Our time in Kyrgyzstan was pretty laid back. Ian was well waylaid by a sinus infection (gotten from his overnight in the snow, which most sensible people would avoid for pretty obvious reasons) so he was confined to the hostel for the most part.
Our crew of five slowly began to disintegrate after the first night in town, with Tim being the first casualty. He left for a very early morning flight (to Delhi, much to our envy) at about 2:30am the morning after we arrived. Next was Noora, a few days later, heading back to Finland via a flight from Almaty. Timo, Oona, and Ian stayed put for a few more days until it was finally their time to part ways.
Oona and Noora made the most of their time in Bishkek by doing a day trip to a nearby valley for some hiking. The beauty of the nature was dulled by the thick snow cover, and the scenery was best described as gray. The most exciting part of the trip by far was not the destination however, but the way back. The taxi driver dropped our intrepid adventurers some 10km from the actual hiking spot, leaving them to hitch a ride up and back. Due to time considerations, they were only able to hike for an hour or so, after which time they headed back to where their driver left them. To shorten the trip back to the lot they hopped in a red Mazda hatchback with a local couple heading back to town, the driver was chatting away, asking questions, and abruptly losing control on the slick road surface. After the (presumably summer) tires broke loose, the car spun a few times to the shrieks of the woman in the passenger seat. The careening Mazda eventually settled with a bang back-end into the river next to the road. Fortunately everybody made it out unscathed (save for some stone jumping from the back seat to the shore of the river), but the car was pretty well stuck. The stunned driver apologized sincerely, and Oona and Noora walked back up to the road. With another 10km to go, they had no choice but to start walking. Fortunately, another well-timed car gave them a lift back down to the lot, even offering to drive them all the way back to Bishkek.
Having skipped Issyk Kul in lieu of Ian’s condition, we opted for two days in Osh on our way to Tajikistan to see at least a bit more of Kyrgyzstan. We piled in a shared taxi to the southern city and got a chance to see some spectacular mountains on the road leading down there. 11 hours later we were in Osh, ready for some proper rest.
With some woefully inadequate coverage of Kyrgyzstan under our belts we were off again, with time constraints bearing down on us.
Considering the visa complications for getting back to China, we concluded that Hong Kong was our best bet, and actually found some great flight tickets. One weekly flight from Osh to Novosibirsk allowed us to secure our way to Hong Kong with only one stop for the surprisingly low price of $300, which is much better than any of our other exit points from Central Asia. With the narrow window in mind, we basically had one option, on November 16th, in order to guarantee us enough time to get the visa and make our way from Hong Kong to Beijing in time to meet up with Oona’s parents.
At any rate, a quick trip through the remainder of Central Asia affords us about a week in each country, which is certainly better than nothing, but not enough to see everything. Adding to our troubles is the impending winter, which is very fierce in these parts of the world. Suffice it to say that a full exploration of Central Asia is better done on a loose schedule at a better time of year. Our focus in onward, however, and we’re looking forward to the cosmopolitan grace of Hong Kong.
We sped our way out of Osh in a shared taxi to Batken, near the border with Tajikistan. Fortunately one of our fellow passengers was a Tajik woman heading back to Khujand (where we were heading), so we had somebody to follow. After a quick taxi-to-taxi transfer in Batken we were at the border, which was surprisingly easy with our Tajik e-visas procured earlier that week (easiest application ever, by the way… Not even two hours after submitting our application, on a weekend to boot, and we had our visas emailed to us).
Our Tajik travel partner offered us a ride to Khujand with her and her husband since they were heading that way anyway and early on we got a taste of Tajik police behavior. First, our driver was waved down for driving too fast. A handshake, then a surreptitious exchange of 10 somoni (a little more than one dollar). Then some more discussion followed by a bit more money exchanged. Finally, a ticket was given (maybe not enough money exchanged?) followed by an angry driver peeling out of the gravel pull off (certainly one of the last things you’d do after being given a speeding ticket in the west…). Another cop flagging us down, this time for talking on the phone while driving. Another 10 somoni covertly changes hands. This officer warns our driver that several other officers down the road are looking out for him because he sped through their flagging on his way to get us. 20km later and a cop comes running up to the road furiously waving us down, surely the one we were warned of. Our driver is in no mood for formalities at this point and steps on it, flying by at totally unsafe speeds. We’re not entirely sure of the legal implications of this, but we’re fairly certain that yet more police will be looking for him now. As time progressed, it became clear that this is the standard, and on long distance car trips it’s not uncommon to be flagged down a dozen times for small bribes.
We made it to Khujand a short while later, after passing through a city whose name translates to “where is the nut?”, and located our hostel (Shark 21) down an alleyway next to a parking lot. There was a girl of maybe 12 years who showed us to our room (the only room?), which consisted of three modest beds. The nightly rate was higher than we were expecting, so we opted for the breakfastless fare of about $10 per night. We quickly learned, however, that any excess spending on accommodation would be quickly made up for by the astoundingly cheap food prices. For example, two heaping bowls of plov (a hearty and filling dish of rice cooked in fat, accompanied by a bit of meat, carrots, and a modest salad of pickled cabbage) and a pot of tea would put us back a little over $3.
