Leaving Plymouth station after six weeks summer holiday, I was for once quite apprehensive about my latest travel experience. I was meeting a friend in Istanbul airport and we were going to spend the next two weeks travelling around the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan. This small landlocked country, situated between Kyrgyzstan, China, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan has only 8 million inhabitants and is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. Having read guide books about the country, I also knew it was a place for the “more adventurous traveller” to visit and although I love travelling I have never seen myself as the back packing, adventurous type.
The first problem I had was not being able to book my bag all the way through to Dushanbe, the country’s capital. This meant that when I got to Istanbul I had to leave the airport, collect my bag and go through the process of checking in again.
I met up with my travel companion and we went through passport control. At the departure gate, though, we were sure we had the wrong flight. All the faces were elderly and all white. I knew that Tajiks were an Iranian people and there didn’t seem to be anyone who fitted that description on board. It turned out the group were a large tour of western travellers and we boarded for the five-hour flight to Dushanbe.
On the plane I sat next to a Russian Tajik, who make up only 1% of the population. When we were walking around the market in Dushanbe I bumped into him again, proving to me how small the capital city must be!
We landed at 3.30am and armed with our letter of invitation from the tour company we proceeded to wait 30 minutes in the wrong queue until we realised we needed to go into a back room to get our visa. The visa official was friendly and asked lots of questions about the UK, but had never heard of Plymouth. He asked my job and when I told him I was a Spanish teacher in Kazakhstan he laughed heartily and said he thought it was the Scottish who had the best sense of humour!
When we finally got through passport control, we collected our bags ourselves and turned down the offer of a trolly from a young boy. Coming out of the arrival gate we were hit by the warm air, the twittering of brightly coloured parrots in the trees and confronted with crowds of people offering taxis. Our guide spotted us straight away and led us through through the colourfully dressed women to the car. The avenues were wide and tree-lined. The buildings were all low level, apart from a few of the hotels due to the risk of earthquakes.
Our accommodation for the night was a studio flat behind the Turkish embassy which turned out to be very central. During the day we explored the city on foot. Dushanbe is located on the southern slopes above the Kofarnihon valley and is a green and friendly city. There were few international shops or buildings but we did manage to find a western style coffee shop on the main avenue.
I was also very happy to discover that although the main language is Tajik (rather like Persian) most people spoke Russian which made getting around a whole lot easier. We met later in the day with the tour guide who had been to buy our visa for the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province GBAP) which takes up nearly half of the country’s landmass and were ready to set off early the next day.
The tour we had booked on was through the Pamir mountains. Our first point of call was the city of Khorog which, from Dushanbe, was 14 hours along a narrow, mountain track which turned out to be one of the main highways through the country. The only other option to get there would have been an unreliable air service, either helicopter or airplane, which skirts through the mountain peaks; not really an option which appealed to me. Taxis leave from the main transport hub in the centre of Dushanbe, early in the morning. There was a selection of cars and we chose a land cruiser which had five other passengers. We paid 300 Somme, or 60 dollars for the day-long trip.
We left the market area where all the taxis collected, only to be stopped moments later by the police. This was to happen regularly on our long trip. Police often stop drivers on the premise that they are checking documents or you have committed an offence. In actual fact, they just ask for money and the driver can carry on their way!
We eventually got going. I was sat next to a mother, whose 16-year-old son was in the back. She was leaving her other son to study in Dushanbe. There was a young couple and their nephew in the back and a business man in the front.
After a few hours we were stopped at a border post to show documents (and pay a bribe) to cross into the GBPA. As we turned the bend after the border we had the most beautiful view of a deep valley, with a fast flowing river and snow capped mountains beyond.
Our driver, a young Tajik, informed me that we were looking into Afghanistan. It was stunning. From then on we couldn’t stop taking photographs! The scenery remained mesmerising along the border. The river was running as rapids and the mountains either side were colourful and towered above the road. Sadly, this also meant that 10 hours into the journey, as the rain fell, so did the mountain side. There was no way through.
