As we began our descent into a remote mountain valley, I yelled, “Is that it!?” straining to raise my voice above the roaring engine of our 1984 Soviet jeep, a sturdy veteran of the Russo-Afghan war that was built to go just about anywhere, although certainly not in comfort.
“Not yet, but we’ll see it in a second!” said, my driver, Chorshanbe. He and the other passengers travel these far-flung dirt roads and trails often as they go home to the mountains to visit their families. For me, the only foreigner, it was an unforgettable first. I leaned forward in my seat, gripping tightly to the warm metal frame of the jeep in a vain attempt to steady myself as we careened down the road carved in a deep gorge. Chorshanbe was apparently confident in his driving ability, despite the sheer drop just outside my window.
Suddenly the mountains around us pulled back to reveal the wild beauty of the small valley below. Ice-crowned peaks rose on all sides with a strip of fresh green running down the middle. Trees dressed in purple spring blossoms dotted the valley and mountain flanks. A glacial blue river, boiling from spring runoff, emerged from the mountains rising from one corner of the valley, momentarily slowing in the valley bottom to provide access to two villages facing each other on opposite banks, and then turned to tear back through the rugged mountains.
“See the river!?” Chorshanbe asked in his heavily accented Russian, “That’s the Pyanj! Everything to the right of it is Tajikistan, and everything to the left, well, that’s it—Afghanistan!”
Nothing could have properly prepared me for the rich experience of living and traveling in Central Asia, while working for the International Trade Center (ITC) in Kyrgyzstan during winter semester 2006. When first asked if I would be interested in using my Russian to complete an internship for the ITC in the former Soviet Republic, my adventurous instinct immediately compelled me to answer in the affirmative.
Not knowing what to expect, I stepped into the virtual unknown, leaving Salt Lake City bound for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with nothing but myself, my passport, and my two bags. After three days of travel, endured only with the anticipation of what was to come, I arrived in Bishkek. Upon clearance from authorities at the small airport, I headed outside amid the crowds of taxis and police.
After a few seconds searching the scene before me, I caught sight of Igor, the ITC driver, as promised, with a giant smile on his face and holding a piece of cardboard that read “Miles Hansen.” We loaded my luggage and began the forty-five-minute drive to the city.
“Cultural schizophrenia” hit when I saw the aging remains of the seventy-year-old Soviet occupation mixed with the rising wave of Islamic cultural expressions: a statue of Lenin not too far removed from a newly constructed mosque, and a community elder with long beard and traditional attire walking past an abandoned Soviet factory boasting a typical, oversized mural depicting the power of the Soviet worker painted on the wall. It is difficult to find two cultures that are more distant than the godless communistic society, and the Islamic culture where religion is manifested in all aspects of life and society. For the time being, they continue to coexist in an odd contrast between a new hope stemming from a return to cultural roots, and the remaining reminders of the failed recent past.
At ITC, I worked as an assistant to David Akopyan, regional director in Central Asia. ITC works in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program to increase trade, mainly exports, in developing countries and regions of the world. The organization establishes five–seven year projects that increase exports entering the global economy from a particular country or region. In Central Asia, ITC analysts determined that the fruit and vegetable processing sector would provide the “biggest bang for the buck.” For the past few years, Akopyan has directed ITC efforts toward strengthening the fruit and vegetable processing industry to increase exports to Russia, Turkey, and other countries in Eurasia.
With field offices in four of the five Central Asian “stans,” my work consisted of editing and translating the many reports and documents coming from the various countries through the regional office on their way to ITC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. I learned a great deal about processing fruits and vegetables in Central Asia, economic development, and the international community as well. It was great to see classroom principles and ideas in action on the other side of the world.
On the weekends, I took advantage of my once-in-a-lifetime experience by traveling throughout Kyrgyzstan to take in as much of the country as possible. Despite the difficulties of traveling through the rugged high-altitude terrain during winter, each trip revealed the natural beauty of the country and provided a new perspective on the way the hearty Kyrgyz people live.
