Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stopover in Krasnoyarsk

Krasnoyarsk was our next goal after Novosibirsk, and being Siberia there are 800 km of nothingness along the road between these two cities.

Somewhere in the middle of this nothingness, we stopped for lunch at a tiny road-side fast-food place that appeared out of nowhere. Here, over a plate of shashlyk with mayonnaise sauce, one of the regulars (anyone regularly driving between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk must be a regular at this place, for there are not a lot of places to eat to choose from), an ex-paratrooper of the Red Army, engaged us and one of the women running the place in conversation and it turned out that this woman somehow was related to a German couple who were driving around the world in a way that made our journey seem like a nice-weather Sunday drive around the neighbourhood: Two people, a Mercedes G-Wagen, and their 23-year, 500,000 mile journey around the world.

That seems to be a general rule of the human condition: If someone thinks that you’re doing something crazy, then you can always find someone else to point at who does the same thing but a hundred times crazier.

We didn’t reach Krasnoyarsk until after midnight, when the previously nice late summer weather had turned into an early autumn drizzle. Here we had been invited by Lyubov Savchenko (who, as we had become accustomed to by now, had found our itinerary on CouchSurfing) to stay the night at her place. Mobile communications on the road had, however, been far from optimal and we arrived in the city without knowing how to find our way to Luba’s apartment.

Here another guy from CouchSurfing, Sergey Horol, jumped to our help. He met us at an easy-to-find address, full of energy in the middle of the night, and eventually managed to call Luba and direct us to the correct address. Luba, who probably had given up hope of us arriving in Krasnoyarsk at all that night, got out of bed when we arrived and showed us the sleeping arrangements she had prepared for us in her kitchen.

The next day we decided to take a day’s break from driving and instead do some sightseeing in Krasnoyarsk. Luba agreed to have us staying one more night in her kitchen but would have to go to work in the evening, so she called a friend of hers, Marina Volovik (also on CouchSurfing) and asked her to take care of the apartment key and us that night.

Then we took a taxicab down to the city center where we met with Sergey again, who was very sorry that we hadn’t arrived earlier and that we couldn’t stay longer, for there were so many things that he would have liked us to have done and to do. He then went back to work with a promise to call us later, while we had an excellent high-end lunch in one of the new posh restaurants overlooking the Yenisei river.

After lunch, Sergey had managed to get away from work and joined us again to take us with him on a bus to get out of the city to see some of the true beauty of the Siberian countryside. The goal of this excursion was the King Fish Panorama, a popular place upstreams along the river for making wedding photos and toasting in champagne, and we encountered several different groups who were there to do just that. The panorama of the river, floating majestically deep down between the forest-clad hilltops, was breathtakingly beautiful and now in late summer the trees of the endless forests were just about to begin changing colours. The weather was sunny and quite warm, with a slight hint of winter quickly approaching in the wind.

We lingered at the vantage point, enjoying the view and the weather, chatted with some wedding party guests (one of them a Russian Jew visiting from Lebanon—quite globalized this hilltop in Siberia), and listened to a single accordionist playing Russian folk songs in brave competition with the heavy electronic bass rhythm from a restaurant nearby.

Before leaving Novosibirsk, Elia had asked us whether we knew people along the road ahead of us and upon learning that we didn’t he had volunteered to find friends for us, and that’s why we that evening were picked up by Alexandra Paklina who together with her friend took us out for dinner (where we were later joined by Marina) at Harat’s.

Harat’s Irish Pub has today become something of a Siberian institution and is on track to conquer the rest of Russia as well. Alexandra told the story about the friends from Irkutsk who created an empire of Russian Irish pubs and we were delighted to savour such pub classics as Фиш & Ципс (Fish & Chips), with both imported and locally produced beers. Before leaving Siberia, we would become Harat’s connoisseurs, visiting several of their pubs in several different cities, and becoming quite fond of their locally produced stout.

It was late at night when we eventually returned to the apartment again, and after just a few hours of sleep, Thomas took a taxicab to the airport in the wee hours of the morning.

Thomas had hoped that it would be possible to drive all the way to Mongolia without any significant delays, and had promised to be back at work the week after. We had not had any seriously long delays, but a few days here and a few days there had added up as the weeks passed by. Deciding that work was more important than reaching Mongolia, he bought a flight ticket out of Krasnoyarsk to get back to Norway in time as promised, and left Rico and me to take the ambulance the remaining 2,000 km to Ulan Bator on our own.

Rico and I then slept for a few more hours, before we said goodbye to Marina and started the journey towards Irkutsk.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Summer in Siberia

The night-wind drives across the leaden skies,
And fans the brooding earth with icy wings;
Against the coast loud-booming billows flings,
And soughs through forest-deeps with moaning sighs.
Above the gorge, where snow, deep fallen lies,
A softness lending e’en to savage things—
Above the gelid source of mountain springs,
A solitary eagle, circling, flies.

O pathless woods, O isolating sea,
O steppes interminable, hopeless, cold,
O grievous distances, imagine ye,
Imprisoned here, the human soul to hold?
Free, in a dungeon,—as yon falcon free,—
It soars beyond your ken its loved ones to enfold!

— Florence Earle Coates, “Siberia”, 1898

Crossing the border at Kurgamys, we arrived in Siberia in the last weeks of summer. Driving through the vastness of Siberia hadn’t been part of our original plan but, as explained previously, we had been forced to re-route, resulting in this several thousand kilometres long detour. Entering the Russian Federation by car at the border crossing here was as easy as walking through immigrations at the airport in Moscow, the uniformed officials a bit harsh and grumpy but efficient and without any unnecessary or ridiculous questions or procedures. Very nice.

Then the vastness of Siberia hit us. There are hundreds of kilometres between anything here, and our goal for the evening, Barnaul, the first (!) city after the border, was over 400 km away. But we had had an early morning and a good power breakfast, so we arrived in the beautiful sunlight of early evening in the late Siberian summer.

In Barnaul, we were awaited by Igor and Nastia, who had seen our itinerary on CouchSurfing and invited us to stay the night with them. We were now definitely in CouchSurfing-land. Igor met us at the main train station and from there directed us how to drive to their apartment, not far from there. Neither Igor nor Nastia spoke much English and none of us speaks any useful amount of Russian, but Igor was an accomplished user of Google Translate and didn’t let any language barriers stop our communication. Both of them being strict and passionate vegans, Nastia proceeded to cook us a most excellent vegan borscht with dark bread and salad for dinner. This was the first home-cooked meal we ate during the entire journey, and we savoured it with great delight. (Even Thomas, the militant anti-vegan, finished all of his borscht with good appetite.)

