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Travelling some stans

In the summer of 2018, I travelled to two countries: one of which I still have difficulty pronouncing the name and another of which most people do not have a clue as to where it is located. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, more or less the last places on earth I ever expected to visit. The former bordering Afghanistan and the latter, well, I did not really know what was happening there. It sounded like a true adventure and I have to say, the countries made a lasting impression.

A little bit of background…

The Republic of Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic are two countries located in Central Asia (meaning: way beyond where Europe ends, but well before Asia starts). They are part of a number of ‘stan’ countries, the others being Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. If you do have heard of these countries, it is likely for one of the following reasons:

  • You have been there
  • You are really into wrestling or playing polo with a dead goat
  • You are a Silk Road connoisseur that knows all countries that were part of, or very close to, the famous trading route.

All countries were part of the Soviet Union and only became independent in 1991. The various ‘stans’ have developed quite differently since then, which is partially due to whoever is leading the country and what it has been endowed with by Mother Nature. Uzbekistan is home to historic Silk Road cities and epic architecture, Turkmenistan is the ‘North Korea’ of Central Asia (and we all know what that means) and Kazakhstan apparently is a lot of nothing. Kyrgyzstan has amazing landscapes and Tajikistan has very friendly people and more rocks than you can ever imagine. Uzbekistan has the largest population (almost 33 million people) and Turkmenistan the smallest (5.8 million). The life expectancy at birth is lowest in Turkmenistan (±68 years) and highest in Kazakhstan (±73 years). Per capita GDP in Tajikistan is $826 and in Kyrgyzstan it is $1.268. Just for comparison, the per capita GDP in the Netherlands is €53.106. Needless to say, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are not the most developed countries in the world. But hey, those are the best countries for that adventure I was talking about.

About my trip

Being faced with the issue of not having any travel buddies available at the time, yet not wanting to go travelling alone, I decided to explore the concept of ‘group travel’. However, being quite happy with spending half of my holidays figuring out where to go next, I was not quite ready to book myself on a trip to wherever to then have someone else telling me which tourist trap to visit. In addition, there are many countries that I would love to visit with a lover or best friend but not with a group of strangers. So I opted for a group trip to a place in which it would be rather difficult to travel by yourself anyway. To be honest, I was a bit of a pain in the ass when it got to this so in the end there was only one option: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Not so much because I really wanted to visit these countries, but because Tajikistan in particular is not a popular tourist destination and therefore somewhat inaccessible. If I were to go somewhere and had to hire a driver anyway, I might as well carpool. To be fair, there were some appealing hiking trips to Nepal and Norway, but either the season was not right or, well, anything North of the Netherlands is not a preferred holiday destination for me.

In the end the group trip was not so bad. Kyrgyzstan not so much, but Tajikistan is indeed a country where it is rather difficult to get around. The programme was interesting and the people in the group were friendly. The fact that I fell ill three days into the trip and only recovered 1,5 weeks later put a bit of a damper on things but was in no way related to my mode of travel. It provided a bit of comfort that everyone in the group experienced a certain level of digestive distress, though it seemed I was also suffering from plain flu. At least, it enabled me to visit a Kyrgyz hospital, which was an interesting experience in itself (and definitely no tourist trap). The main argument against group travel is that it involves a lot of waiting, and I mean a lot. We were only about 20 in the group, but every time you are leaving (and we spent most of our days travelling) you are waiting for someone. Furthermore, I was the only one in my age group, with all the others being either 10 years younger or at least 25 years older. If I ever decide to go on another group trip I will definitely check the demographic pyramid of the group before signing up.

Nothing but rocks at the roof of the world

When I think about Tajikistan, rocks is the first word that comes to mind. A barren, desolate moon landscape filled with rocks. Big rocks, small rocks, medium-sized rocks, round rocks, squared rocks, so so many rocks. I have never seen this many rocks in my life. I remember staring out of the car window and thinking to myself: How did all these rocks get here? It makes for a unique landscape that I had never seen before or since. It also makes for quite uncomfortable travel. Or lots of massages, as our driver used to call it when we were once again flying around in the car because of all the bumps in the road.

Dushanbe, the capital, somehow reminded me of Bucharest. An unexpectedly pretty example of Soviet style urban planning. Wide boulevards, lush green, imposing statues and some gold plating here and there. Just outside of the city, a rebuilt fort gives an impression of what Silk Road architecture in Uzbekistan must look like. But one does not travel to Tajikistan to be in Dushanbe. Main attraction of the country is the Pamir area with its deep river canyons and pastures rising high above. The Pamir Mountains have since long been known as ‘The roof of the world’. The Pamir Highway is the second highest highway in the world and traverses this remote area. They were quite generous with the word highway. Largely unpaved, full of holes and often flooded it is not quite the same as the five-lane smooth tarmac surface running between Utrecht and Amsterdam. Most likely, and hopefully for the people living in one of the small villages clinging to the mountain side alongside the road, in five to ten years from now the highway will be paved and a lot easier to travel. I am still deciding whether I think this is a good thing, because half of the highway’s charm is the state it is in and the discomfort this brings. An example: as temperatures are around 40˚ Celsius and the minivans we were in had to work hard to get over numerous hills, we frequently stopped just to cool the engine.

