The sparse clusters of humans were dotted along the empty valley like irregular buttons on a shirt, as we travelled along the seam—the river—the only place we could. Each time we passed one, it brought some welcome and unexpected comfort to us. And well aware that it wouldn’t last forever, we lingered around these ancient humble buttons like lost lambs, delaying our intrepid cycle further up the valley, which was surely to be a great and miserable experience on the high, cold, desolate plateau. When we finally escape the stitching, we will be welcomed by a plain of brown, dusty space, the remnants of some glacial scooping at four thousand metres, in between rows of six or seven thousand metre mountains. But we’re not there yet.
The three of us had managed to gather around a sacred shrine, adorned with the remains of eight rare Marco Polo sheep, in a village called Basid. They told us there were 160 families here. That’s the biggest button in the valley. There was grass, which by now a precious substance, abundantly spread all over, winding through and giving contrast to houses made from clay, mud and straw. Trees everywhere too, so obviously obvious in this otherwise dead ravine. It was a pocket of bio-everything. Humans, plants, flowers, where beyond there was nothing but enormous grey mountains and a river. There were a few Pamiri women around, tending to their vegetable gardens in flowery dresses, but nobody made much fuss of our arrival. Just one man, walking by, who told us to stop eating in their holy shrine. It was then we realised it was a shrine, when our faces were full of bread and jam and the steps a picnic.
We were supposed to find a teacher, the wife of Panj (whom we’d met at a concert rehearsal a few villages and days ago), who had agreed to host us, but our phones didn’t work. The next best option was to ask one of the locals in the hope that they could help us. Do you know the wife of Panj? The English teacher? Of course he did. Everyone knows everyone.
Just like that we were sitting in the house of a woman we’d just met, a woman who makes $60 a month as an English teacher, giving us salad and plov and dried apricots and almonds. Like I’ve said before, all of us had expected to be living off ever-dwindling rations and instead we were getting fat. But refusing food is considered impolite. And so we’ll have to carry mountains over mountains, on one of the most poorly surfaced roads I’ve ever been on.
I believe the Pamiri houses we found ourselves dwelling are worth particular mention. Practically all of square design, the main and sometimes only room acts as the heart of the home. In it they sleep, eat, cook, socialise, play, learn, make music, dance, celebrate and rest. Against three of the four walls is a raised, wooden, multifunctional platform. Its width means one can sleep atop it in virtually any direction. It also doubles as a seat, or when there are many people, an eating area, where you may sit cross-legged and dip warm fresh bread into home-grown vegetable soup.
Nearly all the houses have a clock positioned on one of the four wooden pillars, showing the time one hour ahead. The people here go by their own time, Pamiri time, which can be somewhat confusing for meetings. Nearly all the houses also have the date they were built inscribed on the headboard in front of the door, in this case 1973. Significant because it survived the horrendous earthquake which ravaged the region in 2015, leaving the four main pillars of the house rather wonky. The Pamiris are convinced it is the unique design which helped most of the houses survive the earthquake. But since there are no buildings of other materials, it’s hard to know. In this village it was the resulting landslide that destroyed many houses.
Another notable feature of the houses is their roofs. Consisting of wooden beams in a cross-hatch design and topped with straw and clay, they have an open square hole in the middle which acts as a window—sometimes the only window—and for the chimney flue in winter. It’s small enough that if it rains only a few drips make it to the middle of the hardened clay floor (giving it a wash, I suppose). As the day evolves, a floating square traces the path of the sun around the room, highlighting different features; now a kettle, now the corner of a dusty bookcase.
But better than illuminating various objects, perhaps most discernibly, the floating square highlighted that there wasn’t very much in the room at all. For a family of four, there was a distinct lack of possessions, and a remarkable absence of things made from plastic. Whether this was because the family was poor or not is irrelevant, because the simple point is that they were perfectly happy; perhaps even more so than a typical Westerner, which says a lot about home and the things we own.
It was here, on the edge of nowhere, that I considered my own home and possessions.
For a large part of my life, I was a classic hoarder. I was almost proud of my hoarding status – “I don’t throw anything away,” I would tell people. Wherever I was living was always full of things, some of which I used frequently, and some which travelled with me from place to place and never used at all. To name just a few, I had four musical keyboards and an electric piano, six sets of speakers, three or four computers, several bicycles, and countless plastic trinkets, the last of which seemed most often to find their way into my life through the medium of Christmas.
All this culminated in the last flat I lived in before I left Scotland, which depicts quite well the situation I was living in.
It was a pretty run-down street in Glasgow, and I was sharing this house with 14 other people, 12 of whom were foreign. A mouse lived under my bed. I had about ten bicycles in the hallway. I mainly lived there to save money so I could leave on this cycling trip.
