We’re over the halfway mark of our Silk Road trip. Thus far it has been a trip of mostly highlights. This past week was no different. We hired a 4WD with driver for four days to visit some places in the Fann Mountains in northwestern Tajikistan. A cold front passing over Central Asia meant that the weather was rather changeable with low temperatures, fog, clouds, rain and even snow. But even in these less favorable conditions the rugged and wild mountains looked again amazing, just like in the Pamirs. Sometimes the off-road driving to get to some of the more remote valleys was even more spectacular.
But before we headed off into the gorgeous Tajikistan mountains once more we first spent a few days in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. We stayed in the Hello Dushanbe Hostel located in a former mansion, that looked more like a hotel. We had a comfortable ensuite room which was great after the more basic accommodation on the Pamir Highway trip last week.
Turkeminstan visa? Njet!
Dushanbe is not big on tourist sights. It’s building a lot of new ‘nouveau grotesque’ buildings at the moment, just like Macedonia’s capital Skopje which we visited in August but with less of a plan it seems. The city had a somewhat diffuse structure anyway. Other notable features of the city are the large numbers of policeman in the street pulling over cars at random and the many billboards with Tajikistan’s president Rakhmonov in various poses.
It was enough for some sightseeing on Sunday before we could check the status of our Turkmenistan visa application at the Turkmen embassy in Dushanbe on Monday. You’re supposed to call the embassy to hear if your application has been approved or denied. We tried a few times but of course nobody picked up, so we decided to go to the embassy in person.
We had to wait outside for 1,5 hours before we were let in and then had to wait for the consular employee to see us. We talked to the Japanese guy in front of us who had his application approved and had just been to bank to pay for the visa. We got our hopes up when he told us that he was entering Turkmenistan on the same day we had applied for.
The Japanese guy went in and just when it was our turn we were told to get back at 3 in the afternoon. Ugh. The consular office was supposed to be open until 12.30 and it was 12.20, but apparently the consular employee felt like an early lunch. After whiling away our time in the nearby underwhelming Botanical Gardens we returned to the embassy at 2.35 PM where more people who we’d seen that morning were gathering outside the embassy’s entrance gate.
We were told we were the first in line to enter the consular office once it opened at 3. But nothing happened. The guy was just not there. At 3.40 he finally arrived in his car (long lunch? taking a nap?) and five minutes later we could enter. Behind his desk was an arrogant looking guy who acted like he was the ambassador himself.
After checking our passport numbers in his computer the glorified paper pusher gave us his verdict: njet. No explanation, just no. Exit foreigners. After our experiences with the Turkmen embassies in Bishkek and Dushanbe we’re pretty sure there must be some school in Turkmenistan that trains future Turkmen embassy personnel to be enormous bureaucratic a-holes. Luckily there are many more countries in the world to go to and that’s what we will do!
Ancient linguistics in the Yagnob Valley
But first we had four more days of exploring wonderful Tajikistan. We first drove to the Yagnob Valley, a remote and little visited valley in northwestern Tajikistan just to the east of the Fann Mountains. Our driver Khushvakht, who we’d found through the Green House Hostel, had only been there three times before himself.
We stayed in the old, timeless village of Margeb from where we drove 24 kilometers further up the valley into increasingly rugged mountain scenery on tracks with a high World’s Most Dangerous Roads appeal. Until 2000 it was not more than a donkey trail. For Khushvakht it was his first time to drive this far up the valley and he and his car had to struggle hard. At the end of the ‘road’ in the upper Yagnob Valley were several villages where an ancient language is still spoken by about fifty to sixty families.
We visited one such family. The children only learn to speak Tajik when they first go to school at age seven. It is believed that this language – Sogdian – hasn’t changed much since Alexander the Great passed by this region about 2.400 years ago. Some even claim that the Yagnobis are direct descendants of Alexander. The people sure had European features, but so have many other people we see now we’re traveling further west on our Silk Road trip.
Brake problems to Iskanderkul
After a rainy night we started the day with a flat tire when we wanted to leave our homestay in Margeb. After having this provisionally fixed in the next village we moved on to Iskanderkul, which many people say is the most beautiful lake in Tajikistan. Unfortunately our car troubles were not over yet. Halfway up the valley to the lake the brakes of our car suddenly malfunctioned – luckily on a level part of the road.
