September 2011: As part of a larger two-week trip that included Latvia and the Wakhan Valley, I visited Tajikistan. I spent 9 days in Tajikistan traveling from Dushanbe across the Pamir Highway to the far east of Tajikistan, where I crossed into the Wakhan region of Afghanistan. After a week in the Wakhan, I returned to Khorog, Tajikistan and traveled across Tajikistan along the Afghan border to Dushanbe. From Dushanbe I traveled to the northwestern region of the country to the Fan Mountains and Penshakent for another few days. This is the story of my travels in Tajikistan.

My route across Tajikistan

About Tajikistan

Tajikistan is a mountainous country that is just starting to open up to the rest of the world and mountaineers and trekkers are beginning to discover the wild Pamir Mountains, one of the worlds wildest and largest mountain ranges.  Tajikistan was previously isolated when it was under the Soviet Union and then again afterwards when it achieved independence and was engulfed in war. In the early 90’s after independence, the power vacuum left by the departure of the Soviets resulted in a civil war in Tajikistan between different tribes leaving approx. 30,000 dead. Tajik President Rahmon managed to pull the country together with a strong arm. Giant murals and pictures of the suit clad president with a superimposed look to them, usually of him embracing children, walking though wheat or flower fields, and other strange images, are everywhere. Similar to what I saw in Turkmenistan there seems to be a cult of personality surrounding the president. He has been in power since the early 90’s when Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviets, and he continues to stretch out his rule by changing the Constitution and by limiting the media and any criticism of the govt. However, the people, at least the ones I spoke to seem to really revere him. “We love our president,” they always say. On one hand part of me thinks that people always deserve a democratic and transparent govt. but on the other hand, this country was ravaged by a civil less than 20 years ago and the president has managed to maintain stability even if it has been through the heavy hand of his rule. Maybe this in itself is reason enough to keep an autocratic govt around. The fact is a western style govt might not succeed in keeping a country in such a situation from erupting into another civil war. Tajikistan is not without its dangers, however. There are still some terrorists in the country intent on harming foreigners and during my trip one foreigner bicyclist was gunned down on the side of the road.

 

Tajik President Rahmon

Tajik President Rahmon

Crossing the Pamirs

After my overnight flight of 6 hours taking me from the far north to the far south end of what was the Soviet Empire (Dushanbe, Tajikistan from Riga, Latvia), I was met at the airport by my pre-arranged driver. I am happy I pre-arranged a driver because when I arrived at the airport, I was exhausted, and the airport was utter chaos. Taxi drivers, porters, corrupt government officials all mobbed me, and my driver intercepted me and waived me through the whole mess.  I also didn’t have time to spare. As is the case with most of my trips, my itinerary was action packed and I didn’t want to waste any days trying to organize logistics in country. With this in mind I organized a driver with a Soviet era Lada jeep through a Tajik fixer. From the airport, we embarked on a 17-hour drive through the Pamir highway, 2nd highest highway in the world with the highest pas being 15,000′, to Khorog on the Afghan border.  I was so tired that I somehow managed to sleep through most of the dr4ive and miss much of the spectacular mountain scenery.  I must had been extremely tired because the road was bumpy and awful in some areas.  I did occasionally wake up however and see some of the spectacular scenery and small rural villages along the way. To get fuel, there were no fuel stations, we would purchase fuel from kids at small wooden kiosks selling plastic bottles of fuel, sometimes there would be no kiosk and kids would chase our vehicle with bottles of fuel when we entered a village.

Lada Jeep that I hired to cross the Pamirs both ways

Pamir Mountains

Along the Pamir HY we passed many small villages, and I took this photo of an old Tajik man who had a kind and wise disposition.

Villager on Pamir HY

Khorog 

I finally made it to Khorog, a quite mountain town, one of the largest in the region with apple orchards and green irrigated fields of fruit fed by glacial water. The region is also one of the poorest and most people receive assistance from the Agha Kahn, the leading Imam of the Ishmaeli faith, a denomination of Islam that most people in this part of Tajikistan follow. The Agha Kahn is a wealthy man and his instution donates millions to the various parts of the world where Ishameli people live. When I asked my driver local man where the Agha khans wealth comes from, he responded in hushed tones, well he is a businessman and opium is a big part of that business. The owner of the vehicle I hired lived in Khorog and I stayed in his house with his family in a guest room. The owner would be instrumental in helping to ensure that my trip went smoothly. He helped me with the logistics of getting my Afghan visa, and arranging a local fixer on the Afghan side of the border to assist me with getting permits and a vehicle when in the Afghan Wakhan.

My main goal in Khorog was to obtain an Afghan visa in the consulate. But I enjoyed my few days in Khorog exploring the area and eating kebobs at the riverside restaurants. Khorog is a small, relaxed town but prone to guerilla activity and has a large police presence. To visit this part of Tajikistan a special permit (GBAO) must be obtained in advance and this permit was obtained by my fixer. One year after my visit a revolt occurred in Khorog and dozens of rebels and police were killed in widespread fighting in the area.

