Monday, July 22, 2019

Central Asia - Tajikistan

After two unique experiences in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan would offer up something very different again, giving us a first real glimpse of Central Asia's natural scenery. As I mentioned in the previous post, I had a vague idea about some of the other Stans before starting this trip, but the Tajikistan file was very much empty. So, we gave ourselves plenty of time to put that right, with a couple of days in the nation's capital, Dushanbe, before setting off on a week-long drive through the mountains on the rocky Pamir Highway; hugging the borders of Afghanistan and China, before crossing over into Kyrgyzstan.

Will it be tragic, will it be magic? Only one way to find out, let's get Tajik!

After a flight from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, we landed in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe (which means Monday in Persian, fun fact!). As we were arriving late at night, we had arranged for a collection from our hotel, but as we exited the airport, nobody was there to greet us, except the usual horde of taxi drivers. We brushed their advances aside and waited for our man, but as time passed by, there was still no sign, and we started to become worried. At this stage, the rest of the taxi drivers had lost interest in us, but one guy (who only looked about 16) kept buzzing around, telling us our driver had already left and that he'd help us out. The more we travel, the less we trust anyone, and obviously, we had heard this routine a million times before, so we politely declined and walked up and down the airport looking for a solution. But he wouldn't let up! Every few minutes, there he was again, chiming in, offering to help, until we had to quite sternly tell him to leave us alone. He walked off with his tail between his legs... only to return a few minutes later with our driver! It turns out he was telling the truth and actually was trying to help us all along! We felt kinda bad about that one... but that's what travelling does to you! You often have to assume the worst of people, but we'll hold our hands up and admit we got this one all wrong. An early +1 for the Tajik people.

We had two days in Dushanbe, but we were only really here to get ourselves ready for the Pamir Highway. As a city, it was fine. Similar in many ways to Tashkent - very Soviet, wide roads, big concrete buildings, lots of parks - but a decent place to spend a day or two.

I mentioned in the Turkmenistan blog that Ashgabat is home to the world's fifth tallest flagpole, well, if you were impressed by that, hold onto your hats as Dushanbe has the world's second tallest! What a holiday this is turning out to be! We're really seeing all of the contenders in this international dick-compensation contest!

As I'm sure you're dying to know, the tallest is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and if the Dublin Spire had a flag on top, it would only be 11th on the list. Learning is fun! 

On our last day in town, we got our supplies in order for the Pamir Highway. As we would be going through the mountains, we went into a pharmacy to get altitude sickness tablets. No one in there had any English, but after much miming, they got the general message and we got the goods. The box even had a little airplane on it, which seemed like the kind of thing you'd find on altitude sickness medicine. Back at the hotel, a quick Google translate revealed that they were actually motion sickness tablets. Ok, attempt number two. This time, Aisling went out to the hotel reception, explained the situation, got them to write out the prescription in Russian, and off she went to the pharmacy. She returned with more tablets, but again all in Russian, so we were back onto Google translate once more.

"Take only one tablet per day". Alright, makes sense. 

"Take one hour before sexual intercourse". That's a strange cure for altitude sickness...

It turns out we had bought Tajik Viagra! It's funny looking back on it now, but what must they all have thought of me?! And even worse, there were only four tablets in the box, and so Aisling innocently said to the pharmacist, "You'll have to give me another pack, four isn't going to be enough!".

Imagine if we hadn't realised? High in the mountains, suffering with the altitude and knocking back a fistful of these! I would have been competing myself for the world's largest flagpole!

The next morning, off we set on our week long excursion. We were joined by a lovely couple from Sweden and Spain, and our Kyrgyz driver, Amit, who didn't really have much English, but he was lovely too! On day one, it was very much a case of getting to know one another and getting to know the landscape as we skirted alongside the Panj River which separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There was little activity on the Afghan side, but every so often we'd have the excitement of a motorbike, or outpost, or even a small village. If it was most other countries, I doubt we'd care, but the fact that it was Afghanistan, made anything we did see a lot more interesting!

Having said all of that, there wasn't much happening on the Tajik side either, so it came as a surprise when we pulled into the lovely little village of Kalaikhum for our first night. It had shops, a little park, a town hall; it was really nice! And I don't mean to sound patronising saying all of that, it's just, we passed very few towns of note all day, so this place came very much out of the blue.

It was more of the same scenery-wise for the next couple of days, lots of mountains, lots of bumpy roads, and hot hot heat in the back of the car. On a negative note, one of our party got quite sick and so we had to make a stop off at a hospital in a small town in the middle of nowhere. A bad time, but on the plus side, I guess it all adds to the experience and it gave us a different view of the country, and of the people who, on the whole, have been really, really nice and helpful. She was back on her feet in no time, and we were on the road again, finishing up day 3 in a town that I presume is twinned with Cork.

On day 4, we reached our highest point (geographically), while I reached my own low point (physically). We had been gradually climbing for the past few days and broke 4,000 metres as we drove through the Kargush Pass. That was high enough, but we had a hike arranged for that afternoon that would take us up to an altitude of over 4,800 m. Even just a few steps in and I was feeling the effects, but we kept moving forwards (and upwards). It was quite a tough hike too, not only because of the altitude, but the terrain was also quite steep, with loose rocks underfoot. But we eventually made it to the top where I could slowly regain my breath.

We made a little Tajik video diary at the top too:

The descent was almost as tough, as we had to skate down mini rock slides of loose rubble, resulting in a few tumbles along the way. I even scratched my poor wedding ring!

We made it back to the car in one piece though, and off we drove once more. However, if I thought climbing that mountain would be my biggest obstacle of the day, my body had other news for me. The altitude was still causing me serious problems, with my head and stomach both in agony, until it got to the stage where I had to stop the car, run out into the desert, and redecorate the landscape with a stream of stomach bile and dried apricots. (There's a food I'll never be eating again!) The bumpy roads didn't help either as I spent the rest of the day counting down the hours and minutes until we would arrive at our next homestay and I could just go to bed.

But again, the bad moments are good opportunities, and the local family that we were staying with couldn't have been nicer. Even though they had no English, they were still checking up on me, making sure I was alright and even taking my blood pressure with one of those pumpy machines.

Onto day 5, and I was starting to feel a bit better, however, the rocky roads were doing me no favours. It was a good day for unusual sights though, starting off with a trip to an abandoned Soviet observatory, before stopping off at Murghab Bazaar, which was indeed very bizarre! It was like something from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with market stalls built out of shipping containers, caravans and scrap metal. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me though, I loved it!

We were back up to a height of 4,655 m that afternoon on the Akbaital Pass, and my health plummeted right back down that evening, with bad stomach cramps all through to the following morning. And this was the worst possible place to get it too as our homestay only had an outhouse, so during the night, any time I needed to make a deposit, I would have to get up, get dressed, walk out into the freezing cold, squat over a hole in the ground, and shit into the abyss. It was a long, long night, and the second ring I've damaged in as many days.

The town was quite nice though!

The next day would see us cross the border into Kyrgyzstan, so I'll pick things up from there the next time. And so, I suppose that was Tajikistan. It's hard to have a completely unbiased view of the place as I was sick for large parts of our time here, but it's hard not to let that affect your lasting memory. I can say that the people were really great, and the scenery was beautiful (though it doesn't come close to somewhere like Mongolia). I feel bad for Tajikistan now, as it didn't do anything wrong, but it was probably the least noteworthy of the countries so far. We still have a day and a half to go on our Pamir Highway tour though, so let's see if Kyrgyzstan can raise the bar.

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