Planning a trip through Central Asia is never easy, especially if there is a border crossing involved. The Soviet plan to integrate the many different nationalities and create harmony by displacing people and moving them around did not work. All five of the independent, post-Soviet, Central Asian countries are so different from each other that there is an abrupt change that can definitely be felt when crossing each border. Located in the southeastern part of this region, Tajikistan shares its borders with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Afghanistan, and is culturally and linguistically more similar to Afghanistan than any of the others.
During my travel through Central Asia, I planned to go from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The ideal and most direct route is the Dushanbe to Samarkand highway with a border crossing at Penjikent but unfortunately, as I found out on arrival in Tajikstan, the Penjikent border crossing was closed due to sour relations between the two countries. A real blow to my plans, for sure, but I then found out that the situation could have been much worse: until recently, all border crossings between the two countries were closed. Fortunately, the southernmost and northernmost borders between were now open and, grateful that I now had two options rather than none, I began making changes to my original plans. I decided to take the northern route towards the city of Khujand, close to a small, isolated border crossing in the middle of nowhere.
The next day, I got up early to make the all-day trip to Khujand. Although Tajikistan is geographically the smallest of the five Central Asian countries, travelling around it is extremely time-consuming due to the mountainous nature of the entire country. I went to a small market place on the outskirts of Dushanbe where shared taxis waited to take passengers up north. The parking lot was filled with all kinds of vehicles, none of which resembled official public transport and had it not been for a driver shouting destinations and a ‘Khujand’ sign on the dashboard of a well-used black SUV, I would have never guessed that this would be my ride, on soft makeshift seats that had me facing backwards the whole way. I was the only foreigner among a group of Tajik men who didn’t speak English and who only had a basic knowledge of Russian. The whole trip was very quiet as the other passengers kept mostly to themselves, only occasionally chatting in Tajik; most of the ride was spent mindlessly staring out of the window. Luckily, the surrounding landscape was so breathtaking that boredom was not an option.
The road from Dushanbe to Khujard starts off as a well-paved and relatively comfortable one. My original destination of the Penjikent border crossing is located roughly halfway between Dushanbe and Khujard, and the infrastructure leading to it is quite good as it is one of the most touristy places in the country. Dushanbe, as was once explained to me, is located at the bottom of a ‘bowl’, completely surrounded by mountains, so the first few hours of our trip were spent climbing uphill. The further out of the city we went, the steeper the ‘bowl’ got. Eventually the gentle slopes became towering peaks, and the road endlessly zigzagged its way up over switchbacks carved into the mountains. To one side above us, we could see the seemingly impossible distance we had left to cover, while on the other side below we could see the dizzying heights we had already scaled. Even at that high elevation, travellers don’t actually get to the top. A tunnel a few kilometers long cuts right through the mountainside reducing travel time by hours.
The tunnel was, for me, the most memorable part of the trip. It had absolutely no lighting, so once we got deep inside, even the headlights and taillights of the vehicles seemed to get sucked up into the darkness. The drive through the tunnel was slow, in part due to the darkness and in part due to the large potholes from lack of maintenance. Still facing backwards and completely surrounded by darkness, our slow progress down the pothole-filled street gave me the sensation of floating around in outer space. I lost all concept of left and right, up and down, forward and backwards. It was a very strange sensation to experience. The lights from other vehicles seemed to be alien crafts floating past in the sea of darkness, and only when other vehicles passed us going in the opposite direction did we get a glimpse of the road to remind us that we were safely on solid ground. When we eventually got out of the tunnel, I simultaneously felt relieved to be back in the light and disappointed that the unusual floating sensation was gone. Beyond the tunnel, the road finally starts going downhill towards Penjikent.
At a small outpost called Ayni, the road splits off with Penjikent in one direction and Khujand in the other. Going northwards, the mountains gradually became less green and much rockier, although just as impressive. They definitely seem more intimidating and less passable on the second half of the trip. As we began to zigzag upwards again on the steep rocky slopes, the paved road abruptly ended at a collection of bulldozers, steamrollers and cranes, which rested on a temporary parking area dangerously balanced hundreds of meters above the bottom of the valley below. At first glance, there didn’t seem to be anything further but a huge wall of rock, but the well-camouflaged unpaved road continued winding upwards. Our progress was now greatly reduced as we bumped along at a snail’s pace. Our SUV was being put to the test, but not as much as the large lorries and the impossibly durable old Ladas that were travelling the same road. Occasionally we went slower still, as we managed a tight curve or squeezed past a vehicle going in the opposite direction. For anyone feeling too daring, scattered all across the landscape below are constant reminders what could happen if you aren’t careful enough. The road continues to stretch for hours along the side of the mountain like a huge scar on the otherwise flawless surface before finally heading downhill.
Once we reached the bottom of the mountain and onto safer grounds, we stopped for dinner at a lonely roadside café, the first sign of civilization since leaving Ayni hours earlier. After being in the SUV all day since leaving Dushanbe, it felt wonderful to finally stretch and get some fresh air. The group of Tajik passengers and the driver sat at the lone table in the café as if they had known each other for years, while I lingered a bit, unsure of what to do. The driver made it clear that I should join them, as he did again once the food was brought out. Apparently the meal was included in my fare to Khujard. With stomachs full of rubbery meat, grey broth and warm naan-style bread, we hit the road once more and slept the rest of the way. I awoke to twilight in a bustling urban city – or so it felt after countless hours in the mountains – and checked into the most prominent looking hotel in the city: a 15-storey Soviet-style monstrosity that dominated one corner where two of the biggest streets of Khujand intersect. For ten dollars a night, I got a room with no running water, a black-and-white TV that showed three channels and a way-too-bright bare-bulb overhead light that contrasted a significant lack of lighting in the corridor. The rusty bathtub held several 5-liter bottles of water meant for all my plumbing needs from brushing my teeth to draining the toilet. Not exactly luxurious, but tolerable for one night. I took a sightseeing walk around the city, although there wasn’t much to see aside from the Central Square, marketplace and mosque. I had a quick dinner at a local Tajik restaurant and then went back to my hotel.
The next morning, I took a shared taxi to the Uzbek border. The drive only took about an hour and despite the taxi being shared, I was the only passenger. Apparently, there wasn’t a huge demand for people crossing the border. Unlike most borders, there are very few vehicular crossings at the Tajik-Uzbek border. Both governments make driving in each other’s countries such a hassle that most people don’t bother. A handful of people were waiting to cross the border, mostly Tajik. Anybody who was not obviously Tajik was allowed to get to the front of the line. Eventually there were no Europeans, and I was the only non-Tajik left. A border guard noticed me, and asked what I was doing waiting in line. I was rushed to the front bypassing all the patiently waiting Tajiks and easily crossed the border, albeit having to pay a small bribe. Getting stamped in on the Uzbek side went off without a hitch as well. As I walked from the passport control into Uzbekistan, I felt a sense of relief that I had finally arrived after a very long detour.
As I walked into the vast emptiness of the Uzbek side of the border, I had to figure out how to get to Samarkand...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.