'The Tajiks are unnervingly friendly. They take the Islamic injunction of hospitality with grave seriousness. The hungry often sacrifice their only cow for a backpacker with a camera, and the regime has liberally welcomed boots and bases on its soil.'
Dushanbe is not a real city. It isn’t a real capital and Tajikistan is not a real country. The northern neighbour of Afghanistan is a failure with a flag, shiny passports and a gang of savvy criminals that calls itself a government. This buffer between the empires fell apart a long time ago.
The city has leafy boulevards laid out in an almost utopian socialist grid. The streets are quiet but on balmy Asian nights the streets come alive with drug mega-barons racing their SUVs, blaring out rap music and tossing a few coins at the impoverished police officers — teenagers in uniform — if anybody gets in their way. These boulevards are a Soviet mirage, a Potemkin city which was initially named after a dictator — Stalinabad. It became Dushanbe in 1961 as part of Khruschev’s de-Stalinisation.
Dushanbe is a hodge-podge of dirt tracks, sodden sewage holes, tiny whitewashed homes with corrugated-iron roofs. It swarms with under-fives, their veiled mothers, jobless dads, chickens and a nocturnal orchestra of wild dogs. Dushanbe is a slum for more than 650,000 people and the capital of a country where 70 per cent live in abject rural poverty. Tajikistan has soaring birth-rates, rising illiteracy, fraudulent elections, de-urbanisation and a 1,200km border with Afghanistan.
Rakhmatillo Zoirov has vacant pale eyes. His slacks are fraying. He lives in a dilapidated, garbage-strewn row of flats overlooking a desolate motorway. Repairmen have been absent since the fall of communism and children play gangsters in courtyards of broken glass. No one takes schooling here seriously. Zoirov is the only opposition politician publically to criticise the dictatorial leader Emomali Rakhmon.
“We have a corrupt authoritarian regime.” Zoirov’s voice sounds dulled, sensing his cause is lost. “More than 50 per cent of the labour force has fled the country for work in Russia, the countryside is sliding back in time and this regime has no answers about how to tackle chronic unemployment, collapsed public services and a flood of drugs money.”
His office is in a dusty apartment adorned with an old map of Tajikistan. A placard displaying Europe’s starry flag is pinned to the chipped paintwork on the wall. His organisation, the 12,000-member Social Democratic Party, is on Western life-support. “This economic situation cannot hold for more than three years. But the peasants are so passive.” I ask about the corrosive penury of his fellow citizens — Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. “Poverty is this regime’s policy. If people are poor and the enterprising leave for Russia, this country is easier to control.”
I walk along the quiet concrete ring road, trying to find a car to take me to the offices of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). Popular and enterprising, the IRP would be the government if there were free elections. I pass a beggar in a burqa, a one-eyed man renting out some scales for a few coins, smoking street urchins and mating stray dogs. Grassy gardens laid by keen Russian hands are overgrown, hiding needles and loitering teenage boys picking up fag ends. I hailed a passing car that has suspension problems and no wing-mirrors.
Hamid drives his Soviet-era rust-bucket towards the IRP office, skirting the freshly- laid gardens that encircle the golden-domed, marbled-walled presidential edifice. He asks me if I trust in God. “I decided to go to the mosque with my friends this year. The young people do this. Many, many of us. The imams help. Teach us. The government just steals.”
We pass poster after poster. President Rakhmon wearing a worker’s cap is pointing forward like Lenin. He is the children’s friend like Stalin. The regime thinks it has the answer: a gigantic dam built by financial contributions from all citizens. The state is demanding that everybody buy shares, paid out of monthly salaries which average £40. Reports circulate of money being deducted from bank accounts, people being turned away from schools, hospitals, any government institution, without the necessary proof that they have paid up.
A senior Western diplomat says: “Raising money from your own population for a project that could theoretically offer a solution to chronic energy problems is fine. Tajikistan has great potential for hydro-electricity, but you need an officially recognised body for this money to go to. We don’t know where it’s going. Civil servants were told that to keep their jobs they had to contribute bigger loans. They couldn’t afford them. So they turned to deeper corruption, making everything worse.”
