Iskander Kul (Lake)

Iskander Kul (Lake)

I departed Tashkent around 7am hoping to get to the border at Buston early. I’d decided to aim for Iskander Kul which was a couple of hours north of Dushanbe. As long as I passed through the border in a timely fashion I reckoned I could make it before dark. I got to the border and there was only 1 car in front of me. I thought sweet, this will be straight forward. Two hours later I was still waiting as the Uzbek border guards decided that processing anymore than one car at a time was beyond them. Finally around 12.30pm I was ushered into the customs area and 45 minutes later I popped out the Uzbek side and into the Tajikistan side. Two hours later after multiple offices, pieces of paperwork and requests for dollars I passed through the Tajik side. S much for my planned quick entry into Tajikistan. It was after 3pm before I finally hit the road again. It had taken 5.5 hours to travel one kilometre.

I asked the money changer how long it would take to get to Iskander Kul? 5 hours he said. Ah really, that’s quite a while. When does it get dark? 9pm. Mmmm… I should be able to make that, just. I’d better get a move on.

The drive was sensational and scenery was magnificent. The change in terrain was instantaneous once I crossed the border. From desert conditions to mountains in the matter of a few kilometres. It reminded me of French Alps, New Zealand’s Southern Alps and Patagonia in Chile. It even rained. I hadn’t seen rain since I left England 6 weeks earlier. The roads were good which was a pleasant surprise. This was due to the tolls I had to pay. I wasn’t complaining. After Khujand was the first mountain range and I passed through a massive 3 mile tunnel as we rose into the mountains. Then it was a rapid decent down into the valley. The clouds were rising quickly, smothering the cars in front and reducing sight. The conditions changed so quickly that it made it a challenge but an amazing drive. Because of the cloud cover it got dark pretty quick and I was making slow progress. When I finally found the turn off to Iskander Kul it was pitch black. It was still 24kms to Iskander Kul. I headed off along the dirt track to find this lake, while I hoped I wasn’t driving into the Tajik version of the film ‘Hostel’.

After wondering if I was going in the right direction I finally arrive at the old soviet camp site beside the lake. It was 10pm and I had been on the road since 7am. I was shattered and wondering how difficult it was going to be to get permission to camp overnight.

Tajik Government Legal Team

Tajik Government Legal Team

I needn’t of worried because within 5 minutes of arriving I’d met the manager and been introduced to everybody else on site. 5 minutes after that I was onto my 3rd vodka, care of the locals. The rule is that you drink the 2nd shot straight after the 1st and then have to have the 3rd before you can eat. I’d arrived in the middle of the Tajik Government legal team’s team building weekend.

After a round of, Where are you from? Wow!! Where are you going? Ah!! Are you alone? Oh!! we all had the customary round of photos with Jonny foreigner. Then I got the chance to eat something while the shots continued to flow. Suffice to say 2 hours after arriving I was hammered and being lead back to my car, to attempt to set up my roof tent. How I managed it I’m not entirely sure. I vaguely remember getting some help.

Sasha, Victor, Igor and me

Sasha, Victor, Igor and me

Got up around midday the next day. I was feeling suitably horrible for my vodka based shenanigans the night before. In the car park I met 3 Russians called Igor, Sasha and Victor. They were visiting from Dushanbe and taking a look at the sights. They invited me to join them on a walk to the local waterfall. I could do with the fresh air so I said yes. On the way back we ended up going for a swim in the lake which got the last of the cobwebs out of the system. Before they left we agreed to meet for dinner in Dushanbe.

Iskander Kul Waterfall

Iskander Kul Waterfall

The drive south to Dushanbe was spectacular through more mountains and tunnels, even in the driving rain. It was fairly treacherous conditions for trucks and caused me to wonder what it has done to my brake pads. I drove through Anzob pass at 3372m and with a 5.5km tunnel that was horrific. It was like driving off road, in darkness as there were no lights. Not a place to break down.

I arrived in Dushanbe at 7pm and made my way to the Adventure Inn hostel where I’d heard I could park my truck. Then I headed into town to met the Russian lads and has it happens watch the build up to the Champions League final. A top night out.

The next couple of days were pretty quiet as I took the opportunity to rest after travelling non-stop since Turkmenistan.

