Saturday, September 30

Tajikistan 4

Kalai Khomb friends
We spend the night in Kalai Khomb where I photograph these two friends in front of the mosque. They have lived only here.

The small village is next to towering mountains and the sometimes raging c 970km Panj River which drains the Sarez Lake, itself filled by glacier melt, in the Bartang Valley. The river is the natural border separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan.  Remarkably, it dissolves into the desert. Before it goes, though, water is siphoned to the cotton fields, Tajikistan's major export, since the Aral Sea went dry (watering cotton) during Soviet times.

But the Pamir Highway : it is a c 1,800km two-lane (sometimes) road that begins in Termez, Uzbekistan, and ends in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.  Pre highway, the route was an important part of the Silk Road connecting East and West.

The present hw began in 1931-35 under Stalin to transport troops and provisions and maintain his control here. Over many years, sections were upgraded to concrete or tarmac but, from around Kalai Kumb, it is mostly a dirt and rock road making for brutal driving.  Along with holes and ditches, we are 1-3 feet from the road's edge dropping downwards to the battleship grey river below.  Impassable without a 4WD.

My original plan was to cycle the hw, which I now see would have been dangerous and foolhardy. Firstly I cannot service a bike which is certainly an essential requirement. Then there are the passes over 3,000m.

As we drive I note the Chinese are in the midst of bouldering and eventually, I learn, will pave the full hw, expected to finish by 2025. Payback is the minerals and precious metals that can be delivered more rapidly to Kashgar than Eastern China where the people are. Chinese orange trucks, driven by Tajiks, create impasses and Aziz honks, curses and races around them without changing a facial expression, which is normally glowering (though he is extremely friendly)

As trucks approach there is a game of chicken between drivers (Aziz) dictated by the smoothest passage on the road - is a broken axel from a pothole less inconvenient than a collision ?

Road block

Tajikistan 3

We have a momentary scare when Eitan's visa cannot be found at a crossing control nearby Afghanistan. Happily, after a thorough search, it drops from his passport where it is naturally tucked away and found before I flash a wad of dollars before the police.

Two boys presumably on their way to school, no parents in sight.

Tajikistan 2

Masget Mosque, Dushambe
Tajikistan, as all C Asia, is a Muslim country, a religion imported from the Middle East in the 9th century. It is mostly Sunni (Sunni is approximately 95% of Islam) though the Pamir region is Shia - it does not seem to create any tension. Our guide Macfadir (female) is from the Pamirs and is Shia while, she informs, her friends are a mix. She is modern, does not pray, and believes that being Muslim means kindness of the heart.

During Soviet times from 1922-91, the USSR tried to prevent Tajiks from following their religious beliefs, demanding instead militant atheism, causing serious tension. Yet despite this, in 1943, Muslim religious boards took administrative control of the Soviet Muslims and some mosques were re-opened to ease friction; under Kruschev everything closed down again until the collapse of the Soviet empire. 
Today all religions in Tajikistan are allowed with 98% being Muslim. 

On this thread, Dushambe built the largest mosque in Central Asia in 2019 called Masget. The mullah who shows us the inside informs that the mosque is one hectare and the dome's peak is over 100 feet. Unlike the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul which was designed on four pillars ("elephant's feet") enabling a pure dome and extraordinary acoustics, Masget has 100 pillars, something I consider as the mullah chants in waling prayer to show us.  

Eitan and I are travelling with backpacks and cameras, little else. Some clothes, two kindles and The Lonely Planet (1995).

Our driver Aziz is pulled over by the police in the middle of nowhere and told he must pay a cash fine of 800 somone (about $25), a fortune, for speeding. He knows the officer and they yell at each other for 20 minutes, enjoying themselves thoroughly.

Tajikistan 1

Arrival, Dushambe Airport

Eitan and I arrive in Dushamnbe (meaning “Monday” , when the city was so inconsequential it was named for the market day; now, 1.2m people and the capital city) on Sunday greeted at the very crowded airport by our guide and driver for the next three weeks. This is a first time in Tajikistan though I have been to Central Asia in 1997 to tour the Karakoram Highway with Sonnet and my sister Katie. In effect, we will soon be on the less developed - and trafficked - Pamir Highway winding into the Pamir Mountains, much of which is along the Afghanistan and Chinese borders. It is the second highest highway in the world after the KKH and reaches a top pass of over 4,200m. 

Today we are in Iskander Kul, a substantial mineral lake at c 3000m in the Fan mountains, Northwest province, where we spend the night in a guesthouse surrounded by yak and goats in a partially developed complex. Getting here, we pass by the location where Alexander The Great rested during his seige of the Sogdians in the 7th c expanding his empire into C Asia. 

Also near us is gold, mined by the Chinese (of which, 60% goes back to China), other precious metals and coal - orange trucks ferry their black payloads on a highway, the M34, paralleling the Varzov river often from extreme heights of thousands of feet and no railing. We see a number of these vehicles broken down beside the highway and the loss of breaks is not worth considering. 

M34 outside Dushambe
There is tunnelling along the route and some of it is incomplete like the 5km stretch with no light reflectors
 nor road markings. It is pitch black and the diesel fumes render our 4WD's lights ineffective ; our driver Aziz double flashes trucks as they pass within inches. I anxiously anticipate Aziz overtaking slower moving cars but for the most part he curbs his urgency. 

At the Iskander lake we meet a young German boxer from Neurenberg, his trainer and the coach, certainly unusual as these are some of the only people we see in the Sogd district. Mattieu is training to be the Bavarian regional champion then on to the German nationals. The altitude and mountains go with his training and I learn that the number one sport here is boxing. I share a swim in the lake with Mattieu’s Dad - 7-8C by my guess. 
Young boxer from Neurenberg