Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan



Day 8

Khorogh to

Qalai Khumb


23 August 2018

Today was largely a travelling day with few notable highlights.  Put simply, the task was to drive safely from Khorogh to Qalai Khumb in Darvoz Oblast, following the road that follows the Panj River that marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.  We did this, with no deviations, covering the 200 kilometres (approx.) in nine and a half hours (9:30am to 7:00pm).

We had a new set of vehicles and drivers for this drive, a fleet of four Toyota Landcruiser 4WDs, plus one Hyundai 4WD minivan, which was mainly for the luggage.  One other addition was an armed militia officer who had been assigned to escort us on the trip back into Dushanbe.  Since the terrorist incident at Khulab three weeks ago, when four western cyclists were run over and killed by a group of young men inspired by ISIS, the Tajik Government has made armed militia officers available to escort tourists through the affected region.  There have been no incidents since the one in question at the end of July, but it seemed wise to accept the offer of the militiaman, even though his pistol might seem inadequate against machine gun armed terrorists.

The road we followed used to be part of the ancient Silk Road, which facilitated trade between China and Europe.  Clearly, it also part of the modern Silk Road, as shown by the couple of hundred large trucks that we passed today, all on their way into China.  I guess this road is part of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure ambitions, and as such, it may be due for a much-needed upgrade, or at least some repairs.

In contrast with previous days, there were few remarkable sights during today’s drive, although the scenery itself was consistently spectacular – indeed, awe-inspiring in its scale, complexity, starkness and dynamic nature.  Essentially the drive alternated between small villages, with their tree-lined streets, walled homes, embellished bus shelter sheds, and government-supplied propaganda signs on the one hand, and stark, barren, rocky landforms on the other, always with the backdrop of the turbulent grey silt-laden waters of the Panj River.

For most of the day, we could see more of Afghanistan than Tajikistan as the steep slopes of the Tajik mountains were so close to the road, whereas the river gave a sense of perspective as we looked across into Afghanistan.  In contrast to yesterday’s drive, where settlements in Afghanistan were sparse and impoverished, the Afghan settlements we saw today became increasingly prosperous as we drove downstream.  This was partly because better soils were available to support farming, and Afghan towns that were near bridges joining Afghanistan to Tajikistan, such as Qubadi, appeared to be especially prosperous due to the markets that have sprung up to support cross-border trade.  Further downstream, the Afghan village of Jashtak (or Jastak) village clung to the side of the valley, with farming being conducted on steeply sloping fields that must preent significant challenges to the farmers.

A short stop at the Vomar River was interesting as it was the site of a riverbank stabilisation program initiated by the German Government via the PATRIP Foundation, supported by the Aga Khan Foundation.  Upstream, the Vomar River is blocked by an avalanche dam which threatens the entire valley below if it should burst; it is estimated that the flood wave from a dam collapse could be as high as 45 metres.

Another interesting, though not necessarily visually stunning, stop was the Road of Death.  Until last year when the United Nations built a new road along the Afghan side of the Panj River, transport along the river was via a high, narrow pathway that alternated between wooden structures built onto the cliff and tunnels cut through the rock of the cliff face.  Goods were moved by donkey, and given the narrowness of the pathway, many donkeys fell to their death.  Many human lives were also lost in spite of ropes provided for people to grab in the event that they started to fall.

On several occasions we saw Afghan hillsides marked in white with the letters “FDS”.  FDS is a landmine clearing foundation.  Where fields have been declared landmine-free, rocks are painted white and left on the surface.  Where mines are still present, rocks are painted red until clearing by sending a herd of goats across the land can be carried out.

Interestingly, many Afghan schools are being built not in villages, but midway between two villages.  This reduces the cost of building schools (because the number of schools is reduced), but it also serves to bring disparate communities together and build relationships.

For much of the day I found my phone useless for telling the time.  That is because it kept advancing and then retreating half an hour according to whether it was registering a signal on the Tajik or Afghan side of the border (Afghanistan being half an hour behind Tajikistan).  It was quite offputting when I received my first text message saying “Welcome to Afghanistan”, continuing on to advise me of the call and data charges that would be imposed should I make a call or send a message.

Our hotel in Qalai Khumb, the Karon Palace Hotel, claims to be a six-star hotel.  I think that might be an over-statement, but it is certainly the best hotel I have had on this trip and welcome after some of the more arduous stays.  I am looking forward to getting into that nice bed after a shower with hot water – a real treat!