Under the Sword of Damocles (2008 Essay)

Originally published in Men’s Journal magazine in 2008:

High in the remotest mountains of the remotest province of the remotest nation in central Asia, a breathtaking lake is poised to unleash an inland tsunami that could kill 5 million people. Our writer couldn’t resist being one of the first outsiders to see it on foot. By Ted Rall

“Make it to the chaikhana,” I’d comforted my bleeding feet and burning lungs throughout our 14-hour trudge, “and you’ll be fine.” Turkic for “tea house,” chaikhana is the locals’ tongue-in-cheek nickname for what turned out to be a Neolithic-style campsite, a jumble of enormous boulders broken off the grey-white zigzag Pamir mountains that towered over the gorge we’d been following all day. But now, warm and dry in my sleeping bag, completely exhausted, blistering sunburn soothed with Noxzema, sleep was out of the question. Impending doom echoed off the canyon walls in surround sound.

I wasn’t worried about local Taliban-trained guerillas. And I didn’t think once about dangerous Caspian tigers (though officially extinct, Tajiks say they see them all the time). Snow-capped mountains brittle as glass were falling apart directly above our heads, SUV-sized boulders and slate missiles shaken loose by a barely perceptible drizzle. Crack! A rock the size of a basketball grazed our donkey driver, nearly killing him. We moved closer to the river, with the ominous roar of late spring snowmelt rushing down the Murgab River just outside our tent.

“Did you hear that?” I asked my wife.

“Yeah,” she said. “The water—it sounds like it’s flowing faster. Like there’s more of it. Can we do anything if it happens now?” It.

Even 12 hours’ warning wouldn’t help. “Where could we go?” I replied. “Over those mountains? There’s 10 feet of snow up there.” But there wouldn’t be any warning. Just a deafening roar. Then nothing.

We were still two days’ climb from Lake Sarez, a freak of nature at 11,200 feet known as Asia’s Sword of Damocles. Here, in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), a sparsely populated knot of forbidding mountains in the poorest backwater I’d-like-to-buy-a-vowel-Stan of the former Soviet Union, four cubic miles of water rests high above the Pamiri plateau, held back by a jumble of rocks.

The physics are simple. The potential devastation is incomprehensible. No one knows when this dam will break, but in the most seismically active region on the planet, where major earthquakes of 6 or 7 on the Richter scale are routine, most geologists’ computer models warn it’s inevitable that a wall of water half the height of the World Trade Center will scour this gorge and barrel down one mountain valley after another, taking out hundreds of villages and towns in four countries over 1,200 miles—the distance from New York to Kansas City.

Five million people would die. It would be the worst natural catastrophe in human history, and it would catch the world completely by surprise.

We landed at Dushanbe airport at two in the morning; it took another four hours for the baggage handlers to rifle through our stuff for valuables. After checking in at the downtown Hotel Tajikistan (a rundown Soviet-era cement pile under renovation before a five-star Hyatt allegedly opens later this year), we paid a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I promised not to blow up the dam, and then stocked up on food. With nearly total unemployment and an economy so flimsy that paper currency occasionally stops circulating in favor of barter, you have to bring in all the supplies you need.

I’d seen it all before: In 2001 Tajikistan’s only link to the West was its torturous “Baby Flot” state carrier Tajikistan Airlines, which offered anytime, anywhere flights, as long as you traveled on Saturday and only to Istanbul. Ten years after independence, phone calls were still routed through Moscow. Dushanbe nights were punctuated by AK-47 fire as exhaustion brought an inconclusive end to a decade-long civil war between the authoritarian central government and a coalition of radical Islamists and democratic reformers. Tajikistan had consulates in just three countries, the same as the Taliban on 9/11.

The Tajik embassy in Kazakhstan was a ruined flat in an Almaty housing project, with a red, white and green Tajik flag duct-taped at a 30-degree angle to the front door, the plastic doorframe riddled with bullet holes. “You should not go,” the ambassador told me then, clearly unaccustomed to visitors. “Tajikistan has nothing for anyone.”

