2 Women Drove 2500km along the 2nd Highest Road on Earth
Written by Catherine Haigh
In July 2018 we (Catherine & Hannah) set off from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, in a 1998 Toyota Land Cruiser, with our camera equipment and maps, attempting to drive the full 3000km length of the Pamir Highway, and interviewing local women we met along the way.
Our drive brought us to the doorsteps of over 45 women with remarkable stories to tell – and these stories are the focus of our upcoming documentary. Among our interviewees were Kyrgyzstan’s only LGBTQ support group (Labrys), an all-female run brewery (Save the Ales), Tajikistan’s first female trekking guides (Women Rockin' Pamirs), a world-Taekwondo champion using her sport to combat gendered violence, Uzbeki business women, bee-farmers, yak-herders and - we think - the oldest gynaecologist in Central Asia, still delivering babies at 78 years old.
As two young British women with a fairly adventurous plan - to drive a challenging route with no local language skills, a big camera set and (even bigger) ambition to film a documentary - it’s no surprise we’ve been asked a LOT of questions. If you’ve read this far there are probably questions in your mind already, and we bet at least one of them is on the list below.
Here are the 10 most common questions we get asked and our honest answers.
1. Where did this idea come from? (And where are those countries again?)
The project, which we initially titled ‘Women Behind the Wheel’ (and have yet to re-name), was born from our curiosity to travel to this cluster of countries in Central Asia which few Westerners have heard of, let alone visited. (Get the map out!)
It was online that we first came across the ‘Pamir Highway’, known to be the 2nd highest international road on Earth, and the more we read (the majority of Indy Guide Blog posts) the more we wanted to drive this spectacular stretch of road… ourselves. With one of us an aspiring filmmaker; the other a budding anthropologist, our idea naturally grew from a road-trip into a documentary proposal: to explore the lives of women living in one of the most under-explored regions on Earth, sharing their stories for the first time
2. How did your parents feel?
You’d be surprised that even as two twenty-somethings, this is one of the first questions we get asked.
It would be a lie to say our parent’s weren’t concerned – they were. Initially, like the majority of Brits, they had no idea where these countries are but heard ‘stan’ at the end and freaked out. An unwarranted, but completely typical reaction. For us, it was all about giving them as much information as possible about Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. We showed them numerous articles (in particular Indy Guide - Self Drive the Pamir Highway and Indy Guide - Uzbekistan Backpacker Guide) that completely changed their assumptions that we’d need a bullet proof vest or kidnap insurance (!) It was great that, having learnt more about the region, our parents were onboard and passionate about the documentary too.
3. What were you most scared about?
We were nervous about different things.
Catherine was most concerned about the border crossings. Unlike other parts of the world, few foreigners have attempted to cross between these three countries in a Kyrgz-registered rental vehicle. She was worried about not having the right paper work, questions about our camera and footage, and being asked for extortionate amounts of money. Indy Guide’s articles (eg. Indy Guide - Border Crossing Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan) eased her fears to an extent. And, in fact, the border crossings were without issue. At no point were we asked for money we didn’t owe; at no point did we feel unsafe or threatened. Naturally there were questions – what on Earth were two women doing with a car like this? But, border guards were happy to give us directions and let us fill up water before setting off. Although, when leaving Uzbekistan, they searched every inch of our car, we drove into Tajikistan with waves and marriage proposals (which we politely declined).
Hannah was most scared about the driving (given Catherine’s the car fanatic). On long, quiet stretches of road in south Uzbekistan she overcame this fear within the first few days and, although cities and parking remained slightly problematic, she surprised herself by genuinely enjoying the driving (See question 4).
4. How was the driving? Did anything go wrong with the car?
Honestly, it was great. Prior to leaving we had completed a day’s off-road driving course and learnt some basic mechanic fixes, but nothing quite prepares you for the Pamir Highway. That’s what makes the road so special. Once we’d mastered driving on the other (wrong!) side of the road with the gear stick in the other hand, trickiest parts involved manoeuvring past large trucks on thin stretches of the road, navigating huge pot-holes whilst driving uphill and the lack of oxygen at high altitude which made the car sluggish and slow. Even while we were out there, articles we had printed out (like Indy Guide - The Road from Bishkek to Osh) were invaluable, giving us accurate info on the road. What we hadn’t expected, was the challenge of driving in unknown cities with different road rules that are often not followed! We’re still not sure whether we were meant to give way approaching the roundabout or once you’re on it…
Some stretches of the road were so remote that the landscape felt immensely powerful - we wouldn’t see another vehicle for 5 or 6 hours at a time. The views were breath-taking. Our favourite stretch was through the Wakhan corridor where we drove along the Afghan border for 3 days – the gushing Panj river and towering mountains were incredible. Remembering to take enough water with us (surely the simplest of tasks?) was sometimes forgotten in the chaos of trying to find the right petrol and charge camera equipment in tiny villages before setting off. Water purification tablets and the fresh springs along the road’s edge saved us numerous times when shops were few and far between.
