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The M34 Highway

From Istaravshan, we had a 5-6 hour drive planned along the main highway towards Dushanbe (the country's capital). We planned to be dropped off at the intersection with a small mountain road leading up to an alpine lake, where we would be able to stay in a former Soviet holiday camp. As most dealings for transportation go, we were quoted wildly high prices for the drive, three or four times the local price. It was quite unexpected, considering the relatively light volume of tourists passing through the country, we aren't safe anywhere it seems. We finally agreed to take spots in a mini-van who would drop us off, then continue all the way to Dushanbe with the other passengers. We found out later that we paid the same price as that of the whole trip to Dushanbe.

We drive started with about three kilometers of what could generously be described as 'paved' road. The rest of the highway was pretty much a pile of loose rocks. Sometimes it wasn't even clear where the road actually was, we had to turn around after following the wrong rock pile a few times, and we drove on a river bed (not a dry one). The road was terrible, but it could have been a tolerable drive, if we hadn't been trapped in a vehicle with the most reckless asshole of a driver in Tajikistan. The minivan was fairly new and could not possibly have belonged to the driver because he didn't seem to care if it arrived to Dushanbe in pieces. He didn't slow down for anything, even the large rocks that were ripping through the bottom of the van. Despite obviously not being familiar with the road he drove faster than the rest of the traffic, including all-terrain vehicles. After the van took a particularly bad hit (despite paying more than everyone else, we had been relegated to the back of the van, and were feeling the pain of the drive more than others), I asked our driver to slow down, he thought I was very funny.

The problem with our driver was that the minute there was a patch of 'good' road he would accelerate like crazy, only to slam on the breaks 30 seconds later when the road sharply curved, or we met a giant pile of rocks, or a 3 foot 'speed bump'. On one of his speed binges, we hit an unexpected curve and we didn't have time to slow down, the driver struggled to keep the car from flipping and as we rounded the curve we met a huge dip in the road, the van went plunging down the pile of rocks and came to a stop, miraculously still standing. During the incident I was screaming at the driver to slow down (very useful for his steering, but I was so angry it was out of my control), everyone else in the car let out a collective gasp as we tumbled down the rocks.

Yann and I then demanded exit from the car. We were seriously in the middle of nowhere, but we hadn't even gotten to the mountain passes yet. I had actually yelled out "I don't want to die in Tajikistan", the other passengers seemed very interested to know what I had said (they had recognized their country's name), I wonder what the driver told them. The driver didn't find the situation funny anymore, I told him he was the "worst driver I had every seen in my life" and that he was "crazy" oh yes, and that "I would rather sleep on the side of the highway than get back in his car". He begged us to get back in the minivan, promising to drive "normal" this time, AHA! you admit it you were NOT driving normally! He finally managed to get us back in the van with the promise of not exceeding 20km/h.

We tackled the first pass extremely slowly, which was good, the road was dusty and visibility was poor. We got to the top of the pass at about 1:30PM, we had been on the road for about three hours. There was a small makeshift barrier blocking the road, and a little Chinese worker sitting beside it surrounded by angry Tajiks. The road was blocked for dynamiting, it wouldn't open until 7pm. I got out my Chinese phrasebook, and confirmed the great news, 5 hour wait at the top of a pass. I was actually not too unhappy about the situation, because it gave me a break from the driver from hell. Ridiculously I became the 'Chinese' expert, and as the cars started accumulating behind us, people were approaching me asking me to convince the driver to let us through. Even our own driver made a bid to get Yann and I to help:
A-I don't speak Chinese
B-I don't want to drive on a mountain road when DYNAMITING is going on
C-I hate you

The locals didn't seem to comprehend why they couldn't bribe their way through the road. To make matters worse, traffic was coming through from the other direction, totally undermining the Chinese man's statement that the road was unsafe (which I am quite convinced was, we could hear, and feel, the dynamiting at one point). He cursed the Tajik corruption but held his ground, for almost five hours. He was eager to discuss with me in Mandarin, but I only managed to tell him that I liked Chinese food, and to list off the names of Chinese places I had visited. He seemed happy enough with that. A few minutes later we watched him as he ran away from a raging Tajik woman (huge) who was chasing him down, probably the most physical activity she had done in years. The ridiculous thing about the situation was that the road closure had been announced, people just show up expecting to be able to get through, because that's the way it works in the country. But when the Chinese are controlling the construction site things are different.

An hour early, the gate opened and we were able to continue the trip. Despite the 5 hour wait, our driver felt that it was time to take a break at a tea house at the bottom of the pass (about 10km from where we had been waiting all day). He knew that Yann and I were attempting to get to the lake, and that it would be difficult to do so in the dark, but he sat himself down and ordered a plate of food, while most of the passengers sat perplexed in the van.

Two cars pulled over across the street from the tea house and when I saw that there was room in one of the cars, I ran across the street to beg for a ride to the lake. Yann described the driver as big and scary but I just loathed our driver too much. The new driver, Ashraf, didn't speak any English, but his friend Azziz, driving the other car, did. They were heading all the way to Dushanbe, so obviously didn't want to do a 50km detour to the lake, but were happy to drop us off at the road to the lake. We quickly transfered our things from the van into the car and drove away (we did pay our other driver, despite his shittiness).

