“Where do you go? Buttoned in your favourite coat, stepping out to a different world. And you might be home late” – Ocean Colour Scene.
Get ready for a death trip – 22 hours of mayhem. This was no pleasure cruise, this was an absolute backpacking journey from a lunatic asylum. How about a border crossing within the same country? Is it possible? Yes, kind of. I remember crossing the land border in the DMZ between South and North Korea some five years ago. I also crossed from Ukraine into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is still inside the Ukraine of course but needs a special permit. Some buck eejits class Scotland and England as the same country, others disturbingly do the same with Northern Ireland, Podjistan and the Irish Republic. The same has to be said about these two places – Tajikistan and Gorno Badakhshan.
Tajikistan is clearly the name of the entire country, yet within Tajikistan is a separate autonomous region and oblast – the Gorno Badakhshan region (GBAO). First up – you’ll need a permit to visit Gorno Badakhshan. Yes, having a Tajikistan Visa does not mean access to GBAO, and you won’t be allowed in – you need to get a Gorno Badakhshan permit. Here are the details on securing this brace of visas for what is realistically the same country, but they will use up two separate pages in your passport:
How to get a Tajikistan Visa in Bishkek
How to get a Gorno Badakhshan Visa in Bishkek
Traffic Advice in Tajikistan
Before you decide to head from Dushanbe to Khorog, get in touch with the authorities in Gorno Badakhshan to ask about traffic issues. Basically in the winter time, every day they issue warnings based on weather. I got myself signed up for these warnings and you should do this too. It helps plan your trip better, and safer. Register with these guys here for the GBAO Daily Situation Report and map and they will email you daily updates on the road situation.
FOCUS HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE
An Affiliate of the Aga Khan Development Network
217 Lenin Street , Khorog 736003
Republic of Tajikistan (+992)3522 20454, 20451, 20443
HF selcall: 9204
Leaving Dushanbe, Tajikistan
OK so the route I personally took to get to Gorno Badakhshan was overland, in winter from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan and I planned to go all the way to Khorog, capital of Gorno Badakhshan. The roads are a disaster in winter so you need to be aware of this. There are flights to Khorog’s tiny airport but they’re not really for a budget backpacker, coming in at around $100 US.
You must head to the bus and taxi depot in Dushanbe. It’s not far from the old green market, and since Dushanbe airport is near the city centre, it’s also pretty close to the airport.
Here is my timeline of the day which was a day of pure lunacy where an alleged “8 hour trip no problem” took almost 24 hours door to door, but I made it!
6:30 am – I awake and get my breakfast at the excellent Marian’s Guesthouse in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and I pack for the journey.
7 am – Breakfast at Marian’s Guesthouse. Excellent.
7:45 am – I get a lift from Said at Travel in Tajikistan – he takes me from the guesthouse to the bus station.
7:55 am – I am already inside my 4 x 4. It’s an 8 seat Range Rover. There is one other Tajik girl inside. We agree on a price of 280 Somoni to take me from Dushanbe to Khorog. This is about £28 so not too cheap, but saving a lot on the flight and some adventure lay ahead! I can’t wait to leave and hope the car fills up soon. Another guy from Afghanistan gets in at 8.10 am. Now there are 3 of us, waiting to have 8.
8.55 am – The car is still not filled up. I’m going a bit crazy as some people get in, then get out again. It looked at one point we were ready to go. Nothing is happening. We are going nowhere.
9.55 am – The car is still not filled up. I’m going a bit crazy as some people get in, then get out again. It looked at one point we were ready to go. Nothing is happening. We are going nowhere.
10.39 am – The car is still not filled up, but we actually move about 5 metres! There are now two new passengers but the first girl has now gone. We are back to having 4 out of the 8 we need. It’s becoming quite lonely and infuriating. If I had known it would take this long, I would have left my backpack on the seat and gone to have coffee for 3 hours! I did do some writing but as each second ticked by, I had no idea when we would leave. The entire place is static.
10.43 am – We have 4 passengers now and we move to the front of the Avtovagzal. I have no idea if we will be leaving soon. It has been almost 5 hours since I awoke and I am still in Dushanbe!! The lads start loading loads of stuff onto the roof rack. I don’t know if this is a good sign or a bad sign!
11.10 am – Two girls arrive and they just hang around chatting. At some points, they get in the car, then out again, in again, out again. I can only assume this is normal here and everybody in Dushanbe except for me knows what is happening! We have a random document check with our drive and move again, a few more metres. There are now only 3 empty seats.