Of course, things went wrong. The first time our tire burst we accidentally drove on for a further 3km before even realising what had happened because the road itself was so bumpy. We were a 5 hour drive from the next town and two local men helped us fix the puncture with melted plastic and paper. Their handiwork not only helped us out, but was so skilled that when we took the car into the mechanics they couldn’t even find where the puncture had been! A couple of times the car didn’t start - jump leads and patience solved that one and taught us to double check all appliances were unplugged and turned off before leaving the car so the battery didn’t drain. About a month in, the hand break started to weaken which made hill starts even more difficult in a heavy vehicle. On our final day’s driving our tire burst coming down a long hill – by this point we were comfortable with fixing it but the problem was – with no hand break, we couldn’t keep the car from rolling! Eventually, stacking rocks under the wheels solved this one.
The expressions of local people and policemen at seeing two women behind the wheel were unfailingly amusing – the immediate reaction tended to be an expression of pure shock. It’s not commonplace for women, even tourists, to drive in this region of the world. Yet whenever there was a problem with the car, after the initial few minutes of worry we never really panicked. Even in the most isolated of regions, there’s always a solution, and everybody is willing to help.
5. How did you talk with your interviewees when you couldn’t speak their language? How did you even meet them?
We met many of our film’s subjects by chance, for example, an inopportune breakdown was sometimes the very thing that brought us into contact with local communities. Social media also helped us grow awareness to our journey as we drove - often women would reach out to us via Instagram and facebook with suggestions and contacts.
It’s true that English is not widely spoken in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan. Each country has their own national language, added to which are the various regional languages, and Russian (a hangover from the period of Soviet occupation). Yet language was rarely a barrier. For sections of the trip, often concentrated around cities where we had pre-arranged interviews, we contacted local guides in advance to see if they could join us for a few days and help translate. We often used Indy Guide’s website to get in touch with female tour guides who were the best! Not only did they guide and translate for us, but they often found new & exciting women for us to interview, and treated us like friends.
In more rural areas, we were usually unaccompanied. You’d be surprised how much can be meaningfully communicated through gestures and facial expressions. When we decided there was a lady who we wanted to interview, it wouldn’t take long before somebody contacted or went to fetch the best ‘English speaker’ in the village (a relative or friend) who would facilitate the conversation. Hannah’s German helped a surprising amount too!
6. Did people mind being filmed?
In general – no, although this varied a lot.
We were pretty careful about the way we filmed: nobody likes a camera stuck in their face without giving permission! Prior to any interviews we always explained how the footage would be used and sought their consent to filming. Contrary to expectations, rural communities were far happier to be filmed than city dwellers. More predictably, women were shyer than men in front of the camera: men may wave and beckon the camera towards them; women were more prone to turning their heads and looking away. It was important for us to build trust with women before filming them. The majority of our interviews were done in locations or spaces that the women felt most comfortable in, and without men around – we found that in these situations, they were able to relax and talk freely.
When filming in the streets, we were cautious. Uzbekistan, for example, has only allowed photography of national buildings and sites in the last few years and was a country largely closed to tourists during the previous presidency which lasted 25 years, until 2016. Although the new President Mirziyoyev brings with him a refreshing encouragement of tourism, and Uzbekis are always welcoming, we restrained from using our camera too much in public. At border crossings, too, we didn’t film.
7. Did you fall out?
A trip of this scale doesn’t come without arguments – there’s no avoiding them. To begin with, as we were figuring out a new routine in an unfamiliar environment, with the added pressures of microphone faults, jet lag and 40 degrees Celsius, we had the inevitable teething problems. We’re two very different characters who operate in pretty diverging ways! But once we’d got the hang of co-ordinating filming, driving and interview-organising, we found our modes of working and filming began to complement each other. Aside from mundane arguments on the road (“Shouldn’t we have turned left back there?” “Um.. yes” “Well why didn’t you say!” “ Well why don’t you slow down so I can give instructions properly!”), things started to slip into a routine. As with any trip of this length, we each had our ups and downs, and helped one another through them. The experiences we had during the trip were unforgettable, and definitely brought us closer together.
