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Dispatch #2, June 22, 2005 PDF Print E-mail
The temperature was hovering around 100 degrees as we walked into the state-run hotel in the center of Korganteppa, a town about 100 miles southwest of the capital, Dushanbe. The lobby was inviting in that it was cooler, but drab otherwise. It was very Soviet, the reception desk was behind cheap glass and there was a tiny opening in the glass – forcing even the shortest person to stoop to speak to the desk clerk.

An attendant led us to the second floor, past a dusty bar with two plastic tables and chairs and down an unlit hallway. I was given room number five. It was a tiny room, but had an air conditioner. When I asked the guy if it worked, he held up the broken plastic plug that had been lying on the floor, but then plugged the two pieces of cord, that hung from the unit, directly into the socket – when he made the connection the unit rumbled to life – and miraculously it blew cold air. Back downstairs at the reception desk, the elderly Russian woman behind the desk was interrogating my colleague Jovid – asking him everything except his blood type. She demanded his passport and other documents before allowing us to check in. She also demanded the money up front, but I refused and she shrugged and gave up.

Hopefully, they would hold the room for us.

We returned later that evening and fortunately they had held our rooms. The AC unit was still rumbling, but it was not giving up much cold air and the room was sweltering. Mosquitoes were already circling, having crawled through a crack in the window. I plugged the crack, but the handful of mosquitoes already inside – smelled fresh blood and attacked all night.

I fared better than my translator, Umed, though. He bravely opened his windows to try to catch a cool breeze and swarms of mosquitoes invaded his room. He said for some strange reason they only went after his hands – and he said unlike Dushanbe skeeters – these were tiny and the silent type.

Up at six a.m., to beat the heat, we headed further south. The landscape resembled Mississippi and Nevada combined. As we made our way across a vast green valley of cotton fields with women hoeing the endless rows of plants, in the distance there were hills that resembled a moonscape – just endless shades of red, brown and grey.

Our Volga, a four door sedan, slowly climbed higher until we reached the top. It had been almost too much for the car, the radiator was boiling over and water leaked onto the ground. Our driver, Fattoh, patiently opened the trunk, lifted out a jug of water and poured it into the overflow. He then poured water over the whole radiator compartment. The car calmed down.

Our destination was a town called Shaartuz, about 60 kilometers north of the Afghan border – and its claim to fame is the fact that it is the hottest place in the former Soviet Union – and we were headed straight for the furnace as we descended those hills. The air grew warmer and warmer and finally hot – even though it was only mid morning.

By the time we arrived in Shaartuz, we were told the temperature had climbed to 110. It had been 100 in the shade just 24 hours earlier. We had no air conditioning on the car – and one of the windows wouldn’t roll down because the handle was busted -- it was uncomfortable, but not as much as I thought it would be. It was tolerable, and maybe that was because we had no other options. It was simply the way it was.

Something else that made it easier to deal with was seeing so many women working in the cotton fields. They wore long, colorful traditional dresses – with lengths of cloth protecting their arms, heads and faces from the sun rays. Others walked in twos and threes along the roadway with their hoes on their shoulders. I learned later that these workers make about 2,000 USD a season – and some of them live alone with their children. Their husbands have gone off to Russia to find jobs and send money home.

Along the roadway, seven and eight year old boys rode donkeys that pulled sacks of grain or hay, others squatted in the shade of a tree selling watermelons and still others used handcarts to push long pieces of lumber along the roadway. The image that sticks in my mind though was just outside Shaartuz, where I spotted a man steering an old Russian-made tractor through a field. The tractor was pulling a trailer – while another man with a pitchfork threw hay, to a third man, who stood on the top of the hay pile -- almost ten feet off the ground.

The temperature would hit 115 in Shaartuz on the day of our visit. It had been a while since I had experienced heat to that degree. As we rode along the highway – I could feel my left ear burning as the hot air struck it through the passenger side car window. The last time my ears had hurt was in a blizzard in Mongolia nearly two years earlier, when the temperature had hit minus 30 or so.