Trip Start Jun 27, 2006
60Trip End Mar 28, 2007
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
August 18 OSH (Kyrgyzstan) to Murgab (Pop. 6,500) (Elev. 3756m) 420km 12 hours $120
I wasn't quite ready for the 12 hour ride at 5am, having only 4 hours of sleep on the floor (I volunteered since they ran out of bed) the night before. The reason for the early start was to avoid flooding along the way which happened every afternoon. Some sections of the road were damaged, and we had to travel across the riverbed.
Throughout my travel in Tajikistan, I was travelling in a UAZ (YA3 in Russian) - a very basic Russian jeep
The roads between Osh and Murgab were very bumpy. There were a few passes that we went over, including Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282m) at the Kyrgyz/Tajik border and Ak-Baital Pass (4655m) near Murgab. The fast ascent caused me to feel somewhat disoriented. (I met some cyclists later who didn't have the same experience since they ascent was more gradual.) The driver was nice enough to stop and have me take a nap at a roadside cafe. He also insisted that I ate some food, as the empty stomach will exaggerate the problem. I ate a little of what I believed was mutton from Marco Polo sheep. The stir-fry would normally be very appetizing. We ate with our bare hands.
We reached the town of Murgab right after sunset. The driver took me to his brother's home, which also took in foreigners ($6.50 for bed and breakfast). I skipped dinner, but took a banya, before retiring to bed.
August 19 Murgab to Khorog (Pop. 27,600) (Elev. 2100m) 310km 8 hours $60 (shared taxi)
I felt better in the morning. I still had to watch my walking pace though, since I got tired very easily, again due to the thin air in high elevation.
After registering my Pamir permit (travelling in this part of the country required more documentation; registration with KGB was no longer required), I found a German girl who was travelling directly to Khorog. I quickly changed my plan so that I could get out of Murgab ASAP.
The scenery was stunning. There were photo ops throughout the entire journey - if you like mountains and valleys. Otherwise, the ride was relatively uneventful. Except for the last hour, there was very little traffic. We encountered less than 5 vehicles in both directions. The locals were washing their room size carpet on the highway!
We had lunch at a small family run cafe next to a pond
Sometime in the afternoon, I had a sudden urge to have bowel movement. I was asked to just go to the side of the road. It is one thing to use squat toilet (where there is a hole in the ground), and a totally different experience to just squat and shit. You don't have to aim, but you need to move fast. My green liquidy extract seemed to belong to that of a cow (what did I eat?). If I wasn't paying attention (of course I was staring at that stuff) and moving fast enough, my sandals would have been contaminated. As far as I could remember, this is the first time that I did IT at the roadside. After the deed, I thought about it for one second, but decided to leave things as they were - there were other animal shits all over the place.
I arrived Khorong with just enough time to locate a homestay. At this place, I had to go through a few alleyways to get to the outdoor toilet (i.e., hole in the ground). Luckily, I didn't have to use it that night.
August 20-22 Khorog to Walkan Valley back to Khorog 400km $120
Everything was closed on Sunday in Khorog: transportation, internet cafe and travel agencies
I nearly gave up trying to leave town when I met a English speaking guy in the post office (it was open!). He helped me decipher the phone card calling instructions. He asked me where I was going and if I needed an interpreter.
Two hours later at 3:30pm, he showed up with a driver and a UAZ. I bargained the price down to $120 for the car, including gas and driver for the 400km that I wanted to cover and $30 for the interpreter's service for the 3 days and 2 nights. By then I had already been tutored by other travellers that gas costs 2.50 somoni per liter and a UAZ uses 20 liters of gasoline per 100km.
For the next 200 or so km, we drove through the remote Wakhan Valley, shared with Afghanistan. The river acts as a natural boundary between the two countries
Again, the views were stunning. I wish I had binoculars or camera with powerful zoom so that I could see the faces of Afghans across the river. There is very little vegetation on their side. The slope of the mountains are very steep.
As poor as Tajikistan is (80% of the local population in the Pamir region earns less than $200 a year), the country spend 40% of their money on monitoring this frontier. I was told that the entire corridor is wired during the Soviet time to detect any intrusion. They worked very hard to fend off the fundamentalists from the south of the border. There are still quite a bit of military presence along the way today.
Back to our journey, unfortunately or fortunately, I realized that the 20 year old driver was less than prepared. When we had a flat tire some 50 km into the trip, I found out that the spare tube needed repairing too. It didn't take him long to repair the tube, but a long time to inflate the tire, using a foot pump, and then a borrowed bicycle pump when the foot pump failed
That turned out to be a good thing. They knocked at the door of some acquaintance and we were warmly received.
This was the first of a dozen or so Pamiri houses that I visited. From the outside, the house looked like a very humble mud house (I think the wall is made up of stones piled on top of each other, plastered with mud). In the main part of a Pamiri house, there are 5 vertical pillars that symbolize the five main prophets (Mohammed, Ali, Fatimah, Hussan and Hasain), as well as (literally) the five pillars of Islam. Illumination comes through the skylight in the roof, which consists of 4 concentric squares. On the ground, there is a central pit (where you could still have your footwear on), and the 4 sides of the room are raised. One of the sides is for cooking - the stove is built into the platform. The other sides are for sleeping and sitting/dining - there were no hard furniture. They put away the mattresses, pillows and blankets until it is time to retire to bed. Cushions are rolled out when the guests arrive.
