September 20, 2005 GMT
Tajikistan

Border crossing? WHAT border crossing? According to our map, three purport to cross from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan. However not a soul, from travel agents to police, seems to have the slightest knowledge as to whether any are in fact open. So what can you do but pick the one that appears closest to your destination and head for it. Then what can you do when told at the guard post that this one is inaccessible but head for the NEXT border crossing. And what's to be done when told at the guard post that THIS border crossing is for pedestrians only except head for the NEXT border crossing.

Four hours from starting, a young wanna-be-tough-somehow-militarily-connected guy commands us to stop, fork over our passports, open up the sidecases, and pull out the contents. We stand there thinking, "NOW what". Importantly he dials up someone on his mobile phone. We must wait for the head of police to arrive. We stand there thinking "NOW what" some more. Not too much later the head of police arrives. He checks the passports, shakes his head disapprovingly at the arrogant young military guy, and shoos us off. Amazingly the last border crossing is both operational and open to vehicular traffic. However, the customs officials are a bit perplexed as they have no idea how to process a foreign motorcycle. After the officials exclaim "problem", they consult their tattered, dusty book of regulations. A mere two hours of bureaucracy and a $30 fee later, as the sun's glowing descent tints golden wheatfields pink, we're in Tajikistan.

some of the nicer cops

Night driving is never a preference, but Khojand is hours away and the only place around with lodging. Tourist infrastructure in most of the " 'Stans " is but a dream, though Uzbekistan had quite a number of both tourists and comfortable accomodations. Villages are almost completely unlit here; even the brilliant starry skies aren't quite adequate to illuminate the road. (Then again there are the motorcycle headlights.) Around 9:00 we reach one of the odder lodgings on the trip. Its round blue heights reach up a dozen stories, with semicircular mustard-colored windows protruding petal-like layer upon layer all around. Apparently this building was originally an apartment complex now converted to Soviet-style hotel. A teeny bundle of aging goldtoothed headscarfed housekeeper takes us up on the second elevator, the first one inoperable except for 2 of the 12 floors. On the second elevator we are able to get off at the 11th floor, from whence a 5 level descent down dark dank stairwell leads to the 7th floor, from whence we are led down a dark hall, out a doorless doorway onto a rickety balcony, back into a darkened hallway around the corner, down that hall, and into a three-room "suite" complete with empty round "living room" with mustard curtains billowing out the open windows into the hot humid night. Will we actually be able to find our way back? The bathroom is equipped with ancient wet dingy mildewed towels absorbing the plumbing's dripping tears of neglect. The kitchen sink hasn't been drained in years and is emitting rank odors of history's sewage in protest. But the bed area is spacious and clean and has actual air conditioning! Fair enough.

Khojand hotel

Khojand is in the northeast corner of Tajikistan and shares the Ferghana Valley with Uzbekistan. Landscape and architecture in this region are not surprisingly quite similar to the latter country, a blend of farmland, mud compounds and Russian apartment blocks. Khojand inhabits the wealthiest area of the country outside the capitol of Dushanbe and is a pleasant town to be in if you must run around dealing with banking and bureaucracy. Cashing travellers' checks will entail redirection to 3 different banks and an eventual 2 hour wait while the correct bank waits to receive official authorization from the head office. Next, travellers are supposed to register at OVIR, the government's official agency for keeping track of foreigners. Their convoluted rules require that payment of something like $35 in dollars along with $12 in somani, to be deposited at a bank completely somewhere else, proof of payment to be returned to OVIR. We locate the bank and are told to return at 5:00. Upon returning at 5:00 they say it's too late to take our deposit and to return the next morning. Argh.

Next morning the plumbing has shed its last tear--no water is to be had at the hotel. We take care of the rest of the OVIR registration runaround and head off to Istvaravshan, also known as Uroteppa. Many towns have dual names reflecting past Russian colonization and more recent Tajik liberation. The farm countryside is pleasant, with kids on lunch break walking home on poplar-lined roads near neat dirt compounds and cotton fields.

countryside

After some tasty kebabs and tea at a shady chaykhana, the local market lures us onto a narrow road thronged with people, which soon gets even narrower and more congested.

shoppers

Somehow we arrive at Mug Teppe, a mosque up on the hill overlooking town.

Dave with Mug Teppe caretaker

A wedding party approaches and young guys hop out of cars to come gawk at the bike. The approaching bride, surrounded by groom and family, looks notably grim. Erika surmises it's because she's not thrilled to be sharing her big moment with a big foreign motorcycle. Later we learn that it is custom for the wedding party to maintain serious expressions in the solemnity of the moment.

somber bride

The old part of town is reminiscent of Uzbekistan also, with mud-walled homes and narrow stone streets. Uroteppa warms with its friendliness. At the blue-domed 15th century Abdullatif Sultan Medressa, the head teacher of the young mens' religious school hospitably shows us around.

