Dushanbe’s huge new National library (empty), National museum (empty), colossal Presidential Palace and grandiose public spaces sparkling with fountains and immaculate rose beds are soon left behind. It’s a tiny city with a population of only a million and within minutes of leaving the main street we are out in the countryside. There are fruit trees and corn fields and linear villages in the valley enclosed by purple-brown folds of bare mountainside, all under a baking blue sky. Yesterday when we flew in it was 35 degrees, and it’s going to be just as hot today.
Olga’s place has been taken by her Tajik counterpart, an entirely different proposition. Oris is a Tajik Pamiri, from the Badakshan region in the east of the country. He is an Ismaili Muslim, the son of teachers, who speaks several local languages – these are totally different, not just dialects – as well as Russian and fluent English and German. He spent a year as a student in Aachen, on a German scholarship. He is young and clearly highly intelligent, with a thin Persian face and long black eyelashes. He works as a tourist guide for several organisations, but intends to start up a trekking company of his own. It sounds like a good plan, because tourism in Tajikistan is in its very early days and there is room for significant development. We also have a driver. Nuraddin looks quite different, although he is also Pamiri – in fact with his broad, creased face and gold tooth he could be the proprietor of a Turkish restaurant. In Soviet times his job was driving a truck up the Pamir Highway. So we are in good hands.
We are now in a little five-bedded room opening directly into the courtyard of a homestay in a place called Khalaikumb, having driven an eight-hour day from Dushanbe, almost all of it on twisting dirt roads. We came over a mountain pass at an altitude of 3258 m, and are now at the Afghan border. A narrow river separates us from it. There is a lot going on in this little town tonight, and we have to get out of here by 6 am tomorrow – news of that will follow when I have more time.
The oddest thing that happened today was Oris pointing out a man and a horse at the side of the road.
‘See him? With the horse? He’s German. I met him two months ago in Murghab. He bought the horse in Kyrgyzstan, for 2000 euros. He’s walking and riding through Afghanistan and all the way back to Germany. With his – what do you call it? – cello’.
I know no more. I wanted to stop and fire questions at him, but apparently the German horseman won’t speak to anyone. When he stops for the night he just sits alone outside and plays his cello.
He’s probably already sold the book. Matt Damon will play him in the film.