Howo Kush

Kalai Khumb, Gorno-Badakshan, Tajikistan

Accident scene

Accident involving two trucks, Darvaz region

Gorno-Badakshan, Tajikistan

A little beyond Kalai Khumb, we found ourselves at the scene of one of those complicated road accidents that mountainous terrain seems to produce. A shiny yellow bulldozer lay morosely at the bottom of a waterfall, still attached by cables to a winch dangling from the flatbed of the lowloader from which it had fallen. The lowloader itself was half over the edge, leaning at a precarious angle. The tractor that had been pulling it, a new white Chinese Howo, was still upright and, for the moment at least, on safe ground.

Thus far, at least, the accident appeared fairly intelligible. It had occurred at the head of a valley, where the road curved through a sharp ‘U’. The Chinese eighteen-wheeler, for which the curve would have been a tight turn under the most favorable of conditions, had probably strayed too close to the edge. A further complicating factor may have been the stream that ran down across the apex of the ‘U’, softening the dirt of the road and perhaps causing the lip to collapse underneath the wheels of the lowloader. A sudden lurch, and the lowloader’s cargo had gone sliding out over the edge to land on the rocks five metres below.

But how to explain the orange Kamaz dumptruck that lay on its side alongside, driver’s window impaled on the Howo’s trailer hitch? Had it tried to sneak past the floundering giant and somehow tilted too far on the disturbed road surface? Whatever the explanation, it was now locked in a tight and possibly inextricable embrace with the Chinese truck, posing a bizarre puzzle for the gray-uniformed policeman into whose lap the whole mess had fallen.

The accident may have been complicated but it was apparently bloodless. The young Chinese driver and his mate were walking back and forth on the road wearing expressions that said “Shit happens, but we really wish that this shit hadn’t happened to us.” The driver of the Kamaz was harder to pick out, but he was presumably somewhere lost in the crowd that had gathered to enjoy the disaster.

There seemed to be a general feeling that while the road probably saw more than its fair share of accidents, this one was more than usually satisfying. Most of the men and boys from the nearest village appeared to be perched on the rocks at the head of the valley, admiring the spectacle, while the women formed a brightly-colored fringe on the lip of the cliff overhead. A long tailback of cars and trucks was starting to form on either side.

A green truck had been summoned to play some part in the drama, perhaps to stabilize the lowloader while the Kamaz was disentangled. I had a vision of all three vehicles joining the bulldozer at the bottom of the waterfall. So too, perhaps, did some of the closest onlookers, who drew back warily as the green truck was moved up alongside the leaning trailer. An ominous creaking noise came from the entangled vehicles.

The drama threatened to be protracted and the white NGO LandCruiser in line ahead of us lost patience. Taking advantage of its smaller size and superior four-wheel drive, it climbed onto the uphill shoulder and squeezed past. Our own vehicle followed.

We stopped on the far side and I climbed out to take pictures. From this position, the entire accident could be seen to best advantage, from the dangling bulldozer to the tangled trucks above. As I fiddled with my aperture setting, however, the policeman finally saw something in the whole mess that he could control, and rushed out to assert his diminished authority. He shouted angrily in my direction, crossing his arms to indicate that photography was forbidden. Reluctantly, I put down my camera and climbed back into the car.