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.