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Roads less travelled: Tajikistan

Admittedly there are quicker routes to the (now) Uzbek city of Samarkand from Russia than going via Tajikistan – walking the old Silk Road from the South Caucasus, for example, but we had a few days off before we were due in the Gem of the East, so a quick side trip to the Fan Mountains seemed like a good idea.

Tajikistan is somewhat the odd-man-out in Central Asia: its people are of Persian descent, it boasts practically no commercially-viable mineral deposits, and was the only former Soviet state to actually descend into full-blown civil war rather than just threaten it on the break-up of the USSR. It is also desperately poor to the point that its GDP is on a par with Haiti, and is perpetually on the brink of famine – a situation not helped by climatic extremes which can see the mercury push 50 Centigrade in summer in the south of the country, and plunge that far below in bitterly cold winters.

Given the absence of a functioning economy at home, the vast majority of Tajik families’ income is based on remittances from family working (normally illegally) in Russia, where Tajiks are employed in positions even Uzbeks won’t allow the Russians to demean them with. This means they are even more attractive for exploitation by, amongst others, construction site owners, who often withhold passports and other basic necessities such as pay, basic sanitary facilities, and so on.

It was these facts of Tajik life in Moscow which coloured the scene outside the Tajik Embassy when I went to apply for my visa. Throngs of Tajiks in various states of distress spilled out onto the street, and it wasn’t either easy to gain access to the compound or to find the visa section – apparently because there isn’t one – CIS citizens don’t need visas for Tajikistan, and most foreigners in Moscow prefer nicer destinations – such as Chernobyl, Perm, or Minsk – for holiday travel.

Once it become clear that the tall white man wasn’t actually Russian, a lady escorted me into the building, where I filled out a form and left my passport, which I arranged to pick up same day. When I came back in the afternoon, the crowds had dispersed, and I was waved into a room to be greeted by the ambassador and consul general. I assumed this was for an interview or questions about my employment – the nature of which has increased the levels of anal bureaucracy involved in obtaining visas to former Communist countries by the power of itself several times in the past – but instead I was sat down and offered green tea, over which we discussed what a Brit wanted with tourism in their country and ended with having my visa fee waived when I didn’t have correct change.

The unusual levels of hospitality continued at check-in where the Tajik Air desk was so polite and well-mannered I had to double check if it was actually located in an airport at all. A quick check of my fellow passengers confirmed it was, including as they did a mix of nylon shellsuits – each with their own field of static with a multiple-metre radius; animal print tops, skirts, trousers, bags, shoes and underwear; and the full range of Soviet hair dyes – from peroxide with black roots to Svetlana purple-red. Practically every passenger was pushing a trolley carrying boxes of electronic equipment bigger than themselves – TVs, home stereo systems, and 1990s mobile phones, all of which are obviously not available back home.

We had ample time to try and figure out if indeed it was possible to fit a person taller than 170cm’s legs behind the collapsing chairs once in the cabin, which looked like it had been fitted out by a blind man in 1940s Ukraine, as we were delayed while waiting for the Tajik Prime Minister and entourage to join our flight (it wasn’t possible, by the way). After Mr. Oqilov emerged from a cavalcade of black Volgas, he and his staff sat where they could among the already boarded passengers – no business class on this flag carrier.

After five hours practising contortionism, our flight (which passed over the Aral Sea, which disappeared before I could get my camera out to record it for posterity) touched down in Dushanbe. The capital’s name means ‘Monday’ in the Tajik language, and although no one could explain why, it is perhaps slightly more appealing than its former name of Stalinabad, and much better than northern neighbour Kyrgyzstan’s capital – which was named after “an instrument women use to pleasure themselves with while their husbands are off on horses.”

The car from our hostel wasn’t there to meet us, so we took a waiting Zhiguli, which duly gave us a tour of the city’s tree-lined avenues as it took us to every single building called “Hotel” in the city one-by-one. That it couldn’t find our guesthouse perhaps wasn’t that surprising – giving instructions which include a statue in a park, a trolleybus, and a painted tree in a former Soviet state are little more than useless. Eventually, after dropping Tajikistan’s entire cumulative post-independence GDP on roaming phone calls, we were picked up and dropped off our bags, before heading out for a much needed beer and a shashlik which looked suspiciously like it might have been made from dog.

