Road to Dushanbe

Road sign, near Aini

We began our trip to Dushanbe, said to take about eight hours, at around 3 PM, when the share taxi that our Penjikent homestay had arranged for us departed Penjikent with one additional passenger in the front seat. Happy to have the back seat to ourselves, and after paying our 120 somoni (around USD 35) each, we drove up the Zerafshan valley, crawling up the mountains into central Tajikistan. The road was unpaved, as it would be almost all the way to Dushanbe.

Views of Zerafshan valley


About halfway through our trip, we came near the junction town of Aini, where numerous children with buckets of apricots ran up to passing cars, trying to sell the harvest. An entire bucket (4 kilograms at least?) cost about 4 somoni, or a little more than a dollar–plastic bag not included. Delicious.

Fuel stop (our driver in center)

As the sunset hours approached, the peaks got higher and we approached Anzob Pass, the highest point on the drive. A few times, we passed Chinese road crew repairing the road–a surprisingly common sight all over the world. We gave one man a lift to his camp, and learned by making use of my limited Mandarin that many of them came from Sichuan Province, where there are no doubt similarly precipitous mountain roads. We filled his helmet with apricots, which he remarked were similar to the ones back home.


Now, I had read that there was a tunnel under construction that was to replace the road over the high Anzob Pass, but I did not know anything else about the tunnel or its status. Right before sunset, we arrived at the entrance to the tunnel, amidst what looked like very active construction.

I took a quick look to the hole on the right (the one I assumed that we would be taking) and saw that it was completely flooded with water, perhaps a foot high. Just when I was thinking, “What the . . . ?” the car entered the hole on the left, which, as it turned out, was also flooded. The driver gestured to us to roll up our windows. Then began what was the strangest and scariest road experience I have ever had.

The tunnel was clearly an active construction project. There were Chinese workers visible throughout the tunnel, and machinery putting out smoke and gaseous fumes. The surface of the road was unfinished, and our taxi was driving through what seemed to vary between a few inches and almost a foot of water. The ceiling of the tunnel was leaking, and in some places the ceiling also appeared unfinished, showing just the rough-hewn mountain post-tunneling. Everything was just barely lit, every few hundred meters a side tunnel, dark and foreboding. When you could see the Chinese crew, they were breathing through cloth as filters–the tunnel was clearly not properly ventilated and the air unwholesome. We used our shirts, trying to breathe as little as possible. It was like an amusement park ride–somewhere between Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean and the Coal Mine exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry–and one which because of its unknown safety was truly frightening.

As it turned out, the tunnel was also exceptionally long, 7 kilometers in total, although at our slow pace and in the sinister surroundings it felt like 70. I recalled to myself a line from Big Fish, a movie I had seen. In it, the main character is fearless because he says that he knows how he dies, and this (whatever adventure he is involved in) isn’t it. While I do not have the benefit of such knowledge, I figured that it was extremely unlikely that I would actually die in a tunnel collapse in Tajikistan (after all, tunnels do not collapse too often, and, for better or for worse, there were professionals actively working in this one). (Derek notes that it wouldn’t be an extremely unsexy way to go. Returning from Laos after very nearly being trampled by a working elephant, Derek wondered what it would have been like for me to have to explain to people that he had been trampled by Laotian elephants.)

Later, I would find out that the tunnel had been built by Iranians, who had apparently botched the project so completely that the tunnel was often completely flooded. Eager to have a timely opening, the President of Tajikistan attempted to drive through it in a grand opening ceremony a few years ago, but had to turn back–despite having a snorkel on his jeep. For the last couple years, Chinese crews have been trying to fix the tunnel, but westerners we spoke to in Tajikistan believe that it is beyond repair and refuse to take it on account of safety concerns (including the horrible air inside the tunnel). But we didn’t know any of this when we were driving through the tunnel.

When we exited the tunnel the sun had already set, and we drove along cliffside roads offering what would be spectacular mountain scenery in the daylight, increasing speed down a canyon until we reached Dushanbe about 7 hours after we had departed.

An Uzbekistan Itinerary

As a French man told us in a Korean restaurant in Bukhara, after sharing with us shots of local vodka, Uzbekistan travel is trendy. Europeans are, believe it or not, flying in for weeklong trips, taking advantage of direct charter flight routings such as Paris to Urgench and Verona to Samarkand. Tourism is booming, countless monuments have been renovated and repainted (for better or for worse) and police checks are definitely down from what we experienced in 2003 (though petty bribery among the locals still seems to be in fashion). If you are curious about the heart of the Silk Road, the history of Tamerlane and the funny geopolitics of contemporary Central Asia, Uzbekistan is your top choice, and the best part is that this small, now reasonably well-touristed country is easy to experience in a relatively short amount of time–a great return on your vacation investment.

