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"Hawk, hawk," chorus the birders. We are driving through a hawk migration. Large hawks are perched on trees and on phone wires along the highway.
"Stop, stop," plead the birders.
But we don't stop. The bus is bouncing about so crazily that not even the Peerless Leader can make a positive identification.
We barrel past "historic feudal strongholds" and "ancient churches perched on high promontories." Snowcapped mountains, Alpine meadows and, for all we know, glaciers, reel past the windows as our bus sways up the switchback highway.
Somewhere out there is the mountain peak to which Prometheus was chained as a tidbit for the local eagles. We see neither the mountain peak nor the eagles. At Krestovy Pass with its "grandstand view of distant mountain ranges" we cross the divide in a fog bank and begin our descent to Tbilisi.
Tbilisi looks interesting. Our guide tells us it is known as the "stone Florence of the Caucasus." But we don't stay long enough to test the metaphor. Instead, we drive north to medieval Mtskheta. It turns out to be worth the trip. We spot the solitary lammergeier. The birders are ecstatic.
In the Kara-Kum desert outside Ashkhabad our guide is Professor Tashliev of the Turkmenian Academy of Sciences. He launches into his lecture on the vast desert which not only has imprisoned our bus but covers most of the territory of the Turkmen republic.
The desert is far from lifeless, the professor says. He cites statistics: 368 different species of birds ("oh, good"); 90 species of mammals ("wonderful"); 70 species of snakes ("ugh"); and 50 species of fish ("How's that?"). Someone starts to ask more about the fish, but the professor is already striking out into the trackless waste.
Professor Tashliev draws up atop a large dune and clears his throat. "You may have noticed the absence of birds," he begins. "The weather has been unusually cold the last few days, and I doubt that we will find many birds today. Next time you must come to us in October. But here's an interesting tree. It's called saksaul and...."
Outside Dushanbe, in the foothills of the Pamir mountains, near the Afghanistan border a man from the Tadzhik-istan Academy of Sciences is telling us about the local birdlife. "You must come to us next time in spring," he says. "In spring there are lots of flowers and birds along the river."