Medressa teacher

It's good to see a historic monument put to use in modern life as opposed to being converted to a tourist attraction. Outside the mosque, 3 elderly men and a posse of children are fun and lively.

child posse

One bearded gentleman has a sock tied over and around his hand, presumably to mask an injury. A bit of a surprise, then, when he peels it off to reveal a baby bird nestled underneath.

the bird hatcher

Tonight's lodging boasts more petrified plumbing with the added bonus of a door that neither locks nor closes. We are allotted 6 slim bottles of water for bathing and flushing purposes. The avaricious landlady charges equal fees for Dave, Erika and the bike and guarantees she'll keep an eye on everything. Early next morning the housekeeper barges in as Erika is getting dressed; shortly after the landlady flings open the door to collect the unused water and poke around our belongings. Finally after paying plenty for bike "security", the fuel cannister has been filched. The landlady defiantly refuses to take any responsibility. Erika has had just about enough of this woman and uncharacteristically glares at her as the bike is packed up. Overall Uroteppe has been great, with lots to see and great people, but no sorrow's wasted leaving that hotel.

Fortunately the Fan Mountains await. Small poplar-shaded towns with mud brick homes dot the golden valleys. There's a feeling of exhilarating freedom as the bike climbs steeply upward for the first time in months. The route is the "National Highway" which links the wealthy northwest to Dushanbe. Indeed as far as main highways go it is like a cardboard shack being designated upscale housing. But Dave loves the narrow gravelly rutted challenge, hairpin turn after hairpin turn. Good views at the top of Ayni Pass at over 11,000 feet.

near Ayni Pass

The descent is even worse than the ascent as s-turn corners are swimming in slippery sand. Somewhere far below, a line of trucks is parked in the middle of the road. Eventually the cause becomes apparent: an onion truck has tipped over, spilling its contents high and low. The accident must have taken place many hours ago as much of the onions have been repackaged into sacks. Eventually we're allowed to pass the truck but not before the driver rushes towards us grasping armfuls of onions. He's disappointed that we only have room for a few.

onion truck mess

The road continues through a narrow valley that descends through eroded crags. Closer observation reveals mud homes nestled around the crags.

crags

Through a scenic town perched over the river, Dave discovers the speedometer has gone out. We stop at a gas station in a high remote town where a bunch of young boys are thrilled to meet. 1 1/2 hours later the speedometer still doesn't work but it's been fun to hang out with the kids.

Erika's kids

The scenery continues to change and amaze. Shambly stone houses masquerade as orderly landslides stopped mid-fall. Flat roofs host piles of winter hay practically larger than the homes themselves.

hay roofs

Some time later the green dries up, voluptuousness displaced by craggy starving rock. A few industrial projects are evident, though it isn't clear whether their rusty shells are currently used. A small road branches off which will lead 16 kilometers later to Iskander-Kul, a small lake with a funkety deserted ex-Russian holiday resort. The route becomes more rocky and dramatic.

approaching Iskander-Kul

A small cabin here sets us back about $1.50 each. The only people around are a few young caretakers who help figure out dinner and arrange a hot sauna in a crumbling hut at the old farmhouse next door. The "restaurant" offers a package of spaghetti with canned fish. Spaghetti with canned fish it will be. To our dismay the bill includes an $8 charge for the can of fish. This is expensive even for the U.S., not to mention in a place where lodging is $1.50. The cook says the fish is a special import from Russia but later we'll spot the same can in the market for about $1. Negotiation gets the fish down to $5, not a penny less. Shoulda taken up the invitation from the men outside preparing grilled mutton.

dinner prep

The weather's gray and chilly but we walk halfway around the lake to check out the views. On the far side is supposedly the President's "dacha" (vacation home), but it is uninhabited save an elderly guard with his young family.

sunny view of Iskander-Kul

Despite fish fiascos, Dave has time to work more on the bike and make friends with the guys. It's relaxing and pleasant beneath the oakish trees, their falling leaves an endless project for the caretakers.

cabin

Back en route to Dushanbe, the wide river belt hugs broad flat bellies of farmland where the green and golden harvest awaits.

farmland

We stop for a friendly chat with some local road workers.

road workers

check out the latest trucker styles

trucker style

and admire one more view.

view

Dushanbe has the usual Soviet-style wide tree-lined streets and big city amenities. It was Uzbekistan's Independence Day a week before, and now Tajikistan is celebrating its own independence from Russia. Except this time we don't just watch it on TV. A multitude has gathered in the main square to watch national singers and dancers; after passing many street cops and metal detectors we join the crowds a great distance from the performance.

independence day, Dushanbe

Signs proclaim "9 Years Independence". Everything's still in Cyrillic.

sign of independence, Dushanbe

A trip to the museum intriguingly demonstrates a blending of the cultures.