You can fly to Tashkent from Asia or North America through Urumqi, Beijing or Seoul, as well as through cities such as Bangkok and Delhi. (See the guest post of 6.10 for the route from Hong Kong to Uzbekistan.) From Europe, in addition to the various charter flights I have mentioned, and other scheduled flights including on the fairly reliable Uzbekistan Airways, BMI travels from London and Air France from Paris to Tashkent. Uzbekistan is horizontally long, and so the best plan is to, after arriving in Tashkent, take one domestic flight to Urgench and then head back overland to Tashkent, sightseeing on the way. You could do it in the other direction, but we feel strongly that the order below is the optimal one.

1 – Arrive in Tashkent
2 – Morning flight to Urgench; taxi to Khiva; Khiva sightseeing
3 – Khiva sightseeing; possible half-day trip to see the ancient castles of Khorezm
4 – Taxi to Bukhara (up to 6-7 hours through the Kyzylkum desert)
5 – Bukhara
6 – Bukhara
7 – Morning train to Samarkand (4 hours); Samarkand sightseeing
8 – Samarkand
9 – Samarkand (including a long visit to the Siob Bazaar)
10 – Train to Tashkent; evening or next day, fly out of Tashkent

If you have one more day, you should spend it in Bukhara, which is easily the highlight of the country, combining magnificent structures and a strollable old city, or on a day trip from Samarkand to Shakrisabz, Tamerlane’s hometown. If you have two extra days, do both.

Crossing Borders Overland

One of the pleasures and trials of long-distance overland travel is crossing borders overland. Having just crossed the Uzbek/Tajik border between Samarkand and Penjikent, I thought that it would be fun to do a post on the topic.

I imagine the first borders that I crossed overland, like most Americans, are the U.S./Mexico and U.S./Canada borders. These are pretty simple–there are essentially no formalities as you leave the U.S., and only a couple questions and proof of nationality when you re-enter. The Mexicans and Canadians are pretty relaxed. These borders are usually done in a car, though, and so don’t present much of a challenge–you just drive through a series of booths.

More often, crossing borders overland requires changes of vehicles and walking. The transportation that you take to the border usually drops you off before the immigration/customs complex of the country that you are leaving, where after completing formalities you are forced to walk through the no-man’s land to the immigration/customs complex of the country that you are entering. This walk is generally manageable, but can be long (requiring special transportation) or fraught with the tension of heavy military presence (or in the case of many borders, mines–but as long as you don’t stray off the road…).

The way from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan? Despite poor relations between the two countries, we found the crossing trivially easy. Our Uzbek taxi dropped us off at the Uzbek border post, where the procedures were fairly simple (customs, with x-ray, and then immigration). We lugged our bags through about fifty meters of no-man’s land to the Tajik facilities (which, relatively makeshift, revealed the relative poverty of the country–borders are often the best places for recognizing dramatic changes in economic development, including especially by experiencing the change in road quality and maintenance, which can be drastic). We were met there by the Tajik officials, who were among the friendliest and most welcoming immigrations and customs personnel we had ever encountered. We were invited to sit down on a wooden bench shaded by a tree while the immigrations officer gathered our passports and headed for his small wooden shack, explaining “five minutes” in a cheery voice. He returned soon with our stamped passports, and then chatted with us, giving us a proud briefing on some of Tajikistan’s natural sites, including an entire mountain made of salt located near his home town. After a similarly pleasant encounter with a customs official, we were on our way.

The first transport in a country is often the most troubling, pricing-wise, because border taxis are keen to rip off a tourist who has just arrived and has no sense of prices or distances. If the taxis work together, the tourist is left with no choice but to pay inflated prices, since the nearest town is often miles away. At the Uzbek/Tajik border was a cheap shared minibus to Penjikent which managed to fit us in before leaving–perfect.

After some wandering around Penjikent looking for lodging, and refusing an empty Soviet-era apartment that was offered to us for way too much money, we ended up at the comfortable homestay of Mr. Nematov Niyozkul (listed in the Lonely Planet, although we somewhat fortuitously happened upon him), who was incredibly helpful in arranging not only our onward transportation (Penjikent to Dushanbe, post to come) but also our OVIR registrations (required within 72 hours of entering Tajikistan, a relic from the Soviet era).

Mosaic (one of many), Penjikent

One story: Our most memorable border crossing was between the United Arab Emirates and Oman in 2003. We had just flown into Dubai on Emirates and taken a bus to the city of Al Ain in order to cross the border into Oman. I believe the border situation there has changed since 2003, but when we were there Al Ain (the UAE town) and Buraimi (the Omani town across the border) were completely joined, an invisible line dividing the two but with no physical barrier–you could walk freely between the two. If you wanted to travel deeper into Oman, however, you needed to go to the UAE immigration post that was located inconveniently a couple dozen miles to the west, officially exit the UAE, and then complete Omani immigration procedures at the Omani facilities a few dozen miles deeper into Oman. Wanting to have all our paperwork in order, we hired a taxi to take us to the UAE border post.

