It was an awful night. Trapped at the border station on the Tajik side of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, my lack of acclimatization and over-exertions from the previous day had led to an intense bout of altitude sickness. I spent the night staggering from my bunk in the barracks to the pit toilet outside, alternating between squatting to relieve myself and crouching over the hole on my hands and knees as my whole body retched. With each heave, the pain in my chest flared to agonizing levels — was this what having a heart attack felt like?
Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.” – Rabindranath Tagore
I spent the next day packed with the border guards into an ancient troop transport trundling along the Pamir Highway to the frontier town of Murghab. Desolate alkaline plains stretched to barren peaks — windswept and alien. Yurts and rundown shanties were few and far between, disappearing behind clouds of dusts as swiftly as they’d appeared. My chest still ached constantly, and breathing deeply sent stabs of pain through me.
We reached the town of Karakul after several hours, pulling into the fortified garrison. The officers disembarked, and I found myself alone with the border guards. A horde of other soldiers surrounded the truck, jostling to get close as they jeered at the young men packed inside with me. One, a sallow-faced man with a cruel smile that didn’t reach his eyes, grabbed a young soldier by the chin and taunted him. This went on for countless minutes. I could see that the young soldier was terrified.
Eventually, he flushed and tried to pull away, but the sallow-faced man slapped him. The young man drew a knife from his belt, and his adversary grabbed his arms. They wrestled for control of the blade as the other border guards tried to defuse the situation; I made myself shrink into the corner — pulse racing and chest-pain flaring. The young soldier shoved the sallow-faced man, only to recoil as the man punched him in the face.
“Hey!” I shouted, shaking with impotent rage. I wanted to throttle the bastard, but he was armed and surrounded by a mob of supporters. As his eyes met mine I glared, struggling not to let my fear reveal itself. He laughed and gestured at me, his cohorts cackling at whatever foul thing he said. I sneered, painting contempt on my face. The young soldier who’d been punched was wiggling his way to the back of the truck, blood pouring from his nose. The shouting and jostling continued, and tensions strained to the point of breaking.
After what seemed like an eternity, the officers emerged from the barracks and the sea of unruly men parted to let them through. As we drove away, I felt the pressure gripping my chest ease a little. I tried not to think about the pain as I focused on breathing, focused on the road ahead. Just a little bit further…
I still think of that day sometimes: completely off the grid and cut off from my friends and family, as close to death as I’ve ever been. I think of the fear I felt, and the helplessness.
I think of it all, and know I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.
When travel first became an important part of my life, I threw myself into it with naive abandon. The world was my oyster, and everyone I met was my friend.
That carefree attitude has been tempered by experience. I’ve been robbed as I slept on the streets, jumped by a gang of young men in broad daylight, scraped and bloodied after a scooter crash, and stricken with altitude sickness in one of the most remote corners of Asia. I’ve seen someone’s brush with death after a horrible accident and had travel companions who’ve been victims of sexual assault. Travel can be dangerous in any number of ways.
But, for me, the rewards outweigh the risks. For every terrifying experience I’ve had, I’ve had ten wonderful ones. For every awful person I’ve met, I’ve met countless others who’ve showered me with kindness.
And I say also this. I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.” – C.S. Lewis
I’m not as naive as I was. I know what the cost of this could be, but I’m living my life and doing my best to live it well. I won’t let the fear of the unknown impact how I live my life. If I do, then I’m already dead.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention to arrive safely in a pretty and well preserved body; but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’” – Hunter S. Thompson