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02 November 2008

Did you know – The Pamir region is known locally as ‘Roof of the World’.  The actual Pamir highway was built in Soviet times by their military engineers between 1931 and 1934.  The highway was built primarily to supply troops with provisions and to make transport easier in this very remote part of the Soviet empire.  Most of the Pamir Highway is at least 3,000 meters and higher above sea level.

Just a bit of useless info those who might be interested – we have now done 20,000km and our average fuel consumption is 14 liters per 100km.  We’ve used about 35 liters of oil (changing oil and filters 3 times) and changed both our fuel filters once.

We had our first snow on 2 Nov, the morning were due to cross the border to Tajikistan.  We spent the night just outside of Sary-Tash, about 10km from the border crossing.  It was a cold start to the morning, and poor Pumbaa felt it too.  You could hear that the engine was ‘running cold’, even though it showed a normal temperature.  It’s a good thing we made the small cover for the radiator.

The border crossing was nothing special or unusual.  Leaving Kyrgyzstan was very quick, probably not even 5 min.  From there it was 20km in no-man’s land until you get to the Tajik post.  This was also very straightforward.  They stamped our passports in a small building (more like a round container) and then we completed the declarations and paperwork for the car in another round container.  We had to pay the guys US$ 20 (managed to pay in Kyrgyz Som) for the hard work filling out 1 little form for the declaration.  It was a border post like non-other though.  There were 2 small rooms.  The one had 3 beds in, and the other (where the business is done) had a small desk and a few chairs.  Oh yes, there was a fire as well.  I completed my part of the paperwork with a big bowl of cut onions under my nose.  That didn’t bring me to tears though.  The thing that almost did though was the big wooden board with about 1kg of some kind of meat and then probably another kg of chunks of fat.  So while we were filling in the forms, one of the guys was butchering the meat.  All I can say is that I’m soooo glad we didn’t stay for lunch.

After a quick crossing, we were in.  Still a bit apprehensive about the area and road conditions, but we couldn’t turn around now.  The border crossing is at 4200 meters, and there was quite a bit of snow in some places on the first pass.  We weren’t alone though.  Someone else came through the border from the other way, so we knew it was ok to go through.  The scenery is absolutely breathtaking!!  I’m sure it is also nice in summer, but seeing a lot of the mountains covered in snow is something else though.  We were lucky with ok weather as well.  There were some dark clouds behind us but we were going the opposite way.  The skies are so blue and the snow so white that you almost can’t look at it for too long without sunglasses.

We pushed on though after admiring some of the beautiful scenery, because we wanted to get to Murghab before sunset.  We decided that it would probably be safest to spend the night in a town.  We don’t feel unsafe in any way though, but just from the point of view that it drops to –15 degrees at night, and we didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with car problems.  This meant that we had to tackle the highest pass (4654 meters) on our first day.  We weren’t too sure about the altitude sickness either, so we deiced the day before that it will probably be safest for us to take some of the Diamox tablets the day before and while we go up.  The tablets help you acclimatise to the high altitude a lot quicker.  We also spent the previous day and night at 3000 meters so our bodies would’ve adjusted a little bit already.  The pass approached very quickly though and before we knew it we got to the sign for it.  The snow coverage wasn’t too bad, and I dropped the tyre pressures to 28 bar for a bit more coverage.  We haven’t had any dramas so far though, except for the odd rear-end slide on some corners.  We easily made it to the top, but it was mostly in first gear and the fuel economy went out the window long ago.  We went from our economical 14 ltr/100km to at least 20-22.  This was a combination of the road conditions and the bad quality fuel (probably half diesel and the rest water and other crap)

We eventually made it to Murghab just before sunset, and found a hiding spot on the outskirts of town.  We were getting ready for a cold one (weather forecast a few days ago had a min temp of at least –15).  Sure enough, we saw the evidence the next morning as well.  There was a lot of frost inside the car.  The windows and all exposed metal bits.  The temp gauge showed a jaw dropping a min temp of –2.7 degrees.  We still managed to sleep with only one set of thermals, and just our duvet and one of our blankets.  It was cold though; we had to hide our noses under the blankets every now and again.  We also had some problems the following morning starting the car.  It was as if the fuel didn’t get through.  It must’ve ‘gelled’ a bit because of the cold.  I don’t think they have winter fuel here, just one type, and that’s the bad type.  We left it for another hour or so and waited for the sun to warm things up, and Pumbaa was ok after that.  Just the normal cold weather smoke for some seconds before running better.  I think we started a bit early though.  The sun only comes up at 7:30 am.

That’s enough for one day, until next time.

05 November 2008

Did you know – One of the main reasons why you need a permit for the Pamir region is because it’s an autonomous region.  The GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous Oblast) permit allows you to travel through most of the Pamir region with the exceptions of a few places.  This region makes up almost half of Tajikistan’s territory, however less than 8% of the population lives here.

