The Bartang Valley. It has to be one of my favourite places on Earth. It’s about 270km long, wedged in the middle of a vast mountain range, surrounded by glaciers and the highest peaks in Tajikistan. Some of the highest mountains in the world can be found here. The low end of the valley is fertile, and still feels like summer. Fruit grows in abundance and what few people you can find are clustered in little tiny villages each with their own language on the banks of the icy river. Further up the valley is desolate and isolated. Nothing grows and temperatures drop below freezing even in summer. To get there you have to wade through rivers, be lucky with the landslides, and battle a road that is sometimes completely submerged by water, followed by a climb up to a 4000m (13,000ft) plateau. For two months in summer and all winter, it becomes impassible due to snow or snow melt. Perhaps that’s why it has been described as the shortest, most challenging route across the Pamirs. And perhaps that’s why I was doing it.
With Nick and Antoine, two travellers I met on the road, I began late one day from Rushan, a little village on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, up the valley. It seemed to get dark faster than we had hoped, so we made camp in a makeshift volleyball court at the beginning of the valley. The place was surrounded by trees and little stone or wooden houses. Everything was so peaceful and pleasant that it was really hard to imagine what cold and isolated adventures were lying ahead.
But the most surprising thing I found was the hospitality in one of the most remote and inhospitable places on Earth. And so while writing this summary of our journey in the Bartang, I couldn’t help but get sidetracked reminiscing about times spent in a world I will never forget.
As we made camp (for me, throwing my sleeping bag on the grass), a man approached us and gave us a huge watermelon. He didn’t know the world for watermelon, instead calling it “natural production.” He also offered us to sleep in his house, but we were all keen to sleep outside since we missed camping (it had been 3 days already). He asked for nothing in return, and left. How nice, we all thought. What a lovely man. Then a young woman and boy came over in the dark as we drank our watery beer and gave us a bag of pears, apples, tomatoes and cucumbers, along with a little pot of hot milk. It was hard to believe that people would just offer us things like that and expect nothing. But they did. And others visited us later in the night to make sure we were all right.
The following morning I was woken up when a young boy and girl came over smiling with a big pot of warm milky tea and a bag of fresh bread. It was basically breakfast in bed. The first thing these kids were doing this morning was making tea for three strangers in a volleyball court. The first thing I did in the morning as a kid was stuff my face with chocolate cereal and watch telly. No way I was making tea for anybody else and damn well wasn’t going outside either, unless I had to go to school. God forbid I actually had to talk to a stranger, never mind give them stuff. For free.
The metaphorical cherry on top came when another woman brought us a bag of about ten giant, juicy apples. Now we had long passed the threshold of what we could even carry. We had prepared for challenges and desolation, and so had filled our bags to the brim with food and supplies. Currently we had to find more creative ways of hanging various fruits and vegetables from every possible position on our bicycles. That’s why it’s so hard to cycle the Bartang. My bicycle was over 50kg. If this continues, I thought, I won’t be able to cycle even half way.
A curious stop into the only shop we’d see for a week gave some confusing insight into the life. 5-litre bottles of cooking oil, soap, lollipops, battered onion and some old clothes. That was the lot. To calculate the weight of food, they used an antique Soviet scale from the 60’s and an abacus. It was a good thing we were being given food since the next best option would soon be a diet of onions and lollipops.
We soon learned the reason for the empty shop. Nobody needed to buy anything. As we cycled into the village of Razuj, a young woman and her mother walking on the road gave us a tomato and cucumber from their little bag. They had just come back from one of the only places you can get phone signal in the valley (the mountains so steep and the lack of infrastructure makes this a little obvious). After chatting a little, they invited us for lunch.
Following them up a narrow, dusty footpath surrounded by trees, grass and vegetable patches, I thought about how strange it is to experience a culture so different than what I’m used to, but in a nice way. That I was getting some kind of weird, pro-humanity culture shock. Have I been living in a shit place all my life? Where people barely talk to strangers and things shared are carefully monitored for reciprocity?
We met the family and they speedily began collecting things from the garden…onions, potatoes, peppers… Meanwhile we were given home-made bread, fresh brew and bowls containing plums, apples, walnuts, hazelnuts and apricots. All of the fruit and veg had come from their little land patches or traded with others around the village. They had absolutely spoiled us.
Then they stabbed us to death.
That would make sense, right? They just fattened us up for a purely selfish reason; to lull us into a false sense of security. Or invite us back only to rob us. Or to take us hostage until a ransom is paid.
That’s the Western mindset.
They explained to us that there are 55 families in the village. This is how they measure populations in the Bartang. Nobody knows exactly how many people there are, as some children have left to study in Dushanbe or Khorog, or have gone further afield to places like Moscow or New Delhi.
Electricity was only recently installed by means of a tiny generator working from a river further up the mountain. It often cuts out, and is good really just for lighting or boiling a kettle. There’s no postal service, no internet and the whole village is served by a single phone-line situated in someone else’s house. This is the only means of communication with the outside world when the place is covered in snow.
One of the nicest things the woman said was that she knew nearly everyone in the village. They all celebrate together—for New Year’s, Women’s Day etc. and they visit each other’s homes frequently. It’s a communal life, one where things are shared. She seemed a little saddened when I told her that this level of hospitality is not normal in our countries.
I really wonder where we went so wrong in the West.
As you travel east across Europe and further afield, you dip in and out of societies and economies that somehow mirror those in France, Germany, America and the UK—and those that don’t. Georgia sticks out as one that does. It’s a lovely place, but situated between Turkey and Azerbaijan, the people there seem to have lost that generosity which can be found so extensively in the other two.
It could be because the society we live in no longer requires us to like our neighbours any more than a passing stranger. We are so individualistic and self-involved that we tend not to care about anyone else around us. I don’t mean we go around punching folk randomly on the street. But we certainly don’t go around giving them bags of apples either. Or, perhaps more culturally acceptable, inviting them around for tea. There’s us. Us and our family. Us and our partners. Us and our friends. We talk to other people because we have to or out of politeness. Everyone else doesn’t matter.
Maybe a simpler reason is that we are just too busy. Nobody has time for talking to randomers when there’s money to be made. Or a little bit of money in exchange for most of the hours we are awake. Which is quickly to be swallowed up by property and bills, adding to the misery of our dwindling supply of life. Ah maybe that last sentence is too miserable. I’m leaving it in though.
But actually, we’re not such a miserable bunch. We’re just not so kind. The only place in the world I was refused to fill up a water bottle was England. (I like saying in the world, it makes it so much more dramatic.) So I think we could all do with a little bit of giving more and expecting nothing back.
And if you meet a traveller, be brave and invite them over: it’s one of the nicest things you can do. You never know what insight it might lead to. And at the very least, you made a stranger feel welcome in an unfamiliar place, giving hope that we haven’t lost something that makes our world so special: sharing in all its forms.