Tajikistan #2 – A Peak into Afghanistan

by Apr 13, 2017Blogs, Central Asia, Communities, Silk road, Stories, Tajikistan

Stocked with diesel, water and food we start our first km’s south on the A385 towards the border with Afghanistan and the Pamir Highway! We are ready to explore the uninhabited east of Tajikistan. The autonomous region Gorno Badakhshan makes up 45% of the land area of the country, but only 3% of its population. That means: not so many people and supplies the coming weeks! And how will the roads be? Other travellers we met were quite clear about it: “One thing is sure: things will break on these roads…”.

Driving into dusty nothingness

The first 150 kilometer we drive over surprisingly good roads. When we get closer and closer to the majestic mountain ranges we get to the first checkpoint. The Tajik military checks our permit for the region Gorno-Badakhshan. After this we realize we are in another part of Tajikistan: the roads starts to get bad and while up till here we saw every now and then a village, now there is a whole lot of… nothingness. When we get closer to the Afghan border, there is massive construction going on. All Chinese trucks, excavators and workers are doing a dangerous and serious job: they are building a road on one of the toughest stretches of mountains in the world. They try to stop the landslides that are very common in this area and are building a relatively broad road here. Why? The Chinese know that if this road gets better, there will be a lot of business opportunities for them. But at the moment it is unfortunately just dust, dust and dust everywhere. The good thing is: the surface is already prepared, so driving here is relatively easy. When it is getting dark, we find ourselves in between steep mountains in a narrow valley with a river running through it. 

This is the Panj river. We are driving directly next to the river and when we look to the other bank of the river we see Afghanistan. The landscape looks dry and grim. The sun just went down and the twilight gives an extra touch to it. We always avoid to drive in the dark, and now, just when we are in this area where we don’t know if it is save enough, we end up driving in the dark! Hmm… reminds us of our adventures in Pakistan six years ago…(read here, in Dutch) We start to worry a bit… Where will we spend the night? Is it safe enough to just camp along the border with Afghanistan? Will there be anything along this road? We have no idea. On Maps.me (great navigation app) we see a sign of a “restaurant” that must be somewhere on our way.. And yes, just before we get too much worried, we find the small oasis next to the river. And what a surprise: a team of four people driving the Mongol Rally in their Nissan Micra’s spends the night here too! The staff makes us a good goulash and in the meantime we exchange travel stories with team Donundestan .

Let’s jump to the other side

The next morning we wake up, right next to Afghanistan. Quite a bizarre feeling! We wash Abi a bit in the stream that is coming down from the mountains and then all of us feel ready to hit the road! We continue our route through the rough valley and every now and then we see a little village on the Afghan side of the river. The mud houses are built in small patches of green and the people are waving and some of them even start dancing when they recognize that we are not the average traffic driving this route. We would love to jump to the other side and meet those welcoming people. It looks so peaceful! But the river running through the valley isn’t..

Eventually we find a place to take a bath in a basin of the river Panj and then we continue our route. The first part of the road was incredibly good and new for some stretches, but this part was not done by the Chinese yet. Over gravel roads we drive through lovely little villages with a very relaxed vibe. We take it slowly, as our bus just fits through the overhanging trees. People come out of their houses and start waving at us. There is barely no traffic on this route. Is this really the main trading route between China and Central Asia? We can’t almost believe it. Today we want to make it to just after Kalai Khum, because our cyclist friends are there and one of them is having his birthday today! Just before it gets dark, we make it. We get the vodka out, the music is on and we have great night next to the Panj river!

The wild and remote Bartang valley

The next morning we are ready for the next stretch: we decide to go off the Pamir highway, into a side valley called Bartang. This valley is supposed to be one of the wildest and most remote parts of Tajikistan. When we take the turn we drive up a very small road: sometimes we drive close to the river Bartang, other times we make our way through a very wide valley surrounded by steep mountains and hardly any vegetation. We drive deeper and deeper into the valley. And the strange thing is: even in this remote part of the world there is 3G coverage for our mobile phone… so that means we have internet and can even make a Skype call home! Unbelievable that internet is so widely spread at the moment. It seems like it has been named as one of the basic rights for all people in the world. But when we hike up a side valley of the Bartang the next morning, we soon notice that there isn’t any mobile reception at all. We walk further and further into the valley and after a few hours we first pass a beautiful lake and then a village where the people are still living completely self sufficient from their land and their cattle. A perfect example of people living closer to nature and in a community. We decide to stay there a few days and we have a wonderful experience of the life local people are living there. We learned a lot from it! In our blog for the Dutch platform OneWorld you can read all about our experiences. (An English version will be on our website soon.)

After these great days we arrive back at Abi and drive a bit further up the Bartang. In the end we make it about 40 kilometer up the valley. From then on the road will get even more narrow and there has been a landslide which blocks the road halfway, so with our bus we are not able to continue. We find a beautiful green oasis to camp that night. We make a barbecue and enjoy the impressive scenery around us a lot. The silhouettes of the mountains, the many stars… Amazing! These are the perks of travelling with your own transport: you can camp in the most remote places and enjoy nature to its fullest! At the same time you are always aware and cautious for any possible dangerous situation. Although everything is so perfect and calm, we are alert. Why is this car driving in the dark around here? Why are people stopping close to our bus? It can make you feel a bit nervous, but all in all: it is worth it! And our experience is that 99% of the people we meet during our trip are good people.