Lenin and the women

Fairly recently the city was considered dangerous as after the country's liberation it fell into civil war, which ended only in 1996. It's hard to imagine now as the placid streets are so...placid. You'd expect to find police stationed around a large gathering at the independence day celebration of a new nation. Bigger surprise the next morning when all the way down the main street's green parkway a cop stands at each corner of every block.

Dushanbe street scene

Some interesting people are wandering around Dushanbe, including a man stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan working for USAID and waiting for a transfer to Libya. He is highly optimistic about the future of Afghanistan. Later we have dinner with Neil from England who is travelling long-term on his Yamaha Tenere.

Neil's fuzzy bike

Dushanbe also provides opportunities to eat Chinese, Iranian, Ecuadorian and Georgian food (much better than what we had in Georgia!); along with the museum, some interesting pastel architecture, and a repair place for the motorcycle's broken front wheel stud, which Dave accidentally overtightened...easy next time Dave!

Leaving the big city again, the road heads off into dry hills spliced with a vast churning gray river.

riverscape

Occasional patches of green signal distant small towns. Avalanche or weather has eroded the road at the point where it's supposed to cross that churning river. Dave has to scope out the river's depth by walking over the rocky bottom without the bike first. It's if-fy but seems doable. In order to get the bike's bulk safely through the boulders and heavy current, however, the river gods demand partial sacrifice of the clutch as Dave gets stuck several times in the large, slippery rocks which remain hidden at the bottom.

steely determination

In the small town of Tavil Dara we ask the woman at a small chaykhana the location of the guesthouse. She doesn't know but offers the floor of a plain concrete room at her place. Her daughters bring Erika down to their small home a few hundred yards off the main road, where she meets Grandma and Grandpa and numerous girlfriends. Everyone wants to dress up; oldest daughter gets a thrill from showing off in drag, while grandma clasps Erika's hand and insists E is really Tajik after seeing her put into local attire.

E's alter ego

The family all share this one room for sleeping and general living. The room is carpeted and boasts a cabinet filled with prized glass and tableware; there is no other decoration save rugs on the floor and walls. Each girl has one plastic bag containing her prized posessions tucked away in the cabinet. When one brings out photos Grandma bursts into tears at a picture of a man who seems to be her son and who presumably died somehow. Not a common word of language is shared between any of us, but Grandma takes a hug as she tells the mysterious story of her son.

our Tajik family

After a night back on the concrete, some scarey midnight trips to the outhouse perched precariously on the ledge of a dark river later, and withstanding the sound of TV on full blast all night long, we have some bread and tea and head for Khorog. At a very small roadside tea shop some truckers we met the previous night are having watery soup and bread lunch. The scenery is barren and striking here in the rugged mountains along the highway.

skinny road

Everyone is remarkably friendly; kids and adults all wave as we pass by.

friendly kids

Afghanistan lies just across the river, its infrequent small green villages linked only by the smallest pathways for hundreds of kilometers.

Afghanistan

No car could possibly make its way over these rocky cliffside paths. The villages are backed by towering peaks over which their residents could scarcely easily pass in summer, much less winter. Passage across the river to Tajikistan is not only illegal but seemingly impossible in the broad current. Occasionally a lone soul, perhaps with a donkey or some goats, can be spotted in a barren region which appears to be 50 miles from the nearest hovel. We wonder if many of the local people have ever seen life outside their small community.

main road on the Afghan side

As we enter Khorog, the largest town in Tajikistan's economically limited Gorno-Badakshan district, there are many signs of aid projects: poultry projects, water projects, food projects. The Agha Khan Foundation features prominently in the notices. This region is predominantly Ismaeli Muslim, a sect which worships the Swiss-born Agha Khan. The more we learn of the Agha Khan and his work, the more impressed we are. Schools and hospitals provide excellent care not only to Ismaelis but any others needing help. Later in Pakistan we'll also meet many good people and projects connected to this group.

Khorog

Since this area is at such high elevation (the Pamir Highway extends across a 12,000 foot plateau with some passes topping 15,000 feet) greenery is scarce, food is scarcer, and electricity is erratic. Even at the end of summer, little fresh food is available in Khorog's main marketplace. We get tired of eating almost nothing but bread and tea for a few weeks, but people here subsist on this limited diet year-round. The primary focus of the Agha Khan projects seems to be empowering people and communities to become self-sufficient. The Ismaeli Muslims we talk to speak of educating women and children and having peace between all the sects of Islam.

Next, registration with the KGB in Khorog. A copy of our permit to visit the region obtained from a travel company off the internet isn't enough: KGB needs the original. Many phone calls ensue to determine that the original is in Dushanbe. It must be flown to Khorog and picked up tomorrow. The process is made easier with the help of a young woman who speaks very good English at the travel agency (which consists of a very small room with a desk located in a run-down youth center.) Her co-worker seeks funding to continue her project teaching handiwork skills to young women. When she hears Erika is a social worker she asks for resources for funding. Everyone is surprised to hear that even in America social service projects have difficulty maintaining funding.

