Driving through the city of Panj, Tajikistan, Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere meets an ex-Soviet-soldier-turned-teacher who has discovered a new way of arranging a long-distance marriage.
Our heavy-footed driver swerved to avoid a series of large rocks that had crumbled from the mountainside above. A muddy crimson river swept through the valley below: the Panj, which marks the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
We snaked our way along the majestic Pamir Highway above the river’s crimson sleepy waters, glancing across to Afghanistan from the dusty windows of our 4x4. These are the Pamir Mountains, commonly referred to as the “Roof of the World”, a land of breath-taking scenery where the local inhabitants are among the poorest of the ex Soviet republics.
All photos by Kiki Deere
Jagged rocky terrain lay below, while green pastures and arable land spread to the north. As our car bumped its way along the potholed dirt track, I caught a glimpse of a lean figure walking ahead of us. His beige trousers were speckled with dirt, and a couple of bony feet protruded from a pair of worn leather sandals. We signalled to the driver to stop and offered him a lift. He clambered in, clutching a plastic folder to his chest. His chapped fingers were tightly wrapped around an out-dated mobile phone, which he gingerly rested on his lap. His rugged, stubble covered age-old skin was taut and burnished from the sun. His lips broke into a golden smile at the sight of foreign faces. "I am the director of the school", he proudly told us, as he made himself comfortable in the sticky seats of our 4x4. He was on his way back home for lunch and was pleased to have avoided walking the last leg home. The 6Km stretch, he explained, usually took him just over an hour on foot.
After a few exchanges in broken Russian, our new passenger Dolmon signalled to our driver to stop. As a thank you for the lift, he urged us in for tea to meet his family. He led the way to a square concrete house, which precariously perched on a hillside, surrounded by a pleasant verdant garden where a little metal gate lay ajar.
Three women were hard at work with chores round the back of the house. A teenage girl knelt down, intently scrubbing a large sheep wool carpet, occasionally raising her hand to wipe the sweat off her rosy concave cheeks. The eldest gently poured water out of a plastic bucket, which soon rose into a cloud of soapy foam and their mother, a heavy hipped woman, towered over them, intently scrutinising their work. Her prominent features revealed a hooked nose, high cheekbones and dark almond shaped eyes as she greeted us with a warm smile and both hands held out. Her daughters followed suit and we were soon ushered into a tidy room with carpets carefully laid over the floor, while others hung pinned to the walls. We later learned that this room was exclusively used to entertain guests.
I looked around at the thick brown and yellow carpet with chintzy floral motifs that covered the wooden floor planks and admired the garish designs of bright bananas and leafy plants with red fruits that decorated the cushions on the floor. Mats were rolled out and a plastic cover was laid on the floor in the centre of the room to form the table. Little bowls suddenly appeared, while a rough hand placed a steaming flowery teapot in the centre: the Tajiks’ much-loved chai (tea).
Dolmon handed me a tattered photo album. "Me in the military", he proudly explained, as I rested it on my lap. A thirty year younger Dolmon, dressed in a smart uniform, stared back at me. His face was serious, nearly devoid of expression. Smaller black and white photographs of a striking dark haired lady peppered the torn pages. I glanced up at his round wife, asking myself whether this was a younger version of her.
As I leafed through, a large leaflet dropped out. It was a certificate issued by the Communist Party, as the red Russian script on the front attested. Intrigued, I opened it. A large portrait of Lenin covered the left hand side, his eyes piercing through the page, and on the other a stamp certified that Dolmon was awarded second place in his performance in the Soviet army. I looked up at him questioningly and he gave me a satisfied smile: "For bravery and discipline", he proudly stated.
Dolmon lifted the teapot and poured six cups of weak black tea. A large freshly baked roundel of bread lay in the centre of the table. His wife wobbled into the room wearing a loose dress, a large belly protruding beneath. A young boy – their son – sat cross-legged on the floor, yet when motioned to sit on the mat with us, he declined, too shy to sit with two foreign women.
The mother, who couldn't speak a word of Russian, handed me a large photo. Her husband translated her guttural Kyrgyz: "My son, my son", she boasted as she passionately motioned towards her heart. "He lives in Russia, he works there. Seven years he has been there", she proudly told us, with a glint of sadness in her eyes. "He came back three years ago to visit us. He returns in a few months," she exclaimed, beaming with joy. A rainbow of golden teeth glittered in the afternoon sun. “Does he like it there?” I asked. “Yes, yes, of course, but we miss him”.
Moscow attracts scores of young Muslim men from all over the former Soviet republics, who leave their homeland in search for a better life and job opportunities in the bustling Russian capital. Most work in construction and it is not unusual for these young men to work long shifts, sometimes 18-hour days. Many are often victims of racist abuse. As I sat in the modest home of these warm-hearted people, I couldn’t help but question whether their son really was happy in Moscow.
"He is getting married to a Tajik lady, from the local village", she revealed. "They are engaged. They will meet soon, for the first time!". "Oh, congratulations! But…", I muttered, questioningly.
"We met her family and we like them very much. They live close by, just up the road. We showed their daughter a photo of our beloved son, and she likes his good looks. Look! Just look at him!” she exclaimed, waving her son’s photo in the air. “They all approved! We sent our son her photo via MMS. He thinks she is beautiful. They will soon meet and marry!", she cried, holding her hands to her heart. Her husband glanced at me, his thin lips proudly curling into a smile as he nodded in approval. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of their son giving the thumbs up back in Moscow.
As I sat cross-legged on the floor and looked around at the humble surrounds, preparing to leave our generous hosts' home, I curiously marvelled at how the obsolete black Nokia phone that lay at the mother’s feet had so easily secured a wedding.