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Alichur: An Overture of the Pamirs

By Ana Pantin, Cornell DVM ’22, Cornell MPH Candidate ‘23

The livestock sampling team in Alichur
The One Health team after a day of livestock herd sampling in Alichur village, Tajikistan. Photo: Helen Lee

“I’ve been up all night—no sleep—‘cause I feel like I’m always dreaming…”
- From “All Night” by The Vamps and Matoma

I vividly remember the night before I left for Tajikistan; I was nervous, excited, and utterly exhausted. I had just finished wrapping graduation gifts for my roommates and had just about moved everything out of where I was living for the last two years (including my bed). I remember pulling my blanket close to me and touching the wood floor. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as I thought it would be, and I was even a little thankful that it made me feel all the more grounded.

“O ay, no hay que llorar—esta vida es un carnaval; es más bello vivir cantando…”
[Oh oh, no need to cry—this life is a carnival; it is more beautiful to live singing…”]
- From “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” by Celia Cruz

I tend to turn to music in times of stress, but it’s also a source of personal conflict for me; I often feel like an actor who’s pretending to be a scientist. But here I was in Tajikistan, having been chosen to participate based on my veterinary CV instead of my theatrical résumé. I worked incredibly hard to be here, but now I felt as though there must have been some mistake. But I can’t say that music didn’t play a role in my work here; though I did not speak Tajik or Kyrgyz, I did know rhythm and melody, and this helped me connect with the community that would be the team’s first stop: Alichur.

Alichur village rooftops with mountains in the background.
A view of Alichur village from a rooftop. Photo: Ana Pantín

“Little town, it’s a quiet village. Every day, like the one before. Little town, full of little people waking up to say…”
- From “Belle” in the Disney film “Beauty and the Beast." Music & Lyrics by Alan Menken & Howard Ashman.

Far above the tree line at around 13,000 feet up, Alichur lies in a sparse landscape where the weather forecast could still call for snow in June… and it did indeed snow—more than once. Our days were spent divided between two main activities: door-to-door household livelihood surveys and livestock herd sampling. And we did the bulk of our surveys in Alichur since it was the largest village we visited.

Tajikistan home survey with Ana Pantín.
Working with local partners to conduct a livelihood survey inside a home in Alichur village. Photo: Martin Gilbert

*cue doorbell from the Broadway show “Book of Mormon”*

The livelihood surveys played a very crucial role in this One Health project. We were working with these communities to see how we could maximize the productivity of their livestock while minimizing their environmental impact. To do this, we needed to talk to people and get the lay of the land. What struggles were community members facing? Were they different depending on what you did for a living? How easy was it to buy and sell wares and goods? How much of their livelihood was dependent on their livestock herds and what did they perceive as their herds’ main production and health challenges? We needed as many details from as many households as we could visit, and the result was a survey about 13 pages long—it was comprehensive, but daunting to say the least.

Ana Pantín during the livestock survey shown holding a lamb and surrounded by the herd.
Livestock herd sampling in one of the pastures in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. Photo: Helen Lee

But I didn’t mind the surveys. Yes, they were meticulously detailed and time-intensive, but it also felt like the opening number of a musical; I was getting to hear from the ensemble what the story was about. From speaking with community members like the local music teacher to the mechanic to a single mom and her eldest son, I felt like I got a good grasp of the village and the varied problems that each household faced. And I wasn’t in this alone—I mostly worked with Nazar, a late addition to our translation team. Between houses we would chat about music, career plans, and goals, and we became fast friends (he even invited me to his wedding last year). It was fun to get to explore the neighborhood; everyone was so welcoming in offering chai and bread and whatever else they had to offer. And yes, sometimes the days felt as long as the surveys were, but other times the days flew by. We’d get wrapped up in conversation, and while you can’t see these candid moments in our data, and you can’t analyze the jokes we heard or the stories we shared, it’s part of what made my time in Alichur all the more special for me.

“My momma called, seen you on TV, said that it done changed ever since we was on. I dreamed it all ever since I was young—they said I would be nothing, now they always say congratulations…”
- From “Congratulations” by Post Malone and Quavo

On one of our last days in Alichur, we went out to see the lands set aside by the wildlife conservancy. When we arrived and I looked around at my surroundings, I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing. For the first time probably ever, my mind was silent. No rhythm, no melody. I didn’t need one—the landscape had brought its own. For the first time, I understood—I heard the hills alive with the sound of music. The mountains were singing the songs they had sung for a thousand years. The hills filled my heart with the sound of music, and made my heart want to sing every song it hears.

Ana Pantín with Pamir Mountains in the background.
Far above the tree line in Alichur, during an 'a-ha' moment. Photo: Helen Lee

I was brought to tears by this moment. It was everything that my family and I had worked so hard to achieve. I am the daughter of an immigrant, working-class, Latina single mother—I am not supposed to be the person who gets to go to college, let alone graduate school, and especially not at an Ivy League Institution. Kids like me don’t get to travel this far from home. I shouldn’t be standing there surrounded by the beauty that I was taking in, and yet, there I was. So maybe, just maybe, I can let myself believe that I earned it.

I left Alichur a different person than how I arrived. I was more confident, more self-assured, and more empathetic and compassionate than I could’ve been before. My experiences in this remote, harshly beautiful landscape will always stay with me—Alichur gave me that moment that I will truly remember and cherish forever. And so:

“I go to the hills when my heart is lonely; I know I will hear what I've heard before. My heart will be blessed with the sound of music… And I'll sing once more.”
- From “The Sound of Music” by Rodgers and Hammerstein

A portrait of Ana Pantín

Ana Pantin is a Cornell DVM graduate, class of 2022, and is currently an urgent care veterinarian in Auburn, New York. She is also working on completing a Master of Public Health degree program at Cornell University.  Ana is interested in wildlife conservation and in using the arts as a tool to promote public health initiatives, and she will continue to pursue these passions as she relocates to Washington, DC in the summer of 2023.

Read the first post of our "One Health on the Roof of the World" blog series: The Genesis of a New Project on the Roof of the World

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