Entering Tajikistan to Khorog only took 20 minutes. Crossing into Tajikistan was easy and friendly. 100 USD Road Tax, 10 USD for the quarantine and 10USD for something we could not work out.
The roads became a lot worse and it was clearly visible this country was a lot poorer. Tajikistan suffered from a devastating civil war which lasted from 1992 to 1997. Since the end of the war, newly established political stability and foreign aid have allowed the country’s economy to grow. Tajikistan is completely landlocked. Tajikistan is unique in that the majority culture is non-Turkic, unlike its neighbours to the north and west and east. Tajikistan is the poorest country out of the former Soviet states, the poorest country in Central Asia and one of the world’s poorest, largely owing to that devastating civil war between 1992 and 1997. Arriving in Dushanbe was a nightmare as few streets have names. We did find the Adventurers Inn, but our truck would never fit in. We decided to park at the Tajikistan Hotel which allowed us to stay for free. We could even use the swimming pool. BUT, women and men do not swim together. Dushanbe is an interesting city, but only for a few days. The centre is basically one long street, with a few other main streets crossing it. We walked along the Rudaki boulevard lined with old and tall plane trees.
Very disappointing was Victoria Park with its beer garden and views over the city. The beer garden was closed and the gondola dating from the Soviet days did not work. (In fact, it has no worked for a few years now, but no-one will tell you this). The biggest Bazaar in Dushanbe is the Shakhmansur and cheap. As we travel we are not always so careful with drinking water, however we were warned about drinking water in Dushanbe. After Uzbekistan staying in hotel car parks we were looking forward to our first bush camp. Two days in Dushanbe was enough. We purchased a sim card, looked around, had few beers and a shaslik, filled up the car with diesel and our Pamir Adventure was about to start.
Tajikistan, what a gem! An undiscovered country with lots of OFF ROAD opportunities. Tajikistan is often forgotten or bypassed by many for reasons such as rotten roads, too far away or lack of time. We feel very lucky that we have the time. Our plan is to look for off the beaten tracks and villages and to be able to drive into Afghanistan. This part of the region was once part of the ancient Silk Road linking east to west inspiring the greatest explorers such as Marco Polo.
This area borders Afghanistan and plenty of opportunity to cross the borders. It is home to the Tajik and Afghan Wakhi farmers and herders, mountain people who have lived here for millennia. An absolute bonanza for those willing to test their cars and after-market equipment to the limit. Iconic mountain ranges of the Hindukush-Karakorum and Pamir up to 7500 meters, together known as the Pamir Knot. Some call this the roof of the world. We saw many Kyrgyz nomads still maintaining a vanishing way of life. Despite having a 30-day permit/visa to visit this region the car was only given a permit for 15 days. (work this out: you can stay 30 days but your car only 15). In Khorog we spent one full day going from one office to the next trying to get the extension for the truck we were promised at the border near Dushanbe. But no luck.
In true EX- Soviet style, no-one makes a decision without another one approving. In 2 days we covered the Khorog area with our scooter. Being the only scooter in town we became a point of interest with the locals and the border guards. Information 1. There is plenty of Bush Camping between Dushanbe and Khorog 2. In Khorog we stayed at Pamir Lodge, well overpriced, and not very clean. We stayed in our truck but still had to pay 14USD per night. No Wi-Fi, no hot water. 3. If you like or need to stay in town Serena lodge is the better option, close to Afghan Border and local markets but they wanted 20USD per night for the Truck. All those high pricing is thanks to the NGO`s and UN staff with European salaries splashing out. 4. Diesel and Petrol are available in Khorog. 5. Garm Chasma hot springs is a good place to camp but when we visited it was full of locals and hardly any room to get into the water as the pools are known to cure skin diseases.
I was not really keen to enter the water looking at some of the people and their skins disease walking around. To date Tajikistan is the highlight of Central Asia and possible South-East Asia for us. Hardly any vehicle based overlanders venture here in this undiscovered region but many Off Road Motorbikes and believe it or not cyclists. Every day we saw at least 2 or 3, alone and some in groups. Tajikistan is a breathtaking and unimaginable beautiful Country. Roads are best described from poor to basically none existing when you leave the main tracks.
From Khorog we travelled further south to Ishkashim the most western point of the Wakhan corridor. There are two Ishkashems, one in Tajikistan and one across the river in Afghanistan. The towns are a reasonably busy trade hub for goods passing between the two countries. Recently the EU built a special trading area near Ishkashem, locally called the “Afghan Market”, located just across the river in Afghanistan, to provide economic assistance to local Afghans.
