I arranged for our driver to pick me up from the guesthouse, he was over an hour late (when it’s 4 in the morning one isn’t at all impressed). He eventually pitched up and my guesthouse owner was sweet enough to get up early herself and see me off. She helped me out immensely as there was no way I’d find a taxi at that time of morning to the pick up point. So she arranged for the driver to fetch me en route to the horrific taxi stand. Kame was already at the meeting point and shocked that I had got a lift in and he didn’t. We waited forever and a day around the vehicle in despair as people came and went. More and more people arrived and at one point I was certain they’d forgotten space for us in the vehicle. There was no way we’d all fit, but alas more came! All sorts of junk had to be piled on the roof rack, chairs, bags, tables, you name it. Things had to be packed and unpacked. We were basically in a rubbish dump waiting for our car to leave at whim. Then some parts for the car arrived, this was a heart sinking moment. Something had to be re-fitted Countless phone calls were made and only at about 11 am things started rolling. Our driver Alisher was up and down, all over the place and in a second he got in the car and yelled at us to pile in. The old Pajero had seen better days and struggled to get started. We had to pay upfront “dollar, dollar” was demanded as we headed to the petrol station. The bloody car was left running throughout the journey, (even as we ere filling us!). Although we made stops en route, it kept on running as it probably wouldn’t start up again.
Of course men in the front, 5 of us women were stuck in the backseat with a little girl as well. Being a tourist one expects to pay more than the others, the fact that I was automatically relegated to the back seat despite paying as much as Kame did peeved me off. It was horrifically uncomfortable, the back doors wouldn’t shut as there were too many of us on the backseat. So I had to stand up in the car for it to be shut and then sit down on one buttcheek with the other half of my ass perched off the seat. There was no space for arms or shoulders so I had to sit forward and shoulder wrestle for space with the babuska seated next to me. As soon as she shifted I went in for the kill to gain an extra centimeter of comfort and marked my territory with my iron shoulder until it got numb. I had to shift and she regained her lost space. There were two jokers in the two fold up seats in the back of the car who did nothing more than irritate everyone.
We reached Sary Tash which is where 3 roads converge (to either Murgab, Kashgar or Osh). It says in the guide book “local rumors abound that the town is also a major stopover for smugglers trafficking opium and hashish from Afghanistan to Tajikistan,” that pretty much sums Sary Tash. I was glad we didn’t stop over, it didn’t look at all inviting.
We pushed on to the border post. Kame and I were hailed by the driver to get out the car and wait. He run off with our passports whilst our fellow passengers started looking weary and suspicious of us. A guard and German Shepard circled us to make sure we weren’t carrying drugs. The guard proudly showed his dog off and told us how he trained it. From his gestures he looked pretty passionate about his big mutt and kept on saying “contraband” and acting out how his dog dealt with smugglers. Eish.
We were then summoned into the Kygyz customs office separately. Kame went in first and I was told to wait at the car. He came back looking sheepish and told me that he was pretty thoroughly cross questioned by the officer. I was then called for, I felt fine as our driver was pretty protective of us. He made sure that he accompanied us to the office and explained to the officer what the deal was. I heard via le grapevine that drivers love taking tourists on board. Drivers are seen as less of a target when it comes to drug smuggling and chances of the rozzers checking the vehicle is practically zero if there are touristas on board. Anyhoo, our driver Alisher was kicked out of le bureau and I was subjected to some interesting questioning and interrogation The officer went through all my visas (most of my passport was covered in visas from all over the world, in fact I had only two pages free.) He asked me about Korea, France, Europe and why I had been to such places. He then asked me all about my work in Korea, what was my salary etc and that he didn’t like my Finnish visa. I told him I was a student in Finland but he was convinced it was a working visa. He asked what religion I was, I tried to gesture “spiritual” but he looked horrified as he guessed “atheist”. He then suggested I should convert to Islam. He asked if I was married, I typically answer “da moy moozh eta biznizmyen in Almaty” when asked by strange men if I’m married. Because he was an officer, I decided to answer truthfully so I said “nope” followed by the old joke “nyet moozh nyet probleeem”. He didn’t think this was at all funny and decided I needed a husband to make an honest woman out of me. He then proposed. Yup, on the spot just like that he proposed. He then begged me to marry him for about 10 minutes afterwards. He wanted to travel with me to Europe or Korea. I was more amused than I was frightened. He let me off the hook saying that I should return to Kyrgyzstan to marry him!
