinctly different. Like from a different world, like not really matching to the present situation.

Because it is, because it doesn’t. It’s from the past.

The sensation is familiar to me, I’ve come to know it. The struggle of being and relating with others in a group. Me not knowing how to fit in, feeling like I’m weird and stand out. The latent tension.

I create some space between me and it, but don’t push it away. I’m simply there with it, smile inwardly at it. Not being it anymore, I can be there for it. 

Eventually, it passes.

Misha drives me all the way to my hostel. He talks about Dushanbe and himself and life. He opens up. He’s independent, works here and there as a guide or electrician. He’s learnt English from movies, says he was never able to focus in school.

He comes inside the hostel with me and makes sure they’ve got space. I sincerely thank him for his kindness. He’s not able to look me in the eyes when we shake hands. But I feel it, see it.

His heart, the pure goodness in him. Protected by this hard shell. And when we say goodbye, both his shell and mine break open for a moment, forming something larger together.

***

Part 2

***

The receptionist, a pleasant blend of IQ, EQ and Zen, asks me: “returning or going?”

I like to imagine that he asked “returning” first because I already spent more than a week without a shower and proper nutrition. And I look it.

What he means, of course, is if I’m “returning or going” to the Pamir mountains.

Tajikistan’s capital is the jumping off point to the semi-autonomous Pamir region that makes up more than half of the countries size, yet inhabits only 3% of the population.

Sparsely populated with otherworldly landscapes, pristine trekking, and very bad roads, it is one of the more remote regions on this planet. It is the reason why most people come to Tajikistan in the first place, looking for wild adventure. When I asked Misha about it, he simply said: “It’s like another planet.”

There are some Pakistanis, kind of living in the hostel. There are some Russians, on family vacation. And some adventurers: Backpackers, Cyclists, Motorcyclists, Trekkers, and the Pakistanis even tell me of a man that walked here all the way from Switzerland. Some of the cyclists tell me one very remote road to one very remote valley is in fact passable and not completely flooded.

I take long showers, eat a lot of high quality food, stock up on oats, red lentils, nuts and dried fruit, get my permit, and buy one of those camping hats, because my nose seems to be missing more than just one layer of skin.

Two nights after, I get up at 4 AM and go to the taxi station. I don’t dare hitchhike, tell myself my visa is only for a month and I’ve lots to see. But it’s an excuse. 

The taxi is a huge 4×4 with eight passenger seats and lots of luggage on top. It takes 40 Dollars and 14 hours of patience to get to Khorog, the main town in the Pamirs.

During the drive, we pass a military checkpoint. I have to get out and show my passport.

After, we’ve gone through another portal, passing into another world.

We drive along the Panj river. It makes up the border, with Afghanistan. The villages on the other side, the people on their motorcycles and donkeys, working in the fields, are Afghans.

There little traffic we meet on the unpaved, dusty road, is either other 4×4 taxis or trucks. The road has huge potholes, the driver expertly maneuvering around them, as if he knows them by heart. The mighty river roars on our right, with immense, grey and brown rock walls on our left.

A mother passes sweets around. Everyone gets a few. The people talk occasionally, sometimes they all laugh. Despite them being strangers, they seem to share a bond, an unspoken union that’s completely natural. Somehow, they’re all at ease.

The driver is fascinating to me. Despite being over 40, he seems to be in his best years. He looks strong, but not overly concerned with his appearance. He’s honest, quoting me the local price immediately. He cares, stopping and helping when we pass other taxis that have a flat tire. He’s got endurance, driving the car carefully for a whole day, his eyes having turned red by the end. He’s joyful, laughing and joking easily.

I see a man. Taking care of his responsibility, embodying strength and will without being hard or insensitive.

***

We get to Kohrog just as the last light fades.

The driver asks me where I need to go. I just tell him to drop me in the center.

Another passenger, speaking immaculate English, asks me if I need a hotel. I’m unsure, the wish for comfort and safety conflicting with my stinginess. I tell him I have a tent.

They talk with each other. The driver tells me there is a park a bit further where I can put up my tent. There’s a bit of concern in his eyes.

I start walking in the direction they pointed me in. The town’s got a cute feeling to it. There is even a little event in one of the parks with music. But it’s getting darker and darker, and I worry about where to sleep.

I walk for some time, a deep blue heralding in the night. I see a hostel. I stop for a moment, see the light inside. Picture myself in a warm bed. I continue walking.

I get out of town, follow the road a bit. I’ve no idea where this park is supposed to be, but I’m exhausted from the drive. There is a little forest to my right. It’s steep, goes down to the river. I see a little gate leading inside it, and I get inside it.

With the help of my head torch, I find a flat spot on the trail that’s big enough for my tent. It starts drizzling.

I hurry and really hope there won’t be rain. I feel alone, anxious. Every now and again, I hear a car passing overhead on the road. There are lights not far from me from houses. I think back to the hostel.

But something else takes over. A calmness. A focus.

I set up the tent in record time, because the rain is picking up. There’s no time for worry if I want to stay dry.

When I light my head torch ahead into the dark forest, I see pairs of eyes reflected back. I freeze for a moment, then let it go. Just before I get in the tent, two cute weasels approach. I shoo them away, but they don’t care.

In the tent, I feel great. I hear the rain prickling lightly against the tarp, but it stops soon.

The next morning, a man greets me while I filter water. He’s collecting wood. He speaks perfect English and tells me he’s a professor for math at the university here.

I walk back through the town. It’s Sunday and still early and there is almost nobody.

I find a store that’s open. It’s inside a cargo shipping container. The woman there is kind and speaks English very well. I feel light and safe in her presence. 

I ask her how come everybody here speaks English fluently. She says from all over the Pamirs, people come to Khorog to study languages at its university. English, Russian, German and Tajik are taught and known by many people. Tajik is given since the people in the Pamir speak their own language, Pamiri.

I buy two tomatoes, a big round flatbread and some “tschakka”, something between yogurt and cheese.

When I continue on my way, it starts raining, for real this time. I ask an elderly man with a huge belly who’s cleaning his garage if I can come under. He nods.

I sit down and start digging into the bread. Then the man gestures for me to follow.

He leads me into a big property with tall trees, up a flight of stairs, and seats me on the porch. He yells something into the house, and shortly after, a sweet old lady comes out, greeting me. She quickly disappears back into the house, re-appearing with a lot of food.

Watching the downpour, I eat the best plov I’ll ever have in central Asia, an absurd amount of delicious, fresh apricots, borscht, and lots of bread. And I can’t resist the sweets. 

They teach me a few words in Pamiri and I doze until the rain passes a couple of hours later.

Back on the road, I walk and wait for cars. But there are none. I’m not on the Pamir highway anymore. I want to take a detour through the famous Wakhan valley, continuing along the Panj river, along Afghanistan, until it connects back to the main highway some 500 Kilometers after.

There’s a car after some time, and it stops. The guys are only going to the next village, but I don’t mind. They are going to a wedding and invite me too. I’m tempted but feel the need to make some ground.

While waiting for the next car, some women pass, carrying big plates of food on their head. They tell me to take some. I imagine they are going to the wedding.

The next car comes after a while. A family takes me into the next village, half an hour away. It’s the most wholesome family ever.

The father is gentle and kind, the mother big and funny. Their daughters are the sweetest beings imaginable, and smart too. The oldest speaks English well.

When we arrive, they invite me into their home, but I still feel the need to cover ground.

I peek into a small, dark shop where I see a lot of biscuits on rotten shelves and a lot of very cheap vodka.

I take a bath in the river, looking at the people on the other side. Every now and again, a trio of young soldiers patrol past on this side. They don’t care about me.

I wait for a long time. I sit next to the road and eat bread and tomatoes and tschakka. The tomatoes are juicy and full of flavor. The tschakka is sour and creamy. The bread is from yesterday and chewy.

There comes a boy, about 15 years old, and we talk. About this and that. He says life here is hard. He thinks it strange that I sit on the street. I explain the concept of hitchhiking to him. We laugh together. There come other men that shake my hand and talk to the boy. Then they leave.

I like the boy. He has a quiet voice and keeps a respectful distance. We spend a long time together.

I’m a bit sad when he leaves. Before he does, he tells me a car is coming. I ask him when. He says he doesn’t know.

Later, a car comes and stops.

***

There are two mothers with two kids in the back and one driver. We drive.

I need to show my passport at a checkpoint. The driver gives the military guy a cigarette. I don’t like the driver. Not that he’s bad or dangerous. But he’s got a sleazy way.

We stop at some point, and the driver disappears inside a building. The women tell me it’s a sanatorium. It’s supposed to have hot springs. The driver comes back out after a while, and we get back in the car. We drive 50 meters and go to some guesthouse.

I’m fed up, want to be on my own. The driver wants too much money. Or maybe he doesn’t, I don’t know. He tells me to stay in the guesthouse, but I don’t even ask for the price. I start walking.

It’s evening by now, the sun below the mountains. I walk along the dirt road on a huge, open plain. I can see far ahead of me. The valley is opening up.

The wind is strong. One man walks behind me.

I spot a nice place for the tent, go off road. The man behind me whistles. When I look, he gestures for the road. But I’m not lost, I just want to set up my tent.

There are some clouds, but I don’t think it’ll rain. The wind is getting stronger. There are only a few, small trees.

I feel exposed, small, tiny in comparison to the mountains, the plain, the wind. It’s amazing.

I hope the tent will make the winds, but in the night, they calm down.

***

The next morning, I walk together with some army guys. They’re young, younger than me. He asks me if I have a woman. I say yes.

I pass through a village. There are a lot of people trying to get a car. I walk out of the village and read for a long time.

The book talks more about nature, about being open for the signs that come to us from nature. I look around me and try to find signs, but I find none.

A car comes and stops. Inside, the vibe is different. The driver doesn’t really care about me. When he stops for other hitchhikers, I get it. He just picks up anybody. I wonder if I have to pay.

In the next town, we stop and I get out. He doesn’t want any money.

I walk out of town and sit and wait for cars. I frustrate myself, never really being able to read because every few minutes there’s cars but they don’t stop.

The few that stop either want too much money or don’t take me because they’re “only going to the next village”. As if I care, there’s only one road and one direction. I’m grumpy.

I give up and go to the taxi station.

I pay a lot for a seat in a 4×4, and in half an hour, we take off. The car is crammed full of people. It’s a similar car that I was in on my long ride from Dushanbe. But here, there must be twice the amount of people.

The taxi driver gives me the front passenger seat. They seem happy and excited to have a tourist on board.

I share one seat with the co-driver. He doesn’t really drive, but manages baggage and people and stuff. A little guy, with a limp. He’s merry and happy, smiling at me.

I feel stupid because I’m in a bad mood, yet looking at this guy I get a bad conscious. He’s giving me most of the seat, only one of his legs is actually on the seat. He’s like halfway turned, it looks really uncomfortable. But he’s joyous.

One moment he’s on the phone, yelling and laughing with someone on the other end. Then he’s laughing with his driver friend. Then with someone in the back.

He asks me many times if I feel comfortable, by sticking a thumbs up a bit too close to my face, a big grin in his face.

We’re now in the Wakhan valley itself. It’s huge, the Panj river in the middle and two giant mountain slopes on either side. They form a kind of inverted pyramid.

