Friday, May 29, 2009

Of rivers and drugs - Tajikistan/Afghanistan border

So I have been here in Khorog, capital of the Tajik Pamir, since about 10 days. I am looking around for images. It's always tough to try to do a story on a place that most people know nothing or so little about. You can do the "general" piece (and your head spins) or you can try to find something in particular that will allow the viewer to understand a lot about all the other issues that the country faces. That can be stronger. I am slowly narrowing it down.

Now, a small brief on some lovable subject: Geography. Khorog is RIGHT on the border with Afghanistan. If you have a good throw, you can land a small rock in Afghanistan, right over the Panj river, as it is known here. Up stream, it is the Ishkashim river, higher up again it splits into the Pamir and Wakhan River. Lower, past Khorog, you might have heard of its name: the Amu Daria, or the Oxus as the Greek called it - the greatest river of Central Asia. Oxus probably comes from the Turkish name Ak Su, the "White river".
In 2004, during my first sniff around in Tajikistan, I went with my writer friend John Bonaccolta up the Panj, to its source: the lake Zorkul.
At this stage, it's important to mention that most of the opium and heroin you find in the West comes from Afghanistan. And to make its way to Europe, a great portion of this drug passes over the Panj river into Tajikistan, making its way to Dushanbe (where the war lords drive their expensive BMW down the Rudaki avenue), hops on the train: direction Moscow.

Well, driving and then trekking beside the Panj to the Zorkul lake, it was always a bit disconcerting to look on the other side of the river and realize it was another country. Towards the end, near the outflow of the Zorkul lake, I couldn't help but hop on some gravel in the middle of the Panj (which, at this stage, was only approx. 4m wide). I was in no mans land, waving at some Afghani yak herder, looking at my friend John still in Tajikistan, few meters away from me. Although the last watch tower was maybe 20/30km behind us, I didn't linger. I had heard many scary stories about the trigger happy Tajik guards.

It looked like this: on the right is Afghanistan, on the left is Tajikistan.

In 2008, I was again briefly in Tajikistan, en route to the Wakhan corridor in winter to shoot my story "Forgotten". I already noticed that the KGB guys were a bit more laid back. And the russian members of the Tajik army were gone back in 2005 (these were the not so funny ones). The policemen even laughed at my intentions "We know you can't be a photographer, you are a dealer, like they all are! We shall defrost you in spring". That was Daulat, the nice KGB guy in Ishkashim, on the Tajik-Afghan border bridge.

Now: 2009: I feel more comfortable around these poor fellows. I say poor because they make peanuts. They are paid about 20$ a month. And they are here to try and avoid all the heroin and opium to cross into Tajikistan and makes its way to Europe. Fact is, from having driven and walked along the Panj for 800Km, it would just be too easy to sneak anything across. And with border guards making peanuts, it would again be probably too easy to hand them over a fat check and drive my lorry loaded with any goodies across the border.

Here in Khorog, some of them look like this, and their means of communication.

Ben voila... I will stop that babble. With so little money on both side of the border and extraordinary geographical challenges, I am yet not sure what the solution is to this illegal trade that destroys so many lives (I can witness it daily in Khorog). Grow apricots instead of poppy fields in Afghanistan? I don't think so... Commercialize opium via agreements with the pharmaceutical world, under strict supervision? mmm, maybe?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

9 melancholic windows at my doorstep

I have shot a lot since we arrived in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. We are "stuck" here- trying to make our way to the Pamir mountains where we should be based for 2 months. I find this place very inspiring.
I will spare you the details and struggles of trying to get here - you can read the full download here.
It's just raining heavily - so much so that we couldn't get out of our apartment, there was a river (yes: river!) flowing in front of our door and flooding the entrance hall. Apparently it was on BBC and CNN. Bored home, I finally waded (shoes off, rolled up pants, watch for the holes in the street etc) my way to the bus stop 20m away and took some pictures of the windows passing by.


Greetings from Dushanbe. After a fiery start I fell behind on the blog front - sorry about that. Few things happened:

- I left Hong Kong mid-april and I will be on the road for 3 months! Finally arrived in Tajikistan. There is a Stan at the end, but do not fear this one, it's fairly tame. Last week, on my way here, I was on assignment in South India, in Karnataka.

- other problem is that I have been struggling to understand how Wordpress (my blog hoster) works! It is definitely NOT a simple blog tool, it's more of a tool to design website - to solve simple issued, I was confronted with insane phrases such as "When I instantiate this twice into two separate object variables, the second just overwrites the first!". Damn.... and I am French remember. So I ended up dumping Wordpress in the end and started using Blogger which is for dummies = good for me.

- Finally, I have been using every spare minute to finish my long multimedia piece on the Afghan Pamir (an on-going project since the last 5 months). It's definitely getting there. It will be more of a short documentary, probably + - 25 mn. So I have been sorting through yak heavy breathing sound issues and some lame Voice Overs. But we are getting there.