Well, it certainly had something for me. Tajikistan is weird, inconvenient and offers little in the way of conventional tourism. For those willing to make the trip, this remote cultural kaleidoscope offers breathtaking scenery, some of the world’s tallest mountains, and a front-row seat to an epic struggle between lingering Soviet authoritarianism and rising Islamic fundamentalism in an impoverished country forced to invent its history and culture from scratch after 1991. Here, far from the prying eyes of the world, geopolitical fundamentals are being reassessed. Tajikistan’s water resources could become even more desirable than Kazakhstan’s huge oil reserves and Turkmenistan’s limitless natural gas.

Today Tajik embassies circle the globe. No more hanging around Ashkhabat waiting to see if your visa application will require yet another bribe; I Fedexed my passport to Washington and got my visa days later. Though Tajikistan Airlines continues to ply the Stinger-missile-targeted skies between Istanbul and Dushanbe, an extra hundred bucks buys you edible food, a sober pilot and a climatized cabin on Turkish Airlines.

But Lake Sarez is locked in old Tajikistan, where Lenin’s statue remains ubiquitous in the hope that Vladimir Putin will come to his senses and invite them back. Gorno-Badakhshan is sealed off from the rest of Tajikistan by an endless series of roadblocks—payback, government officials freely concede, for the province’s decision to declare independence during the civil war. A GBAO permit issued by the Office of Visas and Registration, domestic surveillance bureau of the Tajik KGB, is the only way to get past military checkpoints, still manned until recently by Russia’s 201st motorized rifle division. Access to the Bartang River valley, the jumping-off point to Lake Sarez, requires a letter from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the agency concerned with earthquakes or terrorist attacks on Usoi Dam. Well-placed gifts shortened the two-month wait to a couple of weeks. Our fixer suggested we use the wait to triple our normal 10-mile-per-week running regimen to prepare our lungs for the rigors of high-altitude climbing—even by Central Asian standards, the Pamir mountains are intimidating.

On an early visit to Dushanbe, a local drinking buddy had regaled me with the terrifying threat posed by Sarez, trying to warn me off. “Not even Tajiks can go to the Pamirs,” he said. “It is forbidden. And anyway, it’s too dangerous.” After that, it was all I could think about.

Our rust-red ’01 Mitsubishi Montero was packed with our Tajik team—driver, translator, and mountain guide—plus replacement parts for the car (no repair shops in the GBAO), jerry cans of gas (no gas stations), gear, cases of water and a dozen enormous winter melons (no markets or bazaars). If everything goes well, the drive to Barchadev, the village nearest to Lake Sarez, requires four 16-hour days on back-breaking dirt roads through land littered with spent ordnance and ruined tanks from the recent civil war. More than once our mountain guide, Umar Abdulloev, pointed out promontories where pro-Dushanbe forces had tossed bound and gagged Pamiris accused of sympathizing with the United Tajik Opposition into the swollen river below.

We lost our brakes a couple of times. As our driver Kamal worked on repairs, elderly women brought us blankets and chai. We were stopped at countless checkpoints manned by teenage soldiers, but never encountered the mujahedeen of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT), notorious for the 2000 kidnapping of four American rock climbers and nearly toppling the Uzbek government during summer offensives launched from anarchic Tajikistan.

We were more scared of our driver’s music.

A thirtysomething soccer fanatic with an easy laugh, Kamal was the best traveled of the bunch. On trips to Abu Dhabi and Beijing he’d picked up the mixed emotions of capitalist malaise. “I make money, I can travel everywhere,” he mused. “But Soviet times were better. Nobody had as much freedom, but we didn’t have to work hard.” Kamal plugged in a tiny MP3 player. He swore it held 25 songs. We counted eight. “This one is by an American basketball player,” Kamal explained as Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” came on for the tenth time that afternoon. But it was sweet deliverance after Limp Bizkit’s cover of “Behind Blue Eyes.” We heard the same rotation every half hour, day after day.