We stop frequently, in pretty much every village we pass. Everybody gets out to go the one shop this village has, buying shovels or clothes or cheese. We all get back in. We wait. Then even more people get in the car.

Everybody in the car is laughing. It’s mostly women and children in notice, but a few men too.

I’m in pain, my stomach churning. I take the next break to relieve myself.

We wait for a long time somewhere. Then we drive back a little. There’s a man on the road, holding a baby girl. He gives the driver 400 British Pounds. Then we turn around and continue. I’ve no idea what’s going on.

My stomach is getting worse and worse. The driver slows down whenever I take a picture.

We take stop after stop, and the men just seem to laugh more and more. Until I understand.

At every stop, after buying this or that, the men go off to have a few shots. At least the driver stays sober, mostly.

The little guy next to me gets more and more obnoxious, while I’m in serious pain. I don’t laugh. They invite me to take a shot, but I don’t.

Finally, we get to the last town in the valley. I get out, furious at everybody and everything.

Only once before, in Egypt, have I ever having had this much stomach pain.

I need a toilet, a bush, anything. But everything is fenced in, people around. I walk for a long time, anger and pain building.

Eventually, I hide behind a pile of stones.

Afterwards, leaning on an abandoned building, I recover. It’s almost dark.

I look up the guide I’ve saved on my phone. It says the town I’m in is the last of the Wakhan valley. It says there are few cars going further and one can become stranded for days. It says it’s best to come on an organized tour. How did I not read this before?

Turning to the more immediate issue, I wonder if it’s ok to set up my tent here. I’m only thirty meters away from the next houses. Inside one, there is light. I go to check.

I see a lot of people, just leaving. I’m on the other side of a fence, and shout through. Only a kid notices me. He runs away.

When I start walking away, I hear something. I turn back around and see and old man approaching with the kid.

In Russian, I tell him that I’m a traveller from Switzerland. I ask if it’s ok if I put my tent over there. He says he doesn’t know because it’s his neighbors land. He points me to the neighbors house. I thank the old man and check the neighbors house, but nobody’s home.

I proceed to set up the tent, there’s almost no light left. Then I hear the old man again.

I walk over, this time he’s inside the house, speaking to me out of the window. He asks if I want to sleep in this room. I don’t even look and say yes.

***

Inside, there is an old sofa and ancient TV.

I thank the old man and his woman. The kids watch me as I inflate my sleeping mat.

The old man brings me food. White bread, apricot jam, vegetable dumplings, and black tea. And, of course, Russian candies. It soothes my violated stomach. 

I debate whether to leave some money. One part in me is stingy, says the food is meager. One part says they probably don’t have much, that ten Dollars will go a long way. And one part in me knows. I leave it on the couch for them and go to sleep.

In the night, I have a dream. About a castle, about getting, receiving something. It’s a wonderful, magnificent feeling that’s still with me in the morning when the old man wakes me up early. 

He removes his hat as he enters and holds it in his hands as he asks me how I’ve slept. He says has to go to work. He seems frail, but has a lot of kindness in his eyes, verging on reverence.

I get breakfast. White bread, apricot jam and Russian candies. Then I’m on my way.

Since there’s no cars, I’ll just have to walk. For three days.

But it’s ok, I have enough food. And after some hours, I’m high up, with nothing for company but wild, untouched mountains and the wind. This is what I came for.

***

The walking is easy, little to no elevation gain.

I float along the path. Every now and again, I take out my phone to check the progress. But I do it a little less than before. I wonder when I’ll find water, but I trust.

I can still see Afghanistan, but now I’m heading away from it. The road is built high into the slope of the mountain ridge. Weaving in and out of little valleys, connected with bridges, I’m at peace. I pick up a pretty stone to keep as a memory.

When I round a corner, I see a collapsed bridge. There’s a makeshift replacement further up. 

After getting over it, I meet a Japanese with a motorcycle. He is stressed.

He’s rented the bicycle in Dushanbe, and the crossing over the makeshift bridge is sketchy. He asks for my help.

I don’t do much, but he’s so relieved when he gets the bike and himself over safely that he bows to me.

I continue on, meeting nobody else, except for a truck with soldiers, going the opposite way. They look at me curiously.

I bathe in a river and make some oats. It’s cold. I sit there a long time, trying to warm up after my bath.

In the distance, I see somebody approaching on the trail. From behind me, where I came from. Soon, I see someone else.

It’s a young couple. He’s from Italy, she from France. We talk, share food, and walk together. The guy has travelled to more than 90 countries. They work in Switzerland in a ski resort during the season. The rest of the year they travel.

I envy them a little for a moment. Wish I could share traveling, a lifestyle like this, with her.

I ask him what the most important thing in life is for him. Immediately:

“Elodie”. Her.

He asks me the same:

“You know, not so long ago, in the beginning of this trip, I answered like you. My partner. But now, I don’t know. How can something outside of myself, something external, ever be the most important thing in life?”

I think some more:


“Sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re not. Sometimes we’re right next to each other, sometimes, like right now, we’re not. I notice how much I miss her. Am I not making myself dependent by putting her in the middle of my life?”

We walk together for hours. We have lot of time to get to know each other.

I raise another question:

“What do you think, what happens when you die?”

He says:

“My matter gets returned to the earth.”

He asks me:

“If you had the choice, would you live forever?”

I tell him:

“To me, reincarnation is a truth, so, in a way, I do live forever.”

I tell him about the moment it became real to me.

How, one day, through reading, something within me just shifted, clicked, unlocked. I didn’t rationally decide, didn’t choose this as belief. How, ever since, I just see the world through this lens.

He talks about the short story by Andy Weir, called “the egg”. 

It’s about a man that just died and meets the creator in the afterlife. Where he learns that he will be reincarnated. As a Chinese peasant girl in the middle ages. How he’ll go through every human life ever lived, experience everything, in order to learn and grow. How he’s essentially everybody.

The Italian says, while he doesn’t really believe in this, he likes to think that what he does to others, he does to himself.

I enjoy listening, something stirring within me:

“I wonder. What about responsibility? What about cause and effect?”

If I cut the branch off a tree, the whole growth of the tree will be influenced for the rest of its life. And this influence, based on my action, in a way, is an extension of me in the outside world. And when I die and come back into this world, it’s not completely neutral towards me, but it has an imprint of me, and this imprint is tied to me, comes back to me.

How my actions of today determine the circumstances I find myself in tomorrow. How sleep is the interval in-between. And how death is interval in-between life. How what I do in this life determines the circumstances of the next life.

How I bring qualities, essences into this life. How I’m inexplicably drawn to certain activities, situations, people, countries. How we’re all wholly unique as beings, beyond the influence of the environment in this life.

How this is all just theory, but how it can be felt. Experienced for oneself. How we already do, all the time. We just need to be awake for it.

I ask him, my fellow traveller:

“We meet many people whilst travelling. In the presence of some, we feel safe, we get in their car without a worry and we have a great time with them. With others, we have a strange feeling. Some intuition. So we don’t get in their car.”

He answers:

“Mhm, I do believe we have an inner compass.”

“Right! Over time, I’ve found my feeling for people to get finer, sharper; to develop. These are whole worlds to be explored. Our feelings and sensations, our thoughts and mental space.”

“Yeah, but in the end it’s just chemical reactions in the brain and hormones.”

This gets me going:

“Not so long ago, I would have said the same. Science was everything to me. 2 plus 2 is 4. Whatever can be proven and measured is real. Then I started opening up.”

I continue:

“No question that science actually works. I’m not saying that science is wrong. But overly rational, scientific thinking is limiting certain capabilities we, as human beings, have.”

“Science is a way of looking at the world, but not a direct experience of it. Of course our intuition and realizations can be rationalized away as simple chemicals in the physical body.”

“But not only does this robs us of any meaning in life, it is also just measures one of the planes of existence.”

“Try to think in a very abstract, un-commonsensical way, forgetting all beliefs about science and rationality: An emotion. Is it physical? Can you see it, touch it, smell it? It is not in the physical plane. Of course it has an effect in the physical. We yell, cry, laugh, and modern science can measure the chemicals and hormones in our body. But the chemicals and hormones in our body don’t necessarily cause our emotion. The intuition is not just chemicals, it is much, much more. The same for our thoughts; another whole plane of existence, even finer than emotions.”

“Only looking at the physical, we miss out on so much, can only understand existence so much. Think of a piece of music you like. If we break it down physically, measure the sound-waves and put the notes down on a sheet, do we understand the music then? Do we grasp it fully in its essence?”

“Will we ever understand what an architect was thinking and feeling when he was drawing the blue print for a building by examining its bricks and mortar, and what molecules they’re made of?”

“I remember, when I was just opening up, Alan Watts was important for me. One question of his stuck with me: If a tree falls in the woods but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Elodie is silent, listening intently.

“The common sense answer is yes. But what is sound, really? Is it just the vibration? Or is it the vibration that is received by an organ, something that can pick it up and together they make the sound?”

He says:

“I don’t know about the tree and the sound my friend, but the rest is interesting.”

I laugh.

“I guess both answers can be true depending on what perspective we take. But I feel it would be so good for us to take the other perspective more often.”

“When I stopped disregarding so much of my experience as simple chemicals, once I took the perspective that the intuition, the sudden flash of insight, the intense dream wasn’t just chemicals, once I was there to listen, a new sound came into my life.”

“And, you know, at the end of the day, regardless of what’s true, I’ve found so much meaning in life by allowing myself to open up. This didn’t mean that I needed to believe in anything. I simply needed to be open and explore what’s right there.”

We make a fire and cook rice and lentils. In the morning, they go left up a mountain. I go straight, along the road.

***

Soon, a car comes and stops.

It’s four middle-aged Italians. Two couples. I sit in the back with the women. They are more open towards me, the men not speaking English so well.

They’ve been all over the world, simply saying “it’s easier to list where we have not been”, always traveling together. When I ask for their favorites, I get Mongolia (the landscape), South Africa (the animals), Iran (the people).

We drive for a long time. We see a caravan of camels on the Afghan side. We pass a military checkpoint. We go over a pass, almost 4500 meters. I feel the headache and unease of the altitude.

There’s a big lake here, and one house in the distance. The men decide to go off-road, the woman protesting – it’s not safe – then rolling their eyes when the men don’t listen and go anyways.

We go all the way to the little house. There, the daughter of the shepherd greets us. She speaks some German, which she studies in the university in Khorog. The shepherd comes soon after, not wasting many words. We visit their little stone house. The mother is making bread.

Some more driving, and we get to a paved road. We’re back on the Pamir highway,  where we part ways. I go North, further into the hinterlands, they go South, back to Dushanbe.

After they’ve driven out of sight, I’m left all alone in one of the most fantastic sceneries I’ve ever been in my life.

I’m overlooking a plateau, a kind of pan tunneling into a corridor, endless mountain ridges to the right and left. The horizon disappears far, far away. Everything is completely barren, everything is the same sandy color. The sky somehow seems close, as if the mountains are squeezing against it. Stretching on into infinity, huge clouds hang inside it unmoving. There is no wind and no sound.

A whole world is frozen in front of me. Far away, nothing more than a tiny dot, I see a single, solitary house.

I start walking down the road.

***

Soon, nature calls. I walk a long time toward a little pond I see in the distance. To get some water to clean myself with. (One gets used to this living in Egypt.)