Khorog

Khorog was the easiest place to obtain an Afghan visa. True to what I heard, i received my Afghan visa in only a few hours and it was a very hassle-free process with no questions asked. At the time, the US Afghan embassy was next to impossible to obtain one and other embassies weren’t any easy. Plus, I only wanted to visit the Afghan Wakhan, an isolated mountainous region that was removed from the fighting that has plagued other parts of Afghanistan. The easiest and safest way to get to the Afghan Wakhan was through Tajikistan and across the Ishakahim border just a few hours’ drive from Khorog. This was my main reason for coming to Tajikistan on this trip, but I was happy to explore Tajikistan, a country I found very interesting. Along the way to Ishakashim, I visited a hot spring with travertine limestone deposits and an old Soviet era health resort with outdated rooms. I also stopped to visit some of the marketplaces in small villages.

These Tajik women at the market in their traditional dress were very kind and insisted I have some apples for free.  Tajikistan just on the other side of the river from Afghanistan seemed worlds and centuries apart.  

Village boy at the hot springs

This was supposed to be a hot springs, resembling a weird soviet space capsule built 30 some years ago and not well maintained over the years. It is dry when you enter and once inside, an operator openes a faucet filling up the basin with hot springs water.  I tried to give it a go but the water was not hot, and the basin had what appeared to be fecal matter smeared along it, so I opted to abstain, which wasn’t very well received by the operator who scolded me in Tajik. 

Luckily I found this much more natural hot spring and the small pool with travertine deposits was a paradise minus the naked old men in the water beside me.

Natural hot springs I swam in

I’ll never forget when my taxi pulled off leaving me alone standing on a remote border crossing into Afghanistan. Two Tajik soldiers opened the barbed wire gates on the Tajik side of the bridge that connected Tajikistan to Afghanistan. As I walked forward, I felt a mixed feeling of excitement and apprehension. On the Afghan side of the border was a burnt-out Soviet tank, an appropriate welcome mat into Afghanistan.

 

Driving to Dushanbe Along the Remote Aghan Border

After a week in the Wakhan, I barely made it back to Tajikistan. The border closed out of the blue with no warning it was only because my fixer was familiar with the officials working the border that he was even aware. But no worries, this part of the world is very corrupt and the price to re-open a remote border is cheap. To get the Afghan border police to allow me to cross, I gave them approx. 6 eggs and for the Tajik police, the price was steeper. For them I had to pay them 20USD. Now I was back in Tajikistan waiting on a empty mountain road for my driver who my fixer in Afghanistan texted. Once I met my driver, I returned to Khorog for one more night and then a long lonely 20 hour plus drive back to Dushanbe via a different route that I took to come to Khorog. This time I drove along the southerly route hugging the border of Afghanistan.  On the Afghan side there was no road only a mule trail connecting remote villages without electricity. I had to be careful getting out of the car, live land mine fields and Soviet tanks left over from the war with Afghanistan were still present along the road. In the end I sat in the little Russian jeep for 22 hours of bumpy hell while the driver replayed the only mixed tape he had over and over again with a few great songs from the Scorpions that became less great each and every time they played over and over again.  It was a very challenging experience and the villages along this route were very conservative and poorer. There were no restaurants to stop, so i purchased fruit and snacks from kids selling them along the road at and I would filter drinking water from village water pumps.

Lonely Road to Dushanbe

The Russians left mines along the river bank to keep the Afghans out. I didn’t know this while I was walking along the river bank until I came across this sign.

Soviet tanks left over from the war

Soviet tanks left over from the war

Remote Afghan village across the river. My driver mentioned to me that on occasion he could hear bullets being shot from Afghanistan when driving this route

Village kids selling food

Dushanbe

We finally arrived late at night in Dushanbe, and both my driver and I were beyond tired. I chose the first hotel I could find to sleep in, an old Soviet era one with outdated decor and gawdy pink covers and gold window drapes and retired for a night of much needed sleep.

The next morning, I planned to get a visa for Uzbekistan at the Uzbek Consulate and drive overland to Tashkent and fly home from there, but American and Uzbek relations were at an all-time low because of recent American criticism of the poor human rights record of the Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, so despite my best efforts and another attempt of bribery, I was denied an Uzbek visa.

As a backup plan, I decided to drive into the northwest of Tajikistan and explore the Fan Mountains and the old Silk Road city ruins of Penjikent. I also spent some time exploring Dushanbe, a fascinating city that reminded me of Turkmenistan in many ways with its bizarre architecture and grandiose monuments. I was fortunate to be in Dushanbe during the Tajikistan Independence Day from the Soviet Union, when thousands of people flooded into the parks to watch fireworks, parades and celebrate. I was amazed by the giant flag.  Tajikistan with an annual GDP of about 250 million built this 25-million-dollar flag, the tallest in the world in order to out due their rival Uzbekistan, who everyone in the region hates I was told hates. Like many of the monuments in the capitol, Tajikistan can’t afford it. However, the govt continues to spend millions on useless monuments and presidential houses. The good news is a San Diego company from my hometown specializing in the building of huge flags for dictatorships was given the contract to build it.

