Afghan to get the Doctor!

Last week, Yugyeong and I crossed Kyrgyzstan, getting pulled over by the police countless times in the process. This week, we find ourselves following the border of one of the most ‘dangerous’ countries on earth, before making a visit to a Tajik hospital in the capital…

Day 43 – Rohinav, Tajikistan to Khekhik, Tajikistan

After our hairy, night-time descent the day before, we woke up without any clue where we were. A look at our map app told us we had travelled quite a distance in the darkness, and were now only one hundred kilometres from Khorugh, the capital of the succinctly-named Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. Turns out a hundred kilometres can take five hours on the Pamir Highway, but at least the views of the valley we were descending through were breath-taking. At a point in one village, the road simply vanished into the flooded river, and we were summoned by a local to take a slightly perilous detour on a cliff-edge.

The road to Khorugh comprised some exceptionally rickety bridges (with even more rickety pedestrian bridges alongside), dilapidated mountain tunnels, and some extraordinarily lush, forested, olive-green valleys that provided a remarkable contrast to the crimson monoliths that surrounded them. Despite the beauty that encircled us, we were not feeling too perky (particularly Yugyeong), and the intrigue of what lay just across the river from Khorugh when we finally arrived, had to be put on hold.

Afghanistan. The scene of numerous wars over the past half-century, and the recent location of another uprising from the bloodthirsty Taliban, lay a stone’s throw away from our Luncheon location, on the other side of the Panj River (literally a stone’s throw, I tried it – and didn’t get shot). The narrow river has long-provided a natural border between the two countries, and we would be following it for the next couple of days (on the Tajik side of course – we don’t want to add ‘hiding from the Taliban’ on the list of our daily chores).

We thought long and hard about visiting Afghanistan, even for just one day, but turned down the opportunity to obtain a visa as the media led us to believe it was an unimaginable hellish warzone. Judging by what we saw all the way to our camping location, we feel extremely misinformed. Expensive houses, bustling markets and schools, children playing football, farmers working, beautiful scenery – almost identical to life on the Tajik side of the river. We are not so naïve to think that there aren’t some ‘no-go’ areas in the country, but this region along the Panj river did not look like one of those places. Spectacular Afghanistan…

Day 44 – Khekhik, Tajikistan to Pingan, Tajikistan

The novelty of car camping, of brushing our teeth, of finding a place to excrete, all right next to Afghanistan still hasn’t lost its morbid fascination – at least not for me. Yugyeong is still feeling the after-effects of the higher mountains, and may require some assistance in the capital, which is still a couple of very long days drive away.

In the meantime, we are no longer climbing over the mountains, just driving along exposed cliff-edges: between a rapid white-water river, and an overhanging, fragile mountainside. Every now and again, I must grip the steering wheel slightly tighter as we encounter a stream running straight across the cliff-side ‘road’ and cascades into the Panj River far below, or witness a rock or two tumble down the slope beside us – this is not a time for recklessness!

After many hours of sweat-inducing driving, we finally encountered some new freshly-laid asphalt, allowing us to whip over the dying embers of the Pamir Highway, and through the municipality of Kulob – a significant milestone-city for us as we crossed the halfway point of our planned journey (in terms of distance at least). We also crossed a rather bizarre border, within a border, as we left the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan, and crossed into ‘real’ Tajikistan for the first time. Turns out they don’t like each other a great deal (having fought several wars over territory and governance in the recent past), and crossing between the two regions was a rather unexpected bother!

Day 45 – Pingan, Tajikistan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Having done some more research on Gorno-Badakhshan last night, I found out that the region actually covers forty-seven percent of the country, but contains less than three percent of its population – gives you an idea of how habitable the area is. Their people also fought alongside the Taliban about twenty-five years ago to try and gain independence from Tajikistan, in a war that cost up to one hundred thousand lives. They had very limited success, before eventually being crushed into submission by the Tajik government under the ruthless guidance of Emomali Rahmon, who (unsurprisingly for leaders in this part of the world) is still in charge today.

I digress. We had a straightforward drive to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, with some excellent views over rolling hills and alongside clear, sapphire lakes. The road, recently built with large Chinese investment, was easily the best we have encountered in the country – not an organ-shifting pothole in sight. Dushanbe greeted us with open-arms, and we promptly made our way to our hostel for showers, Tajik biscuits, and counselling – we’d made it through the Pamir Highway.