Once I finally get there, I can’t get to the water because everything is muddy. I try from this way, then that, but I sink in too deep.

With every minute, urgency is increasing, my stomach still not really sure about the host of new bacteria.

I put my shoes off and try to wade into it, but I can’t, almost get stuck.

I stand there, not knowing what to do, until I see that a little water has pooled into my footstep. I try to gather as much as possible, but it’s mostly mud. I’m unhappy, but make do with what I have. 

Afterwards, I have muddy hands, muddy shoes, muddy socks, but can’t clean anything because I don’t have water.

I drag myself back to the road and lie next to it for a long time. There is absolute silence.

Every now and again, a truck passes, but in the wrong direction. Fully loaded, they can only go slow, dodging huge potholes. The truckers wave at me from their little nook, high up.

I don’t mind to wait. I just saved two days of walking thanks to the Italians.

Some time after, I spot a 4×4, coming in my direction. I get up and put my hand out. It drives past me. But when I lie back down, I see it backing up. I’m confused, then run up to it, hopeful.

The driver, a big guy with oversized sunglasses, lowers his window, and I ask: “Anglisci snash?”

Somewhat to my surprise, he says yes. I ask him if he’s going to Murghab, the last real town on the Tajik side. He says yes again. I ask him if I can come with him, and he says yes a last time.

Inside, I greet an obese, middle-aged lady and a frail senior. The senior, incredulous, asks me how I ended up here, in the middle of nowhere. I tell him.

While he proceeds to nap for most of the drive, the obese lady and I talk sporadically.

From her I learn that they’re from New Zealand and have travelled to more than 120 countries. They’ve been to Dahab too, a long time ago, and she wonders what I do there. It’s interesting for me to hear myself talk about myself, what the story has become by now.

Sometimes, the lady talks to their driver, with varying degrees of success, for his English is bad.

I feel awkward when she, unaware of the peculiarities of her accent, can’t get something across to him, despite trying multiple times. Sometimes when he doesn’t understand, he just doesn’t answer at all, and he doesn’t even seem to care. They hired him for a seven day tour. I don’t dare think about how much they’ve paid.

From the way she calls the senior “honey”, forcing him out of his uneasy slumber every now and again to take a picture, I deduct that they are not father and daughter.

Even so, despite being slightly worried about senior, whom it seems to take considerable effort just to remain upright in his seat, probably because we’re at 4400 meters of altitude, which he himself actually points out, the only thing that piqued his interest during the entire drive, except for the fact that I paid 300 Dollar for a return ticket from Sharm to Tashkent (upon which he remarked: “really?!”), I’m happy for the chance to take a picture, because the landscape is once in a lifetime stuff.

There’s a serenity so sublime in the immense scale of the environment. The incredible distances unfolding before us, virtually untouched for forever, making me realize just how full desolation can be.

Just before we arrive in Murghab, there’s a sign that says “Welcome to Murghab”. A statue of a snow leopard stands next to it.

“Are there snow leopards here?” she asks him, articulating carefully.

“Yes.” A long pause. Then:

“But they don’t come to the town, right?”

“Sometime he come.” Silence after that.

***

Murghab is wild. It feels like a colony on mars, as if I’m a pioneer in the new world.

I’m completely absorbed, loving every minute of walking around.

The people look different, most of them being Kyrgyz. It’s the last real town, excluding Qaraqol (the crown jewel of Tajikistan’s Pamir highway), before the border.

I buy some buckwheat and dates in the bazaar, which is made up of rows of shops in shipping containers.

The sun slowly setting, I treat myself to some plov in the roadside diner. I could eat another portion, but it costs three Dollars.

Back out, I start heading out of town to look for a place to sleep, when a tiny Korean car stops and honks at me:

“Mister! Come, I’m taxi driver, I drive you. No money, I promise!”

A big man with a huge, bald head, which is almost a perfect circle, yells at me.

Approaching, I don’t have a chance to speak:

“I promise no money mister. I drive you. I just want to practice English.”

I don’t mind a lift, and I’m a little curious about the guy. Getting in, he starts driving and shows me his town. Full of pride, he points out the local mosque, the school, and the communal bath. They all look like regular houses to me.

He’s joyful, almost euphoric. I think he’s the happiest guy I’ve met in a long time. And I’m positive he’s entirely sober.

He says it’s his passion to study English. He uses YouTube videos and the internet. Every day, he learns three words by heart. He speaks well.

Whenever he sees a tourist, he drives them for free, in order to practice his speaking, which he doesn’t get to do a lot.

He asks me which road I want to take. He tells me there are two roads, one to China, one to Kyrgyzstan. I tell him the one to Kyrgyzstan. He laughs and we go.

After a few minutes of small talk, we arrive. Before I get out, he asks where I’ll sleep. I tell him about my tent.

For the first time, his face loses its smile, turning concerned. He says there are wolves and bears. That there are guesthouses close by, much better, he’ll take me to them.

I reassure him, saying: “I love to be in nature.” And I love to save 10 bucks and some trucker snoring next to me all night, but this I don’t tell him.

He asks me what I do for food, and I tell him about my gas cooker. He seems to know what I’m talking about, is overjoyed that I’m properly equipped. With a huge smile, we part ways.

I can’t be bothered to walk much, set up the tent close to the road, close the last houses of the town.

In front of me, there is completely barren nothingness for a long time, then mountains. To my right and left, there are mountains. Behind me is the town. It’s completely surreal.

As I cook some buckwheat, painfully aware of every minute of precious gas, one or two big mosquitoes buzz around me. I’ve never seen any like them.

Their bite itches like crazy, swelling quickly. But they’re sluggish, ridiculously easy to smash.

Alternating my attention between the buckwheat in my mouth and the leathery, burnt skin on my hands, I am.

The buckwheat is earthy. My hands look ancient.

***

The next day, after I hear the first car pass, I drag myself out of the tent.

I stand there, a bit miserable, unmoving for a while, shocked after leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag.

It’s been a few days on the road now, a few days on an inflatable sleeping mat, a few days of ice cold water for my hands and face. Not this time though, because there is no water around.

I put a few drops of the little drinking water I have left in my hands and “wash” my face a little. I put some moisturizer on my hands and nose, so that they may not fall off all together. I break camp, and go from feeling miserable to feeling great in a remarkably short time. 

Because this is it.

I have everything I need to live in my backpack, the sun has risen and is shining bright, promising a beautiful day to come, I’m completely on my own, the road is right here and I’m somewhere, far, far away.

I relish every passing minute, actually hoping that no car will come too soon.

Every now and again, I notice my mind taking me on some random chain of thoughts, but I step behind it, being.

Every now and again, I notice some worry popping up: If I’ll have enough time, if it will all work out, what I’ll do next, where I’ll get food, but I step behind it, being.

I treasure the freedom I’ve worked for in the past year.

There comes a Korean man with a bicycle. He stops and we chat for a bit. He’ll go up to Quaraqol to see the lake and then go back through the Bartang valley. I say I want to do the same, just without the bicycle. He says there are not many cars going to Quaraqol since the border is closed. But a lot of trucks to the Chinese border. I say I don’t mind waiting, and off he goes.

My hope comes true, for no cars come. Hours pass with one or two local taxis going by, but they stay inside town. Only one 4×4 passes. It’s senior and the obese lady and their driver, but they don’t take me this time.

At noon, my water runs out.

I was conserving it as much as possible, but could only go so far with the little I had. I walk a little along the road, back into town, because on maps.me it says there are some shops. But everything is closed. I go back.

Three boys come on their bicycles. They’re young, maybe seven or eight. They pass me in silence, with big eyes.

Soon, they circle back around and stop, some distance away from me, until one raises his hand.

Sitting on the pavement, I raise my hand in return. They approach a little.

Each of them is equipped with a hat, one of them donning the traditional Kyrgyz “Kalpak”. We talk a little, exchanging names and where we come from.

I tell “Musa” that where I live, there is a mountain with his name. This they find hilarious.

After the small talk is over, they stand around dumbfound. I don’t get it.

They walk away a little and whisper in each others ears, earnestly conferring over seemingly serious matters. When they come back, they stand next to each other, and one asks me shyly:

“Telefon jest?” 

“Telefon Jes.”

“Ja budem telefon.”

He wants my phone. 

My phone being more than five years old, having survived all kinds of trips, having gone through multiple screens and batteries, I hesitate.

Additionally, its hardware not the only thing showing its age, the software has grown a bit fickle with the years, and needs to be treated gently, or the frequency of random freezes and shut-downs increases greatly.

I use it to communicate, it has a lot of pictures, books and videos on it, and, perhaps most importantly, I rely on it for navigation.

Also, there passed no night since I left home that I haven’t recorded a voice message for her before going to sleep.

In short, I am rather reluctant to hand it over.

I want to ask him why, but I don’t know the word for why in Russian. While I try to get the meaning of why across in a different way, I become acutely aware of its how difficult this is.

When “Saschto?”, the Croatian counterpart, doesn’t work, I come up with:
“Sto ti budsches radi?” (With very broken grammar, something along the lines of: What you want to work?)

Of course, I don’t understand the reply, so eventually, I say simply say no.

In response to this, they reconvene together, whispering in each others ears.

When they come back, apparently having elected a new spokesperson, the kids with the kalpak now speaking, he says one word:

“Patschemu?”

“Patschemu?” I repeat, not understanding.

“Patschemu?!”

“Ne ponio patschemu.” I don’t understand patschemu.

After this, they whisper a long time amongst themselves, discussing intensely.

Now, the third boy speaking, he tries from the start, the following exchange taking place under the hopeful eyes of the other two boys:

“Telefon jest?”

“Da.”

“Ja budem telefon.”

“Ne.”

“Patschemu?”

“Ne ponio patschemu.”

“Ne poniol patschemu?”

“Ne ponio.”

And they all groan, not knowing how to get patschemu across any differently.

Only later would I learn, from Firuz, that patschemu, ironically, means why.

Before they get any chance to press their issue further, I ask them where I can get water.

They look at each other, talk quickly in Kyrgyz, get on their bikes, and simply leave.

***

Some time later, I see them coming back.

When they arrive, they hand me a little bottle filled with water. I thank them, refill the water into my bottle and purify it using the steri-pen, a stick using UV light to purify the water.

They curiously look at what I’m doing, a reaction I’ve gotten many times when putting the little thing inside the water and a little light starts glowing. After a minute, I start taking sips of the water. It tastes soapy.

Then they ask me again for the phone. I figure they brought me the water as a bargaining chip. Now, “igro” comes through, and I get what I could have gotten much earlier:

They want to play games on my phone. I don’t have any to begin with, but if they want to play, we can play.

I start a recording on my camera and hand it over to one of them, careful to put the sling around his neck so it’s safe. They take turns and have a blast videoing and taking pictures. I love these little guys.

They have a really wholesome dynamic, taking care that nobody gets left out, respecting each other and laughing and giggling non stop.

And eventually, satisfied that they got some “igro”, they leave with a “bye bye”.

Probably due to having finally gotten some liquids, my body gets out of its fasting mode, and I visit a local place to eat.

When I enter, I see two men sitting and eating. There is one teenage girl serving them. I kind of stand around, waiting for someone to approach me or tell me what to do.

This goes on for some time, another serving girl sporadically appearing and disappearing. They don’t spare me a look.