Soviet era hotel

Tajikistan Museumin Dushanbe-Before Islam Tajikistan and Afghanistan were Buddhist and Zorahastrian.

I met this guy and his camera crew at the Tajik national museum. We adorned our shoes with mandatory blue plastic shoe covers and together we toured the museum under the watchful eyes of 5 or 6 museum workers. He had a striking resemblance to Borat, but was Iranian and he claimed to have hired his friends to film his vacation in Tajikistan. At the end of the tour he proclaimed me his new bestest friend.

Like so many people in Tajikistan that grew up under the Soviet Union, this woman had golden teeth. It was actually very popular during Soviet times and is still wisely common in the Stans.

Fan Mountains and Penjikent

With no Uzbek visa, I decided to hire a vehicle and driver to visit the northwest of the country and to visit the Fan Mountains and see some Silk Road era cities. The driver brought along his friend who spoke better english and served as a guide for me. After departing Dushanbe, we climbed high into the mountains and one of the most remarkable parts of the highway was the long tunnel, I was told earned itself the nickname, “Tunnel of Death.” The tunnel, 4 miles long and built by the Iranians and Chinese, left me feeling very claustrophobic and was truly one of the scariest experiences of my life, especially after I heard about a truck that stalled inside causing a massive traffic jam that created a death trap of carbon monoxide killing dozens of people. It took us 30 minutes to cross through it and we had to do it two times, since we would also return this same way to Dushanbe. The tunnel is carved through a mountain. Most of it is unlit, with no ventilation and a small glacial melt river running through the middle of it. Parts of it have caved in and other parts look like a cave in waiting to happen. We passed huge monstrous Soviet era trucks roaring as they barely squeezed passed us in the narrow tunnel. I was relieved when we finally emerged into the safety of the sunlight on the other side.

 

Tunnel of Death

We stayed one night up in the Fan Mountains at an old Soviet era resort on a lake, a beautiful location that unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy because I came down with severe food sickness and diarrhea. After one very rough night, and a Cipro pill later, I was feeling better and ready to explore again. One of the most fascinating places we visited was one of the president’s mansions located on the lake. It was guarded but the guards were kind enough to let us have a quick peak since the president was away. Like any good dictator there was no shortage of murals of the president in his house including one really cool textile mural, that I discovered I could even get fashioned after myself in a nearby town.

Fan Mountain lake

Textile Mural of the President at his lake House-I found out I could have one of these textile murals of myself made for 200$ with an image of myself. I thought that would be awesome but then I was told I had to travel one day to the place where it could be made.

Once a Luxury Soviet Hotel in Panjakent

We ended up driving the next day all the way to the Uzbek border to the old Silk Road era city of Penjikent, where we visited some historical places and the old bazaar. I stayed the night in what was once a Soviet era luxury resort with its glory long ago faded away into a old decayed concrete building.

On the way back to Dushanbe, we stayed one night with the family of my driver’s friend, and we would end up going out at night to a local restaurant with all of his childhood friends eating kebobs and drinking many bottles of vodka. We also stopped and visited some more idyllic lakes in the Fan Mountains, where I did some hiking, and I admired the turquoise green waters of the lakes.

The students of the Islamic School gathered around me to shake my hand and welcome me to the ancient Madrassa from the 1400’s.

Old Penjikent was once a famed city along the Silk Road and now just a crumbling field of dry stone.

Roadside Public Toilets-I never had to ask anyone where the toilet was since I could always smell it from a mile away.

Having dinner with lots of vodka with my driver and his friend’s village buddies. How it was to hang out with a group of people that don’t speak english.

I stayed with this family in their house and they were very kind. I had no choice but to photograph this beautiful girl with her baby.

Me at an old bazaar in Penjikent

Local girl riding a donkey

Fan Mountain Lakes

Like most of Tajikistan, there wasn’t a foreigner in sight and on the most part there was no one in sight. On this occasion we were having a picnic at this lake with some of my favorite foods of Tajikistan-a watermelon and salted sliced tomato-when an old man appeared out of nowhere with his goats and sat beside us. We shared our food, and he scarfed down as much watermelon as he could. He asked my driver if I was German since he thought that all foreigners were from Nazi Germany because he grew up during WWII when the Soviets were fighting the Nazis and the only foreigners, he knew of were from Germany. When I told him I was American, he was confused. This was the first time someone thought I was a Nazi in my travels and likely the last time.

Fan Mountains

Fan Mountain lake

Old man who stopped to ask if I was a German nazi

I spent one more night in Dushanbe, before departing to Moscow via Aeroflot and onward back to the USA. My departure from the Dushanbe airport went well. I was made aware from other foreigners that the security screeners and immigration officials were corrupt and would likely try and intimidate me into handing over money or just steal money in a security tray, so I was on my guard. There were a few attempts to shake me down but I ignored every one of them and remained respectful but defiant and they left me alone in pursuit of easier prey.

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