From Rodhope to Pamir - abandoned roads by Philip Lhamsuren

Faces cannot lie. They are the only map which marks all territories travelled.

Reaching the endpoint of an abandoned road is a goal as elusive and uncertain as any dream. This particular road starts in the most Bulgarian of mountains – the Rhodopes – and stretches all the way to Pamir in Central Asia, passing through Turkey, Georgia, the former Russian republics of North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Kalmykia, then onwards across Western Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirgizstan. For 157 days Philip Lhamsuren negotiates mountains, deserts, steppes and roaring rivers, at times only a stone’s throw from the dangerous ‘hotspots’ of Northern Caucasus and the desolate outback of Pamir. The journey puts to test the very essence of man in an attempt to awaken his true nature – the ultimate ordeal for the human mind, body and will, and of the equipment employed. At no point does the shortage of funds dampen enthusiasm. Trusted friends, bold decisions and the shadow of the distant mountain peaks manage to stir back to life those pathways that lie latent inside.

In the deepening twilight, numb with cold, I spot a faint light by the side of the road. I scramble blindly in that direction. The light flickers and disappears, comes into view for a brief moment and vanishes once again. Thankfully, these fleeting glimpses prove enough to guide me forward. I stumble upon a couple of mud and stone huts. One is in tatters. Plodding onwards I reach a yurt which turns out to be empty. Tracing my steps back to the huts, I shout over the roar of torrent and wind. The rickety door opens, a shadow emerges at the threshold and beckons me to go inside. I gladly sink into the safety of an exceedingly poor dwelling. Inside, snuggled in a pile of dishevelled rags atop the uprooted floorboards sit four children, their cheeks raw from the wind. I cannot make out much more in the feeble light of the single fluttering candle.

There is nothing in the way of furnishing. The windows are wrapped in several layers of plastic sheet. A pitifully crooked kettle lies on the floor; the clock on the wall has long given up on measuring the time, as has the obsolete calendar with the image of Mecca and a yellowing photograph of Vladimir Putin pinned to its corner. I sit by the stove to warm myself and inhale the pungent smell of burning dung. A short man with a sparse moustache takes a seat opposite. We exchange a few words. In this weather and at this time of night questions are unnecessary. He serves a meal of hard bread rolls, yak butter, sheep milk and tea.

Dog-tired, but at least dry, I fall asleep at one end of the thin carpet. Bony children’s shoulders and little feet press against my back. We snore and breathe heavily under the single quilt. Throughout the night the youngest child keeps waking up and crying, plagued by a nasty cold. At some point I get up and give him a few pills in the hope of easing his suffering. These people have nothing so I offer them my last medicines. Survival here is a constant struggle and the locals have no faith in easy cures. Later someone will tell me: “Allah has many other children”.

In the morning, as I get ready to set off again, a new bout of the dysentery sabotages my plan to be on my way. I stay on for a few more hours with these people who share what little they have with me. In return I repair an old bicycle and later help with the making of tvorog*.
I have less than 50 kilometres to Murghab but feel worse and worse with every passing minute. Every now and then I am forced to stop, bent double in pain. I advance so slowly that by the end of the day I am nowhere near the town where I have promised myself to stop and rest for a few days.

*tvorg: quark;

Shattered and shivering, I fall asleep and am tormented by disturbing reflections, as if I were a prehistoric man.

I try to stick to my routine as best as a can, setting camp at the foot of a hill crowned by the remains of a Zoroastrian shrine. Shortly before sunset I clamber up to have a look and to set some traps. I do all this to take my mind off the severe cramps which rip my insides. If I had a book, I would happily read. At least the night is quieter. The clouds, lying low as a duvet, protect the narrow valley from the cold air which has already paralyzed the surrounding peaks. The darkness blots out all shapes.