to the Pamirs

After returning to Dushanbe for a few more days the guy I met in Mashad and I part ways and I head further South East on my own. I want to spend some time in what is usually referred to as NBOA, Gorno Badakshan autnonmous zone. This mountainous area is known for it’s rugged roads and isolated villages, and that is exactly why it’s a huge draw for tourists.

The first leg goes smoothly, I even get a ride in a shared taxi van, the driver offers to take me all the way to the regional capital Khorugh but I only take up half his offer and asked to be let off where the road south takes a turn east and starts following the Panj river and the Afghan border in the tiny town of Kalai-khum. The road is too beautiful to travel down in the dark. Also, with the poor road condition, the lack of lighting and the unpredictable traffic I reckon avoiding being in a car at night is a pretty sensible move.

The next days the views only get more spectacular and the road gets even worse. Based on where I’ve traveled I’m beginning to suspect there’s a strong correlation between terrible roads and amazing views. But it could be worse, looking to Afghanistan on the other side of the river there only occasionally seems to be a road. And while the villages here have electricity that doesn’t seem to be the case of the other side.

Khorugh is an interesting town, though it only has 28,000 inhabitants there is no bigger place around for hundreds of kilometers. There’s an army base, some government things but since the region is largely Ismaili the Aga Khan’s money is also a lifeblood funding several NGOs and a new university. It also has the only hostel in the region where I not only run into a bunch of people I’ve met in Dushanbe, but I also spend an hour or so talking to a German motorcyclists who I ran into on three separate occasions in the last two days.  The town itself doesn’t have much too offer apart from a nice park and a museum which is unfortunately closed but is supposed to house a piano a bunch of poor Soviet soldiers had to lug over the mountains in order to bring some Soviet civilization to the Pamir mountains.

in the Fann mountains

Getting down to the point where we leave the main road to get to Iskanderkul is easy enough. One man even invites us to his brother’s wedding for when we get back to Dushanbe. But as we approached the intersection it started to rain and when we leave the car it’s absolutely pouring. We hesitantly enter an old factory to ask if we can shelter there. There are not many workers around but after a few minutes we find one. He takes us to an empty office, brings us some tea and leaves us alone for the remaining rainstorm.

Once the weather clears we continue down the road. Hitchhiking now is a bit more difficult just because of the sheer lack of cars. Our progress is slow and by the evening we get to a fork in the road. There are some houses around so we figure we’ll wait and if all else fails we’ll just ask if we can pitch a tent in somebody’s yard.

As evening approaches we hesitantly walk towards the closest house as the threatening barks of a dog ring out. I really hope it’s on a chain like most dogs are around here. We knock on the door and as my travel companion doesn’t speak Russian it’s up to me to explain our situation and ask if we can stay close to their house. The guy answers in English that of course we can stay, but why stay outside, come indoors, and by the way have you eaten? Turns out the guy has studied petroleum engineering and has worked in the Gulf. Lucky for us he is visiting his parents.

By next afternoon we’ve reached the lake. The scenery is so beautiful it’s hard to put into words and since its a mountain lake it’s also too cold to swim in. So all we can do is stare at it. After a walk around the lake and a visit to the waterfall we eat dinner on a restaurant’s peer and pitch the tent. Further to the west in the Fann mountains there are supposedly even more beautiful lakes but there are no roads and we have neither the time nor the supplies to cover the distance on foot. So we head back down to Dushanbe.

Connections

I’m heading to the Northern city of Khujand with the guy I met in Mashad and a friend of his. Hitchhiking with three people is always a bit more tricky, but we’re going to give it a go. After taking a bus we start to walk North and one of the first cars that passes us stops and offers a ride all the way to our destination. Hitchhiking is mostly just dumb luck.

The guy is driving a fancy new black Lexus. He asks us on our political opinions on the refugee crisis in Europe and the future of the EU. It turns out he works for the anti-corruption office and I guess he must be pretty high up. When we are stopped for speeding all he has to do is wave his ID in the officer’s face before being waved on.

The drive is stunning. The only road crossing the mountains and connecting Khujand with the rest of the country leads through a notoriously dark tunnel and a few more stable looking new Chinese ones. When the civil war was happening the government fled up north knowing that there was no way the rebels could ever threaten the city.

