Tag Archives: Tajikistan

To the border with Uzbekistan

From Dushanbe, we had to travel a long way north to a very specific border crossing that could process the truck.   The scenery continued to be very impressive for several hours

Spectacular scenery heading north from Dushanbe

Including lots of avalanche/rockfall shelters

Avalanche tunnels - on the way to the Uzbek border - Tajikistan

And several very long tunnels, including the Anzob tunnel, which runs for over 5km and is the modern link to northern Tajikistan (previously this area was cut off for large parts of the year due to avalanches and snow).  Until recently, the Anzob tunnel was otherwise known as the “Tunnel of death” – here’s a funny summary for exactly why, stories that were verified by our trip leader who passed through the tunnel 5 years ago.   Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), our journey was nowhere near as eventful – they’ve clearly done a lot of work on it.

At our first bush-camp we were joined by a very drunk Russian who would not leave us alone and became quite a liability (though we were camping outside his house, so not much we could do).

Campsite 1 - on the way to the Uzbek border - Tajikistan

My wonderful 1-person tent in the foreground. House where the drunk Russian was staying in the background, along with Alice the truck.

He was still sleeping it off the next morning as we had breakfast thank goodness, so it was an uneventful start to the morning where we packed the truck and moved further north.   Given that we didn’t have too far to drive, we stopped off for a few hours in Istaravshan (one of the oldest cities in Tajikistan) to have a look.   They were gearing up for the 9th May celebrations with lots of people in the street, and we were befriended by a few women and their daughters as we walked along – communicating through sign language and being gifted with roasted sunflower seeds.

Would we hand someone we saw walking on the street and who we couldn’t really communicate with part of what we were eating in Australia?   I think not.  And I guess one of the key differences is that here, we stand out like sore thumbs – it is obvious we are tourists.   However, in Australia – because it is so multicultural – it is impossible to tell who is visiting and who actually lives there.  Try to share something with a person who lives in Australia, and they would wonder what the hell was the matter with you and what was wrong with the food.   Try to share something with a visitor and they would probably have the same reaction we had here – grateful for the offer and keen to engage.  Problem is – you just can’t tell.

Given our short amount of time in the city, I headed for the Mug Teppe – a castle/fort on top of the hill just outside of the main downtown area.  It was a steep climb and, upon arrival, I was immediately swamped by about a dozen late-teen guys who were super-keen to practice their English. 

New friends in Istaravshan - Tajikistan

One of them (the guy in the brownish shirt just to the left of me in the photo) spoke excellent English and he was super-busy translating as he and his friends peppered me with questions about me, my travels and what I thought of Tajikistan.

We were soon joined by another group of about a dozen primary-school boys who were also super-keen to practice their English.  

New friends in Istaravshan - Tajikistan

The boy in the brown shirt to the left of me in the photo attends a school for learning English in Istaravshan (I actually met the son of the person who opened the school as well thanks to my entourage) and again, spoke extremely well.   He is planning to become a translator and “go to America” when he grows up, and was doing a great job relaying questions from his friends to me, and my answers back to them.

In the end, I think I ended up being surrounded by about 30 people – and was far more the attraction than the castle was!   Only got about 2 minutes to snap a quick picture of the castle – but really enjoyed chatting with the locals 😊

Mug Teppe - Istaravshan - Tajikistan

Next stop was the other main city of the north – Khojand.   Came across this really lovely park in my wanderings, and just decided to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet.   About 5 minutes later, I was joined on my bench by these two girls who (you guessed it!) were super-keen to practice their English 😊

New friends in Khojand - Tajikistan

Had a really lovely chat with them, and it is great to hear that their hopes and dreams are for lots of travel and interesting careers – one wants to be a doctor and study in Moscow, the other a lawyer.  Very impressive to hear the uptake of English in Tajikistan – and all the kids I chatted to today spoke multiple languages, usually Tajik, Uzbek, English and Russian.

When I come back to Tajikistan – will definitely return to this area to spend more time in these large and non-touristy towns.

