Khujand, Istaravshan, Fan mountains, Dushanbe
05.06.2016 - 15.06.2016
The border itself was q u i e t - I literally was the only person crossing. Think tumbleweed. But both sides were friendly, no nonsense with paperwork, and no 'unexpected fees' levied. The Tajik immigration officer even set up my taxi to the nearest city, Khujand - whether I paid too much, I don't know! But I wasn't about to haggle with the man literally holding the entry stamp, and actually the price he suggested was fine. Once I had the entry stamp and was in the taxi speeding to Khujand, it already felt just a small success that I made it to the elusive Tajikistan. And the ride was great to Khujand - we passed a massive reservoir which is popular on weekends for Tajiks heading to the 'beach'. I guess lakeside perhaps means 'beach' in landlocked countries, after all.
Khujand is set on a beautiful green river, with a backdrop of craggy cliffs. And it was hot! Because most of the country is mountainous, I didn't expect the cities to be so hot, so that was a surprise. I explored Khujand, and also visited a city to the south, Istaravshan, which had an amazing old wooden minaret and a lovely lake created by a dam. The dam wall itself was topped with an enormous Lenin head, a gift during Soviet times. Back in Khujand I met the three Swiss people I would hike with, and we coordinated food etc. for the trip ahead.
The Swiss guy, Jeremias, actually lived in Khujand as part of a water project, so it was handy having someone who could speak a little Tajik, and it was also handy as he (and his partner Hanna, and sister Johanna) were experienced in mountains. They also had a fantastic state of the art water filter which was awesome. We first drove to a small town, Artuch, which was a small village set on a beautiful stream. We stayed with a lovely local family that night, as the tour company used local Tajik families to encourage community-based tourism.
The next day was a big hike up to a truly breathtaking mountain area of interconnected waterways, a series of gorgeous lakes, with streams running between them. The area is known as Kulikalon. Three local Tajik people lived there, and there was one shepherd who visited, but otherwise empty, just a calm and tranquil setting. Ethereal even. We set up our tents right next to a stream and lake. Sunset and sunrise over the lake was incredible, one of the most beautiful settings I've ever seen.
We rose early and began the second big day of hiking, up and over Alaudin pass to Alaudin lake. The climb was hard work. The first half was more manageable, but as we got closer to the pass itself, it became colder, the path became more scrambling on rocks rather than a clear path, and there were even times we had to dash across ice. It was actually harder going than any of us four hikers anticipated and our guide (we were suppose to have two, but only got one) raced ahead with the donkeys and our belongings, so my raincoat was well out of my reach when it started raining. At the peak, the views, despite the bad weather, were amazing, although we literally couldn't see the path down the other side - it seriously looked like a cliff drop. At this point even the more experienced Swiss trio balked and said they weren't continuing without a path. That statement finally got the guide's attention. It turns out there was a path, Jeremias following the guide to double-check. It was beyond my comfort zone, and I was very fortunate to have Jeremias stick with me to help me down parts of the path. But we made it, and the weather cleared, revealing the stunning turquoise Alaudin lake below. The colour of the water, even from a distance, was such a beautiful blue. It helped make the hiking and scrambling all worthwhile. [To add for fairness, the office back in Khujand was also upset when they found out the local guide had changed the staffing/route arrangement, and even reimbursed us partially, which was appreciated.]
We camped at the lake, and had time to explore and photograph. The following day was a short hike down from that lake to our transport, which took us to see the well-known Iskanderkul Lake and we stayed with a local family near there for the last two nights. They were so friendly, and also made a wicked bowl of noodles. We didn't have a proper shower there - but we did have a spa! We then continued on to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, including driving through a famous near-pitch-black smoggy tunnel, uphill, in a car that was overheating and prone to stopping, with massive trucks zooming around us. An adventure just on the road!!
I only had two days in Dushanbe, but this was enough time to walk and see the main sights. Despite - or perhaps because of? - the challenges of Tajikistan, it was a magical experience, rewarding, and the natural beauty is some of the greatest on this planet.