In Khujand we stay at a couchsurfer’s family house. His parents, siblings, their wives, nieces and nephews are all squeezed in three buildings surrounding a courtyard. I loose track of who I’ve been talking to. But everybody is super hospitable. On the second evening we pile in to two vans to visit a park filled with rickety Soviet era rides and newer booths advertising ‘7-D cinema’ before heading to a cafe to eat ice cream.

Dushanbe days

I’m finally hitchhiking again. Or at least, that is my intention. My second ride drops me off in the middle of a town by the taxi stand. Figuring I still have a couple of thousand Uzbek som in my pocket which will be useless once I cross the border I decide to not make things unnecessarily hard for myself and take shared transportation to the border.

When I walk to the border post I come across two cars with British license plates. Inside a pack of young British men are stressing out over their visa which won’t be valid until tomorrow. It turns out they’re part of the Mongol Rally, a race across Eurasia in purposely ramshackle cars.

Now that I’m across the border I have to hitchhike for real: I haven’t been able to get my hands on any Tajik Somoni yet. Luckily my destination is not far away. It takes a few rides: an old couple in a van, a few guys carpooling home from work, and a man who goes into great detail about the economic decay in the region after the fall of communism who stops somewhere along the way to buy me some grapes. The last guy is driving three women to Dushanbe. They are dropped off as soon as we get to the edge of town. I offer to get out as well, but he insists on driving me to the center until I decline his invitation to visit a restaurant and a hotel several times. He drops me off with seven kilometers to go to the hostel and I’m beat after a long day. I keep looking around for an ATM so I can at least take public transportation, but no luck. Thankfully I still have the grapes.

I don’t do much during my Dushanbe days: I visit a few museums, walk down to what was once the world’s tallest flagpole, and try to track down some old Soviet buildings before they’re razed to the ground. Dushanbe is the sleepiest of all the former Soviet capitals I’ve visited. But tranquil streets are exactly what I need after having to be on my guard constantly in Afghanistan. I stay in a hostel for a few days. The place is filled with cyclists, Mongol Rally participants and various other intrepid travelers, including a guy I met previously in Mashad (we kept in touch via email as he made his way through Turkmenistan).

the safe way out


I’d rather not be crossing this border into Uzbekistan. The visa is expensive, I’ve visited the country before and it’s a detour to Tajikistan, my destination. But since the direct road to Dushanbe goes through the Afghan city of Kunduz and that city fell into Taleban hands for a few days not too long ago I decide to travel via Termez in Uzbekistan instead. This does give me the opportunity to cross the railway bridge made famous when the last Soviet troops retreated over it in 1989 at the end of the Afghan War.

The Afghan border guards are alright. One insists on becoming Facebook friends with me but the process is generally smooth. Not so on the northern side. I have to unpack my bag three times, my computer gets thoroughly checked, and even though it’s scorching hot and there’s a sink in the corner I’m not allowed to get a drink of water. To be fair there’s a lot of heroin being smuggled across this border, but it feels like they’re just being hard on me to see if I will slip them some cash.

I’m pretty close to Termez so I decide it’s easier to take a cab into town instead of hitchhiking there. It’s a chance to get rid of some Afghan cash too. I’ve found two hotels online about two kilometers apart. The taxi driver drops me off at one. I walk in and hear the price. It’s three dollars which sounds cheap by Uzbek standards. I think there must be something wrong with the exchange rate I saw earlier. I visited the country two years earlier but inflation seems to be getting crazy. So I decide to drag my bags along Termez’s stifling main drag to the other hotel. It turns out to be a very fancy affair and I turn around and walk back. I order some mors along the way, and the lady running the stall refuses to take my money which after a long long day makes everything feel alright.

I hang around town for two days, getting a Tajik visa online and visiting the city’s sights. Actually it used to be a great regional center, but just like a few other places I’ve visited in the wider area, not much was left after Genghis Khan came through. What was once a city is now a park, the only thing in it a shrine where people come to take pictures and to pray. There’s a brand new museum, but with little material remains there’s not much on show.

old roads, older cities

I spend two more days in Kabul after returning from Bamiyan before heading up to Mazar-i-Sharif. Before I leave, my couchsurfing host and his driver are in disagreement over whether I should go in full chador or wearing just a niqab. The road is not entirely safe but the chances of something bad happening are not great so I go with the niqab.

