Trekking The Stans Part 1: The Mountain Corridor Straddling Tajikistan And Afghanistan

When many people think about The Stans, what comes to mind is what’s in the news. Afghanistan: perpetual war; conflict in Kurdistan, an unrecognized country.

But this Silk Road-occupying region is also rich with history and beautiful sights to see. And it’s debatable whether the more Middle Eastern neighbors — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kurdistan etc. — are even part of the Stans. 

To many, the Stans are the five Central Asian countries nestled between Russia, China and the Caspian Sea: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. These are all former Soviet republics and they have close cultural connections.

I had previously been to Kazakhstan, and on this trip, I visited multiple other Stans.

Part 1 of my trek across the Stans will focus on my time in Tajikistan. There, after crossing a spectacular border, I then crossed one of the world’s highest mountain passes, found fornicating donkeys and trekked along the Afghan border.

But would I ultimately enter Afghanistan on this trip? You’ll find out in this post… 

Beginning at Home

Frankfurt

My Central Asia trip began in Germany. I was invited to a friend’s wedding in Frankfurt, so I needed to spend a few days there.

After a few days in Frankfurt it was time for me to hit the road again. 

So long, farewell

 

First Kyrgyzstan 

If you recall my North Korea or Pacific island-hopping adventures you may remember I was traveling with a tour company called Young Pioneer Tours. Considering no one in my North Korea group was arrested or reeducated, I thought they were deserving of my business again.

I would meet my YPT tour group in Kyrgyzstan, although maybe intercepting is a better word. They were ten days into the middle of what is called the Roof of the World Tour when I intercepted them. That tour traverses the Karakoram Highway and basically you get to see a lot of the Tibetan plateau and Pamir mountains. The name “Roof of the World” is a nickname for the Tibetan plateau and I’m sure you can guess why.

It is one of the most mountainous places on the planet, with many peaks reaching almost 5 kilometers above sea level. This makes the Karakoram Highway one of the highest paved roads in the world. Some people consider the highway the eighth wonder of the world, but I wouldn’t be able to find out why on this trip.

I have previously flown over this region, but I plan to traverse the Roof of the World in the near future and let you know if it lives up to the expectations.

Anyway, I had one connection to make in Moscow and then from Moscow would be flying to the Kyrgyz city of Osh. The two flights were each about four and a half hours which isn’t so bad unless you are 6 foot 7 and stuck in the middle seat in economy.

Next time I will probably be a little more flexible with my rule to only fly business class on flights longer than five hours.

Eventually I made it the city of Osh in the early hours before sunrise.

Lowlands of Osh

I had a few hours to rest at an apartment before I would be picked up by the tour guides. Boy did I need the rest. I was really cramped on those flights, so I didn’t sleep much and the high altitude of the region can make you more tired from the lack of oxygen in the air.

I rested a little and was woken up at 8 am to travel to the town of Saritash to meet the rest of the group. 

I felt like one of these guys on those flights..

Saritash is the southernmost town in Kyrgyzstan and basically the gateway to Tajikistan. The road we traveled on to get from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan is filled with trucks shipping goods between the two countries.

The other thing I noticed was how significantly the topography shifted the closer we got to Saritash. Osh is considered lowlands in Central Asia, but Saritash is surrounded by the huge mountains that the region is known for.

Little change in scenery

We stopped several times along the route to take some pictures and admire how grand the mountains looked.

YPT Rendezvous

After arriving in Saritash we needed to wait for a few more people from the tour group. I was still feeling tired from the night before and getting acclimated to the altitude so I had no problem waiting if it meant I could fit in a nap.

Saritash

Eventually our group was complete, seven of us in total. We got to know each other a bit while exploring the town. We also met some nice local kids and some nice local goats before deciding to head to bed early in preparation for the exciting day ahead.

Locals

Locals?

Of course not without having our first meal of manti.

Manti is popular all over Turkish, Asian and post-Soviet countries, but it originated in Central Asia. So it was nice to have manti straight from the source.

Basically it is a steamed dumpling with some sort of spiced meat inside and typically a yogurt-garlic sauce. Luckily we weren’t in East Asia, so I didn’t have to worry about the manti being made with dog meat.

Tajikistan

Tajikistan. Or, more accurately.. Тоҷикистон 🙂

The next day we left early, heading south to enter Tajikistan via the Pamir Highway. 

After stamping out of Kyrgyzstan we had about a 35 kilometer drive through no man’s land until we reached a Tajik border post. In central Asia, it might be more accurate to call it a “nomad’s land” though. I could imagine all the horse-mounted nomads who have passed through this empty landscape in the hundreds of years past.

“Welcome to Tajikistan”

The border post itself was quite a sight to see. It may be one of the most beautiful border areas I’ve ever been to.

