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Sunday, June 24, 2018

TANTILISING TAJIKISTAN


We have our visas and GBAO (special permission to enter the Pamir area) ready. These were easily obtained before we left Australia – we applied online, then printed them out when they arrived in our inbox. All that is left to do at the border is pay road tax before GR2 is stamped in for 2 weeks.

By the time we get to Penjikent, the first town after the border, the banks are closed & the ATM doesn’t like our card. So, we head to the market to change cash. We follow a wide river out of town, see a track down to it & head out for the night. In the morning we give GR2 a well needed wash in the river before we head off. There aren’t too many signs here so we waste a bit of time hunting down some ruins recommended to us. The mudbrick walls have kind of started washing away.

On we head through fields of crops filled with workers. And bonus the road surface is awesome. Up the valley we turn off on a side road/track to head out to Iskander Kol/Lake –  a suggested highlight. A magic drive past villages, through an amazing gorge to the lovely aqua blue lake. We pay our fees to enter hoping that there are some lovely spots to camp. The road is perched well above the lake, with not a car park in sight. The only parking place provided is after the Presidents Dacha (which has pride of place) with no view of the lake, so we return to a spot beside the road – it really is a gravel pit, but it has a great view.

We do a hike to a waterfall before driving back out of the gorge. The drive is every bit as lovely going in the reverse direction. Then we head to meet the main road to Dushanbe. This is a much busier road, and there are heaps of trucks – as a result the road surface deteriorates enormously!  But it is glorious mountain driving. We pass a huge queue of trucks – and wonder what they are waiting for. The police do not stop us, so we carry on. Eventually we reach a long tunnel. Golly it is a black hole with curved ceilings, no ventilation & has a very uneven surface – very scary. Later we discover this is the infamous Tunnel of Death. Maybe all those trucks are waiting their turn to go through the tunnel as it is rather narrow and gets much narrower at the top! We descend from the mountains and head through a pretty gorge, with a lovely river edged with rather fancy homes, restaurants, hotels etc before we reach the outskirts of the capital city – Dushanbe. As usual we head straight to the centre but get detoured with a police road block. As we try to get in to town we discover most of the centre is cordoned off, resulting in gridlock around town and giving us a good look around. Eventually we find a carpark & set off to explore. There are some lovely gardens filled with fountains, an amazing palace I am not allowed to take photos of, some lovely buildings & incredible looking museum. We actually want to visit this one but it is after 5pm so is now closed. The carpark looks suitable for us to be cheeky & stay at, but we decide to head out of town to camp beside the castle at Hissar & return in the morning. Well that proves to be interesting! We head out on a huge 4 lane road only to find a wall has been put up across the road so we are forced to detour. We find ourselves in a tiny street & have to back out….mayhem as all the cars keep pushing past us. Even when I get out and try to stop them they keep coming! Crazy! Then we have to resort to back roads to get to Hissar, and of course each village has markets happening all right on the main street!!

In the morning we explore the very renovated castle & head back to the city to visit the museum. A very comprehensive place with lots of arrows to follow so you don’t miss anything. John is impressed! Then fill up with food & fuel before heading out of the city through lush countryside towards the mountains.  As we head up into the mountains the road deteriorates to broken track and areas where it has slipped away completely. Finally, we find a spot off the road for the night.

After more bumpy miles the road changes! Wow lovely smooth tarseal. We are on the new all-weather road to Qalai-Khumb which hugs the border with Afghanistan. There is only a river between the 2 countries. The scenery is amazing.  Finally, we are on the main road & there is a lot more traffic.  Countless big trucks and 4x4’s with luggage piled on their roofs. The road is appalling (all 250km of it) & in places hugs the cliffs edge - & of course at these places it is narrow.  And these drivers don’t slow down for much!! Despite the road the scenery is magic. Afghanistan has an even narrower road/track – no trucks on this one. It is used more by motorbikes, small utes, donkeys & people. We overnight in the river bank – watching the happenings in a mud brick village over the other side.

Finally, by the end of the next day we reach Khorugh & end up overnighting right in town. From here it is easy to visit the bank, use the exceedingly useless Wifi at the info centre & visit the markets. Time to hit those roads again. We are now following the more scenic route – again it skirts the border of Afghanistan – through the Pamir’s. There are lots of villages and waving people – especially the children. We take a side trip up to the hot pools at Garm Chasma. Men & ladies have separate sessions. The ladies have nearly finished & the men are ready to go, but the guardian lady chases them away (they can go to the inside pool) so that I can have a swim on my own. It is lovely & warm and has travertine edges. She will not let John in with me – he has to come with the men when I get out – Ha-ha he to share it with a whole lot of naked men.

