July 30, 2004

Breaking news

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

This afternoon the US and Israeli embassies in Tashkent were bombed, along with the prosecutors office. Within hours it was being reported worldwide by hundreds of news sites.

The source of many of those reports was Jo, one of the people I had crossed the Torugart Pass with. At dinner that night she told of how she was at home in the shower when a local radio station reported the news. She called in the details, as best she could remember them, to her office, BBC monitoring in Central Asia. From there they were dispatched back to the UK and around the world.

So, from a shower in a Tashkent apartment to you. In just a hour or two.

Posted by David at 08:05 PM

July 25, 2004

The geopolitical Rubik's cube

Khojand, Tajikistan

I thought I might catch the train from Khojand across the border to Uzbekistan. Think again. The trains are one of many victims of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Once the train lines just crossed provincial borders, now they cross international ones. That's just too difficult so they've mostly stopped.

All around the Fergana Valley, my current location, the borders are crazily knotted. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan all come together here. As I take a car to the Uzbek border the road briefly crosses into Kyrgyzstan, before returning to Tajikistan again. Within each country are bizarre enclaves of another. Islands cut off from their homeland. Complete cities have been placed in the wrong country. Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, is predominantly Uzbek, and Samarkand and Bukhara, jewels in Uzbekistan's crown, more properly belong to Tajikistan.

(If you look on the map of Kyrgyzstan you'll see two empty spots near Batken that look like lakes. They're actually enclaves of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.)

There effectively were no borders until Stalin's time. Then they started creating new regions and drew the lines for reasons of political control, rather than ethnic cohesion. But at least in Soviet times people were reasonably free to cross the borders. Now, with extensive mutual distrust amongst the new countries, freedom of movement has been severely curtailed. Uzbekistan suspects Tajikistan of hiding separatists. Uzbek border guards recently killed two people in Kazakstan who they suspected of smuggling. Tajikistan is known as one of the world's major drug smuggling arteries. And Turkmenistan doesn't want to talk to anyone.

New roads and railway lines are frantically being built to skirt the borders of neighbouring countries but for many people the difficulties they now face in moving around the region are enough for them to harken back wishfully for the days of communism, when at least they were one country. The simple practicalities of day-to-day living outweigh any considerations of nationalism.

Posted by David at 06:09 PM

July 24, 2004

I'll have metallic blue

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

For countries with an average weekly income of about US$20 one is struck by the number of near new Mercedes on the road. How can they afford such cars? I wondered.

The answer is simple: in Kyrgyzstan they're stolen, a new vehicle can be had for $5000 or as little as $1000 for something a little older. And in Tajikistan they're paid for by the handsome profits of drug-trafficking from Afghanistan.

Now why didn't I think of that?

Posted by David at 08:28 PM

July 23, 2004

Pamir Highway - Tips for travellers

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

Some tips for fellow travellers based on my journey from Osh to Dushanbe in July 2004. Note that I travelled alone and speak no Russian.

In Osh I tried the truck depot near the railway station recommended in the LP. The certainly were truck drivers there but no-one was going to Khorog in the next few days. One guy thought he might be going and offered me a ride for 800 som ($20) but he ended up with no load so didn't go.

Everyone I spoke to reckoned there was no bus but, a couple of days later near the border, I actually saw the bus. It does exist. I think it leaves at 10pm on Saturday for Murghab (only I think) and costs 350 som. It takes about 24 hours.

I ended up catching a share taxi to Sari Tash to try my luck. 300 som and most of the day.

In Sary Tash I stayed at the home of Erkeev Mirbek, ul. Bolnichnaya, ph. (03234) 41153. Quite pleasant and 250 som with dinner.

Next day I went to the road to hitch. Waited about two hours before getting a ride in a truck going to Murghab. 500 soms. Nice guys but slow truck. Took all day and half the night to travel the 200km.

Border formalities on the Kyrgyz side were easy. Tajik was also pretty easy but slow. We were there for a couple of hours. Have 10 Tajik somoni's for the customs "fee". Neither border post had any stamps so I was neither stamped out of Kyrgyzstan or in to Tajikistan.

