The worst bus journey in Central Asia (until the next one) started off from a bus depot on the outskirts of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. My experience of independent travel in Tajikistan was only a few days old.
The journey from Samarkand in Uzbekistan across the border to Penjikent and by taxi to Dushanbe had been serendipitous.
When the Marshrutka (Soviet minivan) set off it was clear the starter motor was in trouble. At least 20 times during the following days I was convinced it would never start again. but it did, along with the smell of a gear box in pain.
Apart from a few stray cattle beasts, another labouring minivan, a few lorries and the odd derelict tank on the side of the road left from Tajikistan’s civil war, the road is empty.
We follow the river, across which is Afghanistan, a stone’s throw away from Tajikistan. There are villages of box-shaped mud houses with flat roofs, surrounded by orchards and neat fields with dry stone walls. A donkey train makes its way along the narrow river path. On our side there is a road, not much of one but a road along which us Marshrutka passengers continue to bounce.
I am not sure which is worse: not having anything to hold on to, not being able to lean back because the backrest is made of wood and ends at my waist, or not being able to sit up straight because the roof is so low.
The summit of every pass is a triumph. At 3,200m the hills of Tajikistan are still green, with zebra stripes of snow. On the other side the nearly full moon is bright on a range of mountain peaks.
Going down the road becomes one of those cinematic byways – sidling around the sides of the mountains, on one side a rock cliff you can’t see the top of, on the other side an abyss you can’t see the bottom of. Stopping to refuel, the gasoline is carried in buckets from a rusty shed. But the little Tajik girl sitting across from me has luminous, pale golden brown eyes. We smile at each other.
After a long night we arrive at a road block - a large section of the road had disappeared into a curving arc of the river. Everyone seems philosophical about this, there are a few tired faces but the children are still perky.
After 28 hours of local Tajikistan hospitality it was finally cleared with explosives and ancient bulldozers. The people were so kind, providing food and a place to sleep for all the stranded people. Young men and women rush to fire up a big cauldron to make plov and children spread a large sheet to catch fat purple mulberries from a tree as someone beats it with a stick.
I’m sure this is the only time in my life when I’ve had vodka with lunch, tea and supper. The endless toasts are elaborate, alternately serious and humorous and completely unintelligible to me. When called upon to reciprocate, l can only come up with inanities such as “Nova Zelandiya!” and “Nyet Taliban!”
Everything seems very amusing at this point. Clouds of dust are roiling towards us from the bulldozers working on the road. There is a crowd of onlookers, travellers and locals, squatting on their heels. A man climbs up the telephone poll to see what’s going on. He has interesting crampon-like contraptions on his feet. The people rush back when a landslide starts or an explosion is about to occur.
A large dead animal floats down the river. It has a long neck, maybe it’s a camel? With this vodka in my stomach nothing bothers me. Two bulldozers driven by white-bearded old men push great boulders, it looks very unstable but as the evening approaches there is a beautiful light on the hills and fresh snow on the tops.
There are fig trees leaning over dry stone walls and apricot orchards. We sit down to another communal meal of laghman and vodka. There is laughter and turkeys gobble somewhere in the vicinity. There are worse places than this remote valley of Tajikistan to be stuck I am sure.
By Natasha von Geldern
Soon my independent travel in Tajikistan story would continue as we embarked on the mighty Pamir Highway.