Picking up speed: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (countries 163 & 164)
Day 1,863 since October 10th 2013: 165 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
Winter is coming? It’s freaking HERE!
Last week I left you on a cold rainy night on the border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The next 36 hours turned out to be pretty interesting.
The ancient Silk Road was not like a highway between Europe and Asia. It was a network of roads across mountains, deserts, grass plains, through forest and between many interesting cities. In the big picture it was a connection between the east and the west however hardly anyone would have ventured the entire distance. Some legendary travelers did however do exactly that. In the western world we know of Marco Polo and most Arab countries refer to Ibn Battuta. I’m inspired by them both. In the east many would know Zhang Qian who pioneered the Silk Road more than 2,000 years ago. As I crossed into Tajikistan I set foot in the Sagas 4th “stan” after more than five years in this tunnel of countries. I think I’ve said it before: you may be able to travel continuously and enjoy it for 6, 12 or even 18 months…however at some point it will begin to feel more like duty or work. I crossed that threshold long ago. I still enjoy large parts of this project…however it is very tiresome and it is often hard to judge if it is worth it.
Especially these blogs? I know that some of you love them!! And I love YOU GUYS for that!! An average blog takes me 5-6 hours in its entirety: writing it, editing photos, uploading it all and posting it. A long blog takes longer and if the internet is slow or if my pc keeps crashing then a blog can take me twice as long. In that sense I find it amusing that some of you read by blogs just minutes after they have been released. And it might take you ten minutes to read a blog I’ve spent a full day on :) Lately I’ve notices a dive within the hits my blogs have recorded? I really have no idea why. It has especially been the last three blogs:
Afghanistan – Herat…thousands of years later: click HERE
Turkmenistan – from dust to white marble: click HERE
The third “stan” – Uzbekistan: click HERE
That is simply puzzling to me? Nearly a thousand people have now signed up to receive an email once the blog is ready. Also I hear from many that I have become much more skillful as a writer over the years. One of the blogs was about visiting Afghanistan!! That was the most mentioned country in the media across more than ten years. Another was about visiting Turkmenistan, which is one of the words most unique countries!! And the third was about visiting Uzbekistan which is massively fascinating with a long history of invasions and Silk Road trade!! Oh well, I cannot pretend to understand what the world wants. I just merely have some idea about what it might need…
A bus got me from Tashkent in Uzbekistan and too the border with Tajikistan. I had to carry my luggage across the border and deal with immigration and customs which was frankly a breeze. Central Asia has become a lot easier to visit in recent years with the respective government’s eye catching the potential of tourism. As a result online e-visas are just a few clicks away. Turkmenistan is still the exception. There is always one ;) Across the border and into country number 163 I once again border the bus which brough me and the other passengers to Khujand. As soon as I stepped out of the bus I was immediately swarmed by taxi drivers ready to offer their service. A relatively young driver was eager to bring me to Dushanbe which is Tajikistan’s capital. Between the two cities you find a mountain range and I wanted to make it there that night and not stop in Khujand. Don’t get me wrong. Khujand is perfectly fine but I have the clock ticking, the cold approaching and mountain passages closing up for the winter.
Wet and cold. And no way to know when I could possibly leave. Just wait...wait...
In the dark rain my black North Face duffel bag was soon resting on top of the driver’s taxi. He wanted 200 Somoni for my seat, which I knew was somewhat overprized. However I was willing to pay that in order to get to my destination and it was only a matter of $21 USD. The problem was that it was getting late, it was raining and I was the only passenger of five. Hours passed as we waited and I was worried that my luggage would get soaked. I was also worried about being the only passenger all night. I had some local food, exchanged my left over money from Uzbekistan and waited. At one point I was seated among a group of locals who tried communicating with me. For these countries the local language is first while Russian is second and I speak neither. Just a few words like “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, “hello” etc.. However there is always a way to communicate. If you have an internet connection then google translate is a fine tool. Making gestures with your arms, drawing on paper, using international words or showing pictures on your phone all adds to a deeper understanding. In the following case there was no doubt that one of the guys was getting fairly excited about offering me watermelon and that it was free :) Before I knew of it he left into the rain and came back with a huge watermelon and a knife. Then it was carved up and we shared it amongst us. It was good. But the hospitality was even better.
Still pretty cold. But with watermelon and friends!