After dinner, we went sight-seeing through the city evening and Igor, Nastia and Rico bonded over their shared interest in photography. Barnaul was one of the earliest cities established in Siberia, and while most of the old architecture from imperial times is long gone it still offers a cityscape that made us truly feel that we now had arrived in Siberia. Igor pointed out buildings and monuments worth taking notice of, while explaining his plan to find a job in Saint Petersburg, coming closer to Europe and learning English. After reaching the Ob River, we took a bus back to the apartment, buying some beers, soft drinks and snacks on the way, spending the rest of the night in relaxed company, showing photos and talking about past and future travels. Thomas received accolades for his rendering of our journey so far using only internationally understood words, photos, pantomimes and sound effects.

The next morning, Nastia took hospitality to yet another level. Having understood that we normally liked to eat meat, she had bought beef liver the night before (while the rest of us were busy buying beer) and in the morning she prepared a real meat-eaters power breakfast for us. (We did not need to eat anything before late afternoon after that.) With the hope to meet again if that Saint Petersburg plan would work out, we then left Barnaul to drive northwards to Novosibirsk.

Visiting Novosibirsk had not originally been part of our plan, but on the way to Barnaul we had received a mail with the following message:
“My name is Elia Kabanov, I'm blogger ( and journalist based in Novosibirsk. A friend of mine from Kyrgyzstan told me about your trip and I'm really excited about it. Is there any chance you'll be visiting Novosibirsk on the way to Mongolia?”
This friend, linking Kyrgyzstan to Siberia, turned out to be Twitter Girl Nuraika, whom we had met in Bishkek, and with such an invitation we obviously had to visit Novosibirsk. There we arrived in the afternoon and met with this Elia who had invited us, and he introduced us to his friends Ilya Taratukhin and Denis Baluev. We ate a very late lunch (I got to eat Beef Stroganoff in Russia for the first time in my life; it was excellent), learned to know each other and quickly figured out that we got along absolutely splendidly. Everybody spoke good English, so we had a common language, and everybody was interested in the internet, so we had a common starting point for conversations. Couldn’t be better.

After eating, Denis had to leave us but we were soon instead joined by Ilia Staheev. So now we were in the company of Elia, Ilya and Ilia which in Russian is Илья, Илья and Илья. Yes, despite spelling their name differently in the Latin script, they all shared the same name. To make naming even more fun, two of the Ilyas also shared the same patronymic. We therefore promptly resorted to instead numbering them as “Ilya 1”, “Ilya 2” and “Ilya 3”, and spending the rest of the evening constantly mixing up who was supposed to have which number.

The three Ilyas took us to the Hostel Dostoevsky, allegedly the only hostel in all of Novosibirsk, which was a nice place that offered enormous value-for-money, just down at the Ob River, and we parked the ambulance there before heading out to experience the city. With 1½ million inhabitants, Novosibirsk is the largest city in Siberia and the third-largest city in all of Russia, but it’s a young city and mostly a modern industrial big city, so we kept most of our sightseeing along the river and in the city center. One remarkable building in the city center is the opera house (Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre), which is the largest opera house in Russia and was built during the Second World War.

We soon proceeded to sight-see the Ilyas’ favourite watering holes, with the Водкинъ домъ (“House of Vodka”) worth a special mention. Here we were treated with all sorts of Russian dishes that go well together with vodka, from pickled herring over pickled everything to pancakes with caviar. Delicious! Conversations grew louder, toasts more splendid, venues were changed, “Ilya 1” revealed himself to have a good singing voice and to know a repertoire of melancholic and romantic nationalistic songs, we were joined by Nastya Lagunova, who, it has to be admitted, was less impressed with us, at this late hour, than we were with her, and eventually we found ourselves at “Ilya 2”’s apartment, late at night, where we could admire his photo portraits of the two Royal Princesses of Sweden (unexpected). Eventually the simultaneous falling asleep of our host “Ilya 2” in a club chair and of Rico on a bed signalled that it was time to go back to the hostel and get to bed, after a most enjoyable night out.

The following day, we headed for Krasnoyarsk.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Borat has managed to spark an immense interest of the whole world in Kazakhstan—something our authorities could not do during the years of independence. If state officials completely lack a sense of humor, their country becomes a laughing stock.” — Sapabek Asipuly

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world by land area, equivalent to the size of Western Europe, populated by less than 17 million inhabitants, and nowadays an independent nation (the last Soviet republic to declare independence). The Kazakh Steppe, the world’s largest dry steppe region, occupies one-third of the country’s territory. I can not believe that there is any other country on this planet that has more empty space than Kazakhstan has. We drove some 2,000 km through Kazakhstan, and I have never seen such enormous amounts of nothing before.

Almaty, the nation’s largest city (formerly known as Alma-Ata, capital of the Kazakh SSR), is just a few hours’ drive from Bishkek and we arrived early in the afternoon. Crossing the border didn’t take any mention-worthy amount of time, but it was an extraordinarily busy border crossing where large groups of people were herded like cattle through metal-fenced walkways by rude and aggressive border guards. Seeing how other cars were forced through DDR style vehicle inspections, unloading absolutely everything for customs inspections, we feared the worst but were saved by a guard officer recognizing the Mongol Rally stickers on our ambulance and realizing that it would be a waste of time to search us.

Also in Almaty, just like in Bishkek, Baku and Tbilisi before, there were people here who knew Ihar, who knows everybody everywhere. So we parked the ambulance in the city center and sat down at a café with free Wi-Fi internet access to eat lunch and send out messages that we had now arrived. First to show up was Kasya Shahovskaya, to whom Ihar had sent a mail telling her about us and our journey. A while later we were also joined by Bota, who didn’t know Ihar (!), but who had found our itinerary on CouchSurfing and offered her hospitality. Then Kasya told an acquaintance of hers, Nikita Galiyev, whom she had never before actually met face-to-face, and he showed up as well.

After the locals had discussed for a while about where would be the best place for us to stay the night, Nikita put an end to the discussion by deciding that we should sleep in his apartment, while he himself would stay the night at his mother’s place to make space for us. End of discussion.

