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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Living in Dushanbe: Winter Travel

Tajikistan is the most mountainous country in the world.  I've always been fond of superlatives, and so it's kind of cool to say that I live in the most mountainous country in the world.  According to Wikipedia (always a reliable source, I know), "93% of Tajikistan is mountainous with altitudes ranging from 300 m (980 ft) to almost 7,500 m (24,600 ft), and nearly 50% of Tajikistan's territory is above 3,000 m (9,800 ft)."

The mountains in Tajikistan are in three major chains, and those chains divide the country into three different regions.  If you want to go from one region to another, there's only one reliable way to get there: driving.  There aren't any train tracks that cross the mountains.  There is a flight that goes to Khujand, in the north, but it operates fairly unreliably, only flying when there are enough passengers to fill the flight.  If you want to go east to the Pamirs, a foundation owns a helicopter, but it is reportedly grounded because it can't be repaired.  

This past summer, Brandon was contacted by some visitors that wanted to check on a few sites where they were funding work.  They passed along their itinerary to Brandon who just about died laughing when he saw it.  One project was in Bukhara, a twelve-hour drive from Dushanbe, and the next was in the Pamirs, a two- or three-day drive from Dushanbe.  Listed was, "July 10, travel from Bukhara to Khorog."  He helpfully informed them that they might want to include a little more time for that leg of their travel. 

Tajikistan, in addition to being mountainous, also has some mostly very bad roads.  There are 'highways' that go throughout the country, but you don't have to go very far (in some cases about ten feet) before the pavement turns into dirt/gravel/formerly pavement but now mostly potholed roads.  And even the highways can be treacherous.  A few years ago we met a traveling photographer who had visited, at that time 158 countries.  He had traveled to the Pamirs on the 'highway' - the only paved road in the region - and declared it to be the absolute worst highway he had ever ridden on.  Last year some non-US diplomats died when their car went over the side of the same highway.

Driving in Tajikistan is not for the faint-hearted.  But when you get winter involved, sometimes it's just not for anybody at all.  

Khujand, in the north, is the second major city after Dushanbe and so there is a lot of embassy travel to visit with various contacts.  Recently Brandon was put in charge of arranging a trip to go up for a visit.  I like to check the weather and when I noticed the forecast, I showed Brandon.  "It says that there is supposed to be rain in Dushanbe for the three days of your trip.  Do you think it will snow up in the mountains?"  He checked the forecast, and it was calling for over a foot of snow over three days.

Driving up over the pass isn't really an exercise for the faint-hearted - the grade gets pretty steep and there aren't any guard rails between the edge and thousand-foot drops.  Add in an endless progression of slowly climbing tractor-trailers (the only way to get goods from the north to the south and vice versa as there aren't any trains) with insane Tajiks passing on blind curves and it is a ride that will keep you awake no matter how sleepy you are.  

Brandon went online checked with the Tajik road service.  They warned everyone of the impending snow storm and recommended that nobody try and get to Khujand for the next several days.  He checked with the Tajiks who worked at the embassy.  "Khujand?" they asked him, "We don't really think that's a good idea right now.  It is winter, after all.  Why don't you try in the spring?"

And then he visited with the embassy drivers.  One driver regaled him with tales of trying to get to Khujand in the snow.  "See, what happens is someone gets impatient with the trucks and tries to pass them.  But then they meet cars in the other lane and everyone get snarled up and it takes forever to get it sorted out.  One time we waited in the snow for six hours for the traffic to finally clear out so we could get over the pass.  Another time we waited for three or four hours before giving up and turning around.  I had been passing time with a guy who was taking some people up to Khujand, so I gave him my phone number and told him to give me a call when he finally got there.  He called me the next morning, sixteen hours after I turned around.  So, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather just stay here.  Have you thought about going in the spring?"

In the middle of these conversations, I reminded Brandon of the last time he went to Khujand in February.  He made it safely back to Dushanbe, only a few hours before several avalanches trapped people on the road for days.  We saw the remains of one of the avalanches four months later in May, and the snow was still ten feet deep over the river.  Had he perhaps thought about going in the spring?

By this point, Brandon decided that perhaps spring might be a better idea.  He talked with colleagues and they called off the trip.

We enjoyed three days of rain in Dushanbe, the most precipitation we've had all fall and winter.  Thursday evening, he came home from work.  "So, it's a good thing that we didn't go up to Khujand.  It snowed buckets up in the mountains and this afternoon there was an avalanche on the road up to the pass.  The entire road is shut down until they get it cleared out."

It sounds like spring indeed is a fine time to travel north.

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