Read part one here.
After a week of adventures in Tajikistan I found myself in a Russian-made jeep traveling along the number one heroin trafficking route in the world. Tajikistan in 2003 was a splintered country and on the border of arguably the most unstable country in the world, Afghanistan.
After the American invasion, the Taliban fell in Afghanistan along with structure and law. Overnight poppy cultivation became the new gold rush for Afghani businessmen/bandits. And the best way to get that heroin out to the marketplace of Russia, Europe and to the rest of the world was through the beautiful and rugged mountain road I was driving along.
I was about 13 hours into a 19-hour road trip with an Italian journalist named Giovanni Porzio whom I met in Dushanbe; he was on assignment writing a story about the explosion of heroin trafficking in the somewhat separatist region of Badakhshan in the far east of the country.
The road twisted through the high Pamir Mountains in a crazy geological wonderland of exposed cliffs with swirl-like rock formations, and then alongside of the narrow Panj River separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. We passed a few rusting old tanks from the Soviet/Afghan war pushed just far enough off the road to get two vehicles by and not a foot more. Our driver was a small man with buggy eyes, his 10-year-old son joined us for the journey.
On the Afghan side of the river, lights occasionally appeared. Giovanni told me these were from generators—symbols of wealth—and from the residences of those involved in the heroin trade. And on the Tajik side of the river… Tajik and Russian troops hunkered into the side of the mountain waiting to catch the smugglers.
Heroin was either transported across the river by swimmers, thrown across, or floated across in old tires. The Panj River was the dividing line for the Afghan drug lords and their marketplace to the world. If they could get the contraband over the river and past the first line of military defense they knew had penetrated the hardest part of the journey. It was more difficult to move the drugs in the first couple of miles than the next thousand.
The Tajiks and Russians were hidden well, but as we came around a bend in the road, our lights shone brightly on a dozen soldiers in black scurrying around like ants behind some large rocks. They had AK-47’s over their shoulders and stared at us coldly as we passed by.
The road became curvier and the fatigue of the trip started to settle in for our driver. Halfway through a sweeping lefthand turn the jeep stopped following the curve of the road and went off course running over hedgehog-sized rocks toward the river. We came inches from the water’s edge and rested up against a bolder.
Giovanni and I were fine, but the driver and his son weren’t speaking. We didn’t crash hard against anything so I knew they weren’t hurt. Instead they were deep in sleep.
“What are you doing?” I said to the driver.
“Spot, ya hashu spot,” (sleep, I want sleep) he responded slowly with his eyes closed.
Sandwiched between drug lords, troops, and heroin was not the place for a cat nap or any type of unconsciousness. Giovanni and I looked at our surroundings, and then at each other with the same “let’s hurry up and get out of here look.”
I walked out of the jeep and opened up the driver’s door. I grabbed his small body by the arms and helped move him to the back seat; he shifted in with ease half asleep. I sat in the driver’s seat, adrenaline pumping through my veins, turned off the repetitive Tajik music we’d been listening for the past 13 hours, put my hands on the steering wheel, and hit the gas.
The road was empty and straightened out as it got away from the river. We entered a huge valley; mountains on each side towered up towards the brightly lit, star-filled sky. Aspen tree leaves rustled in the gentle wind. The jeep cruised along comfortably as I concentrated on keeping the big floaty steering wheel straight. The tension dissolved; we were no longer next to the river and in between smugglers and military.
An hour went by without any signs of mankind.
A dim light caught my right eye. I looked up to the rearview mirror and noticed a vehicle on the road far behind us. The light grew closer and closer until its high beams glared brightly. The vehicle tailgated us just feet from our rear bumper. My heart rate picked up. The vehicle then accelerated and passed us. My eyes relaxed as the high beams dissipated from the rear view mirror.
Once the vehicle passed us it came quickly in front of us and slammed its brakes. I immediately stomped the brake pedal to the floor to a screeching halt. Our bodies thrust forward towards the windshield until the seatbelts caught and brought us back. The driver and his son shot forward into the backs of our seats with force.
Our headlights captured thick dust in the air. Faint outlines of three large men came out of their vehicle and through the haze of our low beams. It looked like the fog machine from a Hollywood thriller was cranked up with mysterious lighting.
As the figures came closer the light intensified on the three well-fed men with large beards carrying AK-47’s over their shoulders. They walked towards us with authority and urgency. I looked to my right, Giovanni the war correspondent looked tense; not a good sign I thought to myself.
One of the men with tight lips and an aggressive look stepped up to my door and banged on it hard, motioning for me to get out of the jeep. He couldn’t see through the dirty windows to get a clear view of us.
I took in a deep breath, unlatched my seatbelt, and stepped out of the vehicle. I knew they weren’t Tajik police or Russian army since they wore neither uniform. It was a regional militia that controlled the stretch of road we were driving on. We were now in Badakhshan; the Tajik government didn’t have much control of the region.
Most likely this group was collecting fees for transporting heroin over their territory.
We exited the jeep; all three of the men surrounded Giovanni and me with their guns pointed at us. The man in control opened his eyes wide and paused once he got a good look. Steam came out of his mouth with a large exhale. He was speechless.
His aggressive and hasty movements disarmed. It was obvious Giovanni and I were not from his high school. His authoritative presence relaxed and his shoulders dropped as it became evident he was befuddled by the situation of foreigners on his turf.
I saw some confusion and took action. I put my hand to my heart and said, “aasalaamu aleikum” (the standard Muslim greeting: “peace be with you”). He gazed at me, relaxed his face, and responded, “wa alaikum assalaamme” (and upon you be peace). The two other men around him unclenched their jaws and lowered their machine guns down near their hips.
Everyone started to smile out of the oddity of the situation. The men smiled because Giovanni and I appeared to be two aliens planted on their soil. And Giovanni and I smiled because Ak-47’s weren’t pointed at our heads anymore.
I cracked a bit of dialogue and things loosened further. They liked my basic Russian and started laughing from the gut. Perhaps my grammar was off but something in it worked. The leader accosted my senses: first with a loud and deep laugh that vibrated my eardrums, secondly with the warm saliva that came from his mouth and speckled my face when he spoke to me with gusto.
Giovanni and I laughed out loud with newfound confidence, the tension of the situation was dissolving and our futures were improving. After spending some bonding time in the surreal surroundings, we all exchanged high fives and hugs.
“Atletchna!” (excellent) the men kept on repeating. “Atletchna!, Malidets!” they said and roared into laughter as we walked back to the jeep. “Atletchna,” I fired back with excitement.
A cool breeze rushed over my face. The three men got into their jeep and sped off; their taillights became faint and then disappeared into the darkness. It was just us, removed from everything, tucked away deep in the quiet Tajik night. Giovanni and I smiled deeply at each other with no words spoken.
The stars beamed brightly and I looked up at the raw magnitude of the Pamirs with awe. Forces were at work that we had no control over. Giovanni and I got back on the road and sped off towards Khorog in the heart of Badakhshan.
Read Part 1 Here
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