After sleeping at the truck driver's house I tried to register and get a GBAO permit in Murghab with the militsia but the nice lady said, since I was just transitting, to do it in Khorog. She gave me a hand-written note to give to the checkpoint outside of town (which they never asked for in the end). I was also nabbed by the KGB to register, which just took a moment (scribbled my details on a scrap of paper) and didn't cost anything.

Transport from Murghab to Khorog is very light. I think there is a bus at least some days but I never saw it. I ended up hitching, first to Alichur (tiny place) then to Khorog, but it took more than a day to get my first lift. Foreigners tend to congregate around the ACTED office (everyone in town knows where it is) so you could check there for anyone else travelling your way.

I paid 10 Tajik somonis ($3) for the lift to Alichur and 300 Kyrgyz som ($8) from there to Khorog. I ended up leaving Murghab at about 1pm on the day after I arrived and got in to Khorog at 9:30pm the same day. Only two checkpoints, just outside of Murghab and just before Khorog. The Khorog guys were a bit perturbed that I hadn't registered yet but I said I was told to do it in Khorog and they were happy in the end. In Khorog I stayed at the house of a guy also hitch-hiking on the same truck.

I finally registered in Khorog at a cost of $15 (payable in somoni) and 15 somoni, for which you get two stamps in your passport, registration and GBAO permit. The separate hand-written entry seems to be a thing of the past. The whole process took about an hour, mostly spent in the bank next door trying to pay the fee. Note that much later I met some people who applied in Dushanbe and were told that it would take two weeks to process, so things seem to be still wildly variable with this.

From there it was pretty easy to Dushanbe. 26 hours and 50 somoni but some great scenery. Sit on the left to see the river and pretty little Afghan villages.

For a more florid description of the whole adventure, see my weblog.

See also this great description of another traveller's experiences.

David (mail@davidjennings.net)

Posted by David at 07:36 PM

July 22, 2004

Highway robbery

Pamir Tales - Part 6

Khorog - Dushanbe, Tajikistan

After three hours sleep we're awoken at 7am by the hospitable owners blasting Tajik techno from a crappy boom-box, whilst simultaneously putting on the TV at a comfortably distorted volume. As we have breakfast one of the group asks them to turn the TV down a little, which the old man does. Then, a few minutes later, he thinks better of it and turns it right back up again.

And so we wake.

We head off again at eight o'clock. The scenery is not as dramatic now, more rolling hills. We pass a number of wrecked tanks. Remnants of the civil war in 1999. The whole region that I've just passed through wanted to separate from the rest of Tajikistan. They actually have more cultural affinity with Afghanistan. But, despite the area being mostly inhospitable desert the Tajik government was not in favour and war raged for several years. Things are pretty quiet now though. The ever present patrols seem more interested in drug smuggling than separatists.

The day passed mostly uneventfully. The military patrols were replaced by simple police checkpoints. At these the objective is not to check for drugs or terrorists, but just to shake down each driver for a couple of somoni (about $1). It's so commonplace as to be routine. The police stand on the side of the road and flag down the passing vehicle to stop. Commercial drivers such as taxis and minibuses are the most common targets. The driver fumbles around for some cash and his documents and gets out, placing the cash in his right hand. He shakes hands with the police officer, exchanging the money, who then makes some cursory inspection of the drivers licence. The officer makes a joke and the driver laughs. They're good buddies, so the officer thinks. After five minutes the driver gets back in the car and drives on, cursing the police.

Half-an-hour later this all happens again.

I've asked a couple of people what they think of this. Police openly extorting money on the side of the road. Literally highway robbery. Generally they just shrug their shoulders. It's just the way it is, they say. I would hate to live in a country where you feel so helpless to change something so clearly wrong.

We finally reach Dushanbe at about four in the afternoon. 26 hours after leaving Khorog. One of my fellow passengers, Serif, offers to help me find a hotel, Dushanbe being notoriously expensive. However the place he had in mind has inexplicably just jacked it's prices up from $5 a night to $20. Too much.

He asks a couple of friends to check some places they know while we sit down in a cafe for a well-earned beer. In the end no success on the hotel front but one of his friends offers that I can stay at his place. Serif even pays for the beer. What nice people.

Posted by David at 04:38 PM

July 21, 2004

Hello Osama!

