On the silk road in Central Asia part #2
In this post I write about:
Part #1 Why Central Asia? First impressions a reunion and forging out plans Getting full “Sovjet” in a UAZ Hunter Around Lake Issyk Kul Naryn and its surroundings
- The last stage in Kyrgyzstan
- Let’s go to Tajikistan and the Pamir mountains
- First morning, first problems
- Along the Pamir highway
- The Wakhan valley – a stone’s throw away from Afghanistan
- “Final stop” Dushanbe and visa issues
- Experience the local life of Tajik people
The last stage in Kyrgyzstan
There I am all alone again in Bishkek. I visited again my favourite bars and coffee places to give my further plans the final touch. So my base to find some fellow travellers would be Osh. To get there I made a stop in Toktogul. To get there I took a shared taxi which was pretty fun. First of all, you have to wait until the shared taxi is full, otherwise they won’t drive you. After 2h waiting for other passengers, my patience was quite over. After complaining a bit they displaced me to another shared taxi. Not to forget the bargaining for the price. I knew it should be max. 700 Som, they wanted 1200 Som. So best option like everywhere is walking away. Then I was like “3,2,1”, tada, the driver followed me and I got my price. The ride to Toktogul should be 6h for only 270km but on terrible roads. The first 4h I was alone in the taxi. On the top of the pass we drove through a pitch black tunnel without a ventilation system. My driver had the glorious idea to switch the ventilation of the car to inlet air, great. After reminding him that this maybe isn’t the best idea, he changed it to circulation :-).
At a junction, I was again in classic “Swiss complaining mode” and indicated that he took the wrong turnoff. He muttered something in Kyrgyz and was surprised that my app “maps.me” was that accurate. Anyways, we picked up some guys and the driver was telling them – it was obvious that it was this topic – that I tried to correct him on the way where we should have driven along. :-p
At last, we arrived in Toktogul where they dropped me in front of my homestay. As always, this homestay like all others was really nice. I got, of course, Chai and something to eat. Toktogul is famous for their walnut forests. So there were tons of walnuts to eat. Besides me, there was just an older Turkish senior and two French couples. Ï wasn’t eager to socialize given the long day in the car and roads like a perfect Swiss Emmenthaler cheese (the one with the holes) ;-). Instead of continuing to Osh the next day, I stayed one day in the region and had a nice walk in Toktogul with great views. The daughter of the family got company from her friend in Bishkek who will stay for some weeks. They were very eager to ask me about my trip and how I liked Kyrgyzstan. Further, they explained how I could differ between Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik people. Pretty simple. Uzbek have more Turkish looks, so they look “more hairy” than the others. 😀 That was the explanation I got. Tajik people, on the other hand, look more Persian and as well Turkish, whereas Kyrgyz people have Korean/Mongolian and more influence due to the history/migration after the world wars and so on. Kyrgyz have definitely more face features from Eastern Asian countries.
Let’s go to Tajikistan and the Pamir mountains
The next day, after some troubles to find the “bus station” in Toktogul and another 6h drive, I arrived in Osh and my hostel over there. The first days I was busy to place some notes on pin boards in some hostels and homestays to find people who want to share a 4×4 to drive through the Pamir mountains in 7-12 days. Hitchhiking is possible as well like almost everywhere on this planet but I wanted to reach some remote villages and make my own plans where to stop.
And it happened again. Osh is the starting (or ending) location of the Pamir highway. The Pamir highway goes through the Pamir mountain range with peaks 7000m high. Therefore it’s a popular part for cyclists, overlanders and motorbike travellers on their world trip, mostly starting in Europe via Turkey through Iran and Central Asia and ending in India or South East Asia. Mostly those travellers came from Germany, France, Italy or as well Switzerland. And it was Swiss people I got in contact with, not only just a couple. After at least 1h of talking with Xenia and Martin (check their blog –> www.xtadventures.ch, at least when you love to ride motor bikes :)), Xenia found out that we were doing our apprenticeships in Information Technology at the same time in the same company, then I remembered her. I was in my 3rd year of 4 and she was in her last when I met her the first time 10 years ago :-).