I will bring up the big word for this new blog: EXPLORATION.

" Kharab Bakri or a Bad goat in the Karakoram. "

To kick start the engine, here is a FANTASTIC quote taken from Willi Rickmer Rickmers's autobiography, the last non-russian explorer in the Pamir (one of the mountain range west of the Himalayas): "I was impressed above all by things massive and superlative. In this way I became a mountaineer. I was searcing for the untouched, the unsung. And so I became an explorer. Mountains are the most monumental of sculptures, and their counterpart was the desert, the most monumental etching. And so I became attached to Turkestan, where mountains and deserts are inseparably linked."
Turkestan? well, that's where I shot a lot of my stories and that's where I am right now - Tajikistan is a beautiful part of it.

Anyway: Flash back to 1999 - let me pull a picture, see below, we were based here 13 months:

that's Skardu, in Baltistan province, North Pakistan, some kilometers south of K2. Since 1999, year of my first discovery of North Pakistan, I have done my share of long treks - some classics but some unknown passes as well and a virgin peak.

Over the years, I think I walked over 2500 km in the Karakoram, Himalaya, Hindukush and Pamir range - mostly in North Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. I love trekking in remote areas. I am just sharing my background. I know there are people that have gained more trekking experience in these parts, and this is a good thing, because these places, to be really understood, need to approached on foot as much as possible.

These days, if you got time on your hands, it's fairly easy to find an unclimbed 6000m peak - easy at least in the Karakoram, Hindukush or Pamir regions - but finding an uncrossed pass is another story. Personally, I have always found that trekking back the same way you went was a joy-killer. Climbing peaks (as it often involves retracing your steps), has so far not ben my favorite. I always found that going over a high pass to try and establish a new itinerary between 2 valleys is much, much more exciting.

Chapursan Valley, Afghan-Pakistan border, end of September 2002.
Ghulam Ali was a good Wakhi man from the Chapursan valley, in Pakistan. I had met him several times between 2000 and 2003 while working on a story on the Kyrgyz yak traders. He had been up to a pass previously uncrossed and had to turn back himself because of bad weather. It's difficult to know for 100% that a pass has never been crossed - it could have been 200 years ago. Few factors can help to determine this:
- if there is no trail whatsoever leading to it, that's a good start
- if it doesn't have a name
- if the elders assure you it was never crossed
- if it makes no sense to go up this way (for example, there might be an easy nearby pass that links these 2 valleys you are trying to link)
- if it's technically difficult
-if the valleys you are starting from and ending at are sparsely and/or recently populated, these would reduce the likelihood of this pass having ever been crossed
... there must be more factors, but truth is, you can never be sure 100%. What you can be almost sure of is that it is an "uncrossed pass in living memory".

In 2003, I came back with Mareile and try and hope to go over this unnamed, "uncrossed" pass. We prepared our little expedition in an afternoon, shopping for noodles and more noodles and picking up fuel for our cooker at the Sost bazaar, the entrance of the Chapursan river, on the Pakistan/China border. Staying at Alam Jan's house at the end of the Chapursan Valley, I soon found out Ghulam Ali was no more. He had died in a tractor accident few months earlier - falling to his death in the Chapursan river.
Alam Jan would come along with us - so we would be three. Three being my current maxed-out members for this kind of trip, where tension can easily rise because of the uncertainty of the itinerary. We knew Alam Jan well and so we left in "good spirit".
Followed a beautiful 5-day adventure in path finding, country hopping between Pakistan's Karakoram and Afghanistan's Pamir mountains.

On the third day we came across a mountain flank covered with shell fossils - a reminder of the Thesis Sea that once covered this region. Maybe a beach was up on that mountain pass above? Bended in half, we looked for ages for a fossiled fish, but had no such luck.
That same day, trying to make the right decision on wether we should go over that ridge or this ridge, I remember being duly impressed by Alam Jan's path finding abilities. Pointing to a scree high above in the distance (the lower part of it being obstructed by another mountain in front of us), and then to the moraine of the glacier to our right, he said "See, they have the same color, we should follow this glacier, it will bring us below the scree near our goal...". Simple and logical. Climbing up to the flat area of the upper reach of the glacier, we slept on the ice, blessed with clear sky but extremely cold temperature.

With no rope, we went on carefully the next day and followed the logical exit, the uncrossed pass in front of us, past a last snow ridge. Having no altimeter with us, we felt we were probably at + - 5500m. Little celebratory dance at the top of the pass. Walking steep down on the glacier, past ice sentinels, we all agreed that this pass should simply be named "Ghulam Ali pass". It still is to this day. And I am pretty sure no one has been up there again ever since. A smiling Alam Jan had some good words back then "It's good place for bad goats like you here no??...". I tend to agree!

This story and more was published in Geo France in Oct. 2003 under the title "Secret road through the Pamir".