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.


  1. Thanks for another great post! I also appreciated the thorough description of what actually went wrong in the mountains, with the gearbox. I reckon it was probably a small amount of the ATF that leaked then. (Suits the viscosity description, at least...)

    Also, now it is more obvious why the Tajik "detour" was made, not only for seeing Tajikistan (a reason as good as any), but as part of the original route. Anyways. Keep up the good work, both with the trip and the reports!

  2. Puh, det var spännande läsning! Känns bra att ni är förbi den där tunneln nu! Bra kämpat, än en gång!

  3. What a story that finally gets told!
    Finally we know what went on behind the delays and the excursion into Tadjikistan...