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The road less traveled

Donkey and boy in Penjakent, in the North West of Tajikistan
It’s become pretty commonplace for us to be sent on excursions and gatherings to Dushanbe, the administrative center of the country. All government agencies and NGOs are based in the capital of Tajikistan and almost all significant meetings (and do they meet!) are conducted here. Dushanbe means Monday,  named after the day the weekly market was organized.
Tree lined boulevards in the centre of Dushanbe, could be Paris....
Before the Soviets turned the city into an administrative centre, Dushanbe was a quiet provincial town with little or no appeal. The Russians added big government buildings, boulevards, public transport and hospitals. When Tajikistan gained its official Independence (September 1991), more government buildings, some palaces and a lot of statues of well known old Tajik statesmen were added. So, there you have it, Dushanbe.
We like the place; it’s quirky and still has a definite small-town feel to it, in spite of its one million inhabitants; we now know the better restaurants (after the Ashoka, our Indian favorite, we have discovered good Korean, Chinese and Lebanese restaurants, enough to satisfy our starved pallets after Khorog, which is not really recognized for its international cuisine (and this is putting it mildly)).
There are also three coffee-shops, that serve an acceptable brew (not the ubiquitous Nescafe but real coffee), one even with wireless connection where we can plug in our Ipads so we are happy campers out there.
Patiently waiting for the plane, this time we were lucky....
There are three possible ways of getting from Khorog to Dushanbe, each challenging in its own way. Most locals opt for the car-ride, a 16 hour, 600 + km hellish trip over ill maintained and potholed mountain roads. The views are spectacular though, so there is a definite pay-off. Halfway, at the village of Darwaz, there is a fork in the road (yes, you gotta take it). Here, one can choose to travel South-West bound along the Afghan border or North-West-bound through the Rasht Valley. As VSO volunteers, we are not allowed to take the road through the Rasht. The road is deemed unsafe and there have been some (insignificant, we think, but nevertheless..) skirmishes lately.
Refueling the helicopter for the ride back to Dushanbe
The second option is to go by plane (Tajik Air). The weather along the route and the load-factor are the two deciding factors so there is never any certainty, nor is there any system in place to secure a seat beforehand. The travel guides mention that this was one of the only flights, where Soviet pilots were paid a danger premium. The flight still has a Soviet pilot we think. A big sturdy guy with a gap-toothed grin. The last time we took the flight, he walked in with two big bags of market purchases easy to obtain in Dushanbe and hard to get in Khorog. Lemons, oranges, greens, you name it. He probably runs a profitable import-export business on the side we figure. On this flight, one doesn’t bother about seat-belts or safety instructions.  Show up at the ticket office in the early morning, put your name on a waiting list by delivering your passport and then - wait and see. This is where the handlers or fixers come in. With the passports of their bosses, they storm the ticket booth and leave no stone unturned until things are settled. Sometimes, this takes some arm-twisting, extra payments or both. Every self- respecting NGO has a couple of these handlers. A good one is invaluable because the wheels have to be greased.
In spite, or maybe because of all these hardships, the flight is an unforgettable experience with hair raising twists and turns and seemingly narrow escapes through 5,000 meter-high mountain tops. It’s as if you can touch the mountains and the eternal snow on top of them.
Highly recommended if you can get on; it seems that in summers (attention future visitors) the weather is usually benign and the chances of getting in and out pretty good.
Mulberries, all ready to pluck in Penjakent
The third, and by far the best option is the helicopter, chartered by the Aga Khan Foundation. It flies twice a week and if you are important enough, you can be put on the waiting list after which it is a wait-and-see game. Are there more important dignitaries around (not-so-VIPS mysteriously appear when the helicopter seems to take off) how is the weather (because they follow the practice of the plane, clouds in the sky, no helicopter)? The crew consists of Swiss, Russians and Tajiks, a potent mix in this part of the world so you are (arguably) in good hands. We have done the helicopter a couple of times and the experience has always been great. There is a lot of glass around you and the views are, as in the plane, incredible. The helicopter takes half an hour longer than the flight but it’s worth every single moment.
Another donkey in Penjakent, the favorite means of transportation it seems
This time, on our way to Penjakent, in the North-West of the country, we are lucky. We catch a ride on the helicopter to Dushanbe, the weather is great and we arrive in time for our trip to Penjakent (for yet another meeting), which is in the foothills of the Fann Mountains, close to the Uzbek border. We had planned to visit Uzbekistan (Bukkhara and Samarkand) since Penjakent is a mere 50 km away from Samarkand but there are major border issues between the two (not so friendly) neighbors and visa are hard to obtain, the borders are closed and we have to decide against it this time.  Instead, we spend time in the Fann mountains, the Seven Lakes area, popular with backpackers and hikers, beautiful mountain landscapes (up to 5,000 meters) and a bit more forgiving than the inhospitable, but magnificient, Pamirs.
Fann mountains view, lovelier but less majestic than the Pamirs
The accommodations are charming but cold and the roads as always unpaved (and that’s a kind way of putting it) but, also, as always, the people gentle and really hospitable.
Road up to Seven Lakes area; not a lot of green to work with...
This part of Tajikistan is more conservative than more liberal Ismaeli GBAO (where we are residing). Sometimes, women avert or cover their faces when we drive(!) or walk by, something we are not really used to in our corner of the world but overall, the experience is truly Tajik. Simple food, very nice hosts and again, unheated, cold, communal rooms. There is a hot shower/boiler on the premises although it has to be shared among 5 people. First one out of bed is the lucky one! One of our co-meeters falls ill and there are immediate concerns about what to do since, as in Khorog, good doctors or hospitals are hard to find and Dushanbe is nine hours away. Luckily, Christine’s medicine bag works miracles and after a couple of Cypros and Immodia, we are ready to roll again. You are continuously reminded here about how vulnerable you are when things go wrong.
No safety-net to talk of. Prepare well is the best you can do (some people pray, inshallah….).
Old Penjakent on the outskirts of the village
We have the opportunity to visit Penjakent, a small city the size of Khorog (30.000 inhabitants). Penjakent once was the centre of an empire and there are old, interesting ruins to visit. Other than that, nothing much to admire -  either it must be the local bazaar (better stocked than Khorog) or the river-side restaurants. The local economy is hurting because of the closure wit the border of Uzbekistan. Real life consequences of local politics in action. Over all, the region looks a bit more affluent than GBAO but the differences are minor.

