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Tales of a Skytrekker

Tajikistan: Of Copper, Orangeade and Sugar

TAJIKISTAN | Sunday, 29 December 2013 | Views [747]

After a swift border crossing from neighbouring Uzbekistan (a total of 3h, a third of which consisted of a delirious staged performance of packing/unpacking  our mountains of food and cooking utensils in front of wholeheartedly beaming custom officials), we’re catching  a small battered  bus to Konibodom. From there, we hop onto a matchoutka to Khujand, a convenient port of call 80kms to the south.                                                                                         

Up at 5am for a 7 o’clock departure, the road to the Fann Mountains takes us to one of the oldest cities in Tajikistan, the 2,500 year-old Ishtaravshan. We are welcome there by a scorching midday sun that heats the derelict bus station white-hot and makes us suffocate in a haze of warm exhaust.
Struggling for air, we make our way to the old town, an amazingly well-preserved display of traditional architecture. From there, we then head for the bustling bazar, truly explosive in its Tuesday apparel. We walk in, and never walk out. We snake through an anthill maze oozing with vivid colours and spicy squalls that swamp our tongues in acrid smells. The fumes of grills, where scheshlicks (mincemeat skewers) are being roasted by tens, churn up around meat cuts hanging from dawn on at the butchers stalls, and blend with the more subtle aromas of dry fruits and spices. Everywhere, warm smiles light up wizened faces the colour of rich bronze, and words of welcome echo in the never-receding kerfuffle. 


But time is running out, and the long road to the mountains still awaits us. To spice up the day, we start bargaining our way to Ayni, the starting point of our trek, with an apocalyptic price that sends us straight for a bypass. People throng around us. Low-pitch Persian-accented voices raise with indignation among the local menfolk. A feeble-looking old man with a drooping figure casts us a surprisingly sharp glance while he treads past us. In quick motion, he shows us with six fingers the local price to the mountains.

Sixty sums, thirty puzzled ebony looks, and a deal! We take the road in a prehistoric sauce-pan that coughs on the slopes and needs regular cooling. We stop several times uphill to splash cold water under the cowling and treat its mechanical tuberculosis, while large trucks wave their way down towards the south Afghan border. 

The road is lumpy and shakes us hard until we reach the pass. At Pasrud, we finally reduce our production of greenhouse gases and start our walk along the Pasrud Darya valley. The landscape is brusque and austere. Bold stratas of colours across the ashy slopes bring nuances of copper, orangeade and sugar. Turquoise lakes in hidden valleys mount rare gems on the rough silver peaks. 

Two weeks and some altitude-sickness later, we trek our way back to civilisation and bargain a taxi ride to the capital in Zerafshan. Shortly after leaving, seven other passengers left on the roads by a car breakage join our expedition, for the worse. Breaking European Safety rules almost comes as a must when planning expeditions, yet some breaks definitely taste more dare-devily than others! Imagine a tunnel under construction at midway between Tashent and Kabul, heavy traffic in pitch dark several meters underground, your driver busy with a passenger straddling his lap, non-stop Muslim prayers on the radio, and you’ll picture a crazy action shot quite close to the reality of Anzob!
Five long asphalt-less kilometers of unfinished tunnels stand between us and the air. On the walls raw from manual labour, seldom dusty bulbs cast their ghostly light on moving shadows drilling worm-shaped holes through the earth. The radio tape broadcasting continuous Muslim prayers since the start of the journey echoes like a perfect soundtrack for this oriental remake of Die Hard. Our 4x4 waltzes in the dark, waddling on the butchered ground to avoid the scaffoldings of dark steal and the incoming bumpy traffic of fearless potholers that chose the low roads to Dushanbe. One grips the door handle senselessly, the other blinds himself in his hands, and the third empties his stomach yet another time with each bounce.
Twenty minutes of torture and light pierces in in the distance.  We stop for a few minutes on a hard shoulder to care for one of our passengers, cold with sweat and stiff in panic, before sending our car back onto the track. The road snakes and slides. The monotonous voice of the preacher tugs at the fragile stings of our shattering sanity. And others collapse… By the window or into a box, each time the seconds needle finds its bearings at midday
Another two hours to Dushanbe…

Tags: adventure, asia, expedition, hiking, markets, mountains, off-road, pamir, tajikistan, trekking


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