8. What were the women like?
The access we had to the local women is truly unprecedented, and simply would not have been possible without our car. Not only did we speak to far more women than planned, but their stories and experiences were more powerful than we ever expected. We interviewed 45 women, in scenarios ranging from sit-down formal conversations, to ad-hoc chats on street corners or over food, captured on camera. We were keen to focus on women whose voices are typically silenced or marginalised in both local and global communities.
Their strength of character was remarkable: to give just a few examples, we spoke with a lesbian woman who had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child, and had suffered domestic abuse in her former marriage – she told us that we were among just three other people to whom she had disclosed her sexuality. In Uzbekistan we spent three days living with 18 year-old Sitora, who is the primary carer for her young brother with Cerebral Palsy. Her dreams of being a medic are put under significant strain as she misses classes to look after him, and she admitted that she’s struggling under the enormous weight of responsibility she currently has.
But for all the challenges thrown at these women, they are awe-inspiringly resilient. Many are coming up with initiatives to advance women’s emancipation on local and national scales. We picked up Dilbar near the mountainous town, Gharm, from where she took us to a collection of bee houses which she had allocated to local women as a source of income. Many had husbands who had left for Russia but never returned - the hives were their lifeline, enabling them to support their families. In the much more urban setting of high-rise office in Uzbekistan’s capital, we interviewed Aziza, the most prominent female businesswoman in the country. Her experience of bringing up a baby whilst at university abroad had imbibed in her a strong sense of resilience which allowed her to fight back when the government heavily fined her for hosting an unregistered women’s support group.
9. What were the hardest parts?
It sounds clichéd, but the trip was exceptionally tiring. There were early mornings, setting off to drive before the heat of the day, and late evenings where we spent hours meticulously uploading and saving our footage to hard drives. It’s funny to think that hours sitting behind the wheel can be so physically draining. Plus the altitude didn’t help. The interviews themselves were emotionally draining, and sometimes we visited 4 people in a row without breaking in order to maximise our short time at each pit-stop.
Often the best moments were also the hardest to deal with, We were both, at times, moved by the stories we were told and by the overwhelming hospitality we received. We weren’t expecting women to open up about topics so close to their hearts and were always taken aback when they thanked us - for listening, and for giving them the chance to share their experiences or articulate thoughts they rarely say out-loud. Although we knew that Pamiri people are renowned for their hospitality, we weren’t prepared for the extent of their generosity. For example, situations where locals wanted to give up their own beds, precious fuel or possessions to help us out – and we certainly weren’t comfortable accepting these offers. It was difficult for us to toe the right line between graciously accepting in order not to seem rude or ungrateful, whilst carefully ensuring we weren’t being unintentionally exploitative of their kindness.
10. So what story is your documentary actually about?
The women’s voices collated during our trip were not only more numerous, but far more diverse than we initially expected. Although the women we met are, in one sense, connected – by history, society and environment - they are also overwhelmingly diverse. No one story is the same. But despite this, these stories do all have one thing in common - they speak for themselves: these are women worth listening to.
Our documentary is a collage of these voices, woven together by our own journey along the Pamir Highway.
So there you have it - your questions answered before you even got the chance to ask! There’s a natural curiosity in all of us and if we’ve managed to inspire you (yes, you!) to travel to this region or get behind the wheel of a car and take on the challenge, it’s a success in our eyes. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are not countries to be afraid of, far from it - their landscapes are beautiful, their culture is unique and, overwhelmingly, their people have the warmest hearts.
Thank you to Indy Guide for their expertise and support.
Women Behind the Wheel: Unheard Voices on the Pamir Highway will be out this summer. The documentary will shed light on Central Asia's diverse female communities, giving a platform to female voices that are rarely represented on screen. Please follow us on Instagram @women.behind.the.wheel and on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/womenbehindthewheel2018/) to stay up to date on the film's progress. We are currently fund-raising for our post-production. Any questions or interest in sponsorship – please contact email@example.com or visit https://www.gofundme.com/women-behind-the-wheel