“There is a light on the Afghan side.”
I put my plastic bowl of mashed potato down and stared hard through the evening gloom to the opposite bank of the river. To where we thought there had been no-one.
Hurriedly I fished binoculars from the tent pocket. A man was down by the rushing water in a pale salwar kameez. Two others were tending an orange glow on the tiny path above him.
We had watched this path all day as it wove its way along the bank opposite us, sometimes zigzagging up cliffs, sometimes squeezing right along the edge of the River Oxus, always parallel to the road that we were cycling on in the former soviet republic of Tajikistan.
The men had certainly seen our campsite, which was above the road, out of sight of the truck drivers and bazooka carrying patrols on our side, but exactly opposite them. They must have arrived while we were busy cooking. However, even had they wanted to, it would have been impossible to shout across the roar of the Oxus which was whipping up a chilly breeze between us.
“What are they doing there?”
We had not seen anyone opposite, since the first tingling sight of Afghanistan this morning, from a muddy bend below the Shurabad Pass. The only sign of life on the far bank had been a small collection of houses hours ago, visible from the veranda of a plump Tajik shopkeeper’s house, who locked up, refusing to sell us anything and lead us away for a lunch of lamb stew, yoghurt and naan.
“Do you think they could be smuggling drugs?”
Ed voiced both our prejudices; we knew this road was a major route for trafficking heroin. Anxiously we discussed if they might have mistaken us for the handover.
It was so strange that they had stopped just there. Surely, though, our bright blue fleeces marked us out as tourist? And, anyhow, crossing the torrent would be madness.
“Perhaps they are looking for Badakhshani rubies?”
“Or just walking to another village?”
“Or collecting plants? Mushrooms maybe? ”
In fact, the next day, we woke to find one of them scrambling precariously above the path, tossing something down to the men below, we could not see what.
But just then, all we could do was sit and speculate over our cold mashed potato. We might as well have been watching from a sofa ten thousand miles away, the barriers of tumbling water, rushing sound and national sovereignty felt as vast. Eventually all we could see was the fire and we knew they must be huddled close, perhaps cooking on the embers. No doubt they discussed us, but we wouldn’t have been the first tourists they had seen. The remote Pamir Highway, one of the few arteries between Central Asia and China, sees a steady trickle of transcontinental travelers.
Once in our down sleeping bags we could not resist sending one long flash of a head-torch out across the dark void.
A moment later, the unmistakable blue glow of a mobile phone’s backlight signaled goodnight from Afghanistan.