Published: September 19th 2007September 7th 2007
TAJIKISTAN - (July 2007) - (Thursday 18th to Tuesday 24th July) - Thurs 18th - Tues 24th July - (Khorog to Dushanbe)
I don't know what this Blog says about me, the people I met, or just Tajikistan in general, but the most memorable things that happened to me in my remaining time in Tajikistan involved bus / taxi journeys and two journeys in particular.
During the remaining seven days that I was in Tajikistan, I visited the capital Dushanbe and a couple of other places, but even a few weeks after visiting them when I was thinking about what to write for this Blog, I found it almost impossible to remember exactly what I'd done!
After all the trouble that I'd experienced in Khorog (see previous Blog), I couldn't wait to leave and get on the road again. I'd been told (and hoped) that there were buses that left Khorog going to Dushanbe every morning and that they set off when they were full.
So on the morning of the 18th I packed my bags as quickly as I could and set off walking to where I had been told the buses left from.
Lenin - Khojand
Supposedly the tallest Lenin statue in the whole of Central Asia
After a 30 minute walk I arrived at the said place and found a Marshrutka (mini bus) which was going to Dushanbe and which was just about to set off.
The journey from Khorog to Dushanbe was going to take around 24 hours and involved following the Afghan border for around half the journey before heading over the mountains and travelling up and down several high passes.
No one on the bus spoke any English but the driver and his assistant very kindly insisted that I sit in the front of the bus so that I could "take photo"
! The first part of the journey went quite smoothly as we travelled through valleys alongside the Daryoi Pani river which marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The scenery on both sides of the border was very barren and in places the river very narrow. So much so that you would have thought it quite easy to cross between the two countries although the river's current did appear to be quite strong in places probably making it very difficult to swim across.
We travelled along the border for most of the day and saw plenty of Afghan villages
on the other side of the river. However no one seemed to be at home. During the whole day we saw very few people amongst the mud brick villages of Afghanistan that were strung at regular intervals along the border.
Another common sight along the road (or 'track' as the road more often than not was), were burnt out armoured personnel carriers. As was said in the previous Blog, Tajikistan was embroiled in a Civil War after the break up of the former Soviet Union and this area, the ‘Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous’ region (GBAO), had sided with the rebels. This being about the only road between the capital Dushanbe and Khorog, the area must have seen its fair share of fighting.
The bus more or less got to the lunch stop without too much trouble. However, conveniently outside the restaurant was a mechanics pit where the bus pulled over and was where the driver and his mate/ second driver spent most of the lunch stop under.
After lunch we began to climb the first of many high passes which we were to encounter during the trip. It was when we were going over the passes that it became
Khorog to Dushanbe along the Tajik/ Afghan border
The river marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Tajikistan on the right, Afghanistan on the left
clear that I, being sat in the front, would have a role to play in making sure the bus got to its destination. When going over the passes, the bus really began to struggle and being in the front it was my job to help the driver by pouring water into the engine at regular intervals.
Conveniently a funnel had been taped to the front passenger's door and a pipe installed that led from the funnel into the engine which was located between the driver and the front passenger. When going up hills/ mountains, the engine more often than not began to shudder, at which point the driver would shout at me and I very quickly had to grab a bottle of water and thrust the bottle opening into the funnel and let all the water make its way down the tube into the engine.
This didn't always work and we would occasionally shudder to a halt, at which point the engine was opened up and more water poured into the cooler and onto the engine to try and cool it down. Being in the front, it was also my job to hold the engine cover up and
get a face full of hot damp air every time the driver wanted to look into the engine and pour water over it - which as it happened, was at quite regular intervals!
For the majority of the trip we were travelling alongside rivers so it was easy to fill up empty bottles with water from the river for use in and on the engine. However, at the top of one pass the bus shuddered to a halt and we found that we had run out of water. On this occasion there was no river but just a trickle of water coming out of the ground. Everyone on the bus, including the old women and children on board were employed to try the best they could to fill up their water bottles from the small trickle of water. Eventually we managed to get enough water to cool the engine down after which we set of again.
I don't know how the drivers did it but they were on the go for a solid 22 hours without any sleep. The main driver must have driven for 20 of the 22 hours. We would occasionally stop at small road side
restaurants and have tea and bread but these stops were far and few between.