Bota now had to leave us for work reasons while Nikita proceeded to stuff us all into his car for some downtown Almaty sight-seeing. First stop was the Independence Monument, crowned by a statue of the Issyk kurgan Golden Man. On a more pop cultural note, we also visited the construction site of the Timur Bekmambetov movie theatre being built close by. When talking about movies in Kazakhstan, Borat is obviously an unavoidable topic (Amazon UK has reported significant numbers of orders of Borat on DVD from Kazakhstan) and Kasya told an anecdote from when she was vacationing in Italy last year and some Italian guys demanded to know where she was from. When they didn’t take her reply “Kazakhstan!” as a valid answer, she ended up showing them her passport to their great surprise: “Does that country exist for real?”

After sightseeing downtown, we picked up the ambulance and drove it to the outskirts of town to park it at Nikita’s apartment before being joined by Kasya’s friend Sabina Dairbaeva and taking the beautifully Soviet antique cable car up the Kok Tobe mountain to enjoy the views, sights and restaurants up there.

The next destination on our journey was to be the Kazakh capital of Astana, connected to Almaty by a 1,200 km road across vast expanses of emptiness. Accounts differed on the quality of this road and on whether it would be realistic to drive all the way in one day. The most optimistic claimed that it was possible to drive the entire distance in 10 hours in a good car, and the most pessimistic claimed that it wasn’t possible at all. So we left Nikita’s apartment early in the morning to find out for ourselves how far it would be possible to drive and have ample time to find a suitable place to stay the night if the drive turned out to be too long.

Volvo dealership on our way out of Almaty

Road quality was actually quite good, and became better closer to the capital. But keeping high speed on this road did require a lot of concentration and the distance was murderously long. For most of the drive, there was absolutely nothing to see on either side of the road. Early in the evening, we reached the city of Karaganda, in Soviet times the preferred city used to signify in the middle of nowhere in Russian and the punchline of a popular joke built on this (“Где?” — “В Караганде!”). Here we made what was supposed to be a quick stop for dinner, but after stuffing ourselves with shashlik we came back to a car that wouldn’t start.

This was a tricky one to figure out. The ambulance had worked flawlessly for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres during the day, and now, all of a sudden, it just wouldn’t start, wouldn’t do anything. Luckily we were parked in a good spot and despite darkness falling upon us could start investigating. It seemed to be some kind of electrical problem. But the battery delivered electricity just fine to the on-board electronics and everything seemed to be just fine until the ignition key was turned and all went black. Repeatable. Nothing visible seemed to be broken either. No loose or damaged cables. Mysterious. The negative terminal of the battery was mysteriously warm. Could we have a short-circuit somewhere? This would be hard to sort out.

Some passers-by saw our predicament and being unable to help themselves, offered to bring some help. This help arrived in the form of two guys from the Karaganda Rescue Service dressed in matching coveralls, who immediately started to examine our car. At first they were also dumbfounded, but then began some more methodical fault finding. Connecting jumper cables to the battery of another car with running engine didn’t change anything and all other similar theories turned out to be useless. Then one of the guys had the idea to fully disconnect the existing battery, in case this was some sort of electronics problem, to force a reset of all on-board electronics. The problem had really nothing to do with on-board electronics, but disconnecting the battery finally revealed the source of the problem with utmost clarity:

The electrical cable connecting the battery negative terminal to the car was broken, inside of its protective covering. It’s a very stiff cable which had corroded over the years, and the vibrations during the past weeks and the past day had finally torn it apart. Held together by the protective covering this cable breakage had not only been impossible to see, but the proximity of the cable ends had also been sufficient to power the on-board electronics and this also explained the mysterious warming of the cable when trying to suck enough power for the starter motor through the now very thin connection.

The existing terminal connector on the cable had been cramped on and it wouldn’t be possible for us to remove the old cable end from it and reattach it to the rest of the cable. So the Rescue Service guys went away to find a new connector instead. They returned shortly with a Russian manufactured connector of simple and straightforward construction, which for us had the main disadvantage of being designed for much thinner cables than the ones in our car. It took a lot of fiddling to manage to fit the new connector to the rest of our cable, but it eventually worked out and the engine started like a charm.

Joy and celebration! The Rescue Service guys were proud of having been able to help us and refused any form of payment for their help. I insisted on at least paying for the new connector they had brought us, but they sternly refused even this. Absolutely incredible. We posed and took a lot of photos, with a lot of hand-shaking and profound thanks.

Now it was late at night and driving on towards Astana would have been ridiculous. One of Ihar’s friends in Astana, Alexander Danilov, had been awaiting us that night, but upon hearing of our breakdown he instead involved one of his friends in Karaganda, who contacted us and directed us to a suitable hotel there where we could stay the night instead. All’s well that ends well.

The next day we finally reached Astana, in time to have lunch (at a Bavarian theme restaurant!) with Alex and his friend Aidos Kapanov. They also gave us a fascinating tourist tour of this newly built capital of Kazakhstan, which has a lot of the insanity of Ashgabat in it (marble palaces, fountains, flagpoles, etc.), but also contains real people and life. Quite an experience.

Late afternoon we continued driving towards the Russian border, to stay the night in the city of Pavlodar. Here we had been invited by Alex Mans, who had found our itinerary on CouchSurfing, to stay the night in his home. When we arrived, he had prepared dinner for us (and excellent rice dish a bit similar to paella and a Russian style salad), with fruit juice, tea and vodka. Alex works with computers and was proud of his unlimited internet access, so we could do some final planning and send some mail to people along the future route, before attempting to cross the border into Russia. In the morning, Alex saw us off by offering a real power breakfast, rich in meat, really making sure that we would remember Kazakhstan most fondly, before we drove off towards the Russian border to enter the great mysterious Siberia.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mountains and Friends in Kyrgyzstan

Leaving Khujand in the morning for the relatively short drive to the border crossing between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at Isfara soon brought us into a little adventure. It turned out that the road shown on our map was not the road we needed to find, and that the road we needed to find was not on our map.

We were pointed by friendly locals in the direction of the border and eventually found a small group of Tajik soldiers who stopped us and asked us what we were up to. We explained that we were going to Kyrgyzstan and asked if this indeed was the road to Kyrgyzstan. They tried explaining something to us that we couldn’t understand, but it seemed quite clear that the road we were on indeed led to Kyrgyzstan (as the villagers had previously told us) but that there seemed to be some kind of problem with us going there. We could never figure out what that problem was, and eventually the commanding officer tired of trying to explain it and just waved us away, drive, go, go to Kyrgyzstan if you really want to. So we drove away.