View from the border

At the border we needed to show a special visa we all had purchased called a GBAO visa. This visa permits us entry into the autonomous region inside Tajikistan called Gorno-Badakhshan.

It was necessary to get this visa because the Gorno-Badakhshan area makes up 45% of Tajikistan despite only containing 3% of the population. Basically what this means is that it contains some of the most uninhabitable land, the Pamir Mountains.

In mountainous countries the uninhabited land is usually the most scenic and beautiful so we all had our visas ready and had no problems crossing into the region.

One Foot in China Policy

We spent most of the rest of the day driving south down the Pamir Highway parallel to the border with China. Technically we could climb through a small fence and have one foot in China, but their actual border crossing was quite a bit farther from where we were.

This would have been like having a layover in an airport and saying you’ve seen the country.

Border with China

We continued our journey along the Pamir Highway which was actually in better condition than I expected. Don’t get me wrong. Where it wasn’t just a muddy path there were lots of potholes. But considering how difficult it must be to get supplies around in this area, I was surprised by all the evidence of road repair I saw.

After some time we passed through what the guides told us was the second highest mountain pass in the world. I don’t know if anyone has confirmed that statistic, but it was quite high and impressive to travel through in a car either way.

2nd highest… allegedly

We made our way to the impressive Karakul lake to have lunch.

Karakul Lake

Karakul lake is inside of a massive impact crater. At 52 kilometers in diameter it’s hard to imagine the size of whatever space rock crashed into Earth to create it. Probably not the one that killed the dinosaurs, but much smaller impact craters have been associated with ice ages so who knows?

Crater formation

Some pictures followed a nice lunch and from there we departed for Murghab. 

Our trusty steeds.. 4WD vehicles like these are necessary in Tajikistan

With a population of about 4,000, Murghab is one of the biggest towns on the Pamir highway. It is quite close to China and at one point was under Chinese occupation after a territorial dispute with Tajikistan.

Murghabi children with nice style

Murghab was a stop for us mainly because of our hotel, but we were happy to discover a market as well. The market is set up in big shipping containers that come from places like the Caribbean, Panama, Barbados etc.

Shipping container market

Some of us changed some money into the Tajik currency called “somoni” and bought beer and other alcohol while we explored the market. Tajikistan is a Sovietized country. It’s like Russia’s North Caucasus, which is officially Islamic, but still allows alcohol and other haram things. 

Some alcohol in the store

Unfortunately other than the market there wasn’t a lot to do in Murghab. After we had dinner and some drinks, we called it a night early.

The Wakhan Corridor

Wahkan Corridor forever?

The next day we left Murghab driving southwest towards the Wakhan Corridor. 

The Wakhan Corridor is a strip of land that separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Once upon a time it was the buffer zone between the Russian Empire and British India. Now it is a good place to find donkeys fornicating (among other things of course).

More locals

We drove around the beginning of the Wakhan Corridor and left the Pamir highway for a bit to visit some lakes and the surrounding wilderness. We had a long trip ahead in the confines of this tiny corridor, so it was nice to be out in the open before we began.

Fast fact: Uzbekistan partly blames Tajikistan for their water crisis

The first official Tajikistani emblem was the Lion and the Sun

Because we would be driving right alongside the border to Afghanistan, there were a few checkpoints where we needed to have our permits reviewed. Not as many checkpoints as say, Syria, but it did slow our traveling time down a little bit. I wonder if my old friend Mukhles would have been able to wave us through? 🤔

The Wakhan corridor contains a river that forms a natural border separating Afghanistan from Tajikistan. At some places it was narrow enough that we could’ve easily crossed. Our guides warned us against it, saying that the Afghan side is still heavily landmined. Maybe it did have some things in common with Syria after all. 

Afghanistan

One thing it had that Syria definitely did not have was an incredible view of the famous Hindu Kush mountain range. I am a taoist, but still incorporate some Buddhist practices into my life every now and then, and the Hindu Kush mountains used to be the center of Buddhism. 

Hindu Kush far in the distance

Having seen them from a distance, I think one day I would like to visit them in person.

Anyway, we stayed on the Tajik side of the border and got a small start to our journey through the corridor that day.

Day One in the Corridor

The Tajik side was fairly developed with villages where people had cars and electricity. On the Afghan side we occasionally saw mud huts and some people on camels, but never much that indicated it was a country in the 21st century. 

Think I could throw a rock into Afghanistan?

Maybe the Afghans have a compelling reason to be using camels instead of cars though?

The road we traveled on which ran alongside the river was very sketchy. In some places there was a steep drop off the side of the road and no barrier. Occasionally we would see cars completely smashed lying on the ground hundreds of meters beneath us. We didn’t see any camel carcasses next to the smashed cars.

Not the safest roads

After driving all day we made it to our destination.