And so every day brings on a new challenge, or so it seems at least.  Today’s challenge was to get water because we realised that our water supply got frozen in Murghab.  I couldn’t open the tap to the tank, and the pipe was frozen as well.  I suppose you can’t expect anything else when you sleep in a freezer.  Luckily we had 6 liters out of the tank, and there are a lot of streams where you can find water.  Our second challenge was a corrupt policeman.  We unfortunately couldn’t avoid this one.  There was a barrier across the road which was locked.  We ended up paying just under AU $50 (we had left over Kyrgyz Som which we were hoping to change in Dushanbe later).  Not too bad I suppose after the initial fine was US $100.  This was for the tinting of the windows again.  We have since seen one or two cars with tinted windows.  This was unfortunately unavoidable in Murghab, because as far as I know there is only one road you can take.  I’m not sure if the fine went to his pocket though, because we duly completed the paperwork and he wanted me to go and pay it at the bank.  Anyway it did spoil the day a bit, but you move on.  Sorry to fellow travelers who will be following in our footsteps.  I know it was not the right thing to do, but you only have so much patience and it was getting late and we still had to cover a lot of distance that day.

After the – 3 degrees from the previous night, we were starting to think we might be a bit mad to travel at this time of the year.  There is no problem with the roads, except for the snow on the high passes.  The rest of the roads had almost no snow.  Our thoughts of madness were short-lived though.  We came across two girls from Canada cycling (yes that’s right) across the Pamir.  We stopped for a quick chat and wished them well.  One of the girls even got some of her cold weather gear stolen by a taxi driver in Osh.  Poor girl…

We decided to take the very southern route along the Afghan border.  This decision was made on advice from the META (tourist office) in Murghab.  This route is a little bit longer, but suppose to be a lot nicer than the main highway route.  We were hoping to spend the night at Kashgar, a military checkpoint, and what we thought was a little village.  We got there at sunset and just manage to see the first glimpses of Afghanistan.  We were duly disappointed though as we realised that we couldn’t stay there the night.  It was only a checkpoint with barracks.  We had no choice but to carry on to the next town (Langar), which was 75 km away.  Sticking to our previous decision not to spend the night alone in the middle of nowhere, and especially since we were at 4,000 meters we pushed on, breaking our no night driving rule again.  The 75 km took us almost 3 hours.  It is a very twisty road and the going was slow.  It was really good to have a good set of spotlights on the car.  The scenery must’ve been awesome, because the drop-offs in some places looked very high from what we could see.  It was disappointing missing this part of the road and scenery but was probably a blessing in disguise.  I think I would’ve made Mandy cry again with my driving skills (mmmm, I can see a pattern here – maybe my driving skills aren’t that bad after all…) and the high cliffs.  We eventually pulled into Langar after 9pm and found a place for the night.  It wasn’t long before a local appeared out of nowhere.  It just so happened that he had a homestay/hotel as well.  We decided to park just outside and we would have breakfast there the next morning.

The night wasn’t that cold, because we were in a low-lying valley (3,000m), but there was still a chill in the morning air.  We decided to tackle the hill come mountain behind the houses to see the petrogliphs.  I think we both got a lot of respect that day for high altitude mountaineers.  We only climb about 300 meters to the area, but it took us almost an hour.  It is incredible how your chest burns because of the lack of oxygen in the air.  Your body is ok, but it is just your chest.  I can just imagine what it would be like when you’re scaling Everest.  We made it though, eventually and it was a really nice view from there as well as seeing some of the old petrogliphs.

We pushed on later that morning to the border town of Ishkashim.  I think foreigners are allowed to cross the border here to Afghanistan.  It is amazing what a sense of danger or adventure or maybe even stupidity can do to you.  I would’ve loved to cross the border, provided we had the correct paperwork.  All the people are so friendly and they’re always smiling and always wave back at you.  It would’ve been such an experience to mingle with the local Afghans as well.

We are now in Khorog, a few days earlier than expected.  There is a Golden Jubilee celebration going on at the moment.  We’re no sure if it is still on tomorrow though.  We need to change some money for diesel and all the shops and the one bank is closed.  We will be staying here tonight and try again tomorrow.  We were told the bank will be open in the morning.

Time to go and find our spot for the night now.  Enjoy you warm summer days and nights.  I think we are both looking forward to some warmer weather.  Who knows when that will be.
15 November 2008

Did you know – After independence from the former USSR in 1991, after the failed coup in Moscow, Tajikistan very quickly became a country troubled with civil war.  More than 60,000 people were killed and more than half a million became refugees. 

It’s so nice to see that children can still be children.  There is such a big difference between village children here in a country where there is more often than not just enough money for the family to buy food and essential clothing.  Such a vast contrast to many western societies where the only way of entertainment for children is in the form of Playstations, computer games and who knows what else.  Here, you still see kids running around outside, getting dirty from playing in dry and dusty fields.  This seems to be very similar in neighboring Afghanistan as well from what we’ve seen when we traveled along the borders.  Most villages are made up of a few houses in an area you wouldn’t think twice about living in.  All you can see are stones, and bigger stones, followed by a lot of rocks.  They somehow manage to grow a few trees though, but not much else besides from that.  What’s even more astonishing is to see the little kids, no older than about 5, taking the family’s goats and sheep out for the day only to return before sunset.  Now where in a western society would you come across this?  You won’t even see a 5 year old alone in a shop, never mind sending them into the fields with a herd of livestock for the day.