Day 46 – Dushanbe, Tajikistan

If you didn’t notice, we got through the Pamir Mountains – from Osh to Dushanbe – in four-and-a-half-days, that is fast. There was a reason, however, for our lunacy: visas. Specifically, we must obtain our Iranian and Turkmen visas in Dushanbe, and that requires a lot of time that we didn’t necessarily schedule for. But, after months of angst and waiting, today was the day we could finally pick up our Iranian visas. Requiring a guide at all times, a unique car permit, and an astronomical visa fee, it has not been the most enjoyable visa to obtain (well, they never are), but we should at least be satisfied that we’ve been able to acquire one of the most complex visas in the world – for a British Citizen anyway.

With Yugyeong still unwell, from a variety of ailments, we spent the remainder of the day in our rather comfortable hostel – lounging on the ornately-cushioned sun terrace, and drinking countless gallons of Tajik black tea (for the mercurial medicinal properties the hostel owner is convinced it contains). He says she’ll be as right as rain by the morn…

Day 47 – Dushanbe, Tajikistan

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s never trust a Tajik hotelier when it comes to medical advice. After a week of discomfort, a visit to a doctors was now required – and a rather curious experience it was too. It involved trying to explain her symptoms to three flamboyantly-clothed Tajik nurses through the medium of mime (none spoke any English). After a one-sided ‘consultation’, the eldest (who reminded me of my own Grandmother) made a declaration, and Yugyeong was given some fluids via I.V (we’re not entirely sure what they were).

After a few more unspecified injections, we were invited back to one of the nurse’s houses to celebrate Idi Qurbon (known elsewhere as Eid), as if Yugyeong was instantly cured – they were a wholeheartedly positive bunch! Needing some rest, we made the rather enjoyable walk back to the hostel instead. The street outside our room is full of Tajik children of all ages running, laughing, and generally having a bloody good time – not an electronic device is sight – and they seem far happier for it. A lovely sight.

Day 48 – Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Blow me down, the mystic Tajik trio have only gone and fixed her! The first day that Yugyeong has started to feel more like herself, and we are finally able to partake in an Eid feast, and have a stroll around a deserted Dushanbe (because of the continuing National Holiday). First, we needed to head to the Turkmen embassy to pick up our final visa, only to discover they aren’t issuing any tourist visas until October 1st. This is a major blow as Dushanbe was the last city on our original route where we could collect such a document. We must now make another detour in Uzbekistan, to the capital Tashkent, for our final chance to be allowed into Turkmenistan.

Needing something to cheer us up, we visited Tajikistan’s version of an enormous national flag. Bigger than Kyrgyzstan’s BUT, more importantly, not quite as large as Kazakhstan’s, the president must be distraught (I’m sure he’ll spend a chunk of his budget on putting that right). With every museum, tourist site, and shop closed for the holiday, there wasn’t a great deal for us to do in the city but head to the only-open restaurant (a German sausage place) and eat and drink as much bratwurst and Skoll as we possibly could to forget about our visa woes. A few too many bottles later, and we’d made a new ambitious plan that involved entering Uzbekistan at the crack of dawn. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Day 49 – Dushanbe, Tajikistan to Samarkand, Uzbekistan

We got to the border mid-morning, knowing that it would be quiet (the two countries really don’t get on with each other and thus getting visas from one to the other is extremely difficult for the locals). We were the first foreign car of the day, and the guards felt in a very thorough mood. Everything, including floor mats, curtains, and my bottle of wine from North Korea, was taken out one-by-one and examined in excruciating detail. My anally-organised suitcase and bags were quickly destroyed, and even our phones, cameras and laptops were checked for ‘sensitive material’.

After two frustrating hours, we were declared Uzbek-worthy, and allowed to pass through. Whilst the process was exasperating, at least they didn’t attempt to extort money from us – so that counts as a good border. With most of the more easily-accessible border-posts closed until international relations improve, we had to cross in a rather remote location, which spat us out into the poor Uzbek countryside. Every head turned as we slowly made our way through the hamlets and villages in the increasingly parched and barren landscape. The backdrop has entirely changed since Tajikistan, and it is something we need to get used to as we head towards Samarkand – a city in the desert.

Distance Travelled: 12,890km

J

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