A Travellerspoint blog

'If it rained stones, we would find a way to survive.'

A Tajik proverb

sunny 35 °C

Life is tough in Tajikistan, but as the saying goes, they are a resilient folk. A few factoids about the country for you, coz we all love those, to paint a bit of a picture:

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- 93% of the country is mountainous (imagine the state of the roads)
- 45% of GDP comes from remittances, mostly the menfolk sending roubles back from working in the Russian construction industry
- Imports of goods and services make up 60% of GDP

Take any one of these facts - very little room to grow food, no local industry to support the economy, no people to provide a labour force - and any country would find it difficult to survive. Add them all together and you have yourself a very poor state. Throw in a totalitarian and corrupt government, fuelled to a large extent by the trafficking of Afghanistan's opium, and stones raining down from the sky suddenly doesn't seem so far fetched.

The day we arrived in Tajikistan the government kicked off an offensive, helicopter gunships and all, against 'rebels' in the south west of the country. 'Rebels' being those loyal to the Tajik border police (as opposed to the central government). Said 'rebels' were apparently responsible for the murder of a government official 2 days prior. The fighting took place mostly in one town, Khorog, near the Afghan border (read - drug trade). Other than the fact that it had happened all other information about the situation, including casualties, was sparse and varying. All communications had been cut. And this town was the gateway to the supposed highlight of our trip in Tajikistan - the Pamir Highway.

Melon man, 24 hours

Melon man, 24 hours

Bizarrely, the following day when we found out about this news everyone was going about their business in the north as if nothing had happened. Everyone telling us not to worry, it was a long way away. Imagine for a moment.... Gerry Brownlee was murdered in Whanganui. Two days later, without any sort of enquiry, the government, assuming the Whanganui Police Force are guilty of the crime, sends in the helicopter gunships and guns down the gangsters, and the unfortunate civilians in the way. Roads are closed, communications cut and no one knows the true outcome of the events. And the next day everyone else in the country is just going, 'Lah-lah lah-lah laah', getting on with their usual business. Difficult isn't it.

President Rahmon - he's got wheat, how can you not trust this face?!

President Rahmon - he's got wheat, how can you not trust this face?!

So we went hiking in the Fan Mountains and a week later headed to the capital Dushanbe to get the low down on roads, borders and the events. The guest house we stayed at was like a tourist refugee camp, choked with people who had been evacuated from the region before and following the fighting, and those, like us, who had always planned on heading there. We gathered information from embassies, websites, travellers, and it all conflicted. Communications to the region were still cut so no one really knew what the story was. We decided it wasn't the kind of situation we should head into so drew our Tajikistan journey to an end earlier than planned and made for the border.

Wholesome Friday night fun in the capital

Wholesome Friday night fun in the capital

It was definitely disappointing not to be able to head into the Pamirs, massive mountains, rural villages, adventures galore. Tajiks had been so welcoming and generous, the landscape spectacular, we had been enjoying our time there a lot. But we were the lucky ones. It wasn't our homes burning and we could leave.

Posted by chrisgulik 09:48 Archived in Tajikistan Comments (0)

One of life's highs

Trekking in the Fan Mountains, Tajikistan

sunny 28 °C

The Fan Mountains are rugged, bare, remote, and so high (peaking at 5,487m). Glaciers drip feed gurgling ice blue rivers and stone cold, perfectly blue, alpine lakes. It is a spectacular environment; we spent four days hiking through it and it was absolutely fantastic.

Aluaddin Lakes

Aluaddin Lakes

Glacial rivers

Glacial rivers

We joined forces with a group of 4 Frenchies in their 50s and formed an expedition: 6 hikers, one guide, one cook, two doneky guys and 6 donkeys! It's true there were nearly as manys staff as hikers, but we organised the trip through a local, community based tourism, organisation. So we felt justified in the seeming excess as it provided some income to some locals that really needed it. Also, I've gotta say, it was pretty sweet carrying just a little day bag while our donkey carried the heavy load (that was a first!).

Alauddin Pass, 3,860m

Alauddin Pass, 3,860m

Local kids, Artush village

Local kids, Artush village

Our trail head started in the ridiculously friendly village of Artush. We spent an afternoon walking around the village the day before we set off hiking.We watched village life - donkeys baring heavy loads, house builders, water collectors, laundry washers beside a stream heating water in shallow pans to get those stubborn stains out. A local kid with a bit of english picked up on us pretty quick and insisted we come to have tea at his english teacher's hosue. Which we did. We walked through a gate, into a large veggie garden, and in the moments we walked to the house we had picked up a trail of 5 older women and many more children. We were sat with ceremony beside Nana lying on her death bed in the front room, and a spread of jams, nuts, fruits, breads and tea was set before us. A wonderful encounter, made all the better by Farsida, the beautiul intelligent young women, formerly an english teacher, who could translate for us. Her husband didn't want her to work once they married, so she left her job teaching english at a university to become a mother to her children in a remote (albeit beautiful) village. While he worked as a taxi driver in Moscow. Needless to say we were both incredibly frustrated on her behalf.

