Saturday, January 1, 2011


I turned up not knowing about Tajikistan, and after twenty months I knew a whole heap more, and understood a whole pile less.

Tajikistan conjures up a multitude of questions, for which, each answer is in part correct, but smothered in ambiguity. The people are stoic and reserved, tidy, partial to weddings, big meals, and vodka, and love to dance. However, even in the city the day to day life is a struggle, as prices jump, food is seasonal, electricity supply erratic, drinking water is murky, the winters are harsh and the summers are baron. The country is desperately trying to cope with its hardships, whilst trying to forge its own unique identity by building statues, organising parades, constructing grand palaces, libraries, parks and potentially erecting the world largest flag pole. It is a nation of people that need our support in finding its own path to its dreams and aspirations.

Our final week was full of reflection and good byes, a final hash around my first trail, a party with international friends, a final view from a snow capped peak and a bowl of osh amongst the people of Nurobod. So without writing too much we would like to thanks our friends, our landlords, our colleagues, the Tajik people, and the CAMP team who we wish all the best for their future endeavors.

Friday, November 19, 2010


One of the most dramatic, scenic and accessible lakes in Tajikistan is located at 2250m above sea level on the Southern side of the Fan mountains at Iskanderkul. A crystal lake of turquoise glacial melt created by an ancient landslide sinks to a depth of 72m, and offers a refreshing and revitalizing dip for the brave and foolhardy.

A national holiday on a Tuesday in mid November, would normally mean nothing more than a duvet day, but with the bright autumnal sun and crisp air, a trip to arguably the most visited tourist spot in the country was long over due. The trusty Niva, on its possibly last excursion before being sold on to a cotton picker, cruised a few 1000m to the 5km tunnel of certain death. This feat of Iranian engineering was little more than a mine shaft where cars, taxis, and trucks bounce along the pitted rutted surface filling the darkness with noxious blue hazy fumes illuminated by fading headlights. However, as the Chinese contractor’s have diverted the underground river and provided a concrete lining, the tunnel is currently being downgraded from the tunnel of doom to the tunnel of slight gloominess. The alternative to the ghost ride is the Anzob pass, a 3300m high rugged track that disappears into the clouds and reappears several hours later.

As we wound our way along the track, it snaked its way to Iskandakul where the lake rippled by the gentle breeze and captured the reflection of the encasing snow tipped mountains. On the shoreline a dilapidated soviet summer camp slowly falls into ruin and a presidential Datcha (summer home) commands impressive views from its conservatory windows.

We drove further into mountains to a homestay in the tiny hamlet of Saratog where a warm welcome helped to thaw us from the crisp mountain air. There are a multitude of tracks to explore that contour the river basins, however those of us that suffer from mountain hiking inexperience should chose to follow the sun and not the shadow. The sun skipped town at 5.00pm as we clambered over a new swing bridge to the partially constructed mosque before meandering through the wood-smoke back to our homestay.

As the temperature plummeted, Dilovar stoked up the outside Banya (sauna and shower) before serving a delicacy of soup and chips. As the effect of the sauna drifted away, we huddled around the inept cheap Chinese electric fire until the power cut out at 10.00p.m and crawled under a dormitories worth of blankets to keep the cold at bay. Breakfast was not until 8.00am, as according to Dilovar, it’s too cold to do anything worthwhile before this time.

We spent the next day exploring never ending trails, crossing rickety wooden bridges and sipping from the icy mountain streams, until the time caught up with us and the city called. A few friends have trekked from Iskandakul over the mountain passes to the Seven Lakes where more breath taking views await the more adventurous and hardy. There is a pang of regret that we never made the journey.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Design Dushanbe - Fashion for a Cause

Fashion full of the unmentionables all about the unmentionables:

So we wait with anticipation
To see the best of Tajik fashion
On the catwalk here in Dushanbe
Where clothes will hang, swing and sway

Dresses open at the back
Trousers pink, green and black
Skirts with splits to the thigh
Appealling to every watchful eye

Models will strut for your delight
 Under the illuminating light
Where Shiny Suits will shimmer
And pointy shoes will glimmer

A cacophony of colour and stripes
Atlas material and purple tights,
Flowery coats and Velvet gowns,
All compared by a pair of clowns

It’s all here at Design Dushanbe
So without further a do, light up the runway.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Wakhan Valley

When the flood subsided and the river ebbed from the tarmac road, we force fed the Niva low-grade benzene, barely flammable, and migrated south to the Wakhan Valley.

