Trekking on the roof of the world

Once, about halfway to London, I looked out the window and saw the silent twinkling lights of a city far below. I figured out that it was probably Tashkent. Tashkent! What would that be like? Since then, Central Asia hovered in my mind’s eye like a fata morgana. Two decades later I am exploring the area, and recently spent two weeks in Tajikistan.

It’s a short drive from Tashkent to the border. The crossing is dramatic. You walk through a neutral zone shouldering your luggage, overlooked by watchtowers and armed soldiers. It feels all the more special because Uzbeks and Tajiks are not allowed to cross. Their countries are in conflict because Tajikistan plans to dam the river that supplies most of Uzbekistan’s water needs.

After the sixth passport inspection, a soldier opened a four metre gate and I stepped into Tajikistan. I was greeted warmly by my driver, Shamil, and he explained ‘after 200km is starting getting not very good road’. He was right. We drove all day on perilous roads with precipitous drops to raging rivers, and safety barriers that could only be described as suggestions. Danger, high altitude, and splendour – three kinds of breathtaking!

We arrived at Saritag, a tiny farming village built beside an abandoned stone settlement, with a beautiful winding river fed by glacier melt. Trekkers follow this high valley to reach the ruins of the ancient city of Penjikent. The guesthouse had a room for me, and its vivid colours made my personal space seem even more precious. Just outside was a raised seating area with low table where meals were served. After a breakfast of local bread and butter with a delicous berry jam, I walked five kilometres down the switchback road to Iskanderkul lake. The lake is an improbable chalky azure colour. I gazed into the lake and looked up at the sky and the abrupt snow-capped peaks all around, but nothing would account for this colour. I immersed myself in the blueness.


The village of Saritag, at 2400m

The next stop was the capital. Think of somewhere like Bendigo on a hazy summer’s day, but with a main street busy with taxis and electric buses, flanked with stately buildings bearing signs in Cyrillic, and you have Dushanbe. I entered one of those buildings and was soon set up with a SIM card and 5GB of data for $25. With that I persuaded Shamil to let me wander the town by myself, and spent the afternoon enjoying the monuments and parks, and poking my head into interesting little shops. As the day faded I found a cafe with an English-speaking waiter, sat back with a Russian beer, and watched the Persian-looking people in black suits and bright flowing dresses stroll up and down. I was enchanted.

Heading south, we laboured up to a high pass then wound our way on terrifying cliff-side roads down to the river Pyanj. My fantasy of swimming across to Afghanistan was put to rest; there’s regular military checkpoints, a wild river, and the possibility of landmines. On the Afghan side we saw a path alternately cutting through the cliff-face then threading its way through little stone villages. I saw some Afghans riding donkeys along the path and once even caught their attention. We looked across at each other, wondering what to do, then had the same idea at the same time and pulled out our phone cameras. Two more days of difficult driving brought us to Khorog.


View from the road south of Dushanbe (Nurek Reservoir)

Khorog is the capital of the autonomous Badakhshan Province and gateway to the Pamirs, believed to be the least visited mountain range in the world. Three months earlier there had been social unrest in Khorog after police shootings but it was peaceful now. However, the next morning the Australian Government posted an update: ‘reconsider your need to travel especially if you are travelling in Badakhshan’. I didn’t know what I should do. Stay or leave? Locals were surprised, insisting that everything had been calm for months, so we continued as planned and headed down to the bazaar to stock up on food for my trek.

An hour out of Khorog we turned onto a lonely track and drove up a rocky valley to Bachor, a village of a dozen stone and mud houses hemmed in by craggy snow-capped peaks. I wandered around greeting people, and they would smile to reveal a string of gold teeth. One man was sharpening a scythe. He had a large area of grass to cut so I offered my assistance. From the laughter of several onlookers, I concluded he was not very good at teaching scything!


Cutting grass for animal feed in Bachor

My accommodation was a traditional Pamiri mud house with a pyramidal skylight, five-pillar main room, and Ismaili Islam trimmings. Each room was split-level with a small area for standing and a raised area for sitting and sleeping. I looked around my room and laughed at the complete otherness of it. This is exactly why I came here. I watched Shamil drive away, put out the lone candle, and settled down for a cold night.

Next morning it was semolina in sour milk for breakfast. I declined the dollop of homemade butter despite the insistence of my host, preferring to round out my breakfast with a precious meusli bar instead. Soon we loaded up the horse and headed off, with my new guide Alimamoul out front. After crossing a little swing bridge we were stopped by a park ranger. I needed a permit? I read the fine print. It said I was allowed to take photos and to keep a notebook, but not to ‘mock or frighten the animals’. I resolved to do my best.


Alimamoul and his horse Kumait leading the way up Bachor river

By 4.30pm it was chilly and the sun would soon slide behind the peaks, so we set up camp. Pitching the tents I was suddenly in familiar territory and as competent as any Pamiri. While I was congratulating myself on a job well done, a guy with wild hair appeared over the hill. Clément had been hiking solo for six weeks and had another six to go. This put my own humble efforts into perspective. Alimamoul cooked up a hearty soup with noodles and fresh vegetables and we had a satisfying meal. By now it was freezing, windy and raining, so we retired to our tents. I dug out my e-reader, a modern day magic carpet that could briefly transport me back to Australia. As I drifted off, waking with gasps for breath, I remembered what Colin Thubron wrote on his Silk Road travels: ‘thin air makes for febrile sleep’.

The next day we met our first river crossing and a strange competition developed. As I took off my walking boots, Ali just ran through it. It’s clearly not cool to remove your shoes and wade gingerly in the icy water. An hour later our path was blocked by a wider river. There’s no way he’ll run through this I thought. I waded out thigh deep and after a few seconds my feet ached with the cold. I kept slipping on the rocks. I wondered what Ali would do. I got out my camera, just in time to catch him flying past on top of the loaded horse.