Luckily we had a very resourceful driver. He drove back to one of the villages we had passed and asked one of the farmers if we could stay in one of their rooms for the night! We were welcomed with open arms. The family sat us on their balcony and provided us with a hearty meal and then set up a room with nine beds for the passengers and driver of the taxi.
As a westerner it is truly difficult to comprehend how people survive with intermittent electricity and no washing facilities. They were so welcoming and hospitable, it made me think how someone in the UK would react if a group of travellers turned up and needed lodgings for a night – I wasn’t sure of the answer.
The next day we had to wait a further nine hours until some semblance of a road had been created (including much help from my travel companion Paul!) Our driver took the bull by the horns, over took the hundred or so cars and trucks and drove over the basic road – we went by foot and met him the other side! We later learned from a Chinese truck driver that the tucks had to wait a further three days until the road was cleared properly!
When we finally arrived in Khorog, we were pleased to have a European-style hotel with running water and comfortable bed! We learned later that only a year ago there was an uprising due to the killing of a local politician. It was hard to believe that there had been shooting in the streets as I went to the local shop to pick up some water for a next 10 hour journey along the Afghan/Tajik border.
We set off and were greeted with the same amazing scenery. Paul stopped to film the rapids, and I looked over to the Afghan side to see a dark figure with gun slung over his back staring intently at Paul. The filming complete, the Afghan was obviously bored with the strange sight of foreigners filming water and had carried on. We continued along the border which separated Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the Pyanj river (the word for 5 in Tajik, as 5 rivers run into it).
We continued along the mountainside road for four days and enjoyed the hospitality of so called Homestays; a basic B&B style set up. We passed the peak of Pakistan, 60km from the Pakistan border, crossed through the GBAP border again and headed towards the Chinese border. On the way we spent a night in a Yurt on the insistence of my travel companion, and I was surprised to find how warm and cosy it was. In the west of the country the majority of the population are of Kyrgz descent and speak Kyrgz and many live in the traditional yurt in the summer. A round, felt covered tent, these days there are stoves inside and solar panels on the outside!
We fished nearby for lunch and had fresh fish from the river and milked yaks in the evening. We played with the delightful children who lived in these yurts in the summer. They loved our cameras and happily snapped away, getting some really beautiful shots! A goat was brought to celebrate the family’s other visitors and was slaughtered for dinner. We watched as the children held the animal down to have it’s neck cut and then as all the insides were removed for the evening meal. Better than any biology lesson they would get in school.
A few hours later, we had to admit how tasty and fresh the dinner tasted! The child then brought in a decoration to hang in the yurt. The skin of a baris, or snow leopard. According to their story it was a young leopard who had fallen off a mountain ledge and they had kept the fur. We decided, all the same, we were a little uncomfortable with a highly endangered animal’s skin adorning the place we were sleeping in.
We continued our travels in the east of the country, along the Chinese border, or no man’s land, and witnessed the most colourful mountains, and a landscape covered in ground squirrels which we found fascinating; only to find out later that a Kyrgz boy had died after eating one. The locals in the Pamirs cook them and use them for medicinal purposes. The broth made from boiling their meat and bones is beneficial to back problems and stomach issues apparently!
Over the rest of the holiday, we climbed steep mountain paths to see 6,000 year old Petroglyphs, forts and castles. We bathed in natural hot springs and stopped along the road to inspect Ismaili religious shrines, adorned with the horns of the ibex and marco-polo sheep. We reached 5,000 metres at one point and I often found it difficult to catch my breath after moving too quickly.
As we made our way back across Tajikistan we unfortunately got a car whose driver was best friends with a driver who had put bad petrol in his car. When we came across him on the road side, it had taken 24 hours to get there. I was surprised how happy all the passengers seemed! Our driver spent hours helping him and we eventually got back to Dushanbe five hours late!
Despite the problems and obvious lack of some basic facilities, Tajikistan has to be one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to. I hope I can visit again in the future.