I eventually sit down, observing the two men.

They are eating dumplings. One of the men has a wolfish quality to him (sorry to the wolf). A bony, slender face with sunken, intense eyes, he is devouring his food as if in revenge for something it did to him.

At one point he looks at me, staring me in the eyes for a while, then asking: “Dushanbe?” I say no, that I’m going North. Wordlessly, he goes back to eating, never looking at me again.

The serving girls appear again out of the kitchen, carrying a lot of food into the back. I didn’t realize until now that two more men were there, just out of sight. They seem to be having a feast.

The girls continue to ignore me, seemingly uncomfortable by my presence. I know that I should just tell them I need food, to get out of my European mindset, but feel uncomfortable myself by now.

The two men eating dumplings finish, bring the leftover to the two men in the back. It seems to me a foul act. It seems to me the two men in the back are somehow important. Or maybe I just wanted the dumpling.

The wolfish guy pays and leaves, and in the way he asks for the price, in the way he hands over the money, in the way he walks, I see absolutely no humanity. I see him getting into a 4×4, and get it. The reason he asked me if I’m going to Dushanbe, because he saw a possible chance to make some money.

It’s as if he wasn’t completely here, as if he was a step removed from the actual experience of what he was doing. As if, in the world he lives in, everything comes down to brutal survival and everybody and everything gets scanned through this lens.

The atmosphere lifts a little when the men leave, and soon after the other two men leave too. I’m still sitting there, watching the girls clear the table. When one of them puts on some music, I finally make myself be known.

Talking to her, she looks at me for the first time, and I see the fragility then.

The innocence in her eyes, already shaken and violated by the brutal nature of this environment. For it is survival here. With temperatures below 30 in winter and no chance for agriculture, this remote mountain region has faced starvation as recently as 2004. The people here rely on their livestock to subsist, herding the sheep, goat, cows and yacks into the pastures in the short summer months.

I place my order, pointing to what the men had before me, and after some minutes, I get my plate of dumplings. She asks me multiple times if I want tea, not being able to understand how somebody can have a meal without tea. The dumplings are the best I’ll ever have in central asia, and as I eat, a beautiful, melancholic song plays.

***

I decide to walk.

With a liter of water from the restaurant, I start heading down the straight road, straight for so long that I don’t see where it eventually curves North-West to make it’s last push over another pass, 4600 meters of altitude, to take me to Qaraqol, the second highest navigable lake in the world, after lake titcaca in Peru.

As I walk on, I feel adrift.

I think about my life, the things that are important to me. They seem far away. There is an arc, going over the road, saying something in Cyrillic I can’t decipher. I step through it. I walk past a cemetery, built with bricks the same sandy color of everything else around me.

After some time, I hear a car behind me. It stops and I get in. But I’m not in for long, because the guy driving it is going to work at the construction site that is right there.

When I get out, he helps me to stop another car that was just behind us. The driver, reluctantly stopping, asks me if I speak English.

“Yes, I speak English.” I say, hopeful.

“Where do you go?”

“Qaraqol.”

“You know the border is closed?”

“Yes.”

“How will you go back?”

“Through the Bartang valley.”

“You will walk?”

“Yes.”

Then, after a short pause:

“Ok.”

I seem to have passed the exam.

I get to know Knüt, a Norwegian man in his early 60s. He hired a driver to take him Qaraqol and back. He’s been to more than 130 countries, but says he doesn’t travel as adventurously as me anymore. He’s been to Tibet in the 1980s, saw it before the Chinese corrupted everything. 

“It truly was a Shangri-la experience.” he says.

“I went to the Mount Everest base camp, on the Tibetan side. I went there walking and hitchhiking in army trucks. That’s why I told my driver to stop when I saw you, here in the middle of nowhere. You really need to have a lot of faith, walking here all alone?”

“I’ve learnt to trust on my journeys. Life has never given me a reason not to.”

“Why did you come here?” he asks me.

“One night, I had a dream that I would travel to Uzbekistan. In the dream, I felt amazing. The next day, I checked the flights. As it turned out, there are cheap, direct flights from Sharm to Tashkent. So I booked one.”

“When I began researching about Centra Asia, I came across an article comparing the Central Asian countries. There was one line about Tajikistan, saying that one should come here if one wants real adventure in a wild country that one will never forget their whole life.

“I felt something while reading that, and knew.”

He talks a lot during our drive, about himself, his life, his travels, his struggles. He met the Dalai Lama. He is into politics. He speaks five languages. He knows a lot about geopolitics, history, economics. He is divorced, has a son and a daughter, but the son is his favourite.

And under all the knowledge and achievements and university degrees, I feel a big, kind, lonely heart.

We stop on the pass to take a picture. We meet two French cyclists. We also drive past the Korean cyclist I met this morning, stopping to make sure he’s alright.

And then, we get to the lake. Knüt and I take a walk, and he shares with me that he recently had cancer. That he didn’t share this with his driver yet. And in this moment, I understand. 

I understand how important I and the driver are to him. How important it is to feel understood and seen and felt.

We share a heartfelt goodbye, Knüt taking a picture of me. Even the driver and I hug, me and him having bonded somewhat with occasional glances through the rear view mirror, both understanding the slight dynamic at play. The driver gets his salary, I get a ride, and we are happy to listen.

“So you will just walk for five days?”

“Yes, maybe only four if I’m fast.”

“And you have enough food?”

“Of course, no worries.”

Having said our goodbyes, I turn left, walking away from the paved road at a 90 degree angle, following a 4×4 track in the dirt, which I quickly loose. 

My destination is Gudara, some 120 kilometers away. It is the first scattering of houses in the Bartang valley. In-between, there is nothing.

I choose the Bartang valley as a way of going back, because the way North is closed and the way back is where I just came from and because when I was researching online it said that the valley was “truly remote and truly wild”.

There is no paved road from where I stand until one comes back to the Pamir highway some 300 Kilometers later, and the track, only attemptable in a 4×4, often gets flooded or otherwise impassable. The most recent information I could gather on its current condition, coming from a tipsy Spaniard in the hostel in Dushanbe (“Yeah man the way is flooded but no problem for walking or cycling”) makes me hopeful, even if not completely at ease.

I’m pretty sure I have enough food not to starve during the first five days, during which I’ll have to be completely self-sufficient. I’m not so sure I have enough camping gas to cook said food, but already devised a plan: I’ll soak the buckwheat and the lentils over night, greatly reducing the cooking time, and only soak the oats, not cooking them at all. And I’m almost certain my power bank will be able to charge my phone, providing access to navigation. What could go wrong?

On a hill, overlooking the start of the valley, the lake and the highway behind me already fading into the distance, I am ecstatic. The nature here is so raw, so wild, it’s scale so massive, I am nothing against it, yet I contain it all within myself. This is it.

I pick up a stone to remember this moment.

***

Part 3

***

The sun slowly setting, my euphoria has faded, replaced by a calmness, mirroring the serenity all around me.

Though wild it may be, the environment is static, unmoving, everlasting. I can see ten kilometers ahead, mountains and plains and valleys, but except for the little river that runs through it, nothing moves. Dull reds fade into sandy browns, contrasted by the white tips of the mountains. Along the shore of the river, there are a few meters of shrubby greenery.

I have to get to the other side of the river, carefully wade through it.

Going slowly, the current being stronger than it looked, the water comes up over my knees. Luckily, I took my phone out of its pocket. One moment, I struggle for balance, a flash of anxiety surfacing: I see my phone in the water, everything gone: Safety, comfort, utility, money, data, sentimental attachment. But I make It over to the other side fine.

The sun dropping under the horizon, a sharp cold taking its place, I start looking for a place to camp. But I don’t really have to look. It’s eden here for the wild camper. Everything is flat, there’s a water source right next to me, no humans around, and, by the looks of it, nothing alive at all around. If space is wealth, I’m a billionaire.

I soak some oats as I set up camp, eat them cold when I’m finished, and get inside the sleeping bag, feeling cozy and content. I record a voice message for her, today being our 8 month-versary.

After, I read some more in the book on shamanism. I’m almost finished when it talks about the initiation. A kind of ritual, a ceremony, that a person goes through to become a shaman. They also call it a vision quest. A difficult, often dangerous journey someone goes on, facing inner demons, to find clarity, meaning, purpose.

***

I wake up with the first light, after a deep, long rest. There is frost on my tent. I feel refreshed after sleeping like I haven’t I a long time. It feels like I was far, far away.

The lentils I put to soak over night are covered by a thin crust of ice. I wash myself in the river, dry myself in the sun. Slowly, I break camp.

I notice paw prints in the mud close to the river, didn’t remember them last evening. I joke that maybe the snow leopard visited me.

Wanting to prepare the lentils, I try for a long time to light the camping gas, the mechanism on the burner broken. Eventually, I get a spark and a flame.

Just when I start walking, I see the Korean man in the distance, cycling.

I feel well, happy to be walking in this place. But soon, this changes.

The distances are immense. I walk for two or three hours in one direction, heading towards a turn, and when the valley finally turns, I see ahead of me for ten or fifteen kilometers again. There is little distraction, little change, little outside stimulation. I am faced with myself.

And there is wind.

The wind is strong, howling in my ears, blowing full on in my face, always against my direction. It is constant, never stronger, never weaker.

I try to hold my awareness in the present moment for as long as possible, focusing my will, focusing on my focus. I plunge myself deep into the earth, connect, and stay there. I feel something opening up, like a universe inside myself. I sink into it, step by step, until I lose it, until some thought about money or family takes me away.

Trudging through the wasteland, the wind drying my eyes, drowning everything out, I focus again and again. But the thoughts are strong, packing a punch. I get annoyed.

As I walk, on and on, something is happening. The annoyance grows stronger, into contempt. 

I start talking out loud, giving voice to all the thoughts, letting them out. I grow angry.

Soon, I yell. I yell at my partner, my friends, society, humanity, existence.

I yell at my mother, swearing at her, damning her for never once seeing me. I yell at my father for not being there enough, for not showing me what it means to be a man, at my brother for leaving me alone, at never having a real family. At all the dysfunction and disharmony between them, at all the tension and conflict boiling underneath, at all my “caretakers” that could barely take care of themselves.

Knowing, of course, that they had they own struggle and did their very best, that they all love me dearly, that there was just as much good as bad, that this world is made of both, and that the bad is also right and good and necessary, that it all lead me where I am today, made me what I am today, and that I am thankful, grateful.

But that, nonetheless, the innocence, the pureness that I was, still somewhere am, was exposed to it all, fully and without a way of protecting itself. And that I can’t hold it in anymore.

Tears start running freely, sadness, anger, grief, hate coming up in a way I’ve never experienced in my life.

I swear at always being alone, look around me, see where I am, at the end of the world, on my own, see what I do to myself, and sob, break down.

***

When nothing is left, I pick myself up and walk some more. I reach another turn, and the valley turns a bit hilly, is more green, feels gentle. I am surprised to see some cows ambling around.

I lie down next to the river, nothing more than a stream here, and try to read. But I can’t focus on the words, a tension inside of me. I give up on reading, lay down completely, and go inside, to see what’s up.

I sink, further and further, further than I’ve ever gone, and at the bottom, I find raw pain. It doesn’t even feel bad, it is beyond good or bad, but it takes all my will to stay here, to not go back to the surface where it’s just a bit of tension.

