Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book #2: Stones into Schools

I read Stones into Schools before I read Nothing to Envy, but the latter was easier to review. Stones into Schools was a fun, easy read though I one I read more for its setting than its heartwarming message. As interested as I am in education, particularly in that part of the world, it's my newfound fascination with the mountains of Asia that got me to buy this book.

A great deal of this book focuses on the Wakhan corridor, the tiny stretch of northeastern Afghanistan that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan. When conceived, of course, it separated British India from the expanding Russian empire. The corridor is isolated politically as well as geographically. On both sides are impressive mountains, the Tajik Pamirs on one side and the Hindu Kush on the other side going towards Pakistan.

The narrow eastern end is the Afghan border with China at 15,000 feet, perhaps the most obscure border anywhere in the world. The border has, from what I've read, been closed since the Communist revolution in China sixty years ago. In fact, there is no actual road crossing the border, those stop long before. As an added bonus, the time difference across the border is 3 hours and 30 minutes, owing to China's one time zone for a country the size of Europe and Afghanistan's location in Central Asia.

Reading about the Wakhan corridor was certainly worth the price of the book, the most I've ever read about the topic, not unlike reading about parts of North Korea that never make it into books or press accounts. Consider that many North Korean provinces have less written about them than obscure streets, neighbourhoods or websites on Wikipedia.

Greg Mortenson's stories of life in Central Asia, unique for its combination of rugged beauty and being comparatively well-off not too long ago, was interesting. Today it's one of the poorest parts of the world, but it has apartment blocks, highways that tunnel through mountains and even a subway in Uzbekistan, unique not for their existence but for how long ago they were built.

Mortenson's unique anecdote about hiring and firing drivers for any reason up to and including too much time on the cell phone reminded me of my own experiences in a "shared taxi" driving across Kyrgyzstan at speeds as risky as the country was beautiful. For safety reasons, working in Afghanistan, they would name a nearby village as the destination and then recalculate.

As for me, my "shared taxi" came via a travel agent who charged $25 for a ride that cost $12 for a Swiss tourist and therefore maybe $5 for a local Kyrgyz. This consisted of walking to the market to scrounge up some guy hiring out his car, a strange man driving a Japanese Nissan that drove on the wrong side of the road, who made me wait for an hour before selling me off to a still-less-scrupulous man with a less scrupulous car who also got me to buy him his dinner.

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