A Perilous Journey


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Asia » Tajikistan » Khorog
May 27th 2013
Published: June 16th 2013
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Third river crossing on a very unstable bridget - near Zigar, TajikistanThird river crossing on a very unstable bridget - near Zigar, TajikistanThird river crossing on a very unstable bridget - near Zigar, Tajikistan

Slightly blurry photo, but it is the only one I have.
The road journey in Tajikistan from Dushanbe to Ishkashim is largely unknown, but anyone who has traversed it will rank it as one of the great adventures of the world. If Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor are looking for another challenge to broadcast as part of their Long Way Round series, I have found the perfect candidate.

The 770 kilometre journey would follow for the most part the Panj River that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The genial Amzi was my driver, and our three day expedition was in a comfortable Toyota Landcruiser. Amzi’s English was basic, but easily understandable. We enjoyed sporadic conversation, often comparing Australia and Tajiksitan, and discussing sights. He carried a collection of Tajik, Pamir and Russian music, and in return I played Australian, African, and American tunes.

Though hiring a vehicle for one person is expensive, it is the wisest choice for travelling this road. Any public transport reach the main centre of Khorog in one 16 hour session, but this necessitates covering the final portion at night. Given the conditions of the road, a driver would need to be extremely alert and be provided with the best visibility possible. Driving tired and during darkness
Picturesque village near Yoged - TajikistanPicturesque village near Yoged - TajikistanPicturesque village near Yoged - Tajikistan

Note the owrings or goat tracks on the Afghan (right) side of the Panj river.
is a dangerous combination at the best of times, but on this road it is positively lethal.

The first part of the journey was surprisingly good, and apart from the encounters with bribe-receiving police officer (as mentioned in my previous blog) we progressed at a good pace. I was starting to doubt tales in travel forums about the poor state of the road, but once we reached Shurabad Pass, conditions changed dramatically. Gone were the wide bitumen roads with shoulders and guard rails. Instead we were greeted by narrow, winding dirt tracks with no shoulders and no barriers to stop any wayward vehicle plunging hundreds of metres down a precipice to a certain doom.

Worse were the leaden skies that brought rain and consequently slippery roads. With some negative camber corners laying in wait, it threatened to shift any poorly positioned vehicle to their final resting place, and I espied a few vehicle carcasses crumpled by the side of the road or submerged in the fast flowing Panj river. As I was sitting on the Landcruiser’s right side, I overlooked the spectacular scenery of Afghanistan to the south of the Panj River as we travelled east, but it also allowed me to observe our uncomfortably close proximity to the edge. On several occasions I looked below me to see no road whatsoever, but instead could only observe a valley, far, far below.

Despite the more difficulty conditions, we were progressing at a reasonable time, but thereupon came three river crossings before the village of Zigar that Amzi had forewarned me. These were particularly problematic due to the combination of melting snow and falling rain. The first crossing proved no challenge, for though wide, it was not deep. We either bounced along the white rocks strewn across the ground or splashed our way through wheel deep water, but we did pass another smaller vehicle stranded midway. “One!” exalted Amzi triumphantly after we emerged from the first river crossing.

Not long afterwards, we were halted by a line of stationary trucks. We stopped and waited for approximately ten minutes only to be informed that a section of road had been swept away in a landslide. The repairs could take hours. Thankfully, a local lad jumped into the car and navigated our small vehicle on a tight, circuitous passage through the fields and streets of his nearby village and onto the other side of the collapsed road.

Less than two kilometres distant was the second river crossing, and a far bigger problem was revealed. A Kamaz truck was stuck on the only usable section of road that crossed the river. It was not possible to pass this truck due to the steep cutting on either side, and there were no other available passages. Though Kamaz trucks are famous for their winning exploits at the Dakar Rally, they were no much for this road. Drivers congregated to plan alternate routes and though several forays headed onto other sections of the river, most vehicles returned to the main line of waiting traffic, but some also became bogged in the river.

An hour passed on this cold, windy, rainy day, but at least the prodigious mountains obscured by cloud provided some visual relief. Another truck attempted to extricate the Kamaz, but that idea was abandoned when a bulldozer that had been repairing roads further along, arrived and commenced constructing a passage for itself towards the Kamaz. It duly reached its goal and after hooking the truck to its frame, used its immense power to finally haul the stricken vehicle from it resting place. Everyone was delighted to hear the truck blast its horn numerous times to indicate that it had been freed.

