Friends in high places
Weather and failing infrastructure cause a ski tour to veer well off piste – bringing into focus the value of an open door and a warm welcome.
I AM AN ODD SORT OF SKIER. WHILE I readily acknowledge that the best skiing in the world can be found in the Alps or the Rockies, I have a compulsive need to explore new territory on skis. I wrote a book about the first 50 countries in which I skied and haven’t stopped since. I long since fell off the bottom of any list of premier ski destinations, the places you visit to spend your entire time on the snow. Instead I see skiing as a way to lubricate the process of understanding a new country. I find having a focus encourages everyone to ‘buy into’ my project, no matter how otherworldly my obsession seems to them. So it was that I landed in Tajikistan – number 74 on my list – in mid-february, accompanied by fellow journalist, Daniel Breece. I knew that though the country is covered with mountains, it has only one small ski area, formerly called Takob, about 50 kilometres from the capital of Dushanbe, where we had put down. Life for most people in Tajikistan is not conducive to such pursuits, given a per-capita GDP of US$3,000 per year which puts them 193 of 230 nations – poorer than Papua New Guinea or Sudan. Happily, through a blog, I had found three avid skiers: Nikita Seleznev, a Russian; his wife Audrey from France, and Martin Rossmann from Austria. They assured me that they could help organise my ski trip, and that first evening, we met for dinner with Martin, Audrey and a local, Denis, who the others had roped in to be our driver. Denis was a good choice for he had a big fancy four-wheel drive SUV, perfect for the notoriously poor Tajik roads. Recent storms had brought avalanches and rockslides, killing people, knocking cars off the road and closing mountain passes. Tajikistan does not have the money to build neat concrete walls or install rock-fall netting to protect roads. Therefore, one simple rule applies: when the weather is bad, the road is dangerous; when the weather is good, the road might be dangerous. Denis picked us up the next morning to drive us to Miskinibad for a ski tour. Even with four-wheel drive, we got stuck shortly before reaching our destination, but fortunately a shovel is standard equipment in a Tajik car. An hour later, with the help of a handful of locals and a lot of elbow grease, we got the car out of the snowdrift and back onto asphalt. With snow now blocking any further progress with a motorised vehicle, we began skinning upwards. It began to rain, then sleet, turning the snow into porridge and penetrating our clothing. Ninety minutes into this grim trudge, Denis steered us to a meteorology station for refuge. It was primitive, but in our cold and wet state, it was an oasis in the desert. Our angel of mercy was Natal ya, a middle-aged woman who for years has occupied this outpost alone, sending out daily meteorological statistics by SMS. She welcomed us into her humble abode, added wood to the fire
and immediately went out to prepare us a warm meal. Multiple servings of tea helped us defrost from the inside out. It took the best part of two hours to get dry enough to even reluctantly venture back out into the storm. Then, like a horse that can smell the stable, we headed as quickly as possible back in the direction of our car. Our first attempt at skiing in Tajikistan had ended up as an exercise in cross-country only. Reaching the car, we headed on to Rogun to meet the last of our local contacts, Nikita. He welcomed us in true Russian style: dinner accompanied by a bottle of homemade vodka. I slept like a baby. The weather next day was the same, so to Nikita’s disappointment, the ski tour in his neighbourhood had to be canceled. In such sloppy snow, the only plan that made any sense was to try the resort of Takob, where we could get up the mountain quickly with a lift to a prepared piste. As before, t he hig her we got into t he mountains, the more the road deteriorated. Soon we were engaged in a slalom race: using both sides of the dotted line to avoid the worst potholes or rocks that had tumbled on to the road from the hillside, then accelerating quickly through the patches of road most exposed to falling debris.
