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Posted February 6, 2012
Dispatch #2
Heaven and Hell
Project: Pamir Trek

This is one in a series of dispatches sent from Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains by photographer Matthieu Paley.

Photo: Leading camels
Bactrian camels are well suited to the extreme cold and altitude. They can carry up to 200 kg and serve as a status symbol to any well-respecting Kyrgyz.

I’m shivering as I write this, so I will be quick before heading back indoors. The way up has been tough, but that’s what I expected.

The writer Robert Middleton says that Taoist and Buddhist teachings locate paradise in China’s far west, and that early Europeans speculated that the Pamirs were the original Garden of Eden.

But the Garden of Eden is a hard place to reach. My head is pounding, my face is burned by the wind, I am hungry and fed up with trying to catch up with our three unruly yaks. We have been walking on the frozen Wakhan River for three days now, sleeping in shepherds’ huts. We’re in a stone house with a 1.2-meter-high ceiling with soot all over the walls, a door made of a cloth that lets the wind come through, and a roaring dung fire that pours smoke. Imagine ten men (including me) huddled together into 15 square meters. Now I am copying my photographs. So far the technology is with me and things are working out. I type this with gloves on. A smiling Wakhi and the two Kyrgyz are watching, a bit bewildered.

We lean back. In the darkness, these mustachioed men with turbans are making sure that, since I’m the guest, I’m at ease. We exchange poetry. “There should be only one love, not a thousand; the moon shines strong in the sky, more than a million stars.” Or something along these lines—my command of Wakhi is decent, but poetry is tough to translate. They laugh and cheer. We talk about our families, the world, their idea of paradise. I want to preserve my lungs from the dung smoke, so I decide to try a night in the tent and test my new sleeping bag. I stuff my cameras, batteries, and soles into the bottom of the sleeping bag and listen to the BBC tell a distant world about a ship sinking in Italy. I don’t get much sleep. I am still adapting to the altitude and the cold. But somehow, as always while on the move in such a cold place, the wind is the best coffee in the world. I feel fine after a few cups of shir choi, the salty milk tea, and flat bread.

Photo: Kyrgyz tombs
An old burial site. The Kyrgyz no longer build such elaborate tombs.

The snow cover is very thin. All the snow seems to have blown down into the valleys. I try to stick to the Kyrgyz caravan, getting good images. I manage maybe for an hour. I will have plenty of Kyrgyz up on the Bam-e Duniya, which is about two days away. Tonight, in another shepherd hut, we all sleep side by side to keep warm: Malang, Mir Ali, the two Wakhi yak keepers, and myself. It gets to -20°C at night. Our makeshift door doesn’t do a good job. Malang is worried: He has dreamed of his mother riding a horse. His mother is sick, and he thinks it’s a sign she might have passed away. We will try to call tonight with the satellite phone.

We start climbing above the frozen river. After nine hours the sun sets. We arrive in Shigor Don, and an old man welcomes me with, “How is your wife, and what about your donkey?” He and I must have met when I crossed that area in 2005. At night we huddle side by side and the old man tells us the story of his life, when he crossed into Pakistan with the whole Kyrgyz tribe back in 1979. He goes outside and shouts to scare off the wolves.

I am happy lying in bed. As always, I have had my share of up and downs today. These extremes reflect what I see around me: the little gray cat perched itself beside the hearth, the polar wind blowing outside.

Matthieu Paley has spent more than a decade documenting the Afghan Kyrgyz of the Little Pamir. Learn more about him and his work at www.paleyphoto.com and http://paleyphoto.blogspot.com. His book Pamir: Forgotten on the Roof of the World will be published this year by La Martinière in France and Knesebeck in Germany.

PreviousNext dispatch: “A Bath at Last”

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