The bulldozer quickly and efficiently flattened the damaged road and placed a layer of rocks across the rushing waterway for the now dozens of vehicles that patiently waited. So more than 90 minutes after stopping, we continued our journey, after only having travelled two kilometres in the past two hours. “Two!” boasted Amzi, and as we passed the bulldozer driver, I gave him a wave and he responded in kind. We continued to bump and jump on our passage only to arrive at the third and final river crossing to discover it was the worst of them all; the river too deep, fast and wide. Passage here was impossible.

Thankfully, someone had the foresight to construct the ricketiest bridge I have ever had the nervous misfortune to cross. You could feel the bridge move as the Landcruiser tentatively rumbled its way towards the other end where a risky last section involved driving across a worrying gap of the shuddering structure in order to again be safely secured on a solid surface.

“Three!” shouted Amzi triumphantly. We shook hands and both laughed – we had traversed the three difficult river crossings. The road conditions improved the closer we drove to Yaded, but this two hour delay meant that the day was waning. As the temperature cooled and the rains continued; billowing, brooding grey clouds hang low in the valley painting a bleak scene indeed. Our car bumped through puddles, skidded across the muddy road and gently carved our way along flowing waterways. On our right, only a couple of hundred metres distant, the powerful mountains of Afghanistan loomed large – every bend in the road provided another breathtaking vista – it was the most spectacular landscape I had ever seen. Tightly packed villages nestled amongst these imposing peaks, as smoke rose from chimneys and Afghans sat by the Panj river to wash clothes or fetch water. Scratched into the surface of this steep terrain were the owrings or goat tracks that would take some real dexterity to traverse.

After 11 hours of travel over 420 kilometres, we arrived in Kala-i-Khum after dark. The rain continued to fall heavily as I literally collapsed into a deep sleep in the guest house.

The next morning, the
First view of Afghanistan - near Shurabad Pass, TajikistanFirst view of Afghanistan - near Shurabad Pass, TajikistanFirst view of Afghanistan - near Shurabad Pass, Tajikistan

Afghanistan lays on the other side of the river.
weather was even worse, a fact confirmed shortly after departing on the day’s journey as another portion of road had washed away overnight. Though it had prevented the passage of mainly large Chinese trucks who clogged both sides of this section, our smaller Landcruiser was still able to proceed; though it did necessitate some weaving amongst these larger vehicles on a tight road that is designed for one truck at a time. As we neared Togmay, the journey became increasingly precarious – with an extremely narrow, slippery, winding road with no barriers skirting a fatal plunge in the Panj river below.

Now came easily the most dangerous part of the journey, though it did not appear so on first glance. The heavy rains had caused landslides in the area, a fact conveyed to Amzi in telephone calls he was receiving. The area we were approaching was prone to frequent landslides. Amzi, who always commanded the car so confidently even looked nervous at this juncture. He drove faster than usual, perhaps even too fast for the slippery conditions on the narrow road, but it was literally a balancing act – whether to speed and face the consequences of excessive speed for the conditions, or slow and spend more time in the rockfall area. It was a choice between careering off the road into the river from a great height or being buried beneath an avalanche of stone. It was the lesser of two poor alternatives. At one point I heard rocks bounce off the roof of the Landcruiser, and I looked nervously skyward towards the vertiginous mountains to ascertain if more were to follow – thankfully none did. I dared to consider hurtling along this section of road with a tried driver at night, which would have occurred had I completed this journey in one day from Dushanbe.

I could sense Amzi relax and the speed of the car slow when this dangerous area was passed. Shortly after, we arrived at a checkpoint near Vanj, and this marked a reversal of conditions. We were heading south and the further we progressed, the brighter conditions became until the entire landscape was bathed in sunshine. Additionally, road conditions were less treacherous – the carriageway was flatter, straighter and sometimes even included guard rails. I also caught sight of snowy peaks at close range, which meant that we were climbing higher with each kilometre.

