Down and out in Tajikistan

SEP 16,2011 - OCT 15,2011 (30 DAYS)

Tajikistan

29 DAYS

General

After spending approx 1.5 months on the roads, trails and jailoos of Kyrgyzstan - I came to Tajikistan a little bit tired, exhausted and with somewhat 'lighter pockets'. By then, I have already experienced some episodes of traveler's diarrhea, getting ridiculously sick while trekking around Kyrgyzstan's Arslanbob and worst of all - my 'trusty' backpack's suspension system completely fell apart while I was literally out on a limb in southern Kyrgyzstan mountains. Despite this grim introduction - the moment I stood against this massive wall of mountains that separates Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan, known as the Alay Pamir range - I knew I was heading for the right place. Tajikistan - which has been a dream of mine ever since I pitched my tent on the footsteps of Muztagh Ata, a mountain located about 100 miles to the east in neighboring Xinjiang - was becoming a reality. The sight of 6-7 thousander mountains soaring against dry, desolate deserts is too epic to explain in words. That sight was what drew me in to Tajikistan in begin with and that's also the picture that was left engraved in my head, long after I returned home from the Stans.

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There's more to Tajikistan than that, obviously, which is what this post is all about. Most of my trip was focused in the Pamirs, the remote mountainous region found in eastern Tajikistan. Many people choose to cycle the Pamirs or traverse it by a hired car. I opted for going by a mixture of hitching, hiking and the occasional marshrutka (officially - a shared taxi. practically - an old guy passing by in an old private Lada car). As a part-time backpacker, part-time student, my budget was very limited (and that's an understatement) - but even if funds are not a problem for you, I didn't came across too many opportunities to throw your cash around anyway. Tajikistan is not a very hard place to travel in my opinion, and non-trekkers can enjoy this country too, no doubt. However, moving around from place to place is not always easy, the infrastructure is pretty much bare-bones, and the 'backpacker scene' is no where to be seen -  so in case you had Thailand in mind,  maybe you should save Tajikistan for a later time in your life. Far from being expensive, Tajikistan ain't that cheap either. The remoteness of everything here makes food, gas and everything else that needs to be shipped across the desert, somewhat pricey. All in all - I managed to wander around for a month, spending something between 600$-750$ (excluding my plane ticket back home).

The "high season" in Tajikistan is the summer months of July-August. I traveled during September & October so it's definitely possible to go there during the "shoulder season" but you should know you're risking having a few bad weather days. The biggest disadvantage that comes with travelling in October was the fact that at times, it seemed as there were no other travelers at all left in the country. That can make things difficult for you if you are traveling alone and you are looking for some trekking buddies to join you while you are 'out there'. Unless you are a super-hard-core-rugged tough guy (or your name is Bear Grylls), you would probably want to avoid the winter months - when roads become blocked with heavy snow and temperatures drop to absurd extremes in the Pamirs.

This post ain't going to focus much on the useful practicalities (visa, GBAO permission stamps, bureaucracy issues etc.) but mainly on the non-useful stuff  (e.g. my own personal experiences: getting lost in the Shokh Dara valley, getting bitten by a dog in Khorog, meeting a man that was injured by a mine in Javshanguz etc.). I will try to break my ongoing boring blabber with some pictures every once in a while to make things easier for you. Here we go.

#tajikistan #pamirs #budget

Pamirs, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, Tajikistan

22 DAYS

Transportation

I entered the Pamirs & Tajikistan by land from Kyrgyzstan via the Kyzylart pass. Located 4280 meters above sea level, in the Trans-Alay mountain range, this pass is not reachable using buses or any other form of proper public transportation.