Eventually, a suspicious number of vehicles on the road had Kyrgyz license plates and the people along the road did all suddenly look very different from the Tajiks. Rico got out of the car and walked up to a group of teenagers, pointing to the ground asking “Kyrgyzstan?”. They looked at each other, looked at Rico, and answered in the affirmative, “Kyrgyzstan!”.

Shit. Apparently the Kyrgyz had not felt it necessary to have any guards at this border crossing, so we had now entered their country illegally, by mistake. This was what the Tajik soldiers had tried to tell us: That they didn’t really have anything against letting us out of their country right there, but that we wouldn’t be able to get our paperwork inspected and stamped if crossing the border here. The locals themselves obviously prefer this border crossing, as it is hassle free, and had just pointed us in the direction of the closest and easiest crossing without knowing or realizing that it for us would be necessary to get all the paperwork done properly.

Backtracking. The little group of Tajik soldiers waved and smiled, lying in the shade at the side of the road, when we passed them again on the way back into Tajikistan. Eventually we found the fully staffed border crossing (not on the map) and got all the proper paperwork done for exiting Tajikistan and entering Kyrgyzstan legally. The full and proper procedure for entering Kyrgyzstan was really quick and easy, but considering that we had already been in their country once before earlier that same day it felt a little bit ridiculous that they bothered to double-check our passports here …

The drive from the border to Osh was essentially pretty uneventful, but made unnecessarily complicated by the existence of Uzbek enclaves within Kyrgyzstan. The main road to Osh goes through these enclaves, but we could not (for that would have required having multiple entry visas and doing the emigration and immigration procedures at the borders of each enclave). At the first enclave we encountered, the only possible route was to drive back again to the last town we had passed and there pay a taxi driver to drive ahead of us until we were on the correct road leading around the enclave. This road started out as a dirt track but eventually transformed into the first segment of a new trans-Kyrgyzstan highway of absolutely excellent quality.

Our hopes of arriving in Osh at a reasonable time grew the longer we drove on this highway, but were eventually crushed at the police checkpoint before yet another enclave. To not enter the enclave, we were directed to a “road” that we could never have believed to be the correct one unless four different people had independently of each other insisted on it. It was a dirt track of Shakristan Pass quality, passing through some kind of wasteland along the Uzbekistan border, with almost no traffic and by this time in complete darkness.

When we finally reached the main road again it was late in the evening. We had a quick and simple dinner at a roadside eatery before continuing the laborious drive on a highway of doubtful quality. (Even though, compared to the dirt track, any highway at all was a blessing.) It was well past midnight when we finally reached Osh and checked in to one of these by now very familiar Soviet era hotels.

The next day, the set out to drive across the mountains all the way to Bishkek. Most of the road was of absolutely excellent quality, most of the drivers were both very skilled and also very helpful so traffic was flowing extraordinarily smoothly and we made very good speed northwards.

The mountains here are just spectacularly beautiful. Sometimes it looks like Switzerland, sometimes it looks like Scotland, and sometimes it looks like something from out of this world. Martian landscapes with magically blue mountain lakes, thousands of metres above sea level. I have never seen anything like it before.

Kyrgyzstan is nowadays working hard on attracting foreign tourists. With these marvellous landscapes together with a lot of good roads and no unnecessarily complicated bureaucracy, they should be in a very good position to become a major tourist destination. The girls are remarkably pretty too. If you want a mountain vacation and are tired of Switzerland, or want to spend more money on getting there than on staying there, consider Kyrgyzstan next time. It’ll be worth it.

Despite the good roads, it was still a very long drive and once again well past midnight before we arrived in Bishkek. Here the hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet was fully booked, but the friendly receptionist called around and soon found us a place with free rooms, not very far away.

The next day it was time to meet some friends. Also in this city, just like in Baku and Tbilisi before, there were people here who knew Ihar and had received his mail about our journey, so we had Konstantin ZolotarevSabina Reingold and Tolkun Umaraliev awaiting our arrival. They had in their turn also told their friend Michael Ivashchenko about us and after we we had changed hotels to a better and more charming one of their suggestion, we took a long lunch at a nice café in the city center and then waited for Michael to come and pick us up.

Michael picked us up in his car, a Japanese edition Honda directly imported from Japan (thus having all the on-board electronics in Japanese and the steering wheel on the right hand side of the car). He explained that this was popular practice, as Kyrgyzstan is pretty close to Japan and buying Japanese edition cars is much cheaper. Later we would find this practice also in Kazakhstan and Siberia. Having the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car in relation to which side of the road you drive on (in all these countries, one drives on the right hand side of the road, as opposed to in Japan) is pretty weird, but it used to be that way in Sweden too, not further back than my parents’ generation (who had the steering wheel on the left hand side of the car while driving on the left hand side of the road).

We first did some sightseeing in downtown Bishkek, got a short summary of the different revolutions and presidents since independence from the Soviet union, and then were joined by Konstantin. We proceeded to shopping electronics (Rico needed much more storage space for all photos) and souvenirs (Kyrgyz traditional kalpak hats are absolutely awesome) before meeting the rest of Ihar’s friends for dinner.

The dinner party in the garden of a fancy restaurant, with traditional food from the region, was absolutely great. The longer we sat and ate and drank, the more people joined us, and everyone was enjoying themselves immensely. Sabina is a journalist, and made an interview with me about our journey. One of the people to join later, Nuraika, turned out to have received the Best Personal Twitter Account Award and provided her fan following with live updates of our party from her mobile phone. We immediately renamed her Twitter Girl. (A week later, she would suddenly and unexpectedly be of great importance to us.)

After dinner, Konstantin asked whether we were in a hurry for else he would like to show us the mountains. We gladly accepted, and he drove us up increasingly bad roads, ending in horrible dirt tracks, up the mountains outside of the city. Bishkek is the only city within a great distance and the night in the mountains is very dark and the air is very clear. The starry night sky here was surreal in its intenseness and number of visible stars. I have before only seen such a night sky in very remote places, far from any cities, but here it was possible to see the lights of Bishkek in one direction but the vastness of space in the other direction. Magical. It was a number of days too late, but we still saw many shooting stars (and Rico took a thousand photos).

The major disadvantage of travelling like this is that we can never afford to stay longer anywhere, no matter how wonderful it would be, or else we would need many more months, or years, to ever reach Mongolia. So the next day, after promising our new friends to return to Kyrgyzstan, we drove on to cross the border into Kazakhstan.