Despite a nightlife seemingly built around drunken Turkish diplomats, drunken Turkish businessmen, and drunken American servicemen picking fights between themselves and drunken Turks, Dushanbe was a much tamer and more relaxed city than many in Central Asia, but fun for a few days nonetheless. When it was time to leave we jumped on the marshrutka to the cement factory, where, for some reason, the long-distance taxi park was located, and quickly found the source of the kebabs we’d been eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – the road was carpeted in dead stray dogs, and considerable weaving was done to avoid them – if only the same care had been shown while the dogs were alive.

Despite my “taxi Russian” being fluent – meaning I can communicate with 99% of Moscow’s Tajik residents, sorting the ride to the Uzbek border 12 hours away wasn’t easy, but we eventually succeeded in getting a car to ourselves for a good price. That car took us maybe 5 kilometres, as it quickly became clear that roads in Tajikistan are very similar to electricity supplies in Tajikistan in that both are only available in Dushanbe, and intermittently at that. Our driver’s “brother” was waiting for us in a Lada Niva 4×4, and for $20 more he’d take us in that, together with his family. It was $20 well-spent, as the gravel quickly gave up any pretence of being passable in anything much less durable than a tank.

If you ignored the blanket of unexploded ordinance left over from the civil war and the fact that President Emomali Rahmon had seemingly covered every bit of vaguely flat land in the country with his palatial dachas, the scenery in the bits of land Stalin actually left to the Tajiks when he whimsically divided up Central Asia and gave most it to the Uzbeks was stunning. Despite being the size of Uruguay, Tajikistan would be bigger than China if rolled flat, and the slow climb up to the 4,000-metre high Anzab pass offered amazing views of some of the world’s tallest mountains, although they were often obscured by crawling KamAz trucks belching out more smoke than even our driver.

The Anzab tunnel itself is a work of infrastructural wonder, in that it is amazing it is open at all. The 5-km tunnel runs at a 5-10% gradient well into the snow line and is less a tunnel and more an overgrown sewerage pipe which hasn’t been welded even remotely shut. At least three Volgas floated past us as we went through it, again making us glad of spending the extra dollars. We emerged into completely different scenery – dry and desolate, and suddenly the Varzob valley seemed like the first world. The road quality deteriorated rapidly, yet our driver was still happy to donate 50% of his working arms to smoking continuously as sheer drops of several hundred metres got closer and closer to the near-side axle.

The number of stops to fix our car, for our driver to curse in Russian at his Chinese lighter, and to eat shashlik increased before we dropped down into the Penjikent valley and the road to Samarkand. At Aini, we were finally able to buy petrol, which our driver poured into the tank from a 10-litre carafe while smoking – showing a blasĂ© attitude to explosions that can only come of having lived through civil conflict, before continuing on to the border on a road which anywhere else in the world would have seemed life-threatening, but which after the last several hours seemed like Norway.

Our driver parked up in Penjikent, demanded another $50 to drive out to the border crossing itself, and after we reluctantly gave him another $10 – we didn’t have much time before it was due to close for the day – he told us to under no circumstance buckle our seatbelts or the border guards would think we were Uzbek terrorists. It turned out the border guards thought nothing of the sort, and in fact were so fascinated by my partner’s Icelandic visa that they were so busy taking photos of it they forget to ask for even a cursory bribe.

It turns out there had been no need to rush, as firstly the border was open for three hours longer than we thought, and secondly the Uzbek guards happily let us sit at the gate in no man’s land until one minute before that time. Unsurprisingly, we were the only two non-Tajiks waiting to cross, and the only two people allowed to cross – probably because the guards wanted the actual hard cash we were likely carrying as bribes, rather than gold teeth for a change.

Well, no problem – after the 12 hours of Tajik backroads we’d just sat through, my ass was ready for anything!

Leon Addie