11.12 am – Just as I think we are making progress, we move a further 20 metres and stop again. I assume each time we are somehow crawling towards the exit of the bus station and at some point today, we will finally leave Dushanbe.
Now the driver gets out, and so does 1 of the passengers. It’s becoming frustrating and infuriating. I use my book to translate and try to ask what is going on, but nobody here has an issue with it. To me – it would have just made sense to have a car with “Khorog – leaving when full” (in Tajik) written on it. But it seems that there are 20 – 30 cars the same as the one I am in, all waiting to fill up. There is no first come, first served system. I am sure I have just been unlucky and picked the slowest moving car in history. Since I awoke some 5 ago ago, I have moved about 1 mile from the Guesthouse, about 23 metres of that was probably in the bus station bus park. The only positives I can think of is that I haven’t had to pay yet or hand over any passport. I could just up and leave but my plan is to backpack the sights of Khorog, head to the Afghanistan border and to stay in the awesome Pamir Lodge for three nights. I knew all the time, that the final destination of this trip would be worth it. And of course, later it was. However on this morning, at 11.13 am I was still stuck in Dushanbe, former name – Stalinabad.
11.14 am – A Frontera pulls up in front of us now. We are told to get out of the vehicle. What the pluck is going on??? We are now ushered into the Frontera, a smaller vehicle. I don’t speak Russian, Tajik, Farsi or Dari and nobody else speaks English so it has been tough. And of course there are no other tourists or backpackers in sight here.
11.31 am – Hold on, what’s happening, are we actually leaving??? We have now managed to fill the car then had to all get out again for some reason. I never worked out why. But we get back in and by 11.32 am we have finally left Dushanbe Bus Station.
Then the driver gets quizzed on the way out of the station, then we stop for petrol. I have been awake for almost 6 hours and I am still in the same city!
11.41 am – We stop for “black market petrol” by the side of the road on the edge of Dushanbe, presumably its cheaper than a petrol station, or its the driver’s mate. The price of the trip to Khorog is now 300 Somoni. I reluctantly pay the extra 20, I was told it was 280 Somoni earlier. But the others all pay 300 Somoni too so I know I haven’t been ripped off as a tourist. The extra price was presumably because we were now in a smaller car and we couldn’t fill the original 8 seats.
11.46 am – Car is now full of people, full of petrol and I’ve been awake for 6 hours. We still haven’t left Dushanbe, but are on the road out of the city finally. Yee ha!!
2 pm – After a long drive through drab scenery and a few villages, we pass a fort – Hulbuk, before the town of Kurbon Shaid, I believe.
2.31 pm – We arrive in Kulob, this is Tajikistan’s third biggest city.
2.41 pm – We stop for lunch in Kulob. I pay 12 Somoni in a nice restaurant for a good pilov of rice, beef and carrots and 7 Somoni for a lemon juice.
There was no time for sightseeing but a sports arena out the back had a photo of a football team on it.
3.12 pm – We leave Kulob and are now on route to the border checkpoint with Gorno Badakhshan region, which of course requires the special permit. I find out my Afghan friend on board is called Faruk and he actually speaks better English than the Tajik guys. Not that any of them should of course – it’s their country. I should be speaking their language, not vice versa. I ain’t no travel snob.
3.49 pm – After some epic driving up icy roads and bumpy corners of snow, we arrive at the entry point for Gorno Badakhshan! It becomes exciting now.
There is a hut on the right, a double gate in front and a Tajikistan flag on the left. It is cold, icy, snowy and windy. We stop.
The soldier at the checkpoint takes the foreigners passports – mine and Faruk’s Afghanistan passport to check the documents are all in order. He is away for about 3 – 4 minutes checking.
In the meantime however, we have broken down!!! We cannot get the car to start, madness!!
No passport stamps are given but the permits were checked and our passports are handed back. They noticed my Afghanistan visa in the passport but they didn’t ask me if I was going there or what border I would be using (my route to Afghanistan would be later – via Termiz in southern Uzbekistan).
I help with the engine and we have to push the car to get it started, it was actually lucky we broke down here as there are soldiers to help, and huts for shelter from the now heavy snow and unsightly roads ahead. There is a quick chance for photos too and I meet a guy from Khorog here.
The car breaks down again and sheep come passing through in a herd. With the army guys, we push the car and get it started again and we are all good to go now!
4.02 pm – But we are not yet there. We have another checkpoint and stop on the Gorno Badakhshan side and passports are checked again. This time, bags are checked too. When the final barrier goes back up, we are into the autonomous region of Gorno Badakhshan, entering in the Dashtijum area, though there isn’t really a village here..