The Wakhan valley is the vale for the dale; the Hindu Kush (Killer of the Hindus), an impressive range of imposing jagged giants cutting through the east of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shrouded in permanent mist and coated in impermeable snow, these fossilised rocky crags stretch 7000m above the sea level from which they were original buried.

Apart from the stone ruin of the Khakha fortress, still carefully patrolled by the Tajik military, there is nothing of note to visit because whilst you are there, you become part of the spectacle. After 50km of scenery gazing we ascended towards the Yamchun Fort until the low octane fuel spun the wheels no more, and a welcoming weather worn lady beckoned us to her home stay.

Gushing from the huge fissures over the home-stay are the Bibi Fatima hot springs, spiritual waters that rejuvenate baron wombs, akin to an IVF clinic. We struggled up the ever steepening goat track to the steaming entrance and were divided by sex. The ladies stripped to their travel worn underwear and soaked in the luxuries surroundings of the new refurbished spa room, whilst hefty naked local women chanted and swayed to awaken the spirit of the stork. Meanwhile yours truly was marched over a rather unsympathetically designed stark concrete bridge to a grotto. A rickety door, a slippery floor, and a dark chasm of blackness and steam, it seemed more akin to Tajik ghost train than a relaxing therapeutic experience. Inside voices echoed from the dripping walls, and figures could be seen splashing and wallowing in the murky water. Stripping to what I considered a respectable level, I entered my watery grave only to be grunted at to remove my offending items to reveal my other offending items. Unabashed I strode in and scolded my feet in blistering heat, and politely edged my way to the far side of the pool at which, having seen enough of the my intimidating stature, my fellow bathers up and left, leaving nothing but ripples, and silluettes of their hairy backs.

After ten minutes of simmering at gas mark three, I rejoined the lobster brigade somewhat redder and hotter. We aimlessly descended the track in the moonless night, only to be met by a barrage of flashlights wielded by our rather concerned landlady who thought she’d lost her charges to fertile waters of Bibi Fatima.

Your reversing light seems to be out......

Monday, August 30, 2010

Panoramic Pamirs

A Yurt on the wind swept plains of the Pamirs

The town of Khorog, encases a barrage of chocolate coloured snow melt and natural debris, and served as our gateway to the Pamirs.

Once a blanket of calm smothered the embattled country in the late 1990's, His Highness, the Aga Khan provided invaluable support to the Ismail faith based people of the Pamir’s. The visual side of this support takes the form of a well manicured community park in the centre of Khorog, but the recognition and reach for the not-so-visual is demonstrated by the display of his portrait in the remote households of the Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Oblast.

Khorog has a gentle relaxed bustle reflected from its people. We wandered into the stadium to watch the local football game, meandered through the park and market, perused the few shops and clambered around the Botanical Gardens gorging on apricots and slightly sour apples. The melancholic feel originates by the acceptance of the force de nature. Even in the height of the summer months the road to the North (10km) and the road to the South (4km) were flooded due to rains in the high echelons of the mountain ranges. So, with nature directing us to the East we headed along the Pamir highway to the vast open plateau of rock, stone, moss and glacial lakes.

The road meanders through the richly vegetative villages, splitting from the river as it starts its ascent over the 3800m pass to the plateau. The Niva, in need of acclimatisation rocked to halt at 3000m, so we pitched our tents in the kitchen garden of some slightly bewildered village folk, and strolled up an adjoining river valley only to retreat when we realised a 3000m climb kept us from the icy summit.

