During these uncertain times we find ourselves in today there seems to be a lot of room for reflecting about how we have been living our lives. Have we been too rushed, neglecting what really matters in life? Have we valued the wrong things too much? Through my travels in places where life is not always easy, I have learned a lot from people who don’t live with the same freedoms, rights, comforts and abundance as many of us in the West are so used to. I have been turning to these experiences and conversations I had in places like Tajikistan to help me make sense of what truly matters in life at a time when the whole world is in a crisis that lays bare the shortcomings in our systems and societies. Among many things, I feel that it has affected our human values greatly, resulting most notably in extreme individualism and a concerning lack of selflessness.

Before all this was happening, I was visiting my now-favorite country in the world, Tajikistan, its popular obscurity highlighted by the fact that people often ask me if this is where the Greek Tzatziki sauce is made, or to place it on the map for them. The mountainous and isolated country, ruled by a Soviet era megalomaniac dictator, is home to the so-called “roof of the world,” the towering peaks of the Pamir mountain range. My documentary project through Central Asia first brought me here in 2018. During my stay there I struck up an unexpected, and perhaps unusual, friendship. I can now consider a 44-year-old Tajik from the tiny village of Dasht, located in these remote, high-altitude Pamir mountains on the border with Afghanistan, as one of my best friends.

steep mountain landscape in tajikistanWhile driving on a dusty gravel road beside a bending river, with no barriers between the sheer drop of cliffs that overlook jagged and snow-capped peaks, I stop at one of the many military points. They check my entry permit for Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) before letting me through. The Badakhshan area, also commonly referred to as the Pamirs, is home to the Pamiri people and rather different from the rest of the country, due to their semi-self-governance. It was the bastion for the opposition during the civil war and has retained to this day a somewhat opposing and strained relationship with the government, who, to their frustration, have never fully controlled this area.

It was at one of these checkpoints in a tiny village that I asked a ‘taxi’ driver for directions to a local luthier I wanted to visit. A favor was asked of me in return, but I couldn’t understand — apparently, it was thought that I could drive one of his many passengers to her destination on my way. I tried to make it clear that I only wanted to stop at my luthier’s village, but a steady stream of villagers had flocked to and gathered around my car and the other driver. An animated discussion erupted that soon no longer included me. Fingers were pointed amongst a lot of grandiose gesturing, all while the woman who had climbed into the back of my car enjoyed a daydream out of the window, unfazed by the commotion. 

Soon, a man positively radiating serenity emerged from the chaos, casually gnawing on sunflower seeds as he approached the car. In perfect English, he asked me what the issue was — 5 minutes later it was resolved. The woman reluctantly re-joined her former taxi and the villagers disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. My savior’s name was Sabir. The luthier was his uncle and lived in the same village as he did, and he offered to take me straight there. I would have never found this by myself either, as obviously there wasn’t a sign in the tiny dusty village stating, ‘famous local luthier this way.’ 

Our intention was to spend perhaps an hour or so there, and then continue our way. We came to this part of the country with many places in mind to visit. In the end, we spent the whole day and stayed through the night, which just about sums up how things go down in Tajikistan. 

After all, this serendipitous meeting was the start of a solid friendship. I ended up spending the whole afternoon with the luthier and Sabir. When it got dark outside, he took me to the nearby hot springs. Under the bright moonlight, with steam rising up from the hot springs and flowing through the curiously shaped mineral stalactites, we had the most open discussions imaginable about every topic, ranging from religion to relationships, education, and what it means to be happy. As I get to know Sabir better, it becomes apparent to me that he is an extremely tolerant and open person. 

Late at night, Sabir let me stay in the unfinished guesthouse he was building, with 5 rooms all to myself. He pointed to the vodka in the fridge, a little stereo with Tajik CD’s and asked, “what time do you want breakfast?”

moonlit mountain desertI suggested 9:00 and off he went, walking all the way back and up the steep hill in the dark to his home in the adjacent village. He appeared the next morning at exactly the agreed time, a novelty in my Tajik experience so far! But more than that, he had brought fish freshly caught from the river to prepare for me, and as I prepared to depart that afternoon, he got genuinely emotional. I remember thinking that nobody had ever been so moved by my departing, except maybe my mum at the airport when I go on trips like this. Never in a million years would I have imagined that sincerity from a stranger, and it made me feel special immediately. I left with a heavy heart, but also an unspoken certainty that we would meet again. 

It made me want to return to Tajikistan to see my good friend again, get to know him and his community better, and to find out more about the Pamiris. These people that I met in such a remote, isolated and stigmatized part of the world had turned out to be arguably more tolerant and liberal than your average Westerner, at least in their outward displays of hospitality and kindness. But as I would soon discover, they also had better knowledge of my own national soccer team than I did, quoted Dutch philosophers whose works I could never understand, and could recall details of our masters’ paintings from memory. In comparison, many of my friends at home could not find this place on a map — that only made me want to come back more. 

I stayed in touch with Sabir, and a year later, I came back to spend a full week in his village. After a long, bumpy, and dusty drive of 17 hours from the capital of Dushanbe, we arrived in his village and made our way to his guesthouse. Even when turning up at 3 am, people immediately started to prepare a meal for us. The guesthouse is now inhabited by one of his brothers, his mother, his sister-in law with her baby, and Sabir himself. Casually, he mentioned that their family home which he grew up in was hit by an avalanche last winter and has been declared unsafe to live in by the government. This means that they prohibit the family from living in it and have instructed them to build a new house. The government pledged financial support, but the equivalent of 500 dollars received is nowhere near enough to build a new house.

Still, the chance to exchange ideas and welcome foreigners is enough to keep Sabir’s dream alive of finishing his guest house one day. 

‘People are very happy to see foreigners here. Our people have a tradition of hospitality and we love to have a lot of guests in the house. For us, a home without guests is not a home. Whoever comes to us, we try to offer whatever we have. For the last 4 or 5 years we are very happy that more tourists come here, we are lucky really. Especially myself, I’m always looking to bring somebody to my home to meet new people and get new ideas.’

A few months later when I asked Sabir about the progress, he said nothing has happened because everyday prices in the country have tripled, leaving them unable to work on building the house as they barely manage to cover daily living costs as it is. Almost all the businesses in the country are owned and controlled by the president and his family. They can do whatever they like, increasing prices as often as they please to fill their own pockets. 

man in dark house

In the meantime, he would keep providing for his family in this space and try to welcome whoever came through the door, foreign or otherwise. In response to the question of what happiness is, a healthy family is almost always the first response. The income from a guest house would be nice, as would the money to rebuild their own home, but he would always care more about doing things without asking for anything in return. In Tajikistan, there needs to be no preconditions for kindness.

‘It is not only as a source of income but also as a place of gathering. To get to know each other, to exchange ideas. I’m very interested about other people, other cultures and other religions as it is very good to learn from each other. I think a tourist is a person who comes to learn something, who is coming to get new ideas, so I want to make such a place’, Sabir said.

Hear more of Sabir and his family in the next installment of this series — in the meantime, read all about Thijs’s adventures exploring post-Soviet Central Asia.