Crossing over from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan was relatively simple—It was one of the least busy borders I’ve ever seen. A German guy named Vincent whom I met at my hotel was heading to Dushanbe as well and decided to tag along with me a day earlier than planned. I was happy to have the company and a possible partner to share the car costs along The Pamir Highway. We took a minibus to the border post which. The driver asked for 2,000 each but I emptied my pockets, showed him the 1,400 or so I had left and shrugged my shoulders—I love a country where you can pay what you have in your pockets. It was a quick ride to the border where we were escorted in front of the handful of babushkas waiting. Most guards are so bored that they will do anything just to get a look at your passport. This got us to the front of the line and into an empty border control building. The army guard actually asked me to take a photo of him (I didn’t have my camera out) before a group of 21 Japanese daytrip tourists waltzed into the building and lined up in front of us. The guard wasn’t up for an audience (usually taking photos at borders is a big no-no) and he wasn’t able to get the two of us in front of the Japanese. We loudly complained about tour groups until the last man in line struck up a conversation in perfect English. He entertained us with a bag of magic tricks he brought with him, which was a really great idea for dealing with all the begging children when traveling.
I was nervous about the crossing because Uzbekistan is notorious for searching your bags. If any money above the amount declared on your customs for is found they usually ask for a bribe to let you off. Vincent and I waltzed through as if we had no bags at all and crossed the no man’s land before they could change their minds. The Tajik side of the boarder had no permanent structures at all, only a few shipping containers, one of which was painted in a warped children’s impersonation of camouflage. Guards took our passports inside and we soon had a bright red Tajik entrance stamp in our passports. At the next container a man took our passports and grunted when we admitted to speaking no Russian and no Tajik. He let us go, no questions asked and we piled into a minibus to the closest town, Penjakent.
Our driver had a little TV on the dashboard showing music videos. He told me that he got it in Uzbekistan for $70. I can’t imagine a Tajik minibus driver having $70 to spare. All of a sudden we were negotiating with the driver of a car for the ride to Dushanbe. It was getting late and we wanted to get to Dushanbe before dark if possible but I knew the ride was anywhere between 8 and 12 hours. I stuck with $25 each and the driver came down quickly. The only problem was that the car was full of blankets! They told us there would be four passengers but I didn’t see how we would all fit with a back seat piled to the ceiling with blankets. We pulled away and drove to the driver’s house back in town where he let half of the blankets and we both used his surprisingly clean squat toilet. The driver kissed a baby goodbye (I assume his kid) and we set off with only two passengers. We didn’t stop for about 30 minutes and were almost thinking that we were going to have the car to ourselves. Of course not! We pulled into a tiny village, passing women walking along covered with long white scarves on their heads. The driver must have had these passengers arranged in advance and after the entire family and the neighbors came out to say a prayer at the car we were ready to go.
The ride to Dushanbe was long but incredibly beautiful. We didn’t realize that the mountains would be so high in the West of the country. The other two passengers thought we were a bit silly for taking so many photos but they also seemed a bit proud of their country and pointed out some of the more beautiful views. We had to stop every once in a while, once for a flat tire and then quite a few times to tighten everything up. The little car did remarkably well on the mountain roads but driving that high up was pretty scary at times.
We were dropped off at the edge of town, like usual and were shocked at the asking price of the taxi drivers. We later found out that taxis are expensive in Dushanbe and we got a pretty good deal for $2 to the other side of town. I was pretty grumpy when we arrived at Hotel Dushanbe and were told there were no $10 rooms available. The woman at the desk suggested we try a $50 room, but we stood there long enough in disbelief that she gave in and sent us walking up to the 4th floor with two $10 rooms. Like in Soviet times, a woman sits at the end of each floor and holds all of the keys. When you leave you must leave your key with the floor lady. They are a bit confused by us and said we sleep too much because we weren’t up at 7am like the other guests.
The reality is, there’s not much to do in Dushanbe. I spent my entire first day in the city looking for the Kyrgyz Embassy and then waiting for the consular to come back from lunch and then back from the airport. The Lonely Planet Guidebook’s coverage of Tajikistan is spotty and although the Kyrgyz Embassy moved 5 years ago it is still in the wrong location on the map. I walked around for two hours before finding the Uzbek Embassy who’s guards told me there was no Kyrgyz Embassy. I then went to The US Embassy, which was an empty shell of a building in a residential area. The people in the area confirmed it was The US Embassy even though there was no flag, no sign and no street number. I thought there were pretty paranoid until I realized that it had moved as well. I saw the Swiss flag across the street and ducked in to ask for help. Luckily a man working there knew the Kyrgyz Embassy and drew me a map with a few other people translating into English. While I was there I picked up am amazing map of The Pamirs (the only one apparently) so i killed two birds with one stone.
When I finally arrived at the Kyrgyz Embassy I was told they were at lunch and to come back in two hours. I went to eat and make some photocopies before coming back at 3pm when I was told that the consular was at the airport. I sat outside with two Iranian men who had been rejected 10 days in a row. We talked a bit about Kyrgyzstan until they were finally let in, only to be rejected again. When it was my turn the young doorman asked me why I was alone. I explained that my friends either don’t like to travel or can’t save the money or time. As we walked up the steps into the Embassy he looked over and said “don’t worry, I’m here.” The consular spoke a bit of English and allowed me to fill in the paperwork in his office. I’ve heard it would take two days to get the visa but he looked over at me, sighed and said “express service!” while grabbing his stamps and scribbling out a visa for me on the spot. I think I was asking too many questions and he just wanted to get rid of me.
That same evening I was also able to contact the local man who was arranging my GBAO Permit. Everyone needs a permit to travel in the Easter area of the country and I had applied two weeks prior via email with Stan Tours who had also arranged my Uzbek LOI. With the permit and visa in hand I was as good as ready to go. The only problem was that Vincent thought it might be faster to get the GBAO in Dushanbe and that wasn’t the case. Having a travel partner for The Pamirs is worth the wait though and I told him I’d stick it out until he got his permit and we could travel together. Soon Daniel, an Australian guy on a very similar trip to my own, turned up and we had a group of three.
I spent my time in Dushanbe going to a rather overrated museum (the biggest Buddha in Central Asia isn’t so impressive) and managing to find something somewhat resembling postcards. When I mailed them today I had to argue with the woman for 5 minutes until she accepted them as postcards. They were more like photos printed on cardboard, but it’s the closest thing to postcard available here! Considering it only cost $2 to send 9 cards I figure it’s worth the gamble to see if they show up in a month or two. I also finally met up with a Canadian guy who lives here and has been emailing me advice for the past 6 months. It’s always funny to meet someone you’ve only emailed with, especially when you meet somewhere like Tajikistan. My Pamir partners and I met up with him and his girlfriend at an Ecuadorian place which I think has the best food with the biggest portions in Dushanbe. I ate mostly Mexican and even had an okay piece of chocolate cake.
Vincent’s permit should be arriving any day now and Daniel’s already set off for Khorog, where our trip along the amazingly remote Pamir Highway will begin. I will definitely be out of contact until I pass through The Pamirs, through Kyrgyzstan and back into Kashgar, China so hang tight until early October!