Ismani Somoni. All round legend of the Tajik people

Ismani Somoni. All round legend of the Tajik people

I went to the local markets and brought some bread, oranges, eggs, onions, sweet bread items. Went for a walk down Rudaki and came back via the back streets. I enjoy walking off the beaten track. It gives you a real impression of day to day life. Kids playing, girls and boys gossiping, mothers looking after little ones. There were some pretty impressive houses behind all the security walls. Everybody takes security seriously and guards their privacy. While at the same time they are open as friendly with their neighbours.

I took a look around the city and managed to avoid some cops trying to extort cash for pictures. I met up with Igor and Sasha for lunch. As I was walking down to Igor’s office when they came flying past and picked me up in their company car. Sweet. Off to lunch on the other side of town we went. Another big meal and a chance to chat. They wouldn’t let me pay (again). After lunch we said out farewells. Top lads.

Sasha and Igor take me to lunch

Sasha and Igor take me to lunch

I also had an interesting chat with Ruslan (from the Adventurers Inn) and Pete (Aussie NGO worker) about the history of the region. There have been many battles between the Uzbeks and Tajiks since 1987. Former war commanders moving backwards and forwards between countries hasn’t helped relations. Since 1997 when the current regime started to gain control they have been fighting. Before then both Uzbeks and Tajiks move freely between countries. Unfortunately both presidents don’t like each other and this wasn’t helped by Tajik president said they would take back Samarkand and Buhkara as they were traditionally part of the Tajikistan.

Both countries are recreating their national identities based on former glorious empires. Tamurid for the Uzbeks and Samonid for the Tajiks. Both were great historical empires, and times of prosperity for each region. The Soviet history is slowly being wiped away (commonly referred to as a black period as each nation was restricted and controlled), though there is still a strong Russian influence in terms if languages, historical celebrations, and of course, the liking for Vodka. Even the Muslims aren’t so pure in their religious approach to Islam. This relaxed approach to is a result of the Russian influence.

Afghanistan ahoy

Afghanistan ahoy

After 4 days resting it was time to depart for Khorog and the first sight of the Oxus river. It was a new day and I had a new travel buddy. The first since I left Nathan in Poland. I’d acquired the now customary Frenchman that seems to appear in all of my travels. A Frenchman called Jim, who currently lives in London of all places. Jim signed up as assistant cameraman and chief photographer for the two day trip to Khorog. We were up and out of Dushanbe by 8.30am and ready for a long day ahead.

Jim the Frenchman and myself with Afghanistan in the background

Jim the Frenchman and myself with Afghanistan in the background

It was the usual entertainment along the way. Dodgy registration check point guards (they couldn’t con us), dodging speeding tickets (what us? speeding, I think you are mistaken officer), rubbish roads, horses, sheep, and goats migrating, donkey’s giving birth, bridges being repaired on the fly by bush mechanics, towing Aussie cyclists and the amazing first sight of the Oxus river and of course Afghanistan.

Donkey giving birth

Donkey giving birth

Bridge repairs

Bridge repairs

We drove alongside the Oxus with Afghanistan on the other side for half the day. This view would come to dominate my coming days. Bouncing along rough roads with Afghanistan tantalisingly close. At the end of the day Jim and I stopped 10 minutes after Kala-i-klum at nice spot beside the road, the river and Afghanistan. We set up camp. Prepared a great dinner of tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, bread, crisps and a beer. Afterwards we chilled, tidied up and crashed by 9pm. A great day. Khorog awaits tomorrow.

Dinner at our campsite

Dinner at our campsite

Rise and shine

Rise and shine

The drive to Khorog was an all day affair on the worst roads yet. Very tiring day and slightly irritating day to be honest. Beautiful scenery again but I was just tired I guess. Jim and I arrived around 5pm and found the Pamir Lodge with some help from the locals. It was a great spot that got even better once we showered and had a couple of beers. As it turned out we had just missed Gareth and Lisa again. They are heading towards Afghanistan so chances were good we would run into each other.

Nice views of the Tajik / Afghan Valley on the way to Khorog

Nice views of the Tajik / Afghan Valley on the way to Khorog

My next day was a planned rest day. I had a short list of activities to sort and got on with doing them before breakfast. My nicely planned rest day started well with an early start. Filming complete, arranged guide, did washing and had breakfast. Then as I planned to head into town I conducted the standard inspection of Boris. Another diesel tank leak. Feck!! What to do? I went for a drive and decided I need to get it fixed. Zuba helped me find a mechanic and also helped explain the problem. I agreed the price 240 somoni’s and went back into town while they repaired the truck. While in town I ran into Micheal (from my Bishkek visit) and Judith and we went for lunch.

