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01.09.09 06:20 Age: 9 yrs

A tale of two villages

By: Roger and Megan

The glory that was Putkhin and the grandeur that was Kurut

Getting closer to Ayni we saw many Chinese roadworkers, trucks and construction equipment, there as part of a co-operative project between China and Tajikistan to build a better road connection between Khojand and Dushanbe - Tajikistan's two largest cities.  On our first ride-through of Ayni centre, we were greeted by dozens of people, all staring at us strange aliens.  Before we could get to the end of town we were called on by a young Tajik boy to follow him down a backstreet to find the village English teacher (whom the boy thought would be very excited to see us).  Upon rounding the corner to where the purported English teacher lived, out came a British boy whose family was in town over summer for business.  We were intrigued to find out what business could possibly be operating out here, being a very impoverished town (no running water, no electricity in winter, and no sewerage system), but he was very shy (suprisingly), so we left him alone and went back on our way through town.

Riding through one of the backstreets we encountered some more kids who told us not to continue on the road as it just ended at a cliff, and going by previous experience, we knew that this was probably not an exaggeration!  So we turned around and began to backtrack to the main street, when one of the girls told us to wait outside a house, that she promptly disappeared into.  Soon enough, out came an English-speaking girl - a student at the Institute for Foreign Languages in Khojand, who was back living with her family over the summer break.  The girl who had told us to wait outside the house, had actually been her cousin, and the English-speaking girl (Zebo) had instructed her young cousin to immediately fetch her should she see ANY foreigners in the streets of Ayni, so that she could practise her English with them(since there was no  one else in the village to practice with).  The last time she'd spoken English with a foreigner was 3 years ago.  After rolling the Quike into her family's driveway, we settled down for dinner, accompanied by piles of the local dried fruits and nuts.

The next day when walking through the streets again we managed to stumble upon the British boy (Lawrence) and his father (Patrick). Having a chat to Patrick, we were told of two very interesting nearby villages to visit, Putkhin and Kurut, which we promptly made plans to visit in the following days.  He also told us about the many Mazoors (shrines) in the region, and their importance in the Islamic practices of the region.  When we got back to Zebo's house we enquired and learned that she often visited the Mazoors to pray.  These sites are strictly speaking, not Islamic, but rather folk Islam shrines, where people can pray to the people buried there and ask them for help.  They are separate from the Mosque, but each Mazoor also has its own Imam.  However, in contrast to the Mosque, women are permitted to pray at the Mazoor.  That evening, with Zebo accompanying us, we took the walk out to the main Mazoor in town, located atop the cliffs overlooking the Zeravshan river, on the southern edge of town.  As we approached the site, an elderly lady who prayed there everyday joined us.  There we saw how their traditional practices had merged with Islam to create this branch of folk Islam which was widely practiced in this area. 

That night we also tasted a new dish (traditional to that area) which we had never tasted before, it was made by boiling a big pot of water, stirring in wheat flour till it became the texture of thick soup, then putting in biiig chunks of pure sheep fat until they melted/dissolved into the soup.  And then that was it, ready to eat - flour and fat soup!!

The next morning, bright and early, we headed out on the first of our small village excursions, 17 km from Ayni and up to the top of the mountain, to a town called Putkhin.  Pretty much the only industry in the village was apricot growing (it really was prime apricot growing land, these apricots were the best we have ever tasted!) with everyone in this small village earning incomes solely by drying apricots and selling them. These people (as with basically all the villages in Tajikistan) are primarily self sufficient, and thus do not have much need to earn very much money to buy other products since they produce everything they need themselves in their house/garden (and what things they do lack they can readily garner from their neighbours and they rest of the village). The income earned from selling apricots is just an additional top up. For us however, this was heaven, we made our all time record of eating over 100 apricots in one day - each!

 

Most of the produce at this house was fruit and vegetable, and very little meat.  The mother here had just two sheep and one cow, all of which she was saving for her son's future wedding.  In this town (as in many other towns) weddings are huge occasions, where it is not unusual to spend 10 years income on a single wedding!  It was very interesting to see (and taste) their preservation methods for these foods, so that they could be consumed in winter. Our favourite was their home made cherry Kampot, a kind of stewed (and in this case) cherry drink. We also managed to film the construction of their traditional cotton mattresses called Kurpcha, which are used to sleep on, sit on, and line the floors with, which was very interesting, as there were many traditional handicrafts like this constructed in this village.  Even the sole doctor in this village was very traditional - one of the girls who we were staying with, had to go to the "doctor" every day for the next 5 days, to be "bled" so that she would be cured from her skin allergy. 

After one night here, it was back to Ayni in the evening, before making the early start to Kurut to beat the heat.  This trip involved a walk up a very steep and seldom used "hidden" mountain path.  Kurut was supposedly the most traditional village we would find in the region (due to its isolation and remoteness) so we were very excited to be able to see such a traditional village, unchanged since the old times.  Even the people where we were staying (Zebo's family, who had lived in Ayni for generations) still did not know the way to walk to Kurut, so we had to get one of her friends to come with us as a guide, further adding to the mystery of this village.

This walk was one of the most scenic walks we had ever been on in our travels in Central Asia.  On the way to the village, the first point of interest that we encountered was a very old hut, in the middle of a forest, complete with a channel diverted from the nearby stream running next to the house, and a small orchard of apricot trees. It was so surreal, like a house out of star wars - our dream house. No-one lived there anymore but the relatives of the man that used to live there, still maintained the orchards and collected its fruits.  Three quarters of the way to the village (near the top of the mountain) was the next point of interest.  Hidden amongst a mountainside apple orchard was a small shed, and outside were two elderly ladies and a man preparing food.  One of the girls and one of the ladies went off into the orchard and re-emerged with handfuls of apples and plums, and after some quick introductions we were invited to sit down for a quick chai.  After chai we left, this time accompanied by the two elderly women, who were bringing their orchard apples back to Kurut, carrying huge baskets and buckets of them on their heads, over streams, up scree slopes, and over ditches, without ever balancing, securing or even touching the load with the hands, all without dropping anything at all.

 

As we entered Kurut, we were transported back to a fantasy world, where a maze of mud-brick lined narrow alleyways flowed throughout town, with overhanging apricot trees at every available spot.  Here we met up with a village elder and managed to arrange an interview with him on camera that went for many many hours, talking about the arrival of Islam in Kurut in the 7th century, and how the Soviet and Post Soviet Eras had changed things for the village, which was all very interesting, especially the epic tales he told of their god (the god of the fire) Zardusht in the pre-Islamic times.  He also told us that the famous Persian poet Rudaki had died near Kurut, but other villages toward Penjikent also made that claim, so we weren't sure who to believe!

After this interview it was off to visit the Mazoor a few km's down the road.  We hadn't expected it, but this seemed to be a very popular place to pray.  Whilst we were there a sheep was slaughtered on the grounds (and its guts smeared on the walls and trees, for what reason we do not know).  Entering the Mazoor building itself involved numerous religous prostrations and kissing the stone tomb numerous times upon.  Exiting was also an laborious process, requiring you to walk backwards down some very steep, awkward and scary stairs, all without looking back.  We saw some old ladies struggling to do the same, and feared they might get to the bottom faster than they hoped!  This Mazoor was actually part of the next town along, called Zindacon.  The story behind this village (from hundreds of years ago) was that 8 families used to live here with cows, sheep and goats. Oneday however they all suddenly vanished, all 8 families and all their animals, never to be seen again, and to this day no one knows why, even the current inhabitants of it.  Thus this place is now called Zindacon - "missing".

We also learned that the name of the other village - Kurut - means "blind water", since the water for the town appears to come out of nowhere.  Us being curious as usual decided to see this for ourselves, so after returning from the Mazoor it was off to the mountains, following the stream uphill to its source.  Walking for what seemed like ages (we had barely eaten or drank since breakfast, and had done a fair bit of walking already) we finally arrived at the source of the spring, and it did indeed just come straight out of the ground.  Nothing mysterious really, but just how the village got its namesake.  After this, it was time for the long (albeit scenic) path back to Kurut to see a collection of traditional musical instruments at the village elder's house, and then back down to Ayni, through the forest.

By the time we returned to Ayni, it was almost straight to another wedding, without any time to rest.  This wedding was very interesting as this time it was Tajik, and contained many elements of Zardusht worship, including a fire ceremony which we managed to film.  After this long day we (and Zebo) were all well and truly exhausted and went to bed early to prepare for the following day's excursions.  However, the next morning over breakfast, we were told that some of Zebo's father's friends from Khojand would be visiting that night, and thus we would have to make space for them by leaving by early afternoon.  Zebo was very sad to see us leave, and we feel that she was ashamed at having to ask her guests to leave (it is against tradition to do so).  But we didn't mind as we always have the tent and sleeping bags, and can always make do!  By midday Quikey was all saddled up and ready to rock and roll.  The next stage for us on the road was up to the pass at 3500 m (in Ayni we were at 1300m, but had to drop down to 1100m to get to the start of the climb), and with only 33 km of track between us and the top of the pass, this would make for a very steep road, with nowhere to stop or camp in between (sheer rock walls on one side, and 300 m drop off on the other).  After abit of discussion we soon decided that we would not be able to make the 33 km to the top of the pass that afternoon, and due too lack of camping sites, it would be best to stay in Ayni another night, before having an early start the next day.

As we were thinking about where to camp for the night we recalled that a few days earlier, when we had visited the local Mazoor, we had seen a large apricot orchard within the grounds.  We enquired with Zebo and numerous people around town, and were told that it is OK to setup camp there, and from all accounts it would be safe and legal to sleep there, so long as we weren't too scared by the spirits of the dead.  As we were riding into the ground and setting up our tent, some children came over to warn us about these spirits and how we shouldn't camp there.  But soon enough we found the Imam and he had no objection to us camping there.  He even picked some apricots for us and brought round some dried ones for us to eat for dinner.  Also, later in the evening, some ladies came in off the street to give us bread, and others offered us chai (but alas we had to stay watch at the quike). Following a quick and easy dinner of noodles we slept soundly, ready for our early departure the next day.

By 7.30 am the next morning we had said goodbye to Ayni and were on the uphill "road" to the Shakhristan pass.  We had estimated that we had at least 18 hours of riding ahead of us that day until we would find a campsite.  However, after a few hours' riding we found that the assumptions for our calculations had been a bit ambitious.  And although the road was fairly good to ride on, we were constantly fearful of the occassional showering rockfall that would litter the road from above.  It now seemed that getting to the top of the pass without injury was our new primary objective, no matter how long it took!