This family fed us and made us bed to sleep. In the morning, they refused to take any money from us. I later found that this kind of hospitality is the norm in this region.
Just prior to going to bed, I indicated that I need to go to the outside toilet pit. The hostess handed me a small piece of old newspaper. I declined and told her that I only needed to pee.
The next morning, we continue our journey early in the morning. Without alerting me, the driver picked up his younger brother along the way. It turned out that it was as much their vacation as it was mine. All three kids are around 21 y.o., all going to a local university in Khorong (this is their summer break).
They took me to many of their relatives and friends, who were always extremely hospitable. We never went hungry. The tomato, cucumber, potato and parley were all fresh from the garden (I did see them washing some vegetables in their roadside drain though). The one thing that I could do without is their milk tea, made up of 50% water, 50% milk and a tablespoon of salt added to each (big) pot
After a while, I also started to ignore the flies that shared our food at the table (well, most of the time, it was really not a table, but a piece of cloth laid on the floor). They have a lot of rituals that I was slow to adopt. After washing their hands before a meal, it is considered rude to shake off the water. The hands need to be wiped dry with a towel that everyone uses. As for napkin, there is one that goes around the table for everyone to share. I have seen it gone from one table to the next in a cafe. Once everyone is done eating, they say a short prayer (surat from Quran) accompanied by some hands/arms gestures. One can no longer pick from the dishes after that.
We spent a couple of hours at the natural hot spring. That was our only cleaning during the trip to Wakhan Valley.
That night, we stayed with a family that we asked directions earlier. Even though there are some 30 people (3 generations) under the one roof, they still invited us. We paid $3 the next morning for food and lodging, for all 4 of us.
The kids were particularly intrigued by my toothbrushing
The house was located on a cliff a few miles up (via switchbacks) from the main road. Just the view of the fields and river down below was worth the drive up. I cannot remember the last time I saw so many stars.
On the 3rd day, before turning back, we visited yet a few more families in the morning. In the afternoon, the jeep started to have more problems. I also learned that my driver did not have a driver's license.
As they were trying to fix the car, I had to use the communal toilet in town (remember that don't have indoor plumbing). The toilet has a row of 6 holes in the ground, with no partition in between whatsoever. When I first went in, there was an old guy with dark face and dark arm squatting in the far end. In the dark room, his white bottom was blinding! I guess until you go to a communal toilet, you will never know the true color of a local
I was very prepared before I went in there. I left loose items outside, and zipped up my pockets and hanged my money waistbelt over my neck. Two other guys came in to pee, as I was finishing my task. For some reason, I waited for them to leave before wiping myself. I didn't wait around to see how the white-ass guy wipe himself clean. Earlier, I did see guys picking up a stone each before entering the premises.
After 3 hours of waiting around for the car to be fixed. I hired a different jeep to go back to Khorog. I needed to move on. While the country is not big, I underestimated the amount of time it takes to cross it - due to both terrain and road condition.
If anyone is planning a trip to Central Asia, one week in each country is not enough.
Despite having all these problems with the car in Wakhan Valley, I would do it again the same way. If I had organized the trip via a reputed travel agent, I could sure have more comfortable sleeping condition and more reliable car/driver. But I would have missed out the other ingredients of this wonderful trip
August 23/24 Khorog to Dushanbe (Pop. 700K) (Elev. 800m) 600km 21 hours $30 (shared taxi)
It was another UAZ. I was so sick of the jeep, but a regular sedan might not make the trip. This time, however, there were 7 passengers. I was squashed in the 2nd row with 3 locals. I insisted on sitting by the window, telling them that I was prong to motion sickness.
The scenery along the way, again, was magnificent. Every turn is a photo op.
It was getting hotter, since we were descending to lower elevation.
The 21 hour ride cramped in a jeep was not as painful as I had thought. I had mentally told myself not to complain since I had no other alternative. There were supposedly daily flights between the 2 towns, but no one could guarantee me that they actually fly, or if I could get a ticket, and I could not afford to wait
The jeep arrived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, at 3:30am. I splurged. I stayed at a $70/night hotel. I sooooooooooooo appreciated an indoor toilet.
Dushanbe is a beautiful city. The streets are wide, and the streetlights bright. The red, green and white lights (color of their flag) are lit all over the place throughout the night. It reminded me of Christmas.
I didn't do a whole lot in town. I was getting ready for my next road trip to Uzbekistan. Due to the strained relationship between the two countries, there are no flights between them.
I got conflicting information whether the Shiite and Suuni Muslims get along well in this country. My interpreter told me they do, but a couple of Chinese restaurant owners (who were of a Hui, or Muslim, minority group from northeastern China) told me otherwise.
August 25 Dushanbe to Penjikent/Border 8 hours $25 (shared taxi)
We approached the border of Uzbekistan as soon as the mountain ranges disappeared
The taxi driver dropped me off at the border, and gave me a hug.
The Uzbekistan checkpoint is 500 yard away from Tajik's.
Guards/officers from both countries at the border were very friendly. By then, I had learned to greet anyone in sight was a handshake and a "a-salaam wailaikum" and a friendliest smile.
The 20 or so ladies (heads covered with scarves) on the Uzbekistan side were particularly friendly. They pushed me to the front of the immigration line. After I passed through, I almost wanted to give them a fly kiss, but refrained.
From there it was an hour ride (65km) to Samarkand. I decided to bypass Tashkent (pop. 2.3M), the capital city of Uzbekistan, and the largest city in Central Asia.