Drove up almost to the Uzbek border on back roads trying to find a place to camp.  Problem was that it was all farmland!  Chucked a u-ey and went back along the main road and eventually it was decided that we would camp on the grass in this abandoned petrol station lot.

Campsite 2 - very close to the Uzbek border - Tajikistan

One of the guys who worked at the border actually saw us do the u-ey and followed us until we stopped (we are pretty hard to miss after all) to ask us what the hell we were doing.   He was satisfied with our explanation (he had thought our behaviour was slightly suspicious), and the guy who owned the petrol station lot was also fine with us camping there – and even offered that we could sleep in one of the buildings that he would unlock, rather than sleeping in tents.   We stuck with the tents.

It’s really amazing how cool everyone is with us rocking up and pitching our tents on their property.  Would we be so accommodating in Australia?

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Childhood memories in Dushanbe – elastics

Walking up a back street in Dushanbe on the way to the Hostel I came across these girls playing “elastics“.   

Girls playing elastics - Dushanbe - Tajikistan

It made my heart absolutely sing to watch them 🙂  I have such fond memories of playing this game back in primary school – we were totally obsessed with it!  It seems things have not changed in over 30 years, and it is not just an Australian thing (I didn’t actually realise it originated in China).

If you aren’t familiar with the game – watch this YouTube video, which demonstrates/explains it quite well.   I remember we had heaps of different routines, though can’t for the life of me remember any of the details.

The other reason it made my heart soar – it is so rare these days in developed nations to see kids outside playing without any electronics in sight.  However, along the Silk Road, and in much of Latin America where I traveled last year, this is far more common and, in my opinion, much healthier.  I’d like to believe that we’ll return to this mode of play one day soon…

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Dushanbe – Tajikistan

After several days of bush camping, we rolled into Dushanbe – the capital of Tajikistan.  To be honest, after wandering and exploring for 2 days, there doesn’t seem to be much to Dushanbe, it’s more like a very large town than a capital city.

Everywhere you look in Tajikistan, you see President Emomali Rahmon looking back at you.  Just about every billboard and large sign in the country has him posing in front of something, and Dushanbe was no exception.  He has been in power for 23 years and, according to a couple of Tajiks we spoke to, was doing a pretty good job.

Dushanbe - Tajikistan President

The main street into what one can only assume is the centre of the city is a lovely tree-lined affair that takes you past a few very cool monuments, including the statue of Ismail Samani in the impressive Freedom Square.

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Freedom Square

A little further on we found this statue labeled PYAAKH (or its equivalent in Cyrillic).   Even after a Google search I have no idea who this guy is, but I loved his intricately detailed coat, and the mosaiced backdrop of astronomical objects and flora.

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - statue and mosaics

As always, I took a trip to the local bazaar to stock up on fruit and nuts for the road and really loved this display of spices.   The guy tried to charge me 10 Somoni for the photo (AUD$1.60), so when I showed him I was going to delete rather than pay the price, he indicated not to worry about it.   Opportunist!

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - spices

I have never seen so much velvet in all my life as what I saw being worn around Dushanbe by the local women, who either wore 2-piece outfits (pants under a loose tunic) made out of that material, or other equally lairy options.   The variety of fabric at the market was enormous, though I have to say that I only found one or two pieces that actually appealed to me.  

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - cloth and material

You could buy ~3m of fabric for USD$10 (or a little more if it had sequins in it), then take it around the corner for a seamstress to whip it up into the local costume.

For me, the highlight of the market trip was finding an out-the-back “restaurant” (“eatery” may be a more apt description), where I pointed to what a couple of other ladies were having for lunch to order the same thing.  Turns out I’d ordered Fatir Shurbo – which is typically Tajik, and consists of broken up flat bread (Fatir) with chickpeas, meat, potatoes and onions.   Very, very tasty, and even though I was trying not to eat too many carbs, I failed – it was so delicious.  Bernice an I almost finished the entire plate between us!

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - fatir shurbo

The other highlight of my visit to Dushanbe was a play/concert/dance performance celebrating 9th May Victory Day at the Opera and Ballet Theatre

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Opera and Ballet theatre

This is a particularly important day for the ex-Soviet Union – commemorating their victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, and 10 Somoni (~AUD$1.60) bought a ticket to the show (this country is crazy-cheap!). 