4.20 pm – We now head down some mud roads and valleys, there is one village with a Mosque on our side and then we get lower onto the Shurabad Pass. The Pyanj River is to the right. Beyond and behind this, lies Afghanistan. It looks magical. This is my glimpse of Afghanistan. It’s misty, tranquil and peaceful. All is quiet.
4.53 pm – We arrive in daylight in the village of Zigar. It is a small village, which is muddy and obscure. We stop for petrol and it feels like this could be the last petrol station for miles and miles. We breakdown again here, but we push and off we go!
5.31 pm – Daylight is starting to fade and we have a quick stop by gorgeous valleys. It’s basically a cigarette stop for the others, for me, it is a chance to make a video and take some photos of Afghanistan, which is across the river from us, only about 50 metres away.
5.51 pm – I was surprised that we have another checkpoint here. We are well into the wilderness by now, daylight has faded completely and darkness and heavy rain is all around. It’s really lonely and remote here. It’s a tad eerie. I haven’t been many places as ridiculous as this. It is a checkpoint at Kalai Khum – Darvaz, so I’m told. After this, the road is tarmacked (for the first time since leaving Kulob) so we go a bit faster. Then it just becomes mud roads again and we slide through the rain.
6.55 pm – We stop at the town of Kalai Khum. This is supposed to be a dinner stop, but I don’t want to eat – I had food with me already. I just want to get to the destination, but the two ladies on board need a full meal up. In the meantime, I buy some mallows and wafers in the local shop and have a beer. I felt a bit stressed but it also felt good to have made it into another wacaday country on my journey – Gorno Badakhshan, the Pamir Region and celebrate somehow with a beer.
7.20 pm – The ladies were fast at dinner and we leave Kalai Khum with a road sign saying 240 kilometres from Khorog. At this rate it will be early morning before we are there.
8.40 pm – There is another checkpoint now at Vanj Valley and passports are checked again. This is the fourth and final checkpoint. Sometimes I think these checkpoints are here for safety rather than checking passports. We are in isolation – if we break down, these checkpoints might be the only shelter on a cold winter night.
12.05 am – We have a accident. It could have been fatal. We are lucky to be alive. It’s that simple. I was scared. The entire last four hours of driving, the roads are icy, slippy and we are basically driving alongside a huge cliff, to the right of me (in the passenger seat) a river. One nasty swerve and we are done for. And that almost happened.
The car swivelled in the ice a full 180 degrees, with the back part of the vehicle hanging over the cliff. We daren’t look down. It was one of those moments, we were saved by a huge rock that stopped the car. There was no barrier. Without that rock, we were surely all dead. I prayed a lot and couldn’t now sleep – we had to be careful. Our driver slowed down after that. We had diced with death and survived.
2 am – I got a text message saying “Welcome to Afghanistan” because we were now right at the border bridge. There was a mini checkpoint of the car here but not of passports. Again, I think it was road safety. Our driver reported the swerving and the accident to the officials here. It was a dangerous night. The sleet, hail, snow, rain, ice and wind, didn’t stop. It’s probably one of the scariest nights of my travels so far.
3.10 am – We seem to have got through the worst part of the road. The roads are now only snow and less ice. We drop one of the ladies off at Porshnev town (I believe) and the driver asks me where I am staying. I told him Pamir Lodge – he didn’t understand but luckily I had Said’s number, the owner of the guesthouse.
3.30 am – We are finally in Khorog and we drop Faruk off at his mates house and the other passengers stay on, to get off after me.
4 am – Up a steep hill in darkness, we arrive at the Pamir Lodge!! I have a cosy room, I am welcomed in by Said who says I can get my breakfast at 8 – 10 am! I am so happy I have made it. 22 hours from door to door!
This was an absolute crazy trip on my journey. One of the oddest borders I have ever crossed, one of the scariest journeys and I was happy to be here safe and sound in Khorog. Please be aware of the road hazards and risks of travelling in this region in winter – it is not easy. Take it from me. Phew! What a long journey, and a mega blog post! I need a cup of the Earl Grey now. Little did I know that I would cross about 5 more land borders in the next 3 weeks including the Uzbekistan to Afghanistan border and a truly Timmy Mallet inspired Wacaday trip to Nukus, capital of Karakalpakstan. In the meantime in Khorog, I toured the sights, met up with a volunteer group and enjoyed the hospitality of the Pamir Lodge.
Here are the videos from this crazy 22 hour journey from Dushanbe to Khorog: