“It’s not that far, is it?” I asked in broken Russian.
My Tajik host mother shook her head, and replied in broken English, “No, not far. Few hours walk. Let me pack you a lunch.”
The homestay, run by an international development organization, had flat rates for accommodation and meals. The prices were certainly reasonable, but I figured I could beat the system and buy some food on the way.
“No, no, that’s ok,” I said. “There will be some stores somewhere along the way, yes?”
She thought a moment, then nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes, there is a shop.”
I had arrived at the homestay in northwestern Tajikistan one day prior. Having previously suffered the sweltering August heat in both the capital, Dushanbe, and the town of Penjikent near the Uzbek border, I’d decided to cool off a bit by retreating to the much-recommended Fan Mountains. Specifically, I would head to the region known as Haft Kul in Tajik, or Sim Ozeri in Russian: Seven Lakes. The Seven Lakes are a string of breathtakingly beautiful blue mountain lakes connected by a river that winds through the mighty mountains of northwestern Tajikistan.
Getting there proved to be somewhat more difficult than both the Lonely Planet guide and the tourism office in Penjikent had made it sound. I caught a van from Penjikent to a mountain village called Shing, where I was assured I could find onward transport to a homestay on one of the Seven Lakes. The van was filled way over capacity, with the passengers literally sitting on top one another, and everyone had a good laugh at having a genuine American along for the ride.
The driver let me off at Shing, and told me to catch the next vehicle to come along. Shing was just a bit smaller than I’d expected: a few scattered homes, and nary a resident in sight. It was literally a one-donkey town.
After sitting on my bag for nearly an hour in the town’s “main square,” with no sign of life save the faithful donkey, a local resident emerged and approached me. He explained (in Russian) that his brother ran a homestay near Lake Five, and that he could arrange transport for me to get down there. I readily agreed.
The transport turned out to be a tiny motorbike that powered me out to Lake Five over a dirt road with hairpin turns and steep drop-offs. Helmets? Who needs helmets?
When my vision wasn’t obscured by impending death, the scenery was breathtaking. Pure blue mountain lakes set against majestic brown mountains. I truly was in the mountainous heartland of Central Asia.
The homestay was equally breathtaking. Outside of the house, there were a series of cushioned platforms jutting out over the river rapids, where one could take tea, eat a meal, or sleep out under the stars (which I eagerly chose to do). It was the first place I had been to that echoed the magic of my experience in Hasankeyf, Turkey several years earlier.
The only real activity to do in the area was hiking around the nearby lakes. My Shing friend’s brother was gone for a few days, but the house was ably manned by his wife (my host mother) and her father, a very friendly old Tajik. My host mother recommended the usual tourist hike of walking from the house (at Lake Five) down to Lake Seven, and back again, whereupon we entered into the conversation about distance and food.
I set off in a t-shirt, pants, and boots, as well as my shoulder bag containing merely a pen and notebook. I had only walked a little way down from the house when I came upon Lake Five. It was a beautiful little spot, a round patch of blue, with several old Tajiks lazing by the side. I came across my host grandfather, and he broke his conversation with his friends to come greet me warmly.
I told him I would be hiking down to Lake Seven, and he nodded approval while asking if I had water in my bag. He looked at me, surprised, and said that I should go back to the house to get a bottle of water. Not wanting to lug a bottle with me, I said that I would be fine, and that I would buy a bottle along the way. He looked at me strangely, then sighed and wished me luck. I continued on my journey.
I should take a moment here to mention something about my views on water consumption. A couple years earlier, while working on a goat farm in Kentucky, the guy I was working for told me an interesting story. He said that when he was a kid he would try to take lemonade out to a group of farmhands on his father’s farm, but the men would always refuse it, saying that they never drank while they worked because it made them sweat too much.
The farmer and I experimented with this concept during our hot outdoors work over the next several days, and came to the conclusion that those old farmhands were right. Once we got thirsty and drank a bit of water, our bodies would start pouring sweat. If we toughed it out through the thirst, however, our bodies remained dry, and we could replenish ourselves when we got back to the farmhouse. Obviously one couldn’t take this strategy too far, but we realized that continuously drinking water while in the hot outdoors was unnecessary, and sometimes counterproductive. Since then I had used this strategy to great effect on warm days. I saw no reason why, here in the Tajik mountains, I couldn’t complete the bulk of my hike before finding a store, rehydrating myself, and continuing on.
Furthermore, I had set out at 10 a.m., and it was warm out, but not terribly hot. Hey, I came to the Fan Mountains to escape the heat, I reminded myself. Everyone in Penjikent had gone on about how much cooler it was up here in the mountains. I would be fine.
Perhaps this is the kind of reasoning that leads to tragedies like the Donner Party, the Burke and Wills expedition, or the guy from Into the Wild. My story is a laughable shadow of those occurrences, yet I feel that it has given me at least a sliver of insight.