Outside the modest HQ of the IRP, three tightly veiled girls are milling about the door, but my driver has no time for sensitivity. “I’ll wait here and blast out some loud pop. They’ll love that.” A sickly, bald, very short man opens the door and clasps my hand. “Peace be with you brother.” I am unsure if he is a recovering heroin addict or cancerous. He has the eyes of someone who believes himself saved. “The chief of the political council is upstairs. Let me take you.”
We pass a large hall converted into a mosque. The floor is carpeted in scores of colourful rugs and it smells of feet. Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, the IRP leader, is what you would call “a people person”. Charming and with the glare of conviction, his eyes lock on to mine in his drab, spartan office.
“We are gathering the people behind us. The people are coming to us because we are honest and because they want to return to who they really are. What it really means to be Tajik is to be Muslim. The Soviets destroyed that with forced atheism and purged our language of its Arabic. Our model is the Turkish model. Our model is the Malaysian model. We want to create an Islamic party of government and not an Islamic state.” But when I ask about policy, changes to the law, additions to the constitution, things suddenly become hazy. I get the feeling not that he is trying to hide something, but that he actually has no clear idea. But he is certain that there will be no violence. “A war of ideas is coming to Tajikistan.”
As I leave, my driver is still blasting out Russian turbo-trash from the car and winking suggestively at the veiled workers in the office. As he swerves dangerously through the back streets, throwing up dust behind us, he lets out a moan. “This used to be a Russian city. Lots of Russians and Ukrainians and we had a few Jews, but now it’s boring. Girls getting veiled. Boys reading the Koran. Not as much fun as the good old Soviet times.”
Shokrjon Hakimov, a prominent democracy activist, waits for me at an outdoor café. He explains that what he considers a farcical election has barred him from being an MP, but he hasn’t given up the fight. He gulps thick black coffee and shakes my hand with the sturdy grip of an ex-Soviet factory worker. He insists the country is not about to explode.
“The fall of the Soviet Union might have been good for Europe but it was a disaster for Central Asia. The USSR developed the region but when they left we got monarchical dictators and civil war. Vast numbers died and GDP collapsed by 60 per cent. Everywhere you look, you will find lots of undiagnosed trauma, depression and mental illness. There are barely 100 psychiatrists here. This is a country where the president wants to sit in the palace for life and be replaced by his son. Religious extremism will take the place of our blocked democratic opposition.”
I leave Shokrjon wanting to insulate myself from the social desolation of it all in a cocoon of wi-fi, Facebook and email. Dusk is settling over the jagged snowcaps above Dushanbe as I try to withdraw money on the central Stalinist boulevard. A warm downpour begins, filling the slums with mud. As a thick wad of Monopoly-like Tajik money is ejected, I am surrounded. Three tiny beggar girls are standing around me, drenched, eyes exhausted. Then we are all suddenly sprayed by traffic passing through a crater. Black sports cars, prize possessions of either drug lords or ministers, jump the traffic lights.
Minutes later, I enter what locals call “the foreigners’ office”. Playing horrendous pop music but with a strong wi-fi signal, the expat hang-out is where I meet the stern Tajik intellectual Parviz Mullojanov. With poise and carefully chosen words he elaborates on how these remote states have been turned into geo-political pivots. “The Tajik government understands its position between the great powers, thus enhancing its power. It has carefully balanced the West’s need to secure the border with Afghanistan, China’s rapidly rising power in the region and Russia’s strategic interests to secure all three’s support for the regime. For now, Tajikistan remains part of the Russian informational sphere. Russian music, television and books are popular. Anybody educated speaks the language. However, this is changing. Tajik is extremely close to Farsi and we are an Iranian people. It is inevitable that we are moving into an Iranian information sphere as closer ties develop.”
Later that evening, a senior European diplomat who asks not be named explains how in Central Asia the great game hasn’t ended. “It’s going on here between a declining Russian power, manifested in tight spy rings, a soaring Chinese economic power, the waning power of America and the influence of European donor countries. Who’s going to win the new great game? The Chinese. Russia doesn’t have enough money and the West is on the way out here and will probably pull out when economic problems worsen at home.”