We realised quickly that Ashraf was a much better driver than the last one (not that that was very difficult). It turns out, he and his partner Azziz (who was following in the car behind us) drive the awful road every week. They fly to Khojand, buy two used cars, drive them back to Dushanbe and sell them at a profit. By the time we got to the mining town where the road branches off to Iskander Kul Lake it was dark and there was exactly one taxi around willing to do the drive. He wanted the same price for the 48km trip (return) as a place in a taxi from Khojand to Dushanbe (12 hours on horrible road, including two 3000m+ passes). We felt tired, and ripped-off. When Ashraf and Azziz offered to take us all the way to Dushanbe we accepted.

We stopped soon after to have dinner, of course Yann and I were treated. Ashraf is Uzbek and was frustrated to be the only person at the table who couldn't understand a bit of English. At one point we talked about Ottawa being the capital of Canada and he eagerly jumped in, frowning "ooooooh... capitalisma!" (when we had passed a Lenin statue earlier he had given us the "ooooooh...Leneen, commoonisma, socialisma"). We ate a road side tea house, Azziz had two other passengers in his car, his friends, who also ate with us. A giant Tajik matriarch and her beautiful daughter for whom she had already turned down many suitors. The three of us went to the bathroom later, Asian styles, all right next to each other, a bonding experience. The big momma was apparently retaining alot of water, it was like witnessing an elephant (and yes, I've seen many peeing elephants). It was almost 11pm by the time we finished dinner and we still had one mountain pass separating us from Dushanbe. We were given the choice of arriving in Dushanbe at 2am "if we took the too-nelle" or at 5am if we didn't. We didn't exactly know what we were being asked, so we left the choice up to our drivers. This led us to a security checkpoint, where we were told to stay in the car as Ashraf and Azziz went to speak to the police/military. Money was paid, and we blazed through the security gates into the mountains. After crisscrossing the mountain on switchbacks we arrived at a construction site, where a few other cars were waiting amidst the huge piles of dirt and rock. We didn't wait very long before getting the wave-through from a worker. We drove into a dark, damp worksite and a few minutes later we arrived at the 'too-nelle', the unfinished tunnel being built to bypass the snowy mountain pass and allow winter travel.

What was the number one indicator that the tunnel was not quite finished? Possibly the fact that it was submerged in three feet of water. As we entered the tunnel, water actually came rolling over the windshield. Further along, enormous jets of water crashed out of the tunnel wall and water dripped onto the top of the car. Ashraf began eating his sunflower seeds at a furious pace and I calculated how many minutes we would be in the tunnel. Six kilometers, rolling at under 15km/hr we had almost half an hour in the pitch black, flooded, claustorphobics nightmare. Meanwhile Yann thought the whole thing was awesome. Tajik road safety can pretty much be summed up by the phrase 'insha Allah' (if it is God's will)... wonderful. I was happy when we spotted workers, it was a possible indication of the tunnel's structural integrity, then again, they were probably just happily inshaallah-ing away. It took 26 minutes to get to the end of the tunnel.

We arrived in Dushanbe at 2am, as precited, with very few incidents (aside the tunnel), other than Ashraf falling asleep and Yann and I trying to keep him awake with our riveting conversation "sleep, nyet nyet nyet, no good". Ashraf had us stay at his appartment for the night. When we arrived, his adorable (and young) wife Sitora was waiting for us. She had prepared a large tub of hot water for washing up (by boiling water kettle by kettle) and she had a full dinner waiting: chicken lentil soup, bread, salad, nuts, dried fruits, tea, apples. You know the feeling when you are so exhausted that you feel like you are going to throw up? Well, that's pretty much how we felt. Ashraf and Sitora didn't eat with us, but they sat and watched us eat, as we attempted to finish our second dinner of the evening, at three o'clock in the morning.

We slept well with piles of blankets and mattresses set up for us on the floor. When we woke up, breakfast was waiting. Sitora proudly showed us the package of Maple Lodge 100% Canadian chicken wieners purchased especially for us. Ashraf spent a good part of the morning driving us around the city looking for a cheap hotel. After a ticket from a crooked Dushanbe policeman he seemed to be a bit exasperated and we insisted that we could continue the search on foot. We parted with us promising to call him if we had any problems. After a walk across the city centre we struck gold: a fully-furnished, air-conditioned apartment for less than the cheapest dorm beds we could find. The little Russian landlady ran off the rules, in Russian, while her son translated them to English as best he could. A few minutes later we had the keys and were on our own. For dinner we cooked boiled potatoes and carrots and covered them in butter, savouring our quiet Dushanbe apartment.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a crazy story that eventually come to a happy ending! We're just so glad that you both are still alive (it's quite a miracle, or "insha allah", shall we say?) Not sure when it is, but looking forward to you coming back home ... hopefully soon ;)

Love,
Dennis & Janice

2par4 said...

What a trip!!! Great blog entry. I never cease to be amazed and humbled by the generosity of some of the folks (strangers) you encounter. Sometimes humanity really is a beautiful thing.

par.