It was harder to find people than expected. It was still not really high season and therefore not too many travellers without their bicycles and motor bikes. Long story short, I found a French/German couple, Fred and Nina and as well Steven a Dutch solo traveller like me. We organized a 4×4 including driver and we were prepared to start our Pamir adventure from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Chorugh in Tajikistan.
“Umur” is our driver for the next 7 days, at least we thought that. His real name is “Kurabi” but he thought not to tell us until we were in Chorugh :). The first part of our 7-day journey took us from Kyrgyzstan over a mountain pass to Tajikistan. At the border they checked our passports and our GBAO permit which was necessary because we drove into the autonomous region of “Gorno-Badakhshan”. Unfortunately, it rained the whole day so we didn’t have a great first glimpse of the mountainous region. Whatever! We reached the small town of Karakol. In this remote area of our planet with a highway on over 4000m there is not much of a population. Thus were the buildings, all made out of clay. BTW the border crossing we passed is the 2nd highest on the entire earth. We stopped at our homestay and drank 1l Chai each. The food over here is a bit boring, no wonder in this area where it is quite difficult to transport all sorts of nutrition. The people here are Kyrgyz like most of them are in the northern part of the Pamirs. The houses are super basic and there are colourful carpets everywhere. For the next 6 nights we slept on the floor with a lot of blankets, more quilts. The first night was not quite what you call “slept like a baby”. :p When I stood up Fred was already walking around, I decided to do the same and all the problems took their course that morning…
First morning, first problems
The first night on this elevation wasn’t the greatest but due to the altitude in South America and some parts of New Zealand, I was used to it. Not like Steven who got a bit sick because of the thin air up there. Somewhere around 06:00 I left the homestay just to walk around the small village. The sun was partly up and the weather was way better than the day before. So first I walked along the shore from the lake to enjoy the silence and the awesome view from the mountain range around me. Then there was a fence on the other side of the village. This fence we already saw yesterday and it marks the border to the no mans land between Tajikistan and China. Unfortunately because behind the fence is a decent hill which would offer great views over the scenery. The fence even had some holes in it, but better stay away from this mischievous plan. So I walked up to another hill close by and at the top there was the beginning of a military area, which I couldn’t see from the ground. Ups 🙂 I decided to walk back to the village instead of getting into some trouble. On the way back somebody was shouting. I looked around me – how stupid – it was obvious it was for me because there was definitely no one else… I walked into the direction from this person and then I realised it was a soldier from the Tajik army, OMG. When I got a better visibility of him I saw that he pointed his AK-47 at me. Now I am in some real trouble, big time! I stayed calm and we had something like a Mexican stand off :p only with the slight difference that I hadn’t a gun… So he was talking something in Tajik and then I reckon again in Russian. So I just said “tourist”, “tourist” with my hands up in the air. He was still confused and stressed. I told him I only have my camera with me. Thank all god’s in this world the word camera is international. When he realized that it was not a gun he was visibly relieved. But of course this was not the end. He shouted for some other soldiers. Now I was facing at least 4 soldiers face to face with 15m in between. At the end I was walking in front of them, while one of the soldiers still had his assault rifle pointed at me. After we reached the entrance of the military base the commander was already there. He spoke just Tajik and explained to me that I crossed the fence and for that I have to be deported to the prison which they had there. I explained the situation for my part and clarified that I 100% not crossed the fence. I showed him some pictures from my camera and he decided to delete random 4 pictures. Then the commander escorted me to the village with his gun locked and load. He wanted to know where I stayed so I lead him to my homestay… At least I thought so, but because everything in the village looks the same, I ended up at the wrong homestay. Anyways… the owner of this certain homestay could speak a bit English. He took the role as translator. Again they thought I crossed the fence. And again I disproved this fact. The owner from the homestay then told me, that “commander very good, very nice commander, money for commander”. Further, he mentioned that I was lucky they didn’t shoot me and now I should give the equivalent amount of 20$ (which is a probably 30% of the monthly income for a Tajik). Then I spotted the nameplate of the commander, lucky me it was written in both, cyrillic and latin characters. I just said his name out loud (unfortunately I forgot his name) like “Mr. xx, I am very sorry…..” the translator hadn’t to translate this section. The commander just said “ooooh nooo money, no problem, no problem” and was smiling at me like I was his new best friend with whom he could hang out and pick flowers, chasing butterflies, hugging trees or licking some salty stones :-D. Long story short, I went with both of them to my real homestay where they left me. Just some days later a local guy told me that a soldier would get imprisoned if they would take bribes and it would have emerged.
