Updated: Mar 31, 2019
End of the Gruelling Road
Having recuperated from a combined bout of altitude sickness and food poisoning for a few days in the relative civilization of Khorog and its stunning environs and having had the luxury of a hot shower and a couple of decent meals, it was time to leave the Pamirs. If getting into the Pamir Mountains had been a difficult job, getting out of them again was to prove equally, if not more, problematic. Khorog lies some 300km to the south-east of Dushanbe as the crow flies, and the easiest (and perhaps sanest) way to get there is by plane: locally known as the ‘Badakhshani Express’. This option offers a short but exhilarating 45 minute ride brushing the snow-flecked peaks of the Pamir, sometimes quite literally. The average altitude the unpressurized planes fly at on this route is 4200m; peaks exceed 5000m. During Soviet times, this route was the only one for which Aeroflot offered its pilots danger money, although to its credit the only recorded fatalities occurred on this route came courtesy of a surface to air missile from Afghanistan. Flights are cheap (around $100), but usually booked weeks in advance for the 40-seater plane, and at the slightest hint of bad weather the flight is cancelled.
So I was obliged to continue the hard way along the remainder of the Pamir Highway, overland. By road, it’s more than 500km, and it’s the worst section of motorable road in Tajikistan, possibly all of Central Asia. It’s between 15 and 20 hours by jeep (4x4 is highly recommended here still) to Dushanbe from Khorog and most people do it directly. There are two routes, one which follows the Afghan border closely along the Pyanj River, and a more direct, but more pot-holed, route to the north which heads over the Sagirdashi Pass north of Khala-i-Khum. There are no bus services and a place in a jeep shared with five others will cost around $60 per person. Unable to face the prospect of up to 20 hours in a teeth-rattling Lada Niva, I decided to break the journey up at Khala-i-Khum. The valley was now more enclosed, the grey-brown rocky peaks rising steeply on either side, the road following a narrow ridge above the river which, when passing other vehicles, was highly precarious, but made for thrilling driving.
A Deadly Lake?
In places, Afghanistan is so close that I could see people in front of their small mud huts, colourful carpets hung out to dry and children playing in the streets. It’s a strange feeling to be so close to a country that seems so remote and impossible to get to and which for most of my life I have seen only on the news. We passed by the Bartang Valley, which leads eventually up to Lake Sarez, perched high in the central Pamir. Said to be spectacular, though extremely inaccessible, Sarez presents one of the biggest potential natural disasters in the world. Formed in 1911 by an earthquake which dislodged an entire mountainside into the path of the Murghab River, the lake is a ticking time-bomb. If another earthquake of similar magnitude occurred, removing the plug that has formed the lake, it would cause a flood of biblical proportions, destroying everything in its path not just in Tajikistan but deep into Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It would be the biggest flood ever witnessed by human eyes. Ironically, most of the above-mentioned countries have problems with low rainfall, period crop failure and occasionally, drought.
Khala-i-Khum was literally a place to bed down for the night. Arriving late and exhausted, I fell asleep immediately upon arrival at a guesthouse populated almost entirely by cyclists either one quarter or three quarters their way along the Pamir Highway, most of whom looked understandably frazzled. It served its purpose though, and it meant that I saw the entire Pamir in daylight – it would be a shame to travel it by night, not to mention rather worrying to have to rely on a caffeine and tobacco-fuelled driver to remain alert on such a punishing journey. My final day travelling through the Pamir was the most testing, partly as I had already spent several days bumping along its gruelling length, and partly due to frequent stops for petty bribes by roadside police. Additionally, this section of the route is the most pot-holed, and I spent most of the journey smacking my head against the ceiling and gripping the door handle. The dust from the road coming in the open window was so bad that I later found I had an eye infection. When the car hit a metalled road at Dangara in the late afternoon it came as something of a shock, and the (relatively) smooth road for the rest of the journey to Dushanbe felt like luxury. The splendid turquoise waters of Nurek reservoir an hour or so south of Dushanbe was the scenic highlight of the day.
An Underwhelming Capital
Arrival at Dushanbe came 10 hours after leaving, and capped a trip of over 40 hours and 1200km from Osh, but I was too tired to feel elated. The Pamir Highway was finally over. I found myself deposited and a bit bewildered in a grey and drab Communist-era hotel in the outskirts of the city. Dushanbe, in common with other Central Asian capital cities, is a fairly bland and functional, if generally agreeable, green and pleasant city which lacks any memorable sights. It was the first settlement of any real size I had come across in Tajikistan, and with a population of under 600,000, is still more than three times larger than the second city, Khojand. Dushanbe means Monday in Tajik, which is a market day, and as recently as 80 years ago it was no more than a small, poor village known mainly for its bazaar.
If you wander a few blocks off the main drag it still feels very provincial indeed, with farm animals roaming the streets and locals chatting or dozing over cups of tea and plates of plov in their gardens. It is anything but a pretentious capital. Arriving there was a shock after the extreme poverty of the countryside nevertheless, and having such luxuries as internet, (intermittent) hot water and a few modest restaurants was a novelty. The residence of President Rakhmanov is here, and most of the notable buildings are on or near the main drag Prospekt Rudaki, including the, well, palatial Palace of Nations, complete with extensive gardens and the tallest unprotected flagpole in the world. Standing at an impressive 165m, it beats Azerbaijan’s National Flagpole and Turkmenistan’s Ashgabat Flagpole.
Costing $3.5 million to build in 2010 as part of the $210 million spent on lavish projects celebrating the country’s 20th anniversary of independence, many observers have sharply criticized the government for splashing out over a tenth of the annual national budget on the occasion, particularly when the country is already deeply in debt. The president also caused great resentment amongst the city’s Jewish community by destroying its last remaining synagogue, a fine 19th century building, to make way for the new palace. Local dissent has largely been muted by harassment by the authorities. White elephant projects are common in this part of the world, perhaps no more so than in nearby Turkmenistan where erstwhile President Nyazov is infamous for having erected gold statues to himself around the capital that rotate to face the sun, amo