Tajikistan has some hills.
I already told you all about this. But now I want to show you some of these sky-touching scenes from two regions we visited: Kulikalon and the Pamirs.
But not just yet! Because you ought to hear how we reached these areas. The first place, Kulikalon – well that won’t take long. Because I already told you about our joyride through the good ol’ Death Tunnel, which brought us to the region. (Though I skipped the fun details of other road dramas, like the seven hours we spent waiting for bridge repairs. Repairs conducted by a Tajik welder and Chinese engineer who monkeyed under the bridge on thin beams 100 metres above the river, wearing ropes literally tied in a knot around their waist).
And though the access for that first foray into the mountains was fraught with challenges, reaching our second trekking area (the Pamirs) would be a bit more difficult. It was on the other side of the country.
From Dushanbe, we had two choices: Flying along a legendary route which threads between mountains and up narrow valleys. (According to Lonely Planet, “the most exhilarating or terrifying experience of your life”). So yeah, obviously this was our preference. But after days of waiting, due to poor weather not one flight had taken off – an unsurprising fact really, as they’re typically cancelled six days out of every seven.
And so we were left with our second choice: a butt-busting cross-country ride along with 8 locals crammed into a Landcruiser. Except that ours wasn’t a Landcruiser. It was the shabbier Korean knockoff ($5 cheaper, and I love a deal)
The rock-hard seats punished our bodies while the scenery offered our eyes some compensation. After passing the world’s second tallest dam, we spent much of the trip following the Panj river – a band of fast-flowing, turbulent water notable because it forms the majority of the 1,300 km-long border with Afghanistan. I spent six hours peering across the often narrow river into the villages and homes of people who, by an unfortunate fluke of geography, lived in conditions that made Tajiks look quite comfortable.
All the while back on our side of the river in our “Ssangyong 4X4” we had one passenger named Corbone who, over the course of what we expected to be just a 14 hour trip, slowly went insane.
Corbone would ask us increasingly ridiculous questions about Canada; evaporate for long periods during short rest stops; and generally do his best to drag out our journey by four. extra. hours. Some of his behaviour was explained by the fact that he hadn’t eaten since before dawn, and it was well after dusk. (It was Ramadan, but in this casually Muslim country1, no restaurants were open for iftar). And as the hours dragged on into the night and we eventually neared our destination, it was clear Corbone had become completely unhinged.
He refused to let our driver bring us to our hotel, insisting that it didn’t exist (despite the map and directions we had to show that it certainly did). It all came to a boil at 3AM when the four of us had a bleary-eyed and language-barred shouting match. Our driver finally followed our directions.
When we arrived at our hotel it had a white and unnecessarily bright backlit sign proclaiming its unequivocal existence – and naturally, our insane friend’s terrible error. I watched as Corbone slowly stepped out of the car, his eyes fixed on that sign. He stood there for a very long moment, bathing in its lumens. His mouth was agape in an expression of exhausted, crazed, guilty disbelief.
Hate to say we told you so, Corby.
Minutes later, we were silently crawling into our sleeping bags in our own tired daze. And in the tranquil air between us was one decision I knew we’d both made about the return trip:
We’d definitely pay the extra $5 for the Landcruiser.
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[Now for the mountain scenery! Note that these images begin around 2700 metres and continue up to the breath-taking 4000m. Click to view full-screen! And use arrows to switch images]
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After the death tunnel, the broken bridges, the teenage-level of reckless driving in Dushanbe, and this cross-country marathon with Corbone we should have cottoned onto the theme of Tajikistan.
Still, nothing prepared us for the experience we’d have three days later while hitchhiking back from the Pamir trek photographed here. Two friendly young locals picked us up, which began a two hour string of increasingly bizarre, comical and sometimes scary events.
That story, however, will need to wait until the next episode of Mike’s Magical Tajik Adventures. So tune in then: same batty-time, same batty-channel.
as one source put it, “Central Asians seem quite happy to toast the Prophet’s health with a shot of vodka”↩