A century ago, the mountain people of eastern Tajikistan were completely isolated. There were no roads. Each village worshiped gods and spoke a dialect of Pamiri distinct from neighbors around the next mountain. Usoi was one of hundreds of such hamlets nestled along icy rivers in the high Pamirs, thousands of feet above the tree line and snowed in more than half the year. As they’d done for centuries, Usoi’s families relied on subsistence farming and fishing the Murgab River near their stone and mud houses, as oblivious to the world as it was to them.

At 11:15pm on February 18, 1911, the tectonic plate beneath the Hindu Kush resumed its inexorable drift into the Pamirs, pushing them upward and jolting the Murgab valley with a powerful 7.4-scale earthquake. A nameless mountain above Usoi exploded in a massive rockslide that wiped away Usoi and its 54 residents before settling into a sprawl of rocks two miles wide and half a mile deep. “After the collapse, tremors continued for a few more days,” researcher O. E. Agakhanianz paraphrased surviving eyewitnesses in 1989. “Dust settled only after three days and rocks kept falling from the slopes for 15 more years.” The Murgab River began backing up from the site of the new dam, named after the village it entombed. Eight months later, rising water claimed the next village upstream: Sarez.

Today Lake Sarez is 37 miles long, a mile wide and 600 feet deep. It continues to creep upstream through a deep gorge bordered by spectacular 18,000-foot peaks—an area called “the roof of the world.”

Not everyone worries that an earthquake could shatter Usoi Dam. Another quake might instead dislodge a rockslide into the lake, creating a wave that crests the dam and erodes its foundation. Other experts, noting that Lake Sarez is rising eight inches a year, think the dam will eventually succumb to the weight and buckle. Most agree on one thing: as long as the Murgab River keeps feeding the lake, the lake level will keep rising. When it nears the top of the dam, disaster is inevitable.

“Some 1,500 people live directly below the lake in the Murgab gorge,” Moscow State University professor Samuel Grigorian told a United Nations conference in 1998. “With the nearest villages 19 miles from Sarez, a flood wave moving about 16 feet per second would reach them in less than an hour. They would all be killed.”

I asked Umar whether he thinks much about the destruction hanging over his head. His smile vanished. “Every Tajik worries about Sarez.”

We had hoped to stay at the only hotel between Dushanbe and Sarez in the border town of Khorog, but it was booked up by Doctors Without Borders (but not, apparently, without reservations). We swung up the Bartang River road, a laughable mess of holes so brutal the government provides ramps for motorists to repair shattered axles. “Why don’t they use that money to fix the road?” I asked. Kamal shot me a “stupid question” look in the mirror.

We spent the night at a home stay in Khijez, a Bartang Valley oasis of slender birch trees, lush grass and grazing goats surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountains. There were scattered signs of international assistance: a small hydroelectric generating station donated by France, a bridge from Japan, rusted tins of rapeseed oil marked “Gift of USA.” Chump change. The Tajik government can’t afford a future for the residents of Khijez, the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to shore up and/or bypass the dam. I thought to myself, can’t the U.S. use five million new best friends in the Muslim world? Our dinner hosts were kind but fatalistic. I asked the father about his two daughters, smiling gamely in the doorway. Did they attend school?

“No one here sends their children to school,” he replied. “Why should we? We’re all going to die.”

We rolled into Barchadev, nursing concussions, achy tailbones and incipient altitude sickness. We planned to spend a day adjusting to the altitude, then start hiking the 19 miles up to Lake Sarez. We checked in with the village headman, a father of eight with an impressive Osama-like beard who runs the local Sarez alert station. Without a working transmitter and sure to be washed away with the rest of the village, he rents it out as a guesthouse. We were the first visitors this year.

“How many expeditions last year?” I asked.

“Six,” he said. “But none made it past the chaikhana.” A day’s hike north.

Bad news: Snow was forecast for the mountains. There would be no time to acclimate. We hired a donkeyman, crashed at the warning station/guesthouse, and set out before dawn along the Murgab River, which leaches out the bottom of Usoi Dam to form steep, ferocious rapids. Wincing under a piercing sun that burned our heads and shoulders while failing to make a dent in the 35-degree late-June chill, we trudged up the slope over dicey goat paths and thousands of unstable boulders. The donkey stumbled repeatedly on the sliding rocks, nearly losing his life and, more relevantly, our gear. Our ankles twisted left and right, forward and back. Umar’s sneakers fell apart. Every hour or so we’d encounter a rusty solar-powered monitoring camera a Swiss team had mounted on the walls of the canyon. I couldn’t avoid the image of a roaring inland tsunami around the next bend.

