Aaaannd………………… I’m back!
I apologize for neglecting this blog. It’s report writing season. The whole office has been a sea of tension and stress. Apparently, this happens every fall. Donors expect reports from Project Managers. Project Managers expect reports from Project Coordinators. Project Coordinators expect reports from staff etc. etc. etc.
Roxy and I have been up to our ears in M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation) reports. Apart from the major one that we’ve been working on for the past 3 months (which has involved evaluating a ton of projects across the region) we got slammed with a few others in between.
In my last post I mentioned how happy I was to be back in the office. Ya, well that lasted about a day. Writing this report has reminded me of the joy I experienced while writing my Master’s research paper. Those of you who had the pleasure of being in my company during those heinous six months will likely remember it well….
This report was tough but incredibly rewarding. C ondensing 3 months of interviews, focus groups, surveys etc. into a 50 page beast of a report complete with recommendations was a real challenge. In all, we’d consulted over 400 people in the past 3 months for this evaluation, so we had a lot of data and a lot of ideas.
It took 14 days of writing, 2 jars of Golden Roasted Instant Coffee, an area heater (it’s damn cold here), a kilo of cold schwarma and my top playlist (a little Joss/Asa/Adele/Bedouin/MGMT/Alicia, MJ, Ottis, Barry, Ray and a LOT of motown etc.) on repeat - but we got it done. And then collapsed with exhaustion.
But, after a few days of recovery – i.e. the entire first season of “How I met your Mother” and a couple bottles of cheap Moldavian red.
I am back in business
I’ve got a lot of updates and will likely inundate you with a ton of blog posts over the next week. But first, I want to share some of my pics from my field trip to Murghab district.
Wow. What a place. Aside from Afghanistan, this was definitely the highlight of my travels to date. The vastness of this district, the culture, the people and the sheer sense of wonderment you feel in the midst of it all, is truly incredible.
A little history on Murghab:
With a population of 4,000, Murghab is the only significant town in the eastern half of the Autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Oblast region of Tajikistan (I live in Khorog in the southern half). It is the highest town in Tajikistan (and of the former Soviet Union) at 3,650 m above sea level and is located at the junction of the Murghab River and the Pamir Highway. The Pamir Highway (along the Silk Road) goes north to Osh in Kyrgyzstan (and into China) and southwest to the region’s capital Khorog. Murghab is home to ethnic Kirgyz people, they are Sunni Muslims and speak Kirgyz (same language spoken in Kyrgyzstan) and Russian. Interestingly, the majority do not speak Tajik. They are semi-nomadic and have ancient ties to Mongolia.
It’s a 6 hour jaw-dropping drive from Khorog to Murghab. I had my face plastered to the window the entire ride – the scenery was incredible and constantly changing. At first the landscape was green with black mountains- the higher up we’d go the drier and more vast it became - the mountains turned from black to brown and the landscape from green and lush to sandy and rocky, dotted with deep blue lakes. In certain places, I felt as though I was on Mars or better yet, in a scene from Jurassic Park - a truly fantastical place (yes, that is a word - I checked ;)
Check it out:
- Two women strolling down the road.
My first meal in Murgab was fried fish with nan (bread), served by this Kirgyz woman in her yurt (house). Delicious.
- A lot of tourists bike the Silk Road through Tajikistan. It’s incredibly challenging but beautiful. I met a traveller that had biked from as far off as Italy! He looked exhausted but exhilarated and had a great pair of legs
- I stayed with this family while in Murgab. Look at those cheeks!
The majority of Kirgyz have Asian features with beautiful light green, golden and dark brown eyes . As much as I was curious and stared in wonder at the people I saw. I also got stared at a lot in return. My features and “faux” hawk hair style attracted a lot of attention. But interestingly, people rarely ask about my ethnic background in Tajikistan. They are generally a lot more curious about my nationality and my relgion.
It’s a nice change.
- Our organization built a debris flow wall in this village. It’s to protect the community from debris (water, mud, rocks) that washes down the mountain during the rainy season (there are no trees to slow down the debris at this altitude). Debris flow is extremely dangerous -especially in this region – it can wipe out crops, homes and buildings such as this beautiful mosque.
- Horses are an important part of the culture here as opposed to other parts of Tajikistan.
- Modiyon village: it feels as though it is at the end of the world – horses munching on grass by the river, magnificent mountains in the background- a truly idyllic setting. I spent two days in this village interviewing community members. As the Kirgyz are semi-nomadic and the region so vast, there are many villages with only 10 or 15 households (6-7 people per household). In this village there were 12 households.
