The Land of the White Mulberry


TAJIKISTAN is the most remote of the former autonomous regions of the now-fragmented Soviet Union; an irregular cusp of country on the southern edge of that former huge empire. The name means the ‘crowned people’. Unlike its neighbours e.g. Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan is predominantly Persian-speaking, not Turkic, and mostly, in the east, Ismaili Muslim to boot. This small relic of ancient Persian, proud of its imperial past and so frequently smashed up by barbarians from the north, can boast amongst its great and good the philosopher and physician Avicenna, born in the tenth century, who indeed came from an Ismaili family and, roughly a hundred years later, the philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayam.

The Soviet pulled out of its peripheries (Tajikistan became theoretically independent of the Soviet in 1991), but Moscow remained in charge of the border troops and, contrary to general belief, those last Russian border guards did not actually leave until about 3 August of 2005. No symbolic flags slipped down flagpoles and no bugles sounded, but the locals whispered ‘they’ve all gone now’: and Tajik soldiers took their places on the embattled borders. There were many who regretted this evacuation, and for many different reasons. Tajikistan of all the former autonomous regions of Russia, it is admitted, became the greatest sufferer. The integrated economic development of the original Soviet meant that, ‘ad absurdam’, if kitchen stoves were made, the heating elements were made in Leningrad, the body panels in Kiev, the hobs in Karkov, the control knobs in Dushanbe and the whole assembly completed in Moscow. What do you do with a factory in Tajikistan exclusively making plastic knobs when the central great nation’s economy disintegrates? It is said that the GNP of Tajikistan declined by 48 percent in the decade from 1991. This is readily believable. In the first few years after the Soviet abandonment, as the shops emptied of food and goods, rural families were forced to scavenge for edible roots in the forest.

Russians with Tsarist loyalties began to move into Tajikistan and set up a Russian military post in Khorogh in Badakshan Province (the eastern and Pamir mountain bit) as early as the 1890s. The ‘Great Game’ was then getting under way. But from the post-war era the Soviet began to pour resources into what was till then virtually a group of mediaeval communities. Motorways, airfields, electricity supplies, water grids, sewerage, schools and university departments were set up and, most striking, great steel suspension bridges now arch over precipitous gorges, where once rope nets and a few tree trunks had sufficed to join communities – as they still do in most of neighbouring Afghanistan. But, overall, the Soviet generously provided food and fuel to one of their distant regions which, unlike its richer neighbours such as Kazakhstan, has no oil, natural gas or significant supplies of coal, barely any extensive timber resources, nor vast areas of arable land. In the mountain communities, predominantly of the eastern (Badakshan) region, the average field is the size of your back garden in Summertown or even your allotment plot. Half an acre, at best, is no space in which to plan and execute cereal agriculture or heavy root crops.

Unlike the relatively gentle and mostly green-mantled Tien Shan to the north the Pamirs thrust unmodified geology in your face – bedding planes twist like oblique sections through a Swiss roll; vast avalanches pour broken rock down a multitude of gullies, and crossing the Panj River in Badakshan, a tributary of the great Oxus, one is astonished to see sand bars high above one’s head near to the road edge. These sand bars are in fact huge riverine deposits. The river along which the road winds, now far below, has continued to gouge deeper and deeper into the bedrock through ancient periods of geological turmoil. On a more brutal note, whole villages disappear under rock falls or broken lakes, and roads are swallowed by rivers as mountain-sides slip away into vast alluvial fans.

Many mountain peaks in the region reach well over twenty thousand feet and are gaining height all the time. Golden eagles and black vultures soar over unclimbed crests. The engine driving this orogenic maelstrom is the Indian sub-continent still thrusting inexorably north-west, as it has done for millions of years, at no less than several centimetres a year. The devastating events of 8 October 2005, some way to the south, but probably enough to set the lights swinging and the pans rattling in Khorugh, was no isolated event. We seem to have forgotten so quickly that something very similar happened in this general region on 21 November 2002. There is no respite in this troubled land.

To add to the anguish, the Soviet invaded neighbouring Afghanistan and fought a savage war there from 1978 to 1992. Much of this invasion force crossed the Panj River from eastern Tajikistan into the Badakshan area of Afghanistan and the grim reminders of those battles, as the Afghans received more and more sophisticated weapons, can be seen along the river bank between Khorugh and Roshan. Smashed APC’s and de-turreted tanks lie in the slowly encroaching riverine vegetation.