The ski resort itself had recently been renovated. The old T-bar had been replaced by a brand new Doppelmayr gondola, the Soviet-era hotel had undergone a complete facelift, and the resort had been renamed Safed Dara, meaning ‘White Valley’. The refurbished hotel looked good, but we stuck with Denis, who usually stays with a local family in the village of Rogh-bolo, a couple of kilometres from the resort and a ten-minute walk up a snow-covered trail from the road. There we were shown to a simple room with carpets on the floor, but no furniture. The woman of the house, Zainab, lit a fire to warm the room, and soon a parade of food appeared before us: soup, the local bread known as qalama, cookies, nuts, raisins, chocolates, and of course tea. As always, lots of tea. When we absolutely could eat no more, we moved into the living room to join Zainab’s family and friends. I grabbed my guitar and for the next hour, we had a cross-cultural sing-along. The following morning, when it came time to leave, our hosts refused payment. I was touched but not completely surprised. Mountain people the world over share a harsh life with few amenities and a long and tiresome workday. But communities are small and everybody knows one another so they trust and help their neighbours. Knowing the uncompromising nature of their environment, in my experience they are generally hospitable to strangers as well. They invite you into their home out of the cold, for there’s often no hotel, bar or restaurant in their little community for you to use as refuge. In wealthier countries, modern conveniences and amenities have reached the mountains. Those improvements bring tourism, shifting livelihoods away from simple subsistence farming. Running hotels and guesthouses means villagers no longer give shelter to a stranger, or offer food for free, because they now depend on getting paid. Meanwhile, a mountain existence in poorer nations like Tajikistan continues to be harsh and isolated but is also one of habitual hospitality. Denis had had to depart, but our Austrian connection, Martin, had driven up to be able to ski with us. An electrical problem kept the lifts at a standstill, but the staff had a solution: they would take us up in snowmobiles for the same price as riding the lift – €4 a ride! The weather was still bad, and the snow poor as well, but I was at least able to add another name to my list of countries skied. More interesting than the actual skiing itself though was the small but varied contingent of Tajik skiers. One fellow was wearing blue jeans, skinny skis and purple-and-yellow ski boots, vintage 1985. In contrast, we skied a run with Farkhod and Sano Kalonon – clearly people of means, with outfits right out of a Bogner showroom. She had won a RedBull-sponsored competition the previous winter, making her theoretically the best female skier in the country but when I saw her ski, the penny dropped. She could barely make a snowplow. Tajikistan in skiing terms was Italy circa 1920. With conditions less than inspiring, we didn’t stay long. We gave it another try a few days later, but calling ahead we learned the lift was again closed – this time due to the bad weather. Our skiing done, we went to watch one sport that definitely doesn’t get cancelled on account of the weather: buzkashi, a sport played in various forms all across central Asia. The word means ‘goat pulling’, and the object is to pick up a headless goat carcass while on horseback and carry this 45-kilogram ‘ball’ through the goal posts while 50 other horsemen do everything in their power to stop you. It was still snowing as we headed south of Dushanbe on our final day to attend a match. Even we, as spectators, were at risk: with no perimeter to the field, horseman can end up galloping directly into the crowd. The next few hours were pure pandemonium: men whipping their horses, jostling for position,
A mountain existence in poorer nations like Tajikistan continues to be harsh and isolated but is also one of habitual hospitality.
horses panting and sweating. A mist of exhaled air hung above the melee making it even harder to discern who had the goat. In the end, this ski trip was more about intersecting cultures: the internet facilitated the trip and allowed us emissaries of Western ski culture to connect with fellow skiers in Tajikistan. On arrival, we got a taste of the Tajik way of life – generous and hospitable, similar to that once found in mountains all over the world. I believe that it is human nature to be friendly and hospitable, that fear and animosity toward others is a learned response. Sadly, we are often taught to fear strangers, to be cautious of people not like ourselves. Partly this is the fault of urbanisation, for in small communities, there are no strangers. Perhaps t he Inter net is helping us to rediscover our inherent friendliness. It gives us a way to screen strangers and make an educated guess as to their nature and motives. As a result of our shared passion for skiing, Nikita, Audrey and Martin trusted me and welcomed me into their lives and homes. To the locals we encountered in Tajikistan, hospitality came naturally. It’s always been there in those simple mountain communities but whether it can survive as the country develops and urbanises remains to be seen. To be on the safe side, fit this lovely land into your travel plans sooner rather than later.
SIMPLY ADVENTUROUS Facing: Buzkashi, organised chaos on horseback. Left: Mountain villages in Tajikistan have no infrastructure for tourists. As it turns out, this is perhaps a positive thing. Below: Micha Averyan at play in Tajik powder.
MOVING IMPROVISATION Left: The author and host share a musical bond. Right: Daniel Breece, satisfied with the improvised uphill transport at the Safed Dara resort.
INCREDIBLE PEEKS With mountains covering 93% of Tajikistan, there is a stunning vista round every twist and turn.