One evening we stopped in a Kirghiz camp called Uchkali, "Place of the Ibex," where there were nine families living in nine yurts and an untold number of goats and sheep and yaks. Kirghiz lives are interwoven with the lives of their animals, and they subsist almost entirely on red meat, milk, and yogurt. Although they speak a Turkic dialect, their ancient ancestors may have been Mongols. After welcoming cups of tea, the old chief, a man named Yeerali, set before us a battered cardboard box. Inside the box was a gas-powered generator.
Yeerali had bought the generator the previous autumn, along with several gallons of gas and a box of electrical supplies, and brought them here by horse in hopes of having lights during the long, snow-buried winter. Of course the generator broke soon afterwards and the camp spent another winter in darkness.
We were Americans, were we not? Visitors from the land of machines. Certainly we would fix the generator.
After having been given so much by the people of the Wakhan, it was our chance to give something back. Besides, we were on the spot. Doug and I took up the challenge.
First we carefully examined the little beast, talking back and forth in a professional tone, making a good show of our diagnosis. Then we got out our multitools and went to town. We fiddled with the gas mixture and the throttle spring and the adjustment screws and the choke lever and the spark-plug gap.
The machine was no more complicated than a lawn mower, but the gaze of the entire camp was on us. After we'd done all we could possibly think of and then some, I yanked on the pull cord.
Nothing. The Kirghiz's disappointment was palpable.
We fiddled some more, I pulled the cord: a cough. Their eyes lit up. More adjustments, I pulled the cord, and the little engine that could roared to life.