The family’s house is typically Pamiry. The light and airy construction is centred around five wooden columns representative of the five core pillars of Islam, with a central skylight and adjoining rooms in all directions. The family welcomed us with bread, yogurt, and chips before escorting us to the roof to show us the solar powered battery and emergency alarm signal connected to the flood warning device 2km further up the river. Nature is never far away.

Alichur is a bleak dusty town defending the other side of the pass and guarding the salt lakes. In the restaurant we re-discovered our appetites and gorged on imported eggs. The town’s people hardened by the severe winter conditions provide key supplies of water, benzene and chocolate to travellers, and place to rest for the crawling convoys of Chinese lorry drivers.

The vast openness of the scenery serves only to make you feel insignificant, and in search of the populous we headed to Lake Bulunkul, a bumpy 16km detour from the main highway. The town, a film set for a Tajik Spaghetti western, is consumed by the imposing rock faces and endless plains. Space is no issue. The toilet block is strategically located 50m from the home stay resulting in a treacherous venture in the moonless night in a pair of boxers, with hounds of the night bidding for a feast. Thankfully, the howling woke the village slumber and the landlord came to the rescue of our cross legged traveller.

After a couple of hours of oxygen deficient ambling you reach the lake, a sea preserved, nestled into land man has yet to scar. The icy glow of the windswept water allows for a quick toe-dip, and in the far depths you imagine species yet to be discovered by the masses, but befriended by the indigenous.

....and it is still goes on....on...on..on.on

Monday, August 23, 2010

PAMIRS - Statue Spotting

Fort at Vose - All you need is a well trained dog

Why is it, on the morning of a big trip something annoying happens, with the odds stacked heavily on a NIVA related issue. An oil, water and general check to see if all the parts appeared to be linked in the engine becomes a particularly frustrating process if the lever for the bonnet breaks. Whilst my intrepid fellow travellers packed, I drove aimlessly around in the hope that a rut on the road will miraculously fix the problem, or that I will stumble across a place that will have all the right parts and right skills to fix it in ten minutes. In desperation I swung into a tyre inflation establishment to ask for general guidance on how I would remove the spare tyre in the event of a puncture from its nest in the engine, and like the Fonz he tapped the latch, metaphorically snapped his fingers and all was good in the world. If only there was some upbeat sixties music.

So, The Pamirs, it is situated at the far East of Tajikistan, and accessed from Dushanbe by a $80 flight or 14hrs (minimum but usually significantly more ) in a beat up 4x4 taxi with seven other trance like zombies. There are actually two routes, one to the North through the Rasht Valley which is prone to mudslides and rock falls, or one to the South which is prone to mudslides and rock falls, but is another 110km, or if you take the detour on the detour possibly 200km. However, fate had already decided, the Northern route was impassable due to the disappearance of a bridge, so two kiwi’s, two tents, and two weeks ahead we raced off discussing a sweep stake on the number of pending police checks.

Although Pamir’s is the goal there are a few and varied places to snap a photo along the way.

(2hrs) Nurek Lake View Point - a large expanse of turquoise water that feeds the electricity turbines of the country.

(3hrs) Dangara Theme Park – overlooked by an impressive presidential tea house this brightly painted theme park was built to amuse the Afghan President during the ‘Id’ (post Ramadan) celebration last year. As deserted and eerie as the hotel in the ‘Shining’, it serves chips and fluorescent pear juice.

(3.5hrs) Vose Fort – Albeit, work in progress, this silk route trading fort is being beautifully restored by three men and a dog.

(4hrs) – Vose – This dusty market town boasts an imposing white stone god-like statue of the writer Vose, and slightly smaller shiny silver statue of Lenin attempting the moonwalk.

(4.5) – Kulyob – A provincial city with a bustling market, a spacious war memorial and the rather understated Hotel Khatlon. Kulyob sits in a blistering hot flood plain and serves as the gateway to the surrounding mountains.