To our right sit Spanish soldiers from a nearby Nato base, drinking beer. Officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are absorbed in dinner and laptops. Two uniformed French officers stroll in for espressos. A group of over-optimistic US students cluster around a table with some exiled Green revolutionaries from Tehran.
Outside the glass window wall, the rain falls harder. A tottering, green-robed ancient staggers towards the window and starts undoing what appears to be his belt. A sodden skullcap on his head, he unfurls from his waist a tattered shawl inches from my table, yet hundreds of socio-economic light-years away. “He’s making a show of it,” snaps one American. Placing the robe on the cracked, slippery paving stones, he falls to his knees in prayer.
It is in this curious café that I meet a well informed young operative of a Western diplomatic organisation, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He sketches out the situation of quasi-slavery that exists in most of the Tajik countryside. “Irrigated areas still have Soviet-style cotton quotas, even if the people are technically allowed to farm whatever they want. However, they are forced to buy supplies, such as seeds, from designated mafia-like suppliers. This sinks them into a debt that they cannot repay, creating deepening poverty.”
The economy is choked by parasitical mafias, known as the president’s “family”. These thieves control most aspects of trade, agriculture, industry and energy. Tajikistan does not have a real economy. Estimates are that remittances from the 50 per cent of the labour force working in Russia account for the equivalent of 50 per cent of GDP. The drugs trade out of Afghanistan accounts for the other 50 per cent. Carefully playing off the powers, Tajikistan is morphing into a narco-state. Afghan hashish is squidgy and mellow but as I begin to understand what a joint at a party at the end of the supply chain means, I feel a little queasy.
Rumours swirl of the mujahideen crossing the mountains. In 2009, an Afghan warlord known as Mullah Abdullah crossed the border, kicking up dust and suffering, and then vanished back over the gorges along the River Panj — the Oxus of legend — into northern Afghanistan.
Kyrgyz Islamists in Jalabat, in the north, such as Dulmurat Ozorov, claim that several hundred jihadists of the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement have crossed the treacherous Pamir range, setting up camps in the mountains surrounding the heavily populous Fergana Valley. Yet the proof seems to vanish when you press closer. Diplomats suggest that many of them are ghouls conjured up to grab EU money and the blessing that comes from being called America’s partner.
The Tajiks are unnervingly friendly. They take the Islamic injunction of hospitality with grave seriousness. Tourists are thrilled to be welcomed to break bread with impoverished peasants. The hungry often sacrifice their only cow for a backpacker with a camera, and the regime has liberally welcomed boots and bases on its soil. The Indians have a military installation. The Russians have several. The French have an airstrip. The Chinese and the Iranians are building roads through the mountains. General David Petraeus is a regular guest.
But late at night, the Tajiks slowly explain how none of this makes them feel secure. China’s rise is turning sinister and as a global hi-tech culture emerges, they feel they are living in somebody else’s world.
In a valley of penury, 65km from Dushanbe, they have started to see monsters. Romit Valley curves towards the mountains, sprinkled with medieval hamlets and third-world townlets. They are not frightened of the mujahideen but they are scared of the Yeti.
Can you spot him? The Romit Valley where villagers claim to have encountered the Yeti
The Tajik intellectual Mullojanov takes this matter seriously. “I have heard such rumours of a Yeti, or Khull as it is known in Farsi, since my childhood. There were even several expeditions dispatched by the Soviets to find it, including ones organised by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There were many sighting by locals and Soviet soldiers, but never any actual proof. It is theoretically possible it could be a relic population of Neanderthals, outcasts, hermits or some unknown mountain monkey. Sightings of the Yeti rose dramatically during the civil war. People started shooting at him.”
I went in search of the Yeti in rustic Tajikistan.
My guide Surob dreams of supermarkets, wishing for a future where he is the head of a Tajik-style Tesco. He knows Romit Valley like the back of his hand. We begin the hunt after lunch. As Surob accelerates out of Dushanbe in a “borrowed” car, he breaks into a rapid running commentary in imperfect English made up of American slang off the TV: “Now we go eastside, find the mens who will tell us about Yeti.”