I sat next to our mountain guide Rashid Tashmoradov as we refilled our water bottles from the Murgab. Stoic and less helpful in tight spots than the donkey guy, Rashid decided I was worthless after I confessed I hadn’t served in the military. He would walk fast, ramrod straight, wait for us to catch up, and then rush forward again. “How are we doing?” I asked.

“You are not alpinists,” Rashid said, his glare oozing disgust.

“I never said we were alpinists,” I pointed out. “We’re journalists. We’ve come to see and write about Sarez.”

Umar pointed out where a rope suspension bridge once crossed the river, connecting to a semi-paved Soviet-era path on the north side. Last year, a young Russian climber had fallen from the bridge. It wasn’t a big drop, maybe eight feet, but his body, dashed on the rocks, was never recovered.

“Last year, the water rose one meter and took it out,” Umar said. That was four times the previous rate of increase. The path was now underwater.

An unimpressive run of muddy slush filled the bottom of a small crevasse. “Glaciers like that are thousands of years old,” Umar translated for the donkey guy. “They’ve melted away in the last year or two.” Global warming is upping the stakes at Sarez.

Looking back down the valley, it was easy to envision floodwater gushing toward Barchadev and beyond, turning south at the Murgab’s confluence with the Bartang River. The 75-mile Bartang Valley, cultural and spiritual heartland of the Ismaili Muslims, would lose 30 villages and 7,000 people. The Bartang empties into the Pyanj, a large river that marks the border with northern Afghanistan, then Uzbekistan, then Turkmenistan. Six hundred miles downstream from Lake Sarez, the flood would cross into another time zone. Even this far downstream, Scott Weber of the U.N. Department for Humanitarian Affairs told New Scientist in 1999, “the wall of water would still be as high as a two-story house.”

The city of Termiz in southern Uzbekistan is home to 140,000 people, the Uzbek-Afghan Friendship Bridge that the Soviets used to invade Afghanistan, and currently a German airbase with 3,000 NATO troops. Termiz would be obliterated. The water would keep going. The Pyanj is a tributary of the Amu Darya, which Alexander the Great knew as the Oxus. The flood path would continue along the Amu Darya, roughly marking the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, before emptying into the shrunken Aral Sea, 1,200 miles downstream of Sarez. The flood would actually do the Aral more harm than good, dredging up heavy metals and toxic sediments currently locked in the dry seabed.

The ancient Silk Road cities of Khiva and Turkmenabat (100,000 people total) would be destroyed, as would most of the arable land in Central Asia. Five million people—mostly residents of landlocked deserts that routinely reach 125 degrees—would be drowned by snow melt.

At the chaikhana, we pitched our tents in the shadow of a boulder to protect us from falling rocks and scrounged dead brush for a fire. As darkness fell, we fled for our sleeping bags, teeth chattering despite two layers of long underwear. I thought about how we were masters of shitty timing: I hit Islamabad the day of General Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 coup d’état. We picked New Years Eve 2000 to check into a Jordanian hotel targeted in the Millennium Plot. Usoi Dam might be a century old, but given our luck, it would pick that night to collapse.

Fortified by a can of Russian mystery meats and a rock-hard nan bread we’d picked up in Dushanbe a week earlier, we loaded up on river water—we wouldn’t see any more before Sarez—and headed up mountain tracks too thin to place both feet side by side without risking a tumble down into the river, soon just a bright blue pencil line hundreds of feet below. It was a brutal climb: 15 miles of 30- to 45-degree incline over wobbly boulders and bottomless holes. Two hours in, my six bottles of water were gone. I didn’t urinate; I was sweating it all out. I had welts on my shoulders, a grinding left knee and aches in every muscle and joint. Parched, blisters opening in the craters of older blisters, freezing and sunburned, I ordered myself to keep placing one foot in front of the other.