Northern Kyrgyzstan experienced the greatest degree of Russification during the Soviet era, while Eastern Kyrgyzstan is heavily influenced by its common border with China. To the south, Islam dictates the culture and society, with almost none of the Soviet influences that remain in the north. Although one country and people, Kyrgyzstan, with an average elevation over 9,000 feet, is an incredibly diverse patchwork of inhabitable valleys stitched together by some of the world’s highest mountains.
Having completed my work with ITC and the academic portion of my internship three weeks before I was scheduled to fly home, I moved out of my apartment, stored my luggage at the ITC office, and embarked on my last journey—a two-week road trip from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. I would fly to Dushanbe, and then travel by road through the massive Pamir Mountains to Osh.
The Pamir region of Tajikistan is a knot of mountains known locally as Bam-i-Dunya, the “Roof of the World,” from which the world’s highest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Tian Shan, radiate. Marco Polo first traveled through the region in the 1300s, and over the course of the following five hundred years, only a handful of explorers made it through the high-altitude plateau. The region fell into Russian control, and, in 1890, was closed. Only at the birth of the new millennium did peace and stability return to the mountains, and for the first time in over a century, foreigners where allowed to travel to the area. Despite the unspoiled beauty of the mountains, since 2000 only an average of 150 tourists make it to the region a year due to the difficulty in securing proper documentation and the lack of a travel infrastructure.
From the flight to Dushanbe to the twenty-four-hour jeep ride along the Pyanj River and up a 200 km long canyon to Khorog, Tajikistan—I couldn’t have dreamed a better adventure or more remarkable scenery. And yet it is not the mountains or the “wild west” feel of the land that linger in my memory. Rather, it is the Muslim people and their love and pure faith who loom large.
In the mountain town of Khorog, I stayed with an elderly couple, Dehkon and Mashka, and their twelve-year-old granddaughter, Ramziya. At about eight in the evening, Ramziya asked if I wanted to go to their prayer meeting. “I’d love to,” I replied, and we threw our coats on and headed out into the night.
I waited outside the Pamiri House while Ramziya slipped inside to ask the Khalifa, a village spiritual leader, if I could worship with them. I was asked to come in and given a seat in the center, while they performed their prayers. Observing, I felt deep respect as the group took turns praying and chanting, bowing and worshiping Allah. After fifteen minutes of various prayers, they finished and invited me to join them on the floor at the feet of the Khalifa. Ramziya helped me understand the Pamiri language (unwritten), used by the Khalifa to teach his people. I will never forget the spirit present in the room as a small group of our Heavenly Father’s children gathered to worship Him and to learn how they could lead better lives according to the light they had received.
The Khalifa taught gratitude and the importance of nurturing a sincere, personal relationship with Allah through prayer and daily actions. He taught the importance of service, especially imparting what Allah has given me to my neighbor. He taught the importance of love, to all people, friend and foe alike. After I added my testimony to theirs that we are all children of one God and that He loves and knows each and every one of us, the Khalifa expounded on my remarks, teaching that I was correct—as children of Abraham, eventually Jew, Christian, and Muslim will have the same rights and opportunities as were promised to Father Abraham, and it is only misunderstandings and ignorance that inhibit us.
While listening, I began to think about everyone I had encountered during my time in Central Asia. My interactions were with people from all socioeconomic backgrounds in a variety of places. The friends that I had made with people whose paths had crossed mine had very little in common with each other, varying from elite government officials to downtrodden peasants. The one common factor was that each possessed an incredible desire to serve me—a stranger to their land, culture, and religion: the taxi driver, Manas, who took time out of his work day to help me find a group of snow-covered petroglyphs overlooking an inland sea; the man who insisted on buying me lunch after exchanging a few words; the chef at a roadside cafe who refused money for the food he had just made for me, and Dehkon, who, after spending just one night in his home, gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me that he was sad I couldn’t stay longer, but he was glad that now I know where my family and home in Khorog is. And more than anyone, I thought of Maqsoud, who, having never previously met, invited me to be a part of his family in Dushanbe for six days, as he worked to get me a permit to continue my journey along the Pamir Highway.
In my travels, I saw my brothers and sisters as faithful children of God. My testimony of Christ was strengthened, not only by what they said but more so by the way they live. Because of their faithfulness, when they are blessed with the opportunity to hear the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they will recognize and accept it because they are already living it; they just don’t know it—yet.
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