Pamir Tales - Part 5

Khorog, Tajikistan

First thing today was registration and the permit for the area. Three offices, one bank, $20 and two hours later I was done. Two new stamps in my passport.

My plan was to keep heading along the highway to the capital of Dushanbe. I'm not even sure if this is possible. I know the road has been washed out for thirteen days but rumour has it that's it's just re-opened.

Upon reaching the bus station I hear the familiar refrain that all the buses left at 7. I decide to wait and hope for a car or minibus. The station manager, two drivers, and everyone else within earshot tells me to forget it. There's no chance that anything else will go today. Go home, they say. Come back tomorrow.

I wait.

Two hours later a minibus that has slowing been filling up has reached critical mass. I can't stand the bus station any more and offer to buy the last three seats if we get going now. The offer is accepted. Nothing happens. Eventually the driver gets in and starts the engine. I jump in expentantly ready to hit the road.

I should have known better. Once again we drive all over town before, half-an-hour later, coming right back to the bus station! What on earth is going on? If I was in south-east Asia I'd just have to flash a bit of green around and I'd be swamped by people wanting to take me anywhere. Here? Fuhget it.

Eventually we get moving with a pretty full bus load. As this is now a couple of hours after the deal was struck and all the seats seem to be full I feel a renegotiation of terms is called for. The driver disagrees. My threats to immediately disembark, cash in hand, has the desired effect. He sees things my way.

The start of the trip is fascinating, completely different to the desert landscapes I'd seen for the last few days. Now we are travelling along a deep gorge, rushing river to the left, and on the other side, Afghanistan.

It seems strange to be so close to a country that is so notorious. From here everything looks very peaceful, even idyllic. Then walls of the gorge climb steeply and high all along this valley yet every now and then it flattens out a little and a beautiful village nestles in the space. Shaded by poplar trees and surrounded by lush green gardens. Each village is virtually isolated by the steeps cliffs. A narrow trail leads from one to the next, clinging precariously to the near vertical mountainside. Hand-built rock bridges spanning gaps.

As we followed this scene for many miles I'm almost overcome by a desire to visit these villages. They seem so perfect. Each one an oasis and linked by that amazing path. I begin to formulate a plan. There clearly was no transport across the river, definitely no bridges, but looking down I felt sure it was swimmable in a few places. I could jump off the bus, leave my big pack somewhere, and ford the stream carrying my small pack aloft. Then I could walk that path and visit the assuredly friendly villagers along the way.

But then reality came crashing in to my mind. The Tajik side was crawling with militia, guarding against just the sort of cross-river sortie I'd be forced to carry out to return to Tajikistan. The whole region was, to be honest, better known for its opium production than, say, potatoes. And I'd never find anywhere safe to leave the pack.

It was with great sadness that I abandoned the idea of my sojourn into possibly the only untouched part of Afghanistan, but then, for all I knew they could be kidnapping-crazed bandidos hiding out (although they'd be struggling to get a message to Al-Jazeera).

It was a nice thought for a while.

I returned my gaze to the Tajik side of the road. Just as pleasant but, with the continual checkpoints, not half as romantic. We continued down the valley for some time before finally turning towards the mountains and leaving Afghanistan behind. As we climbed higher night started to settle in. Eventually, at 10pm, the driver asked if we wanted to stop at a nearby roadhouse. He said he could keep going so the vote was to continue. I would have voted to stop so as to continue in daylight but I didn't even know what was going on until afterwards.

We continue the slow climb. We pass another minibus with the clutch and gearbox out on the road in pieces. They'll have quite a wait. It gets later and later and we drive on and on. I'm in the front next to the driver so I'm trying to stay awake to make sure he stays awake. Just a tiny mistake and we'd be off the edge in an instant. The rest of the van sleeps on oblivious.

The road starts to deteriorate. We cross streams and deep mud, needing the four-wheel-drive of the van to get out of one tricky spot.

Still the rest of the van sleeps.

