I landed on Sunday morning in Tajikistan, and yesterday I took the 8 + hour car ride from Dushanbe to Khujand. My MFI was slightly entertained by the idea that I would take the road, as most people fly. On Monday I had a lot of people look at me with wide eyed surprise when I told them I was going to go by car. I hadn’t actually thought much about it, just interested in the view, as the mountains were supposed to be beautiful.
On the drive other he kept looking at me and said, things like, “Oh you will be taking a jeep”, “he is a very safe driver”, “no need to fear”, and “The road makes people travel by airplane a lot”. I asked him if there was a bus that ran from Dushanbe (the capital) to Khujand (second most populous city in the country).
“No, but the Chinese are making a better road, so maybe soon.”
All these things should have prepared me, as should have the cracking windshield of a good number of the “taxis”, but I was not.
The road from Dushanbe becomes a toll road very quickly. And the organization “Innovative Road Solutions” has its signs everywhere. About 10 minuets outside the city you hit the Presidents “dacha” a beautiful house, that looks like a palace built over a river. Like OVER the river. The mountain path taken here is close to the side of the river and is closed in.
About 30 minuets from city the road begins to climb slightly, and eventually it begins to climb steeply. This road is still under construction, and you hit weird mini tunnels every 100-900 meters for a while. Some of these “tunnels” are probably just to protect the road from rock slides, which there are about 100 signs (at least) warning drivers about. Sadly not all the tunnels are actually done, and so cars pass on the outside of these tunnels going both ways. This is not a big problem, until it gets about 1000 or so meters. At this point one can sometimes see where a semi has tipped over and fallen down the side of the mountain pass.
About 50 minuets into the trip you come to the first real tunnel. Here though not all is what it seems. I first thought this was just a minor tunnel and that soon we would be out again. 20-25 minuets later, we were. During those 20 minuets the only light in front of us came from our car, and also the cars heading towards us. Once in a while we would see the ghosts of machinery laying off to the side, holes in the ground where the roof may have fallen in small bits, oooor they were digging up the ground to help put in support systems and clean out the drainage, and the car had to swerve to miss them.
Besides the lack of light, there was also a lack of a ventilation system. Thus the smell of fumes from diesel trucks, and cars filled the air as we drove through, and when one passed, I had to hold my breath for about 30 seconds because it would linger for a long time afterwards.
When we finally broke into daylight again, we started going down a hill and stopped. Three or four other jeeps had stopped and people were out looking over the hill. Our car stopped, and while people ran down the hill, everyone thought that the car had recently fallen. As the group got to the car, they found no one. There was a woman though who was with me who had started wailing. I was the only one near and she turned to me and said in Russian while crying, “my son went missing on this road a month ago. They say his car went over, and he got swept down the river, but no one can tell me where, or where his body is now.” Then she sat down and wept. The driver of the car came back slowly and the woman got up, and went into the car. At lunch about 20 minuets later, the woman talked about her son’s death. She started screaming at the driver as the 5 people who were in the car all sat eating with the driver.
The young woman that was in our group turned to me and translated most of what was said from Tajik into Russian. “This womans son died in the end of June. He was 22 and coming back from Khujand to Dushanbe where he had been with some friends. He and his friends had just finished University in Turkey in the beginning of June (my side note: this is a big deal in Tajikistan, the family probably gave up most of the money it had so the son could go to University in Turkey). They were driving back in one of the friends cars, and somewhere between the two mountain passes (no one knows 100% where), the car went over the side of the road and into a river (the driver thinks it was the Zaravshon River).” The driver proceeded to ask EVERY Driver who was stopped there, the restaurant owner, and even a few locals if they thought they might know where this accident happened. A few hundred meters up there had been an accident and we went and looked.
The local boy who as selling melons on the side of the road said that nothing like that had happened there. We drove on, through Ansi (a small but beautifully located town), and then once again up into the mountains. This time we passed workers working on the road, and went off into a muddy spot where a BMW was stuck to the point where the driver was climbing out the windows to go get help, as the doors would not open. We then proceeded to head up, and up, and up along a dirt road. This road had shear drops of thousands of feet, and a few times we saw the old forms of cars and trucks that had gone too fast. But i never saw a Jeep. As the jeep went higher and higher, there were times where I would hold my breath and close my eyes thanking God for letting me get this far along the road, thus I am sure my mom would have dosed herself with massive amounts of meds by this point.
As we neared the top it started to rain, and when we reached the top we just went straight over, even though the student in the back seat wanted to take a picture.
“Its turning to ice, if we stop, I’ll have to defrost the car.” was the answer.
This is August, an extremely hot time of year anywhere in the world, but especially here in Tajikistan where high 30’s Cent is normal in the lower areas. As we headed down the hill the steep road that lead the the bottom had millions of switch backs and I could see the bodies of trucks and cars down the side of the mountain looking like trash at the sides of campgrounds around the end of summer.
Finally after 1.5 hours we got off the hill. I asked the driver how high he thought the mountain top was, “Its about 3,300 meters, maybe less.” was his response.
After I had arrived in Khujand and was talking with the head of the organization I am working with I began to think about the trip. She then brought up the trip.
“So you made it over the mountains, what did you think?”
“I thought it was scary, but beautiful.”
“Most people want to drive it, and they do it once. After that they always fly.”
“I want to go again, just once more, maybe twice.”
She smiled, “If thats what you want.”
Her assistant who has been helping me then rushed me to a car to get to the apartment I might be living in.
“You went over in a car, you’re a hero.” Was what she said.
After going on the ride I could only think that I wasn’t the hero, the drivers that drive it everyday to make sure the country is always in contact, those people are the heroes.
(Video should be coming soon)