• Aaron

Tajikistan Part 3 - The Final Stretch through the Pamirs to Dushanbe

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

A section of the Pamir Highway headed for Kalaikhum. The right side of the river is Tajkistan - to the left Afghanistan

The Bartang Valley

A number of side valleys accessible from the Pamir Highway are said to be of astonishing beauty, as we discovered first hand to be true by exploring one known as the Bartang Valley. Something that intrigues me about the Bartang Valley (beyond the stunning images you will find below!) is that it extends all the way from where we entered it, west of Khorogh, right through to lake Karakul. I spoke of Karakul two posts back in: Tajikistan Part 1 – Scraping the Sky in the Pamirs. On a future trip I intend to attempt a route through the Pamirs via the Bartang Valley. It would make for a spectacular 4wd adventure, though a challenging one, as it can be impassable.

GPS track map - our Bartang Valley route circled in red

Fortunately, the part of the Bartang Valley that we explored was not difficult to access at the time of our visit. We spent two nights camped up this stunning valley, exploring traditional Tajik villages as far as Basid. The following pictures tell the tale.

A Bartang Valley village lies ahead on our route, hidden amongst the green
The track through the Bartang Valley closely follows the river
Another green village set against a solid rock backdrop
Steep rock walls don't permit an alternative vehicle route should the river flood. This valley is not passable all year round.
A local shepherd guides his goats and sheep home late in the day

Resuming the Pamir Highway to Kalaikhum

Upon departing the Bartang Valley we re-joined the Pamir Highway and set our sights on Kalaikhum. The condition of this once paved road was absolutely terrible and it turned out to be by far the worst we experienced through the Pamirs. The road surface consisted of old broken tarmac, big rocks and sizeable potholes for miles on end. Whilst this made for slow and uncomfortable progress, the views remained incredible! We were still following along the narrow strip of a river that separated us from Afghanistan, with villages on the Afghanistan side near enough to have a good look into.

A good section of road... but it wouldn't last long

Drama on the Afghanistan Side of the River!

Four Afghan police pickup trucks mounted with machine guns

Upon spotting four pickup trucks just across the river from us, each with a machine gun mounted behind the cab, we briefly pulled over for a look. Using the camera to zoom in for a closer inspection revealed this:

Something rather tense was going on. This is an Afghan police unit that appeared to be responding to something happening on our side of the river in Tajikistan! Notice the sniper rifle setup on the river bank. The Policeman with the binoculars appears to be looking right at us. Whatever was going on here it seemed like an opportune time to get out of there without further delay.

Not soon after we reached Kalaikhum, which turned out to be the pleasant little town I expected it to be. We paused here and enjoyed lunch at a lovely little restaurant with a terrace over the river, as seen in the photos that follow:

Just outside Kalaikhum the Pamir Highway splits, giving a choice between the 'southern route', where the road is said to be in better condition, or the more adventurous 'northern route' over the Tavildara pass. Directly contradicting what my research had led me to believe, I was informed by two local sources that the northern route was impassable – one source claimed this was due to rockfall, another said it was impassable due to snowfall. Yet another local nearer to where the road splits indicated it would be fine to take the northern route... certainly not a consensus then! Most commonly, local knowledge is invaluable and always worth seeking, though I’ve learned it’s neither always accurate, nor consistent. Accordingly, the overland traveler must learn to choose what information to accept, or reject. I stuck with my original plan and we took the northern route. Not because I was looking for a challenge, but because I gauged it would be entirely passable and would prove the more scenic and adventurous route. It turned out to be a lovely route through the mountains, and we encountered neither snow, nor rockfalls, blocking the route.

The 'northern route' through the mountains continues its ascent towards the Tavildara pass ahead of us
Looking back the way we had come

The northern route took us through some off-the-beaten-path-little villages amidst beautiful natural settings. In one peaceful village we spotted massive jars of local honeycomb for sale outside a little shop and just had to stop. If you could buy such a big jar of honeycomb in New Zealand it would cost a small fortune. Such a delicacy - we bought a jar despite knowing we'd face an immediate issue figuring out where to keep it in the already overcrowded Pajero.

Our view from near the Tavildara Pass before our route took us down into this valley

We've barely had a rainy day right across Central Asia, but on the morning shown below I had to pack up the tent in the wet. And having lost my really good Macpac rain coat I had to resort to a thin plastic poncho from the emergency kit. There's barely anything like an outdoors store to be found across Central Asia, making it pretty difficult to replace something seemingly so simple as a raincoat.

Arriving into Tavildara

Tavildara... and Landmines

The only settlement on the northern route big enough to call a small town is at Tavildara. My original intention was to depart the northern route here in order to venture truly far from the beaten path... not that our route in was a particularly beaten one to begin with. The main attractions to doing this would include some very unique landscapes and the opportunity to meet local people unaccustomed to seeing foreign tourists. Due to shortage of time we decided to leave this to a future trip, as we've had to do with a number of things.