Finally we find a place to rest and the driver quickly pulls over and turns off the engine. It's 4am. It was a simple guesthouse, just one large room with a raised platform and a bunch of blankets. It looked like heaven to me. I spread out a blanket as a mattress and another on top. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Posted by David at 01:44 AM

July 20, 2004

300km from nowhere

Pamir Tales - Part 4

Murghab, Tajikistan

I awake to another morning in Murghab. This time at least I can head straight down to the bazar, not needing to register. I get down there at 8:30am but it's virtually deserted. Okay, back to the main road.

Again I'm lucky to get a lift pretty quickly. "Khorog?", I ask. Yes, they say. Okay, let's go!

Turns out that this is not the car that will be going to Khorog though. The car that we will be taking is presently sitting in a field and not working. Ahh, wonderful.

The guys spend an hour or so tweaking this and poking that, swapping parts back and forth from another, apparently working, car. Eventually they seem to succeed. The car starts, it moves forward, it stops. What more could you want? I hand over my 60 soms (about $20) for the trip and we're off. Well, we're off back to town. You see, first we have to run a couple of errands, visit some friends, go to the bazar and have a chat for twenty minutes. Visit some more friends, pick up the petrol, run another couple of errands. It's now twelve o'clock and we're stopped for no apparent reason on one side of town. "When will we leave?" I ask. The answer is a bit evasive. I push the question finally getting the response that we won't leave, the guy doesn't think the car is up to a 300km journey. I almost blew my top. What the hell did he think he was doing for the last two hours running all over town? To me that was valuable standing-by-the-road time. He look genuinely crestfallen and I felt a bit sorry for him, he really wanted to make the journey and have the cash. He pulled my 60 soms out of his pocket and gave them back and I picked up my backpack once more for a journey out to the main road.

Again I was lucky though. Well, sort of. A car came by fairly quickly with four guys inside. "Where are you going?", I ask. "Alichur", they answer, the place I could have gone yesterday in the morning. At this stage I'll take anyway that's out of Murghab so I hop inside.

They turn out to be a very friendly bunch. We listen to some good tunes on the cassette deck, stop by a pleasant stream for some lunch, fix a couple of flat tyres. I discovered why the cars are always full. Having no jack you need all your friends with you to lift the car up to change the tyre.

We reach the tiny town of Alichur a little before 4pm. After the obligatory tea and bread at the guy's house I announce that I'm heading for the road to try for a lift. Don't bother they say, there'll be nothing now. Just stay here for the night. I'm adamant though and head out to the road. As I sit there I reflect on what a desolate landscape this is. The supplies from the Aga Khan Foundation are absolutely necessary because nothing can possibly grow here. 4000m high and virtually no rain. I have no idea what any of the people that live in these little towns do.

As it turns out luck is with me again. I've only been there about 15 minutes when a truck comes thundering down. Turns out to be going all the way to Khorog with a driver from Osh and a student from Bishkek heading back to his family for the summer. I happily jump in and off we go.

Sadi, the student from Bishkek, turns out to be quite a strange guy. Having offered me some of his drink he picks up my water bottle, only three quarters empty, and to my horror throws it out the window. I can't drink his water and now, without a bottle to refill from the stream, I'll have nothing to drink for the next five hours of travelling at 4000m altitude. Sadi seems not to think this is a problem.

As we finally drop off the high plain and start to enter the greener landscape of the towns near Khorog Sadi seems to think it appropriate to lean out the window and yell in Pamiri to the locals such encouragement as "good worker". He also delights in waving in such an enthusiastic manner that passers-by think they must know him from somewhere. I'm convinced he's a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

Still, he's hospitable enough and when we reach Khorog at 9pm and he offers to put me up at his family's home I'm happy to accept the offer. I couldn't help but be surprised though, after seeing a top-of-the-line Toshiba laptop in the house, to find that the toilet paper consisted of torn-off sheets from an old receipt book. I guess they don't have phone books here.

Posted by David at 02:13 AM

July 19, 2004

Khorog, anyone? anyone?

Pamir Tales - Part 3

Murghab, Tajikistan

After some yummy tea and bread for breakfast it was off to the militsia to get registered. I still didn't have a permit for travelling in this region and official channels say that it's only available in Dushanbe, on the other side of the country. Word-of-mouth had it that you could get the permit here though so I thought I'd try. If I fail I'll have to go back all the way to Kyrgyzstan. Aye, carumba!