We were going to visit, but due to the bombing and killings near Faizabad and the Taliban infiltrating the area, also this opportunity to visit Afghanistan did not eventuate. We are told it is one of the bizarre highlights of the area, the opportunity to buy Chinese and Pakistani products from bearded afghan villagers.
From Ishkashim we travelled east deeper into the Wakhan Valley. One night when bush camping only 100 meters from an Afghan village we were woken by 6 soldiers with machine guns wanting to know why on earth we were here? We advised the soldiers we were tourists and wanted to sleep. It took another 6 heavy armed soldiers to convince us to leave this camp spot and sleep in the army compound to be safe for the night. Clary asked the question if I was sure they were Tajikistan soldiers and not Taliban or Afghan? No, I was not sure!! But we were now being escorted to the barracks. I worked out crossing the river would mean we were escorted into Afghanistan, but we did not, SO ALL GOOD. While traveling the track along the Afghanistan border the next day, we spotted across the valley caravans of camels, led by bearded, armed men in traditional Afghan dress.
On the Tajikistan side people are Western in appearance and only soldiers on patrol may carry weapons. You should know that this part of Tajikistan is heavily patrolled by the military, with army posts every few kilometres. Armed soldiers walk the roads, protecting the area from militants and drug smugglers. Countless artefacts, ruins, petroglyphs, murals, and Islamic and Buddhist sites are scattered all over the valley. Many are now housing Tajik Soldiers protecting the border. We kept following the muddy Pyanj River which is fed from huge glaciers on some of the highest mountains on the planet and had fantastic views throughout the area. High peaks behind the Afghanistan mountains on the Pakistani side include Tirich Mir (7,690 m), and Nushak (7,455 m) to the south; and Karl Marx (6,723 m) and Engels on the Tajikistan side.
We now entered the PAMIR REGION, and drove from Layangar to Murgab. After we had to backtrack 4 km as our truck was too big/wide for the road we headed for the Khodash Pass at 5146 meters. Tajikistan keeps amazing us. What an unbelievable little gem.
The Republic of Tajikistan is a mountainous landlocked country of unsurpassed beauty. This week we travelled the sparsely populated Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) this occupies the mountainous eastern half of Tajikistan. 50% of Tajikistan is over 3,000 meters (10,000ft) above sea level. The country is essentially divided into several parts by enormous mountain ranges, making transportation and communications difficult. However, it is a gem for the keen Off Road person, with tracks going well over 5000 meters. Many peaks in Tajikistan are among the highest in the world, rising to a maximum of 7,495m. Tajikistan is currently one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. The area where we travelled this week has an average income of 150USD per month. Like the Wakhan Valley the scenery is stunning. Its highest summits are: Ismail Somoni Peak 7495 m, Ibn Sina Peak unofficially known as Lenin Peak 7134 m, Peak Korzhenevskaya 7105 m, Independence Peak 6974 m, Karl Marx 6726 m, Engels 6507 m and Mayakovskii 6096 m. There are countless glaciers in the Pamir Mountains, including the 48-mile-long (77 km) Fedchenko Glacier, the longest in the former USSR and the longest glacier outside the Polar region. The glaciers of the Pamir are one of the largest water sources for all Central Asia; this resource, mostly flowing through the Pyanj and Vakhsh rivers, combines to form the Amu-Darya, which provides most of the irrigation water for the massive agricultural enterprises of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The area we travelled this week is covered in snow most of the year the year; the Pamirs have long and bitterly cold winters, and short, cool summers. Several very high and rough trails lead from the Shokhdara Valley across the mountains as well. It theoretically (if the border would open for foreigners) is possible to travel from the Chinese border from Shaimak along pristine Lake Zorkul (the headwaters of the Pamir River), however, this area is a strictly controlled nature preserve (Zapovednik) and requires a special permit to transit. Both in the Pamir Valley and in the East Pamir we were always made welcome to stay in local homes and invitations to tea are standard practice. In Yamg we were lucky to be invited by a Pamir Family into their traditional Pamiri house, before we joined up with the Pamir Highway again. We crossed Khargus Pass at 4344 meters. At his time, we gave a lone German female bicycle rider backpacker a lift as the going was tough. Once we arrived in Murgab it looked like a major town. It is, but not what you would expect from an administrative centre of the district of Gorno Badakshan.
