Madame Dollar

May 14, 2013

After an altitude sickness ruined sleep, I was happy to get up at 6 AM for our 7 AM ride to Murghab. Breakfast was the best milk and rice porridge I can remember, along with the requisite bread and tea. We all needed to finish packing with the departure time fast approaching, but we had all waited as long as we could to use the walled but roofless latrine hoping the temperature would rise with the sun. Simply, it was freezing outside.

It was literal. The small irrigation canals that are dug to capture mountain runoff, had frozen over. All of them, with quarter inch thick (1cm) sheets of ice on them. Our sequential trips to the latrine only caused a minor delay, but the drivers didn’t seem to mind as we wedged ourselves into the Chinese made and sized minivan. As men usually do, we spread out as much as possible. Max and Sjoerd sat in the first bench and I took the back. At nearly 5′ 10″ (175 cm), I felt like a basketball player in a clown car. My knees, no matter how hard I tried, were being pressed into the springs on the back of the first bench, so I joined Sjoerd and Max on the first bench before the journey could start. As we trolled around town, we picked up passengers, we picked up large and heavy auto parts, and eventually found a house that had fuel for the trip. Such as it is in the Pamirs. Every driver knows who sells fuel. The question is who actually has some to sell.

Murghab

Murghab

The Chinese made and Chinese-sized minivan

The Chinese made and Chinese-sized minivan

The trip to 3-4 hour trip to Mughab was pleasantly uneventful. The only things we had to do the rest of the day was find a place to stay, speak with the tourist office in town, and get cash for Sjoerd. Murghab is the largest ‘city’ that we would encounter until we reached Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Recent development in the town meant that homestays would be plentiful and there were a couple banks as well. After spending some time avoiding a hawker who was driving around to show us where we should stay while trying to guarantee our business for the trip to Osh, we found a nice place that we could stay. I negotiated the price down and we dropped our packs. Next we went to a bank, where again, Sjoerd’s MasterCard wasn’t accepted. So, we walked to the tourist office while Max and Sjoerd considered how Sjoerd might be able to settle his debt with Max. The walk there did nothing to settle that debate nor did it help us decide what our next stop on the Pamir Highway would be. The office was no longer in that location, and since it was ‘off-season’, there was no one staffing the office in Murghab. Even phone calls to that office yielded nothing.

The welcoming committee to Murghab

The welcoming committee to Murghab

The town of Murghab offers LOTS to do, so we did what any Western traveler does- goes to an internet cafe. It was rumored that there was one in town and we had been starved of our Facebook for a whole 3 days. Our best chance was a hotel that advertised it’s internet connection. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to open until July 1. So, Facebook would have to wait. In the meantime, Max had gone inside the hotel hoping for a lead on a legitimate or black market exchange to settle the money owed him by Sjoerd. While there, he had fallen in love with the hotel and its relative comfort. He convinced Sjoerd it was a good idea to move our accommodation, and I was outvoted and annoyed. We picked up our belongings and moved to the hotel where it became clear why it was so cheap to stay there. It was a struggle to find three rooms where the locks worked and there was no heat. I can’t remember needing three layers of clothing to be comfortable in hotel, ever, and I like the cold. I tried to catch a nap to make up for the night before, but couldn’t sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time as the deskman kept knocking on the door to make sure that the lock worked, that I only had one key, and God knows what else, but by the time Max had knocked, I had lost my patience with the utter lack of privacy. That’s why we were there in the first place, right? Max needs his privacy and makes no apologies for it, and here I am being harassed by the staff when I just want a nap. FML.

The house slippers provided by our hotel.

The house slippers provided by our hotel.

At this point, I was hungry and I needed some sun to warm up, so I went down to the market while Sjoerd and Max went to try another bank. Murghab, being a popular truck stop along the Pamir Highway, had a decent, if unorthodox market. Situated more or less like a frontier outpost, the weather conditions in Murghab necessitate a market that isn’t a series of tables and canopies, but rather a collection of all metal shipping containers and old postal train cars. I really enjoyed the rawness of it and the best selection of goods since Khorog. I ran into Max who had found a nice cafe and I agreed to meet him after some shopping. Sjoerd then followed after another unsuccessful attempt to get money from a bank, and we all had a nice, warm, tasty late lunch at the cafe.

Enjoying our late lunch in Murghab

Enjoying our late lunch in Murghab

It was at this point that Max took over. He went to the hotel and spoke with the woman in-charge to so that Sjoerd could get his hands on dollars. We had no idea what her name really was, so she became Madame Dollar. She was quite confident that she would get the dollars needed, however the first time she returned, she only had Tajik somani. Max made it clear that dollars were needed and she disappeared again to gather dollars for the transaction, which she eventually did- ending the Sjoerd’s debt owed to Max. Tomorrow, we would go to Karakol.

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