Plus, what is scarier: the Taliban or your driver?
Not much had gone right for us in the past month or so. We are definitely not quitters but we were beginning to think that a ‘stick or twist’ moment was on the horizon. I doubt we seriously wanted to head home but it did come to mind. We chatted briefly about heading back to Washington State and hiking in the Cascades for the remainder of the summer. However, the crazy weather that had hit Asia this year was being replicated at home. We definitely did not want to go wildfire dodging in the Cascades since we had had a fair amount of that in 2014. So, we planned on finding a spot where we could chill out and recharge our batteries. We wanted a cheesy backpacking spot with banana pancakes, muesli fruit curd, and Bob Marley’s greatest hits!! If there is one thing that Central Asia truly lacks it is a relaxed backpacker haunt akin to Gili Air in Indonesia, Goa in India, or Koh Phangan in Thailand. So, what the hell to do? We still really wanted to go to Xinjiang in China but that was out of the question until the extreme heat calmed down which was at least a few weeks away. Our other ‘problem’ was that it was at least 5 day’s drive to Osh in Kyrgyzstan where we had more options (stay in Kyrgyzstan, go to Xinjiang and so on)
We knew one thing; we wanted out of Khorog pretty damned quick since the idea of being trapped there between landslides was definitely not appealing!
We headed to the PECTA office (a local tourism NGO and fixer) to find people to share a 4WD with. Guidebooks and PECTA advise a two-day trip with a stop over at Qalai Qum. Locals typically pile into a stuffed 4WD and do the trip in a day (14-20 hours). This sounded like an awful idea but we couldn’t find anyone to join us for a two-day journey, which would have been very expensive to do on our own. We bumped into our Slovenian cyclist friends again and they wanted people to share a 4WD with them but had to do the journey in a day to catch a flight home. Agreeing to join them was the single dumbest choice of our trip and possibly the dumbest decision I have ever made while traveling. They found a driver who reckoned he could do the trip in 7-10 hours. I was highly skeptical but I had read that the road had been improved recently. It is amazing how quickly you abandon rational thought when you are offered an option to change your circumstances quick!
Our driver seemed cool enough as we loaded our gear on to the roof rack. His car was snazzy too, with a DVD player looping performances of excellent Pamiri music. For the first hour or two of the journey, we couldn’t have been happier. The sky was blue and the views of the mountains and Afghanistan across the river were spectacular. In fact, I commented that this section of the journey was possibly more beautiful than anything we had seen so far. The Afghan villages were so close you could yell over to the villagers. We could see women in burqas and men dressed in shalwar kameez leading donkeys along the road that runs in parallel on the other side of the river. The Afghan side of the road looked much less developed than the Tajik side, which is saying something. There were no telephone poles on the Afghan side and the road was underwater in a lot of places. The Afghan and Tajik villages seemed so close to each other physically and culturally, yet separated by modern borders and politics.
One of many beautiful, remote Afghan villages that we passed across the river.
Once in a while the driver stepped on the gas a little but the road was in excellent shape and I wasn’t too concerned. At lunch, we bumped into a friend of the driver, who was taking a group of Pamiris to the capital and that is when the trouble started. The two drivers seemed to want to race each other. When the road was good this wasn’t a too troubling- boys will be boys after all. But, often the road was scary as hell. It was extremely narrow and often overhung the Panj River, which was a swirling mass of white and grey foam.
Unsurprisingly, as we were blazing down an asphalted flat section of the road we had a blow out. We stopped and our driver’s dick-brained friend pulled alongside us. The spare tire was in terrible shape so the driver tried to fix the blown out tire. He also tried to hammer the wheel back into shape. The hammer head kept flying off, which enraged the driver. His friend kept taunting him too. The whole scene was extremely unhinged. To add to the farce, a truck pulled alongside us to help and as it did it too blew out a tire.
The flat tire.
I asked some of the women in the other car if they could ask their driver not to race us, as it was dangerous. She laughed and told us that it was ‘traditional’ for drivers to race each other on the road. This really was the most ridiculous statement I had heard in some time. It is traditional for drivers on one of the world’s most dangerous roads to race each other putting themselves and their passengers at risk. We spoke to our driver but he seemed offended. Apparently, we had called the quality of his driving into question. He mentioned that as long as there was not snow or ice on the road we would be okay.
Another car stopped alongside us and gave his spare tire and wheel. Unfortunately, the bolts did not quite fit. This was now getting scary! After an hour or so the drivers somehow got the spare to fit. It had tread too…what a result! Our driver seemed to take note of our need to not race but his friend kept taunting him by phone, text, and by racing past our car. At one point, ‘friend’ seemed to get bored and left us. I was most thankful for this since the road got considerably worse as we headed for the high pass. We stopped for dinner and, surprise surprise, racer boy shows up and starts taunting our man again. The sun had set too which added to our worries. I actually preferred the road when it was a gnarly mud track since the driver could not travel at speed. When we hit the asphalt though as we neared the city things got really terrifying. The driver put his foot hard on the gas on tight country roads with zero streetlights. Even worse, some of the oncoming traffic was speeding with the headlights off. We headed into a tunnel at one point, and lo and behold, boy racer was waiting for us in the tunnel and started racing us again. We pleaded with our driver to slowdown but to no avail. At one point, we ran straight over a dog. There was zero remorse from the driver. Laura had commented much earlier in the day that the driver looked like a psychopath and now here was proof!