I found the militsia station and went in. The nice lady only spoke Russian (and Tajik) but managed to convey that, since I was just travelling through, I should get my permit and registration in Khorog, another 300km down the road and my objective for today. She gave me a hand-written note on a scrap of paper to give to the checkpoint out of town.

As I left I was immediately accosted in the street by a very shady looking character claiming to be from the KGB. "Registraya", he would say and start pulling me towards a building. "Nyet", I said, "registraya militsia Khorog", thinking that it was just a scam to collect some "fee" from me. We went on this way for some time until finally a uniformed guy came out. Okay, I thought, I'll concede. I followed the uniform in to the building and was escorted to a room where the gentleman proceeded to copy my passport details onto a scrap of paper, already full of all sorts of random scribblings. Still, it didn't cost anything and just took a moment.

Then down to the bazar to try for a lift of some sort. Any buses? Already gone (if there actually was one). Cars? Hmmm, not much activity there. One couple was going to Alichur, about 100km down the road, but I thought I'd try my chances up on the main road.

I didn't have to wait long before a mini-bus turned up. It had half-a-dozen army guys and when I said "Khorog?" they said hop in. Off we go but we stop at the checkpoint about 20km out of town. They drop me off and return to turn with assurances that everything has to stop at this checkpoint so I'm sure to get a lift.

The three checkpoint guards invite me in to their little hut and are soon cooking lunch and ratting through my backpack for interesting things to read. The guidebook is always a good standby. Lots of pictures and maps. As we share lunch I keep looking hopefully out the window for any vehicles heading south. Nothing.

As the day wears on a bunch of trucks begin to turn up heading in the other direction. Now I see the guards in action. Cars are given a fairly cursory inspection but trucks get the complete works. Every compartment is checked, the front seats are lifted out, and the fire extinguisher has to be shown to be full of foam. It takes at least half-an-hour a vehicle.

Meanwhile there's still nothing in my direction.

Finally, at 4pm I decide to cut my losses. At least back in town I might be able to pay someone to go all the way. It seems no-one is heading south on their own initiative. I hitch a lift with one of the north bound trucks and soon find myself back in Murghab. Outside the bazar is just as quiet as before. Nothing's going to be happening today.

I pick up my pack and head back to the house I stayed in last night, buying a watermelon first by way of a gift. I hope I can stay again.

Any concern about my welcome was quickly dispelled upon my arrival on the doorstep. They seemed positively thrilled that I was back again and would stay for another night. Almost made it worth being stuck in Murghab.

Posted by David at 10:04 PM

July 18, 2004

Is this the way to Tajikistan?

Pamir Tales - Part 2

Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan

It's eight o'clock in the morning and I'm standing on a road in Sary Tash. Sary Tash has four roads, one to Osh, one to a corner of Kyrgyzstan called Daurat-Korgon, one to China, and one to Tajikistan.

Four roads and no cars.

I saw a truck heading along the China road about half-an-hour ago.

That was interesting.

By nine o'clock I've gathered a small group around me. We watch a cow demolish a herders tent across the road.

At nine thirty a truck miraculously heads down the road. Could it be? Is it possible? "Tajikistan?", I hopefully call out. Yes, they reply. Unbelievable. "Skolka?", I ask. How much? About $12 to Murghab, the first major town over the border. I'm not awash with choices so I happily jump in, squeezing myself and my backpack in with the two guys in the cab.

It's still morning and I'm on my way.

We stop at the Kyrgyz border post, 30km from town. We're still a long way from the real border but it's all mountain after here. As we leave we're joined by a bus (there is a bus from Osh!) and a couple of other trucks who must have been here overnight. We begin the long, steep climb up to the 4282m Kyzyl-Art pass.

The truck moves, at times, incredibly slowly. I swear I could walk faster. But I don't really mind as I'm enjoying the sensational scenery all around. A huge range of high mountains, topped by Pik Kommunizma. At 7495m it was the highest mountain in the former Soviet Union.