Anyway, on we move finally stopping at 6pm at a lovely spot beside the river. We have just settled in when John calls out. “We have to move or the Taliban will get us.” I laugh thinking he is kidding me! But then I see the soldier and yes, we really have to move. We up stumps while the grim-faced soldier waits. We didn’t get a chance to ask him where we had to move to, so when we see more soldiers patrolling we ask. And so, it is on to the town of Ishkashim on the soccer field. Lovely views and a surprisingly quiet night. (a side note here: later we met another traveller who told us there had been some dramas along the border about the time we were there – so maybe we really did need to move on!)

 Another lovely day weaving along crazy roads and stopping to explore. First a fort still being used by the military, so we can only explore so far, then some cemeteries decorated with ram’s horns.  We have not met too many other tourists so far – but then we see some cyclists and stop, chat & end up sharing lunch with them. They recommend the next springs – but when we turn to go to them we are deterred by tight corners, narrow track & low branches. We finally reach the last village of Langar & find a series of tight hairpin bends for all the world looking like they head in to someone’s house. Are we on the right road? Yes, we are. At the end of the hairpins we find a spot overlooking the river for the night. No soldiers or Taliban to move us on tonight.

At the hairpins we have turned a corner, we are still beside Afghanistan, but are now following the Wakkan river & mountains. The road has turned into a goat track and it takes hours of slow driving to get anywhere. But as a bonus the scenery is stunning and as a result of clicking my camera way too often it dies again! Yes, that black screen of death. So much for the year warranty the repair guy gave us in Iran! He must have known we couldn’t come back to claim it. Finally we reach the lonely army base at Khourgash and hand in our GBAO approvals again. These have been checked quite frequently as we travel in the area, and all details are painstakingly recorded in a big book.! But this will be our last one as we leave the border of Afghanistan & head north. By now we are high in the mountains and starting to feel breathless, so when we stop at a glorious alpine lake we are stunned to meet more cyclists. They are an amazingly hardy lot. Bike uphill for miles with no respite in sight on terrible road surfaces and at altitude! What a crazy bunch. We offer hot chocolate & a chance to stop & catch their breath.

Eventually we reach the main road where we turn off to head to the Taiji town of Bulunkul and on to Yachil-kul/lake. Again, the road is corrugated so we follow one of the side tracks – there are quite a few on either side of the road. Obviously, the locals don’t enjoy the corrugations either.  We are nearly there when we are overtaken by a British 4x4 with a popup camper, and we meet them again in town. The long and short of it is that we camp together beside the lake (at 3700m) and spend hours that night and the next morning chatting. Hopefully we will meet you again Jim & Sonia when you get to Australia.

Just to make this day even more social we meet a German 4x4 with a couple we have “chatted” to via the internet. Back to the main road – bad again.  How do roads end up like this….maybe no maintenance will do the trick? The locals blame all the huge overloaded Chinese trucks! Pass some more gorgeous aqua lakes edged with salt, and then on to yurt territory. All flat green plains, donkey’s, goats, sheep & yaks. We head over another high pass – it is getting late but we prefer to sleep at a lower altitude. At 3800 we pull in beside some old houses and a river. Perfect.

Trucks are already crawling along the road by the time we head out. Down, down (in altitude) to the outback town of Murghab. This place really is way back in time. Water is still hand pumped from street side wells, petrol comes from huge tanks via a bucket & funnel and shops are actually a street of containers. All good fun. Oh, and there are 2 concrete yurts amongst the containers – one is the diary (for white cheese) & the other is the butcher.

Next stop is to some lakes on a side road. After enduring more corrugations, we give the second lake a miss and head towards Lake Karakol. Interestingly we are now hugging the Chinese border (although on the map it is miles from here) and a serious fence marches beside the road mile after mile. By the end of the day we reach the massive lake. It is a lovely sight. We simply find a side track and head towards the water to find a flat spot for the night. Again, we are at altitude at 3950 making for another chilly night.

Today is our last day in Tajikistan. We follow the lake on one side & the Chinese border on the other until we reach the mountains and a few more huge passes. The border is right at the top of the pass and it has started snowing. Brr a very chilly departure from Tajikistan. It is still a long way to the Kyrgyzstan customs. Who will be maintaining the road. As we discover-  No one!! It is pretty bad. A good shower of rain would make it impassable for many cars, but we are through. Hello Kyrgyzstan.

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