Goodbye gifts from Konstantin: Towing Cable and Teddy Bear

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Weekend in Dushanbe

After our adventurous mountain crossing, we arrived in Dushanbe. Here we were met by Jonas Zachrisson (from Sweden), who works here as the Country Director for the Central Asia Region for Norwegian People’s Aid and their mine clearing efforts here. (If you have not done so already, this is an opportune moment for you to donate money to their work. <> Mark your donation NPA to clearly show that you intend it for them.) Thomas had been introduced to Jonas by NPA people in Norway, and with Jonas’ wife not yet having returned from Europe with their children this weekend, he proceeded to take extraordinarily good care of us.

He complained for a while about how useless all hotels in Dushanbe were, ridiculously expensive but not offering very much value for money, and made a few phone calls to check whether there was some lodging option that he had not already thought of. But he quickly grew restless with the futility of this and decided to instead invite us to stay in his house, the childrens’ playroom was not used now when they were away and we brought up some mattresses from the basement and made guest beds between toys and cute decorations, and we were welcome to stay as long as it would take to get our ambulance fixed.

On the assumption that we had already had quite enough of the local grilled meat and bread, Jonas took us to a late lunch at a nice Lebanese restaurant and later on a sightseeing tour of Dushanbe, where we saw such sights as the world’s tallest flagpole (165 m, ordered built by the dictator to show the greatness of his country) and the new American embassy outside of town, isolated and fortified like a military base.

Jonas has an assistant called Abdul, who is born and raised in Dushanbe and knows everything and everyone. He was tasked with finding a suitable mechanic to take care of our ambulance, and in the late afternoon we got the message that the right man had been found and that we could drive it to him the day after.

With such excellent lodging and the promise of a competent mechanic, we were in good spirits when we followed Jonas to a popular expats’ watering hole to have some drinks and talk for a few hours. Jonas turned out to have led quite an adventurous life, including many years in different places in Africa (he met his English wife when they both were working in Ethiopia) and had a wealth of stories to tell. I’m, for example, now inspired to visit Namibia, a country that I hadn’t before ever thought much about.

The next morning, I drove the ambulance following Abdul to a small workshop outside of town, in the Rudaki district. There a man named Rustan worked, and he was said to have twenty years of experience repairing automatic transmissions. He was almost offended when I insisted on showing him what was wrong, for he had immediately understood what had happened and what needed to be done.

With the help of his two sons (his apprentices), he lifted up the car in the workshop and with the oldest son using the small and the huge sledgehammer bent everything, that had been damaged under the car, into shape again so that he could dismantle the transmission. The fluid that had leaked out upon impact (which had the colour of motor oil, but not really the right thickness for actually being motor oil) had been automatic transmission fluid. It just has a very different colour when it comes out than what it has when it goes in, which now became obvious when Rustan emptied all the old fluid from the transmission system. Then Abdul drove me to the mechanics’ bazaar to buy some litres of new automatic transmission fluid, and Abdul (of course) knowing exactly where to go, we found authentic Toyota automatic transmission fluid, imported from Japan, while Rico stayed in the workshop in case there were any questions to be answered and to take some photos.

With the transmission repaired and various loose parts (radiator, etc.) screwed firmly into place again, Rustan proudly encouraged me to take a test drive. The car started flawlessly, there was no noise that shouldn’t be there, the gear selector worked perfectly again, and it was a triumphant test drive.

It was now early Sunday afternoon, so we decided to use Jonas’ hospitality to stay the night in Dushanbe (using the afternoon for doing laundry, relaxing, uploading photos on the internet, etc.) and then drive on again in the morning. Jonas took us for dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant, well hidden in one of the big business hotels in town, which’s existence shouldn’t be surprising considering the considerable amount of Chinese working in Tajikistan, building roads, tunnels, houses, and whatnot. (There were even a few road signs printed only in Tajik and Chinese, without any Russian or English.)

Rico had spent some time researching the status of the border crossing at Karamyk, which we had hoped would be open or maybe be opened while we waited in Dushanbe, and which the border guards on the way in had emphatically claimed to be open (even if we didn’t believe them too much, considering all the other things they also claimed). In the end, however, it stood clear that it wouldn’t be possible for us to cross the border at Karamyk in the foreseeable future. (To hope that it would be opened was not foolish, though, for when I write this we have learned that the border there indeed has now been opened again.)

This meant that the only possible way out of Kyrgyzstan for us now would be to return through The Tunnel of Death and across the Shakristan Pass again, to then turn eastwards at Khujand and drive into Kyrgyzstan through the border crossing at Isfara.

So we set off in the morning, stopping to refuel before the mountains at a small petrol station run by a man named Iskandar who was bemused by us admiring his original 1969 vintage petrol pump, still working flawlessly, and proudly showing the new modern Chinese built petrol pumps being installed now.

Both the tunnel and the pass were considerably easier to drive when having driven them before, when having a fully working car and during daytime. But it still took somewhere around seven hours of driving very slowly on full alert to arrive at the other side of the mountains again without any damage.

We spent the night at Hotel Leninabad in Khujand again, to drive into Kyrgyzstan the next day.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mountain Adventures in Tajikistan

When we started planning our route in January, we wanted to enter Mongolia from the south by driving through the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Uyghuristan) of the People’s Republic of China. Then it would have been sensible to enter Xinjiang from the south by driving from Uzbekistan through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Unfortunately, with all the other preparations and paperwork taking as much time as they did, we ended up with far too little time to get the necessary paperwork done for driving through the People’s Republic of China. We would have needed several more months of preparations to have managed to get that as well done in time. Instead we re-routed our planning to drive through Kazakhstan and Russia.

That left a now quite illogical detour through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the planning, but the prospect of driving across the Pamir Mountains on the Pamirsky Trakt was far too tempting and we decided to keep this part of the route even though it had now become a significant detour on the way to Mongolia. We got visas for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan plus special transit permits for the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan, necessary to drive the Pamirsky Trakt which goes straight through this region.

Gorno-Badakhshan had been quite peaceful for years now, so it came as a shock when we, before arriving in Tajikistan, started to receive reports from international media and from friends’ friends in Tajikistan about violence and unrest in the GBAO. As always with such conflicts, the different reports of what had really happened and what was really going on ranged from “normal police procedure” to “full-scale military invasion”. In the end, however, there was no need for us to take any decision based on this information, as all previously issued GBAO transit permits were revoked. Driving the Pamirsky Trakt will have to wait.

