Road stories #27: About the time we hitchhiked 300 km from Dushanbe to Dushanbe

From Dushanbe to Dushanbe - header

Dushanbe: partying and hearing horror stories that didn’t inspire optimism

Poster of the president, Dushanbe, TajikistanThe capital city of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, is similar to other Central Asian capitals – pompous and over the top with public transport that barely works. What’s different, though, is that Dushanbe is actually quite pleasant, even with its grandeur and the pictures of the President looking at you from every corner. It is green and lively and its architecture is not unlikeable. To put it simply, it was our favourite Central Asian capital so far.

We were staying with a couple of lovely Filipino girls who threw a party on our arrival and who participated in the next part of our Cultural Relay Project. This time we were learning how to make the Tajik national dish, qurutob, (with the help of their Tajik neighbour and her mum) and we taught them how to cook traditional Polish pierogi.

At theirs we also met a couple of Spanish hitchhikers who had done the opposite trip to ours, hitching from Russia, across Mongolia, China, Kyrgyzstan and into Tajikistan, so we were very curious about all their stories. They had one very hair-raising story of them camping on the Afghan side of the border and being taken hostage by an armed group of men, who first shot at them with a machine gun, then tied their hands behind their backs and packed them onto a pickup truck. They were then taken somewhere, hit around and questioned. When the armed group, who turned to be Afghan border police (!), learnt they were tourists, there were kisses and apologies maid. No harm done then!

The whole story didn’t inspire optimism, but after all we were not going to cross into Afghanistan, so it should all be all right.

Presidential Palace, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Presidential Palace, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Organising the GBAO permit

While in Dushanbe, we also wanted to organise our GBAO permits for the next stretch of our journey. GBAO stands for Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and the area is located in the Pamir Mountains, making up 45% of the whole Tajikistan area. When the civil war broke out in 1992, the local government in Gorno-Badakhshan declared independence from Tajikistan and since then there have been occasional clashes between the army and local militia groups. From what we’d read on the internet, getting the GBAO permit should be easy in theory. You go to the OVIR (migration office), queue up, pay and receive the slip you need in order to travel in the Pamirs.

So we had woken up early in the morning to be first in the queue and the window wasn’t even open yet. When the woman finally arrived (only 1h10 min late) she told us that they had stopped issuing GBAO permits and if we want we can come back in an hour and speak to the inspector. Say what? Stopped giving out permits??? That means we couldn’t travel to Kyrgyzstan the way we wanted and would have to go back on ourselves, not even casting our eyes on the Roof of the World! We came back an hour later only to hear the same answer, no GBAO permits, impossible to enter!

On our way out we met a French guy who told us that the owner of his hostel had told him about a guy who can help with the permits. A couple of quick phone calls and the guy came to meet us outside the OVIR office. He told us he may be able to help us although it might be difficult (meaning, he might need to bribe a high up officer) and that we should get in touch with him in the evening. After a few hours we got a phone call from him: ‘Come to my office, your permits are ready!

GBAO Permit, Tajikistan

GBAO Permit, Tajikistan

Hitchhiking 300 km from Dushanbe to Dushanbe

So we woke up nice and early the next day to hitchhike to the Pamir Mountains, which we’d expected to be the most challenging part of the trip so far. And of course, by this stage, we didn’t even imagine how hard it would really be and that we would have to rethink everything.

There are two roads to the Pamirs: one via Darband and another one via Kulob. The Darband road looks like a major road on the map and it’s way shorter than the other road. The problem was that everyone we spoke to said that we should definitely take the Kulob road, but didn’t explaining why. Fair enough, we are always ready to listen to the locals as their knowledge almost always exceeds ours.

Our first lift was a shared taxi that took us for free. We shared the car with a really old woman and a man who had a DIY cage with three birds inside. After the other passengers had got out, we asked the driver which road he’d recommend and to our surprise he was the first one to say the Darband road would be better for us. Since he was behind the wheel, the decision had been made for us, as he took us to the Darband road turn. He was a taxi driver after all, so we trusted his advice, not knowing then how bad it was!

Bees in TajikistanOur next lift was a man who took us to the next town along the road and showed us his little apiary. So far so good, we were hopping along and the next person who took us was a guy in a pick-up truck who didn’t speak any Russian, so we didn’t learn much about him.

Then we jumped into a car with three men. One of them invited us to stay for the night and this is when we knew the Pamirs were starting. We’d heard much about the hospitality of the Pamir people and we hoped we wouldn’t have to use our tent that night, as being invited to their homes is apparently a pretty common occurrence. It was very early, though, and we didn’t want to stop hitchhiking yet so we thanked him and continued on.

Another guy took us in his rattling old car and we were very surprised how this vehicle managed to reach 50 km/h on the winding dirt road to Darband. He told us he was married to a Russian woman and invited us for the night as well. Oh, Pamirs! It was still very early, so we kindly rejected the offer and pushed on.

He left us by a village house next to which was a bucket with a hose letting out a constant stream of water (a car wash, as we learnt later). From there we were picked up by a couple of (gay, according to Jon) guys who were going to spend a couple of days in the wild fishing. They had a lovely 4×4, so the long journey we had ahead of us passed very quickly.

We reached a police checkpoint by which we were supposed to part. We got out of the car and when the policemen heard which way we were heading, they told us the road was closed. ‘No car has passed here today yet’, said one of them. The road to Darwaz via Darband led across a 3252m high mountain pass filled with snow at this time of the year. We were gutted. We came all this way and now we had to go back to Dushanbe?

There was hope, though. The policemen mad a quick phone call and a guy in a 4×4 appeared, ready to take us there. The road was closed, but they took pity on us and organised some transport for which we had to pay, obviously. The guy in a 4×4 was ready to take us only to the mountain pass and said that there should be an off-road vehicle that would take us across. But how much that would be, we didn’t even want to know. Driving across a snowy mountain pass when they have you over a barrel, it could have even been 200$. So the only way for us was to go back to Dushanbe and try the road everybody had recommended. We felt like fools but there was nothing we could do.

It was 5.30 p.m., it had taken us the whole day to hitchhike there, so we feared we would spend the same amount of time hitchhiking back to the capital with the prospect of spending the night camping next to the police checkpoint. We tried hitching back but all the cars were full. Oh dear.

Suddenly a car stopped and the driver came out. We exchanged a couple of sentences in Russian but seeing that it was full we didn’t have much hope. Then two of the passengers got out and the guy told us to jump in. He was going all the way to Dushanbe! We were saved! We wouldn’t need to waste another day to correct our stupid error! Dushanbe here we come again!

written by: Ania


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