I don’t know what to do, but I feel it shifting, so I don’t do anything. Soon, a reverberation of pain vibrates all throughout me, my physical body jerking, and I hear myself moan. Then another, and another, and another. It’s as if I’m being torn apart, clawed apart. It’s as if I’m dying.

It starts becoming more intense, a deep fear filling me. A fear of losing control, of the unknown, of death.

At the same time, there’s a trust, a knowing. That this is right and good. For every stroke, despite cutting so deep, tearing me apart, destroying me, is freeing.

I give myself to it completely, relinquishing all resistance, letting myself be fleshed apart. I cry softly, as all is torn away.

***

When it stops, I find myself deeply inside my heart, inside the sacred temple of my being, a huge crater gaping there, fresh and raw and just beginning to heal. And I feel a presence, powerful and otherworldly.

At this moment, I see him. A sight I’ll never forget my entire life.

The snow leopard sits there, in front of my tent, lit by a campfire. Silently looking at me, with intense, knowing eyes. And I know, beyond logic and rationality, that it’s me. That he is me and I am him.

He speaks to me, tells me something, and waits for my answer. I am overwhelmed, shaken to my core, reply: “Yes”

The picture changes, now I see him even closer, his face right in front of mine. And I get a message, a request: To destroy my phone.

I feel something on my foot, open my eyes and see four or five cows standing around me, just staring at me. One young lamb is nibbling on my toe. I shoo her away, staring at the cows myself. I laugh, then remembering what was asked of me.

Immediately, I feel my everything saying no, resisting, demanding, fighting that request. I feel fear too.

And in a flash, I know. I see it. Without a shadow of doubt.

That it’s ok. That I don’t need to if I don’t want to. But that this is what is asked of me, what is needed at this moment for me to continue. And if I don’t do it now, it will come again, in one form or another, in this life or the next.

So, quickly, before it fades, wondering if I’ve gone insane, I take out my phone, take the sim and sd card out, write down the phone number of her, my mother, and my father, check the map and make a simple copy of it in my notebook. And then I do the sacrifice.

I throw my phone into the stream, take it back out, smash it with a stone, and bury it.

***

I get going again, the sun starting to turn everything golden. I walk over a little bridge and see marmots in the distance, dashing underground into their dens with a high pitched squeal to warn others. Little sparrows whizz past me, landing in front of me, flying away when I get close.

And I wonder. At what I just did, at what just happened. 

I feel light, deeply cleansed, yet unsure about the meaning of everything. And I feel naked, my mind already racing to calculate how much a new phone will cost, where I could get it, how I’ll reach my loved ones.

I feel a kind of a hole left behind by the phone’s absence. I feel sorrow that I won’t be able to continue with my nightly voice messages for her, a comforting thing, connecting me with her. I’m hyperaware of every turn I take, always checking my hand drawn map, but the way is easy to follow. Still, I can’t check my location every hour or two, as I was used to doing. And I can’t read either, this being another request. To not use my kindle until I get to Gudara.

I’m really here now, absolutely, fully here, absolutely, fully alone, with absolutely nothing to hold on to, to give me comfort, to distract me.

Drifting asleep, I still feel his presence.

***

The next morning, I find a scorpion under my backpack as I break camp. I am completely calm, watch him scuffle away.

I walk and walk and walk. The scenery is beautiful. I follow the river on my left, the humongous valley turning every few hours, revealing something slightly different. I have a lot of time to think.

The experience already fading, I try to keep in touch with the picture, with the spirit. My mind tries to grasp it, coming up with the following rationalization:

Since I was reading the book on shamanism, it affected my perspective, especially the wish to connect to a spirit guide, or helping spirit. I simply saw what I wanted to see. The experience of being torn apart, dying, was also described in the book, and I had heard about it earlier too. The emotional catharsis is simply the result of a year of intense work on myself, including a deep dive into my childhood.

There we go, nothing to see here really.

But then I remember the Italian guy I hiked with not so long ago. I remember my own words.

If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

I remember talking about how much meaning we allow in our life, and how the overly rational, scientific view robs us of us said meaning.

And of course, I don’t doubt that the experience itself was affected by my reading, by my quest, by my wish. But there are a few components here.

The first being that this in itself is valid. That this is a prime example of how we are responsible for the world we create for ourselves, the world we live in. How we can experience something, exactly because we wish for it, manifest it. How we are not the victim of our environment, unconscious programs and patterns, society, or anything else. How we could have full control over our life, our thoughts, emotions and actions; if only we were fully awake.

The second being that the expression, the way of the experience was certainly influenced by what I was reading at the time, but, like the same sentence in different languages, the meaning behind it stays the same. The profound depth of the experience and the huge significance for my personal process, the processing and letting go of the old, and the new wind it brought, could have expressed itself any way, but the important thing is that it happened.

And just as important, that I allowed it to happen, that I was open for it, that I made it valid. In the precious moments afterwards, when the cows got me out, I chose which perspective I want to take. By making the sacrifice. By allowing the experience to reach right down into the physical. Destroying my phone, the most important thing I had on me, the thing I was most attached to, the thing that kept me in shackles the most, I gave this experience validity, here in this world, which can never be undone.

***

On that day following the experience, I walk more than I ever have in a single day with the backpack on. I can only guess, since I don’t have a phone, but it must be around 40 kilometers.

I walk through an alpine desert, red mountains surrounding a sandy plain. It is absolutely grueling, but I don’t dare rest long, not knowing exactly how long my food will last.

I walk against the wind until my eyes are red. I play mind-games with myself, picking a random spot far away, telling myself I won’t look up at my surroundings until I reach that point. I constantly wonder how much I’ve walked already, how much more it must be. I soak some oats and rest. There is nothing. Just nothing.

When the sun sets, I feel more exhausted than I ever have before. I set up camp. Everything is fuzzy, my eyes having dried out.

I see the moon during the night.

In the morning, I, somehow, feel stronger. I don’t think about my phone a lot anymore, connect to the snow leopard every now and again.

And, to my huge surprise, after half an hour of walking, I come across one solitary shepherds house. For a moment, I worry that I’m not on the right way.

The big, furry dogs announce my arrival with a furious concert, but they come to cuddle when they I see I don’t mind them.

A woman and her three daughters greet me outside their stone hut. She invites me in.

I take a seat in the small house. It has one room, with one window. It is dark inside.

When the woman starts putting bread on a tablecloth, I realize it is a tablecloth, and not meant for me to sit on. She laughs softly when she sees that I realize my mistake.

In silence, the three daughters, 12, 16, and 23, as I later learn, watch their mother put milk, yogurt, butter and tea next to homemade bread, which is still warm.

I cannot believe what has just materialized in front of me. The bread, so obviously made with love, is beyond delicious, and I’ve never tasted fresh butter like this one. It’s an experience.

Half of the hut is occupied by a platform thigh high, meant for sleeping and eating. In the other half, they have a stove, some supplies, a huge bag of wheat,  and one thing to beat milk.

The man must have already gone off with the cattle, for I never see him. And I don’t mind. Don’t mind not to have to interact, don’t mind to be in pleasant, warm, caring feminine energy.

The daughters steal occasional glances at me as I nourish myself. The youngest spits on the ground, which the eldest reprimands. They don’t speak Russian, so we are down to sign-language. But we get names and ages across. When the mother re-appears, I ask her if I’m on the right way for Gudara. She says yes. I ask her how many kilometers it still is to there. But she doesn’t know.

I am so grateful for their humanity, their presence and warmth, that, when I leave, I hide 10 Dollars under the tray, so they don’t have any chance to protest, for they did not invite me to make money. Not here. 

Here, I got to have an authentic look at people that still life a live deeply traditional, rooted in and connected to nature. Mainstream tourism has not reached this far, and hopefully won’t for a long time, because this simple experience makes up one of the most authentic interactions with locals I’ve ever had the fortune of enjoying.

Soon after, I take a break. On my right, there is a deep rift, the main river inside of it getting stronger, many little tributaries running into it. On my left, there is one of these little streams. I sit there a long time, thankful for the shepherds family, thankful for the experience, thankful for Tajikistan, thankful for the entire journey. 

Tears start welling up, and I feel my heart, so full, bursting open. I sob. This time of joy, of beauty, of thankfulness.

I look at the stream next to me and feel an urge to drink out of it. Straight out of it, not bothering to filter the already crystalline water.

I put my mouth into it and drink the cold water. It’s alive. It’s the ice, it’s the mountain, it’s the earth. Everything is alive, everything is with me. I’m not alone anymore.

***

The trail descends, marking the first real change in altitude. The desert is over. A shift I feel within, as without. 

Now, I’m in the valley proper. A huge river forms in its middle, fed by all the smaller ones surrounding it. Its water is muddy, brown.

Sometime before the evening, I take a break and enjoy the magnificent nature. Everything is becoming more alive. There is more greenery, even some trees again. The distances are becoming a little shorter.

I see two men approaching. They have a donkey with them. They smoke a cigarette with local tobacco, using old an old newspaper to roll it, and have a break with me. The older man speaks some English. His leathery face has deep creases, marked by decades of exposure to the harsh sun and the harsh winters. He says it was better here during the soviet union. Everybody had work. Now, all the young men have to leave to Russia to make some money, returning after a few years.

They are shepherds, going to a place close to where I came from, the desert, high up, to herd cattle for some time. They ask me about the condition of the trail, if the shepherd family I met today is there. They intend to stay with them for the night.

I ask them how many kilometers it is to Gudara. One says 50, the other 30. They ask me multiple times if I need some bread, then we part ways.

I set up camp soon after.

***

The next day, I walk. I’m not sure if I’ll reach Gudara toady, probably not. After Gudara, the road should get better, at least according to the shepherds, meaning I could hitchhike. I don’t mind that prospect, have had enough of walking.

I walk and I rest and I walk and rest. It is difficult to get up after resting. I gradually loose a little bit of altitude. It gets warmer again.

At one point, the track literally disappears under a huge landslide that must have happened some time ago. The mud and rock has dried and formed a kind of cement, burying the track under a meter of debris. I walk on top of it for some time, until the track reappears.

Some time after, I come to the infamous spot. And indeed, the track is completely flooded. I have to climb around, up into the slope of the mountain, through bushes and thickets, to get over it.

Towards the afternoon, I spot a tent. I gingerly approach, saying hello, and a man in his 50s with a ginger beard and brown hair comes out. It’s the French cyclist I met some time ago with Knüt.

He is surprised to see me, surprised I walked all that distance so quickly. His parter is recovering from a stomach sickness, so they choose to rest for the day, explaining how I was able to catch up to them. I tell him that I never saw them overtake me, and he says that one very early morning, they passed me while I must have still been sleeping. He saw my tent.

All the while, he is intently looking into my eyes, as if searching for something.

I ask him if he knows how much longer it is to Gudara, and he says not long, that he was there yesterday. After checking his phone, he says it’s five Kilometers. I am overjoyed, laugh. 

He asks me if I have enough food still, says they don’t have much to offer themselves. I say it’s not a problem, I still have some and I’ll get some in Gudara. He doubts that one can get food there, that it looks like a military town.

After one more hour of excited walking, excited to reach civilization again, excited to read again, excited to eat bread and butter again, I spot the town, and I understand what the French cyclist meant.

It is a tiny town, maybe 40 houses, half of which look like army barracks. I figure where there’s humans, there must be food, and we will come to some sort of a deal.

Once I get into town, I lie down behind a tractor in the shade, when two guys in their late 20s, the first people I see, come up to me and invite into their home. I gladly follow.

Inside, the home is rather large, but pretty much completely empty and void of any spirit.

Again, it is built with half the space raised, for sitting and sleeping, a stove in the middle, one room for supplies, and one shelf with a few items, such as a couple of pots, a pan, a clock that isn’t running, and one rubics cube.

The air is stuffy, and one tiny window, wrapping paper with Chinese scrip still on it, lets in a little bit of sun, more so to accentuate the dimness, rather than provide real light. I see dust motes gently floating in the single ray of sun that penetrates through. The mother is in the next room, coughing a lot.

Her son puts out the tablecloth, and bread and butter and tea and Russian candies come after it. I am happy, although the bread and butter don’t seem to have so much love in it.

The two guys sit around while I eat, every now and again nibbling a bit on the bread. Nobody is talking. The son seems drab, while the other guy, a different, darker tone of skin, has a lot of light in his eyes, which shines towards me every now and again. He speaks no Russian, and even sign communication seems impossible. I wonder if he’s mentally disabled.

He takes the rubics cube and plays with it. I am mesmerized watching him, have absolutely no clue if he’s a genius or if he’s got no idea what he’s doing.

The mother comes over and brings some milk. They ask me if I have medicine, and, to my own surprise, I actually do. I dig out the first aid kit I’ve been carrying around with me for three years, absolutely dead weight for I never once used it, and happily give them aspirin and ibuprofen. It’s already expired, but they don’t seem to care.

I feel uncomfortable, want to leave, but am too awkward, too polite, just sit there. One other guy comes, an aggressive energy about him. He takes a single look at me, proceeding to ignore me for the rest of his brief stay.

When I leave, they seem sad, tell me to stay for the night. There is nothing I would like less to do, tell them that the day is not over yet and I need to walk some more.

Out of town, I walk a couple of hours more. I saw a few 4×4’s, and the road indeed looks more like something that could actually be driven on, but I’ve no idea when one of those will actually make its way down. From now on, there are villages every few hours, and with every village behind me, I figure the chance for cars increases. So I walk some more, and now, I don’t even mind the walking.

Soon, the sun already having set, I spot the next village. Bigger this time, maybe around a hundred houses, spread out over some distance. As I walk past the first house, a man comes up to me and shakes my hand. I ask him if there is a guesthouse or homestay in the village, to which he answers no, but that I am welcome in his home.

He is a young father of two, a boy and a girl, both around five years old. He is 30 years old, looking much older to me, and his wife is my age.

As I sit on an old car seat in front of their house, washing my feet, an old man comes up to me. He is very interested, asks me many things, sits way too close to me, speaking way too loud, his spit accidentally flying in my face every now and again. His eyes have a foggy film, and I wonder how much he is still able to see.

My Russian soon reaching its limit, the old man cannot fathom how I don’t know one specific word. I see the whole thought process in his face, the incredulity, the slow understanding that not everybody learnt Russian in school, the understanding that somebody from Europe doesn’t necessarily speak Russian.

Inside, they ask me if I want to eat. I try to communicate that I’m not hungry yet, that it would prefer to wait an hour. The old man cannot understand. He asks me if I want potatoes. I try to repeat what I just said. He asks me again if I want potatoes, this time louder, showing me the pan with potatoes.

Just for fun, I say no.

I see the shock in his face, need to keep it together not to start laughing. He shows me the potatoes again. Shaking his head in disbelief, he asks me if I want milk. He yells the word, desperately, multiple times. I can’t leave him in his misery any longer, say I will eat, anything, everything.

The dinner consist of potatoes, goat (disgusting to me), milk and bread.

The young father and I talk for a little. He wonders what I’m doing, asks me if I have a wife, what my job is. He asks me where my car is, wonder why anybody would walk like I do. But he kind of understands, at least I believe so, my mentally for traveling. To be independent, to see the local life and the real nature.

As we talk, the old man is staring at me, musing about this alien and its strange ways. The kids stare into the television for the entire dinner, sedated. Arab commercials showing half naked women wearing so much makeup they don’t look human, overacted Turkish soap dramas, and music videos of American rappers with expensive cars and watches and houses are playing. I see their little faces, their big eyes, soaking it all up without any filter, without any awareness of what is happening, without any way of protecting themselves.

The contrast to life around them couldn’t be any bigger, the corruption just setting in, planting ideas of what one needs to have or needs to be, raising a consumer, sending a whole society on its misguided quest.

And I sit here, coming from that world, trying to escape it, trying to find the real world, the real people, and I find them not even knowing what riches they possess.

I sleep on a little mat on the ground, and I sleep well.

***

Part 4

***

There’s bread and milk for breakfast. When I leave afterwards, the father seems awkward. Something is going on. Maybe he expects money and can’t say it, but I left ten dollars under the pillow.

I walk over a little pass, enjoying it. I walk for a couple of hours before resting next to a stream, drinking. A mother and her boy pass, and I ask them how much longer it is to the next village. The boy seems frightened of me, and the mother says it’s five kilometers.

Soon, the French cyclists come. The woman comes first. She must be around 35, her skin glowing, radiating an attractiveness that is remarkable. The man comes too, and we talk a bit, for the woman doesn’t really speak English. We exchange some stories, share our travel plans (they have a spare year and are traveling with their bicycles from France as far east as they get), and then they are on their way.

I start walking again, and the next village, supposedly five kilometers away, reveals itself behind a hill five minutes after. Maybe I misunderstood.

Poplar trees suddenly spread before me, always a sign of villages in Tajikistan. The country was heavily deforested in the 20th century, the wood needed for heating. Ever since, they have begun reforesting, and seem to be especially fond of the poplar tree.

I immediately feel happy. To see the trees, and the little village. As soon as I get close, a teenage boy comes up to me and invites me in for tea, which I gladly accept.

Inside, I am greeted by the father, a stern man, and the older brother, a little younger than me, able to speak some English.

I get seated in the main room of their house, and, for the first time, I see the Pamir house from the inside.

It is a big house with a few rooms, dominated by the main room I now sit in. A large, spacious room, it has a raised platform on three sides of the room, for sitting and eating, and further in the back, another platform on the platform, for sleeping. There is one big window in the center of the roof. Leading up to the window, there is a delicate, beautiful pattern made of overlapping wood.

I eat bread, apricots, and apricot jam, the bread being some of the best I’ve had so far. I talk to Sarkar, the guy a little younger than me.

I find him curious. He smiles and laughs easily, but every now and again he seems a little absent. I share a little about my journey, and I ask about him. He usually lives in Dushanbe, where he is studying to become a teacher, but returns home for the summer months to help his family with the harvest. 

After I’ve stuffed myself with apricots, he shows me around the village. It is truly wonderful.

It’ so quaint, wholesome, fairy like, it reminds me of the Shire from Lord of the Rings. There are around fifty houses spread over the hills. Little streams of water run everywhere, irrigating golden wheat fields, villagers cropping them with a sickle. Men, women, and children work side by side.

There are fields of potatoes, and apricots lay drying by the thousands on the roofs of the houses. We visit a mill, of which they have four in the village, and I see how they grind the wheat to flower, using the running water. I see two women baking traditional flatbread, putting the dough inside a kind of tandoori oven. It is a hip-high mound of clay with a round gap on top. Through this gap, they take the dough and stick it on the inside of the oven. On the bottom, there are embers glowing.

Sarkar tells me that the village is mostly self-sufficient. They have their own bread, potatoes, some carrots, beetroots, onions, a lot of apricots, apples, and, of course, cows and goats and sheep, which are now grazing in the high pastures. These supply milk, butter, and meat. The only thing they have to buy is rice and oil.

I see a few men working on a house, and ask Sarkar about it. He says every summer one or two families build a new house. And all the other families help them out. So, whenever a man would have spare time and energy, he goes over to the construction site, and does what ever is needed to be done at the moment. When the time comes for him to build his own house, not only will he have the support of all the other men, he’ll pretty much know how it’s done.

I spend the afternoon napping and reading under an apricot tree. Sometimes, the teenage boy comes, sometimes Sarkar comes, sometimes other men come and chat a little. They all seem to put great value on education, everybody being a teacher of some sort.

In the evening, I eat with Sarkar and his father. I notice they wait a couple of minutes after I’ve started eating, until they do so themselves.

I wonder about the father, he’s so hard and cold I’m almost afraid to look at him. I ask Sarkar to translate a bit, ask the father how it was in the soviet time. He says he was a soldier then. I ask no more questions.

I spend the night under the apricot tree. I have to insist and reassure Sarkar a few times, but then he prepares two sleeping mats on top of each other on a blanket.

I lay awake for a long time, because my stomach is a mess. It reminds a bit like that night at fathers place with the SpaceX satellites. It’s like all the food is just stuck, unable to digest. There is so much gas inside me that I can’t lie on my side, and when I sit upright, I feel a lot of pressure and have to burp. It smells of foul eggs.

Just before dawn, everything wants to exit at once, and so I spend some time on the privy. Instead of toilet paper, there a little round stones.

***

I leave the next morning, giving Sarkar some money, which results in a game of politeness, which he ultimately loses. He says the road further down has recently broken down, is impassable for cars, but that in the next village, I should be able to find a car.

I walk, give my last aspirins to an old man that asks for it, see some signs at the end of the village. They state that there has been humanitarian aid here.

In the past two decades, German, Japanese, Swiss, British, US and Finnish aid has established an electricity grid in this region, as well as provided some of the necessary funds to rebuild after a strong earthquake destroyed a lot of houses in 2015. (This also explains the military style barracks in Gudara. They are simply replacement houses built by NGO’s.)

I clip my nails and rest, coming across the “broken down” road soon afterwards. He really meant it. The road is literally missing.

Between the strong river gushing a few meters below to my left and the rock cliff to my right, there are a few feet of passable road left. I shuffle across, getting my adrenaline for the day. I take a picture afterwards.

After, I climb over a little pass. My body is loving the exertion, having fully adjusted to the altitude, to the backpack, to walking.

Then, I see the next village. I pause a moment to take it in. The beauty of it. The beauty of this valley, of its people, of my journey.

Inside the village, I find no one. Everything is asleep, except for one young girl, just beginning to bloom into her teenage years. She leads me to a house close by, where her chubby father, a short man of around fifty years old, in whose presence I immediately feel comfortable, greets me.

I ask if there is a store around, which he declines. I glimpse behind him into their yard, and he explains that this is his home stay. I get led inside, and I already know. Everything about this place is right and honest and whole.

There are three chickens chickening around, there is a wife and a beautiful daughter the man proudly presents to me, and soon there is bread and apricots and apples and dried mulberries and tea and Russian candies. He explains there is a hot shower, and I tell him that I would like to stay for two nights.

I get led inside the guest house, another Pamir house with its signature window on top, and take a long shower, scrubbing every single centimeter of body there is. I lie and read in the garden, and talk to the brother, a well travelled man. He’s been to Switzerland, too.

He tells me about the history of this place, that it is mostly self-sufficient, that the big barn in the middle of the village was used in the soviet times as a communal storage facility. That progress has halted mostly since the collapse, that the older generation is still fond of its ideology, but that the younger generation has no clue about it.