There are 2 roads from Khorog to Dushanbe.  The one leads over some passes that are normally closed in the winter and the other one, the southern winter route along the border, remains open the whole year.  We decided to carry on along the Afghan border. It is truly a beautiful place.  There is hardly anything there except for rocky mountains, but it just seems to catch your imagination and you always find something new to look at around each corner.  The only thing is that you can’t get out and wander around, because there are a lot of signs warning you about landmines.  This obviously meant that camping in the area was also a bit limited.

We continued making our way to Dushanbe.  It took us a couple of days to get there and there are so many policeman and checks around, it’s just not funny.  They like their little orange baton and whistle and we are off course prime targets.  I did choose to ignore one trying to pull us over and just carried on driving.  I thought someone was going to follow us and stop us but no such thing happened.  We did however get stopped about 60km later by some more policemen.  The normal officers stop you and then you have to go and show your documents (I normally just show a laminated copy of my Oz driver’s licence) to the ‘vulture in charge’, ie captain or something like that.  As always, I don’t understand a word of what they try and tell me.  On this occasion he did however say that I didn’t stop in the previous town when I was flagged down.  English, English is all I said, and they quickly became bored.  The reason for that was because the other people who got stopped where queuing up to come and pay their bribes.  All they do is put some money in their licence wallet and when they get to the monkey in charge he simply opens it, takes the money and sends them on their way.  The general public really are their own worst enemy.  They get pulled over to show their documents and the first thing they do is pay a bribe.  I’m not sure why they pay anything, because they did not do anything wrong.  So you can kind of understand why they police remain corrupt – they don’t even have to ask for anything, it just gets given to them. 

But, those who preach also get caught sometimes...  We got stopped in Dushanbe for going through a traffic light, which just started to flash orange.  The monkey was very quick on his whistle and I had no choice this time.  They got to the point very quickly.  I had to pay a fine of 100 Sumoni.  After a few minutes, I said I’d see what I’ve got in the car.  As I was taking some of the money out of my little wallet, the officer came up to the car and I didn’t have time to get it all out.  I told him I didn’t have much.  He saw me counting it and said don’t worry, 20 will do.  I wasn’t in the mood to argue, so gave him the 20 and got my licence back.  He went back to his buddy, but then came back to me, saying something about it’s ok this time and gave me the money back.  What a turn of events we thought.  They might not all be as corrupt as we first thought.

We left Dushanbe and headed to the Uzbek border yesterday, stopping at Hissar to look at an 18th century fortress and mausoleum.  We got to the border around 5pm and stayed there for the night.  Our Uzbek visa only started today.  The border stayed open very late, maybe as late as 9pm, not exactly sure because we were curled up in bed, enjoying one of our movies.  Just a pity we didn’t have any popcorn.

We crossed the border around 10am.  The whole process took about 2 hours.  It took about 30 minutes to get through the Tajik side.  The first thing is a police check where they write your details in a book (oh they love there little books) and then on to customs where they take your temporary permit and write the same details in another book with a quick customs inspection before you go the immigration section to get you passport stamped.   The Uzbek side took a bit longer.  First it was the passport, after which someone was trying to sell us something, which may have been a cargo permit.  He asked if we are diplomats, because diplomats do pay any cargo duties or fees.  After a few minutes of asking why we need this and that we don’t have cargo, we left, without paying the fee.  Next step was customs.  This took a bit longer.  You have to declare all the money you have and we also declared our cameras, laptop and GPS.  All off course had very low values on the declaration.  We only declared the local currencies we had, as well a little bit of Rouble and some other currencies.  We didn’t declare any dollars.  It turned out to be a good thing we declared the electronics, because the custom guys had a good look around.  They spent about 10 min with us and we had to unpack a few things to satisfy their curiosity.  I’m not sure what would’ve happened if we didn’t declare the laptop etc and they saw it.  They did however see our Engel fridge (which we didn’t declare) and didn’t say anything.  In all, it was also straightforward.  Again, we didn’t buy any insurance at the border.  I’m not sure if you need any.  I’ve got a strong suspicion though that you don’t.  I don’t even think you have to wear a seatbelt here, so I’m thinking that insurance might not be necessary…

Here are our likes and dislikes for the country

Tajikistan likes and dislikes.

- We liked the Pamir Highway (especially the friendly people in the villages) and the route along the Afghanistan border – beautiful and certainly very remote areas.

- We disliked the corrupt monkeys.

- We liked the fried dough with potato filling (for the South Africans – almost like a vetkoek with potato).  We also like the Indian and Georgian restaurant we found in Dushanbe…I know, not really Tajik, but definitely worth mentioning after months of bland Central Asian food.

- We disliked the beef kidney concoction we accidentally ordered in a small town somewhere.  Not big kidney lovers anyway, we couldn’t stomach it and ended up having some good instant mash and tinned apricots for dinner from our ‘bad weather’ stash.