Notes and thoughts from a day-trip to the border with Afghanistan. Obviously, we didn’t cross it.
The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers.
-Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads.
I’ve thought quite a bit about this quote since I stumbled upon it in a New York Times article sometime last year and again as I found myself at yet another border this past weekend. This time, there was no question of crossing the border. Not only is there no bridge that crosses the Panj river anywhere near where we were, we had permission neither to cross nor to return. Yet as I stood there, facing one of today’s most problematic borders (see the NYT article from last week), I couldn’t help but dwell upon the meaning of borders in general, and the accident of birth that dictates on which side of which borders we find ourselves. For those who find themselves on one side or the other of this border, war is, quite literally, just a shot a way. This particular border, that between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, is one that I have more than a passing interest, although my interests are more historical, and being there, looking out over the Panj to Afghanistan from a Tajik village, was surreal to say the least.
The road to the border had been a long one. After a slow start out of Dushanbe, not entirely our fault, thanks to rude, pushy, and slightly dishonest drivers (hardly a surprise from the president’s region, honestly), we were on the road a bit past eight, finding ourselves in Kulob at 11:15 or so. Kulob is a small provincial city, perhaps best known for its most famous son, current Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon (almost 20 years and counting!), who grew up in a village an hour or so away. After a quick lunch, we negotiated a cab to Shurobod, a small town about 45 minutes east into the mountains, at an elevation of about 2200 meters. By about 30 minutes out of Kulob, we passed our first Russian tanks, the first signs we were entering a border zone. Our driver and fellow passenger commented that a lot had changed since the Soviets and Russians had left the area in 2005, but they haven’t left entirely, in part thanks to Tajikistan’s difficulties in operating their own border, as this particular one has only become more porous with time.
Our first difficulties came at a checkpoint just outside Shurobod. After seeing our passports, we were called into the office to register, and the soldiers manning the station hassled us for proof of our student status in the country and permission to enter the area. We explained multiple times in Russian that we didn’t have the former and that we didn’t need the latter, as only special permission is required to enter the autonomous province of Badakhshan (the Pamirs), the border to which we would not be crossing. The guards continued to fight us on this matter, so we made a quick phone call to our resident director, who explained it again in Tajik. They seemed still unconvinced, particularly as our desire to go to Shurobod just to “look around” and return seemed strange, to say the least. At first, I initially believed they were hoping for a bribe, but after we finally convinced them to let us through without anything of the sort, I think my final conclusion is that they legitimately were unclear of the laws of their own country. I think, not surprisingly, few foreigners pass through except those who have explicit permission to enter Badakhshan, and as the region has been in the news lately, the tendency has been lately towards greater control.
Through the checkpoint, we soon found ourselves in Shurobod, an isolated large village, and from there, we negotiated a taxi to drive us around the region and take us back to Kulob. Our driver, Aziz, was a second gem of a driver after last week’s Jora. As we drove, Aziz told us a bit more about the region and himself, changing awkwardly between Tajik (understood by Kara and Anya) and Russian (understood by Kara and me). The region is every bit as desolate as one might expect from the recent New York Times article, linked above. As Aziz noted, when I asked him what people do in the region, “these are villages—there’s nothing but cows, sheep, goats, and running a household.” And out of the villages, things were yet more desolate: “Here there are lots of bears, wolves, and wild goats,” Aziz noted, and almost as if to illustrate the point, citing the danger of wolves, he picked up a pedestrian walking down the road, who rode in the trunk as we made our way down the dusty road. And other dangers lurked too—the road signs constantly reminded of the danger of falling rocks, and Aziz noted the danger of one particular point: “Many people have died here—if a big rock were to fall, there’s nowhere to go but down. But I’ve worked here 15 years and have never had any problems.”
As you go along the dusty road, the Panj appears below almost out of nowhere. At some point, the road makes a more decisive turn north, and suddenly, the Panj, and by definition, Afghanistan suddenly come into view. Obviously, there is nothing specifically different about Afghanistan along the river—mostly, it’s just another set of mountains, where life is marked, perhaps, by even more extreme poverty. As we drove onwards, a small Afghan village came into view, and I wondered what it would be like to born into such a village, where every day serves as a reminder of the greater freedom and security that lie not even 100 meters away. Of course, this hasn’t always been the case—one of the craziest things about this particular border is that precisely which side is the free one has changed back and forth in the last decades. Although, from our view, it would be easy to note that people across the way were certainly without any means, I forced myself to remember that in the couple mud-house villages we passed through, life was probably not that much better.