It was a town called Langar, which is the first town within the Wakhan Corridor on the Tajik side. We had a nice dinner with lots of manti and headed to bed early again. We had so much traveling ahead of us that we needed to be up as soon as possible in the mornings. 

Day Two of the Wakhan

Our early evenings paid off as we ended up making good time the next day. Originally we planned to make it to a town called Ishkashim, but decided to try to make it all the way to Khorog instead.

We had some stops on the way to Khorog.

The first was the former home of Sufi Mubarak-i Wakhani in the village called Yamj. Wakhani was a Tajiki mystic, poet, musician, astronomer and religious scholar. He isn’t very well known to the rest of the world, but in Tajikistan and the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam he is one of the most notable scholars and theologians. His home has been turned into a museum of sorts, so we got to see how he lived over a hundred years ago in this extremely isolated place.

The family of Sufi Mubarak-i Wahkani still live in this village

We stayed in the village of Wakhani to see how the people in the town worked during an average day. They farmed whatever they could up there and were in the process of harvesting corn when we paid them a visit.

Not a very fertile place, but they grow what they can

Departing the village we continued on along the river and got to appreciate how dramatically the river gorge changes. As I mentioned earlier, some points were narrow enough that we could have crossed them. At other points the river could be 50 meters wide. Because of this you can only take the path from Osh to Khorog in the summer months. The winters are very extreme and the addition of glacial runoff water makes the river swell and the roads freeze. I would much prefer a camel over a car in those conditions.

Another thing that would be preferable to driving in those conditions would be sitting in a geothermal hot spring. After a long day on the road I was very excited to learn that there was one not far ahead where we would be stopping for a rest. It was definitely the highlight of the day for me.

We took a detour off the main path up into the mountains to have a nice geothermal bath. The hotspring was actually indoors which was a little disappointing. Somebody had built a bathhouse over the hot spring river. Still it was very relaxing and I only wished I had been able to use a hot spring immediately after getting off those cramped airplanes.

Relaxing for about an hour was all we needed. We left to find a restaurant nearby to have lunch. After a nice lunch, we headed back towards the main road.

Making our way back to the main road, we passed the ruins of the second fortress we had seen that day. Some of the fortresses in the Wakhan Corridor could be dated back to the 3rd century BC and are called “silk fortresses” because they were sentry points used to survey the silk road.

Remains of a silk fortress

Luckily we didn’t need to look out for any Mongols so we drove back to the main road and continued to Khorog. 

Once back on the main road we immediately passed another fortress that happened to be occupied by Tajik soldiers. Apparently they use the fortress to protect their border with Afghanistan.

At this point it was getting dark and after all this driving one of our jeeps broke down. In a place like this you need to be a de facto mechanic in case you break down in the middle of nowhere. All three of our tour guides had some skills with repairing vehicles, but none was able to fix the broken car. We had to leave it behind with one of the tour guides and pile the remaining six of us into our two remaining jeeps.

The City of Khorog

It was dark by the time we made it to Khorog so we quickly found some dinner before going to bed.

The next day we planned to visit Afghanistan. We had learned that there is a bridge straight to Afghanistan and an Afghan consulate in Khorog where it is actually quite easy (and fairly inexpensive) to get a visa.

If you pay about $100 and wait a few hours you can cross over into Afghanistan in spots where you don’t have to worry about landmines.

Afghanistan side

Unfortunately, we had completely forgotten that there were elections taking place in Afghanistan on that very day so all the borders were closed. Not to mention there has been some terrorist attacks in that exact location a few weeks before, so security was particularly high.

Instead we had a full day to explore Khorog.

Compared to most of the other villages I had been to in Tajikistan, Khorog was a decent size. Its population was about 28,000 and it is the capital of the autonomous region within Tajikistan I mentioned earlier called Gorno-Badakhshan. Because of this, I had reliable internet for the first time in a few days and was able to get some work done.

We explored the town a bit. One thing I saw that I found quite funny was a bad copy of McDonald’s called “MAC Doland’s.” 

I’m probably not going to be lovin it

They didn’t have any signs claiming to have served billions of people, but they did have a picture of Donald Trump enjoying a tasty Mac Doland’s Big Mac.

“We have the best Mac Doland’s don’t we folks?”

There wasn’t a ton to see in Khorog, but we wandered around and saw whatever we could. This included a mosque and a WWII memorial with a large Lenin statue. The combat was pretty far from Tajikistan, but apparently many Tajiks had been drafted into the Soviet Army at the time.

After the memorial we went and had some tasty curry for lunch at an Indian restaurant. This was a nice change in cuisine after all the manti we had been eating. We left the restaurant to see a monument for the first car that drove across the Pamir Highway. I guess I wasn’t the first German to make the trip..