I transformed all I had into this:
And then I left. That was over five years ago, and my life has been very comfortable since that point. The number of things I own must be around 100, and probably the majority of that is necessary for the way I travel, like cooking equipment, a shelter, and some tools, all of which magically fits onto my bicycle.
Moving around a lot and carrying your possessions under your own weight gives a sense of what you really need. It also becomes easier since there is an incentive to carry less. For most long-distance cyclists, the first months on the road are plagued by weight that is never used, and never will be used, so they find a post office and send it home (to never be used). Now, if I don’t use something for more than a few weeks, it gets given away or left at a hostel for someone else. It can be difficult at first, but I haven’t regretted leaving anything anywhere.
For this reason, expensive things are the enemy of the minimalist. The second we spend 500 quid on a phone, or 300 quid on a jacket, this object becomes an investment, almost like a virtual extension—an extra arm, you could say. The more such objects we own, the more they become a part of ourselves, and come to own us. It’s actually not so much about the price, but the price you pay for the functionality of the object. Non-high-end phones still do the same things, except without the wankiness. Second-hand jackets, if good quality, will function just as well as new ones. When the things you have are of little value, not only are they easy to replace, but when they inevitably break or are lost, it’s not a big deal. It saves you a ton of money, a ton of worry, and sets you free from your possessions.
There is a lot of chat about gear these days. Good, reliable stuff is great but I feel that people put far too much importance on their equipment before they set off. There is a sort of price threshold where beyond you pay exponentially more for not-that-much-better stuff. After travelling a while, I’ve found that splashing out usually doesn’t matter. Fancy gear so often disappoints me by breaking. And realising how much you need to spend on something to ensure its reliability is almost as liberating as not buying anything at all. When you really are fully conscious of every time you spend money on a non-perishable item, you think more carefully about it’s function, if you will really use it, and if it’s really necessary.
I ran a marathon wearing 7-year-old shoes, an old pair of baggy shorts and the free t-shirt they gave me on the day. I’m convinced high-quality equipment wouldn’t have made a damn difference.
Sadly, some people question if those in the Bartang and similar places are happy with relatively little because they have a simple mind, which is a veiled way of saying they’re stupid. But these are intelligent people. They know how to farm, build houses and can speak three or even four languages, which, if you’re reading this from the UK, is likely more than you. (It’s even more impressive since Russian, English and Tajik are only very distantly related languages.) Furthermore, they are almost completely self-sufficient—growing their own food and getting their energy from a tiny hydroelectric generator about the size of a bus engine. Having the knowledge to grow a range of complex foods, and then actually growing it, is surely one of the most undervalued skills in our society today. I doubt that if all the shops and supermarkets closed tomorrow, you or I would survive very long. For the people here, it would hardly make any difference.
I don’t want to falsely give the impression that life in the Pamirs is all rosy. The winters are brutal and there is always a lot of work to be done. If you need medical help, to get to what they call a hospital would take about five hours. Some people are also a bit dispirited since they will never be able to travel very far. Perhaps they wouldn’t think like that if people like myself hadn’t visited them from so far away.
That far away place is becoming tougher to quantify for me. Despite the squalor of my last flat in Glasgow, I probably did on occasion tell people “I’m going home” in reference to this dump. Which made me realise there is a definite distinction to be made between “I’m going home” and what actually constitutes home in the mind. There is the house where we live, and there is the wider sense of home, which includes something immaterial as well as material, and is without a distinct boundary. This becomes clear when the place where we normally live changes or ceases to exist, like when you permanently leave your flat to go travelling.
Actually, for these two places to align has happened very rarely in my life since I left my parents’ home about 12 years ago. In my understanding of it, the wider sense of home consists of relationships and familiarity. The latter can happen fairly quickly. I feel familiar in Barcelona and in Athens. But relationships take time. It is where your relationships live that help to determine your home. Or more precisely, where you interact most with an aggregate of the quality and quantity of those relationships. (Sorry for that ugly sentence.) For me, that makes my home Europe-ish.
I have a lot to thank the Bartang for teaching me. Working life. Kindness. Simplicity. And what is possible. It’s sad to say I don’t think such a place will last very long. One day a proper road will be built, and the inhabitants will come to depend more on the outside world. I’m glad I visited when I did.
But most of all, the Bartang forced me to think about my own home. Someone asked me recently if you begin to miss home more, or miss it less after being away for so long. It’s hard to say. But it does seem to come in waves. I do miss home, wherever that is. Nevertheless, there is a difference between missing home and wanting to go back. I suppose, in the end, home is just a memory that I wish one day to return to. So I found my home, somewhere in my head. Or my heart, if I want to be cheesy. No doubt my idea of home now will be different from the reality. I only hope it’s not worse. If it is, you’ll find me somewhere in the world on a bicycle saying “the world is my home, maaaan.”