The hospitable Wakhan valley

After a good night sleep, we decide to drive back and head towards Khorog. Since this is last city for the next one and a half week we stock up on the local bazaar with vegetables and other groceries. From Khorog we will drive towards the Wakhan corridor: a valley formed by the Panj river and separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Vivid green villages against a backdrop of the highest mountains of the region: the majestic snowcapped peaks of the Hindu Kush (7.000 meter and higher!) of Pakistan and Afghanistan are clearly visible. There is a lot of history in this place: every now and then the ruins of an ancient fort crumbles on the steeps cliffs next to the river. And a part of the people living here still have their own kind of ancient religion. They worship shrines made of the horns of Ibex and Marco polo sheep, which symbolize purity.

Watch the video below to get an impression of driving the Pamir!

We love the small villages we pass: with their white washed houses made of clay, the blue window frames and gardens full of flowers: they look like the place we would like to live. The small roads are quiet: transportation is limited in this area so every now and then we pick up a local who needs to go to the next village. At the end of the day a man waves us down at the side of the road. We stop and take him to the place he needs to go. The coming hour he becomes our guide and shows us a great fortress in the valley. When we drop him of, he invites us to his house. Of course we would love to see where he is living! We end up in his Pamir house, we drink tea and eat bread together and after that a potato and cauliflower dish is served. Meanwhile we exchange a lot of things in the few words of Tajik we speak. Of course we have to sleep in their house and of course we do so, although we would have a better sleep in our bus. But it is rude to refuse their offer and on top of that: it always brings you closer to the people when you sleep in their house. The next morning the kids start to get used to us and we are playing with them. Breakfast is a kind of milky and salty tea, with a piece of bread. After that we get a tour around their garden and in contrast to the things we read about this area, it is full of fruits and vegetables! They give us a huge bag full of fresh plums and tomatoes and then we are ready for the last part of the Wakhan valley.

Mountain high

The best way to really experience the mountains is to do some trekking. We decide to do the hike up to the Engels Peak Meadow at 4.000 meter. To make the really long trek a little bit more doable, we get up at 5.15 in the morning and drive a steep path up from Zong village to an even smaller mountain village called Dirch at around 2.800 meter. Again Abi makes its way up on a road that is normally only been done by 4×4 vehicles! The trek up the meadow is around 13 kilometer and the altitude difference a little less than 1.200 meters. With the minimal description we have of the trek, we seem to find our way. It is amazing to see more and more of the Hindu Kush range on the other side of the Panj river. Overwhelming rugged peaks of around 5.000 to 7.000 meter fill up the horizon at our right hand side, so impressive!

On a steady pace we make our way up towards the Engels Meadow. We meet two shepherds, who share their tea with us. The tea they drink is really sweet, which is supposed to prevent altitude sickness. And out of their ears pop green herbs, to decrease the possible headache when climbing on this altitude. We follow their example and for the next hours we are walking with greens plants sticking out of our ears as well. Together with the shepherds we continue our trek. In the distance we see the Engels peak! It keeps us going and we have the feeling we are going quite well. But when we make the next steep climb, I start to feel very bad… Nauseous, dizzy, and very very heavy. I try to continue, but it doesn’t work… I really have to lay down. Men, what is this? Maybe this is altitude sickness?? I also had some stomach problems, so maybe I am just getting ill?

I wait till it gets better and in the meantime Roderick walks a little further to see how far we are… When he returns half an hour later, he has seen the meadow: we are almost there! I want to make it so badly to the meadow, but getting up already seems like a big thing. I wait, drink some water, and than slowly I start to feel a little better. Together we make our way up the meadow. Slowly, walking and then resting for a while: step by step. And then, there they are: the majestic Engels peak and Marx peak – an amazing sight! It was certainly worth it. I take a rest in the meadow, while Roderick explores it and gets invited by a shepherd’s family who is living on 4.000 meter for a few months a year. They cross the river on a donkey, pick up Roderick and invite him for tea in their little mountain house.

Unfortunately I have to save my energy for the way down: I feel like I have a mild flu. I am shivering and the pressure of my clothes on my skin is hurting. I still don’t know if this is altitude sickness.. But probably it is a good idea to make our trek of 13 kilometer down soon. 3,5 hours later we are back at our bus, we made it! I still don’t feel good, but what an amazing hike – highly recommended!

The next morning I feel better, but now Roderick is not feeling well. He feels nauseous too, and doesn’t have a lot of energy. Why today? We are going to drive one of the hardest parts of this trip! We are supposed to drive 100 kilometer from Zong to Bulunkul over very very bad roads and make our way over the 4.344 meter high Korgush pass. We already heard from other overlanders that parts of the road are very steep and that altitude sickness on this stretch is happening a lot. We need our team to be in top shape. What to do? Read all about it in #3 and last part of our adventures in Tajikistan!

Below the second part of our Tajik adventures in photo and video, enjoy!

And if you like to leave a comment, scroll all the way to the end. Always happy to hear your feedback or questions!