As I left the serenity of Lake Five, the path became gradually more barren. It was all white dust and gravel. Moreover, the path had begun to incline sharply, and I soon felt my calves burning and my breath getting more rapid as I struggled uphill. All under the relentless sun, which pounded down on me more and more intensely as it climbed higher in the sky. I began wishing that I’d brought a hat.
I reached the top of the incline and panted a sigh of relief, looking forward to the inevitable decline that would be coming up. I rounded a little bend, and barked out an expletive. Another incline!
As I struggled up the second large incline, several thoughts went through my mind. First, fuck everybody who said that it was much cooler in the mountains. It was blazing hot; I felt as if I’d climbed closer to the sun with no beneficial change in air temperature. Second, I would need to set aside my theory and drink some water soon. My thirst had already moved beyond uncomfortable, and I had visions of a Tajik farmer accidentally trampling me with his donkey after I’d passed out from heatstroke. Third, I might not be able to make it without some sort of head covering. The sun beating down on my high forehead seemed to exponentially wear me down.
Suddenly I thought of a potential solution to the third problem. I opened a little-used pocket in my shoulder bag and pulled out my black Marmot windbreaker, which I’d bought specifically because it could be condensed into a tiny ball. I clumsily wrapped it around my head like a turban and tied it off using the sleeves. MacGuyver it wasn’t, but at least it would somewhat deflect the ferocious sun.
One highly comforting feature of the walk was that I was always next to or within sight of the river that connected the lakes; the dusty gravel path ran up and down beside it, and occasionally crossed over it via some kind of natural or man-made bridge.
As I finally entered a merciful decline and began getting close to the river, I resolved to indulge in its cool, rejuvenating powers. I hopped off the path and began running along the marshy grass that had sprung up on the riverbank, shouting joyously like a desert traveler stumbling upon a lush oasis.
I reached the river and bent to drink, then stopped abruptly.
Wait a minute. I’m in Tajikistan. I can’t drink the water here. It’s not safe. Shit.
But wait, that’s nasty city tap water that you can’t drink. This is pure, natural mountain spring water. This is what they always put on the labels of bottled water. Of course this is ok to drink.
But wait: These valleys are full of livestock. They must all shit in this river. Who knows what kind of bacteria are floating in these waters? Which vaccines did I get before this trip?
I sat there beside the river, my parched throat crying out to sample the cool, beautiful mountain water flowing past, while my mind paraded before me visions of amoebic dysentery and typhoid. I imagined myself lying in a hospital bed in Dushanbe, fluids pouring from all of my bodily orifices, like the cholera victims in The Painted Veil. Dammit, why hadn’t I brought the stupid Lonely Planet book? Finally that section on disease could have been potentially valuable.
Eventually I settled on the best compromise I could think of: I soaked my face, head, and neck in the icy cool waters. I also took the water into my mouth, but spit it out rather than swallowing it. These two actions actually did quite a lot to alleviate my heat distress, while keeping down my fears of gruesome water-borne disease.
I trekked on, noting ruefully how quickly the sun evaporated the water from my skin. The road was long, full of long ups and downs, and with almost no shade cover. Occasionally a Tajik villager on a donkey would pass by me, inevitably raising an eyebrow at my goofy jacket-turban; once or twice I had to step off the path as a 4WD jeep charged by. They were the only signs of life, aside from the gurgle of the ever-faithful river, to which I would periodically run back and repeat my revitalizing ablutions.
In my head, one cry began to reverberate louder and louder with every step I took: Where is Lake Six???
I soon had my answer as I rounded a bend and at last saw the river empty once more into a lovely stretch of blue. And suddenly a new cry seamlessly took the place of the old one.
Are you fucking kidding me???
It was huge. Massive. Epic. Whereas Lake Five had been a pleasant little round pond, Lake Six was a tremendous water-filled gap in the mountains. I couldn’t even see to the end of it. At that moment, it might as well have been the Tajik Grand Canyon.
Onward I trudged. I had stopped bothering to check the time on my cell phone. What was the point? The road was long, the sun was intense, and my body was exhausted. My world had condensed to one dusty step after another, with a swirl of blue and brown in my periphery.
I had worn my swimsuit instead of underwear for the hike, in the hope that I would be able to swim in one of the lakes. Looking at the beautiful icy blue mountain water, I longed to strip off my dusty clothes and throw myself into it. Two things held me back: Modesty, because I didn’t see any locals swimming, and Follow-through. I would swim at the end of Lake Seven, the true midway point of the Hike from Hell. No victory dance until the Fat Lady had sung.
At last I reached the end of Lake Six, and saw the glorious sight of a town before me. Well, perhaps, “town” isn’t quite the right word. It was more of a village in the vein of Shing, except without the donkey. So much for that store where I could purchase food and water. Thanks, host mom.