As we approach the top of the pass I'm glad of the presence of the bus. We simply can't make it up some of the steep grades and a cable is rigged up to allow the bus to pull us up the last kilometre or so. Finally we reach the top and the Tajik border post. The border guard requests a spurious 10 tajik soms (about $3) as a "fee". Normally I'd resist such bribes but looking around at his surroundings, a couple of tin sheds in the freezing cold, at least half-a-day from anything, I don't begrudge him some fringe benefits. As I return to the truck and the long wait for all formalities to be completed it begins to snow. I huddle by the side in my $4 Kyrgyz jacket and munch on a Snickers bar bought in Osh. I wonder for how long the guards are posted here.

Finally at 4pm we can go and we start the long climb down to Tajikistan. We grab some dinner at a small cafe then continue south, following the Tajik-Chinese border, at times no more than a few metres away. I find myself feeling a strange attraction for China. With so much unknown ahead of me the familiarity beckons.

We drive on in to the night, the desert landscape receding in the darkness. Every now and then we stop for a while to let the engine cool down or the driver grab a few moments sleep. The night is clear but there are not so many stars. Nothing like a southern hemisphere night.

Eventually at 1am we reach Murghab, population 4000. It's taken fifteen hours to cover the 210km from Sary Tash. The driver's offsider directs us to his house and we are warmly received by his family with bread, tea, and water melon. Exhausted we collapse in to bed, the whole family sharing the same big room. I'm asleep in an instant.

Posted by David at 09:19 PM

July 15, 2004

Osh by gosh!

Pamir Tales - Part 1

Osh, Kyrgyzstan

My quest to travel the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, 728km at heights mostly above 4000m, has begun. Issues include no transport, no permit and not much information. Should be interesting.

I start my quest near the virtually disused Osh railway station. Trucks from the Aga Khan foundation, shipping in vital supplies to the remote region, leave from here. I found a few friendly drivers but no-one was leaving anytime soon. Just as I was heading out I was approached by an older guy. He'd be leaving in a couple of days if I liked. Best offer so far. I agreed to meet up late the next day to confirm.

I did a bit of travelling around to some nearby sites and then returned late the next day to check with my potential lift. Alas, his hoped for shipment had not come through so he wouldn't be going. He was very sorry.

With no other options, everybody denies the existance of any buses or share taxis, the only thing left was to take a share taxi to Sary Tash, 200km from Osh and the last settlement before the Tajik border. From there maybe I could catch a lift.

On the Saturday morning I got in to the front seat of a small Russian jeep that was about to leave. I turned around to greet my fellow passengers and was confronted by five ladies in bright traditional clothes, covered in glitter, and at least eight kids. They were hard to count as they kept moving.

Heading up one of the passes the little jeep conks out. Fuel trouble. Unperturbed the driver gets out and siphons some petrol from the tank into a five litre plastic bottle. He then puts this in the engine compartment and connects the line from the fuel pump to the bottle. A bit of priming of the fuel pump to get some petrol up to the carburettor and we're off.

Of course now, every bump we hit I'm thinking about an open bottle of petrol sitting in a hot engine compartment, ready to spill at any moment. I'm wishing I was in the back with the kids. Instead I just put on my sunglasses, to protect me from the imminent blast.

Late in the day we finally made it to Sary Tash. Upon approaching the town all my misgivings about undertaking this trip were dismissed. The amazing Pamir Alay range rose high in the south forming a seemingly impenetrable wall of rock and snow, thousands of metres high.

My companions took another road to the west and I was left in the small town, to find a place to stay and contemplate how I would get over that mountain range tomorrow.

Posted by David at 08:46 PM

July 11, 2004

Seatbelts? We have Allah!

Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

Forget terrorism. Forget street crime. Forget the water. By far the most dangerous thing you can do when travelling is get in to a vehicle to travel from one town to another. Unfortunately, I do more of that than anything else.

The trip from Karakol to Bishkek, along the shores of Lake Issyk-kul, was particularly memorable. No seat-belts in the car (of course). The driver keeping at a fixed 120 km/hr regardless of towns, villages, or other traffic. And best of all, every time we passed a cemetary he would make the Muslim gesture for blessing, taking both hands off the wheel and passing them slowly over his face. The irony that in doing this we may soon be joining the folks in the cemetary was, unfortunately, lost.

Posted by David at 07:26 PM