While walking around looking for an ATM and a place to eat, we were approached by the flamboyant-yet-probably-not-out-of-the-closet Farukh, an 18 year old student. Farukh explained that he was in his first year of an interpreter program and had grand plans of moving to the US to translate between Tajik and English (there’s a market for that, right? Maybe? Probably not.). He and his friend ushered us into an underground eatery for some plov. After dinner he insisted on showing us to Kamoli Park, which, as we were assured, is quite beautiful. His company was starting to get tiring, and his English became less and less intelligible as time went on. Well-dressed, and after bragging that his father would pay for university anywhere he wanted to go, he had the audacity to ask us for money (not really sure what we’d be paying for). We reminded him that his father is apparently reasonably well-off, and he conceded, bidding farewell.
The following day we set out to explore the town a bit more, which is easy to tackle in a day. The main square and the bazaar are the sights to see, and they’re hard to miss with the smoke from grilling kebabs filling the air around them. We had some more plov from a giant copper pot for dinner at an open air cafe near the main square, soaking up the bizarre vibe of the Soviet yet palpably Middle Eastern Tajikistan. The weather was getting cold, but was not yet uncomfortable; greasy smoke from the grilling lamb kebabs stuck to our clothes and hair.
The capital, Dushanbe, was our next destination. We said goodbye to the hostel proprietor, who gave us remarkably reliable instructions (save for a forgivable confusion between 13 and 30, for the local bus to take us to the station) in mostly Russian and a bit of English for getting to Dushanbe via the Yova bus station on the west side town. As soon as we stepped off we were surrounded by shouting taxi drivers, trying to coax us into joining their car. With such competition, it took all of 10 seconds to negotiate a fair price (80 somoni, as our hostel proprietor insisted we not pay more). Our choice of car may have been bad though, as we waited around for an hour before attracting the last two passengers. Our driver would show the car and fellow passengers to prospective travelers, who would often shake their head, apparently not satisfied with their seat or neighbor.
The trip on the M34 through the Fann Mountains was mostly as expected, with towering, snow-capped peaks and deep gorges to both sides. The Anzob tunnel punches its way through 5km of rock to shorten the trip a bit, but its nickname, the “tunnel of death” isn’t much of an exaggeration. Our first trip through it was not particularly terrifying, but we’ll cover the second trip a bit later.
We spent a few days in Dushanbe looking for something to do in the mountains this late in the season. Our hostel in Dushanbe was a bit of a who’s-who of hardcore travelers, with each person one-upping the other on how bad ass and rugged they were. It was also, surprisingly, the most crowded hostel we had been to for a long time, with keffiyeh-clad motorcyclists or wiry long-haul bicyclists sprawled out with their phones or computers in practically every corner. Not surprisingly we mostly kept to ourselves, exchanging a greeting or two upon arrival maybe — no doubt interrupting an enthralling tale of adventure and daring in the mountains.
We settled on Iskanderkul lake, since the hostel was able to point us to a guest house in the region that was still open. A bit of a shame since it was about halfway back in the direction of Khujand.
We took the number 3 bus north out of the center and got out, with the expectation of transferring to another bus to the taxi lot farther north to secure our transport, but again, a swarm of shared taxi drivers surrounded us immediately, and it was pretty clear that they were willing to take a detour to Iskanderkul provided that we were willing to pay. We settled on 150 somoni for both of us (which we probably could have gotten at a lower price if we were in the mood for more haggling) after some shocking initial offers of 100 dollars (!). Our car, we suspected, was heading to Khujand, but they didn’t seem to have a problem pulling off towards Iskanderkul at Sarvoda. Our second trip through the Ansob tunnel was harrowing. The tunnel is a thing of nightmares at its worst, there is a constant line of dozens to hundreds of trucks waiting on both ends, with teeming throngs of smaller cars angling for a shot at entering the tunnel. A majority of the tunnel is unlit, and there is no ventilation at all, with exhaust fumes so thick at times that you can hardly see the hood of your own car. Getting stuck in the tunnel due to a breakdown can result in death by asphyxiation. A little more than halfway through we hit a line of stopped cars with their hazard lights on. Evidently there was an accident or a broken down truck ahead with no possibility of getting around. The giant trucks on both sides were getting antsy, and their deafening horns echoed through the depths. Not content with sitting in line, the cars and trucks began taking up both lanes, trying desperately to get around the blockage. After 30 minutes, whatever was holding things up reduced itself to one lane, and a flood of trucks, fog lights and horns on full bore, smashed through the gap. We made it through a short while later, and opened all the windows once we saw daylight to ward off our increasingly severe headaches.
From Sarvoda to the lake it’s about 25km of dirt road, so it’s no small feat. Our driver tried a few times to pawn us off onto different cars, but none were having it. We paid 34 somoni to a very unofficial-looking guard at a gate, purportedly collected to maintain the national park area, but we’re fairly certain it went straight into his pocket. An old man in a pickup truck was to take us the rest of the way to the lake, but the truck wouldn’t start, so we got back into our original car for the final leg. The other passengers seemed happy enough with the arrangement, and we took some pictures with them in front of the lake at their behest.