Again the views from the road are stunning: dusty hills, wild rivers and mud-brick villages. The road itself is pretty atrocious, especially the Salang Tunnel up in the Hindu Kush mountains. It’s the only land road for cars connecting the north and the south of the country. It takes ages to snake up to the tunnel entrance and then pass through it. The asphalt and the tunnel itself are in bad need of repair but closing the pass would cut off one of the country’s major roads.

Mazar is the first place where I stay in a hotel. I could not find anybody to stay with on couchsurfing, but luckily a friend of a guy I met in Tehran is willing to show me around. Which is perfect because it gives me a chance to visit the ancient city of Balkh, perhaps Afghanistan’s most historically significant city. What was once the largest city for hundreds of kilometers around is now not much more than a big village, so the attractions are spread around different locations. Without somebody showing me the sights I’d be pretty lost.

Mazar-i-Sharif itself is not much more than a few neighborhoods centered around an important shrine. There’s not much to see in the city so I walk around a few streets until I notice a man is following me. Not quite sure what to do, I decide to stand still on the sidewalk between a few market stalls figuring somebody will probably help me. And people immediately notice: a few people tell the man to go away and a women in a blue burqa puts her hand on my shoulder to indicate that everything is alright.

The guy I’ve been hanging out with shows me a different side of the city. Together we go back to the shrine, but this time he points out certain details, not just historical knowledge but also really poor attempts at restoration and signs of neglect. He also takes me to a one-hundred-year-old building built by Russians. It is the local ‘Lincoln Library’, a US government-funded place for people to surf the web and read books in English. In the evening we visit a guitar teacher friend of his who performs a few covers of Beatles songs and some other things. The next day we go to his family’s house where I meet his mother who spent some time studying in Moscow. These experiences remind me of Iran, where it felt like the spaces on either side of people’s front doors were located in different countries.

a break in Bamiyan


I have to make a hard decision. I’d like to go to Bamiyan. The flight is expensive and boring but the road may be unsafe. My couchsurfing host makes some calls on my behalf and after getting assurances from a friend who lives along the safer of two possible routes that the trip should be okay I decide to chance it. With the help of the guy I met in Mikrorayon I buy a chador which even covers my face so as to be as inconspicuous as I possibly can be.  Early the next morning my host’s driver takes me to a shared taxi stand and negotiates with the driver. He instructs me to take a seat in the front so that I won’t sit directly next to any of the other male passengers and emphasizes that I am not to talk to anybody.

The landscape is beautiful and after some hesitation I start taking pictures. Everything is going smoothly until we stop at a roadside cafe. I hadn’t counted on this happening and am unsure what to do now. The driver says something to me, but I don’t understand a word. I don’t even know if he’s speaking Dari or Pashtun. He points to a room which after having gone inside I see is the family room. A waiter comes in and asks something. I really don’t know what to do but manage to say ‘chai’ in the hope that that instruction will suffice and stop any further attempts to communicate with me. I figure I must have blown my cover but who knows, in this country where so many different languages are spoken and women are supposed to be quiet and invisible my appearance might not be that noteworthy.

After finishing the chai I get back in the car and wait for the other passengers. After fifteen or so minutes we are off again. Not long after we get to a checkpoint. Bamiyan is an area of relative peace and its entrance roads are well protected like some mini-state. ‘The soldier wants to see your passport’ says the guy sitting in the middle behind me. I’m kind of relieved I have somebody that can explain things to me now. After we get talking he reveals to me that what gave me away so easily was my footwear. Afghan women don’t wear sandals he tells me. He translates the comments of the other people in the car. The driver expresses worry about what would have happened to him if the car had been stopped by robbers and I kind of feel like a jerk. In making the decision to travel by road I hadn’t even taken the safety of my fellow passengers into consideration.

The guy in the back of the car turns out to be a civil servant working for the culture ministry who’s visiting his family in Bamiyan. ‘Would you like to stay at my mother’s house?’ he asks me and I gladly take up the offer relieved that I don’t have to wander around town in search of a hotel.

