7 Things in Tajikistan that drove me to Despair
7 Things in Tajikistan that drove me to Despair
Of all the places I’ve visited on Earth, I’ve never been anywhere so destitute that having money will do nothing to raise the quality of your existence beyond the average of locals. For the first five days I was in the Gorno-Badahkshan (GBAO) state of Tajikistan, I can accurately recount 90% of what I ate: Watermelon & stale bread. There was almost nothing else to procure in the so called ‘stores’, or to be served in home-stays. Restaurants/Cafes don’t exist in any meaningful way here. This diet was supplemented by Green Tea, jam, butter, boiled pasta, expired Russian Candy, moonshine, and around 100 grams of mystery meat. Even coffee was an obscure luxury. It sucked.
Lonely Planet bills the Pamir Highway of the GBAO as one of the Worlds Great Roadtrips. Having gotten a real kick out of other epic roadtrips including the Romanian Transfăgărășan and a 5 day Roadie from Las Vegas to Nashville, I figured this might be my kind of thing. I’d be starting in the Southern Kyrgyz town of Osh, travelling along the M41 into Tajikistan, hugging its outer borders with China and Afghanistan, before eventually ending up in the capital of Dushanbe. All up it would take about 9 days.
But The Pamir Highway is effectively Route 66 in the Mad Max Universe: Bleak, Barron, Lifeless, and worst of all, Repetitive. Maverick lunatics applying to be the first person(s) on Mars ought to spend a week out here then re-check their enthusiasm. On the 5th day, as we approached the Wakhan Delta, my spirits soared as I started seeing Trees again. Trees.
As we drove across the Kyrgyz border and into Tajikistan, I noticed periodic bursts of splitting pain in my head, as though it were being crushed in a vice. And the first night I was in the tiny town of Murgab, despite my extreme exhaustion, I could barely sleep. Instead I had to settle for a night hopscotching between mild hallucinations and searing migraines. I had no idea what was going on but it was awful. And the next day when me and my guide were climbing a minor rise to see some Paleolithic rock painting, my legs turned to jelly and I felt as though I were going to collapse. Before I could say something, my guide turned round and gasping, uttered, this altitude, is bad for even me. Then it hit me, the GBAO is frequently at an altitude of 4000-5000 metres. At that very minute we were clambering around at a height of 4400 metres. What I’d been experiencing (and what I’d be experiencing more of), was moderate altitude sickness. Yippee.
You don’t go to a country like Tajikistan and not get the worst upset stomach of your life. I was shitting burning oil and experiencing pangs of intense nausea for pretty much the entire time I was here, and continued to do so for days, even after I’d left for the infinitely more palatable Kazakhstan.
Like four out of the other five Central Asian countries, Tajikistan is a dictatorship, presided over in this case by the indomitable Emomali Rahmon. Throughout the country, billboards of this pompous bond villain staring staunchly into the middle distance while crowing some patriotic drivel, abound, often as some tattered peasant reaps grass in the real life foreground. It really is a postcard of despotism.
As in all Police states, any official wielding so much as a pittance of power will swing it around like a one-ton whale cock.
All districts within the GBAO, not to mention all states within Tajikistan itself are marked by military checkpoints that insist on a cacophony of paperwork in order to pass through, not to mention bribes to ensure that you don’t die of old age before you’re given the all clear. The same charade resurfaces every time you’re pulled over by a cop, and it occurred with distressing frequency, even compared to the likes of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
While my guide was the one dealing with Rahmon’s cronies most of the time, I did get my own unique experience while alone in the capital of Dushanbe. Having dropped my stuff off at my hotel, I ventured out for a walk around the monuments of the city centre. They include a slightly intriguing ensemble of fountains, gardens, statues and, the star attraction, the Guinness verified worlds largest flag pole. I’d just started wandering through when a policeman materialised out of nowhere and stopped me. Grinning, and speaking mostly with his hands, he motioned that he needed my camera. With absolutely no choice in the matter, I passed it over.
