Central Asia is an intriguing intermingling of cultures, landscapes and political mysteries, none more so than our 12th country on the list of 14 between London and Beijing. Tajikistan holds the key to survival in this area, and it is by far the most primitive and challenging of all lands that we pass through.
It is a mountainous area, with very basic roads and passes at high altitudes, that connect remote areas of the country, as well as providing access into neighbouring countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and China.
Needless to say, it has numerous border crossings, some of which are critical to the country’s security. Tajikistan does not necessarily have good relations with all of its neighbours, as its raging rivers can control crucial water supplies to its dry, downstream, desert neighbours.
Dushanbe is the capital and we approached it via a Southern route from Uzbekistan this time, as our traditional, and preferred, shorter central route, via Penjikent, was closed six months ago for no particular reason.
Certainly, the new route is not as spectacular as the old, but at least we were able to easily cross into Tajikistan at a border that was similar to those we had encountered in the other central Asian countries.
It was busy but efficient, and they seemed pleased to receive us, smiling as they requested a sum of $US of us for various entry taxes. The fee for disinfecting our wheels is always a puzzling and amusing charge, which I am sure goes directly into the health inspector’s holiday fund.
Dushanbe was just an overnight stop this time but in future may be made longer as this bustling and the interesting city deserves more time for exploration, and also allow us to mentally prepare for the rough, and challenging, roads ahead.
Kalaikhum is a tough and spectacular 285km drive from Dushanbe, taking 9 hours! The scenery is amazing, the roads rugged, and numerous photo stops are necessary to absorb the might of the raging rivers, and the splendour of the mountain ranges. That they keep this road open throughout of the year is a credit to their roading engineers and maintenance crews. It is also a reminder of why we use heavy 4 wheel drive type vehicles.
A night in the village of Kalaikhum is a step back in history and the first of our guest house nights, with our delicious evening meal served on a raised platform, sitting with legs crossed on exquisite Persian carpets. The sleeping arrangements are not dissimilar, with a mattress on the floor, and a choice of either open air or indoor sleeping.
We opted for the open air and spent most of the night listening to the roar of the “Pangj” river which separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The moonlight over the Afghan mountains at about 11 pm was worth a photo.
Two nights in Khrorog in the Pamir region of autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan is always a pleasant break. This area is better known as the “Pamirs” and it is from here that we tackle the infamous Pamir Highway (M41) to remote Murgab, crossing the first of 3 high passes, the highest at 4760m, on the way to Sary-Tash in Kyrgyzstan.
Luckily the temperatures have been higher than normal this year and only a little snow was left on the hilltops and in the mountain valleys.
Sary-Tash in Kyrgyzstan is the next of three guest house stops in a row. Our host appeared to be the local mayor, or certainly someone of importance in the village, as he was off the Irkeshtam border the next morning in his white Lada Niva, to meet a Chinese delegation. We decided that it was probably something to do with the new 70 kms of road that the Chinese have just built from Sary-Tash to the border. The rugged road that took us 4 hours to negotiate last year only took 45 minutes this morning!
His presence at the border worked well as he was there to greet us and made sure we exited Kyrgyzstan without any problems. I am sure that it also increased his social standing with his fellow delegates and impressed his Chinese counterparts when he was seen to be associated with wealthy, well-heeled, foreigners driving dirty Landcruisers.
Leaving Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia marked a turning point in our Silk Road journey, as we drove the 4km of no man’s land toward the Chinese border. Entering China was nothing like any other border crossing we had done so far.
The stacks of forms that we had to fill in before leaving NZ, divulging both personal and vehicle details, and the large amounts of money deposited for vehicle bonds etc, had hopefully all made their way to this relatively remote border post.
The first gate was like Fort Knox, and the guards were quickly on their radios to see if their superiors knew anything about these “Aliens”, as we are called in China, arriving at their border post.
While they were waiting for a definitive answer, our passports were checked, and the obligatory “dumping” of absolutely everything in the trucks was undertaken, and our goods sifted through by at least 10 seemingly apologetic military guards.
This inspection is a normal procedure and was a really good opportunity to have a good look for anything we had misplaced, and a chance to have a bit of a tidy up.
We progress another 5 kms to the Customs and Immigration post proper which was just like any other border post in the eastern world; dirty, dusty and with lots of trucks. What was unusual was the automated passport control machine which spat out an immigration entry form, all nicely typed, and just requiring a signature. I had never seen one of these before, could we be back in civilisation?
Our Chinese guide “Sadik” from Kashgar had arrived with a lot of necessary documentation, and the process of getting into China began. This all went well and it looked like we would be processed in record time as we passed the vehicles through the barrier and into China airspace.
However, a customs man wanted to see engine and chassis numbers and guess what, he was on a two-hour lunch break, and we needed to wait in a customs compound for his arrival.
This was all a bit strange and did not follow normal procedure, but to the customs compound we went, as instructed.
Five hours later, after a rainstorm had turned the dusty compound into a 4×4 challenge, we were sent on our way having had the necessary numbers checked.
I can’t categorically deny that some funds changed hands to hasten the process, and which undoubtedly boosted the uniformed gentleman’s daily income.
Not something that often happens these days, but occasionally an informed decision has to be made in the form of a donation to a needy cause, to ensure a process takes place with speed. The officer’s superiors are likely to get to know about his actions via official channels in due time.
The 230km journey downhill to Kashgar, via a lunar landscape, was wet and muddy, making our vehicles look like they had really been overland. Kashgar is one of my favourite cities, one of the key Silk Road intersections of yesteryear, and for us on our intrepid journey, warrants a 3 night stop.
While there we had a chance to discover the quickly disappearing old city areas, see the magnificent bazaars and market areas, and immerse ourselves in the unique lifestyle of the predominant Uighur people. They are Muslims of Persian descent and speak a totally different language. This is a very interesting and eye-opening part of the journey and introduction to the diversity of modern China.
Next, we travel 5,500km across China to Beijing following the Silk Road route via Xi’an in 15 days.
Words: Greg Paul
Photos: Murray Taylor & Greg Paul