A devout Muslim who has studied in Iran, Surob is proud of his country and speaks fluent, eloquent Arabic. He rattles on. “Tajikistan we call small paradise, Tajikistan like the virgin girl, almost all is mountain, many supreme flowers, the herbals…” He has a beautifully maintained black moustache, a goatee he thinks is cool and boyish good looks. “Farsi man most beautiful in world, like me.”
Surob will stake his honour on the Yeti’s existence. “I saw his footprints, bigger than the man’s, in snow.”
The road slides upwards from Dushanbe and starts to disintegrate. Surob gestures towards a sad-looking town to our right. “That’s town where I was born, after collapse Soviet Union, people started banging, stealing, breaking everything, proving they themselves are the Yetis.” He bristles when I suggest the Yeti may be a peasant mirage. “They swear on the Koran. Why should they lie? They know nothing, they have nothing, they swear by Allah they have seen it.” I back down.
We pull up at a shack for a pit stop. This is where the valley begins. I am peckish. Soviet-style sweets are displayed in plastic bags. “What’s the best one?” I ask in Russian. The proprietor dashes to a side room and brings me a Snickers bar. My guide wants to hurry, but an old man with an unwashed beard and one strikingly yellow tooth asks for a ride up towards his village. Surob asks him if he is from here. “He from here. Now I will gather the informations.”
The peasant knows about the Yeti. “Ten years ago, I saw him. I was climbing a hill to gather firewood and I saw somebody. I go hey, hey, but then he started running towards me. It was the Yeti, covered in black wool, with breasts like the woman’s…”
I ask him to swear on the Koran that he saw the Yeti. Raising his hand to heaven the old man insists and gives me his Islamic word. “I don’t know about other people, but I saw it. It was shouting with anger, rarghh, I was shouting with fear, eeee, and I run.” The countryside changes dramatically as we talk. The road has become a dirt track. The car is swerving and sidling as it climbs up the barren gullies. The old man insists he saw the Yeti. Everyone knows somebody who has in the nearby villages. “When I got back to the village, my father started reading the Koran to me, as protection.”
Nature is starting to blossom in rich abundance. Cherry blossom hangs off the crags. Shoots of wild onions sprout out of the dark earth. “Look,” says Surob. “Look at the herbals, the Yeti is eating the herbals, this is why he lives here.” Coloured tips of wild flowers, blues, reds, purples, grow among the jagged browns, reds and greys of the mountains. Another curve. A stark, barren river valley. “Hey, they saw him too.” Surob stops the car and gives traditional greetings to two middle-aged men driving the traditional clapped-out Lada.
“Yeah, I had fight with him,” says the hunter. “He has wool, black wool, and these breasts…” And he wolf-whistles. His companion, a chubby man in a sizeable skullcap, butts in. “Oh yes, I was up in the glade, and he attacked my donkey. It was very frightening. He looked like a wild man — or a clever monkey.” The sightings occur in the same places. Regularly.
We continue to drive upwards. Snow-capped peaks shine luminously under the beating spring sun. “This is Yeti village.” The car enters the impoverished village of Tavish. Sheep block the small bridge. They are not cloud-white and fluffy like our sheep. They are yellow, ragged and small. Groups of little boys flit here and there. The car kicks up dust and swerves violently as we pass over a stone. The mud-brick houses have wooden roofs; electricity arrived three years ago and works for only an hour or two a night. The homes remind me of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters. I am inside a rustic genre painting. A stench hangs in the air.
We get out and turn to the first man we see. Khikmotill’s clothes are dyed red from animal slaughter. He wears a thin, sky-blue smock and traditional striped cloth trousers. Tanned, eyes faintly Asiatic, he shakes my hand. “My cousin saw the Yeti, four days ago, with his younger brother out picking wild onions. He couldn’t speak for days he was so scared.” This unnerves me. Khikmotill summons him. Assodin is 15, has a small nose, spectacular mono-brow and a jet-black crew-cut. He wears a Reebok T-shirt of dubious quality.