By the time we had reached Samarkand, it was clear that the Pamirsky Trakt was out of the question but also that the situation seemed to have stabilized and that whatever really was going on was unlikely to spread to the rest of Tajikistan (or spark a civil war or anything like that). So considering that the Tajikistan border was less than a day’s drive away, we decided to use our still valid Tajikistan visas.

The border crossing was generally uneventful, but when we finally had gotten as far through as Tajikistan customs inspections it was late enough for our arrival to coincide with the evening’s breaking of the fast for Ramadan. So while darkness grew around us, we had to sit down and wait for half and hour while the customs officials took their evening tea.

Afterwards, they were in great spirits and took active interest in our travel plans. Rico was sent to fetch our big maps and show our plans in detail. They noticed the GBAO transit permits in our passports and urged us to drive the Pamirsky Trakt after all, claiming that the revocation of the permits had been revoked. This sounded far too much like the official version for us to take it at face value. (And even if it had been true, the situation was definitely not stable and the revocation of the revocation could certainly be revoked as well without advance warning.) But they also claimed, with particular insistence and some level of believability, that the border crossing at Karamyk would be open. Had that been true, it would have made it possible for us to drive north-east from Dushanbe into Kyrgyzstan, a very nice replacement for going across the Pamir.

So after staying the night at Hotel Leninabad (which looked exactly as you might expect a hotel with that name to look like) in Khujand (former Leninabad), we proceeded to drive southwards towards Dushanbe (former Stalinabad). That would get us to see quite a bit of Tajikistan and its dramatic landscape, compensating a little for not being able to drive across the Pamir.

The fist unexpected thing worth mentioning from that day was overtaking a man on a bicycle with a big Swiss flag. We stopped and waited for him to catch up. He turned out to be Philippe from Neuchâtel and he was on his way back home to Tbilisi, Georgia, via Afghanistan. Rico enjoyed meeting both a fellow countryman and a fellow biker.

After that, I sat leisurely in the patient-care compartment of the ambulance, glancing out at the rising mountains around us, writing a blog post about our experiences in Turkmenistan. Shortly before I saw the first snow-capped mountain top, the good paved road ended abruptly and the way across the Shakristan Pass (3,378 m above sea level) continued as a dirt track.

This is the main transport route between northern and southern Tajikistan, and the winters are hard here, biting cold with several metres of snow. The dirt track showed all of this clearly. The dirt, a fine dirty dust (getting in everywhere) when dry, and a soft slippery paste when wet, loosely held assorted pebbles, stones and boulders together into something that even the huge and powerful Kamaz trucks with their experienced drivers had serious problems navigating.

Our climb up the mountain came to an abrupt halt when Thomas drove the ambulance straight onto a rock. The shock of the impact and the resulting full stop was scary enough, but rushing out of the vehicle to see unidentified liquid on the ground and dripping from somewhere in the engine compartment was even scarier. Thomas managed to reverse the ambulance back a little bit from the rock so that we could take a closer look at both it and at the underside of the car. On the uneven ground it was neigh impossible to see anything useful under the car and the fine dirt dust had effectively sucked up everything that had leaked out to make it unidentifiable.

We managed to collect a little bit of what was still dripping, even though we couldn’t manage to see where it was coming from. The liquid had the colour of motor oil, but not really the right thickness for actually being motor oil. We also noticed that very little had actually leaked out and that the dripping was rapidly dwindling off. This wasn’t giving any useful clues.

The map showed that we were pretty close to the pass and therefore would have a long way to go down on the same dirt track we came on, which wouldn’t really take us anywhere useful, so we decided that it would be worth a try to instead cross the pass and find help on the other side. If the dropping liquid indeed would be motor oil and continue dripping, we had enough spare oil to refill continuously in case the dripping would increase. Otherwise, driving further would also give more leads to what was broken and how.

The first piece of information that this decision gave us was that the engine no longer would start. Not because of a broken starter motor, as in Turkmenistan, but this time there would not even be any attempt at starting. Some clicking in the electrical relays when the ignition key was turned, but nothing else. Not good. We were on a dirt track a few thousand metres above sea level, in the afternoon, and the weather was rapidly getting worse.

We checked what we could check, but nothing that could be seen from above was obviously broken and it was not possible to get any useful view from below. I walked over to the other side of the dirt track to hitch a ride back to the last town we had passed before reaching the mountains, Istarawshan, and find help there.

A nice, but silent, man picked me up in a big cheap Korean SUV to ride down the mountain together with his grown-up son (wearing an Islam Victorious t-shirt), son’s wife and small child, and another passenger. The cheap Korean SUV had infinitely better ground clearance than our ambulance, but it was still hard work for the nice but silent man, and a very rocky and bumpy ride for us passengers, to get down the dirt track and it took nearly two hours to reach Istarawshan. There he dropped of the other passenger, who paid for his ride, and me, from whom he refused any payment after seeing my predicament with the broken car. I thanked him gratefully, and walked into Istarawshan in search for help.

What I needed was a car mechanic who knew инномарка (“imported cars”, ie. not Soviet or Russian), so I looked for people who looked as if they were ready to help and who drove older Opel or other European cars. They would know who knew how to repair their cars.

Outside of the bazaar were a number of guys loitering around with their Opel cars and I started trying to explain my problem. I had taken a series of photos with my compact camera to explain the accident, and while showing these a guy named Sohib quickly showed himself to be a facilitator. He took me into his old Opel (which definitely had seen better days) and drove to a car mechanic he knew at the outskirts of town.

There, the explanation circus with photos, some Russian words (“махина”, “масло”), some sound effects (“broom, wroom”, ”bang”, “click, click, click”) and connecting gestures, got going again. The mechanic understood the problem, but needed more information in order to make any useful decisions. Someone managed to call someone who spoke both English and Tajik, to interpret. I filled in the details. The car mechanic was very interested in the oil on the ground. I offered my opinion that there was far too little oil dripping for this to be the reason for the engine not starting. Lots of discussion. I realized just how little Tajik I understand. Not a single word. The language is supposedly very close to Persian, but I don’t speak any Persian either. (I also got the feeling that these guys really hadn’t paid too much attention in Russian class in school either.)

Eventually the mechanic came to the conclusion that he could do nothing unless the ambulance was somehow brought to his garage. Someone suggested towing it. I pointed out that it was a big vehicle (“мой махина: болшои”), and showed the photo of it once again. (3 tonnes heavy, 6 m long, little ground clearance.) The gigantic Toyota Hilux had been able to tow it in Turkmenistan, but on this mountain dirt track nothing short of a proper tow truck (non-existent in Tajikistan) would be able to do anything useful. Everybody present seemed to now realize this.

Sohib the facilitator then came up with a new idea: Load the entire vehicle on one of the huge and powerful Kamaz trucks. We drove off to a truck stop to see if it was possible to find a suitable truck and driver. We found one, but the facilitator now became greedy. He suggested that this would cost 500 USD. A ridiculous sum in rural Tajikistan, and money that I definitely didn’t have in cash. I protested that I couldn’t believe this to be the real price. He tried to claim that the road tolls and fuel costs alone. for driving back and forth to the mountain pass, would add up to 350 USD. This was obviously a lie, and the then proposed 150 USD salary for himself and (maybe) the truck driver was preposterous. No way.

New idea: Sohib drove to the other end of town to where a guy named Alisher lived with his grandparents. Alisher, who was really nice and friendly, had paid attention in school, and learned to speak both Russian and quite decent English. (He claimed that both Russian and English are taught in schools in Tajikistan, but that most people just don’t pay any attention in school.) We now had an interpreter!

Rico and I were in touch through text messages, and I could now give him Sohib’s mobile phone number so that anyone up on the mountain could call down and have Sohib explain the situation and me talk through Alisher the interpreter. Progress!

The next idea was to try to flag down an empty Kamaz truck driving past on the mountain, heading towards Istarawshan, and convince the driver to load the ambulance and take it down to the car mechanic. If it would work, this would have the obvious advantage of not requiring the truck to make a round trip from Istarawshan and back, saving precious time, and also only having to pay road tolls once. Unfortunately, the number of unloaded trucks crossing the mountain was zero.

But seeing the ambulance with the bonnet open was a signal to other passers-by on the mountain and through the interpreter I eventually got the message that someone who had showed up was now investigating the vehicle and thought that he had identified the problem as being in the electrical system and that it would require a skilled car electrician to be sent up the mountain. (Sohib started calling people to find such a man.) I didn’t believe much in this explanation. As far as had been possible for us to check, the electrical system had been just fine. The battery delivering current, all warning and indicator lamps working as expected, headlamps dimming when current got switched over to the starter motor, etc. I tried to get Alisher to convey my opinion to get people away from this distraction, with little success.

But all of a sudden, the message from the mountain came that someone had managed to start the engine. The Haynes Service and Repair Manual has the explanation to what had happened: The starter inhibitor switch will, when it detects that the gear selector is in the wrong gear, prohibit starting the engine (with exactly the symptoms we had). The impact when hitting the rock had, however, damaged the gear selector. The helpful man on the mountain had eventually gotten the idea to repeatedly try starting the engine while pushing the gear selector back and forth until it eventually started to select some gears, and then finding a gear which the gear inhibitor switch wouldn’t detect as illegal. It was now possible to start the engine with the gear selector in “reverse”, which now selected “neutral”.

Nothing left to do in Istarawshan and time for me to get back up on the mountain. I asked Sohib the facilitator if he might be willing to drive me up there, but that would be far too much work for him. In the end, he organized a ride up the mountain for me and demanded 50 USD for this and his services during the day. Considering that he most definitely wasn’t going to share a cent of this money with the people who had actually done any work, the price was beyond outrageous, but considering that I had been utterly dependent on him for several hours it was an OK price to pay. Through Alisher the interpreter I learned that Sohib was surprised and suspicious both that I had been given a ride down the mountain for free and that I was paying for everything out of my own pocket and not from some company or government expense account. Well, well.

Sohib, me and Alisher

The ride back up on the mountain was with a guy named Sobir, who transported melons in a worn-out cheap Korean SUV. He had 1,200 kg (he proudly corrected me when I guessed 1,000 kg) of melons stuffed in the car, but still room for one passenger, albeit barely. I never figured out why it’s profitable to transport melons from the north to the south (to me the rumours of the world’s best melons being grown in Afghanistan made this seem to be the wrong direction), but he was by far not the only melon transporter on this road.

Sobir was a great guy, very social and chatting constantly in Russian (it was obvious that he, as a driver, was used to meeting people from all over) from which I struggled to pick out a narrative from random comprehensible words. He shared the Tajik version of Swedish moist snuff (the Tajik version is something like a hundred times more potent than the Swedish version) and gave good advice on how to successfully navigate the dirt track across the mountain.

The entire business of leaving Istarawshan had taken far too long time, and the sun set rapidly as we drove uphill. Shortly after nightfall, we reached the dirt track but soon after, Sobir pulled over and parked his car roadside. It had so happened that he had run into a friend driving in the opposite direction, and this had to be celebrated. He now showed me an ingenious contraption below the gear selector, where he not only could access a little valve to cut off the fuel supply to feign an engine failure but also kept a secret stash of hashish. Under the pretence of examining a broken engine (for despite the rich and powerful of Tajikistan making fortunes on the drug trade from Afghanistan, all narcotics are highly illegal for the man in the street), Sobir and his friend then proceeded to share a hashish cigarette in protection of the now thick darkness and the explanation that the open bonnet provided for anyone passing by.

Strengthened by this short break, Sobir then proceeded to navigate his overloaded SUV uphill and showed me how to successfully round corners on this dirt track when they were so sharp and steep that it wasn’t possible to see where they were going. And after not long, we arrived at the ambulance. With the gear selector in “reverse”, the engine started (not happily, but with the evil cough of a long-time smoker accompanied by the angry rattle of pretty much everything that can rattle in the engine compartment of a car) and Sobir urged us to not spend any time on drawn-out goodbyes but to drive across the pass as quickly as possible. So with a quick handshake we parted, he drove ahead with his 1,200 kg of melons and I started moving slowly uphill, gearbox locked in second gear, through the fine dirty dust and across the pebbles, stones and boulders, with a car that was protesting loudly at being forced to move, but that did move.

Rico had used the wait on the mountain to fasten the radiator and other loose components with cable ties and after a while the rattling diminished as components shook into more stable position. The noises were still alarming, but at least they where not getting worse, and the ambulance seemed to drive steadily if unhappily. I used all Sobir’s driving advice and managed to clear all the sharp and steep corners, often stopping to let the huge and powerful Kamaz trucks pass by, for we were now by far the slowest vehicle on the mountain, slower even than the old Soviet era relics that were struggling to climb with their lack of engine power.