Although no one spoke any English, either on the bus or at the restaurants, the driver and his assistant always made sure that I got fed and had my fill of tea while insisting that I pay for nothing. After around 22 hours we finally entered Dushanbe and the bus station at around 8am.
After 22 hours on board I was quite sad to leave the comfort of the little community that had developed on the bus, but after plenty of hand shakes and "assalom u aleykum's"
it was off to find a hotel to stay in. - (Dushanbe) -
As recommended by a number of people, I checked into the Hotel Dushanbe where by coincidence I was assigned the same room as Aled who I had travelled over the Pamir Highway with a couple of days previously. Unlike myself in Khorog, he had had no problems registering his stay in Dushanbe!
As I said at the onset of this Blog, I have had trouble remembering exactly what I did in Dushanbe, not through too much alcohol, but because I really can't remember!
Dushanbe is not an unpleasant city, it’s just a bit Dull, or should I say, extremely Dull!
During my time in Dushanbe I visited a couple of museums which were alright without being memorable, I picked up my visa for Uzbekistan, and visited a small town outside Dushanbe - but that's about it!
Picking up the Uzbek visa was surprisingly easy and only took a couple of hours. However, to help matters along I had previously bought a ‘Letter of Introduction’. The ‘Letter of Introduction’ (LoI) seems to be peculiar to the countries of the former Soviet Union in that to get a visa you have to pay a Travel Agent to recommend you to be able to visit the country and to write you a ‘LoI’. How the Travel Agents know you from Adam, I don't know. Depending on where you apply for the visa, the ‘LoI’ is not always required and this even seems to differ from embassy to embassy. (i.e. had I tried to get my Uzbekistan visa in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I would not have needed a LOI. But to get the visa from Dushanbe, you do!)
It all seems to me to be
a bit of a scam and for countries/ travel agents to make a bit more money out of you. Not one for missing a money making opportunity, the Chinese Embassies in Central Asia seem to have started asking for a LoI before they will issue you with a Chinese visa. As far as I’m aware, no where in the world do you need a LoI to get a Chinese visa apart from if you apply for one in Central Asia!
And that was about it for Dushanbe, although I did venture out of Dushanbe on a day trip to a place called Hissar. Hissar is around 30km out of Dushanbe and contains a ruined fortress and a couple of Mosques and Meddrassers dating from the 16th century. Again, the journey to Hissar was about the most memorial, if not the best, thing about going there.
I had been told that there was a direct bus to Hissar which left from the outskirts of Dushanbe. Via the use of a trolley-bus and then a Marshrutka, I managed to get myself from the hotel to the place where the Marshrutka’s to Hissar were supposed to leave from. After a short
time, I managed to find a Marshrutka which was supposedly going to Hissar. I asked several times before, and during the trip, whether this was the “BUS THAT GOES TO HISSAR”
and I was repeatedly told it was. I asked at every stop “IS THIS THE STOP FOR HISSAR”
where I was constantly told it wasn't, but it soon would be. Eventually we arrived at the final stop where I was told the bus “didn't go to Hissar”
I eventually got to Hissar but had to take another Marshrutka and two taxis. Unfortunately, after the trouble of getting there, there is not a lot to say about Hissar. The fortress and mosques are not very spectacular and I only stayed for around 30 minutes. Fortunately though, I managed to get back to Dushanbe by use of only one taxi and one bus! - (Iskander Kul) -
After a couple of days in Dushanbe, it was time to move on, heading in the general direction of Uzbekistan but with the intention of stopping off at ‘Iskander Kul’ (Lake Iskander) - Why I wanted to go to another lake I can't really say now, but at the time I must
have had a day or so to spare! The lake was supposed to be in a spectacular setting in the middle of the mountains and it was supposed to be possible to do a few easy day hikes from the lake.
‘Iskander Kul’ is about half way between Dushanbe and Khojand, Khojand being a city near to where I planned to cross the border into Uzbekistan. The lake is 24km off the main road and is consequently not easy to get to without your own transport as there is no direct bus there. I was however, assured that I would be able to get to the lake via a shared taxi for around $20.