Although I couldn’t understand a word they said/sang (except “nyet” and “da” – I have those down), it was a fascinating 1.5 hours.   The singing was superb, and there was one song performed over the top of imagery of the deprivations and deaths of the prisoners of war that was particularly moving.   Everybody stood for this song, and I got physically hauled out of my seat by the person behind me to make sure that I followed suit.   I would have done so anyway once I saw everyone else standing, but he was bloody quick off the mark about it!

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Victory Day Performance

Right at the end they helped this little old lady up onto the stage.  I can only assume that she was a famous singer before or during the war and involved in the war in some way, as she sang a few verses of a song and they showered her with flowers and other gifts once she was done.

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Victory Day Performance

The other reason I wanted to go to the concert was to actually see inside this beautiful building.   And it was spectacular!    I managed to get some photos before the turned all the lights off to get us out as quickly as possible!

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Opera and Ballet theatre

Had a great couple of days in Dushanbe, though I am still very confused about where all the shops and city infrastructure was…

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Along the Afghan Border – Tajikistan

Although we didn’t get to bed until after 1am in Khorog, we were up early the next morning to head off for another long day of driving.  It was going to take 2 days to get to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and given the roads we had driven on until now – no doubt it would take every second of those 2 days to arrive!

From Khorog, we basically followed the Panj River, which forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, for most of the next 2 days.    This fast-flowing river and the mountains on either side make a very impressive barrier – so quite obvious why it has become a national border.

Panj River - Tajikistan

Tajikistan on the right, Afghanistan on the left

Fortunately, I sat on the correct side of the truck for most of the awesome views, and I whiled away many, many hours of back-breaking roads just watching the scenery pass by and trying to take photos.   Turns out – it is INCREDIBLY difficult to take photos out of a moving vehicle on terrible roads!

Spectacular scenery - Tajikistan

This is another really beautiful stretch of “highway” – if you can stand the bone jarring and the precarious drops of extremely narrow, elevated roads!   I kept telling myself that if the articulated trucks we’d seen coming the other direction had made it … so could we!

Steep dropoffs on the road from Khorog to Dushanbe - Tajikistan

This is quite a wide corner. There were some that I was sure at least one wheel was at least half off the edge!

Obviously, we were driving along a road on the Tajik side of the river, there was an equivalent that ran all along the Afghan side as well.    Well, almost all the way along.  We came across places where they were still building it … the hard way!

Building roads the hard way in Afghanistan - Tajikistan

Drilling through solid rock. Can you see the 2 ends of the road in the middle panel – here’s hoping they meet up in the end!

And the fascinating thing is that there were all these people just walking along it, in the middle of nowhere, miles from anywhere – sometimes with animals and sometimes with just themselves.

The view across to Afghanistan - people in the middle of nowhere - from Tajikistan

On the Tajik side, we passed through several small villages  and almost everyone who saw us either waved to us and/or openly stared at us in disbelief.   It was quite funny actually, and really interesting to see that the faces have definitely changed from more Asian-like features to Afghan/Turkic features.   i.e.  The Tajiks look completely different to the Kyrgyz and Kazakh people.

After almost 11 hours of being lost in my own world watching the scenery go by, my travel companions started to get restless as the sun dipped towards the horizon and we drove past a couple of (rare in this area) potential camping sites.   We eventually settled for quite a lovely place, right beside some more abandoned buildings (it seems to be a theme for our campsites).   And it was warm!   A welcome change after our last 5 days in the cold 😊

Campsite near Afghan border - Tajikistan

Another early start to complete the last several hundred kms to Dushanbe along unknown roads. 

Tajikistan - Pakistan border - Tajikistan

We were told to turn off the “main road” that we were on, into what was shown as a secondary road on the map, based on instructions from the group that did the trip last year.    Much to our surprise, after about a couple of hours – we finally hit a great bitumen road!   It was heaven after 4 days of bouncing around in the back of the truck at 20km/hr!