I was fighting against vertigo when a sudden wind came perilously close to knocking me over a cliff.

“Keep going!” Umar yelled from behind. I froze.

“I can’t move.”

“You’ll fall off if you don’t,” he said. I took a step. Gravel rolled away, dropping into the gorge. I picked a stable-looking slab of slate and stepped forward. One more step. Another. The slate slid off behind me. We scrambled around foot-wide ledges, sweaty hands pulling brittle shale from what looked like solid rock. It was the most physically challenging thing I’d ever attempted.

Even Rashid, leading our sad, thirsty troop across a random route between mountain passes, was suffering. We hadn’t seen the donkey or his attendant since morning. No one spoke. It was silent, lifeless—no scrubby plants, no birds, not even the buzz of a bug. By mid-afternoon the steep climb leveled off, with huge black boulders stretching out for miles.

“Umar!” I cried, pointing down. “Usoi?”

He smiled. “Yes, Usoi.”

As I thought about the villagers buried under millions of tons of rock, I knew one of my goals of this trek to Lake Sarez, to get a sense of the scale of the place and evaluate the threat it posed, was impossible. Standing in the middle of Usoi Dam, I couldn’t see its edges. I came over a rise, expecting to see the lake, only to encounter more dam.

Until I didn’t.

A glimpse of azure water appeared ahead. I shouted: “Sarez!”

Actually, it was Shadau, a smaller lake adjacent to (and sometimes connected with) Sarez, fed by a tributary of the Murgab. Sarez was still several hours of bouldering away. We soldiered on, thirst leaving our tongues thick and cardboardy.

Umar told me Rashid was surprised we hadn’t crapped out after the chaikhana. I asked why.

“Most Tajiks can’t do it,” he said. “Foreigners never make it.”

“So—are we alpinists now?” I asked.

He didn’t smile. “No,” he answered. “You are not alpinists.” But he didn’t glare.

I could report that I walked up to the new monitoring station at Lake Sarez and proudly shook hands with its employees. (The old one, a 1960s-vintage hunting cabin, is threatened by the rising lake.) But that would be a lie. “Water,” I croaked. As usual, Rashid glared at my weakness. My head felt like it was in a vice. I downed a gallon jug and collapsed in white dust under the station’s corrugated tin roof. When I awoke, I took in Sarez. It was like a lake on an asteroid, reflecting the awe-inspiring snowy peaks all around on its still, glassy surface, already less than 50 meters from the top of the dam. Mineral deposits had turned the water an inorganic process blue. Airless, lifeless, simultaneously hot and cold, a third of the way to the cruising altitude of a passenger jet, everything screamed get out—you’re not supposed to be here.

Yet there we were. Dead tired, breathless, brains and eyes burning from the sun, and unlike almost everyone else who’d seen this strange place, we didn’t come by military helicopter. Lake Sarez is indisputably beautiful—eerie and anomalous, a source of delicious water where big fish swim in schools. In recognition of its dual role as threat and promise, Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon recently proposed that its water be piped out and bottled. The place would be a tourist attraction if it wasn’t so completely inaccessible.

Every six months a new team of leather-faced locals chopper in from Barchadev to take charge of the facility for the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The four men hang out, play cards, drink vodka, and surf a sporadic satellite Internet connection. They’d planted a few saplings, but in the barren soil the dry sticks stood like gravemarkers, testimony to the futility of hope. At one point someone shouted: A butterfly! It bumbled along, searching in vain for something living to land on. The men hadn’t seen an insect in months.

They’re supposed to report anything that happens—earthquakes, rockslides, an 800-foot-high wall of water heading west—using a military radio connected to Dushanbe. Most of the time, however, the signal isn’t powerful enough to broadcast. Not that it would matter if it did. There’s no real evacuation plan. Relations with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, two nations that would lose millions of people, can charitably be called “strained.” It’s all very “Omega Man.”

With only enough vodka for the four ministry employees, our request to crash was rejected. The next day, we’d look around the lake and begin the brutal climb out. As we left, the boss made what may or may not have been a joke:

“We’ll be the last four men left alive in Tajikistan.”