Consular advice for Tajikistan is not overly enthusiastic. The Dutch government advises against any unnecessary travel to the Eastern part of the country, which is where the Pamirs are. Though I believe enjoying my summer holiday in a far-away country is absolutely necessary for my well-being, I am afraid the government does not share the same view. Before I went, quite some people asked me whether it was safe enough. To be sure, I checked with the travel agency. They assured me that the trip would be cancelled or driving routes would be adjusted whenever the security situation on the ground demanded this. To be honest, I not once felt unsafe. We travelled with local drivers, people were generally very friendly and most of the time I felt too horrible anyway to worry about safety. However, our confidence was severely tested when, while on the day we crossed the border to Kyrgyzstan, a number of cyclists was murdered in a brutal terrorist attack on Pamir Highway. Cyclists you say?! Yes, cyclists. Apparently some people are in such a mental state that they enjoy days of cycling over a rocky, potholed gravel road in a barren landscape. I will never understand, but it is not supposed to get you killed. With regards to the terrorists, there are quite a number of Tajik citizens fighting in Syria. With the dwindling of the Islamic State many of them have returned home and carried their grudges with them. Fortunately, we did not really notice anything of the attack, but I made sure to let people at home know I was okay.

The Pamir Highway runs right next to the Pamir river, which is the natural border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. While we still encountered some traffic on the Tajik side (amongst which some of the abovementioned crazy cyclists and a Russian army convoy on a training mission), the other side of the river was completely deserted. Maybe once a day you would see someone taking their donkey for a walk. It made me wonder how much these people have been affected by all the Al Qaeda and Taliban skirmishes in the past fifteen years. You can cross the border at the bridge in Iskashim, where a trans-border market takes place every Saturday. Unfortunately, we passed through on another day, so no country hopping for me. Travelling the Pamir Highway, we stayed mostly in homestays. This basically means you stay with a family with a very large house. Once we were lucky enough to stay in an authentic Pamiri House, with a wooden ceiling built in four concentric squares representing the Zoroastrian elements of earth, fire, air and water. The five pillars in the main room symbolise Imam Ali and his family members, amongst which the prophet Mohammed. The floor and walls of the houses are richly decorated with carpets, family heirlooms and portraits. It is quite a sight to see.

Lots of green

We crossed the border to Kyrgyzstan at a height of 4,000 meters, surrounded by snowflakes. Unfortunately it was also the height of my fever so I was not really able to enjoy one of the most impressive border crosses I have ever been to. The altitude made any symptoms I already had (headache, pain all over my body) a lot worse so to my own regret I had to skip the next stop: Peak Lenin. A staggering 7,134 meters high, this was supposed to be the highlight of the trip, quite literally. Peak Lenin is not even the highest of the Pamir Mountains and I was looking forward to hiking around base camp at 3,600 meters and enjoying the views. But none of that for me, I fast forwarded and travelled straight to Osh to slowly return to life in a comfortable hotel. I recovered just in time to enjoy a wondrous overnight stay in a more foresty area and to walk around the Ala-Archa canyon just outside of Bishkek, the capital.

Someone had mentioned to me that Kyrgyzstan is much like Mongolia, wide, green and beautiful. It was certainly the case, though I was surprised by the large variety in landscapes. From green pastures filled with yurts and yaks resembling Mongolia to mountainous forest areas reminding of Northern Spain. Rocky landscapes with clear blue lakes made me think of, well actually there is hardly a comparison to make. It is a beautiful country and I would love to return to fully enjoy all the natural wonders it has to offer (including Lake Issyk-Köl in the East). Capital city Bishkek is one of those less attractive former Soviet capitals. Lots of concrete high rises and megalomaniac government buildings. Fortunately, there are also some lovely parks to escape the city heat. One of them has what looked like a permanent fair, and I took the opportunity to board the Ferris wheel for a better view over the city. A view that was actually already surpassed that very evening, when we had dinner in a rooftop bar that not only overlooked the city but also the snowy mountains surrounding it. It was the perfect spot for a stunning sunset.

Mind-blowing landscapes

All in all, it has been an impressive trip. I can recommend anyone to explore the stans, even beyond Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. If only for the adorable kids that flock around you and ask: ‘How are you, what’s your name?’. It remains fascinating that even in the most remote village you can encounter someone that speaks perfect English. Another advantage is that Tajikistan in particular is really off the beaten track and you will only encounter a very limited number of tourists along the way. To summarise: both countries offer mind-blowing and diverse landscapes you could not get anywhere else.

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