Bitumen road finally! - Tajikistan

Tajikistan is a country full of checkpoints , and we passed through what must have been our 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th checkpoint on the way to the capital.  Some of them are quick, some them are anal about the paperwork and insist on seeing everyone’s passport and visa so they can transcribe the details into their ledger.

Checkpoint - Tajikistan

Barrier at yet another Tajik checkpoint

We finally hit a large town, had a quick lunch, and continued on into completely different scenery.   Gone were the incredible mountains and the river, and instead the views were filled with rolling green hills and tilled fields as far as the eye could see.

Rolling green hills near Dushanbe - Tajikistan

So, after 5 days of staring out the window in silence, and given the now-less-than-spectacular scenery, I finally put in my earphones and music 😊

 

 

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Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan via Pamir Highway – Part 2

Late start this morning after a night that was still below zero, but not quite as cold the night before.   Was lovely to be able to eat breakfast in the sunshine and enjoy the view 😊

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

Then, with 20 sets of fingers and toes crossed, we headed back up the road to see if we could make it to Tajikistan.   James gave a couple of hoots of victory as we passed beyond our obstacle from yesterday, and the road did seem clearer, thanks to the passing of a few vehicles over the previous hours. 

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

It was pretty precarious going at times, and we all actually got off the truck a couple of times so that James could just fang it through the mud, but we finally reached the Kyrgyz border successfully.

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

My fellow travelers seemed to have limited concern for their safety standing where they were!

After completing the paperwork, it was out into no-man’s land, where the slight concern was that if we got stuck, who would help rescue us given we weren’t officially in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan…  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

We are going to be in trouble if this gets worse!

But it turns out it wasn’t us who got stuck!   Instead, we came came up behind a truck that had cut the corner too close and was blocking the road.  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Armed with shovels and crowbars, we helped dig them out of that predicament and tried to get them to back up into the wide corner so we could overtake them (they had an overladen 2WD vehicle with no snow chains on this road!).   

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

They weren’t having a bar of it and took off ahead of us.  About 20 minutes later, we come up behind them again – “stuck” because they couldn’t get up a part of the road due to wheel ruts and ice.   Gayle and James went to talk to them to, once again, try and get them to pull off to the left and let us past.  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Which they did, kind of, after about ½ hour.    Unfortunately, they didn’t pull off far enough and they were on quite a lean, so when we went to go around them, the back of their truck took out the rear 2 windows of our truck!

oops - Pamir Highway

The 3rd rear window broke as we extricated our truck from theirs and then the real frustration started.   We pulled out our crowbars and shovels and set about trying to help them re-make the road to their satisfaction – but all they did was a lot of standing around and looking at the predicament – not actually doing anything.    And they refused to back up more to let us around.   It was a complete stalemate.

During this time, most of our group actually walked over the top of the hill to the Tajik border post (we were literally 500m short of the border!) and an hour later, when Gayle and Lauren and I decided there really was nothing we could do to get these idiots to move, we headed there as well. 

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

The group starts the walk up and over the hill to the Tajik border post

Over the top of the pass, we ran into 3 of our guys coming the other way … with 2 Tajik guys in camo!    We do love our guys in camo 😊   We kept going to the border to see how everyone was holding up – not great it turns out – even though the Tajik border guards had turned on the hospitality and everyone was sitting in a nice warm room with tea.    

Tajik Border Post - Pamir Highway

Given we were waiting anyway, we decided to at least get all the passports processed, but a few people had left their stuff on the truck.   So, Gayle and Jose and I walked back to the truck to collect the paperwork, and see how the truck was getting on as well.

The good news, was that the truck had moved!   Apparently, our friends in camo basically told the other driver to stop being a dick and move out of the way so we could get around them.    Unfortunately, we were now having trouble getting up a short icy patch, even with snow chains on ☹

Gayle and I collected the paperwork and started walking back to the Tajik border post.   We got over the pass and were ½ way down the hill when we heard a couple of victory hoots from James and the yellow beast came over the rise 😊    Soooooooooo glad to see the truck!