We drive through farmed fields for about twenty minutes until we get to his family’s compound, a modest collection of mud-brick buildings where his mother, brothers and their families live. Over the next few days we visit a collection of sites: the remains of the Buddhas, Band-e Amir (a lake so beautiful it looks photoshopped), and the ruins of a city destroyed by Genghis Khan.

Meeting my new friend turns out to be an absolute stroke of luck. The context he provides about the things I see gives me an unexpected insight into the daily life of the people around me. And the chance to hang out with his mother and sisters-in-law at the family home, and to picnic with the female half of his relatives who we run into at the lake make me feel so much more free and relaxed than in Herat and Kabul. But that’s not just about having a personal connection. I’m far from the only tourist around, it’s just that all the other tourists are Afghans. Bamiyan’s relative safety, beautiful scenery and rich history provide the perfect backdrop for a weekend getaway.

sightseeing in Kabul


I land at Kabul airport in the evening. It’s dark already and I have to wander around a bit before I can find the driver my couchsurfing host has sent to pick me up. As we drive to the apartment we pass a long row of colorfully and brightly lit buildings. I say that this must be the Las Vegas of Afghanistan. The driver laughs and says they are wedding halls. I didn’t really know what to expect from Kabul, but certainly not a long row of fluorescently lit buildings.

When we get to my couchsurfing host’s place it turns out that it’s being rented by him and his brother as somewhere to relax and smoke shisha – a hangout for a bunch of friends. The building is in a fancy part of town, the office of the ICRC is just across the street, and the entrance is perpetually watched over by a rotation of friendly broad-shouldered guys in olive-colored uniforms with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

I take it easy in Kabul. I spend just four or five hours a day going outside. I don’t exactly know if it’s the city’s reputation or that I’m subconsciously picking something up in the streets, but I just don’t feel entirely at ease wandering around town. But I do notice that there are no other visible foreigners on the streets. Nobody seems to pay real attention to me, but if I stop somewhere for a few minutes a police officer or soldier invariably comes up to me and says I have to keep moving. I guess if I stand still I’m asking for trouble.

I’ve spent my first two days in Kabul looking for an ATM which will take my card. The stress of an increasingly empty wallet is a good distraction from the stress of walking around the center of a city dominated by blast walls and frequent sightings of armed men in the street.

One of the places I’ve most looked forward to visiting in Kabul is the history museum. It’s one of those institutions that is in itself worthy of being a museum. Situated next to the ruins of the old royal palace, the museum’s collection displays the country’s fascinatingly rich historical past with artefacts that were fairly recently taken out of hiding or painstakingly reconstructed after the Taleban were driven out of Kabul.

Another day I walk to a part of the city called ‘Mikrorayon’. Built by the Soviets and inhabited by the upper middle class the area is an orderly and leafy yet drab neighborhood and if it wasn’t for two young beggars following me around I would just as soon believe I’m in some nondescript post-Soviet town. I run into a guy in his late teens walking around with his siblings who’s keen to practice his English. After a few selfies with his iPad he distracts the begging girls while I make my way out of the labyrint of Khrushchyovki.

Two years ago I spent half a day trying to find a museum in Andijan, Uzbekistan. It was dedicated to the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur, who was born in that city. After leaving the Ferghana valley and conquering a fair bit of the Indian subcontinent, Babur decided he wanted to buried in the city he found most beautiful of all, Kabul. A park has been laid out around his grave for which admission is currently charged. After having paid I spend a few hours in the place, together with well-off Afghans fleeing the dust and noise of the world outside the park’s gates.

first days in Afghanistan

I suddenly realize I have to leave Iran today and not tomorrow. I got a 30-day extension to my visa and I had previously miscalculated how many days I’d been in the country: this is the 60th day I’m here, not the 59th. But with the help of a a local guy I get a seat in a shared taxi to Afghanistan. I sit wedged between the door and a fat lady totally oblivious to any discomfort as I closely watch every detail of the landscape rolling by. After an uneventful border crossing we set out to Herat. We don’t pass that many villages, and most of the ones we do pass are abandoned. Or maybe it just looks that way.