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If you are traveling independently, the only options are either trying to arrange yourself in a group of 3-4 people in Osh, Kyrgyzstan that shares a hired car or do your best at praying for the heavens that  something with 4+ wheels will finally come your way and will be willing to take you to Tajikistan. I'm not saying this to deter anyone from hitching, as I've heard about few people who did succeed in doing so. Having said that, I've heard even more stories about people who failed to do so and had to return to Osh after spending cold & long days on the roadside in Sary-Tash, waiting for a savior (that didn't come). How bad is it? On the day that I went from Sary Tash to Murghab in Tajikistan I counted only one car going down the road (to be precise - that was actually the car I was going in!) Even if you choose to hitch, be prepared that you will wait for a long time until something will come along and even then, hitching is very likely not to be free-of-charge. You may be expected (and rightly so) to share the costs of gas with the driver. It's best not start hitching when you have only one more day in your Kyrgyz visa before it expires. Make sure that your Tajik visa is valid for the proper dates before you enter Tajikistan (if it's not valid yet - you will probably have a problem) and make sure you have your GBAO permit with you on your passport. Going through the border might take a while and the guards at the Tajik checkpoint (which is pretty far from the Kyrgyz checkpoint) will probably do a thorough search through your belongings so make sure you don't carry any unpleasant surprises with you. Going straight from Osh to Murghab will take the better part of the day so be prepared. 
Arranging a car in Osh to carry you and your friends is the easiest, most convenient option there is to cross - but it will cost ya. The whole car will cost something like 200$, so you'll end up paying probably around 50$ per head. It is possible to arrange a car by asking around near the market in Osh, where all the Marshrutkas gather or asking the help of locals, like the guys who run the Osh Guesthouse.

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The drive over the Trans-Alay is spectacular so try not to nap too much and soak in the great views. There aren't too many spots of civilization to stop for a break. Probably the most notable one is Karakul lake, found not too far after you cross over to Tajikistan (not to be confused with the Chinese or Kyrgyz lakes that have the same name). You can break your trip there for the night but it's not necessary.

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#Osh #SaryTash #Murghab

Murghab

- DAYS

General

Murghab, once called "St. Moritz of Central Asia" by a fellow drunk German traveler, is so underwhelming that it is actually overwhelming. Seriously, without being cynical at all - I actually think that this godforsaken & Stalin-forsaken town has its own unique type of charm, one that just can't be simply waived away. Waking up to a snowy dawn in Murghab is something to remember, that's for sure.

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Similiar to the rest of the Eastern Pamirs. Murghab's inhabitants are actually not Tajik or Pamirski at all, but rather Kyrgyz - which is evident by looking at the local faces in the market, and in the sight of an occasional yurt every now and then.

You'll probably need to get some Tajik money as you arrive. You can do it in the bank near the highway.

Don't count too much on the local META (Murghab Eco Tourism Assocication) for information or assistance with travel issues. As of 2011, it seemed as if most of their operations were shut down or at least diminished to a minimum. If you want to check for yourself and see if things have improved since then, try to locate the big yurt-shaped building at the northern outskirts of Murghab: http://goo.gl/maps/rJC0M


While most people zoom out of Murghab as soon as they arrive, there are stuff to do around Murghab. The problem is that the Eastern Pamirs are much more expensive and difficult to travel in comparison to the Western Pamirs. In the Murghab district, human settlements are very scarce and far from each other. You'll have to be completely self-sufficient if you wander by foot into the mountains, and the weather can be harsh. You will probably have to depend on private means of transport to get from place to place, unless you're planning to walk by foot for whole weeks. Then again, if you are that epic and brave - you probably don't use Internet blogs & tips to plan your next adventure...

Accommodations

Whether you like it or not, you'll probably end up spending at least one night in Murghab. Despite rumors of possible guesthouses or hotels, the only actual option that I've encountered was to stay at one of the local home stays. Some of them are more 'official' and some of them less. Ask around to find one. I can recommend the place located here: http://goo.gl/maps/P4Uqt
They will provide you basic accommodation and some food - nothing fancy of course - but they are really nice people over there. Don't get your hopes too high on electricity and if you're looking for a hot shower - keep in mind that they actually need to boil the water on a wooden-run stove, so if you can afford to smell a little bit funky for a little while, take it into consideration. 

Food

Restaurants are almost non-heard of in Murghab. Food supplies are pretty much basic in Murghab but sufficient.  Head for the marketplace (bazaar), a collection of shipping containers and small shops that pretty much all sell the same things: rice, chickpeas and some expired candy bars.  The edge of the bazaar is also the place where you can haggle your  way out of Murghab towards Khorog or Osh. 

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Transportation

As mentioned you can try and find some shared/private transportation in the form of a jeep/van at the edge of the local bazaar. Another alternative is to try and hitch the trucks that come from the Chinese border (Qolma pass) every morning. These trucks usually pass as a convoy very early - so if you're relying on them, don't sleep in. The best place to try and hitch, in my opinion - is in the southern outskirts of town, after the Pamir highway merges with the road that comes from Qolma pass. Traffic here, as anywhere in the Pamirs is very thin making hitching a real challenge. 