New-found friends
On our way back to Dushanbe (another car ride of 8 hours) we admire and traverse what the locals call the Tunnel of Gloom. This is a 5 kilometer long pipe through the mountains, started by the Iranians and now in the process of being finished by the Chinese. Calling it a tunnel is a bit of an over-statement.
Light at the end of the tunnel; this is a welcome toilet btw
It’s an unlit pipe, hacked through the mountains without any ventilation. Water is coming down from the roof of the pipe and there are man-size potholes on the road. Iron bars are sticking out from all sides and it’s impossible to go faster than 15 kilometer an hour,  so the trip through takes around 20-25 minutes. Getting a flat tire here is the real pipe-dream. We come out unscathed, our lungs full of tunnel exhaust but another real-life  experience richer. Welcome to the roads of Tajikistan.
Before we enter the city, our driver dutifully veers off to have his car cleaned. There is a local ordinance that says, that dirty cars are not allowed in Dushanbe - offenders will be fined. No kidding. Not that the city is so clean but it’s another simple way to make some money on hurried car owners. What a great idea!  The roads are filled with potholes but the cars are spotless.
No cleaning necessary for this vehicle....
Back in Dushanbe, we follow our now customary patterns. We stock up on food items, visit our favorite restaurants and coffee bars and manage to make our way back by plane to Khorog. We have started to miss our home-base, where we now know the way and people greet us as old friends. It’s tempting to live in small town for a while. Things move along in predictable ways and we have quickly turned into semi-locals although we haven’t gone native yet. Wonder how many more months we need for that……

Back home, here in the gardens of the Serena Inn; Afghanistan in the background...



  1. Lalawoman -- great post. You described some of the sites and landscape when you were here, but the pix really help in getting a fix on it.
    The absence of medical help in remote places gets one's attention. A bit different than Swiss alps.

    Great to see you



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