When we stop at the driver’s office in Herat I borrow his phone to call my couchsurfing host. As I wait outside on the street I notice I don’t really know how to act. No differently to in Iran I guess, but it’s just that the reputation of the country leads me to second guess myself more. To be sure I just go into the waiting room until my host shows up on a scooter and we drive back to his place. Later in the evening we walk to a restaurant and sit down in a side room, the family section where men and women can sit together freely. My host advises me to wear a longer shirt and I realize that even though there are no government-enforced dresscodes in the country it’s better to dress more conservatively than I did in Iran.

Next morning I walk alone to the center of town. I’m pretty sure I stand out, even though I’m wearing a long shirt and a headscarf. The latter is an unusual shade of turquoise, and I still haven’t managed to be able to wear it without having to constantly readjust it. But nobody seems to pay any attention to me. The first thing I visit is the Friday Mosque. It’s quiet, some people are hanging out under the shade of the arched entryways, but the central court is empty. It gives off a very serene impression. Next I try and fail to find a place that accepts my ATM card – not a real problem as I still have some Iranian money left. I exchange it with a guy who had lived in Enschede in the east of the Netherlands while waiting for his eventually unsuccessful asylum application to go through.

The next day I walk around the old center. First I stick to the main roads, then I decide to wander through the alleyways of a neighborhood. It looks mundane enough, the names of famous football players are graffitied on high sand-colored walls, and the narrow alleyways turn left and right at random points every several dozen meters. I quickly decide it’s too much of a maze and I turn to go back. As I walk towards the main road, a man shouts a few words at me. The only thing I understand is ‘Taleban’. I don’t know if he’s threatening or warning me. Afterwards I pay a visit to a famous collection of minarets and the old citadel which now houses a museum with brightly lit displays. My day is finally starting to feel more and more like a normal tourist’s day out.

The next day a local guy I’ve contacted through couchsurfing takes me to see some more out-of-the-way sights. We visit a Sufi shrine. After being mobbed by a crowd of young boys offering incense and a watchful eye over the car in exchange for a bit of money in the parking lot, the shrine itself does seem like a sanctuary for contemplation and quietness. Afterwards we head out to the Jihad museum, build by a local warlord to commemorate the fight against the Soviets. It features a collection of guns, including some ancient Enfield and Winchester rifles, and an incredibly detailed diorama.

I’d love to take the backroads to Kabul, past the Jam minaret, but several people tell me that road is now in the hands of the Taleban. Even the main road past Kandahar is too risky and I decide to fly. After a taxi to the airport I have to go through three security checkpoints before I board a plane. It kind of feels like cheating, and I regret missing out on the beautiful landscapes that I will undoubtedly be flying over, but I guess my stubbornness has finally reached the limit of the risks I’m willing to take.


two worlds, one city

Mashad is known as Iran’s most conservative city, and on the streets that’s certainly noticeable. Most women wear chadors and it even looks like there are just fewer women out on the streets. Except that is near the shrine where I have to slowly shuffle past security amongst a never-ending stream of visitors until I’m fished out of the stream by some women who instruct me to wait until a personal guide shows up. She takes me past some museums and a specially trained cleric whom I can ask theological question, though unfortunately for him I’m much more interested in the actual history of the shrine itself. I can’t get to the actual shrine itself though – I’d have to convert to Islam first which seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

The stifling strictness of Mashad ends at the front door. The place where I’m couchsurfing seems to be the gathering place for the city’s secular. In the evening I join some people going to a casual get-together where on offer to the guests, alongside the expected chips and fruit juice, are bottles of vodka and weed. Virtually the last things I was expecting to run into in Mashad. The next evening I end up exchanging old Soviet jokes with jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini with some people who invite me over for dinner.

My impressions are balanced out by meeting up with another guy I met through couchsurfing. He grew up in a very traditional family, and takes me over to meet his sister to show her that women can travel by themselves. I spend some time at his mother’s house too where several generations while away the hours in the living room by drinking endless cups of tea.

Together with him and a cousin I spend a day visiting an old caravanserai and Nishapur, once one of Asia’s most important cities until it was burnt down by Genghis Khan’s hordes.  Though its current incarnation doesn’t reflect its former status well, just thinking about the city’s history leaves me in awe.