Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Northeast for the holidays

The irony of the English transliteration of Garm is that garm in Tajik/Farsi means 'warm'. For the record, the actually pronunciation of Garm is more of a guttural gharm-- which does not, in fact, have the same meaning. Garm is actually quite colder, as it is at a higher altitude and further north than Dushanbe.

Also if you forgot which holiday I'm referring to, I'll remind you of Nowruz/Novruz. The government declared Friday the 21st of March until Thursday the 26th of March a holiday, so I had some time to do some light travelling if I could manage and the stars aligned for me to go to Garm!

Garm is situated in the Rasht Valley on the bank of the Vakhsh River, which is locally referred to as the Surkhob (literally "red water" but a more accurate translation would be "red river"). It's important to note that it's not naturally red, and it's actually rather bad that it is. The river is huge. Unfortunately, it's still not quite spring here so the river isn't in full force-- but I can imagine just how monstrous this river is when the glaciers and streams upstream have finally started to melt.

Me with the Surkhob in the background

So how did I end up deciding to come to Garm anyways? For this I must delve into the Tajik legend that is Janice.

Janice is an American living in Garm, and she is also a chovondoz (cho-von-doze, translation: bushkashi player-- "booze-ka-she"). She has been in the Rasht valley for a number of years, and she is so famous that I was once in fact in the Dushanbe airport flying to Almaty (you remember, yeah?) when a Tajik man noticed I was a foreigner (not so difficult to spot, really... the skin color is a dead give away). He approached me and began speaking spectacular English, and when he found out I was American he began to describe a woman he had met in Garm who played buzkashi and spoke perfect Tajik. He was, of course, referring to Janice.

So Janice and I had made acquaintance before, but it had been in passing and through a mutual friend. Last weekend however, I was helping another American friend of mine clean out her Tajik house of four years, as she was moving on to a new job and leaving Dushanbe when Janice observed my apparent ability to stay focused on packing. Rightly so, she recruited me to come to Garm during the holiday weekend.

We spoke on Saturday, and the general plan was to make it to Norobod on Sunday where I would meet Janice (as well as all of her chovondoz friends) and watch my first buzkashi match.

Because Tajik geography is about as much "your thing" as the Tajik language is
Click to enlarge

So I definitely got thrown into this, but it was really cool seeing buzkashi for the first time. For those of you too lazy to click and the article I linked earlier, the basic concept is that horseback riders fight for the corpse of a goat (can also be a calf, or other such animals, usually beheaded). The idea is to pick up the goat and get it into either a hole or tire (depends on how serious the match is, I suppose). If the goat lands entirely or mostly in the hole/tire it is deemed halal (which is actually Arabic and especially important in Islam, as it means acceptable according to Muslim law) and if it has not landed the appropriate amount in the same tire/hole it is deemed haram (conversely, this means forbidden in Islamic law).

Once someone gets the goat it isn't as simple as throwing it in the hole, though. The other riders try to grab the goat and steal it from the rider that has picked it up. The goat is actually pulled. Hence the name of the sport, buz (goat) kashi (from the verb to pull, kashidan) or goat-pulling. Interesting right?

"The Buz", as Janice refers to it

So truly the most exhilarating part of the sport is that the crowd eventually moves down onto the field of play to watch, and this will without fail result in a massive scramble at some point as the forty-some-odd horses change their direction and come charging in the direction of the crowd. The first time this happened I was rather afraid and ran a little too early, a little to fast, and managed to fall flat on my ass in the middle of the muddy field. I would like to say that no one saw, but lest we forget how easily I stand out (especially this far away from Dushanbe)-- everyone saw.

Janice takes a lot of photos and videos, so she had me on video duty which gave me more of an excuse to stand closer to the action. I have to say, the adrenaline of running/jumping out of the way of horses really made it a cool experience. Buzkashi itself is kind of meh, at least for my first time watching, but the adrenaline will definitely make me come back.

Afterward we headed another hour into the Rasht Valley to Janice's place in Garm. Monday was spent almost entirely organizing and sorting through her things, dividing stuff into piles to go back to the US or to sell, and so on. It was rather exhausting work, but Janice said that if I worked hard enough she would take me around and show me more of the valley the next day.

Sure enough, Tuesday rolled around and we went off to see some friends in a place another hour away, called Mirtob. We went to visit her friend, who (as she claims) "makes the best kurutob". The road on the way there was crazy cool, as it winded up the side of a number of mountains and through some cool passes. The sight was something to behold as you looked down at the humongous riverbed below.

The worst picture of the best view ever
Her friend made some pretty delicious kurotob, but I'm still partial to my "ladies" in Dushanbe. We met some of his family, and then we took a nice walk up part of the mountain/hill he lived on. I say hill because the part where his family's houses were located were indeed a hill, but they were also the foothills of a giant mountain that loomed in the distance. I wish my phone's camera could better capture just how gorgeous it was-- the mountain was obscured by fog from melting snow and you could make out, just barely, the mountain's peak as it rose in the background.

Help- my iPhone's camera is junk!
So after walking around, we headed back towards a village called Jafr, and in Jafr we met another friend of Janice's who runs an orchard and is looking to expand the orchard for future tourism. The area looks pretty neat, but the orchard is probably much spiffier in the summertime when there's actually things growing-- at least it was worth it because the guy running it was also really nice and hilarious. Hope to make another trip up there when it gets warm.

Just outside said orchard.

All in all, I've had a great time. It was fun to practice my Tajik outside of the city and it was also exciting to remember just how far my Tajik has come along. I really should get out of the city more-- it can get really repetitive in Dushanbe and I haven't even begun to see the rest of this incredible country.

P.S. Sorry for forgetting to blog in March. I was doing so good in February, but March got really busy especially with moving into another apartment (more on that later).

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