As the night went on it became clear that my taxi was not going to fill up until the following day. Also the “watermelon crew” had indicated that I shouldn’t pay more than 100 Somoni. One of the locals ran a “hotel” and a bed was cheap. It was nearby and a much better alternative so I opted for that. It was like a really simple dormitory but it did the trick. I offloaded by duffel bag and to my surprise the rain had not entered the bag at all. The owner of the “hotel” said he would wake me when a taxi was ready to leave and I went to sleep after watching the new version of Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson. At around 05:00 am the owner woke me up, by duffel was loaded upon the taxi again and I greated the other passengers with a Salaam Alaikum (peace be upon you). The Central Asian countries are predominantly Muslim but they have a really relaxed attitude towards religion. As an example vodka plays a large role in society and so does Christmas this time of the year. And as I once heard someone say, religion is neither good nor evil. It all depends on what people search within it. If you are evil and read the bible then you will come away with what you are looking for. If you are good hearted and read the Koran then you will find the best. And in my experience people are very kind and helpful around Central Asia so that is that.
The Anzob Tunnel, Istiqlol tunnel or Ushtur Tunnel is a 5,040 m (3.13 mi) long tunnel which has gained the reputation as being one of the world's most dangerous tunnels. The tunnel saves drivers at least 4 hours when traveling between Dushanbe and Khujand and allows travelers to avoid having to pass through Uzbekistan.
Going between Khujand and Dushanbe usually takes around four hours. For us it took eight.
My fellow passengers did not speak english but they all wanted photos with me and I also took one with them at lunch ;)
My taxi driver did not have too but he ended up driving me all the way to my hostel. And then I began exploring Dushanbe. It is a very nice capital in my opinion and I like that it is very green and surrounded by mountains. There is some megalomania to the construction of it but it works and there are plenty of nice spots to sit and enjoy a cup of tea. Tajikistan is “the land of the Tajik’s” and those people came from the Persian Empire (Iran) while the Turk’s, Uzbek’s, Kyrgyz’s and Kazak’s are all Turkic people from China. So Tajikistan is a bit different like that. And then it is incredibly mountainous! A whopping 93% of the country is covered in mountains and 50% of the country is above 3,000 m (9,800 ft). Ismoil Somoni Peak is the tallest of them and lies at an elevation of 7,495 m (24,590 ft) ranking it as the 50th tallest in the world. So if you haven’t guessed it already, Tajikistan is great for hiking, climbing, skiing and photography. Then you have your lakes, your rivers and all the history of the legendary Silk Road. I can hardly see why anyone would not want to come to Tajikistan?
Dushanbe is a nice capital and I'm sure I didn't see much more than a fraction.
On the far left you have Deputy Secretery General Mirova Dilorom and on the far right you see the Youth and Volunteering Development Coordinator Nabijon Sidikshoev. Find out more about the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan ;)
Within my role as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross I try to meet up with the movement in every country where it is found. I’m not quite sure how much that was the ambition from the Saga’s beginning but it has certainly been a cornerstone within this project and with Tajikistan I reached my 158th National Society. The Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan (RCST) are a well-integrated part of the country and have around 12,000 volunteers to carry out their humanitarian work. On average the country is hit by 200 natural disasters which the RCST responds to. They’ve been praised by WHO for their engagement and are present all over the country through 69 branches. Given the location of Tajikistan the country also serves as a transit country for migrants which adds to the humanitarian workload through poverty, drug abuse and decease. Especially Tuberculosis, HIV and Diabetes are areas of concern but the RCST is up for the challenge with strong international partnerships. These humanitarian actions do not fund themselves you know? Wherever you might be I welcome you to donate, volunteer or simply share some positive information across your social media channels in order to give some goodwill to the hardworking volunteers and staff.
Fort Hissar just before sunset.
A highlight for me was dropping in on Hisor Fortress or Fort Hissar. The fortress is said to date back to Cyrus the Great (530 BCE) and to have been captured twenty-one times. It is just marvelous and can easily be reached from Dushanbe. Fort Hissar was rebuilt in the 13th century and also boasts an old madrassa (religious school). It is something I would definitely recommend and you will also get an insight into some ancient Tajik culture.
Heading back over the mountains...
