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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Off-Roads Better Taken by Goat

KUMROG, Tajikistan — There are four ways to get to this tiny settlement high in the mountains of Tajikistan: You can travel by foot, donkey or horse, but the fastest, most reliable way is to go by Goat.

The Goat — or Kozyol — is not the four-legged kind, but a four-wheel-drive. It is an affectionate nickname for a gritty, go-anywhere, Soviet-designed jeep as reliable as it is ugly.

Its real name is even uglier, UAZ, so drivers bestowed the pet name to convey its manner of jerking from one rock to another on dangerous pathways.

The magic of the Kozyol is its ability to take a traveler to destinations so remote and exotic that, clambering off the rock-hard seat, it is like stepping out of a time machine.

When the road gets dicey along the rocky donkey track that meanders through the mountains to Kumrog, passengers step out and walk half a kilometer or so while the Goat driver goes it alone.

Driver Bobojon Saiduloyev, 33, a stranger to fear, jams eight passengers into his Goat for a hair-raising trek across scree-covered track. The motor grinds and strains, the wheels lose traction on the pebbles, while a sheer ravine gapes like eternity at anyone who dares peep out the side window.

Afterward, Saiduloyev shrugs and says he picked up his driving skills steering Soviet armored personnel carriers with no brakes, on worse roads than this one.

"I'm afraid of nothing and no one, only Allah," he declares.

If a car's headlights are its eyes, then the expression worn by the Kozyol is huffing determination, its radiator grille resembling teeth clenched with effort.

With its 1.5-ton steel body, the Kozyol conveys the persona of a particular type of male: the bull-necked fellows who can do anything, from hauling a fridge up 16 flights of stairs to fixing a broken-down car on the side of the road in sub-freezing weather — or slaughtering a pig or a sheep if necessary.

They're the kind of people found behind the wheel of a Goat, and they would never be convinced that in a really tight spot a Western four-wheel-drive might do as well.

Today, 50,000 of the vehicles are produced each year, and 65 percent are bought by private owners from throughout the former Soviet Union. UAZ is the acronym for Ulyanovsk Car Factory.

On a flat road, the Kozyol is unremarkable, although it does break down less frequently than the average Russian car and, being designed for fools, is easy to fix. It guzzles fuel, but at about $6,800 it's much cheaper than a Western all-terrain vehicle. It is uncomfortable, but on the hardest roads, fans swear, nothing beats the Goat.

Even with nine people crammed on board, the Kozyol climbs stolidly up into the mountains, transporting its passengers to a different world that seems set just beneath the heavens.

Kumrog is a remote village of a dozen houses where the arrival of a Kozyol bearing foreign visitors is an extraordinary event. Children stare silently.

A bright rug is spread on the grass beneath the halo of mountains, plump white cushions are thrown down, shoes are removed, water is poured onto visitors' hands. Delicacies are spread: flat loaves of coarse brown bread, dried white mulberries, lumps of sugar, homemade pats of butter swimming in a pond of sour cream, and a ground mulberry confection similar to marzipan.

Hospitality here is nearly a religious rite, and visitors must be wary of careless compliments, lest their host give them the shirt off his back.

The master of the house, Nurali Aliyev, 70, declares that for guests who have come so far, only one honor is high enough. So a black-and-white goat is thrown onto the back of Borka the horse and brought down to be slaughtered.

Still warm, the liver of the goat is cut up, massaged with salt, threaded onto twigs and set over a low fire of gray ash.

As it slowly roasts, there's a sudden commotion. The cunning horse Borka has crept onto the vegetable patch to roll deliciously on the young potato plants. Someone hurls a stone at him, and the disgraced equine is led away.

Later, as the sun begins to sink, Aliyev leads his most honored guests down the mountain track.

The visitors to village begin descending the mountain by foot. The driver, Saiduloyev, has driven on ahead. Down below, the Kozyol is ready, its engine sputtering impatiently, waiting to take its passengers back to the ordinary world.