Eventually, we hit Dushanbe and we all fell out of the car frazzled. I was shaking so much I couldn’t sleep at all. Maybe, a few cold beers would help. No such luck. On reflection, our frustrations are definitely in the category of ‘first world problems’ especially when you compare our ‘problems’ with the terrifying fear that is no doubt felt in the Afghan Wakhan right now. Still, reckless driving causes an incredible 1.24 million deaths worldwide every year. Statistically, we should fear the possibility of traffic accidents more than terrorists. Tackling the problem is complicated but I hope our moans and groans were cause for a little reflection in our driver (a father of five after all!). I was rather amazed by the amount of smart travelers in the hostel that accepted, without complaint seemingly, that awful driving is the price you pay for your fantastic holiday.
Next day was the lowest point of the trip so far. We chatted about going home but thankfully we were smart enough not to make a snap decision. I spent the next day or two figuring out our options. The hostel was packed full of travelers so we had plenty of distractions listening to other crazy tales from the road. Dushanbe is a pretty decent city with sufficient comfort food and good coffee but certainly not a place to chill out for a couple of weeks. We eventually decided to fly out of Central Asia and go to Indonesia via Bangkok. This was a drastic change of plan but we knew that the dry season there would continue for a couple of months and the islands weren’t suffering the same heat wave that was afflicting West, Central and South Asia. It is an odd feeling sitting here in a beach café in Indonesia and reflecting on the fact that the daily average high of 87 degrees F is the ‘coldest’ weather we have experienced on the trip!
There is always one guy who has to be the most adventurous traveler in the crowd. Even more, he has to let everyone else know about it! Enter the man we dubbed ‘Afghan Man’, at our hostel in Dushanbe. We stayed at the hostel for 4 days trying to figure out our next move. Our next move did not include Afghanistan. If the Russians and Chinese are flying missions in areas where Taliban have never previously shown up then you know shit is still unstable there. ‘Afghan Man’ could not stop talking about Afghanistan. Moreover, we figured out pretty quickly that he was desperately trying to convince himself that it was a smart, cool idea. He asked everyone what his or her opinion was. He called the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe. They told him that they did not recommend travel there.
Afghanistan looks beautiful but we weren’t tempted to go.
He asked the hostel owner if he looked like a foreigner or if he would pass as a local in Afghanistan (he was olive skinned with a beard). They told him, yes, he looked like a foreigner and, no, he would not pass as a local in Kabul.
He asked someone else if they liked Arabs in Afghanistan because if they did he would buy some Arab robes and a turban on his layover in Dubai.
He asked me what I thought. I told him about the wedding massacre in Sultan-e-Eskhashim. Amusingly, he also asked someone if he would be safe since he was traveling with a guitar and he knew that the Taliban was anti-music and dance. I didn’t bother mentioning again that the Taliban had recently massacred 20 people for singing and dancing at a wedding. To be honest, I was tempted to ‘murder’ him for his ‘massacring’ of Bob Dylan classics!
Two days before he was due to enter Afghanistan a terrible suicide bomb went off in Kabul. The worst massacre there in years. That would have been my decision made immediately.
Dude began to look every more desperate. He clearly could not back down having made so much noise about it. On the day before he flew out, two Australian-Afghan dudes showed up at the hotel. They had just flown in from Kabul after visiting family there. He leapt on them immediately and bombarded then with questions. Is it safe? I mean, really, is it safe? Will I be OK? They asked him what he wanted to do. He said that he wanted to visit some villages and take some photos. They gave him sound advices such as don’t take pictures of women in villages since that will put your life in danger. At the end, they asked him one question: do you know anyone in Kabul or do you have a ‘fixer’ who can smooth your passage? Of course, he didn’t. They advised him not to go.
Next day he strolled out of the hostel, heading for the airport, and his parting comment was: ‘I am really scared now’. Obviously, I really hope he is OK and comes back with an incredible tale to tell. I wouldn’t be surprised however if he bailed in Dubai or sat in a hotel in Kabul petrified for 3 days before flying home. Or, maybe he is still there charming the locals with his terrible version of Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’.
Tajikistan is definitely a place for the hardier traveler. The guidebooks say it and so do we. There are plenty of adventurous things to do and definitely spectacular sights to see. The downside is that there are no spots to really chill out between bouts of butt-numbing drives or knee-wrenching hikes. If you are not ‘doing’ something adventurous there is little reason to be here. For the typical traveler, this makes a Tajikistan trip very expensive since every ‘act of doing’ needs pricey transport and/or guides. Although we did not expect American levels of service, often you really do not get what you paid for. When a reckless driver’s behavior is considered ‘traditional’, there is little you can do to get ‘improved’ service.
The weather. We did not give it due consideration heading into the Pamirs. We saw that the weather was likely to be a mixture of clouds and sun but decided to chance it. In hindsight, we should have just delayed our trip until the weather cleared up. If you do not get good views, there is no reason to go. Despite the guidebook’s claims, the culture really isn’t interesting enough to keep you occupied or satisfied for a week or more.
We would love to trek in Bachhor since one trekker we met described it as one of the greatest hikes he has done alongside Annapurna Circuit, Torres del Paine, and Peru’s Huayhuash Circuit. Heady praise indeed! We would consider going back in a few years; however, we would probably go on an organized trip with a company from the US or Europe. This goes against our typical travel ethos but nothing about Tajikistan made me think service will improve anytime soon.
One possible shining light is the recent opening of a very good hostel in Dushanbe called Green House. It is impeccably clean, has a self-serve laundry, a kitchen, and is centrally located. Even so, a similar hotel in Thailand or Indonesia would have already figured that selling travelers water and beer, including breakfast, and providing a reliable travel/transport service would be a very smart idea.