Donkeys!

Donkeys!

And then we walked. Up the valley past summer pastures where locals camp out in the warm months with their herds, seeking fresh grass. Everyday we climbed a pass, the biggest being 3,800m. Every pass required more than a 700m ascent. And every time we reached the top of the pass a new vista of even bigger peaks would unveil itself, along with even more peaks leading off into the distance. Every night we camped wild beside said beautiful lakes. We never slept below 2,800m. Hence each evening's swim required a good squeal on entry and much flustering to get out as quick as possible. Oh, but we were so refreshed when we did. It was a landscape I had never spent so much time in. The hills are barren as they are so high, which also means your views are always uninterrupted - no trees or bush to get in they way. Many a snow capped peak, waterfalls of rocks and a multitude of rock and alpine colours. Ahhh, it was incredible.

Camping at Kulikalon Lakes

Camping at Kulikalon Lakes

I write this in the courtyard of our guest house in Dushanbe, the capital. We are assessing our next move, made more complex by fighting in the south west of the country. But more on that, and the rest of this wonderful country, later.

Much love.

Morning reflection at the Aluaddin Lakes

Morning reflection at the Aluaddin Lakes

Posted by chrisgulik 01:04 Archived in Tajikistan Comments (4)

Enter the 'Stans

Turkmenistan

sunny 41 °C

We have made it safely to Central Asia, the land of the 'Stans. After a rather dramatic and expensive exit from Azerbaijan (more on that some other time). Our ship, my namesake, Professor Gul, cruised into the turquoise habour of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.

Professor Gul

Professor Gul

The 'Stans always seemed like a central part of our trip, and it felt good to arrive. And to see that the exotic radar had cranked right up. Throw in a dose of political insanity and some beauitful freaks of nature and you have yourself an interesting tour of a rarely visited police state.

And we were on tour, it's the law if you want to spend more than the 5 days that a transit visa allows. This entailed Dan and I in a Toyota Hilux with our Russian Turkmen guide Oleg. Not our usual style of travel, and you do really miss out on interactions with locals this way, but as a means to see this country it's not all bad.

We camped in the desert and the steppe, each time filling every pore and folicle with dust and sand. But the views were worth it. Yangkala Canyon rises out of the dull monotonous steppe in stripes of white, pink and yellow, 180km on terrible roads from the nearest city. Past slow moving camels and sad and lonely looking isolated small villages. We took a slightly dangerous trip on foot down into the canyon and watched a spectaular sunset over shots of vodka and some AC/DC supplied by Oleg. In the Karakum Desert we visited Darvaza Gas Crater. The country has an enormous natural gas reserve, and during exploration some time in the 1950s the earth crumbled into a hole that was hiding below the surface, with a vast source of gas. The local animals were soon getting sick from the gas so a resourceful farmer set a tyre on fire and rolled it into the crater - setting the gas on fire, and it has been burning every since. A pretty awesome sight by night.

At the gates of Mordoor

At the gates of Mordoor

Yangkala Canyon

Yangkala Canyon

Turkmenbashi, the former dictator, was, I would say, just a little bit crazy. And nothing drives this home better than a visit to the capital Ashgabat. We travelled over a 1000 kilomteres on terrible roads in the country, but not into Ashgabat, which is surrounded by near empty perfectly groomed six lane highways. The centre of town is a mass of enormous white marble buildings topped with gold or blue mosaic domes, or perhaps a gold portrait of the man himself. I would love to show you photos of the souless desert city filled to overflowing with fountains (which rape the Aral Sea of its source) but you aren't allowed to take photos. Sometimes you can't even walk down the street. And there are police and army guys standing on every corner to enforce this. Dan got it right when he said, 'We have just been walking around lah-lah land'. You have to walk, or preferrably catch a bus, a good way before you get to parts of town that haven't yet been bulldozed to make way for empty marble palaces, and where people actually live. All this in stark contrast to mud brick homes and said terrible roads elsewhere in the country. Such a man kept the people happy by decreeing that until 2030 everyone can have free natural gas, water, petrol and salt (and there is evidence everywhere of all of these resources being carelessly wasted) and not charging taxes. Pretty interesting place.

And then the exotic: camels, i LOVE camels;

Give it up for the camel!

Give it up for the camel!

The local pharmacy

The local pharmacy

Some of the fabric for all those dresses

Some of the fabric for all those dresses

the trucks of watermelons that came into every village every day; the beautiful full length colourful dresses that every women wore with an equally colourful headscarf;

the gold teeth so frequently used to replace bad ones; the animist beliefs and especially the cemetery we visited where each head stone was a wooden pole with steps carved up the side to help the deceased get into the afterlife, topped with the horns of a wild goat, to protect them once they are there; the desert and the high dry hills. Increidble kindness and genouristy from the locals and their total curiosity in us. Hopefully the pictures convey a little of this.