Then it was soon time to leave and I wanted to go across the Pamir Highway to Kyrgyzstan but it already had 40 cm (15.75 inches) of snow. Besides…it would set me back a minimum of three extra days compared to returning to Khujand and crossing the border from there. I packed my bags and said farewell to Dushanbe. The taxi driver who got me from my hostel to the taxi terminal helped me find a good car and a reasonable price. I ended up paying 130 Somani which is considered alright. And back across the mountains I went but much more comfortable and much faster than when I arrived. It only took the standard four hours to reach Khujand, where I originally planned to spend the night. But given the good weather conditions, my level of energy and the relative early hours I decided to push on to the border and across. And I was fortunate to link up with a businessman from Dushanbe whom I had been sharing the taxi with across the mountains. He spoke English, was very interesting, really nice and happened to be going halfway to the border. So he helped me out and we were soon on our way. Eventually he got out and I continued on my own to the border town. Much of the road was on the actual border territory which was no issue. At one point the driver in his old Russian car managed to explain that Kyrgyzstan was on one side of the road and Tajikistan was on the other. And that farmers were permitted to walk across as often as they pleased up until a certain distance.
That's Tajikistan to the right and Kyrgyzstan on the left and the border somewhere straight ahead.
The border gave me no problems. At this point I was banking on spending the night in Osh which is a 3,000 year old city in Kyrgyzstan. And at this point you should just assume that every city I mention in this entry has historical significance and was a major part of the ancient Silk Road. I’m a Danish Dane from the Kingdom of Denmark in the High North of Europe. So I do not need a visa for Kyrgyzstan which is pretty cool! The immigration officer was pretty cool and quickly stamped my passport. Then he tipped me on how much I should maximum pay for a seat to Osh. Does anyone who has been following the Saga doubt the truth in that a stranger is friend you’ve never met before?
Border land. A little rubbish before natures spectacular canvas.
I hear a lot of people saying that I have it easy and that I am privileged. I’m from Denmark and have a good passport. That is true. I do not have children and I was able to make room for this project within my life. That is also true. However I highly disagree that time, a good passport and sufficient funds will get anyone this far. I have a particular set of skills which are valuable for the completion of this project. I can easily relate and interact socially with people. I have an ability to think in alternative patterns and solve problems people say cannot be solved. And I am the most persistent, hardheaded and determined man I know. I would likely complete the Saga on two broken legs and with a blind eye!! ;)
Kyrgyzstan instantly felt more chineese influenced than the other "stans" and I met more than a few men that looked like the man on this note; hat and beard included ;)
Across the border an Asian looking old man with a unique hat, characteristic beard, woolen coat and strong hands drove me to the nearest town across the Kyrgyz border inside country number 164 in an unbroken journey completely without flying. 39 more to go. At the taxi/minibus terminal I negotiated a bit and eventually joined a yellow taxi with Russian license plates. The driver was 22 or 23 years old. There was an old man in the front passenger seat and next to me I had a 22 year old man who happened to speak a little English. Beside him there was an equally aged girl. The guy next to me who spoke English said his name was Maks. Together we shared the load of my heavy duffel bag on our lap as there was no room in the boot and no way to store it on the roof. And then we began the long way to Osh. I feel asleep and woke up in the mountains which were covered in snow. Then I dozed off again and that repeated quite a lot. The old man spoke some German and I do too. I’m surprised about the amount of German I have gotten to speak across the world? Everyone was really nice and it turned out that the driver and Maks were on their way to Moscow in Russia where they planned to work as taxi drivers. That meant a four day journey across snow and ice in which they would both take turns driving. The old man got out a short while after we reached Osh. Just a bit before he left we managed to have a quick meal together on his dime and I also found an ATM at which I could draw some Som. The currency in Kyrgyzstan is called Som and they uniquely have a three Som denomination.
If it looks cold then it is because it IS! And this was my company in the car to Bishkek with Maks next to me.
I think the girl was the driver’s girlfriend? She didn’t speak much. She just sat there with her phone. Once the old man got out Maks quickly claimed the front seat and my duffel went between me and the girl. She was getting off in Bishkek which would be about 12 hours of driving through snow and mountains. I once again assessed my situation and figured that it was late and that I would go straight to bed in Osh. Then I would catch an early bus or taxi to Bishkek. Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan by the way. Now: what was the point of staying in Osh for the night? I was already in a taxi that would continue all the way to Bishkek. That was not a problem at all for my companionship so we agreed on a price and I stayed in the car. This was a long pull though! All the way from Dushanbe to Bishkek in one go. However I had a host waiting for me in Bishkek so there was gold at the end of the rainbow…
All of these "stans" are horse countries with deeply rooted horse traditions and skills.