It's worth noting the area is not without its risks, as it was littered with landmines during Tajkistan's civil war. Since the war ended in 1997 a number of de-mining projects have been carried out. However, as some areas were known to have been very heavily mined I think one would want to err on the side of caution if choosing to venture in here. Driving established 4wd tracks into the area would be perfectly safe, though one might not want to venture too far from those tracks in search of hidden camp spots, as we typically do elsewhere. More generally, the situation with landmines is a bit complicated. Those within Tajikistan were laid during the civil war, as mentioned above. Conversely, those laid along the Afghanistan border were laid by Russian forces, while those along the Uzbekistan border were laid by Uzbek forces. That's a lot of landmines in and around Tajikistan, all laid by different armed forces, many of whom have long since left. This is just another issue the adventurous 4wd overland explorer needs to bear in mind, but its a far bigger problem for local people who depend on the land. Local shepherds, sometimes children, are not uncommonly seriously injured or killed.

Dushanbe (population 750,000)

Following a good stint travelling independently through remote areas we're usually ready to have a change of pace and spend some time exploring a new city. So after two and a half weeks traversing the Pamirs, pausing for a week in Dushanbe appealed.

Wow... Dushanbe is one surprisingly grand little capital city! A visitor today would scarcely know that a brutal civil war ended here as recently as 1997. Moreover, a visit to Dushanbe could almost impart an impression that Tajikistan is a wealthy country. But its not, as its meagre GDP per capita of just US$800 attests. This is obviously a very low figure when contrasted against any developed nation (e.g. Australia with US$53,800). It's also low relative to neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, making Tajikistan the poorest of Central Asia's ...stans. (Economic data courtesy of the World Bank).

Nevertheless, Dushanbe initially manages to impress. Extensive beautifully maintained city parks overflowing with gardens & well tended roses, magnificent buildings finished in marble, ornate lamp posts etc. Grand hotels also abound, including a Hilton and a Hyatt Regency. Footpaths in the centre aren’t finished in mere concrete or asphalt, but typically paved in various kinds of tiles. Never mind that Dushanbe seemingly already has more than its fair share of grand buildings, as it is apparent that still more are under construction. Billboards outside construction sites illustrate just how lavish the upcoming batch will be.

And yet I found a feeling gradually crept in that all was not entirely what it seemed. Perhaps those of you who have had opportunity to visit Disneyland, Universal Studios, or similar, might appreciate what I’m attempting to convey. It was as if at any moment I might turn a corner to find that the grand buildings were all facades with no substance behind. And just how does a poor country finance such seeming opulence?

I believe the answer lies entrenched in Tajikistan’s longstanding political situation. I’ve not mentioned it prior to this post, but in every settlement we’ve passed through in Tajikistan – be it a tiny village or small town - countless posters of the countries long serving president (since 1994) are to be seen adorning multiple buildings. Some of these posters are huge and can be seen from afar. You could easily see the President pictured 20 times just on passing through a village, as if to remind locals who’s in charge. Upon visiting the government sports stadium in Khorogh we found him pictured on an internal wall wearing gym gear, allegedly jogging, though even in a still photo the awkwardness of this large man feigning physical activity is readily apparent. A visit to the huge (though sparse) national history museum in Dushanbe reveals a section devoted to Tajikistan’s political history; there I learned that the President was recently awarded the title of ‘Hero of Tajikistan’. A grand title no doubt; just one stop short of ‘superhero’.

The story goes that the Tajik people love their president. He is respected as the man responsible for ending Tajikistan’s civil war and bringing peace to a country that was war torn after the Soviet Union fell. Ushering in an era of peace is a stellar achievement no doubt, and today’s ‘Disneyland-like’ Dushanbe must be far removed from the Dushanbe of 1997, but equally Tajik people lack a genuine choice in their political representation. I’m not only picking on Tajikistan here. Simply put, Presidents (aka Dictators) of Central Asian countries have generally had a bad habit of attempting to fake democracy. No one in the outside world is fooled by rigged elections, landslide victories of 95% of the vote, or political parties with names containing the word ‘democratic’, without true substance. But in the absence of a genuinely free press, freedom of speech, assembly or even unrestricted access to the internet, not even religious freedoms, local people might be persuaded to believe they have political freedoms. Tajikistan's government is likened by some to being a family business, with the President's son (presently Dushanbe's Mayor) being groomed to eventually take over.

As we've progressed through Central Asia, alongside my great enjoyment of the stunning landscapes and fascinating cultures, I've also taken an increased interest in the political situations that prevail here. Severe Government led human rights abuses are another closely related topic. I had more to say on these matters, but for now will keep it mostly to myself. At face value it seems I should be able to get away with publishing more on this topic to my web-blog than a local journalist could - many have been either assassinated, or falsely imprisoned on charges fabricated by the State. I want to write freely and don't expect I would get into any trouble, yet nonetheless I do find that I feel conscious of what I write from here on these issues.

And why do I spoil a perfectly entertaining blog post with mention of these concerning political situations? Can’t I just stick to writing about the outstanding natural beauty, incredible culture and the welcoming local people Central Asia offers up in abundance?! This kind of overland travel has potential to broaden horizons and more fully open one’s eyes to the realities of the world in which we live. To skip over the ‘bad’ and only present the ‘good’ strikes me as being superficial and/or ignorant. This is the world in which we live and it’s not all roses.

Nothing said herein should deter you from visiting Central Asia – as foreign tourists we’re relatively safe, very welcome and mostly immune. Now is almost certainly the best time there has ever been to be an overland tourist to Central Asia and I highly recommend it!

The excellent value 'Merve Cafe' in central Dushanbe

Coming up Next

We exit from Tajikistan and continue our adventures in Uzbekistan!

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