Alimamoul and Kumait fording the first river


And the second river

I fell behind as we climbed steeply through 4000m. How could a loaded horse power up a rocky slope while I needed to rest every few minutes? I read the same observation made by a visitor 150 years earlier: ‘I could not help wondering at the mules’ toiling up the steep height and reaching the top, with their heavy loads, whilst, to me, on foot, without any encumbrance, the ascent was most painful’ (Arminius Vambéry, 1861).

Reaching the top I was rewarded with a stunning vista over Yashilkul lake and its 25km length. I sat there in awe. As I picked my way down towards the lakeside I saw two chubby little creatures scurrying downhill at a great pace. Marmets. Now I understood the injunction about respecting the animals. It was hard to resist, but I was too weary to mimic them.

Alimamoul was waiting at the lakeside with lunch and although I had no appetite, I forced down some tomatoes, cucumber, bread, yoghurt, and the universal snack in Tajikstan, a Snickers bar.


Yashilkul (Green Lake), at 3,700m

Two days later we reached a river that was too deep for the loaded horse. Alimamoul headed upstream to look for a crossing. However, twenty five kilometres into the day’s walk I was not about to waste my steps. I stripped off and carried my pack over my head into the fast-flowing ice-cold water, praying that it wouldn’t get too deep. Mercifully it only reached my chest and I was soon out and feeling so light-headed that I continued walking naked for a few hundred metres. When the grass gave way to a stony path I dressed, climbed to the ridge and found a rock where I could sit and wait, and trace back over the day’s route.

We eventually arrived in Bulunkul, a scattering of mud houses in a desolate valley and the coldest place in Tajikistan, logging –36°C. I studied the people with their deep-set eyes and faraway look, the men with their strong jaws and stiff-legged walk, the women with their flowing clothes in unlikely colour combinations, and the children in their immaculate black and white uniforms.


Schoolboy in Bulunkul

The next day I rejoined Shamil and we continued our tour of the Pamiri plateau, so-called ‘roof of the world’, with its wide valleys, abrupt mountains and prehistoric settlements. Along the way I finally got the nerve to brave the roadside public pit toilets. I was unsure whether to use the ж or м side until I inspected both to compare the levels of cleanliness; some things are universal. I opted for the great outdoors.


The view of the Pamirs across Karakul (Black Lake), at 3,960m.

Sep 21, 2014

Academics team up to save dying languages

A beautifully crafted documentary about Aikuma by Thom Cookes which aired on ABC’s program The World (25/3/14):

This video included a segment about Lauren Gawne and her work on Kagate (Nepal).

Mar 13, 2014

Two Interviews on ABC Radio National

Stories from the Brazilian Amazon, with Waleed Aly and Phillip Adams, on ABC Radio National:

  • ABC RN Drive with Waleed Aly: Passport: Steven Bird, computer scientist and preserver of old languages [ audio | website ]
  • ABC RN Late Night Live with Phillip Adams and Carmel O’Shannessey: Lost and found languages [ audio | website ]

Aug 20, 2013

The wrap up of my Brazil fieldwork


Aikuma app for speech annotation

Of the ~200 languages spoken in Brazil, about half are spoken in the Amazon. During March-May this year I had the privilege to work with speakers of Tembé, Ticuna, and Nhengatu, teaching them how to use mobile technologies for preserving their disappearing linguistic heritage. It was incredible to see how the technology didn’t just enable the work, but motivated people to participate.

Much of the activity was close to water — unsurprising given the vastness of the rivers, often many kilometres wide and holding 20% of the world’s freshwater. Access to language areas was different in each case: an eight hour drive into the rainforest (Tembé), a guide taking me deep into a warren of informal roads and dwellings on the outskirts of a city (Ticuna), and a boat ride up the Rio Negro (Nhengatu).

This fieldwork was a true adventure: going into the unknown with little idea of what to expect, depending on others for the basics of survival, being welcomed by local indigenous people yet finding it challenging to establish shared goals and activities. And there were my new travelling companions Katie and Isaac, who got wind of my travels and wanted to come along for the adventure.


Travelling up the Rio Negro

The work is summed up in three articles, each with an ABC interview:

1. Earlier work in Papua New Guinea set the scene: I was there with Florian, my PhD student, for five weeks in early 2012. This story and interview mark the start of my fieldwork in Brazil.

2. Visiting the Tembé village was more difficult than I had anticipated. Everything was so foreign and there were incomprehensions on both sides.

3. The second village visit was different. We found a receptive community and they were excited about collecting, transcribing, and publishing their stories.

The third linguistic community was Ticuna — interesting, complex, and vexing. I’ll save it for another day…

May 30, 2013

Photographs from Terra Preta

I’ve just returned from four days in Terra Preta, a 50km boat ride up the Rio Negro from Manaus. My friends from the Tembe trip, Katie and Isaac, joined me and did an brilliant job with recording and transcribing Nhengatu stories. This post has a selection of photos from our trip.


In front of our boat, after negotiating the price


A photo from our boat. Big sky. Bigger river.


Arnaldo, fishing for our lunch


Our lunch (piranha)


A typical house in Terra Preta (incl satellite dish)


Our accommodation, in three hammocks on Arnaldo’s porch


Children listening to their recordings on the Aikuma app


Celia, with some of the beautiful things you can make with açaí berries


The school, two rooms, one computer


Soccer occupied most of the weekend


Jonas, recording a translation, with random onlookers


Jeremias, Clodoaldo, and Jonas transcribing stories


Jonas, transcribing from the mobile phone recording


Keyboarding texts for publication


Aline (6) showing me canoes in the flooded forest


6pm view from the village, with rain and boat


Apr 29, 2013