Coming down from the Shurobod Pass (2200 meters), it was a long winding road down to the level of the river. After an hour and a half, we reached Kisht, the village that was our final agreed-upon destination before returning.
Kisht was located, quite literally, right on the Panj.
At one small overlook, Aziz stopped the car and we got out to have a look around, our only company a local goat herder and his flock of goats.
And with that, we found ourselves at the heart of one very problematic border. As many things turn out to be in life, the view from on the ground was much different than you’d expect. Although our drive had included occasional reminders of the international border and the larger security issues surrounding it, one couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming feeling of calm.
True to form, I scrambled down the bank and, leaving my shoes on a rock, stepped into the river. For countless reasons, I was certainly not about to try my luck in the fast-moving river, but you do have the sense that it wouldn’t be all that hard to cross to the other side. I found myself wondering if anyone was even watching. It seemed almost doubtful, although I do somewhat suspect there are more controls than what meets the eye.
But ever since then, I’ve been thinking a lot more about that border and just how mundane it is in actuality. I feel like seeing it in person gave me a much different perspective on its meaning than can be garnered from any reading of newspapers.
The impossibility of controlling such a border could not be more obvious, and the idea that there is some hope for crystalizing and closing the border entirely seems at its very essence terribly flawed, even if Tajikistan were a well-functioning, rich country with much greater state capacity and a trustworthy, well-trained border patrol. These conditions lacking, I think we’re likely to see much more of the same, particularly as poverty, corruption, and ineptitude rule the day in this region, without much hope for things improving.
After a brief stop at a local store, where Aziz surprised us with his thoughtfulness when he bought us each a can of lemon-lime Super Cola, an import from Kabul, we headed back up the dusty road, sorry that, by necessity, we had to turn down a kind invitation to tea from a local villager. Having served my time in the back, I switched to the front, happy for the chance to chat a little more. With the Panj river receding behind us, I asked if he had ever been across it. No, he said, though he noted that he had done his two-year military service at a border post during the Civil War. “Military service,” he commented, “is an equalizing force on our country. Everyone has to do it. Rich people, poor people. Two years for everyone.” Switching to pleasant topics, Aziz told me more about his five children, aged 3-13. Sometimes these things make you stop and think. Only eight years my senior, Aziz had three children by the time he was my age. As we passed onwards through Shurobod, we saw our checkpoint guards again, this time, as it turned out, in the company of a friend of theirs. “He’s a clean, pure Tajik,” Aziz joked about one of them, as we drove on through, this time not even asked to show our passports. We had, after all, done quite exactly what we said we were going to do—we came, we tomosha-ed (looked), and we returned.
As we continued onwards, Aziz then made an unexpected offer—he’d be happy to drive us back to Dushanbe for the same price we had paid that morning. Blown away by the offer and relieved at the fact that it would greatly simplify our return home, we gladly accepted, making a quick stop in his own village so he could tell his wife and mother that he was driving onwards. There, we caught a glimpse of some of the children he was so clearly proud of.
He double-checked that we didn’t want to stay as his guests for the evening—honestly, I would have gladly accepted, but my fellow travelers were pretty insistent on going back, so we headed on towards Kulob, making a short stop at the mausoleum of Said Ali Hamodoni, apparently one of the most important Sufi saints in the region, and especially in Kashmir.
And the detailing:
And from there, it was back to Dushanbe, where we arrived, after some quite obnoxious but not unusual police harassment, just before 11 pm. We paid Aziz well for his many troubles, far more than he had asked for or expected, but his kindness and friendliness had been much appreciated. And, after all, we had seen the five children and elderly mother he supports, in addition to the kindness and thoughtfulness he demonstrated to everyone we passed. Such things should not go unnoticed, and his gratitude was evident. It had been a long day, but, at least in my opinion, well worth the difficulties.