We were caught off guard, however, when the UAE official (who was an employee of the Abu Dhabi emirate, of which Al Ain is a part) demanded that we pay an exit fee. We had traveled to many countries, and never encountered an exit fee (although we have elsewhere, since). We didn’t even have to pay anything to enter the country–now we had to pay something to get out? We wanted to see some sort of documentation confirming the law and the amount (which was fairly small), but were met with gruffness. (The official, from Abu Dhabi, did not exactly have the tourist-friendly attitude that one encounters at Dubai International Airport.) We got into a small argument with the man, and, when refused his name and identification number, which we wanted for certainty that the proper procedures were being followed, Derek took his picture as a record. (This had worked very well with corrupt Uzbek police earlier on the trip.) Now, of course, it is usually not permitted to take pictures at borders, and Derek had just, we imagined, broken a law. The official seemed more than happy to exploit this as he called the guards.

Uncertain what would happen to us, we decided to flee, and, without our exit stamp, walked quickly across to the Omani side of the border (where there was nothing but desert, the Omani border post being dozens of miles away). The UAE border guards asked us to return to the UAE to talk to their superior, who refused to talk with us on the Omani side of the border, but not knowing what would happen to us, we stayed put in Oman, finally walking into the desert and hitching with a Pakistani driver on the Omani desert road back to Buraimi, where our luggage was waiting in our hotel room. What to do next? We decided to proceed to Oman without our UAE exit stamp, with the hope that the Omani immigration officials would not notice or care, and that the UAE immigration officials would not notice or care on our way back into the country. We ended up being half right–on our way into the UAE, we were asked why we didn’t properly exit the country. But all was okay, in the end.

When leaving the UAE through Dubai International Airport a couple weeks later, we asked the immigration officials whether there was some sort of “exit fee” when leaving the UAE overland through Al Ain. We were told that there wasn’t, and they asked us to write a brief letter explaining what had happened to us, so that they could investigate.

Faces of Uzbekistan

Some portraits from Uzbekistan. My only comment here, something I would like to discuss at greater length in a future post, is that two of the biggest, most important cities of Uzbekistan, Bukhara and Samarkand, are actually culturally and ethnically Tajik, and so a lot of the people pictured below are probably Tajik-ethnic Uzbek nationals.

Uzbek men in Uzbek hats


Young boy in Uzbek hat. This kid was running a shaved ice stand, little boy serving other little boys.

An aksakal, or white-beard, and his wife, Bukhara

A Bukharan artisan and vendor

Beautiful gold teeth–a common Central Asian ornamentation


Also central to Central Asia–bread

Some non-Tajik minorities:

A couple Russian girls. Russians have been “left behind” in Central Asian countries in varying numbers, although many are choosing to emigrate to Russia.

An ethnic Korean woman selling what I believe Uzbeks would call salads, but to me look like Korean banchan. Most of the Central Asian countries have an ethnic Korean population, from a WWII-era migration from the Soviet Far East (near Korea) to Central Asia forced by Stalin.

A “gypsy,” belonging to a community in Samarkand that is believed to be the descendants of slaves that Tamerlane brought back from India. Note the tribal tattoos.

Tamerlane’s Samarkand

Samarkand is one of those relatively rare places that we almost instinctively know the name of, even if we have no idea where it is or where we heard of it–somehow, it is a part of our collective consciousness. Now Uzbekistan’s second-largest city, Samarkand’s history is ancient, going back at least to Sogdian times (post on the Sogdians to come), but its greatest era was when it became the capital of Tamerlane’s Central Asian empire.

Amir Temur, known to the western world as Tamerlane (Timur the Lame, and indeed the remains in his tomb confirmed that one of his legs was not well), was born in 1336 in the city now called Shakhrisabz south of Samarkand and was said to be a descent of Genghis Khan. In his young adulthood he became known for his successes as a military leader, and eventually rose to head the local Turkic tribes. Using Samarkand as his capital and base, he led campaigns in all compass directions, reaching as far as now Turkey and Georgia in the west, now India in the east and Moscow to the north. Tamerlane was preparing an attack on Ming China when he died, almost 70 years old.

From the wealth of his various conquests (from Delhi it is said that he carried away 90 elephants’ loads of precious stones), and by conscripting artisans from far-away lands, he built up his capital, leaving it the city of architectural marvels that it is today. Tamerlane has become a national icon for Uzbekistan since independence, and Tamerlane sights in Samarkand have been recipients of a great deal of recent renovation.

Bibi Khanum Mosque, Samarkand, named after Tamerlane’s Chinese wife

Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand. This necropolis, built near the grave of a cousin of Mohammed is who said to have brought Islam to Central Asia, contains mausoleums of many family members and descendents of Tamerlane.

Registan, Samarkand (three facing madrasas built by Tamerlane’s successors)

Remnant of the enormous portal to Tamerlane’s summer palace Ak Saray, Shakhrisabz

Tamerlane was more famous for destruction and plunder than true empire-building, and his empire did not last long after his death. His descendent Babur, however, would go on to found the Mughal dynasty of India. Tamerlane and Babur were in a sense the last of the many great Mongol or Turkic conquerors who swept out of the Central Asian plains to control huge swaths of Asia–perhaps one day the Central Asians will unite again and create a new empire!

Crypt originally built for but unused by Tamerlane, Shakhrisabz

Gur-i Emir, Tamerlane’s mausoleum in Samarkand