We leave Khorog on the legendary Pamir Highway. This barren, remote stretch of road begins in Khorog and reaches the town of Sary-Tash in Kyrgyzstan hundreds of kilometers later after crossing one of the highest plateaus on earth. It's high and barren en route to Alichur, the next small dry mountain town situated amidst rolling treeless hills.

high desert

Here we stay in the simple home of the town's English teacher Rahima. Alichur has a Tajik settlement as well as one comprised of ethnic Kyrgyz. Rahima and her sister take Erika to a compound nearby to milk the cows as sun sets. Another friend brings E to her house for bread and mutton broth.

cow milking

It happens to be Rahima's older daughter's 15th birthday so a lot of friends and family drop by. A huge vat of plov is being prepared by Rahima's brother. We surmise that plov consists basically of one part rice to one part mutton fat; Dave has had unfortunate intestinal reactions to it in the past. But considering the region's deprivation we are lucky to be sharing in this family's feast.

the birthday feast

After dinner we sleep under heavy quilts on the main room floor. The town's outhouse is a block away, roofless and enclosed by 4 concrete walls. On one side an entrance indicates "men"; on the other side another indicates "women". This is curious as entering from either side leads to the same dozen holes in the floorboards.

outhouse

Erika's morning walk leads to interesting views of the stark town and a herd of baby yaks.

Alichur

yak babies

After many thanks and big good-byes, we're back on the Pamir Highway. It continues to be similarly rocky and rutted, if not quite as challenging, as the National Highway. More wide vistas of barren craggy mountains meet the eye.

good bye gang

Passing vehicles are as infrequent as one every few hours; those that make it up this high tend to be trucks from China hauling their wares very very slowly over the unpaved passes. Others are stopped by the roadside while their driver fixes tires or tinkers with the engine. We take a roadside stop to check the guidebook.

Lonely Planet Central Asia

Karakul Lake is the one of the highest in the world at 13,000 feet, so high that no fish can make their home in its frosty depths.

Erika chilling in Karakul

The small community of whitewashed dirt homes overlooking the chilly blue lake feels truly remote. We've never been anywhere quite like this.

Karakul town

Neither have the 16 Swiss tourists leaving the guesthouse, apparently. What are THEY doing here?? As soon as they leave 3 (coincidentally) Swiss bicyclists show up. We chat over fried potatoes. The guesthouse is clean and welcoming, providing the coldest room yet to offer up a floor. It's probably in the 40s outside, a puff of warmth to soothe the skin after a night in the refrigerator.

Swiss bicyclists

It's amazing that Fernande, Dominic and Christine are tackling the Pamir Highway on bicycles. Christine has been living in Kyrgyzstan for the last 4 months and speaks fluent Russian. In this language she holds a conversation with our Kyrgyz hostess which she translates after. The young hostess' marriage apparently occurred 7 years ago through the questionable tradition of "kidnapping". As she was walking along the street of her native city Murgab, her present husband (whom she did not know) drove by in his car full of friends and dragged her inside. From there she was taken to the home of his family, where his mother and grandmother talked to her until she agreed to marry their son. When asked why he had chosen his wife, the husband replied (jokingly?) that "she was tall and looked like she'd be a good worker." When asked if she was happy now, she replied "Well, I have 2 sons." We'll talk to others later in Kyrgyzstan who confirm that this practice still exists. Apparently it's not unusual for college women to fear for their education: country men may drive by at any time to kidnap them back to their village where the woman will face a life of farmwork. There are still families who still consider "kidnapping" a tradition to be honored. It's almost unbelievable.

Next chilly day we take a lakeside walk over dry marsh and salt-encrusted flats. Snow-topped peaks float in the distance above the lake.

Karakul Lake

Donkeys wander about; A strange abandoned building now looks to be a donkey hotel.

donkey hotel

Back at the hostel, Erika plays with the two small children who look to be about 2 or 3. It's a little shocking to be told by the hostess that they are actually 4 and 5.

guesthouse cutie

There's been no hot water for a long time and little running water; only more substantial homes boast a table with basin and faucet fed by water poured through a bowl behind it. The last treat of Tajikistan will be the piping hot sauna fired up by our host. Women go first and debate whether the men deserve to have any hot water saved for them. Dave and Dominic are lucky they're feeling nice. We'll enter Kyrgyzstan clean and well rested tomorrow, riding almost close enough to China to be able to reach out and touch the barbed wire border fence.

near the China border

on the road

Posted by Erika Tunick at September 20, 2005 12:17 PM GMT
 
 

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