Surob translates for me. “He says he saw Yeti three kilometres into mountain, and he hear whistling, and he says he saw Yeti climb over the stones, that Yeti looks like clever monkey, that he do whatever you do — you scratch your nose, he scratch his nose. Yeti then comes, he runs away.” I ask the boy to draw the Yeti. It is an unexpectedly childish drawing, a box with stick arms. Surob is surprised. “He saw Yeti where I saw Yeti footprint in snow.” I ask them to take me up there.
We begin to trudge up the isolated glade. Rock precipices rise smoothly skyward. A burning white mountain stands at the faraway head of the narrow valley. “This spot is where hunters saw him. We see footprints in sand of him, in the spring, then in the snow,” Khikmotill explains. Both he and his cousin seem nervous as we press forward. Further up, uninhabited plateaus stretch for miles on either side of the valley. The villagers claim they have discovered ancient stone circles there. There is tension in the group. The boy jumps from rock to rock, with the agility of a goat, over a gushing stream fuelled by melt-water.
“Come on city boy.”
I grab branches, bend trees to scramble over the water. Woods give way to brown thickets. There are stings and cuts on my hand. We continue upwards. Out of breath after two kilometres, I question Khikmotill and the boy. “It could be wild man, but it looks like monkey. We don’t know, we see it.” The boy swears on the Koran he is not lying. When I suggest oaths are not always foolproof, Surob erupts.
“This is so important for Tajik people. If you swear on Koran and it’s lie, even if your house is burning, nobody ever believe, ever believe word you say, ever, ever again.”
He points to where the Yeti climbed over the rocks. Further up, we can see a small, almost inaccessible cave.
“His whistling chills to the bone.”
To my disappointment, there is no Yeti to be seen. The villagers point to a small waterfall where the Yeti has been seen washing. They seem relieved that as the sun falls behind the range we decide it is time to turn back. At the village entrance, three middle-aged men swear by Allah they have seen his footprints. Or thought they might have seen him.
Mize has deep frown lines, tiny eyes. It is a face shaped by the seasons. I want to see the school. We walk through the village. An overpowering smell of fresh hay stacked on plank-roofed huts. “This is the school. The children are here, one, two hours, then they go to work.” The room is tiny, the roof of wood. “They learn how to read here, start when they are seven, finish at 16.” He is ashamed. “It’s like a chicken-shed. We want it to be better. We do. But we are poor.” The state has given them a poster with pictures of the leader for the wall. A torn Cyrillic alphabet is stuck to its left. The room is heated by burning branches in a stove that could belong to 17th-century England.
Living close to nature, without thorough schooling, peasants have always been frightened of the mythical wild man. In the 18th century, the oppressed central European peasantry was gripped by a terror of aristocratic vampires in the run-up to the French Revolution.
The hysteria raged for a generation. Thousands of sightings were reported. Villages swore by Christ they knew what they had seen. The Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa was concerned enough to dispatch her personal physician to investigate whether or not vampires existed. They were not real, but poverty, oppression, ignorance and superstition were.
With political reform across the continent in the 19th century, the swarms of fairies, Woodwose, beasts and ghosts that had inhabited European minds for centuries slowly faded away. But in Romit, I touched a living myth.
And for Surob and the villagers the search goes on. “There is man who go up to mountains. Maybe he got a Yeti lady up there. We just need micro-sensors and web-cams. We can prove it. He’s out there.”
We drive back towards Dushanbe, the beauty and the sadness of Romit Valley swiftly disappearing as Surob hits 100km an hour. We are back in an unhappy land of power cuts, slums and damaged roads. When it transpires that my name is Jewish, the mood instantly sours. A difficult conversation ensues. After an hour or so we manage to agree to what we have both known all along: people are people and we are both nice guys. “The kings are fighting, people crying,” Surob announces.
“Let me tell you something, the leaders are so corrupt. Salt, trade, petrol, they control it all. If I am now a good Muslim, I never take. If I were President, people would stop taking. But when the leader takes, everybody takes.” We stop so he can pray in the dusk. A hot wind is blowing from the south and the dry valleys await its spark.