Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Wild Week in Tajikistan's Fann Mountains

Iskanderkul Lake, Tajikistan
Shall I say right off to prepare for a rather long story about the amazing (and wild) world that is Tajikistan?

Saturday afternoon a friend and I flew to Dushanbe where we were met at the airport by our guide, Miskala, the owner of Orom Travel who had responded to our last minute request for a guide and driver with amazing speed and willingness to accommodate.  After a filling Indian meal at Namaste-Salaam, we began the drive from Dushanbe to Iskander Kul under grey skies.  By the time we reached the third and final toll booth before the ascent to Anzob pass, it was dark, and clouds were spitting rain.  The toll booth attendant told Miskala that it was snowing on the pass and that there was a big traffic jam up there.  After a brief conference we decided to press on.  When we reached the point where the rain turned to snow, we saw what the toll booth attendant meant.  Nearly a dozen big Chinese trucks were stopped haphazardly along a one kilometer stretch of road the drivers outside trying to attach their traction devices on the icy road.  Sprinkled among them was the odd Mercedes sedan, one with a trunk piled full with rocks in an effort to gain more control.  We weaved in and out vehicles stranded on the ice dodging an occasional Toyota coming down the hill, and with only one scary moment, we inched our way to the top of the hill and the "Tunnel of Death."
Aznob Tunnel ("the Tunnel of Death") Tajikistan

Anzob Tunnel is five terrifying kilometers of darkness and smog.  Apparently unfinished, the interior of the tunnel is some of the roughest road I've ever ridden on.  Once paved but now largely dirt, the way is mined with potholes and left-over construction equipment.  Steel reinforcement bars poke out of the tunnel walls.  Cars zigzag through the through the maze of ruts and potholes their low-beams illuminating the dust and smog that help give the ventilation-less tunnel it's nickname.  After 20 long minutes in the tunnel we emerged on the other side alive, but facing a steep icy descent from the pass. Miskala, for a moment, considered turning around but when we pointed out that either way she'd have to descend an icy road, we pressed forward.  Our Toyota Rav4 inched down the mountain passing cars that had slid into the drainage ditch or nearly off the road. As we dropped in altitude, the snow stopped, and then suddenly, the road was dry.

After another hour on a good road and an hour after that on a rough dirt road, we managed to reach Iskander Kul shortly after 11 pm, four and a half hours after leaving Dushanbe.  We stayed at the camp, a collection of thirty-odd cottages on by the shore of the lake, in a small, freezing cold wood-sided cabin with only one space heater for four rooms.  The night was cold, but the morning was colder - a frigid -6 degrees centigrade.  We breakfasted on a feast of fruit salad, fresh bread, and fried eggs in the glass-sided dining hall before walking around the turquoise lake set among jagged, rocky peaks to the Presidential Dacha and the legendary honeymoon
cave of Alexander the Great before walking through the gorge and then climbing up to an Autumn-gold sub-alpine meadow shaded by rocky mountains thrusting into the deep blue sky.  We followed the meadow to the village of Saratag, and then wound our way through the village, politely declining offers of tea from the villagers, until we were able to see the Great Ganza (over 5,200m in elevation).  After a quick trip to a suspension foot bridge we dined on potato soup and hot tea provided by a generous villager before beginning our walk back to Iskanderkul.

The next day, before leaving Iskanderkul, we took a short, half hour hike to a waterfall, and on our way back scrambled into an old, rusty hand-crank cable car and crossed the river.  After lunch we began the trip eastward to the Seven Lakes.

The road to Panjakent
If there is one thing I've learned about traveling in Tajikistan, it is to always add two hours to the estimated travel time.  After traveling north for nearly an hour the road splits at the town of Ayni.  One road (the nicer road) heads north to Khujand, the other, more of a dirt track made worse by ongoing construction, heads westward through the mountains to the border town of Panjakent.  The
road follows the Zaravshan River through a narrow gorge dotted with tiny villages colored red by the changing leaves of the apricot groves and crisscrossing the river on old one-lane cable suspension bridges. After nearly five hours (of a three hour trip) bouncing along occasionally paved dirt road and detouring through a village (where a young boy exclaimed in surprise "A Woman driver!") to get past a section of the road that is closed for construction. We arrived at our guest house just above the fourth lake just in time for dinner.

The road to Panjakent

Our Homestay
Jimuboi's guest house is of traditional four-bedroom mud construction with hand embroidered wall hangings, wood burning Pichka stoves for heat, and outhouse style facilities.  After the frigid cabin at Iskander Kul, the smokey warmth of the pitchka's was welcome.  The next morning, we drove along past the 5th and 6th lakes and then hiked up the too-rough-to-drive road to the 7th, final lake of the 7 lakes where we pickniked on the pebble beach, walked along the donkey path, used mostly to haul hey down from the alpine meadows, and listened to our guide tell stories of the eight day treks he's guided through these mountains.
Seven Lakes, Tajikistan (the Seventh Lake)

On our way back to the car we stopped in the village under the pretense of finding the school.  The children of the village were more than happy to talk to us and to guide us to the newly constructed school.  The school master let us look around inside and I even showed a couple of the kids how to play the old, dented bugle we found on one of the shelves. As we walked down the hill from the school, we stopped to talk with an old woman carrying an enormous piece of bread.  She explained how the bread was baked under a rock and even gave us a huge piece to try.  After saying farewell to the village children we drove back to our homestay to clean up before dinner.

The next morning dawned grey and dreary.  We drove leisurely back down the valley stopping to take pictures of the first four lakes and at a village to explore it's narrow streets and multi-home compounds before continuing our drive to Panjakent. 

Panjakent Bazaar
We arrived in the border town of Pajakent shortly after noon.  While Miskala arranged lunch, our Panjakent guide showed us around the round food bazaar.  We feasted on green salads and Plov (being vegetarian, I had a version of mac n' cheese made with Lagman noodles) in a cafe next to the bazaar before heading out to the museum.  Panjakent's museum tells the both history of the town and the history of the archeological discoveries of ancient Sarazm and ancient Panjakent.  After seeing the museum, we drove to the ruins of Sarazm and then to see the wall erected at the now closed Panjakent-Samarkand (Uzbekistan) border.  Our guide jokes that it is the "Berlin Wall" separating families from both cities and substantially impacting tourism as people wishing to visit historic sights from both cities can no longer cross the boarder here.  We spent the night in a soviet era Intourist hotel, exploring the nearby tea-house before dinner. 

Panjakent Tea House
Ayni Minaret
The following day was spent entirely on the return journey to Dushanbe. Back along the dirt road, through the deep gorge and over the old bridges and tiny villages.  A quick stop in Ayni to admire a 9th century minaret and to pick up some fresh bread to munch on in the car, and southward.  Back through the tunnel of Death, where it was still snowing but on dry roads this time, back down the valley to Dushanbe.

You've made it to the end of the post!  Congratulations!  Next post will probably be a monster picture post with pics of all the hikes I've taken this fall - unless something more exciting happens first...

Dushanbe, Tajikistan

1 comment:

  1. The roads sound harrowing, but what wonderful things to see! I (predictably) love the tea house.