Smiling again, he took his oversized hat off, placed it on my head, and then began taking pictures of me with, as I nervously went along with the charade.
After a dozen or so snaps from different angles, he held out his hand, and with a thoughtful eye to the sky, summoned a figure in English.
As it was abundantly clear that I would otherwise not be getting my camera back, I wordlessly handed it over. Thankfully it was only amounted to $6USD, still easily more than his daily salary.
Shuffling off, I’d barely made it to the outskirts of the gardens when my field of vision opened up to reveal dozens of police and soldiers all about the place. As Tantalising as the worlds largest flagpole might of been up close, I decided to go back to the Hotel.
Not surprisingly, I was a little hard-pressed to find anyone who wanted to join me for large parts of my Central Asian adventure. Least of all Tajikistan. But originally it didn’t bother me. I’m a pretty independent guy who’s totally at home in his own company. That was of course until it really got bad. When you’re in various states of sickness, uncomfortable, bored, deprived of basic comforts like running water, electricity and internet – all you really want is too have a good gripe about it too someone. Mutual griping is cathartic – it leads to stress release, shared memories, and even to humour. But I was running this shit solo. On the first day, my shitty Sony Z4’s security system locked me out completely, as I was unable to connect to any of the 2G networks, despite getting a local sim card. This meant I couldn’t even use it to listen to music or take pictures, let alone connect to anyone anywhere about my state of despair. I was locked out for 5 days.
I did of course have my ethnically Kyrgyz Tajik driver and guide to converse with – sort of – since their English was basic at best. But they were always doing their best and couldn’t have been more accommodating under most of the given circumstances. It would have felt out of place to bitch about it to them. So for better or worse, I kept my trepidations to myself. The option of bailing on the whole trip itself constantly tempted, but that in itself would have been a multi-day journey to the nearest airport. I waited it out.
7. All-round Shitiness
Things never got off to a great start for me here. Just 2km short of the Tajik border, as we attempted to pass a slower moving SUV, it suddenly veered violently towards us and ran us off the road, across a series of boulders and into a small ditch – with the front tyre mangled. To their credit they clearly felt sufficiently guilty about this to stop and help replace the tyre, along with a dozen or so other cars that passed by us over the next 3 hours – but it was still a hell of dangerous, dick move. We’d narrowly avoided hitting a telephone poll.
We celebrated our recovery from this by crossing the border and getting into the GBAO region of Tajikistan itself. In case I haven’t made it clear, everything just generally sucked. I might of had two showers for the whole time I was here. The food was awful. I was sick. I was cut off from everyone. The scenery became bleak and monotonous. Passing landmarks such as the countries largest lake were often depressing in itself, as the lake was revealed to be extremely Saline – and therefore, as effectively dead as everything else.
Politically and economically, the country is fucked. Most people in the GBAO region are living on sustenance level rations, with 19th Century infrastructure to boot.
When I was there, the banks had been frozen for 2 months, making withdrawals impossible and salaries unpaid. People had thus been operating on a complex IOU system and my driver/guide were over the moon that I’d insisted on paying cash as opposed to doing a bank transfer some months earlier (an ominously Byzantine process involving 2 intermediary banks). It’s quite remarkable the situation has yet to boil over into a Second Civil War.
Perhaps the root-cause of the countries struggles stem from the capital, Dushanbe, which depressingly translates to ‘Monday’ in Tajik. Given the name, it’s quite remarkable that such a place never featured in a vignette alongside Garfield the cat. Though probably for the best since in the context of the Garfieldverse, it only could of lead to the felines horrific injury or death.
When Sacha Baren Cohen invented the character Borat, he really should of placed him from Tajikistan. Not only is the country even more appropriately obscure, but I found it to be possibly as terrible as his mock representation of Kazahkstan (which by contrast in reality, is extremely well developed). Of the 58 countries I’ve been to thus far, this was my personal worst. The second my Kazakh bound plane became airborne off the Dushanbe airport tarmac – I was overcome by pure fucking joy.