When I arrived at the bus/ taxi place, no taxi would take me for less than $100. However, after a short time waiting around, I was approached by a man who owned a Marshrutka and who was going to a place called Penjikent which is located past ‘Iskander Kul’. He offered to make the short diversion to the lake for me for $5 if he could get another 3 or 4 people in his mini bus.
However, the taxi drivers didn't like this
at all and a bit of a scuffle broke out between the Marshrutka driver and the taxi drivers with the latter trying to take my bag off the Marshrutka and saying that the driver couldn't take me for the price he was willing to take me for! Fortunately the taxi drivers soon gave up and we got the three other passengers we needed on board and the Marshrutka eventually set off.
The journey took around 5 hours and was again through spectacular mountain scenery in which we had to go over another high pass, the Anzob Pass at 3372m.
When we got to the lake, the lake did indeed look pretty spectacular but as soon as I got there the clouds closed in and it began to rain - which put a stop to any walking that I had thought about doing that day.
The lake is in the middle of nowhere and the only place to stay is at an old Soviet holiday camp. The place was practically empty apart from a few Russians/ Tajik's and a 'European Students' group who strangely enough were supposedly doing ‘Work Experience’ in Tajikistan. Quite what this involves and exactly
Tajik national dress
Supposedly Tajik national dress although I never saw anyone wearing clothes like these!!
what ‘work experience’ they get, one can only wonder. One English student that I got talking to told me he was working in a ‘Vodka factory’!
Unfortunately it rained pretty much the whole time that I was there and as a consequence my stay there is memorable only for the fact that throughout all my travels, this is the only place where I have actually known and felt the presence of Rats in my room at night. At one stage, I could feel them beginning to crawl up my sleeping bag until I managed to kick them off!!
The following morning I left the camp with the aim of getting to a town called Istaravshan, which is located just before Khojand, my final destination in Tajikistan. Istaravshan is supposed to be one of the best preserved old towns in Tajikistan with some lovely architecture and blue titled mosques in the style of many Central Asian Silk Road cities.
However, the first thing I needed to do was to get out of the valley and onto the main road where I hoped I could get a shared taxi or flag down a bus going in the general direction
of Khojand. There is no public transport out of the valley and I couldn't flag down a lift, so I had to get the camp owner to ring a taxi for me from the nearby town, the 30 minute trip (or 60 minute trip for the taxi driver) cost around $15.
Once I’d arrived at the main road, as with the morning before, the shared taxi drivers in the nearby town on the main road wanted a ridiculous $100 to take me to my destination. Although the trip would take around 12 hours, $100 is still a massive amount in Tajikistan so I decided to take my luck and try to flag down a passing bus/ taxi.
After about an hour nothing had materialised and I thought I would have to swallow my pride and stump up the $100 for a taxi. However, wonders of wonders, someone got into a bus which had hardly any windows remaining, had broken seats in, and that was rusting by the side of the road, and started the engine up! I had presumed that the ‘bus’ had been left at the side of the road for scrap metal! However, passengers started to
board the bus and fares were collected.
Somehow (as I can’t speak Russian and no one on the bus could speak any English), I managed to find out that although the bus wasn't going to my final destination, it would take me around half the distance before it turned off to go to another town/ city in Tajikistan. So as nothing else had come my way, I caught this bus - Cost $1:50 for around half my eventual journey distance as opposed to $100 the taxi drivers were trying to charge me for the whole journey!
After 30 minutes of travelling around the village collecting bags of gain with 'Donated by the USA'
written on, we set off with the bus absolutely packed to the rafters. Around 5 hours latter we arrived at the turn off where I was to get off. Again, even though no one spoke any English, I managed to communicate where I wanted to go and was taken in hand by a Tajik man and his son who were going in the same direction.
We got dropped off at our stop around 2pm and after asking around for a few minutes, we found
out that the bus to Khojand was not due to arrive at this stop until around 6pm. With time to kill, we therefore went for something to eat in a local restaurant (very bad mistake as later events were to materialise) where we decided, as the bus wasn't going to show up for another 4 hours, we would try and get a shared taxi.
