A tale of two trucks

Penjikent, Zerafshan, Tajikistan -- 11 October 2007 | Permalink

"Mr Engels. Mr Engels. It's time to get up." said a voice from the door. I groaned and rolled over.

The night before my host had suggested that I might like to hitch a ride up to Artush with two of his drivers who were going to pick up some trekkers. At the time, after several teacups-full of vodka, it had seemed like a good idea. Because really, with a ten-hour drive ahead of me later in the day, why wouldn't I want to get up at five o'clock and spend another five hours sitting in a truck watching the mountains go by?

For the first hour or so, there were no mountains to be seen at all. Once we had passed through the elaborate archway on the outskirts — every self-respecting Tajik town seems to have at least one imposing triumphal arch to mark the city limits — the blackness was nearly absolute.

I started off riding with J., a taciturn man wearing a long purple quilted coat over his faded denim suit. We had no common language at all, but he had the air of a straight shooter, business-like and courteous. He had been assigned to drive the Uaz, a squat little gray-painted vehicle that resembled a VW Bus. From the noises it made, I gathered that it wasn't any happier about getting up at five in the morning than I was.

The noise eventually started to bother J., and he yanked up the middle seat to reveal a large and impressively filthy engine which he peered at suspiciously for a moment before putting the seat back down and driving on. But a little further on, we stopped again and this time the problem could apparently no longer be ignored. "Do you mean it's not meant to sound like a tractor?" I was tempted to ask. Apparently his ears were more finely attuned to the engine than mine, and he had detected cause for concern in what sounded to me like an undifferentiated racket. He yanked the seat up and started pulling spark plugs.

My host and the second driver now appeared out of the darkness. "You will ride in the other truck", my host told me. The truck in question was an enormous GAZ, painted sky-blue with a wooden camper body on the back, complete with frayed and dingy lace curtains. Its driver was a compact little man with a beard and a Tajik pillbox hat, who everyone addressed as 'Hoji' because he had made the haj. Out of respect for his religious sensibilities, my host had hastily hidden the vodka bottle behind a curtain when he came over for supper the night before.

The Uaz might have seen better days, but the GAZ gave every sign of being on its last set of wheels. I suspected that a reluctance to start and an absolute refusal to stay in first were probably the least of its foibles.

My new chauffeur was more outgoing than J., and was determined to play the part of tour guide as well as he could. As the sun slowly lifted over the mountains, gilding the crests, he took his hands off the wheel and made an expansive, sweeping gesture that took in the peaks all around us. "Kharacho", I agreed, hoping that he wouldn't feel the need to call my attention to any more natural beauties. I was starting to get a little tired of telling people that everything was "Kharacho". Not because it wasn't, but because each time I trotted it out I found myself wishing I had enough vocabulary to allow me to make slightly more nuanced judgments and sound just a little less like the village idiot.

Our conversation, such as it was, consisted mostly of him saying something in Russian and me repeating it back. When I knew what he was getting at, I would add a 'da' to the end. If I had no clue at all, I would just repeat the words that I had been able to catch, but in a puzzled tone. This would usually result in him trying to clarify by using more words that I didn't know, so eventually I just said 'da' to everything.

The sun was well up by the time we hit a large village in a pleasant, wooded valley. My driver gestured excitedly. "Panjrud!" he exclaimed, holding up five fingers to reinforce the 'five' part of it. I'm not sure what 'rud' are, but the village had evidently been named for five of them. "Rudaki!" he went on. Then, carefully enunciated: "Ru-da-ki". This one I knew. The Tajiks are justifiably proud of Abu Abdallah Rudaki, who pretty much founded Persian poetry. Most towns have at least one street, usually the largest and most important, named after him.

The driver obviously felt that my understanding on this crucial issue couldn't be left to chance. "Rudaki!" he said again. He made a scribbling gesture in the air to indicate that Rudaki had been a scribe, stroked his chin to denote that he had been a man of mature years with a full and luxuriant beard, and cupped his hands in front of his chest to indicate either that the sage had been overflowing with piety and wisdom or that he had been the possessor of a truly spectacular rack. I nodded dutifully. "Da, Rudaki" I agreed.

A little bit beyond the village and the mausoleum of the poet ("Rudaki! Mavzole!" "Da, mavzole") the road became abruptly steeper, demanding continuous application of first gear. The driver was now literally pushing the truck up the mountain, holding the gearshift with all his strength to stop it popping out of first. It seemed the height of cruelty to me to drag this aging vehicle up a mountain side. I wondered, not for the first time, if it was going to break down entirely, completely blocking the road up to Artush and leaving us stranded.

When the road levelled out a bit, the driver abruptly stopped the truck. "Pishat" he announced, and removed all ambiguity by cupping his hands to his crotch and making a 'psssss' sound. He jumped down from the cab and headed off to relieve himself behind the truck.

The predictable happened. Once stopped, the truck had no intention of starting again. With both of us pushing, we managed to rock it forward a few feet, but the motor stubbornly refused to catch or, indeed, to give any sign of life at all. "You know, letting the engine stop when you knew that there was a good chance it wouldn't start again might not have been the most intelligent thing you could have done", I thought. Happily, I wasn't able to say as much in any language he could understand.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Removing his suit jacket, he reached underneath the seat and came up with an enormous pair of ragged green twill pants, which he proceded to pull on over his clothes. "Well, dang it, ah reckon I'm goin' to hev to git mah truck-fixin' pants!" murmured the irreverent voice in my head.

Suitably equipped, the driver vanished underneath the truck. In a matter of moments, the engine sprang back into life. I was impressed, but I couldn't help wondering if it wouldn't have made more sense to put whatever magic thing it was that started the engine somewhere more accessible. Somewhere inside the cab would have been my choice, but that might have been too obvious.

With one hand on the gearstick, he forced the truck to climb the rest of the way in first. Somehow, the motor didn't stall, even when the gradient approached one in five, and despite ample opportunity we didn't go sliding off the loose dirt and into an adjacent ditch at any point. I felt like applauding when we finally arrived.

The Uaz had got over its earlier problems and beaten us there by a large margin. The trekkers — four fit-looking young Russians and some rather older British walkers — were already loading out their packs. They had the pinched, strained look of people who have passed a few uncomfortable nights shivering under canvas and I gathered that trekking season was well and truly over.

One of the British men stopped and looked at the GAZ.

"Looks like a Tonka toy," he said with a hint of disbelief in his voice. I shook my head.

"There's one important difference." I told him. "A Tonka toy goes if you push it."