As if geology and the Soviet abandonment were not enough, the whole country descended into a civil war of a ferociously tangled nature with the bloodiest period between 1992 and 1993. Exactly who fought whom and for what cause is not always clear, but the old guard Soviet certainly fought with extreme Islamist. A multitude of refugees, who had crossed over the border from the earlier Afghan conflict, joined in the turmoil. Of weapons there was no shortage.

Mountain societies are something of which we have little understanding in the west. Tiny villages, predominantly in the Pamir area of the country, cling to small horizontal regions of the mountain sides. The village houses, some of mud brick and some of local stone, are roofed with huge crossed poles of the local fastigiate poplar (Populus konjilaliana), like a king-sized Lombardy poplar, and finished with mud and grass thatch. Internally a traditional ‘Pamir house’ boasts a dedicated room of five carved-pillars, the pillars themselves again in the most traditional houses made of ‘archa’ the high mountain forest of Juniperus sabina. But ‘archa’ is now becoming rare not only because of its very slow growth, the demand for high-quality building timber, and its valuable fruit, but also its esteem as a very hot-burning kitchen fuel. In a mountain community what else do you burn? The answer is carefully collected cow and horse dung moulded into pats and dried on top of the walls in summer. But what else do you eat when the supplies from the north of wheat, legumes and root crops have completely dried up? The answer is the white mulberry, essentially the silk-worm tree, and a cousin of the delicious if messy black mulberry of ancient English gardens. The distribution of the white mulberry, Morus alba, spreads in a great and now fragmented arc from central China, westwards through much of central Asia and reaching to eastern Turkey. In this pattern, as a sub-canopy tree, it is probably now a mere fragment of that great corridor of temperate forest that once, in former interglacial times, stretched from the Mediterranean through central Asia curling in a loop over the Bering Strait and down into eastern (Appalachian) north America. In China it has become synonymous with the silk-worm industry. In central Asia there is less silk production, indeed the Uzbek government has recently been complaining of shortage of mulberry trees to support their artistically dazzling and shrinking ‘khan-atlas’ textile industry. For the most part, from Turkey through to the borders of China, but particularly in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, silk is a luxury and the nutritious fruits are eaten in a variety of forms.

The small white to pinkish fruits, about the same size as a raspberry, are, in some varieties, intensely almost cloyingly sweet. Every village, as with the apple in nineteenth-century England, declares that its fruits, their ‘shah-toot’, are the finest in the land and these selected forms are jealously guarded and grafted on for generations to preserve their characters. Every road verge, every corner plot or tiny piece of waste ground, spread through every tiny pasture are white mulberries of every age and seemingly their produce individually garnered and performance carefully noted. The household linen is spread under the chosen trees in late summer and autumn and the crop shaken to the ground. The individual berries, much drier than the splattering and staining black mulberries, are easily gathered. Not much of the crop is eaten fresh, as is the case with a black mulberry; most is dried, stored and eaten like a muesli. None, so far as I know, is fermented. There is even serious talk of harvesting selected cultivars as an exotic addition to the breakfast tables in western Europe. Tajikistan certainly needs all the hard currency it can get. Smaller quantities are dried and ground as a flour to be added to walnut flour and an even smaller amount boiled to extract a rich syrup which is then dried in flat sheets like thick purplish rubber. This latter, the Persian ‘talkhan’ or ‘Kendal Mint Cake’ of the extreme mountain peoples, and virtually as a sole diet, sustained both refugees and guerrilla fighters, throughout both Tajikistan and much of Afghanistan, in the hardest of times.

The Aga Khan Foundation through its Mountain Societies Development Support Programme is pouring funds in Tajikistan. Round every bend in the remote Badakshan-Pamir district are notices both in Tajik and English – ‘MSDSP Micro-hydro Electrical Generation Project’ or ‘MSDSP Vegetable Growing Project’ – evidence of targeted, carefully administered aid that has played a major part in dragging this oppressed land back from the brink of total national collapse and personal destitution.

There is nowhere in western Europe which can show you such savage, unglaciated geology in full dynamic orogeny, and mostly unswamped by gentle greenery. If you seek a very different strenuous holiday with geomorphology, ornithology, ethnology and mammalology (Marco Polo sheep:snow leopard:ibex) thrown in, don’t expect a McDonalds or Bureau de Change in every village, but you could enjoy the experience of Tajikistan.

This article originally appeared in the Oxford Magazine, Fourth Week, Hilary Term, 2006 and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.