We (or they) managed to negotiate a shared taxi for a reasonable price and we started on our journey. However, literally 5 minutes after we had set off we came to an abrupt halt. There had been a landslide on the road and the road was fully closed - The only road between Dushanbe and Khorjand, the two main cities in Tajikistan was closed!
Tajikistan doesn't have any paved roads outside the main population centres, just unsurfaced roads/ tracks. Even the road between the two main cities in the country, Dushanbe and Khorjand, is not paved for the majority of its length and a small section of the 'road' even passes through a river bed - Only knows what they do when the river is in full flood!
All over Tajikistan the Chinese
seem to have been commissioned to upgrade the roads. However, they don't seem to be making a very good job of it. All over Tajikistan, every road appears to be in the process of being dug up with no surfacing being laid and with seemingly only a few workmen every 100km or so working on the road. The whole road network in Tajikistan is in the process of being dug up all at the same time which makes travelling anywhere and everywhere very slow going.
We ended up having to wait around 3 hours for a Chinese digger to arrive at the scene of the landslide and clear the way before the road was reopened. By this time it was around 6-7pm and quite a queue of traffic had built up.
As soon as the road reopened, all pandemonium broke loose. It really was like a being in a car rally race with hundreds of ‘Lada's’, three a breast at times with no thought of what was coming the other way around that hair pin bend that we were travelling around, racing up and down the passes and valleys. I was absolutely amazed that I didn't see any
Unfortunately, our Lada taxi wasn't going to win any race! The taxi was ok travelling on the flat or down hill but it had trouble going up hill, which was a bit unfortunate as the trip involved going up and down two of the highest passes in Tajikistan! When the taxi started to go up every pass we would shudder to a standstill much to the annoyance of every other driver in the ‘rally’. However, much to my surprise, the car did eventually manage to get up every pass........ just!!
Lonely Planet states that this part of the journey between the landslide and Khorjand is one of the ‘World’s Great Road Trips’
with the route travelling over countless passes, the highest of which was the Ayni Pass at 3378m. Unfortunately for me, it wasn't going to be on this particular trip as the majority of the journey was done in the dark ....... which was when our sickness occurred!!
A couple of hours after the landslide had been cleared, the son of the Tajik man started to grown and clutch his stomach in the back of the car. I had a bit of a stomach ache
myself but I couldn't believe all the groaning that was going on - "They are a bit soft these Tajiks"
I thought, which was further emphasised by the histrionics of his Dad in the front who was acting like his son was about to die!
Clearly an instruction had been given to the driver to drive faster and to get to the nearest hospital. Fortunately we were now over the high passes and weren't grinding to a halt every five minutes. Never being in a situation like this before, the driver didn't have a clue where the nearest hospital was and we drove around the back streets of one particular deserted town for what seemed forever before we finally found a hospital.
By this time it was nearly midnight and it took us a while to find a doctor. Once we found one, the patient, who now seemed to be a bit better and no longer on the 'verge of death', was taken aside and examined. Although no one spoke any English and communication with me was virtually non existent, the diagnosis seemed to be that he wasn't going to 'die' but that he had a bit of
food poisoning! A few tablets were given to him and we were sent on our way.
By now, my stomach was beginning to really really hurt, but before it reached its absolute painful worst, the Dad of the two Tajiks started to grown and had to get the car to stop while he rushed out to the bushes by the side of the road. A few minutes later my stomach was as bad as the other two and I had to get the car to stop while I rushed out of the car and into the nearby bushes.
For the next couple of hours we didn't get very far. Our stomach cramps and our need to go to the toilet weren’t synchronised with each other and as a consequence we literally had to get the taxi to stop every five minutes while one of the three of us quickly dived out of the car and into the bushes!
In our "ill" state, once we got to my intended destination of Istaravshan, I decided to get another taxi straight away with my two travelling companions and headed towards Khojand. I was a bit disappointed at not stopping at
Istaravshan to have a look around the following day, but in my state, I just wanted to get to Khojand as easily as possible and as I now had two local travelling companions, I thought it better to go with them to Khojand instead of trying to cope with the local transport situation on my own the following day. (I later found out that I didn't miss much by not staying in Istaravshan). - (Khojand) -
We arrived in Khojand at around 4am with all of us feeling a bit better but not exactly great. I had no idea what the other two had planned for accommodation as communication between us was extremely hard as I couldn't speak any Russian or Tajik and they couldn't speak any English. However, it appeared that they weren't going to drop me off at a random place in the middle of Khojand and were going to see that I was fine.
