Tajikistan Hardships

Tajikistan, as a tourist destination, is not quite ready for prime time. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy it–it will, we are certain, be one of the highlights of our trip, and in large part thanks to the lack of other tourists and tourist infrastructure. But it is not for everyone. Of course, our deprivation was only for several days–what babies the comforts of modern life have made us–while the local people manage to survive day in, day out. The things we had to go without, in the high Pamirs in Tajikistan–travel isn’t always so easy:

Electricity. You may have heard last winter about the bitter cold (colder than usual!) and fuel shortages that the Pamiris suffered. Obviously, traveling in summer we had no risk of freezing to death, but, as I hope to describe at some point on a post on traveling with technology, we have quite a few gadgets that require regular charging. In the ten or so days that we were in the Pamirs, we spent only two nights in places with usable electricity. Some places had weak generators or solar powered batteries that could be used for dim light bulbs, but not for our electronics–requiring very careful planning and conservation of battery power on our part.

Toilets. We’ve been around the world some, and know the various forms in which facilities come in. That nowhere we stayed in in the Pamirs had actual modern plumbing goes without saying (although the bigger towns do contain some buildings that do have them), but, to our surprise, two of the places we stayed, both homestays in fairly large villages, had no bathroom at all! In one, we were told to walk into the thorny bushes to the side of the house, while in the other we were told to walk to the edge of town, where there was a huge field of animal and human waste. Who thought a pit toilet would feel like such a civilized blessing?

Good drinking water. Now, you may point out that we were in the wilderness, with fresh snowmelt and springs all over. To an extent that is true, but with the amount of livestock being herded by the Kyrgyz in the Pamirs, even water in what seems like pristine wilderness is likely not safe, leaving us to drink tea, as the locals do. But sometimes you want a glass of cold water. The only bottled water available in the region is either the Pamir brand, which is a rather unpleasantly minerally carbonated water bottled locally, or Jalalabad brand from Kyrgyzstan, which is equally unpleasant in taste and carbonated and also seems to suffer from poor filtering–particles are quite visibly suspended when you hold the bottle to light. I found myself craving often a glass of simple uncarbonated neutral tasting water. An attempt to drink soft drinks as a substitute was met by what must have been counterfeit Mirinda–it tasted awful.

A shower. This was a slight point of frustration, because local people must have a way of washing. But with no plumbing and often little privacy, and a lack of desire to taint natural sources of water with soap (even if the locals do so), it was usually easier to forego washing and just feel dirty, until the next shower three or four days away. The weather was cool and dry enough not to feel too filthy, but long dusty jeep rides did contribute to a high level of grime.

Communication. Tajikistan having been part of the former Soviet Union, the class of people who would in other countries have some knowledge of English only speak Russian, and the tourist who doesn’t speak any Russian is essentially totally unable to communicate. This includes not only the random locals you meet, but also the drivers that you hire, who comically try to interpret for you but of course cannot. We got by, and very rarely we would meet someone who speaks English (including, in a very remote Kyrgyz yurt encampment, one Kyrgyz woman whose father had been a mountaineering guide), but for the most part it was total deaf/dumbness. This made homestay experiences (there are essentially no hotels in the Pamirs) at times a bit awkward, with hours of sitting around with nothing to say and limited means to express gratitude.

Car problems and fuel shortages. The condition of the roads being what they are, and the country as a whole being poor enough to have to rely on fairly old vehicles in varying states of (dis)repair, car problems are an ever-threatening part of any trip in Tajikistan. We met our first problem, thankfully minor, on our 22-hour trip from Dushanbe to Khorog, when the luggage rack of our SUV malfunctioned, forcing us to fit all of the luggage in an already crowded passenger cabin. The more threatening car problem, by far, however, was in the last day of our trip from Khorog to Murgab–see my post of 6.24.

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