Our final destination for the day was a village called Saratak (or Saritag, or Sarytag, depending on the transliteration) some six kilometers beyond the far end of the lake. We opted to walk the last 10km from where we were dropped off in order to see the lake a bit more. Our timing was perfect, however, and an SUV pulled up as soon as we got to the boring section of road after the lake and gave us a lift up the final switchbacks into Saratak. The SUV was quite nice for local standards, and the Tajik driver and passenger spoke surprisingly good English. There was a well-dressed Asian-looking man in the back seat who said nothing. The driver indicated that they were tourists. Color us skeptical.
We hopped out at the start of town, when we spotted a structure that looked like the picture of the guest house from the business card and asked the old lady if it was indeed Donish Guest House*. She seemed to agree, and so we came in and proceeded to discuss details such as what and when we would like to eat. After a few minutes the man of the house conceded that it was not, in fact, Donish, and pointed us to the red-roofed building some meters away. We awkwardly put our shoes back on, apologized, and skulked away to our real guest house, whom we had informed of our arrival by phone earlier in the day.
We arrived to our warm and welcoming guest house family. No English was spoken, but no matter, as we were able to communicate the basics with hand gestures. The owner (?), Makhmud, was the most talkative, and welcomed us in like we were family. Eventually they got somebody on the phone who spoke English, and we established the more specific aspects of our stay.
We had a bit of time to explore the town, which is surrounded by stunningly beautiful scenery, but is otherwise not particularly noteworthy. We ended up drinking vodka with Makhmud after dinner, while he tried to convince us to stay another day. The idyllic surroundings and lovely family made us want to, but unfortunately we needed to be back in Dushanbe to apply for our Uzbek visas. After a lot of conversation with heavy use of non-verbal communication, we figured out the basics of our respective lives. We were introduced to the various members of the family, and explained that we were traveling indefinitely. They were eager to know what we thought of their little nook in the Fann Mountains. The food, surroundings, and most importantly, the people we were with made this one of the best experiences of our trip so far. We concluded that, while beautiful, the mountains around us shaped our experience much less than the amazing family who took us in for the night, and that these personal experiences are what define the truly memorable moments in life.
We did a bit of hiking around town the next morning before our departure in the afternoon. Makhmud assured us that for 200 somoni he would drive us back to Dushanbe, a fair price for such a distance. The driver was actually another man from the guest house, but that didn’t matter much. They managed to explain that they would drive us to Sarvoda and then arrange our transport to Dushanbe via another taxi from there.
We made it to Sarvoda as the rain started coming down. Our driver was off somewhere negotiating a taxi for us while we sat in his truck taking up a spot at the gas station. Several people came up, no doubt looking to have our truck moved, but the sight of two foreigners and no driver inside quickly dissuaded them. Our driver eventually came back and ushered us over to a shared taxi which was about to leave. During the ride, Oona’s seat neighbor offered her an apple and fell asleep with her head on Oona’s shoulder.
The driver passed us a phone partway through the trip, and a person on the other end explained, in English, that we were to change taxis at the taxi stand on the north end of Dushanbe for the final leg back to the hostel, at no charge. What was originally a one seat ride became a three seat ride, but we made it back in one piece.
Many of the hostel guests from our first stay were still there, exactly how we left them, sprawled out in this corner or that. We had two days to explore a bit more of Dushanbe and pick up our Uzbek visas.
There’s not much to Dushanbe, but it did, for a decade or so, boast the tallest flagpole in the world, although it was unclear if the flag itself was also the largest. An impressive sight, no doubt, but Jeddah, Saudi Arabia has since built a slightly taller one, usurping the one-time champion in Dushanbe. We had dinner and some beers at Public Pub, and spotted a man with a Seahawks jersey. Oona asked him if he was from Seattle, but it turns out he was from New Zealand and that his wife was from the Seattle area. They were working for an NGO in Tajikistan, and we lamented the Seahawks’ recent loss.
We headed to the Uzbek embassy the next morning. There was a disorderly crowd of locals outside, but we were quickly ushered in to wait in another line inside. After 20 minutes of protecting our spot in the “line”, we made it to the front and supplied our applications, letter of invitation, and photos. We were not told that we would also need copies of our passports, so Oona dashed down the street to procure them. After spotting the questionable-looking copy shop, she entered and inquired about a photocopy. A man muttered “foto” several times, and took a copy of the passports. She paid no mind to the strange and faux-official documents changing hands between the patrons.
After 45 minutes of waiting outside, we were ushered back in to pay for and collect our passports. Payment was done in US dollars.
With our visas in hand, we left the next day towards Uzbekistan via the Tursunzoda border by way of the taxi stand on the west side of town.
*we would highly recommend Donish. They seem to be open year round, and are lovely people. Reachable by: firstname.lastname@example.org (+992 900 41 31 31)
The Tajik language is an outlier with regards to the official languages of the four other ex-Soviet ‘stans. An Indo-European language closely related to Persian (but written with a modified form of Cyrillic), Tajik is quite different from Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek. However, a long history of contact with Uzbek has left marks on both languages, including a deep layer of Turkic loan words in Tajik.