Nikita and Maria are clearly sisters, though they never explicitly say so. Aside from their common resemblance, the way the run together hand in hand along a small stream goes a long way towards describing their relationship with one another. As they lead us towards an old Silk Road fortress that predates Marco Polo’s visit to the region by several hundred years, the girls stop to pick out a tasty root (they insist we try it after eating a bit themselves to make their point) or point out an old inscription now nearly covered by plant growth.
To friends from home, the very notion of a trip to this region is unwise. Straddling the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the international market in the main village of Ishkashim will in fact be the site of an assassination only a few weeks after we pass through the area. During our visit, however, the only regret we’ll feel is perhaps not trying hard enough to connect with our hosts one evening or not trying enough varieties of the Iranian candy that comes across from the Afghan market. That’s the strange thing about regret in wisdom, though: they only make sense in retrospect. In the moment, as we travel and live, we can only try to make the decisions that seem most appropriate at the time.
Relaxing around a dimly lit sitting room in their small house, Maria and Nikita’s entire family is full of laughter and questions. Their father, with whom I share enough language to have a basic conversation, asks about out map and our travels and why we came to the village of Ratm far into Tajikistan’s Wakhan Corridor. The surface reason, and the one I answer his questions with, is of course this “First Fortress” that for so long has guarded the Wakhan from invaders out of China. These days the only “invaders” into the Wakhan seem to be the occasional tourists, visiting the area as a loop off of the Pamir Highway or en route to go trekking in a remote corner of Afghanistan.
Only after we leave Nikita and Maria’s house will I realize that the moment that sticks most strongly isn’t of the fortress itself, but of these two girls who so happily walk us there. Without any consideration for themselves, they simply drag along two foreigners – after all, we could only reasonably be there for one thing! In so many regions of the world this would raise ‘travelers alarms’ immediately. “What are they going to ask for? Pens and candy? Money directly?” With these two, however, the concern just isn’t there. We sit on top of an ancient fortress, yet laughing with them is the clear focus of the moment.
Their whole family atmosphere feels this way. The youngest sister of five walks around making faces at each in turn while the father sits beside me and pours over the map of Tajikistan. They offer tea and bread, as would be expected to guests in any Wakhani home. Consummately Japanese, my girlfriend responds with impromptu origami while all I have to offer is photos view from the display of a camera. It is not much, but somehow it is more than enough. We bond as strongly with this small family as we have with hosts and friends with whom we share a complex discussion (or at least a commonly language!), in part because Maria and Nikita’s love for each other and for their family is a gentle reminder that sometimes these simplest things are the most important.
Traveling through the Wakhan is full of moments like these, trading earrings with a feisty grandma at a bus stop and consulting with an Afghan physician about the right herbal remedy for blistered feet. Towards the end of the journey, at a homestay closer to Ishkashim, it turns out that our host family is related to our friends back in Ratm. We get an address, and mail photos from the next major town. Around the same time, a result of the assassination in Ishkahim, fighting breaks out in the regional capital and government services are suspended in the conflict. Ratm, and indeed most of the Wakhan Corridor, are remote enough that our friendly family should be fine. Traveling to the region? Perhaps it wasn’t as safe or wise as we’d believed. Having met only the friendliest families in the area, though, we look back at the trip without regret.
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