Monday, March 2, 2015

Tajikistan. The Majesty and The Danger.

Fann Mountains (Photo from KE Adventure Travel)

Although the independent Republic of Tajikistan is just about 24 years old, Tajik civilization dates back as far as 3,000 years.  Archaeological finds identify settlements dating back even further, all the way to the upper Paleolithic period (15-20 thousand years ago!

Like many of the towns and cities of its sister nations, the other *stans*,  many of Tajikistan's towns and cities were also located on strategic points along the Silk Road and so its national identify reflects the influence of multiple civilizations through the ages as well.


Our time in Tajikistan is really short - just long enough to visit the capital city of Dushanbe and the historic city of Khujand; we will spend a day traveling from one city to the other.  I am sure we'll get to see the highlights of both cities but given how little time we are spending in each, I am wondering how much there is to see.  I have to admit, I'm a bit lukewarm about both places but I shall keep an open mind.

What has gotten me excited though is the mountain scenery of this small landlocked Central Asian country.  From what I can tell, Tajikistan is full of mountains and breathtaking scenery.  At first sight, I thought I was looking at images of some place in Switzerland or in the Rockies. Every time I Google *tajikistan*, the results, that pop up first, are images of spectacular mountainscapes.  Unbelieveably dramatic and gorgeous!  Seriously.  Best part is that these places are so far off the typical tourist beaten path that they look absolutely pristine!  It's no wonder that Tajikistan is beginning to gain popularity among mountain trekkers.

Fann Mountains. (Photo from avaxnews)

Of the mountain ranges that run through Tajikistan, the most famous are the Pamir Mountains.  The Tajik National Park, which encompasses the mountain range, was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.  Unfortunately, we won't be going anywhere near the Pamir Mountains.

But...., on our drive from Khujand to Dushanbe, we do get to drive through the Fann Mountains, which are just as spectacular in their own right.

The Fann Mountains (also known as the Fanns) are part of the western Pamir-Alay mountain range,  located in Tajikistan.  Within the Fanns are several mountain ranges topping 5000 meters in elevation including the highest peak, Chimtarga which stands at a height of 5,487 meters (18,000 feet).  It's no wonder the area is popular for trekking and climbing.

The area around the Fanns is renowned for its emerald green and turquoise lakes, surrounded by evergreen juniper grooves and gorgeous show capped peaks.  There are more than 30 in a relatively small territory.  The title of the most beautiful of the Fann Lakes goes to Iskander Kul, , a glacial lake that gets its name form the Persian pronunciation of Alexander (Iskander) as in Alexander the Great and the Tajik word for lake (kul).

The Fanns has rich flora and fauna.  On the plant side - walnut, poplar, birch, sallow, hawthorn, sea-buckthorn, barberry, dog-rose, and currant bushes are common sights.  On the animal side - bears, mountain goats, sheep, wild boar, fox, rabbit, marmot and even the elusive snow leopard call the mountains their home.

Soaring above, there are mountain geese, snowcock, partridges, pigeons, eagles, gryphons, hawks and many others.

We'll be there in early spring; I hope we get to see some pretty flora and interesting animals.

Anzob Pass (Photo from dangerousroads.org)

The itinerary says that it will take us about 5 hours to drive 270 kilometers which is about 168 miles so we'll be arranging just slightly around 34 miles per hour.  That's a slow drive!  I'm expecting a lot of narrow winding roads with switchbacks.  Luckily, I don't suffer from motion sickness and based on all the bumpy rides we had in Ethiopia, I don't think Pat is either.

According to our itinerary, the mountain road that we will be taking goes via the Anzob Pass which is at an elevation of 3,300 meters (10,827 feet).  Pretty high up and from the images I see, we'll be above the tree line.  Pictures of the area around the Anzob Pass reminded me of the Tizi n'Tichka Pass which runs through the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco.  We took the pass on our drive from the city of Ouarzazate to Marrakesh.

Back to the Anzob Pass;  I did some reading about it.  The Anzob Pass lies along a stretch of M34, a major transport route that runs north/south - connecting Dushanbe and Khujand.  In Soviet times, the main road connecting the two cities wound through what is now Uzbekistan. Deteriorating relations between the neighbors has made this passage all but impossible in recent years.

By all accounts, the road is not an easy one to drive with some sections of the road requiring a high clearance 4WD vehicle and experienced driver familiar with the road. No wonder we have to drive so slowly!    Several websites even go as far as labeling the pass as a dangerous stretch of road.  A website called *dangerousroads.org*  describes the pass as "one of the most treacherous mountain passes of Central Asia".  Yikes!  Reading about journeys along the Anzob Pass reminds me of my offroading adventure in the Tibetan plateau

Anzob Tunnel (Photo by Chris Price, taken in November 2012)
The pass is open to traffic only starting around the end of May because of snow but because of its importance as a major transportation route, the entire length of the M34 has to remain open.  Chances are, the Pass will be closed when we are there.

The alternative route, when the Anzob Pass is closed or inaccessible for whatever reason, is via the Anzob Tunnel, a 5 kilometer long tunnel located just below the Pass.  I was relieved to learn of an alternative route until I found out the nickname for the Tunnel -  "The Tunnel of Death".  What?!?!  Death?

The Iranians came to the aid of the Tajiks when it came to building the Tunnel.  Resurrecting Soviet plans dating from the 1970s, Sobir International, an Iranian firm, started construction on the Anzob tunnel in 2003.  The tunnel was opened to traffic in 2006 but by all accounts, it's a dangerous tunnel to drive through.  To begin with, the quality of the construction is apparently pretty shoddy - the two lane road than runs through the tunnel is  full of seriously deep potholes that are hidden under a constant stream of water.  There are no lights of any sort to aid with driving and drivers have to navigate around abandoned construction vehicles all the while avoiding on coming traffic.  Worst of all, there is only a single fan installed along the entire length of the tunnel to ventilate out noxious fumes so if you're stuck in the tunnel, you could end up feeling really sick from breathing in all the fumes.  A drive through the Anzob Tunnel does not sound like something to look forward to....at all!

While the tunnel is currently being used, as of May, 2014, it was deemed to still be unfinished.  The Iranian and Tajik governments had signed an agreement to complete the project by late March, 2015.  That's about the time we'll be there so hopefully, the tunnel will be in far better condition than what I've read about.

So, there's going to be a gut wrenching moment or two as we brave our way either across the Pass or through the Tunnel.  But that will just be a short period of time and it's not going to spoil my trip.  The rest of the time, I will be happily soaking in the majestic landscape of the Fann Mountains.  Maybe, we'll even get to have a picnic lunch on the shores of a picture perfect mountain lake like Iskander Kul.

Iskander Kul. (Photo from The Daily Spectator)