Gorno-Badakshan, Tajikistan

The outpost consisted of a few low white-washed buildings, huddled in a shallow dip that offered little protection from the wind. The desert around was a uniform reddish-gray, loose rubble and grit only relieved by a narrow stripe of khaki-colored grass that followed the slender line of a stream downhill. Behind us, the valley of the Pamir sloped down towards Afghanistan.

“Here they check our papers,” W. said.

Ismail had given us simple instructions for checkpoints: “Don’t take photographs. And let W. do all the talking.” I was happy to obey. Given that my Tajik was limited to ‘thank you’ and my Russian to ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘excellent’, prospects for striking up an extended conversation with the ‘militsia’ looked pretty limited.

The checkpoint itself consisted of a guard hut, and a red-and-white striped barrier wrapped in barbed wire, with a second barrier about ten metres beyond. W. gathered our registrations and stepped out of the car. As we slowed, a pair of teenage soldiers emerged from the hut, worn-looking AK-74 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. They grinned sheepishly and then the taller of the two seized W. in an embrace that looked more heartfelt than military.

The warmth of the welcome was soon explained. “My cousin,” said W. “I didn’t know he was up here.” The other soldier took our registration papers and disappeared into the hut, while W. and his cousin caught up.

After a few minutes he re-emerged and signalled for W’s cousin to raise the barrier. We drove through, and they lowered it again behind us, leaving us between the two barriers. To my surprise, neither made any move to shift the second barrier, which consisted of a wire-wrapped metal pole supported by twin trestles. The driver blew the horn impatiently, but the soldiers stayed where they were.

It occurred to me that we were, at least in formal terms, trapped. We were also in open desert, miles from the nearest unmilitarized habitation. I had reflexively counted ammunition pouches on the soldiers as we passed and concluded that they were equipped to sustain a fairly-lengthy firefight if need be.

The driver apparently didn’t care for the situation either. After a moment, he started the engine and eased us carefully through the narrow gap between the mobile barrier and the adjacent wall. I resisted the urge to turn and see how our camouflaged friends were reacting to our slow-speed flight, but no shouts or shots followed. Safely on the far side, the driver cut the engine. We waited.

“They are calling the officer up,” said W. He too appeared a little unnerved by the ambiguous situation. Family or not, something was a little off here.

We waited for a while more, and then a green-clad figure appeared from between the huts and began ambling up the path to the road. He looked comfortably padded, and two glossy blue wings of non-regulation fleece stuck up from the collar of his combat smock. He came on at the unhurried pace of a man who knows that the world will wait for someone with rank badges on his collar.

As he came closer, I saw that he too was grinning, and he gave W. a warm handshake and a hug. The two men moved behind the vehicle, while we sat staring dutifully forward. I wondered if bribery negotiations were taking place and, if so, why they needed to take quite so long. Surely “How much to let the funny-looking foreigners go through?” was a question that didn’t require that much discussion.

At last W. reappeared, looking slightly embarrassed. “They are all from Ishkashim, like me,” he said. “They just wanted to know the news.”