The path crisscrossed the marshy wetlands leading to Lake Seven, and I kept up my face-baths. Occasionally I gave in to temptation and swallowed some of the deliciously cold water, but mostly kept myself in check.
At last I reached fabled Lake Seven, my Xanadu. And by the looks of it, it was only slightly smaller than Lake Six. I began to laugh, in an existential moment of recognition at the absurdity of this hike. Onward I went.
After completing the long, winding path running alongside Lake Seven, the terrain opened up to some grassy meadows, which stretched to another tiny village. I sat by the edge of the water, desperately wanting to both drink and swim. While contemplating, a Tajik shepherd boy came up next to me. He was wearing three shirts (the top one being a sweater), two pairs of pants, and thick knee-high rubber boots. I looked at him incredulously, wondering how he could stand the heat in such attire. Meanwhile, I still had a windbreaker wrapped around my head.
He smiled at me, and began washing his face and hands in the water. I asked him in Russian if the water was ok to drink. He smiled and said yes. I asked him if I could swim in the water here. Also yes.
After he had walked on, I prepared to drink the water. Then I realized that the shepherd had not actually drunk the water, but had just taken it into his mouth and spit it out. Then I remembered that it was the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, and that during this time he would not be able to eat or drink at all during the day. So was he not drinking because the water was dangerous, or because of Ramadan?
Fuck it. I was tired of debating about this issue. It was swim-time. I took off my clothes and laid them on a rock. I didn’t give a damn if I offended the modesty of any Tajik village women who happened by. I had walked for hours along a hot and dusty trail, without food or water, and now I would rejuvenate my body with the most glorious icy bath of my life. I jumped in.
When you feel something mildly uncomfortable, it can be easy to lose perspective. If dinner is delayed by an hour, you say that you are starving, even though your hunger is a fraction of that endured by a concentration camp victim. If you are forced to stand on the bus, you bemoan your aching legs and back, even though a paraplegic would give almost anything to feel such aches.
Walking for hours under the hot sun, dry and dusty, I had built up the lake as a wet, icy paradise that would bring me back to a comfortable, happy balance. Instead, the lake gave me a lesson in expectations and perspective.
When I first plunged myself beneath the surface, I was shocked by the icy cold. Naturally; I had just given my body a 180 in terms of physical sensations. I popped my head above the surface and treaded water. I quickly realized that the lake was literally just above freezing. Despite it being August, despite the brutal sun and dry air, the water felt as if it had just dripped straight off a glacier. It had only been 30 seconds or so, but I was already feeling a sharp ache in my limbs from the cold. I had to get out. Fast.
I clambered quickly out of the lake and sat on a rock, freezing cold and calling on the sun, which I had spent the past four hours cursing, to warm me as quickly as possible.
A bit later I tried just soaking my feet in the lake, but it was too painful to keep them submerged for more than a minute. Ridiculously cold water. Time to walk back.
The walk back seemed to go far faster, as return journeys often do. The way had been mapped out, and there was no longer the looming uncertainty of the path ahead to mentally lengthen the trip.
Early on the return walk, I met another Tajik shepherd boy, and I asked him if he knew anything about the rumored grocery store. He assured me that there was a shop at the village next to Lake Six, despite my protestations that I had seen no such store.
Upon arriving back at that village, I walked to closer to the few scattered buildings for a cursory inspection. I came across an old man, who seemed delighted to meet me. He called out, and soon a half dozen or so villagers appeared out of nowhere. A few asked me questions about myself and the U.S., but most just stared curiously at me and my jacket-turban.
I asked if there was a shop in the village, and one of the men led me over to it. I could have walked past it a thousand times and never noticed it. The store was a tiny closet-sized shack, operated by a short man with one eye and a limp.
I asked for water, and he took down a bottle of soda from a shelf with just three such bottles. I figured that was as good as it was going to get. While I felt bad buying up a third of the village’s drink stock, I really was desperately thirsty. I bought my soda, bid my new acquaintances adieu, and hurried off.
I wanted to get out of sight from the locals, since it was Ramadan and I didn’t want to offend them by drinking in front of them. Once I made it back to the path next to Lake Six, and looked around to make sure there was no one in sight, I took out the 1.5 liter bottle and chugged it.
It was some kind of locally produced Tajik peach-flavored soda, and in just about any other circumstance I’m sure I would have found the stuff almost unpalatable. As it was, I guzzled it down as if it were the sweetest wine of Babylon.
I arrived back at the homestay in the early evening, when the sun had already dipped beneath the mountains and daylight was waning. I trudged up the stairs and collapsed onto one of the cushiony platforms hanging over the river. Ever the faithful river.
My host mother came down the stairs with a tray of green tea and cookies. She set it before me, and gave my spent form a once over.
“Did you find the store?”
I left the next day, northward bound to Khujand, Tajikistan’s second-largest city. I never did find out whether the water was safe to drink. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.