They picked us up (that would be right, after we’d walked the hard bit over the 5000m pass again) and we rolled into the border post with less fanfare than I was expecting.   I guess everyone was too nice and warm and busy sipping tea…

Then the next saga – 2 of the passengers didn’t have a paper copy, nor a downloaded electronic copy of their Tajik visa.   They thought they would have internet access so they could show the border guards … um, no.   This is a very remote border with very, very little traffic.  

Another hour or so passed while they tried to figure out with the border guards how they could get into the country.  Finally, after concocting an elaborate plan in which one of the 2 passengers with the visa issue would stay at the border, while one of the border guards come with us to the nearest town so that the other passenger with the visa issue could log onto the internet and save a copy of the visas, then return with a taxi to drop off the border guard and pick up the first guy, and then return to us again … In the end, it was all sorted in 2 minutes with a “quiet chat” behind closed doors and the exchange of US$300.

We drove about 100m to then be confronted with the customs checkpoint for Tajikistan!   Everybody’s passports and visas collected again to be transcribed into yet another book by hand…  By this time, the sun had set behind the mountains and it was getting very cold, despite having taped a tarp over the smashed windows (we were at ~5,000m after all). 

About 45 minutes later, we were on our way finally – down a dodgy road in the dark after a very trying day.   We were aiming for the town of Karakul and a guesthouse, which we eventually arrived at a very cold 1.5 hours later.    Kudos to James for delivering us safely – I’m sure the last thing in the world he wanted to do was drive down an unknown, crappy mountain road in the dark.

The guesthouse was awesome – with rugs on the walls and tons of rugs for the floor and doonas to cover us.   I also had my sleeping bag with me – it was sooooo nice to have a warm night!

Guesthouse - Lake Karakul - Tajikistan

Got up early the next morning to discover we were right beside Lake Karakol, one of the biggest lakes in Tajikistan.   Stunning morning and absolutely glorious setting!

Lake Karakol - Tajikistan

The guesthouse provided bread and eggs, and after a wonderful breakfast of fried eggs, and after doing our best to do a proper tape-up job where the windows were, we were off again – this time down the Tajik side of the Pamir highway.    

Driving this road was actually of the key reasons I decided to do this trip with Madventure.   Most other overland trips don’t drive the Pamir highway, but it is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I first heard about it. 

One of the immediately obvious things was this very impressive fence that we followed for a very, very long time.   I’m assuming it marked the start of no-man’s-land with China, given how close to the border we were.

Chinese Border - Kyrgyzstan

Lots of beautiful frozen scenery, and having blue skies was an absolute bonus!

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

The Tajik border guards had told us that the Tajik side of the Pamir highway was much better than the Kyrgyz side of it, but I think they may have been talking things up a bit…  Yes, it was paved … kind of.   But for much of the day we averaged between 20km/hr – 30km/hr because of the potholes and the fact it would descend into a seriously corrugated dirt road on occasion!

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

We eventually made it to Murghab where we stopped for lunch and to get more diesel.  I decided to try the Samsa for lunch – basically a meat and onion and fat “pie” or “empanada” – which was very tasty, but I did pick the globs of fat out before eating!

Samsa - Tajikistan

Then it was back on the highway and desperately trying to make it to Khorog as quickly as possible.    We had to go over two more high passes, and unfortunately, due to the super-bad roads, this took much longer than hoped.  That being said – I really appreciated the extended amount of time we had to enjoy the scenery 🙂

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

In the end, we watched a gorgeous sunset, and drove in the dark for quite a long way, praying that James could see where he was going!   There was some concern at one point when James chucked at 13-point-turn having ended up on a bad road that didn’t seem correct.   Then chucked another 7-point-turn when he turned around again to deliberate on which way to go.   We ended up going the same way as we were originally headed given that we had seen 2 trucks come from that direction, and fortunately it turned out to be correct – just a very, very poorly signposted detour!

Sunset on Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

Fortunately, it was getting warmer as we descended, so I didn’t mind sitting back and watching the snowy mountains slide by under the light of the half-moon.  It was absolutely beautiful, and my thoughts were half a world away!

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