He tells me about the Sarez, a huge lake not far from here that formed a hundred years ago after an earthquake blocked off a river. An expensive permit is required to visit it, because it’s an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen. 

The dam blocking the river, forcing the water behind to pool into a lake, which now holds a tremendous mass of water, was formed through a landslide during the original earthquake. If this natural dam breaks due to another earthquake, a humongous flood wave could form, rampaging through all the villages below, destroying everything in its path.

But it would have consequences far beyond the Bartang valley, threatening the lives of more than five million people due to major flooding that would reach all the way into the Aral Sea some 2000 Kilometers away. The dam is monitored day and night.

He also tells me that the people in the Bartang valley are Ismailis, a branch of Shia Islam. That they put a lot of value on education, especially on the education of women.

In the evening, I meet Thom, another traveller that found its way into the guesthouse. As it happens, he’s from Switzerland too.

He says he’s walking, and I ask him if he’s going up the valley or down. He says up, and then casually mentions that he walked here from Switzerland. And I realize that he’s the guy the Pakistanis in the hostel told me about.

I get awkward at first, but we warm up to each other quickly. We sit and talk for a long time.

The father can be seen cutting potatoes and onions and garlic, humming softly to himself, helping his wife and older daughter with the preparation of our dinner. He seems to me like a gleeful kid on Christmas morning, the two of us being his present, so much does he enjoy hosting guests. When I ask later, I find out that he had a total of six guests the entire summer, so having two at once is a rare occurrence indeed.

We have a grand dinner indeed, with everything possible being on the table. The main course is a rich soup, everything inside locally grown and farmed, including the yak, whose story we hear from the brother: The yak got lost in the high pastures and was not seen for five years. Then, it magically reappeared, only to be slaughtered by its owner (determined by its unique ear tag). The owner went through all the villages, selling its meat. 

I feel it’s nice that I know the story of what I’m eating, even though I find out I’m not particularly fond of yak.

While the father tries to force as many rounds of soup down our throats as possible, Tom and I talk deep into the night. He’s 40 years old and has lived an interesting life, his “Berner” dialect and unhurried talking pace making it a pleasure for me to listen.

He talks about his early life and the struggle in the educational system, his difficult boss he had in his apprenticeship, his time working for the police force, how went on vacation to the Philippines when he was 25, and after seeing the plight of homeless orphans living on the streets, how he spent the next ten years founding and building a charity that helps these kids to a better future. 

About his life in the Philippines, how he lived for a year in a tiny shack without water and electricity in the slums, just to see what it’s like. How he came back to Switzerland to care for his mother when she was dying, and about his one year journey, entirely on foot, all the way here.

Needless to say, it’s mostly him talking. But I love it, listening and asking a question here and there. And while I listen, completely listen, not listen to answer or share something of my own that pops up or is related to, but listen to understand, to feel, to truly be him, we connect. 

Something else arises, something third emerges, a different quality is present. Out of it, I get insights, flashes that touch my whole being, messages that are tailor made for me and my life, messages I receive simply by listening to him talk about something that has seemingly no relevance, and I don’t do it, force it. I could never do them, make them, in the first place. I can simply be open to receive them.

I also share. About my life in Switzerland, my time traveling, my life in Dahab, my partnership and my work. And about the snow leopard.

When we part the next day, we are both sad not to be walking in the same direction, not to be able to spend a few days on the road together. He says it’s interesting to him, that, usually, he is the one to listen to people. We hug, and off he goes, fully loaded with food, the father insisting he take as much as he can carry.

***

I spend the day reading, mostly in a guidebook about Tajikistan that I find in the home stay, leftover by some German traveler. While all maps have been cut out, it’s interesting to read up about where I currently am. And I laugh, for amongst the Pamiris, my nightly digestion phenomena is not only know, but has its own term, which I now forgot.

The next day, I continue on my way. It’s the usual. I get lost a little, find the track again, and rest. A herd of goat roams by, nibbling on my backpack until I shoo them away. And then I hear it. A car.

I jump up, half groggy from my nap, and the car stops. A boy of about 18, eyes red, for he drove all day yesterday from Dushanbe, takes me into the next village.

When I get out, a cross eyed guy my ages runs up to me and insists I need to come to his home, that his grandmother is just now preparing a nice meal. I tell him I have stomach issues, and he tells me they have food for exactly that. He continues describing their peaceful place, and I must admit, it does sound alluring. I follow him home.

I am weak when we arrive, after only a short walk, my stomach not having allowing much food to stay inside for long. I rest for some time, after telling him that I really can’t talk and interact now. Some hours after, I get up and get going, for the sun is already setting. 

The guy is appalled when he sees me leaving, says that the plov is now ready. I tell him I really can’t eat fatty rice and meat now. This upsets him, and he tells me this is what is good for the stomach, that I need the energy, that I can’t leave without eating.

Trusting my own opinion, I insist. Truly downbeat, he leads me back. When the grandmother sees that I’m leaving, she yells in horror, and the guy tries again, saying they have milk, bread, whatever. But I leave.

I’m not quite sure which road to take, because there are two, one leading up, the other down. Of course, common sense could have prevented my adventurous scramble down the side of a hill, after I realized that the road up is probably not the way down the valley.

I sit down next to the road, simply waiting for nightfall. A white Lada comes, but in the wrong direction. I stop the driver and ask him if this is the road down to the Pamir highway, which he confirms. He asks me if I want to come to the next village with him, to sleep there, since it is already getting dark. I decline, saying I’ll sleep right here.

And so I do, not even bothering with the tent. I blow up my sleeping mat, and go to sleep on a narrow stretch of green between the river and the road, since next to the road, the steep cliff of the mountain starts right away.

The stars are beautiful.

***

The next morning, I get up just in time. Sure enough, just as I am applying moisturizer on my hands, the last step of my morning routine, everything already packed, the white Lada appears again, this time heading in the right direction.

“Kak ti spjat, normalna?” The driver asks me, a 40 something happy guy. I slept great, thank you.

I get in the back seat, one woman in the front passenger seat and one woman in the back with me, and off we go, down the adventurous road.

Only that it takes a long, long time, for we stop in almost every village, to go to the local healthcare point, as they are called, to deliver Sputnik Covid vaccinations.

The middle-aged woman in the backseat has stunning, long, silky black hair and seems fond of talking to me. She is like a child, pure and innocent and giggly and young at heart. I ask her about life here, and she complains about the road and harsh conditions in winter. She had to wait for three days to find transportation.

The Lada is indestructible. It has somehow been modified, pimped, to withstand even the roughest conditions. At one part, the road is flooded. It doesn’t seem that bad to me, but when both woman start recording, I get curious. The driver stops just in front, pressing some button next to the transmission shift. I don’t know what this means.

We drive inside what looks like a puddle, and sink, and sink, and sink. I swear the water comes up all the way, stopping just below the window. Getting out the other side, I’ve no idea how we’re still dry, or still on land. The woman next to me giggles.

On the next stop, we pick up another woman, baggage and all. It’s crowded now in the back. Eventually, the day going on, this woman, having arrived at her home, invites us in. We are treated to the traditional Pamiri breakfast: A generous tablespoon of butter, dissolved into a bowl of black tea, in which pieces of white flatbread are soaked before eaten.

After everybody said their prayer, something that is done without exception when leaving the table, we get back in the car. 

Only that the car needs gas, and we ask around for a long time, until we find some guy, go to his house, and he comes out with a canister. Everybody pitches in a little, and we are off on the road again.

I ask to be let out before we leave the valley completely. I want to see a place called “Jizeu”. Researching before my trip, it seemed like a nice place to go. There is no road leading to it, just a trail, which means the 15 houses or so there live a really traditional, self-sufficient life, and they accommodate tourists.

Tourists I meet. And I don’t like it.

The place, while beautifully situated next to a lake, already feels crowded by the presence of an Italian travel group and one Romanian backpacker. 

The host is rather strained, not really joyful to see another tourist, which I’ve now become. Not a guest, but a tourist.

We share a delicious dinner, and I get to know the two Italian couples, fans of Iran especially, and the Romanian backpacker, which I feel is focused on me for whatever reason.

And in our conversation, I manage to see behind my resistance and contempt for mainstream tourism, and I see it again. This time even stronger. 

The spirit behind these encounters, speaking through everybody and everything. Its unspeakable size, encompassing absolutely everything, and I see it, feel it, from a big macro perspective, in all my life events, in everything that shaped my life from the outside, leading me, guiding me, forming me.

It’s a magnificent moment, and I love all these people, feel their divinity below the superficial personality, feel my own, and there, we are one.

***

The next day, I spend most of my time hiking, relishing the connection to the nature. Here, almost 2000 meters below the alpine desert, it is green, full of bushes, trees, plants, flowers, birds, and insects. It is alive, the nature so purely intact I bathe in the river and lie down naked, feeling myself as part of it, every breath recharging me, filling me.

Coming back to the village, I decide not to stay another night, for there are even more tourists now, with guides and porters and all the good stuff. I have lunch, and when I leave, one big German woman asks me where I’ll sleep tonight. I answer that I don’t know. She says that “yeah but you need to know, you can’t just sleep on the street”. But I look forward to exactly that.

After an hour, I’m back on the street, waiting, eating some warm bread. Eventually, two men pick me up and drive me to the next village. They are pleasant, sharing the ride in silence with me. In the village, I am greeted by curious kids, and I get some apples by an old man carrying a bucket full of them. They are sour, and I eat the all.

Out of the village, I spot a nice place to sleep, sit down, and read a little. It will be dark very soon, so I doubt that any other car will come. But exactly this happens a minute later, and I get inside an old Audi with three muscly guys in their 30s.

The driver likes to drive fast, and the guy next to me speaks a tiny bit of English and has a heart so pure I wish to hug him. They’ve all been to Russia for work, and when I ask one what it was like, he says: “Their woman are very sexual.” Conveying his preference for large breast by making an appropriate gesture.

The music they play is excellent, and when some cover of “Aisha” comes on, I allow myself to be joyful, overflowing, to really take in this moment, to not think about where I’ll sleep or what will happen. The guy next to me asks what they sing about, asks what Aisha means, and I tell him it’s a love song, and Aisha is a woman’s name. He proceeds to loudly sing: “I love you Aisha!!!”

We arrive in Rushan some time later, the last light just fading. It’s the biggest town in the region, I see real civilization again, and I’m back on the Pamir highway.

I walk out of town in the dark, and decided to try my luck hitchhiking. A first for me, at night. But I figure if not now, when then?

So I walk, but whenever a car passes, I stretch out my hand. With the head torch in my hand, I not only light my way, but also myself, so that the cars can see it’s some foreigner with a backpack. It takes some time, a handful of cars passing, but then I spot a truck in the distance, approaching slowly.

I light myself, stretch out my hand, and to my joy, the truck slowly skids to a stop.

I run up to it, opening the door, and I greet two dimly lit faces with a hearty: “Salam Aleikum!”

“Waleikum Salam.” Followed by a gesture for me to come inside. And so I do.

First, the driver asks me where I’m from, misunderstanding, rejoicing that his passenger is form the same country as his Volvo truck. I feel too polite to clear up his mistake, but it would resolve itself soon after.

We start talking a bit, and my Russian, of course, reaches its limit sooner, rather than later.