Murgab supports a population of 4000 people of Kyrgyz and Tajik origin and is located over 3500 meters above sea level. It is the highest town in CIS. Murgab has nothing to offer of interest to the traveller, but it is a good stop on the way to Kyrgyzstan or to explore the eastern Pamirs. We were lucky as the weather was clear we could see the 7546 m Muztagh Ata peak in China from the town. It was here that we put our clock an hour forward as Badakshan operates on the same time as Kyrgyzstan. We also noticed that we lost our spare tyre and rim, resulting in a 200-kilometre round trip with a local Kamikaze and getting back to Murgab at 11.30PM, with no result, we did not find the tyre. Murgab at 3650 meters high is hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. But even in summer a 25-degree day could be followed with snowfall the next.
From Murghab we headed to Lake Karakul, created by a Meteorite. Many people believe the Pamir Mountains belong to Tajikistan, but we learned this is incorrect. In terms of location Pamir occupies Tajikistan, China and little parts of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in a square of 92,000 sq. km and lies between Hindu Kush, Tien Shan and the Himalayas. Also, this region is one of the most unexplored regions on earth. High, cold and remote, the area was closed for western travellers at Soviet times and only is now opening up for tourism such as Off-Roaders, motorbikes, bicycle tours, climbers and trekkers from all over the world. Next was Karakul Lake one of the driest places in Central Asia. Surrounded by high mountains which block humid air masses the valley has less than 30 mm of precipitation a year which is 3 times less than in Karakoram desert. Karakul has an area of 380 sq. km and lies at the altitude of 3914 meters above sea level. It’s one of the highest lakes in the world (Lake Titicaca in South America is at 3812 meters). We spent 3 glorious days here, accompanied by 4 local wolves who watch our every move and only at night when the lights were turned off came to explore our truck and surroundings. Next was the town of Karakul, and the climb up to the Kyzyl Art Pass (4280 meters) which is the border with Kyrgyzstan. The Tajikistan border guards tried every trick in the book to get us to part with some money. We had time, and were blocking the road and it wasn`t long before all laughed, and we could go. Before heading for the high country of Kyrgyzstan, we said goodbye to Tajikistan. It was only a few days ago that we drove over the Ak Baytal Pass 4655-meter-high, the Uybulok Pass at 4232Mtr and now we left behind us the Tajikistan Border post at the Kyzyl Art Pass 4336 Meters high. We are saying goodbye to those huge mountains and icy blue lakes. Bye bye Tajikistan and the Gorno Badakhshan region. After 20km driving through no-man`s land we arrived at the Kyrgyzstan border with friendly, helpful guards and avery easy crossing. (NO VISA REQUIRED) This was the end of our Tajikistan tour and both Clary and I agree this is the surprise package of Central Asia.
Plenty of superb Bush Camping.
No reliable fuel between Khorog and Sara Tash (Kyrgyzstan), so fill up.
Plenty of scenic spots and hot springs. In Ishkashim we camped next to Hanis Guesthouse, owners give English lessons to the local students, very interesting to watch. Normally on Saturdays the markets in Afghanistan are a must visit but due to the unrest and Taliban infiltration this was not happening when we visited.
Our Afghanistan side trip never happened. WHY, we did not do our homework!!!
1. The only reliable border crossing seems to be at Ishkashim.
- Pick up Visa (150USD) in Khorog at Afghanistan consulate.
- Make sure you also obtain a Rupos; this is a document which has all information of the truck and the driver. This must be in Farsi (Afghan language)
- Despite some claiming you can, YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO GET IT AT THE BORDER. Cost 200 USD for the document and 100USD at the border for Standard 4X4. Trucks like ours 450USD.
- Further to this you require a Wakhan Permit, cost 20USD.
The Afghan consulate in Khorog was not an extremely friendly or helpful place. This was in 2013, things change weekly and sometimes daily (other staff). What did not help was that at the time we were there the Taliban had infiltrated the area and problems (read Killings) had occurred in Faisabad. Ishkashim’s weekly markets were also cancelled and were not expected to be reopened until calm returned.
However, if we would have had all the above information beforehand we most probably would have been able to enter as the Ishkashim border was open. But after 4 years of travelling we maybe took things a little easier and didn`t worry too much until things happen? This time it did not work.