I hadn't a clue what was going on but the taxi was made to drive around an old Soviet apartment complex for around 30 minutes until the son seemed to recognise a particular apartment block. We then all got out of
The Oxus River (Amu Darya) - Khojand
The end of the road for me in Tajikistan as it was for Alexander the Great being his eastern most outpost - No Soviet style apartment blocks in his time though
the taxi, got our bags, and stumbled towards an apartment block and climbed the stairs to what felt like the 20th floor.
The son then proceeded to knock on the door of a flat. After a couple of minutes, a dishevelled looking teenage lad who was still half a sleep appeared at the door. He evidently knew the son, but what he made of his friend and his friend's Dad, and some random English bloke who didn't know what was going on and couldn't communicate with anyone, all of whom were very tired and very ill, turning up unannounced on his door step at 4am, I can only speculate!
Anyway, he found three thin mattresses and a few blankets and we bedded down on the floor for the remainder of the night while making constant use of his toilet!
The following morning, all three of us had recovered enough to be able to make a move. After a breakfast of tea and a bit of bread (the normal Tajik breakfast, as well as sometimes, lunch and dinner!) we set off to catch a Marshrutka into the centre of town. It was at this point that I took leave of my travelling companions as they were travelling to another nearby town while I intended to stay the day in Khojand. Although they wanted me to go with them and they had been very kind to me, I'd had enough of not being able to communicate and not knowing what was going on. So after hugs and "assalom u aleykum's"
I headed off to find a hotel.
Khojand is Tajikistan's second city and also one of Tajikistan's oldest. The city was founded by Alexander the Great and was known as Alexandrera - Eskhate at one time and was the eastern most outpost of Alexander's empire. Although there is nothing left from Alexander's time, I wanted to go precisely because of its importance at the time of Alexander and because it made a convenient place to base myself before crossing over to Uzbekistan the following morning.
There's not exactly much to do in Khojand, but there is a bit of a museum which covers the towns/ cities past. But probably the biggest attraction is the Lenin statue that overlooks the town, which at 22m tall, is supposedly the tallest Lenin statue in the whole of Central Asia!
And that was really it for me and Tajikistan. The following day it was off to Uzbekistan to see Uzbekistan's historical Silk Road Cities, the main reason for my visit to Central Asia.
Tajikistan is probably my least favourite country that I've visited on this trip, although I perhaps should re-phase that and say it’s probably the place where I had my least favourite time.
The country is hard to get around with no reliable public transport network which means that getting to and from places can be frustrating, work out expensive and/ or time consuming.
The country is still subject to archaic rules and regulations from Soviet times, like having to register with the KGB. You are also supposed to get special permits to go to certain areas and to go trekking off the beaten path. There is apparently one permit to go trekking and then another more expensive one if you go above 6000m.
There are very few other travellers travelling through the country and virtually no one outside Dushanbe speaks any English. I don't think I've ever had as hard a time communicating and felt as helpless and frustrated about travelling in a country before as I found it in Tajikistan, where on more than a few occasions I felt utterly lost and helpless.
However that aside, I think Tajikistan has got enormous potential for tourism. The country is fantastically scenic and has got fantastic trekking possibilities. The locals are without exception (except for taxi drivers that is) extremely welcoming and even though most of them have absolutely nothing, I didn't once pay for any of my food during the various bus journeys that I undertook because someone, in most cases the actual bus driver, insisted on paying for me.
If I had my time again, I'd certainly do a lot more planning about how and where I was going to go in the country, and if it wasn't part of a big trip where I was going through lots of different countries with different languages, I’d learn some Russian before I went.
To travel in Tajikistan at the moment, I think it would be better to have plenty of time, to go with some other people (ideally with someone who can speak a bit of Russian), and to have your own transport, or just accept that to get around, especially off the beaten path, you may have to spend quite a bit of money.
Or alternatively................. Go on an organized trip.