Tajikistan must contain some of the most beautiful and interesting landscapes in the world. On the other side of things it is probably the most difficult of all the countries where I have travelled! From the bureaucratic hassles to the rough transport to the toilet facilities – it is not for the faint-hearted.
However, travelling in the footsteps of Marco Polo, where the great gamesters did their sneaking and where Younghusband was tossed out on his ear by the Russians – the excitement of actually being here was almost too much for me at times!
Ancient Penjikent, city of the Sogdians, glows yellow in the evening sun. You can see walls, doorways, hearths, a high citadel. It rises above the modern city, which is a green oasis in the valley of the Zerhavshan River.
Here we found the first of many homestays in Tajikistan – and a delicious meal of plov (rice pilaf), accompanied by sweet penjikent wine and endless quoting of Tajik proverbs. Penjikent also has a lively bazaar, with Tajik music blaring from the loud speakers and old gentlemen in turbans leaning on their walking sticks.
The road to Dushanbe is really a road that ought not exist. It is insane. Imagine the very worst ski field road you’ve ever seen, at 3,000-plus metres. But the chunky Volga taxi took everything in its stride. We made a couple of short side trips on the way, to the lakes of the Shing valley and the stunning Iskander lake in the Fansky Gory.
So much of Tajikistan is very arid but then there will be a fertile river terrace and an explosion of green orchards. Passing through one village, we saw the men line the street outside the cemetery. They squatted on their heels with hands cupped before them in prayer, dressed in dark blue dressing gowns tied around the waist with a bright scarf and the usual black and white cap. When their prayer is finished they passed their hands over their faces in the graceful gesture of thanks and stood up.
Once we hit the main Tashkent-Dushanbe road, the conditions improved, there were even occasional stretches of tarseal. When we crested the final pass we were greeted with the endless pinnacles and fins of snowy mountain ranges in every direction.
Dushanbe is a pleasant city with tree lined boulevards. Here we would experience our first taste of Tajik bureaucracy – the dreaded registration.
The women favour bright coloured dresses and scarves and heavily pencilled eyebrows. Before undertaking the famous Pamir highway you have to get from Dushanbe to the town of Khorog. This proved to be more challenging than anticipated.
When the marshrutka (the name for ancient Russian minivan that provide the main public transport in Tajikistan) set off from the bus station it was clear the starter motor was *&%$ed. That meant at least 20 times during the day I was convinced it would never start again. But it did, along with the smell of a gear box in pain.
The road again begged the use of the word “insane”. I’m not sure which is worse, not having anything to hold on to, not being able to lean back because the backrest was made of wood and ended at my waist, or not being able to sit up straight because the roof was too low.
The road was empty apart from some stray beasts, another labouring minivan, a few lorries, and the odd derelict tank left over from the civil war. We followed the river, the road continued to wind and the marshrutka and its passengers continued to bounce. I felt nostalgic for the Volga taxi!
The summit of every pass felt like a triumph. At 3,200m the hills were still green, with zebra stripes of snow. On the other side the nearly full moon was bright on a range of mountain peaks. Descending, the road became one of those cinematic trails – sidling around the side 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. The little girl sitting opposite smiled at me with light golden brown eyes.
Tajikistan is a land of swift flowing rivers that charge through deep gorges then suddenly widen out to braid through shingle grey and red silt in shallow valleys. The green here borders on tropical, especially after a rain shower, and with electrical storms committing violence in the sky above the mountains. The greenness extends far up the mountain slops – until it reaches the snow line or incredible castles of reddish rock. One striking mountain was folded over 180 degrees, like so many layers of paper.
Across the Oxus river is Afghanistan, a mere stone’s throw away. We could see donkey trains and burka-clad women walking on the narrow paths. There were mud brick villages and dry stone walls. After dark we stopped at a roadside teahouse in the village of Khailaykhum and found a local who would put us up for the night. I was just too tired to carry on with the marshrutka and the Central Asian bed of quilts on the floor seemed like heaven.
The next day we tried to hitch a ride to Khorog, which took a few hours, but our decision of the night before was soon proved right because a few hours up the road we discovered a large section of the road had disappeared into a curving arc of the river! The poor marshrutka passengers had spent the night in the van.
After 28 hours of local hospitality the road was finally cleared with explosives and ancient bulldozers. The people here were so kind, providing food and a place to sleep for all the stranded travellers.
I’m sure this is the only time in my life when I’ve had vodka with lunch, tea and supper. Central Asian toasts are elaborate, alternately serious and humourous and completely unintelligible to me. When called upon to reciprocate, l could only come up with inanities such as “Nova Zelandiya!” and “Nyet Taliban!”.
At last we could carry on to Khorog (where we were offered a bed by the lady who shared our ride) to prepare for our further adventures in Tajikistan – on the Pamir Highway!
By Natasha von Geldern