(8hrs) – Shurobod Pass – Although not the highest pass in the country, the rocky road and steep mountain gorge serve as an excellent gateway to the Panj river and views of the troubled country of Afghanistan.

The rest of the journey provides no specific tourist spots other than the odd abandoned pile of rocks that claim to be a fort. As the light faded we pitched camp in the front room of bemused family that we imposed ourselves upon, and entertained the three children with New Zealand’s finest vocals.

The next day we bounced along admiring the precarious footpath that clung to the rock face on the Afghan side of the Panj River. The ever ascending and descending track was held together by loose stones and twigs, scaling up vertical rock faces, sliding down scree slopes and dipping into the murky torrent of snow melt. That night we pulled into at a motel in Derashan, just as the wedding party dispersed. On declining the party’s leftovers, the enthusiastic owner, provided us with a gas stove, pots, and pans, and seemed bewildered at our choice of packaged bolognaise and tinned sweetcorn in preference to oily rice and sour yogurt.

In the cool morning breeze we arrived relatively fresh in Khorog, the administration centre of the PAMIRS, and the gateway to the 7000m snow-capped mountains.

Soviet's First Moon Walk

Travels in the Pamirs to continue soon....

Sunday, July 18, 2010


An auspicious statue of Lenin casts a long heavy shadow over Khojand, the furthest eastern outpost of Alexander the Great. Although both gentlemen have a notorious and blood thirsty history, the story of Alexandra’s rise and final demise was chosen for display in a meticulous mosaic at the citadel museum. It is a shame with his track record of conquering other noteable nations he is not alive to become the next England football manager.
Khojand is a relaxed historical city embracing the banks of the Syr Darya River and huddles in the shade of the low mountain range. The lowlands are the quarry of the white gold – cotton, but like all precious metals its value plummeted in price during the economic turmoil. However, the ‘panjshanbe’ (literal translation fiveday, English – Thursday) bazaar continues it trading despite the collapse of the worlds banks and gently bustles across the square from the Islamic 21m minuet and 13 Century mosque.

The drive Dushanbe-Khojand is like Mario Kart, you must first pick your machine to navigate the obstacles. The choices appear to be; a soviet niva driven by a British Novice, a stolen European Opel driven a Eurotrash fanatic or flying Firuz in his overloaded Pajero taxi. Once through the first toll the track begins climbing along the Chinese road construction sites, then passes through the 5km exceedingly wet tunnel of ‘certain death’ constructed by the slap happy Iranians, before descending to the foot of Zerafshan valley where you fill the radiator with glucose before ascending 3330m on a dirt track over the Shariston pass. If your brakes don’t burn out and you have change for the mandatory police checks you should pass the finish line, dusty and sweaty, in around 7hours. Thankfully, due to our prolonged stay in the town we were we recovered in our upgraded six room presidential suit in the Hotel Vadaht where the furniture stays hidden under dusty white sheets, the shower remains cold, and the mosquitoes breed in the dripping bidet.

In Khojand, I had a short assignment checking out women’s ovens, whilst Carly was supporting Pam (VSO) in Degmoi children’s home. The home is the home to 85 children, all of which are in need of support, stimulation and sustenance. In an attempt to inject some enjoyment to the hot summer months Pam invested in several paddling pools, a ball pool, and a sand pit, but our inflatable friends were no match for the multi coloured parachute. The children, staff and volunteers grabbed the rainbow silk sheet and danced around the lawn shading the girls and boys under an everchanging multi-coloured sky. Check out Pam’s blog for the ongoing trials and tribulations at Degmoi.
Apart from a baby boom of mosquitoes, Khojand is worth a visit, and the surrounding towns such as Isfara offer a small glimpse through abandoned rusty factories of the former soviet power house. One man stated that ‘if you said in 1992 that we would be in worse situation in 2010, we would have laughed and said you were crazy.’ Now people are scratching a living to support themselves and their families, leaving little hope, and support for the abandoned children in Degmoi.

living in Tajikistan

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