We had successfully navigated the worst sections of this journey, where a perpetual battle rages between man and machine on one side, and nature on the other. Heavy machinery constantly strove to reassert its dominance over the efforts of snow, rain and landslides to shift and destroy the folly of humans in attempting to forge a civilised passage through this inhospitable terrain.

Mid-afternoon we entered Khorog, after a seven hour day that saw us progress another 240 kilometres. The early arrival allowed me time to wander through the Central Park and admire the lean poplar trees frame a beautiful mountainous backdrop. I was not to know it at the time, but my hotel for the evening was the only instance for more than two weeks where I would have both a flushing toilet and running shower.

The final day was a leisurely drive under sunny skies through splendid scenery of lush green fields sitting beneath glorious snowy mountains, quite a comparison to the more rugged landscape earlier in our journey. It only took us three hours to drive this final 110 kilometres, including halting at a checkpoint where we offered a lift to a family
Amzi and another driver discuss options - near Zigar, TajikistanAmzi and another driver discuss options - near Zigar, TajikistanAmzi and another driver discuss options - near Zigar, Tajikistan

The stuck white Kamaz truck can be seen in the distance.
with a very young child. The father had beautiful blue eyes, or “Alexandeski” eyes as he called them.

The mountains of the Hindu Kush dominated the horizon before us, which meant that our 770 kilometre journey over 21 hours was almost concluded. I requested Amzi drop me at the border crossing, just before our intended destination of Ishkashim. We alighted the car and met each other near the rear door. I went to shaked Azmi ‘s hand, but decided a gentle hug was more appropriate, and in response he tightly grasped me in a bear hug and lifted me off the ground whilst shaking me and laughing. We had formed a strong bond through sharing music, stories, and an incredible journey – this was the most dangerous and spectacular road I have travelled upon. Farewells make me emotional, and by the look in Amzi’s eyes, the feeling was mutual. Amzi returned to his car as I strode towards the security point at the border. The noisy metal gate was opened by a very young looking soldier, and once I had stepped through, Amzi beeped his horn in farewell as he commenced his return to Dushanbe. I watched the car shrink from sight, and I turned to walk towards Afghanistan.


Additional photos below
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16th June 2013

IT REMINDS ME OF....
I HAVE SEEN SIMILAR SITUATIONS IN LATIN AMERICA, MAINLY BOLIVIA. I LOVE THE LANDSCAPE IN YOUR PICTURES. WHAT A PLACE!!!
16th June 2013

Great contrasts!
The wildness of the road and dodgy bridges were a perfect foil to the breath-taking landscapes. In Bolivia, the long-distant buses were all at night, often on similar high dirt roads but with drunk drivers. Not only dangerous, but also we couldn't see the deep valleys and high mountains. How great that you were able to hire a car, so you didn't have to miss the awesome mountains and vistas. I love your last line, " I turned to walk towards Afghanistan." Can't wait for the next installment!
17th June 2013

Thanks Tara, the other advantage (apart from safety) with incurring the expense of an own vehicle is the ability to stop and take photographs of the most picturesque scenes. Definitely worth the money.
16th June 2013

CONQUERING THE PANJ
Possibly your most exciting adventure...your words wring with adrenalin...your pics with rugged wonder.
17th June 2013

"Rugged Wonder"
Beautifully poetic Dave, I might need to borrow that phrase for a future blog.
17th June 2013

"One of the great adventures of the world"
A precipice certain of doom....ok, you\'ve got our attention-- vehicle carcasses crumbled or submerged...sounds like a road we encountered in Nepal. Thank you for taking us along on this stretch of the world. After surviving Nepal this does not sound like a road I\'ll sign up to drive. Glad you could do it in the daylight. The photos are wonderful. Breathtaking descriptions.
17th June 2013

Dangerous yet rewarding
Great journey, Shane, and beautiful pictures! I'm waiting for what's coming next... :)
19th June 2013

Amazing
What a journey and what a relief it must have been to finish it
19th June 2013

End of the Road
Thanks Woolly. It was a relief that the journey was over. However I was not to know at the time that the roads in Afghanistan were even rougher! A week later I returned to Tajikistan and drove towards Kyrgyzstan, but at least road conditions were much better than the journey from Dushanbe to Ishkashim.

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