After not too long, we reached the pass and could begin the long and exhausting climb downwards. The dirt track was, if possible, in even worse condition on this side of the peak and zigzagging across the track to keep the wheels on top of ridges and boulders, to not have them hit the underside of the car again, was hard work. Luckily, our trusty Volvo has exceptionally good headlights, and compared to the worn-out cheap Korean SUV of Sobir, I had the advantage of being able to much better see what lay ahead of me than he had. There were still, however, sharp and steep curves where it wasn’t possible to see anything when driving through in the pitch dark night, which were necessary to study in advance from above and then drive through very carefully and slowly from memory.

With a final tour through a tunnel construction site (this dirt track will be abandoned in the future), where the dirty dust had been replaced by flowing water and a greasy black slippery mud, we finally reached the paved road again on the other side. I was exhausted. We were still far up in the mountains but reaching a paved road gave hope and the burst of energy that comes with it.

Shortly before the mountain village of Ayni, we at last reached a place to stop for the night. A parking lot, a few houses and one chaikhana on each side of the narrow road. The damaged gearbox had been unable to engine break going steep downhill and while the breaks still had breaking power, they were now literally smoking hot when I parked the ambulance here.

We walked up to the chaikhana next to the parking lot. A teenage boy named Erkin welcomed us and offered to serve us good tea and food. We happily accepted and sank down in some chairs padded with blankets in the cool mountain night air. With tea, bread, grilled meat and onions we also got some bottles of beer and a very good melon. Seldom has food and drink been this appreciated. Erkin was a curious boy, spoke much more English than expected, and wanted to know a lot of things. He was born in the village of Ayni down the road, but now worked here. He translated our story for the old men sitting next to us, and insisted on getting my home address and telephone number, for the future. One never knows when one might need a connection in Switzerland. If he just manages to avoid the pitfalls of life in Tajikistan, I see the potential for a successful businessman here in the future.

But soon the joy of having successfully made it across faded away and tiredness took over. I nearly fell asleep where I sat. There were, of course, no places for guests to sleep in this tiny rest stop in the mountains, but after nearly falling asleep in the chair once more, I asked Erkin if it wouldn’t be OK with him if I just slept on the wooden planks on the patio of the chaikhana, right there. He took pity on us and even brought pillows and blankets, so within minutes I was sleeping deeply in the fresh mountain night air to the comforting noise of Kamaz trucks passing by on the road next to this improvised bed.

The next morning I woke up to find Rico sleeping next to me and Thomas asleep sitting in the passenger seat of the ambulance. It was early and we were all still tired, but I was anxious to find out if the neigh indestructible Volvo would still run today and if so to reach Dushanbe where a really good mechanic to take care of the gearbox should be possible to find.

The ambulance started with angry protest and evil noise, but it did start and after cooling off during the night, the breaks were fine again as well. We soon reached the village of Ayni, in the shallow valley between the two mountain peaks, and pulled over at a roadside eatery where the size of the gravel parking lot at the opposite side of the road signalled that this was a favourite place for truckers crossing these mountains.

We got a real power breakfast with both tea and instant coffee, enough sugar to live off for a month, kefir, fried sausages, deep fried fish and bread. When we had finished and were washing our hands, a horde of truckers arrived and confirmed that we had indeed found the right place for breakfast. A good start of the day. Now just one more mountain pass and then Dushanbe.

The Anzob Pass has paved roads of quite good quality leading to and from it, but instead of the dirt track across the peak of the Shakristan Pass, it has a tunnel which on our map only is labelled as Dangerous Tunnel.

The Anzob Tunnel is known by many nicknames, all of them accurately describing it: “The Dangerous Tunnel”, “The Tunnel of Death”, “The Evil Tunnel”, “The Scary Tunnel”. It’s only a mere 5 km in length, but in our broken car and not knowing what lay ahead in the darkness, those were the longest 5 km I’ve ever driven. The tunnel is dark, very dark. There are, obviously, no lights in the tunnel itself and a thick smoke of engine exhausts, dust and water vapour severely limits the power of vehicle headlights. Despite being under construction for years on end, the tunnel is still far from finished and only parts of it have a ceiling to seal off the naked rock and prevent water from dripping through the mountain above. This rain from the naked rock above, together with the smoke and the incredible noise bouncing between the rock walls is what mostly makes the tunnel so scary.

Most of the tunnel has pavement, which legions of Kamaz trucks and freezing winter upon even more freezing winter has beaten and broken into black ragged ridges which would have served well for the land of Mordor. The water raining down from above fills the deeper rifts and the potholes with water, making it impossible to judge how deep they are. In many places, the underlying concrete has been broken so that its steel rods now poke out of it, threatening to puncture tyres or get stuck somewhere where it can tear your vehicle apart. In two areas of the tunnel, the bottom is deep enough to have amassed small lakes of water which are necessary to drive through without being able to see what’s below the surface, trying to guess a passable way across by observing vehicle in front of you. (Piece of advice: If you find yourself alone in front of such a body of water, wait for a Kamaz truck to come and drive before you, and then the way it sinks and rises out of the water and the waves created by its wake will give a usable idea about what hides below the surface.) There were loads of men working with heavy machinery to repair and improve the tunnel, making the already narrow tunnel even more crowded, but they were hopelessly outnumbered against the upcoming winter and the number of heavy trucks, breaking the tunnel apart again faster than they could ever repair it.

Eventually, we cleared the tunnel without incidents and on the way downhill on the other side we could stop at small roadside автомойка (”car wash”) to get rid of the filth of the tunnel (which easily had doubled the filth already amassed during nearly 10,000 km of driving). The автомойка man made a living off the vehicles coming out of the tunnel and had serious experience with filthy vehicles and liberal amounts of clean water flowing down from the mountain. He still had to work hard for a long time, while we enjoyed the break in the beautiful mountains with cute kids playing around and “helping” to wash the car. The result was spectacular, and we paid the man a handsome tip for he had asked for far too little money for his work. Now it would be possible to drive the ambulance into a mechanic’s garage in the city without him refusing to touch it.

Further downhill and close to Dushanbe, we drove through Varzob, where the luxury villas of the rich and powerful, paid for with riches from the drug trade, line both banks of the river as it thunders majestically down into the valley.

With that, we arrived in Dushanbe.