New on Sidetracked:

Portrait of Orozbek

Jamie Bunchuk
Photography and Video by Matthew Traver

A wash would be welcome. God knows I needed it; knees with a dirty black shine to them, a thick growth of itchy stubble matted across my face and my hands cracked and broken, with a mysterious sick-grey hue to them that had developed over the past few weeks here at high altitude. No, a wash and shave would be very much appreciated, although where exactly our host Orozbek the hunter was taking us to do it – and why we’d chosen to travel atop a truck laden with freshly-cut grass to get there – I still couldn’t quite figure out. But that was Central Asia encapsulated; you never really could tell what ramshackle road blind circumstance was leading you down, not – at any rate – until it was too late to back out.

Our arrival in Tajikistan had been marked with a car crash. Picked up by two soldiers – fresh-faced recruits from the country’s sunny capital of Dushanbe almost 1000km out to the west – we’d been travelling high and fast across the Pamir Mountains when it happened: a wheel came off the Russian-made Lada. Not a normal tyre puncture, the wheel actually detached from its support column, sending the soldiers’ little white car piling headfirst into the ground in one agonising, squealing thrash of exposed metal on pitted tarmac. Out in the Pamirs there is little chance of rescue, no roadside recovery. Indeed, with no phone reception for miles, not one person had the slightest clue where we were and if we were in trouble or not.

Instead, we jacked up the car ourselves, scraped the scattered ball-bearings up from the floor, tied the wheel’s support column back together with scrap wire and wrenched the errant runaway wheel back in place. We carried on south at well past midnight, the bodge-job miraculously holding together, having experienced our first taste of the Kuhistoni Badakhshon Autonomous Oblast. A place where nearly everything you do, you do on your own – as a keen amateur – with the wrong tools but the right spirit always in hand for whatever job you may face next. These were life lessons we would come to face again and again over the course of the next month spent living in region.

We rattled our way into town with bits of flying grass stuck in our hair and to our faces, like the aftermath of some hasty self-done buzz cut. Hopping off the truck – which it turns out was transporting fodder to be stored for stored over the upcoming winter for the livestock of Orozbek’s cousin – I recognised the woman who’d come to greet us. She’d been at the civic party a few nights back, the tired looking lady who I’d assumed to be a teacher of some description. She led the three of us quietly through the empty, unpaved streets of Bash-Gumbez, to the Russian-style ‘banya’ or sauna.

‘You ready for this?’ I asked Matt with a smile as we approached the tiny adobe-brick bathhouse, its one dusty and cobwebbed window evocative of that old Dostoevskian account of eternity.

‘Sort of,’ replied Matt, ‘I reckon it’s going to be pretty, er, intimate though.’

‘You, shave?’ interrupted the hunter Orozbek in Russian, gesturing to his own face with an imaginary razor.

‘Err, yeah. I will. I don’t think Matt will though,’ I replied somewhat lamely, glancing to Matt, who shook his head. For some reason Orozbek found this amusing and, with a chuckle, gestured for us to follow him through the darkened doorway.

We were in a place where nearly everything you do, you do on your own, with the wrong tools but the right spirit always in hand for whatever job you may face next. These were life lessons we would come to face again and again over the course of the next month spent living in region.
Tajikistan - photo by Matt TraverTajikistan - photo by Matt TraverTajikistan - photo by Matt TraverOrozbek The Hunter
Orozbek was down to his underpants and went into the the sauna. We started to head for the door, similarly attired in just our pants. Yet before we could enter he was back out again, dropping his briefs in a single quick motion before diving back into the heated room.
Orozbek the hunter had given me a task. Every day I had to get up, wrap myself up warmly against the cold high-altitude chill and then hop onto a broken bicycle to go and check the traps. The pedals had long ago broken off, and transferring power through a set of old bolts was tough work as one flailed through the soft sand of the mountain valley, looking for an assortment of scattered man-made detritus that marked out the entrances to the trapped burrows. The game was golden marmot – analogous to the American prairie dog – which live in colony-style burrows across much of the mountain landscapes of Central Asia. Winter was approaching, and these loud high-pitched animals would soon retire into hibernation, but before that happened our host wanted to catch one.

