Tajikistan, a country of mountains and things of the past

Tajikistan, a country of mountains and things of the past

So we finally arrived. We were talking about reaching the Pamirs since we left Budapest, and after more than a year of awesome adventures, we crossed the border to the country holding our much awaited destination. In social media, Tajikistan and especially the Pamirs is framed as one of the must does and mecca for long distance cyclists, portraying it as one of the most beautiful lands, while the path and the country is very challenging to get through. In this first part, I’ll talk about the country and our first impressions, because it’s an area which rarely makes it into the news, and generally only when bad things happen. As usual, real life experiences are always positively disappointing, and the majority of people here were also very kind and generous towards us, even though they live in very poor conditions.

First days and our plans

We barely crossed through the border, and we were greeted by friendly border guards and a family invited us for our first night (and probably we caused a bit of a cultural shock to them). The country is most famous for the Pamir Mountains bordering Afghanistan, but there is actually a beautiful glacier area called Seven Lakes, north of Dushanbe. Even though this northern part is the lowest lying area, it is still between 1500-3000m high on average (with some of the peaks reaching 5000m), so the path to the capital already involved a lot of climbing. The whole country is super mountainous, with more than 50% of it lying over 3000m high. We hitchhiked some parts in the beginning, as you only have a 45 day visa here and our plan from Dushanbe already had 1200km and around 16000m elevation in store for us, so we wanted to have plenty of spare room for that. Or have some time in Kyrgyzstan before we had to rush to China according to our visa validity there. At least then, we still thought we are going to continue longer..

We even had our own room (Liezbeth was still cycling with us at that time)
Trying to get a ride at the Anzob tunnel (not with that car)

Our original idea was to climb over a 3200m mountain pass to avoid the super dangerous Anzob tunnel, which is a 6km long uphill tunnel with partly missing ventilation and lighting. It turned out the mountain pass is blocked, so we had to hitch through the tunnel (some very stubborn cyclists insist on making it on their own, but we rather not inhale those exhaust fumes and get hit by a car), but we did a detour to lake Iskander in the Fann mountains first. It is also a glacier lake lying just a bit lower, and was a good first test of climbing on bad quality, rocky gravel. But the view was oh so worth it, and we also met another long distance cycling couple and a caravan traveller one, so we had a perfect camp spot with good company, especially when Liezbeth, our Belgian friend joined us too in the late afternoon.

Not a bad first climb..
The lake pops out after a rough descend
Even got a ride back down
And spent the next night in another amazing location

Although the locals are super friendly, it is hard to get to know them, because like other Central Asian countries, almost no one speaks English here (and my Tajik, which is actually Farsi, went as far as counting numbers). We still hadn’t managed to learn Russian, so even though we really longed to get to know them and had a ton of questions about their way of life, we had to resort to hand signs. There is one universal language though, the laughter and curiosity of children. It’s funny that every country has a different greeting style. Whereas in Iran their first question was where were we from, here the kids constantly asked about our names; and as soon as they saw us, said hello like a thousand times and rushed to get a high five from us. They were really enthusiastic and cheerful, and it always put a smile on our faces and got us in a good mood.

The way to Dushanbe and impressions

The road to the capital was perfect tarmac
With a breathtaking view

Everything went so well around the time we got to Dushanbe, and the big shiny capital with its western supermarkets and restaurants lulled our guard and expectations. We were lucky enough to be hosted by the only warmshowers host in the whole country, (thank you again so much Bernd!), who was also a long distance runner and a really cool guy, giving us useful instructions and advice about which roads to take in the Pamirs. To summarize it shortly, there are two routes to the capital and basically starting point of the highlands, Khorugh, and three main valleys leading through it. If you want to be hard-core and see more scenery, you would take the northern route to the start of the Pamirs, and then the Wakhan valley which goes along the Afghan border for hundreds of kilometres. Naturally we jumped right into it… And didn’t regret it, it was truly unique, but man our bikes and butts were tested to the max. Also our stomachs.

Bernd and us
Unfortunately this is the only pic I've made of the capital, but it illustrates the point
On the road again, before the Pamirs

See, our main problem, which affected us a lot actually, was the food hygiene and availability/variety. We heard about the food poisoning theme from cycle tourists, but we were hoping it will avoid us. Yes, the food is super affordable throughout the country as a westerner (yes, even for a Hungarian wallet), but most of the time you can choose from like 3 meat dishes and pray that you don’t get food poisoning. Their national dish is called osh, which is a simple beef soup. If nothing else, you can at least find that everywhere. We tried eating out a few times, but especially for Alan, it was rough, and as we prefer vegetarian food, we went back to cooking every day instead. I’ll talk about this in detail in the next post, where you can sort have a feel about our day-to-day travels after Dushanbe.

A bit of history lesson (in real time)

I should note here that there is a high contrast between the capital and the rest of the country. This is true for most countries, but here it is really to the extremes. Whereas in Dushanbe you can almost feel like in any other western capital, find Central Asia’s only Auchan hypermarket, plenty of nice hostels, hotels, well kept, smooth as glass roads, beautiful parks, lots of cafes and restaurants; as soon as you get on the road again, you step into a different world. If I don’t take the mobile phones into account (which are actually little use in some areas, having zero reception), it is almost like time travelling back to fifty years earlier. To understand this better, I need to explain the geographical and cultural situation of the country a bit better. 

The bigger part of the population lives in the North-West of the country, and of course the capital. The official name of the area, which I keep referring to as the Pamirs, is called Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (so that’s why there’s a separate permit to visit). Though it takes up half of the country by land, only a whopping 3% of the population live there, with their own capital, Khorugh housing around 40-50 thousand people max. Despite this, the region is very mixed culturally, with every valley having their own language, although Pamiri and Tajik is understood everywhere. They are mostly descendants of nomadic people (some of them Kyrgyz), and many still follow a traditional way of life up on the highlands, staying up at 4000m even in the winter and in -40 degrees. Most of the area is a dry desert, where only the melting water provides some green, and above 3000m there’s not so much that can grow, other than some shrubs and a little grass. Some people’s connection with the outside world is almost only through tourists, and in places like Karakul up on 3900m, I really have no idea how can they survive if they don’t have at least a homestay. I guess this shows human perseverance.

Being travellers, of course we could take the hardship for a few weeks, but it is amazing to me that some live a whole life like this. Very humbling indeed.  So we welcomed the experience, even though it got a bit tiring by end. The weather was perfect, we had maybe one day of rain in the whole time, and we could be alone and enjoying nature all to ourselves. Tourism is starting up, but that still means just a handful of cars a day in the outback’s where we mostly were. If you want to know how we made it through, look out for the next post 😉 

PS. brace yourselves, there will be an ungodly amount of pictures in the next one!