Maks and his friend took turns driving and the girl and I would sleep and wake up, sleep and wake up. Both Maks and his friend were exceptionally good drivers and took it very easy. Something I found highly unique for men in their early twenties but also very reassuring given the road conditions. As we pulled into Bishkek they dropped me off at a mall where I could get a meal and find some wifi. We said farewell and I got online. Bishkek is a very cool city with lots of restaurants, cafes and statues. My host in Kyrgyzstan was David from Michigan in the USA. He got in touch with me long ago and let me know that when I one day would reach Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan then he would be my man. Once I got in touch with him he instructed me to go to Sierra Coffee which is THE overlanders hangout in Bishkek and a superb place at that. They even have a small “travel agency” with a permanent staff member. The food is good, the internet is good, the atmosphere is good, the location is good…it’s a good place and now that I know David I’m not surprised that it would be his recommendation.
My "walking into Narnia" photo ;)
David is highly resourceful and well informed. He showed up at Sierra Coffee after work and shook my hand. He then led the way to his apartment and set me up in the spare guestroom. David studied archaeology and anthropology but now teaches English at University of Central Asia (IUCA) a little outside of Bishkek. He has a really calm attitude and in connection to something we spoke of I cracked a joke about it not being likely that he would get upset. He replied with a calm voice: “it’s a slow burn”. I liked him right away. There is no doubt that David’s head has been screwed on pretty well. He speaks a lot of language, has traveled quite a bit and is sort of the ultimate host to have in Bishkek. There really isn’t much he doesn’t know. He is curious by nature and has a very good memory. Not a bad combination – huh? I was slightly off balance. It had gotten REALLY COLD and I hadn’t been sleeping or eating regularly for a while. The high pace of the Saga was perhaps also taking its toll on me. Interviews, social media, Red Cross Red Crescent, transport, logistics, bureaucracy and more…it’s never less than fifty hours a week and often more. How fortunate I was to have David!! He would take care of me, guide me, assist me with research and most importantly the hunt for visas. As it turned out Bishkek is a good place for getting visas!
If it looks cold then it is because IT IS!! And just a few weeks before this I was in a sandstorm in Afghanistan. How things change... The region I'm in now enjoys extreme temperatures in both directions: very hot summers and very cold winters.
You might think that embassies follow rules and that they treat every case by the book. I guess that is true most of the time. However the person behind the counter can either make it easy for you or far more difficult than what it needs to be. As an example it was a nightmare getting the Gabonese visa in Yaoundé (Cameroon) but a breeze getting it in Sao Tome. Often the culture and atmosphere of a country rubs off on the diplomats at an embassy. As you know, there was no help to be found from the Danish embassy in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) but the Danish diplomats were kind and helpful in Amman (Jordan) and Dubai (UAE). And then sometimes diplomats recognize a special occasion and treat a case different from the ordinary ones. And I think that is how it should be. If a man who has been on the road nonstop for the past five years in an attempt to become the first person in history to reach every country completely without flying is not a special occasion…well…then I don’t know what :) And I have indeed been offered special treatment more than once. The Chinese are apparently not particularly fond of handing out tourist visas near their western border. And that threw a wrench in my master plan of going from Kazakhstan, through China to Pakistan. Oh yeah, by the way, I also couldn’t go from Tajikistan to Pakistan so I changed the plan from: “Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan” to “Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China and Pakistan”. And you know what? I might be able to find a way from Tajikistan to Pakistan or obtain a visa for traveling overland to China from Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan…but what is the point? Those “operations” have historically taken a looooong time and a loooooot of effort within the Saga. Besides David and I have another plan!
I thought a map of the region might help you out at this point ;)
Reportedly the Mongolian visa comes relatively easy although with a lot of paperwork. However in Bishkek it comes super easy. And while the Pakistan embassy does not commonly hand out visa in Bishkek to nonresidents there are reports that it has happened before. So why not for me? ;) Yeah, I was definitely slightly off keel while in Bishkek so massively grateful for David kind of taking the lead in a very non aggressive way. My mind felt rather foggy and the cold didn’t help. David would walk me around time and I would kind of be in “the passenger seat”. He showed me a statue of Lenin which surprised me somewhat as I thought they had all been decapitated and torn down. But Kyrgyzstan is a bit different like that. We also saw a statue of Marx and Engels are sitting on a bench amidst a field of roses albeit covered in snow. History is history and people are people. I didn’t even bother to try with the Chinese embassy. The online stories were simply too daunting and as I said: David and I had another plan. We visited the Mongolian embassy which was a small place on the corner of a street. The man we spoke to was kind and simply requested that I filled a form, handed him passport photos and made a deposit at a specific bank for the amount of the visa. Then he said: “come back on Thursday around the same time”. I came back last Thursday, handed him the receipt, sat down for ten minutes and received my passport with the visa inside it. I wish all visas came that easy.
