I’m now in Almaty again, enjoying familiar comforts, trying to get caught up with things, and contemplating the catastrophic disaster that the US has just brought upon itself and the rest of the planet! I’ll try and distract myself for a bit with blog posting though it hardly seems to matter now…
Where was I? Oh yes Dushanbe… but just briefly, a couple more tiny things I wanted to mention under the Uzbek entries but forgot. First, this song, which was pretty much the soundtrack to my two weeks in the country: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtp21OnRkW4
The title means ‘red apple’ which is quite appropriate now that I’m in Almaty, apple city. (No major point, just felt like sharing it..). The other thing is that everywhere I went (except Tashkent) I was constantly charmed by little kids yelling giggling ‘hellos’ at me. Instinctively they were curious and friendly towards the obvious foreigner, not fearful and hostile. Hear that, Theresa and Donald?? [I’m sure they’re both reading!].
Now back to Tajikistan..My planning so far was reminiscent of
the Brazilian Olympic committee grotesque Donald’s policy agenda: no idea where I’m going, making it up on the hoof, constantly flip-flopping. I probably wasn’t going to *do the Pamir Highway*. I was hoping to see various places in the west of Tajikistan before deciding if I might possibly attempt to travel east through the Pamirs (the country’s main tourist draw) to reach Kyrgyzstan again. I didn’t have the required GBAO permit necessary for travelling in the Pamir region, but going north to Khojand seemed like a backtrack now, going to the Fann mountains and Penjikent logistically difficult (also necessitating a trip through the Anzob tunnel of death) and the south looked interesting but not quite interesting enough. At the hostel surrounded by other travellers, almost all of whom were either coming from or going to the highway, I was gripped with Pamir FOMO and decided to haul my ass to the OVIR office (migration police) on Thursday, where I managed to get the GBAO permit for 20 somoni (£2) in one afternoon (using massively helpful instructions on the Caravanistan website – the whole site is essential reading for anyone travelling in central asia, btw). The well-known-on-the-web, friendly form-filling-in man was late back from his lunch but randomly gave me an apple, which about sums up Tajikistan really.
Apart from getting the GBAO permit, I just did some vague wandering (as usual). I had a look inside Dushanbe’s absurdly large but pretty good museum, saw some of the typically overblown statues and supposedly the world’s largest free-standing flagpole.
It’s small for a capital but has a nice feel (sorry, better adjectives currently escape me) – I liked it more than Tashkent though that’s quite faint praise I realise. Due to being distracted by the post independence civil war and resulting economic devastation, Tajikistan seems to have left much of its *classic* soviet architecture intact and is only just catching up with the campaign of hideous building construction that some of its central Asian neighbours are advancing. But I was bored of taking pictures of buildings at that point (and my two readers are no doubt bored of looking at them!).
Ok I lied, here are some more buildings. I don’t know what the incredible structure on the left is, or how you’d define its architectural ‘style’!
On Friday morning , I and the other four occupants of my dorm at the Green House hostel set off for Khorog, one of the two main towns on the highway and possibly regarded as the start/finish of the ‘good bit’ (the other key settlement along the route is Murghab). As there were 5 of us, we had a whole 4×4 to ourselves arranged by the hostel and didn’t need to negotiate a shared taxi in town so we were able to leave promptly, and the journey ‘only’ took us 12 hours (others talked of 20 hour nightmare epics).
The driver was very skilled (well, fast) and we had no breakdowns or random bad luck on the road which helped. The first part of the route was via the southern *good* alternative road and not the actual PH. Here’s an example of how good it was:
About 50km east of a place called Kulob, the road starts to follow the Afghan border (marked by the Pyanj river – which ultimately becomes the Amu Darya on its way west before – in the past – flowing into the Aral Sea) and the novelty of looking over at Afghanistan on the other side of the river was pretty strong (in fact the route then follows the border all the way to Khorog).
At Kalaikhum we joined the actual Pamir Highway (the M41) and it continued to be a bone shaking ride. It’s not necessarily the ‘worst’ road I’ve been on (Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Bolivia all offer stiff competition) but there’s often barely room for two vehicles to pass, the road is largely unsurfaced stony track and the lack of a safety barrier between you and the drop down the cliff side to the river (on this section) keeps things interesting. It definitely requires 100% driver concentration and our driver managed 99% so there were only a few hairy moments. He dropped us at the Pamir lodge in Khorog which is ‘rustically’ charming and apparently where most overland travellers stay. (I also managed to acquire my first ever bunk-bed related injury there when I misjudged my footing while climbing down from the top and barn-doored mouth first into one of the logs that was holding the bed up).