First truck to cross the Pamir Highway

Next we went to see the Khorog botanical gardens which have the best vantage point of the city. As you can see it is a decent sized town and has a nice looking river cutting through the middle of it.

Not a bad view

After getting some rest at our hotel we regrouped to find a place to get dinner. For some reason, though, everything was closed. As we later found out it was because it was Friday and the Wakhan Corridor is quite a bit more Islamic than the rest of Tajikistan.

Colorful Khorog

The Road to Dushanbe

The next day our plan was to make it all the way to the capital city of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. We got in the car for another long day of traveling. The road was quite bad, though, and we got stuck for a few hours behind some cargo traffic.

No passing lanes 🙁

After finally making it past the cargo trucks, the first town we reached was called Kevron.We passed through quickly to make up for our lost time. To be fair, there was really nothing to see there.

Kevron

We continued southeast to the city of Kulob.

Goodbye Wakhan Corridor

Kevron is the last town in the Wakhan Corridor. The altitude and scenery started to change severely as soon as it was in the rearview mirror. By the time we got to Kulob it was clear we were back in the lowlands. You could still see mountains all around, but only far in the distance.

Back to the Lowlands

Kulob is a fairly big city for Tajikistan with 100,000 people. So it was simple to find a very nice Tajik restaurant for lunch. 

We had made good time getting from Kevron to Kulob, so we also decided to explore a bit of the city. It felt like a huge metropolis after all the time spent in the Wakhan Corridor.

In Kulob, we checked out the Hulbuk Fortress, which was an important stop on the Silk Road. Apparently it had been almost completely destroyed by the Mongols, but has been undergoing excavation over the past sixty years. 

Hulbuk Fortress

After taking some pictures from the  in and outside of Hulbuk, we left Kulob to see Danghara. Danghara is a city with some worldwide notoriety. For one, the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was born there. But what more people probably know it for is the terror attack carried out there by some ISIS militants in July 2018. 

Nice memorial

The story was that four bicyclists from Western Europe and America were biking from Dushanbe to Kulob when they were run over from behind by the ISIS fighters. After getting run over, they were butchered to death with knives and axes.

This terror attack received a lot of attention because a news organization produced a headline say the group was biking around Islamic countries to “test the kindness in humans.” That was never proven, but the story became very big because of it.

Anyway, in Danghara they are very ashamed and sorry for this incident. 

It was depressing to see this because in my experience the Tajiks were all very friendly. The Islam they practice in Tajikistan is welcoming and I never felt in danger. You never know where some radicalized people might pop up.

After paying some respect at the monument we continued our journey.

Beautiful lake that Uzbeks would probably like to have

Dushanbe

We arrived in Dushanbe fairly late that evening.

Dushanbe at night

After having dinner at a tea house with my group I returned to my hotel to get some rest. The next day I would have a full day to explore Dushanbe by myself.

My hotel?

The next morning I did a couple of free walking tours to get an idea of what to see in the city before going out on my own.

There were lots of Soviet monuments, a few mosques as usual, and one giant flagpole that used to be the largest flagpole in the world. A flag in Jeddah Saudi Arabia has that honor now, but I still can’t imagine trying to lower and raise the one here.

2nd largest flag pole with a mosque in the background

Great fountain

Dushanbe wasn’t so captivating. There were some interesting things to see, but Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia, and you get the sense its capital city has not yet realized its potential.

The road to Uzbekistan

The next day I would be heading to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. I said goodbye to the group that night and got some work done before going to bed.

Now that I was no longer with the group, I needed to organize my own transport to Uzbekistan. A little research revealed they have a version of Uber called Maxim, and this worked very well for my needs.

The journey from Dushanbe to the border only took about 20 or 30 minutes and the drive was very enjoyable with beautiful panorama views. 

Breathtaking

We arrived at the border, but didn’t need to cross there. Instead we drove to the north of Tajikistan again. The road condition was perfect and we saved a lot of time by driving through the mountains instead of around them. Some of the tunnels we drove through were up to 10 kilometers long.

Think you could summit it?

I think the infrastructure in this area was much better than in the rest of the country because Uzbekistan is much wealthier than Tajikistan and needs a reliable road connecting the countries.

After about a five hour drive we made it to Panjakent. We stopped a few times on the way to take pictures and once to add camel milk to my food experience list. The camel milk had been cooled in mountain water and really was not bad at all. 🙂

My driver stuck around for a little while to show me some ruins near the border, then took me right up to the end of Tajikistan. I said goodbye and welcomed myself to Uzbekistan.

Off to Samarkand

With Tajikistan in the rearview mirror, my Uzbek adventure began. I was on my way to the Islamic architectural delight of Samarkand and the other gems that make Uzbekistan a fascinating country to travel. You can learn all about these in part 2…