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.

Action Asia - - TAJIKISTAN - Story by Jimmy Pet­ter­son

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.

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