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Now we are in Uzbekistan. It's a different story, kind of. And I'll get to that soon.

And thanks to everyone for your comments on the blog. It's a bit of a funny way to communicate as it seems so one sided and you never can tell if you are just some crazy lady talking to herself. It's good to know there is some of you out there. xxx

Cheers from the Karakum Desert!

Cheers from the Karakum Desert!

Posted by chrisgulik 09:54 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (3)

What a day!

3 borders and an encounter with the Georgian military

sunny 27 °C

We went off hiking again, one last time in Georgia, high up into the Caucasus, in Lago Dekhi National Park. A three day hike beside the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan, culminating at Black Lake, which itself is cut in half by an invisible border between Georgia and Dagestan (or Russia, depending on whose side you are on). There were all these borders, and a military outpost in the wilderness guarding them, so we were told we must take a local guide. And so we set off. Climbing 2,000m the first day over a mere 8.8km. If you are not familiar with things like elevation and walking, that's a hell of a lot of up over a very short distance making for a difficult steep 6 hours walk. Seems to be the only way into the Caucasus - up, up, up - no gentle foothills.

After a night cooking over the fire and sleeping in the tent we set off early to Black Lake. It was a hefty distance of 30km there and back. After another big climb we had an excellent vantage point down the valley to the plains below - Azerbaijan to the left, Georgia to the right.

Invisible boundaries - Azerbaijan to the left, Georgia to the right

Invisible boundaries - Azerbaijan to the left, Georgia to the right

A few hours later and we spotted two lonely green tents in the vast grassy mountains in the distance, with a Georgian flag flapping in the wind. Arriving at the military base we were immediately offered a seat as well as tea and coffee by the friendly Major (who reminded me a little of Colonel Potter), and given a bowl of dates to munch on. They took our passports and went about whatever it was they had to do while we sat and watched the small base (c. 10 guys) go about their business. A four man border patrol come back to base and disarmed, water was collected, food was made etc. Having never been anywhere near a military base, all this was rather fascinating. They were super friendly and interested in us, and it was another frustrating scenario where you want to be able to speak every language in the world so you can talk to everyone. I was suitably impressed by their hospitality and my luck of experiencing such an environment. Little did I know there was more to come.

We set off to the lake, marching with our 2 person military escort, one soldier in front, Dan and I in the middle and another soldier to the rear, plus the guide. Turns out the Georgian military wouldn't put it past Russia to take out a tourist in Georgia just to piss the country off and wreck their tourist industry. We could believe it too, so were grateful for them being there. Reaching the lake in its beautiful setting it was difficult to imagine that at the other end was Dagestan - human borders really don't show up in nature. At 3,000m I decided not to swim, but Dan decided to make a break for it. Half way across the lake however he decided it was too cold, so swam back.

Dan makes a break for Dagestan

Dan makes a break for Dagestan

Back to base, it was 3pm, and with at least 3 hours walking ahead of us we were keen to get going. But instead we were sat down, offered tea and coffee and had no idea what was going on and what was taking so long. Within half an hour a table had been placed before us and set for 7. And slowly the food began to be brought out. We were to dine with the men at base, including the 2 commanding offices. Wow. Quite an unexpected encounter. We really felt quite honoured, and surprised, to the point where we both ate meat as there had been no chance to communicate we were vegetarians, nor did we want to seem ungrateful for such a treat. But also, in context, these guys must get so bored up there day on day, month on month, it must be great to have a distraction. As well as feasting we managed to polish off a large bottle of chacha (grappa like spirit, usually homemade, 50-ish% proof) over many toasts, mostly involving something to do with Georgian and NZ military, borders, women or peace. Before stumbling down the mountain and back to our tent just before the dark set in.

Sunset in the Caucasus

Sunset in the Caucasus

Posted by chrisgulik 23:09 Archived in Georgia Comments (2)

No trip on the Silk Road would be complete without...

sunny 25 °C

So we made it into Azerbaijan, and contrary to popular reports, the people here are just as friendly, if not more so than the rest of the Caucasus.

Ok, so we've only been to one town, but so far so good. We didn't even have to pay a bribe at the border crossing, and they didn't get mad that we have visiting their neighbour and sworn enemy, Armenia.

So that one town is Shaki, and as no trip on the silk route would be complete without staying in a Caravanessi, we are doing that right now.
Karavansary

Karavansary

These are old forts that were provided by local rulers for merchant caravans to stay in while they were visiting town. I've seen many all over the world, some piles of dust, some filled with tradesmen grinding and banging away on metalwork, some touristified with craftsmen polishing copper souvineers, and now i've stayed the night in one.

Shaki family visiting from Baku

Shaki family visiting from Baku

On our stay here we've also had the opportunity to practise our english with the local school children and their families

Tomorrow we are off to the oil boom town capital Baku.

Posted by dantheperson 00:45 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (2)

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