Puuuh, that was by far the most dangerous experience in my life, even though I felt pretty safe the whole time. I mean they don’t shoot just random people who are walking around, or I thought that at least. Anyway, I was safe and will carry this story for the rest of my life :-p.
When I entered the homestay Fred and Nina were staring at me and for sure asked me what the hell happened because they saw me talking to the commander outside the building. Therefore I explained my story and we continued our way to Murghab where we would stay 2 nights.
Along the Pamir highway
The road and the scenery on the way were just beautiful. We also got stopped by a police patrol (which was one of 2 cars we saw the whole day). They checked our visas and permits and let us go our way. In Murghab we had a lovely homestay. The host could perfectly speak English which was a big plus to share stories and asking questions about Tajikistan. Btw here some facts:
- Capital city = Dushanbe (means Monday)
- Main languages = Tajik, Russian, Persian
- Population = 8.7 million
- Landscape #1 = 93% of the surface is mountainous
- Landscape #2 = Over 50% of the country lies 3000m above sea level
- Border countries = Kyrgyzstan, China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan
- Highest point/mountain =Ismoil Somoni 7495 m.a.s.l.
- Independence from the Soviet Union = 1991
- Fun fact = It is highly attractive for women to have a monobrow/unibrow
All 4 of us went for a short walk where we met a funny 55-year-old Austrian guy on a motor bike. He was a bit confused, could speak almost no English, just German. In that case I was the guy who talked to him. He hadn’t really a clue where he was and how far away the border is and asked for advice if he should stay here overnight. 😉 Exactly this fact was what made him funny. He talked a lot and told us about his motor bike trips. I was really surprised how he could manage everything in all kind of countries he visited without speaking English. It shows that we don’t need a language to understand each other. If you really want to understand the person in front of you, you will! 🙂
He told us that he rides an average 500km a day which we found is a lot. They also had to help him get out of a river in the south of Tajikistan ;-). Normally he sleeps at petrol stations because it is safer in case of thieves around him :-p.
The next day we said goodbye to him and Fred, Nina and I decided to go for a nice hike in the mountains. Steven had to stay due to his sickness. Our driver dropped us in front of a stunning valley where we could hike up the pass and then down the other side where he would pick us up 6h later. It was just a feast for the eyes. One of the top day-hikes of my whole trip. There was no path, just pure nature, a lot of groundhogs/marmots, snow fields to cross, a steep ascent to reach the pass, the great view into the other valley, other animals like yaks and sheep on the way down, perfect weather…. On our way down the valley we saw a yurt and a shepherd with his family. Their dogs said hello to us and they invited us to their yurt. Stuff like that would never ever happen in Switzerland, people wouldn’t invite foreigners/tourists to their home and serve them food, they would rather be suspicious what those people want. It is a pity sometimes if I compare social sincerity from places I visited to my home country. Especially here in Tajikistan all people I met were so super nice from the very beginning and want to invite you and so on. We shared our cookies with the family and got some local Tajik food and for sure some Chai. Even my New Zealand cap found a new owner 🙂 The family’s mother even wanted us to stay for some days with them, unfortunately we had to continue. They are there in their “summer residence” for 5 months before they head back to a super tiny village during the winter. When we reached the road where our driver should have picked us up, we waited. He wasn’t there due to “Tajik-Time”. We saw a guy with his 20 horses passing by, a super old Lada with 6 people in it, a guy who transported his calves in his trunk. Eventually our driver showed up and we headed back to our homestay, what a day 🙂
The next day was weather wise the best so far. First we visited the 7th coldest inhabited place on earth, Bulunkul where the temperature can drop to -65°C. We took a lot of photo stops until we reached our next destination Alichur. We had enough time to walk around and explore the area. It was a heartwarming experience. There were so many kids running towards us and requested to make pictures of them. It was obvious that in this part of the world aren’t many tourists, it is just an unspoiled spot on our planet. Here in Alichur the people had completely different facial features. Maybe you remember “the Afghan girl”. So a lot of people we saw had slightly darker skin than western Europeans, dark hair and bright green/blue eyes. I read in a book that the “real” locals have ginger hair and bright eyes even though we are not in Scotland or Ireland :-p.
The Pamir highway was an incredible experience, no wonder it is so popular with cyclist travellers, overlanders or motor bikers. We left the Pamirs, rich in experience and will go to the Wakhan valley at the border to Afghanistan.
The Wakhan valley, a stone’s throw away from Afghanistan
We took a left turn to enter the area of the Wakhan valley and there it happened. Not just a flat tyre… no no no… The whole rear right tyre fell off! Imagine…. Because we had an old Toyota Landcruiser it wasn’t easy to fix. At the end there were 2 other Toyota Landscruisers with other tourists. They drivers figured it out how to fix the issue and all the tourists exchanged some travel tips. At the end we helped our driver to fix the issue. We had to remove another tyre to get 3 out of 6 screws to use them on the “broken” tyre. It came off because all 6 screws were damaged. 3h later we were on our way again. Finally we entered the Wakhan valley. Just a stone’s throw away lies Afghanistan. Along the way on the Tajik side, the river which separates the both countries from each other was just 3m wide. It would have been easy just to swim on the Afghan side. The Wakhan valley on the Afghan side is one of the most remote places on earth. Just some farmers live there that’s it. On a travel blog I found this facebook contact from a guy on Afghanistan who could guide me through the Afghan side of the valley which would be an awesome experience. It’s also a pretty safe part of the country. I mean when I told my mum about my plans to visit Afghanistan she freaked out a bit ;-). But not everything is dangerous there so I tried my luck. Unfortunately, the border was closed as I found out some days later. My facebook contact wrote me 2 months later that now the border would be open and he could guide me 10 days through this remote area… damn! But we can’t have it all can we? :-p.
Btw: We could even see the Hindukush which lies in Pakistan because the Wakhan valley on the Afghan side is just 20km or so wide.
The Wakhan valley between the two mountain ranges itself? It was candy for your eyes just check the pictures. Even our driver took some new pics with his phone :). We arrived in Langar which seemed like an oasis in the desert. There I saw this genuine Tajik kid, with ginger hair and bright eyes :p.
Next stop was Ishkashim. On the way there we made some stops. I bought 1kg of dried apricots for 50 Euro Cents and we visited a cave system, an old dilapidated fortress and the “bibi fatima” hot springs. It was already pretty warm outside but when we are here already… so what! 🙂 we relaxed in the hot springs and arrived in Ishkashim pretty late.
The last destination where our trip ended was Chorogh. On the road to get there it happened again. Kiran and his confrontations with the army… In between the two “cities,” there was a military checkpoint where they check the visas for Tajikistan and more important the GBAO permit for the autonomous region of Gorno Badakhshan. There was something wrong with my visa. I got the visa and the GBAO permit in Kyrgyzstan on the Tajik embassy. I even asked the lady there at least 10x if both the permit and the visa start to count the day I enter Tajikistan like normally all visas do. She said yes and so I just had to give her 2 dates with the duration of 1 month in between. I was pretty sure that I just have to enter Tajikistan in between the given dates. The army guy though said that this are already my visa and GBAO dates which are fix. After explaining to him that the visa and the permit should start counting the day I entered he just said this is not valid for my visa. Why? I had a visa for one month with a multiple entry. The multiple entry I just made because I wanted to go to Afghanistan and come back to Tajikistan. For a single entry visa I just could have made everything online. Because with the online visa you get a time frame for 3 months when you have to enter and then it starts from the date you enter for 1 months… What ever complicated, unnecessary stuff to explain. :-p I paid 40$ to the army guy – of course hidden behind a tree that nobody could see it. Otherwise he said I have to go back to Ishkashim and figure it out over there.
“Final stop” Dushanbe and visa issues
In Chorogh we eventually had Wifi again and I was busy fixing my visa issues. The owner of the hostel even tried to help me. He sent one guy with my passport to the appropriate office only to find out that my visa is indeed not valid anymore and that the information I got in Bishkek is wrong. Great… What to do now? Because from Chorogh to the capital Dushanbe there are 6 military checkpoints. And I would have to pay everywhere because they all would rip me off and get some bribes unofficially. There was an “Helicopter-Option”. So if there are 6 persons who want to take the helicopter to Dushanbe they would fly. In that case I could skip all checkpoints, would have to pay 85$ for the flight and would have a magnificent view over the mountainous area of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and even Pakistan. Good deal right? 🙂 But I just could find 3 other interested tourists…. In that case I had to take the regular way, the 14h ride on some terrible roads. The hostel owner though had some dodgy plan. He contacted the driver and said there would be three tourists but at the checkpoint he should only take the passport of the other two to let them check and I should sit in the back seat with the Tajik family who was also driving to Dushanbe… Well, let’s try that :p
The next morning Steven, Morton a danish guy, the Tajik family and I were ready to go. Most of the time we drove alongside the river which separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan. The first 5 checkpoints I could pass without showing the passports. Only tourists have to show the passports but because the driver always went off the car to let them check, the army guys obviously were happy to check them and assumed the rest of the passengers are local people… Then, of course, it had to be the last one… Super, ultra douche bag army “c-word” came to the window, saw me and wanted to see my passport. I showed my passport and then it started again. “Not valid” bla bla bla. I explained my situation and so on. They insisted that I have to follow them to their office. I took my bags from the car and informed the others. They didn’t like the fact to let me alone and decided that they will join, as well as the Tajik family. In the office they wanted to check my phone and asked again about my visa and GBAO permit and why I exceeded the valid date. One guy from the Tajik family was translating the whole thing. If I wouldn’t pay them 100$ they would keep me, which I agreed to, I mean to stay :p So I told them I would get my bags and stay here and tomorrow I want to have a phone call with the responsible office in the capital. When they realized that if I stay there is no money for them they told me “better pay, then you can go”. After 30min talking I paid 50$ because when I would have stayed, it won’t change the situation tomorrow… I asked for an official invoice hence I can show it to the visa office in Dushanbe, of course I got a fake one :-p. That one of the army guys found a funny military video from the swiss army didn’t turn things better :-D. We arrived at 01:00 in Dushanbe and Steven was so nice to offer me the second bed in his booked Hotel because all the troubles I had.
The following days I spent most of the time figuring out what to do. I didn’t even have a plan where to go next after Tajikistan. I went to the visa office where they straighten out that my visa is not valid and that I can not leave the country. They wouldn’t let me pass at the airport. The only option is to apply for an exit visa this one would be valid for 14 days. To get that I have to write a letter in either Tajik or Russian and explain my situation and the reasons why I unofficially postponed my stay in the country. In the hotel where I stayed I made some friends, especially with Alisher a 23-year-old Tajik guy who studied in Korea and now is back in his home country. He translated my English written letter into Russian. I brought this letter to the visa office and asked them kindly to hurry up a bit because it doesn’t feel great if you are locked in a country :). 2 visits more at the visa office they guaranteed that I will get an exit visa but that I have to wait 5 days. First there is the weekend and second, after the weekend there are end of Ramadan celebrations. What so ever, next Wednesday I got my exit visa :-p
Experience the local life of Tajik people
When one door closes, another one opens. I left my visa issues behind and now I had time to explore other parts of Tajikistan. I mentioned Alisher before the guy who works in the hotel I stayed and the one who helped me with the translation of my letter. The next couple of days I made some travel planning and in the evenings I hanged around with Alisher. This helped me to understand the local life.The average salary in Tajikistan is pretty low so corruptly is pretty big. Police officers just try everything. They stopped a french guy who was taking pictures with his camera and wanted to charge him. Then they stop overlanders and just tell them, that they have to give him money… Even the guy at the visa office told me that this is a big problem in Tajikistan. Thanks to Alisher I met his friends, we played football together and all of them were super nice. For them it was cool as well, it is not pretty common to meet a lot of tourists, not like Amsterdam where as a local I would freak out ;-).
When I was working at my Computer I always could stay at the hotel where Alisher was working, so that was a good bonus. I even got lunch and the staff already knew me :-p.
Another guy from the hostel invited me to celebrate Eid-al-fitr with his family in the village where he grew up. What a chance, of course I took the opportunity. Eid-al-fitr is the second most important celebration in the Islam after Bajram.
It was a good decision to join Umed who invited me. I got a big lesson in what tolerance means between different people from different countries.
We visited several families and I got food always first. I could sit in the car in the front seat and was treated like a king. Sometimes it was a bit weird because all people checked me out like “who the hell is this guy, and why is he here”. Umed had to translate a lot of questions from his family members:
- How old are you?
- You are 29? Why don’t you have any children?
- Why are you not married?
- Do you like Tajikistan
- Do you like our food and so on…
Umed for example is 24 but he has already 2 children. Fun fact here. If you are a man and your wife gives birth to a child your wife will go back to her parent’s place for the first 40 days and the husband is not allowed to stay with his wife. He only can visit her and his child in that period. 🙂 It was a pretty rough day, a lot of talking and especially eating. I ate for 8h straight and as soon I finished a plate it was already filled again :-p They really splash out during this event 🙂
Very funny was my encounter with Umeds younger cousin. He was 15 and looked like “mini Novak Djokovic”. Because the other family members couldn’t understand English very well he didn’t have to hold back and I had to laugh several times. I mentioned it thorough my posts already. It’s always nice to see that human beings everywhere in the world are the same. He told me that there are some super “hot chicks” in his school and he tries to meet them and making out with them. But nobody can know and he has to find “secret spots”. 😀 Then sometimes if they got the “gear” they will smoke weed and sometimes shisha. Once, he told me, there was a nice girl and he was smoking shisha with his friends, then he had to decide what is more important so he told the girl she has to leave now, shisha is more important 😀 I had to laugh out so loud other people wanted to know what he said of course :p. He was very mature for his age as well. He told me he wants to study IT, because then he can work everywhere in the world and doesn’t have to stay at one place.
This hospitality was incredible. Again I feel sad when I try to compare it to Switzerland where heaps of the population doesn’t know what hospitality towards foreigners is. First of all, people point from the very first step a foreigner takes in Switzerland with the finger at him. But when a foreigner wants to integrate himself its far away from good as well, because then he “steals” a job from a local guy. There are even villages in Switzerland which considered to make a fence around the place where refugees life because they were scared (without a good reason) and they thought all refugees are criminals, there is no word to describe this narrow-minded persons….
For sure there were some people who wanted to take a picture with me and vice versa. Overall it was an awesome day.
The last weekend in Tajikistan I spent together with Alisher and 3 friends of him at lake Iskanderkul in the countryside. We laughed a lot and shared stories. The lake is super beautiful and is a popular relaxing destination for local people. We met some older guys who gave us vodka. Tipsiness arrived and they talked me into some local Tajik-Dance. So inside the lake house there were at least 40 Tajik people and Alisher just pushed me into the middle. Everybody was silent and the guy at the guitar motivated me to dance with him to some local music. I was so embarrassed about my own performance because I had no clue how to dance to this. So the DJ changed music and played “Kalinka” which I knew very well :-p.
Interesting was as well the stuff the local people took. It is called “nos”. It is some herbs you put like snus in your mouth for just 5 min or so. Also funny to observe was: As soon that people leave their home city/town/village they behave worse, I agree ;).
Those were my last days in Tajikistan and I returned to my home continent Europe, specifically the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia). My trip definitely comes to an end soon.