We past the tourist agency again so we popped in to say hello and found out that I need a vehicle permit to drive in Afghanistan. Feck!! How did I not hear about this before!! Can get one from the Afghan consulate? Are they open? Nope they are closed. Turns out I could have done it today but the helpful lass forgot to mention it yesterday. They are closed today and tomorrow is the weekend when they are closed as well. Feckl! Feck!! Feck!! That’s no good as I was planning on departing at 7am for the market at Iskashim. After a few phone calls its established they will open at 9am for me (maybe) and the cost of the permit is $200. Feck me!! This is not much I can do but try and sort tomorrow.

The Khorog Mechanic crew

The Khorog Mechanic crew

I walked back to the Pamir lodge and heard that my car was ready to be picked up. So off I go and sure enough Boris is ready. I start him up and it appears there are no more leaks. I’d lost a little diesel in the process. Some of my nice Turkmenistan diesel too!! We concluded the transaction with payment and a few questions about what the problem was. We posed for the obligatory photos and I got back on the road. One problem solved.

Back at the lodge I caught up with the other travellers, including a couple of French Canadians and a couple of Israelis. I was able to search the Internet to confirm the vehicle permit is required. $100 it says though, so we shall see tomorrow. Another crazy day where the unexpected turns the day into chaos and everything changes. Such is life. I had to say my mantra a few times today while taking a few depth breathes. She’ll be right!! She’ll be right!! She’ll be right!!.

Saturday was all action. I was up at 7am. Packed and said my farewells by 8am. My first attempt at the consulate failed. Come back at 9am I was told. Right. Off to fill up with diesel. Then a quick visit to the Afghan market in Khorog. I ran into the the Austrian German crew again and managed to find some shoe laces for 2 som and a breakfast snack for 1 som. Then it was back to the consulate again. This time they were there ready waiting just for me. Sweet. The lady was the sister-in-law of Zuba from Pamir Lodge and Zhandya from the tourist office put in a good word to get them to open especially, and to give me a discount from $300 (to $200) which was the express emergency fee. Great stuff!!

My Afghan consulate saviours

My Afghan consulate saviours

The troublesome Afghanistan vehicle permit

The troublesome Afghanistan vehicle permit

By 9.30am I was back on the road out of Khorog and in a race to make the border for the legendary Afghan market at Ishkashim before it finished at 2pm. On my way out of town I found the Israeli’s Dana and Eran with their thumbs out so I gave them a ride.

Further drama unfolded as we raced to the border. We ran into Gareth and Lisa who were heading back to Khorog in a hurry. They didn’t get the vehicle permit I’d been fortunate enough to secure that morning. And as a result hadn’t been able to take their car into Afghanistan. When they tried to re-enter Tajikistan they couldn’t get a new 15 day vehicle visa as the car hadn’t technically left Tajikistan. Screwed on both counts as they had entered Afghanistan in person and used their double entry Tajikistan visa.

I now had doubts as to whether I would now have problems on re-entry. Fortunately Eran spoke enough Russian for us to ascertain I had the right paperwork before I entered Afghanistan. I wouldn’t of had a clue and the Tajik border guards didn’t seem to have a clue either. In the end I don’t think it would have mattered but it was nice to know. At least I think I’m ok. No doubt I’ll find out soon enough.

Kiwi Ted and I reflect on a crazy day

Kiwi Ted and I reflect on a crazy day

With all the drama of the last 24 hours I’d hardly had a chance to think about what I’d do in Afghanistan. That didn’t matter now as I was about to drive across the border. My primary concern was whether my guide would be there to meet me?

2 Responses to “Tajikistan Part 1 – Magnificient Mountains, Vodka Based Team Building, Friendly Russians and a Dodgy Border Crossing”

  1. Your blog makes a great read, Jon, but is there a way I can see the map of towns you are passing through as I read it? (Keep safe)

    • The best I can offer is the live route tracker link. It will open on a separate page. Look under the Route tab on the top of the page.

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