Orozbek wished to illustrate his methods of hunting to us and, more importantly, to stock up on a reserve of marmot oil. With manufactured medicine a rarity in this remote corner of the former-USSR, the oil – extracted from the animal’s bottled fat by the rays of the sun – became a sought-after local cough medicine. And so we’d spent one of our first days in Orozbek’s service criss-crossing the valley, placing the snares at the entrances to the burrows, the thin loops of evil-looking metal attached to whatever junk we could find; an old Marco Polo sheep horn, an iron bar or an old bucket. It was now my responsibility to check these silent killers, looking for each dimly-remembered snare, concealed with stones at the mouths of the entranceways into the burrows smattered across the empty valley. For the most part, the traps remained empty. Another wasted morning of cycling. I turned for home, facing into the wind with a grimace as I retreated back under a cloudy secondhand sky.

*

‘Is this – um, you know, a full affair?’ Matt asked me, with a sidelong glance at our hunter-friend, who was still in the process of undressing. The man had so many layers on underneath his camo-hoodie that I wondered, if he ever got down to the last one, if he would disappear altogether as if the entire scene were a bad magic act. Actually, it was like watching a chrysalis form in reverse; fold after protective fold stripped away until all that was left was a small insect of a man, gaunt, gangly and looking utterly undefended. Waving away this strange thought with a shake of my head, I replied: ‘I don’t know, maybe we should wait a sec and see what he does?’

Finally, Orozbek was down to his underpants and went into the the sauna. Relieved, we started to head for the door, similarly attired in just our pants. Yet before we could enter he was back out again, dropping his briefs in a single quick motion before diving back into the heated room. A look – a long, suffering look – was exchanged between Matt and I. Then, with a pause, we followed suit, dropped everything and went after Orozbek, disappearing into the heat.

Tajikistan - photo by Matt TraverRiding a bike along the deserted Tajikistan highwayTajikistan - photo by Matt TraverTajikistan - photo by Matt TraverJamie Bunchuk sits by a fire in Tajikistan
In a space smaller than a single bed we all sat; two Englishmen trying their very best to discreetly cover themselves and avoid eye contact while the ethnic Kyrgyz scrubbed away with a vigorous, almost unhealthy zeal.

‘Well this couldn’t get much more awkward now, could it?’ said Matt, covered from head to toe in soap, casting a sidelong look down the row.

‘Hmm. Mate, I think you might just be a touch wrong there,’ I replied stonily, as I watched Orozbek pick up a shaver and turn his attention to his most intimate of areas. The sound of a razor’s scratching pervaded the now disturbingly silent room. I could almost feel his concentration crackling through the hot, stuffy air that lay between us.

‘Well,’ said Matt again, clearing his throat loudly after a minute’s strained silence, ‘I really didn’t know they did that in Central Asia.’ I just buried my head in my hands, then put some more water on the stove.

I came out of the bathhouse with a clean-shaven face, a tinglingly pink body and a recollection of images I’d rather blur into abstraction. I sighed. It had been a weird afternoon, one of the many we’d experienced in the Pamirs. But that’s what I’d learnt about Tajikistan. A given situation could never be read ahead of its time. Yet if you stuck with it – and went with the flow – experience dictated that although you might not end up where you wanted to be, the things you saw along the way would more than justify the original diversion. But regardless, I wouldn’t be taking any more washes for a while. I was sure of that.

Matt Traver Jamie Maddison

Matt Traver is a British-American national originally from Hong Kong. He has organised and lead expeditions to remote and little-explored areas to attempt unclimbed mountains such as in Arctic Greenland, the jungles of Malaysia and alpine peaks in Kyrgyzstan on the border of China.

W: www.matthewtravercreative.com
T: @matthewtraver

Jamie Bunchuk is an explorer, equestrian Long Rider (assoc.) and journalist. His past expeditions have included: a 63 day unaided crossing of the length of Eastern Kazakhstan by horse; a 100 mile, multi-day, camel supported run across the Red Sands Desert in Uzbekistanand winter packrafting down the Khovd River, Mongolia, in retrofitted and homemade packrafts.

W: www.jamiebunchuk.com

T: @Bunchuk


The film of this journey – “A Portrait of Orozbek” is screening at this years Kendal Mountain Festival. Click here for details and ticket information.

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