I’ve been on any number of dodgy jeep/van/bus rides in my life, but nowhere in the world have these trips made me fear for my life twice in as many weeks. Tajikistan, then, deserves some sort of medal for the accomplishment.
The mountain road from Istaravshan to Penjikent starts out reasonably enough, dark mud for a road with snow banks piled up on either side. It seems remotely dangerous, but nothing confrontationally so.
Until the first time you pass a tractor trailer that has turned over in the middle of the road.
Or the second, as the driver is still doing his best rally car impression and passing on the fly of speeding into sharp muddy turns with no apparent concern for the sheer drop just beyond the sidewalls.
Eventually the road clears, but that lingering sense of danger remains as we pass two more overturned trucks and a few burnt out husks of cars that obviously plummeted from the heights above to land with a fiery crash on the lower slopes.
I realize the pictures aren’t great, but every time I held the camera out of the window the driver’s eyes left the road to watch the screen as I was trying to frame photos and adjust the exposure. This frightened me to such an extent that I eventually decide that photography was less important than I’d first imagined.
Eventually, down into the Zerafshan Valley, the road seems downright highway-like by comparison.
On the way out, this feeling is reinforced. Flocks of sheep crowd the two-lane road.
The way climbs dramatically up winding mountain switchbacks to look over the high peaks and low valleys on the way to Dushanbe. The way is literally pastoral, as herds of cattle and goats graze on mountainsides where that melting snow waters green hillsides.
And then the Tunnel of Death happens.
No longer than maybe 20 kilometers, the whole thing takes almost thirty minutes to pass through. Imagine a really nice tunnel, built by the top engineers of the Soviet Union to connect northern and southern Tajikistan. Then assume it hasn’t been maintained in almost twenty years. Without drainage, water pools in the center of the road, hiding the knee-deep potholes from view. Without ventilation, fumes from Chinese Kamaz trucks and old Soviet Lada cars collect to the point that your eyes burn and water and the heat means you wouldn’t be able to breathe even if the air was fresh. Without lights, hundreds of pairs of low-beams pierce through a couple of feet of smog before diluting visibility so much that even 20/ hour feels like flying through a black void.
At the worst, we could see about 6 feet in front of us before the smoke grew too thick. A little further on, we passed a car with a flat tire whose occupants were struggling to get it fixed and continue through the tunnel. We felt bad… but not bad enough to stop and help.
Finally, what felt like hours later but was really no more than half that, the light at the end. I’ve never done a better “dog hanging out the window” impression than the moment we pulled back into bright daylight. Even the two women vomiting in the backseat of the Land Cruiser weren’t enough to kill the joy of fresh air on my face and in my lungs.
Interesting experience… but I think next time I’ll fly.