It took some time to fix the problem by getting a mechanic from a nearby village. Khushvakht arranged for a 4×4 Lada Niva to take us to Iskanderkul while he went in the other direction to look for a mechanic. It was an unusual pair of men that picked us up, one of them peeling an apple for us with a huge knife while the small Niva bounced back and forth over the rocky, unpaved road.
Taking in gas with the Niva had been just as strange. For this they pulled up to a shed that provided gasoline by the bucket. After two buckets of gasoline had been poured into the gas tank using a funnel, they shook the car thoroughly so another half bucket could be added. It’s as old school as it can get.
Iskanderkul was nice, but not the highlight we’d hoped for. Due to the cloudy conditions the majestic view we’d seen in pics was just not there. Nevertheless it was worth the drive and we saw some beautiful fall colors, especially around the small lake next to Iskanderkul. And the view to the mountains in the other direction was beautiful too.
Just as we returned from Iskanderkul to meet up with Khushvakht and his car he showed up again: the car had been fixed! Although it was already getting late – we’d lost about 2,5 hours because of the car troubles – we made our way to get to the Alplager (mountain refuge) near the Alauddin lakes.
Magnificent Alauddin lakes
As we drove up the valley it was getting foggy and the roads were muddy from the drizzle and rain that had fallen the past 24 hours. After we’d left the last medieval looking village behind us it was still an hours’ drive to get to the Alplager, which literally is the end of the road. We finally arrived after driving the last half hour in the dark, sometimes driving over narrow tracks next to steep slopes. Not daring to look Eugénie kept her eyes closed the last half hour. Once there we had just enough time to eat the instant noodles we’d brought before the Alplager’s caretaker switched off the electricity at 8 o’clock.
After a long and very cold night in saggy beds our hearts sank as we saw the fog blocking most of the mountain views around us the next morning. Luckily the fog lifted and even the sun peeked through for a while. However, seeing the streams we had to cross, hopping from boulder to boulder, to get to the Alauddin lakes Eugénie decided not to go. It’s just not her thing.
So I had to go for it alone. The first two streams near the Alplager were easy to cross but at the third rushing stream it proved impossible to get over without getting my shoes, socks and feet wet. You’d really need hiking shoes for that. So I took my shoes and socks off to wade through the ice cold water. Although it took only twenty seconds to get to the other side my feet got completely numb.
After a 35 minute hike the 2.780 meter high Alauddin lakes revealed themselves in all their beauty. The reflection of the (snowcapped) mountains in the big lake was gorgeous and the view to the smaller upper lake was stunning. What an awesome place this was.
I wandered around for 1,5 hours and took many photos, before returning to the Alplager. This took a little bit longer as I took another trail back and initially missed the places to cross the river. After backtracking a bit I found the right trail , inlcuding another cold wade through icy waters.
Driving the two hours back to the main road we saw how amazingly beautiful the mountain scenery on the way to Alauddin lakes is. We’d already suspected it the foggy day before.
Haft Kul, a string of seven lakes
Back on the main road we drove for about four hours to the west of the country to access the valley to Haft Kul (Seven Lakes), a chain of seven turquoise lakes surrounded by stark mountains at the western end of the Fann Mountains.
Unfortunately skies were grey and cloudy turning the water’s color more to a dull blue. After driving for about two hours up the valley we arrived at the last village, located between lake six and seven. Take away the cell phones and the odd satellite dish and you’d think you have been taken back to some forgotten era. We stayed in a beautiful (heated!) guestroom of a local family which was really fantastic (but just forget about the toilet….).
The next morning we walked for about half an hour up to the seventh lake. With the surrounding mountains covered in clouds there was not much to see though. On the way down it started to rain, which would stay with us for the rest of the day. After getting back to the main road Khushvakht took us to nearby Penjikent and negotiated a cheap ride for us with a shared taxi that would take us to Khojand in the far north of Tajikistan.
Along the way we passed the 3.378 meter high Shahristan Pass. We can’t tell you if it’s a scenic or not. We drove through thick fog, the drizzly rain meanwhile turning into snow as we drove up the pass. We thought we’d left the hairy rides behind us, but with rocks rolling down the steep mountain slopes upon to the road and our taxi driver trying to dodge them as best as he could this was maybe the riskiest drive of our two weeks in Tajikistan.
After spending the night in Khojand we moved on to Uzbekistan, which is one hour away from here. The last 1,5 month driving through spectacular mountains in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has been amazing, maybe even better than expected and hoped for. The next 1,5 month in Uzbekistan and Iran will be mostly about culture. We are extremely looking forward to this as well.
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