With a big language barrier, the peculiar energy of meaning not being understood, something intended for the recipient not arriving, it getting stuck in the middle and blocking the flow, is present rather often.

It can get awkward quickly, but it all depends on how one reacts to this stuck energy, how one uses it.

Coming from mostly solitary time in the mountains, being full of life, of energy and spirit and will for interaction with a fellow human being, I naturally began to channel this stuck energy in a positive way, releasing it by laughing.

This might sound strange at first, but we all know how a real, pure laugh, coming from the depths of one’s being, is infectious. 

So, despite not really understanding, despite not really being the best conversational partner, I was loads of fun to be around.

I start by giggling, then laughing, then being in stitches, not being able to breath. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

But I always try, really try my best to understand, and whenever a little bit of meaning finally trickles through, we both rejoice. This whole dynamic encouraging the driver to really try as well, articulating slowly, adding gestures, not only trying all kinds of vocabulary, but also different languages.

It didn’t take long until we find out that we share more than just one language in common. As it turns out, he speaks fluent Fus’Ha, the “high-Arabic”, pronouncing beautifully.

So, whenever Russian doesn’t work, we try in Arabic, funny situations arising often, because the little Arabic I know being of the Egyptian accent, and there in itself I picked up different words in different dialects, due to the time I spent in different parts of Egypt. Moreover, he speaks some Turkish too, due to sometimes having trucked there.

While he commands any of these languages far better than I do, it helps that I know a bit of them, though it’s a true mind bender for me to be switching between all of them quickly, sometimes combining words of more than one language in a single sentence.

I start picking up vocabulary fast. Especially the words for “road” and “bad”, especially in combination.

For the road is bad, truly bad.

Fully loaded, his cargo being some huge components of a machine to make or mix cement (I don’t understand him completely, is there even a difference?), the mostly unpaved road, riddled with potholes, often times descending or ascending steeply, he’s not able to drive more than five or ten kilometers an hour, and even with this speed, we often sway around in the cabin like sailors at sea during a storm.

And he doesn’t care.

My driver, approaching 40, having a tall and slim build, balding hair, and poor posture, is at complete ease, seemingly not even noticing the shaking and swaying. 

Once, when I really have to hold on tight not to go flying off into the windscreen, or into the bunk bed behind us, he turns to me, his head sideways, not even looking at the road anymore. 

I’m convinced he’s going to remark upon what is happening right now, but he merely asks me, completely casual: “So, what’s life like in Switzerland at the moment?” He seems confused by my ensuing laughter.

***

There is one moment where I can’t breathe for an extended amount of time, due to the following exchange, him asking me:

“Sanctia, snasch sanctia?” (You know about the sanctions?)

“Na Russia?” (In Russia?)

“Da!” (Yes!)

“Snam, snam” (I know, I know)

*Something I don’t understand* Putin *Something I don’t understand* America *something I don’t understand*”, the moment he says Putin being accompanied by a gesture of two crossed writs, the universally understood sign for handcuffs; meaning prison, police, or something bad along these lines.

I decide to go with whatever little made sense to me, copying his gesture and saying:

“Putin.”

“Da! America bude Putin kak *handcuff sign*, sanctia!” (Yes! America wants Putin in handcuffs, so sanctions!)

“Snam, snam.” (I know, I know)

“Snasch Papa Vanja?” (Do you know Papa Vanja?)

“Kak?” (How?)

“Papa Vanja!?”

“Ne snam.” (I don’t know)

“Eta kak macdonalds. Snasch macdonalds, da?” (This is like Macdonalds, you know Macdonalds, right?)

“Da, snam Macdonalds.” (Yes, I know Macdonalds.) I really wonder where this is going at this point.

“Patom sanctia, na russia, njet macdonalds!”, he goes on to add, in Arabic:

“Dilwa-ty, mafisch Macdonalds!”, and in Turkish, just to make sure I get it: 

“Schimde, Rüssiye Macdonalds yok!”  (After the sanctions, there is no more Macdonalds in Russa!)

He says this triumphantly, seeing that I understand, and I start laughing out loud, because of the macabre nature of this world, because I’m in the middle of nowhere, exhausted after a long day on the road, it’s long turned dark and I’ve no idea how much longer we’ll drive for, and I’m talking to a Tajik truck driver about current events, and he’s telling me that there is no more Macdonalds in Russia.

Then he exclaims:

“Njet problema, schast, papa vanja yest!” (But it’s not a problem, now they just call it papa vanja!)

And my laugh turns uncontrollable, and while I can’t get air, tears streaming down my cheek, he starts laughing too.

***

When we stop driving, it’s midnight. He invites me to join him for food, but it’s the last thing I want. I want to find a bush and sleep. He insists, seems to have grown fond of me, and since it is mutual, I relent.

I get treated to green tea and watermelon at a truck stop by Firuz, my driver. During this, he asks me where I am going, and we find out that we are both going to Dushanbe. He asks me if I want to join him, and I say why not. Then I find out that it will be two more days, full of driving. No wonder, at ten kilometers per hour. But I don’t mind, I still have some days until my visa runs out.

I find out that he came from the Chineses border, close to Murghab. I find out that he drives for 6 full days, there and back, and then has a 10 day break with his family. When he finds out that I used to work in a bank in Switzerland, he asks if it’s better to buy Euro or Dollar. I have no idea.

Soon, two men join us, and I get introduced to Shoi Mardin and Shams. Shoi Mardin drives another truck, joining up with Firuz to form a little convoy. Every now and again, they check up on each other with a radio unit. Shams is his add-on, a chubby guy that has the face of an 18 year old, but is actually 35. I love him immediately.

We go to sleep. Firuz and Shoi Mardin sleep in their cabin, while Shams and I sleep next to each other on a large outdoor platform, where truckers can sleep for free. I even get a shower.

In the morning, I rejoin Firuz and we continue driving. Before we stop to have breakfast, he asks me something. I don’t get it. We try for some time, him repeating one key word that I just don’t get. It’s patschemu. When he tries in Arabic, I not only understand his question, I understand what the three boys in Murghab were trying to ask me: Why can’t we use your phone.

Firuz, meanwhile, is asking me why I came here. Why would I spend my vacation coming to this place. I laugh, say it’s beautiful here. He seems happy to hear this. I guess after driving the same route for years, one becomes numb to its stunning nature. For stunning it is. 

Now that there is daylight, I actually see something, and I recognize the Panj to my left, Afghanistan beyond it, with cliffs of sheer rock on our right. High up in the drivers cabin, going at a leisurely pace, I am able to actually take it all in, compared to the rushed ride, cramped in some back seat, coming here.

After breakfast, consisting of eggs sunny side up, sausages, bread and tea, we drive the whole morning. Firuz sometimes radios Shoi Mardin, pronouncing his name in a drawn out, exaggerated way.

At one point, he asks me if have a woman. I say yes. He asks me where she is, and I say she’s at home. He asks me why she is not traveling with me, and here I am again, with no real chance to communicate the situation. How to say that she is shifting into a new field of work and needs to build the foundation? Just for fun, I tell him that she can’t afford it.

He looks at me in shock. Then he asks:

“Gena ljubisch ili dengi ljubisch?!” (Do you love your woman or your money?!)

I can’t help it, starting laughing hard.

“Dengi ljubisch, da!?” (You love money, right?!)

“Da, dengi ljubim.” (Yes, I love money.) I say, still laughing.

We buy apples, tomatoes, and little violet figs on the road, sold by little girls with buckets. The figs are like candies.

Later, a truck has a breakdown on the road ahead. For four hours, nothing moves. No trucks or cars can pass in either side, because the road is small. In the meantime, Firuz asks me, for whatever reason, if I write. I say yes, and he asks if I’ll write about them, and about the breakdown. I say yes.

We get dinner after it’s already dark. They boys have a round of ustol, a locally produced tobacco that they put under the tongue. They ask me if I want to try, and so I do.

It’s strong, so strong I need to lie down. They laugh. Shams is dancing.

After sleeping on some platform for a few hours, we start again with the first light. Soon, we reach a paved road, and, soon, we come to the military checkpoint, marking the end of the Pamir.

I see how Firuz gives one Dollar to a policeman, and I remark upon it. He says it’s normal, to make things go smoothly. I exclaim:

“Corruptia!”

“Da, corruptia.”

“Ohh bljiat.”

He asks me if there is any corruption is Switzerland, and I say no.

His truck breaks down a few times, him jumping under to fix some pipe. The entire time, he is completely calm. Every time he starts the engine, he says: “Bismisllah” (In the name of god.)

***

We part ways after having a last lunch. They can’t drive anymore, because now, not being in high altitudes anymore, it is hot, and trucks can’t drive while they are loaded, so they don’t damage the road.

I walk out of the city. It is big, very traditional. A mother takes her kid by the hand and leads it away when she sees me approaching.

Eventually, somebody picks me up. We speak a bit, and then, when he learns that I’m going all the way to Dushanbe, he stops a truck that is driving in front of us by honking and flashing his headlights. It’s his friend. Who takes me, pretty much, all the way to Dushanbe.

***

I find the hostel again, and everything is still the same. The receptionist, the Pakistanis, the shop across the street. But I’m not.

I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime.

After almost three weeks on the road, I am grizzled, hardened, and full of love. I’ve never felt more at peace with myself.

I take the city in, the people in their fancy clothing, expensive cars and chique houses. Everything is intense, my sense not used to this amount of information.

In the hostel, I meet the French cyclists again. And I meet Thom again. And we go to Tashkent together. On a tandem bicycle.

***
***
***

Thank you, sincerely, for reading.

This is quite a long text, possible only thanks to the somewhat loose and simple writing style I’ve experimented with. I’m not completely happy with the quality of the writing, but I take it as a learning experience. I wanted to put down the whole month, going into detail, to try to convey the feeling of life on the road. Let me know what you think.

I’ve taken a long break from writing, but I’m back at it now. There are a lot of unfinished texts that want to be completed, a lot of past experiences to be written down, and more journeys to come.

If you want to support more longer texts like this one, consider the following:

-If you think of one person that might enjoy this, consider sharing it with them.
-If you want, you can support me on Patreon.

I wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.

Raphael

2 responses to “The Snow Leopard”

  1. Paul Della Guardia Avatar
    Paul Della Guardia

    Thank you for sharing, I fully enjoyed reading most of your account of your time in Tajikistan. I mostly just focused on your trip from Dushanbe onwards towards the Pamir Highway and Wakhan Corridor, both of which I’d visited myself in June 2017.

    My trip was quite different from yours. After traveling around Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, I met up with a Dutch couple and a Swiss guy in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, where we rented a 4×4 for a week to go around the Pamir Highway. So our itinerary was Osh – Sary Tash – Karakol – Murghab – Alichur – Yashilkul, then branched off into Wakhan: – Langar – Vrang – Yamchun Fort – Ishkashim – Garam Chashma Hot Springs – Khorog. Then back on the M41 towards Murghab via Pik Skalistyy and onwards to Kyrgyzstan to complete our loop. One of the favorite trips in my life. I took lots of photos and kept a diary, albeit too inconsistently.

    1. Raphael Avatar
      Raphael

      Thanks for the comment! Sorry I approved it so late, it was buried under a mountain of spam… It doesn’t surprise me that this was one of your favourite trips 🙂

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