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Tuesday, February 10, 1998 Published at 20:14 GMT

image: [ From our own correspondent Monica Whitlock ] A farewell to Central Asia

Monica Whitlock
Reporting from Tashkent

There are few places left on earth as uncharted as Central Asia. From the steppes of Kazakhstan, to the deserts of Turkmenistan, to the soaring heights of the Pamir mountains, not many outsiders have explored these vast lands - stretching from China to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Monica Whitlock has spent the past three years in this remote world as the BBC correspondent, and is now returning to London. Her last story begins in perhaps the most hidden corner of the mountains of Tajikistan: the Yagnob canyon, in the very centre of Central Asia:

There is only one way to Yagnob. You walk through the gorge between the sides of the mountain. Beneath, the river widens to form a pool where women dressed in soft reds and greens spread their washing on the rocks, their long dark hair in dozens of plaits, their scampering children coaxing up a fire to boil the tea. As we walked, small boys, three to a donkey, waved upwards, bright-eyed and laughing with excitement.

The people of Yagnob live in a scatter of tiny huts, each with its small fire; goatskins spread upon the stone floor. No Tajik can see a stranger without inviting them in, and we ate bread and apricots with green tea while the family spoke softly in their own tongue, a sort of ancient Tajik or Persian, incomprehensible to outsiders.

When the snows come howling down, the Yagnobis bank up the fire and wait quietly, trusting the children wrapped in quilts will survive the long winter, just as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. For little has changed here and there's no way out of the canyon until the softer weather comes. Meerzul who took us to Yagnob waved his arms about just thinking about the spring. "Everything is green," he said, exultant. The ice melts and pours out through every rock, streaming down to the river. Then the path to Yagnob runs through rushing walls of water.

Some Yagnobis have ventured further than one might imagine. Word has reached the canyon of the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj. The Yagnobis were the last of all the mountain peoples to become Muslims but now they've set off, walking through their gorge, then over the mountains and through the sands of Iran to Saudi Arabia.

No one has a map, no one knows how far it is to this strange outer world. You can see more people in one second in Mecca than you'd see in a whole lifetime in Yagnob. And what people. A babble of bizarre sounds and faces under a fevered sun. People with suitcases, people with watches, people with photographic images of their children in small folders stuffed with money. The world is truly full of wonders. And some among the crowd might be curious about the Yagnobis, drawn to their long-boned delicateness, their inner light, their unplaceable charm. Some might ask where they come from and it will be so very difficult to explain.

There's a touch of Yagnob all over Central Asia. Mention Turkmenistan beyond the border and people won't feel the breath of the desert, for they won't know where you mean. Say Tajikistan and maybe they'll have heard of some horrible hostage-taking, but nothing really of this beautiful and haunted land, the roof of the world, home to the most spirited of people, full of wit and gentleness. While on this side here in Central Asia, I'd met those who believe London is in Afghanistan - for that is where abroad is.

Rustum and his mother came over to say goodbye, bringing rice and hot stew for my mother because they cannot conceive of how far I am going. Ahmad, who is more worldly, feels in his bones that there is no coming back. And all this is part of why it's so very hard to go. Leaving Central Asia is like planet-hopping, and now I cannot imagine how it will be under that other sky.

But the end really is upon us and the last party is getting going in our little house in Tashkent with its faded blue paint. Someone has roasted a sheep in a clay oven outdoors in the yard where the deep dry snow squeaks beneath your boots. Inside someone else is breaking open pomegranates to arrange among the feast, perfect in its symmetry, the colours side by side: golden bread, green herbs, mint and coriander, white cheese. The guests are making inroads on a castle of pink meringues.

Afghans are muttering in undertones. They are covert Afghans who slipped across the border for some crucial meeting. The Imam from the old mosque has just called on the cellphone to say some of his followers have been arrested and can we please do something about it. The Tajiks, eyes shining, are boasting of the wonders of their land. One of them is from a valley near Yagnob - near that is, meaning it would take maybe four or five days to get there. The wine is flowing and Bohura begins to sing in a way that only Kazakhs can. Unearthly and lovely she stills the room.

Everyone has excelled themselves in generosity. They have joined together to give me a farewell present - silver and gold bracelets from long ago, perhaps from the mountains, perhaps from the shores of the Caspian. No one is sure and it doesn't matter. They must have been the treasure of a woman who lived and died in the time of the kings before whoever it was came along and drew the lines on the map and said this is the land we will call Central Asia, these are the frontiers.

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