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Alichur

- DAYS

General

After learning about the trucks timetable the hard way - I was finally able to catch a shared ride with another traveling couple and some locals to Alichur where me & two other travelers spent the night. Apparently, there were no more 'real' home stays left open in September so we crashed inside a home stay of a local teacher that was happy to host us for one night. Alichur is so small you'll be able to memorize every single house in the village in about two hours. 'A wind so intense that you can feel it going through your bones' was a nice and harmless simile until the day I spent in Alichur, waiting for a Chinese truck to appear in the horizon.

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Other than two local 'fish diners' that serve only muddy fish soup and a tiny shop that sells some rice and noodles, there are no other places to eat.
It might seem that Alichur has got nothing to offer, but for me, that edge of the world feeling, trying to understand what's it like being completely disconnected from the rest of world all the time - was enough for me. Just walk around the village, stroll through the local schoolyard and try to soak up this 'middle-of-nowhere' feeling that Alichur has found it self immersed in. At one point, I was truly wondering to myself if anyone had told these people that the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore and they are free to leave this moon-landscaped barren land and go back to wherever they came from...

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If you are still looking for 'something more', ask around and try to find a ride with a local villager westwards to Yashikul lake. The Pamir Highway does not pass near the lake itself so a ride with a villager or a long day of walking are the only ways to get there without private means of transportation. If you are planning to stay a night near the lake, you should know that it is one of the coldest places in Tajikistan - and as I mentioned earlier, even in clear, sunny, summer days - winds are harsh and you will feel cold and miserable if you are not prepared.

It's hard to give any solid advice regarding getting out of Alichur. Your best bet is to go to the 'pit-stop' at the eastern edge of the village and hunt down any trucks that show up in the horizon. The trucks will probably stop for a lunch here enroute to Khorog so go and talk to the drivers and see if they can give you a lift. It is likely that some of them will ask you for some sort of payment for it, but it shouldn't cost too much. However, know this: these trucks are SLOW and it seems like it takes eternity to reach Khorog. Everytime a truck in the convoy will have a flat tire or another some sort of mechanical problem, the entire convoy will come to a complete stop until the problem is fixed. This will happen more than once, I can almost guarantee that. 

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Khorog

- DAYS

General

Khorog is practically the only city in the Pamirs region. While nothing much is going around town, it is an OK place to rest between your dashes to the valleys of the western Pamirs. Tucked in between cliff sides and Afghanistan, Khorog serves as a convenient base to explore the main valleys that carve the western Pamirs landscape: the Wakhan valley, Shokh-Dara Valley, the Gunt Valley (in which the the Pamir Highway goes through), the Bartang valley & the Vanj valley. 

The city has a decent bazaar, spots where you can have aching-slow Internet connection, travel information center - and most important of all, Khorog is your best shot at finding some travelling/trekking buddies if you are travelling alone and independently.

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Accommodations

The Chinese truck that gave me my ride to town was slowly pulling into town, long after the sun had already set. Me and my travelling partners were tired and hungry, and so we set about to find a bed to rest ourselves. We headed out for the most obvious option for backpackers in Khorog - the Pamir Lodge. If Tajikistan has anything that might be defined as a 'backpackers mecca' - this would be it. This guesthouse gathers most of the budget travelers in Khorog - trekkers & cyclists altogether. It offers some invaluable opportunity to socialize with some other people. The place itself is OK at most, so don't expect to feel like you're at home - but it is mostly quiet and there is a nice yard where you can hang out. The toilet over there looks like you worst nightmare most of the time, and this is probably due to the fact that at least 30% of all guests there were experiencing some sort of 'gastrointestinal issues' (endemic to almost all travelers in Tajikistan). Sharing stories and laughs with fellow travelers is one thing, but sharing a toilet with them... That's a different story.
If you're willing to part from a little extra cash (about 15$), you can indulge yourself and head out for any of the handful home stays around town. In order to find them, get directions and information from the local PECTA (Pamir Eco Tourism Association), on which I will elaborate in the following tip. I can highly recommend the home stay located just across from the Pamir Lodge and next to the local school (here: http://goo.gl/maps/8mxl0). Lalmo, the lovely owner and her family seem to very experienced with hosting travelers and they will take very good care of you - as evident by the notes past visitors hadleft in their guestbook. For extra payment you will be treated with dinner & breakfast as well. Lalmo has already gained herself quite a reputation, so you might find her house literally full with backpackers when you arrive, but if you arrive at September or October, you'll likely to be alone in a room to yourself.

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