Alisher wasn’t impressed as I got back to the car. We’d wasted about half an hour at checkpoint bizarro. Well we reached what I like to call “The point of no return” on my journey akla the Tajik border post at Kyzyl-Art pass (4282m) which lies adjacent to Pik Lenin at (7134m). More fun and games were about to be had. I was warned by my friends who I met in Osh that photos are strictly forbidden here. One guy was caught for taking a pictures of the Tajik flag at the border post and was ordered to delete ALL his photos from his card.
We went through the same saga of Alisher taking our passports to the shack. We were then invited in. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Tajik border post was a shack, with 6 bunk beds where two drunk soldiers were stirring in bed and “the one” as I like to call him greeted us warmly from his desk. This man is the most heavenly creature I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t stop staring at him. He had the most beautiful blue eyes which just engulf you and a fair complexion with blonde hair and strong Pashtun-like features. He immediately took a shine to us and we had chai, chai and more chai and they demanded we eat the apples and sweets hey offered. Alisher just rolled his eyes as he was about to endure this ordeal. The cognac came out and we were all offered a shot for the cold. I sat and shivered and learnt how to say “холодный”. “The one” then jumped to his feet and offered me his army coat. He had a fascinating face and was so interested in us being there. He asked me to write down my email address and asked me if I knew a lady from NZ who’d traveled there? (After I got home and watched a travel program about Tajikistan, turns out this NZ lady he was talking about is singer and activist Lynda Topp!) It was really delightful, I’ve never had such a warm welcome at a border post. We thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of the guards. I was asked countless times if I was married, on this occasion I let it slip that I wasn’t 😉 The one guard suggested I wed “the one” le sigh. At one stage I though he was offering something else by the look of it, a spare room perhaps?
Alisher had to practically tear me away from my gorgeous man as I reluctantly made my way back to the car. The guards who patrol the Tajik border are starving. There is no food, nowhere to grow food and no money. I was horrified at the conditions these men had to live in for months on end. Their bedroom is their office. There’s no bathroom either and there’s no wood for a fire, no heating and I stress NO FOOD. I felt terrible taking food from them as they insisted we do. “The one” told me he stopped “contraband” and confiscated x amount of kilograms of heroin and opium a year. The gullible part of me wants to believe it but the realist in me knows the money the guards made out of bribes far outweighs any money the Tajik government can pay them. The drug trade in this part of the world is fascinating to read up on. We had to show our GBAO permits and remind them to stamp our passports.
We ploughed on to Karakul. This was in complete contrast to the warmth of Karakol in Kyrgyzstan. This forgotten land is past the point of no return. I’m glad I caught it in the daytime as it’s a stunning sight. We stopped in Karakul for lunch and I went off and explored the ramshackle settlement. Kara-kul is the highest lake in central asia (3914m) and was created by a meteor about 10 million years ago. It is otherworldly there, a lunar like surface gives this isolated place an eerie feel. It’s beyond frigid and freezing there, I felt my heart pace slow down as my hands froze. Some little munchkins started running towards me screaming “tourist tourist” and that was that. They kidnapped me and pulled me around showing me the lake in hysterical shrieks.
We posed for photos, of course they had to take the pictures and we laughed and ran about trying to shake off the cold. They then took me inside one of the houses. These houses here are concrete squares with about one main room which functions as a bedroom for the family at night and a kitchen dining room during the day. Just like that the little ones rustled up a warm fire for us and started preparing tea. I’d never been served by children before but these little ‘uns sure know how to welcome a guest. The hospitality of this region is ingrained in the genetic fabric of the Tajiks. Chai, bread, butter were all displayed proudly with every child helping out. We sat on a mat and prayed for thanks for our humble meal, what a precious moment. We ate and the little ones took photos and fooled about as I was given copious amounts of chai. They packed lunch up as quickly as they assembled it and we started playing all sorts of nonsense games. Running amok is a favorite past time of mine, I don’t find many people willing to do it with me! I’m a child at heart so whether it be playing dizzy dinosaur, singing songs or playing catch I’m happy! I didn’t realize how much time I’d spent with the little ones until a mother came in and mentioned Alisher was looking for me. I ran back to the car with the little ones pulling me back to stay with them. Alisher screamed and shouted at me, probably called me rude names as well judging by the reactions of the rest of the passengers. I mumbled a few rude French words and we were off. Bloody racing at the speed of light to get to Murgab. In total, the drive was over 10 hours from Osh to Murgab. If it wasn’t for meeting those kind children and “the one” it would have been rather dull.