I had the pleasure of having lunch at this woman’s house. Not much grows in Murghab (due to the altitude) and the main staples are Yak yogurt, Yak milk, Yak butter and Yak (and the occasional goat/sheep dish ;) I had a yak soup (tastes like beef) which basically consisted of water, oil and small pieces of meat with nan (bread) and butter. Normally, I love yogurt. But the idea of eating fermented yak milk that hadn’t been refrigerated defeated me. By the end of the trip, I knew how to say: “Thank you but I am lactose intolerant” in Kirgyz.
This woman’s husband is one of the leaders of the village. During lunch he kept kissing me on the head and calling me daughter. At first, I thought it was just Kirgyz hospitalityin over drive…but then some wise words that my friend D* had given me a while back came bubbling to the surface. He said and I quote: “If someone’s acting a bit strange, chances are they are drunk.”
It was lunch time so it hadn’t occurred to me as a possibility – but once again D* was right on. Never one to kill a buzz – I rolled with it. And had a great time.
I have to say that the hospitality of the people in this district is incredible. Most people have little to give but you would never know it, since they offer you everything they have. Guests are truly honored here and considered a blessing. It honestly puts us to shame back home. Our grudging hospitality with timelines and restrictions can’t even compare.
I met this little girl a couple of hours up the mountain from Modiyon (which is a couple of hours from the centre of Murghab town). Very isolated. There are three families that live up there and with the help of an NGO they’ve built a greenhouse (lack of vitamins from fruits/veggies is a big problem here) and developed their hot springs. The springs were amazing!
Check out this hat. I love it. I bought two of them. Totally rockable in Montreal. The shopping in Murghab was really great. Although, admittedly, I can find great shopping pretty much anywhere. But the carpets and wool knits are really nice. The traditional clothing in Murghab is also quite different from the rest of the GBAO. Aside from these hats, they wear leather moccasins with specially fitted goloshes. The idea is that when you are going outside you slip on the goloshes and when you come back inside you remove them and have your moccasins to wear around the house. The protection of boots with the comfort of slippers! As a lover of slippers, and all things that keep me warm in general, I think it’s brilliant!
Being in Murghab you realize that the people here live and work in difficult conditions and an extremely harsh climate. In the winter the temperature in Murghab drops below -35C - giving even Montreal a run for its money ( minus the central heating of course).
As there are no trees at this altitude there is also no shade to speak of. The sky was the bluest sky that I have ever seen. The sun was unforgiving and relentless. The heat was intense during the day but also very dry. At night, the temperature drops signficantly and the dryness of the air makes it hard to sleep. The people here, especially the children, suffer from skin damage from years of constant sunburns. It gives them the appearance of having permanent rosy cheeks and dark leathery skin.
This amazing spot took two hours to get to from Modiyon. And what a ride.
Roxy, Tohir (engineer), Akbar (driver) and I, loaded into a rickety old relic from the Soviet era – known as a UAZ jeep and hit the road. As previously mentioned, I have a tendency to get car sick. However, my body was too racked with fear to even worry about feeling nauseous. I honestly thought that I was going to die – at least twice.
The gravel “road”- and I use this term loosely- was carved into the side of the mountain. Apparently, the key to not skidding to your death on gravel is to drive as fast as possible. Akbar, a true professional, was roaring down the “road” at 65Km an hour. Having a professional driver is essential here - and it’s a job that requires a lot skill (and a lot of guts). It’s life and death on some of these roads.
The scenery – when I ventured a look- was beautiful: green valleys and jagged mountains with the occasional horse or herdsman. The river was gorgeous (see above), carving its way through the mountains as it has been since the beginning of time.
We spent the night here and Roxy and I took advantage of the hot springs. Tajikistan has a ton of hot springs and mineral water sources. It’s customary when driving through the districts to pull over to fill up your water bottle with spring water. Most springs have signs posted next to them that explain what they cure - heart disease, poor circulation and arthritis are common ones. But you name it – there is a spring for it.
It was a beautiful place to spend a couple of days. And aside from the flea colony that I brought back to my house as a souvenir, I had a wonderful time here.
The land goes on forever. A lone house at the base of a mountain will appear out of nowhere and then nothing for hours. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live miles away from my nearest neighbor and civilization for that matter.
The majority of Kirgyz live in Murgab during the winter and move to the pastures in the summer to graze their animals. While in the pastures they live in traditional yurts – which are essentially mobile homes. These can be collapsed and then reassembled.
- Churned butter
The view from the latrine.
I don’t know if it’s because you feel like you are actually IN the sky, or because there is almost no light at night….But, the stars shine brighter here than any other place I have ever been….It’s incredibly humbling.
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