Marx and Engels...probably freezing!
It went somewhat differently with the Pakistani embassy but equally well. There was a simple unheated waiting room outside the embassy in which I got to spend a lot of time. Initially David and I approached the window and requested a tourist visa. That led to a conversation with a man with a marvelous beard! I commented on that which he liked and that had us waiting for a meeting with the ambassador…a very long and very cold wait in our “refrigerator” of a waiting room. David and I however managed to pass time by speaking to various people. For a while we spoke to Sunny who is from Gilgit in Pakistan. Sunny is a medical doctor and a spitting image of the Daily Shows Hasan Minhaj! So I snapped a photo with him and you can judge for yourself ;)
Don't tell me you don't see it!?! :)
After about three hours of trying to make up our mind if we should wait or go for lunch and come back I finally asked at the window and we were immediately sent into the ambassador’s office. He was a really nice guy who had only been in Bishkek for six weeks but had an extensive career behind him. I always need to weigh if mentioning the Saga will make the conversation easier or more difficult. Often I don’t say anything about it and simply request a tourist visa for traveling. I learned long ago not to mention the Red Cross as that almost always demands that I provide specific invitation letters and mission orders. KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid ;) In this case I sensed that it would be good to mention that I had reached 164 countries without flying and would guest Pakistan in the same capacity. And that was a good decision. We had a heartwarming talk and he promised me the visa although I was not a resident of Kyrgyzstan. After that David and I raced to the bank and made the payment but due to traffic it was too late to return the same day. I returned the next day and received my visa on the spot.
Thank you David!! And behind us you see the legendary Burana Tower.
That was two for two! I haven’t had such fortune with visas since touring Dubai with Iain. I visited the Russian embassy too. There is a small spit of land between Kazakhstan and Mongolia with Russia in between. I visited Russia back in December 2013 so this time it will only be transit. The diplomat at their embassy in Bishkek was kind and helpful. However he required a ticket of some sort for me to prove that I intended to transit the country. Fair enough. They also need insurance and a number of other things. There is no difference between applying from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan or Astana in Kazakhstan. Or as a matter of fact if I apply from Kazakhstan then I do not need to prove that I don’t need a visa to enter Kazakhstan (a requirement in Bishkek). The Russian embassy is only open for visas twice a week and only for an hour. So here is the plan: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, via Russia to Mongolia, China, Pakistan, India etc… reportedly the Chinese visa comes a lot easier in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) which by the way is the world’s coldest capital city. And my brief visit in China on the way to Pakistan will only be the first of at least three within the Saga.
The Kyrgyzstan Red Crescent Society (KRCS) deal with much the same as the RCST do so I won't list it again. I had a great time with the volunteers and also enjoyed tea with the President Mr Azamat Baialinov. Lots of really good people in that house! Unfortunately I do not have the photos yet but heres a link to their webpage: Kyrgyzstan Red Crescent Society
And David brought me to his school where I gave a guest lecture for the linguistic students at International University of Central Asia (IUCA). Clever questions from those students! ;)
So there you have it! What did I leave out? Oh too much I’m sure. But if I was to leave you with a single thought then just know that the youth in this part of the world is quite similar to the youth anywhere else with cool haircuts and stylish clothes. The tradition and culture shows a lot more in the older generations and this is indeed a very pleasant, very interesting and very hospitable part of our world. I’d love to come back again as a tourist. Kyrgyzstan is roughly 80% mountains and an outdoors paradise. Russians and Kazaks have known it for years and frequent the lakes and mountains. Swimming and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. And I could have written a lot about the Epic of Manas which is just spectacular and also central to Kyrgyzstan. But you'll need to research that yourself ;) With that I said farewell to David and left Kyrgyzstan to reach Kazakhstan as part of the new plan. Let’s keep on keeping on ;)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Written in Kazakhstan ;)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga