On the morning of Friday 10th May our sight-seeing in the amazing country of Uzbekistan, in the company of Nora and sometimes Peter and Christine, was finished. We were amazed by Khiva and Bukhara and could not believe that there was still Samarqand and Tashkent. So an excess of splendours.
We said goodbye to the Soviet style Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent and both the real and the fake storks.
We had seen all it had to offer and Jim and I now set off with Maps.me on our own, without guides and drivers in tow to reach Tajikistan.
Nora was on her way back to Geneva and Jim and I had thought long and hard about whether we should take the long road via the Ferghana valley and Khujand into Tajikistan, or the short route from Tashkent across the mountain passes in our way to Dushanbe the capital of Tajikistan.
Despite some hesitation, as the car had been ok for the last 10 days we took the longer, more interesting route via Khujand.
Needless to say we called the wrong shot.
We stopped to get some bread and fruits for lunch and found a local supermarket to get some tinned food too. It was hot in the full sun and we were hopping between shady spots to avoid being frizzled.
As the day’s driving wore on, Jim noticed that the car was overheating badly in the hot sun, although we were driving gently and were at a relatively low altitude level. As we had not yet encountered the worst of the passes, this was a problem.
So we stopped for a cup of tea out of the back of the car, along a roadside Yurt by a brook and a bus stop, but the car was dangerously hot.
At three o’clock after more plodding on, we concluded we could go no further. We were about a quarter of the way up a steep pass and the car was not going to make it anytime soon. This was officially a new problem. We still had a long way to go, both to Khujand and then on to the border and to Dushanbe.
We could not stay in Uzbekistan to fix the car, as we had flights booked out from Dushanbe, to George and Maria’s wedding in Bucharest in four days time, so we decided we would have to be towed. We thought two tows; one to the border that night and another potentially from the other side of the border to Dushanbe.
We rang Kamal, the Culture du Monde guide, that we had used in Tashkent, whose English was fab, and he eventually arranged for a low loader to come and take us to the Tajik border via Khujand.
We thought we would then drive through the border in the morning, as the car would have cooled right down. This seemed to be a good plan, and we were on a road with a massive number of other broken down trucks and cars, so were in good company. Unlike Iran where breakdown vehicles scoured the highways, there were no breakdown vehicles anywhere to be seen and most people were wielding a spanner.
As nightfall came and no tow truck had appeared to remove us from the side of the motorway, we made use of our triangles and yellow high visibility jackets. The lorry in front of us had also broken down on the carriageway and was protected only by a little pile of stones and was being repaired at the roadside by its driver with no lights and no high visibility-clothing. His mate had a small flash light. It was scary to watch.
Large trucks and fast cars were bearing down on us and had to reduce lanes to pass. This was more tricky when night fell and I put our flashers on when lorries were approaching so they had time to change lanes. In the dark after 6 hours of waiting and at 9.30pm, we were told the driver could not find us. A bit of a low point!
Needless to say by 10pm some 6 and a half hours later he did find us, but there was worse to come! After loading us up on top, he trundled up the pass and within 10 minutes or so, he ground to a halt as we were too heavy for him and he stalled and started rolling backwards! The road had just narrowed to one lane because of road works and now a huge snaking convoy of beeping cars and lorries ground to a halt on a very steep stretch of road behind us with barely room to squeeze past.
Young men were leaping out and putting rocks behind their lorry wheels to stop them rolling backwards up ahead and behind us.
A family car immediately behind us, then also broke down and was belching smoke and steam, so there was no space to unload our low loader and take us off. Our driver could not pull over to clear the road as he could only slide backwards! People remained amazingly calm as we surveyed the long snaking line of headlights forming for several kilometres down the pass behind us.
After about a quarter of an hour the car behind us cleared back and we slid our car down off the low loader and the driver then tried to tow us up using our winch instead. Now at 11pm, I had to sort out the electric winch in the dark. Not straight forward. Luckily I was still in my high visibility jacket!
Our palpable relief, as we were tugged up the pass behind the truck with assist, was short lived. Near the top of the pass, we were towed into a tunnel. The entrance, in some kind of high security zone, was guarded by soldiers with machine guns. Needless to say our man broke down again in the tunnel with us attached behind. This had to be the end of the road for our tow. This time his engine became a mass of steam and boiling water and we had to unhitch again.
The traffic into the tunnel was stopped by the soldiers and we were ordered at gunpoint to back out. To be fair, the soldiers initially started to push us out, still with their guns in one hand! Jim was in the driving seat at this stage and was galvanised into action and very obediently reversed out at top speed. Our car engine having been largely off for hours now, had cooled down and was again functioning.
We were now into an interrogation. To be fair the driver’s interrogation was much more serious than ours. After half an hour of questioning by the Uzbek military, there was no way he was going to be allowed back into that tunnel.
By now we had gone through our names and those of as many premiership clubs as we could recall, to cheer up the guards😂.
They eventually, thankfully, agreed to let us through the tunnel without assist and we now had about 180kms to get to Khujand and a further 60kms to the border, under our own steam, but mainly downhill or on the flat. We paid off the driver around 11.30pm and off we went - slowly!
The second quote we had to tow us from the Tajikistan border to Dushanbe, across more high passes, was eye watering and after much debate, we agreed that Landy permitting, we would cross the border and see how far we could get into Tajikistan without assist on Saturday and line up a potential tow on Sunday if required. (Very luckily we had both noted the name and phone number of an English speaking car mechanic in Dushanbe, Dilovar, gleaned from the Caravanistan website before we left Tashkent!)
At around 1am we drove through Khujand in the dark. The streets were sometimes lit and the loveliest 19th Century buildings were floodlit. We stopped to check the route to the border which was pretty obscure, and immediately help pulled up alongside even in the middle of the night and the occupiers did a detour and showed us the way to the border road.
Later in the small hours of Saturday morning, we camped in the car about 20k from the Tajikistan border surrounded by very green farmland and the sound of croaking frogs and quacking ducks and a fair wind. On waking, we were again approached by friendly locals offering tea and home visits and after the customary exchanges of phone numbers we were off to tackle the border.
Unbelievably, the horror stories we had been given about the Uzbek/Tajik border crossing did not materialise. Thankfully, we were through both sides in 1.5 hours. We were given the usual priority treatment. Car searches were verging on minimal and this compared very favourably with the Iran/Turkmenistan or even the Turkmenistan/ Uzbek border crossings which was an improvement on the latter.
The Uzbek searcher did look at my photos in my camera as it almost fell into his lap. We had a cosy look on the camera screen. He was more interested in Tilly and Tigger’s holiday in France, than anything else.
They did not open boxes or take anything out. It was all very minimal, non-intrusive and friendly. There were no queries about our medicines or medications. They wanted to know about our jobs etc but it came across more as friendly curiosity.
There were no requests for bribes or any unpleasantness at all. And everyone enjoyed the ceremony of my applying the Tajikistan flag to the side of the car when our search was concluded and we were waved on our way.
The cost of passing through this border was minimal and we only paid 28 dollars for road tax and the car health dip.
After the border crossing and the usual efforts to change money, we were off to Dushanbe. Luckily the first part of the day’s journey was relatively flat and we could get some kilometres under our belt. The weather too was much cooler and only 26 degrees which helped our cause.
The first things we noticed in Tajikistan, were people making house building bricks from mud by the roadside alongside a ditch supplying water to mix the soil into clay moulds. These were then laid out to dry in various stages and then sold to passers by.
The next thing that caught Jim’s eye was a remaining statue of Lenin on a war memorial. Otherwise all references to the former Soviet Union had been largely expunged in these countries.
It was a really lovely drive on Saturday, with fabulous countryside and we pulled up in Istaravshan (ancient Cyropolis) to peer at a huge old restored citadel looming over the city, founded by Cyrus the Great and stormed by Alexander the Great in 328 BC. We resisted the temptation to stop and climb up as our rendezvous with Dushanbe was by now weighing upon us. (And my bug was also getting worse)😳😩
We still had some 300kms to go including a couple of huge passes through the most beautiful scenery.
We approached the first mountain pass on fairly good roads with some trepidation and we watched each milepost closely. Our aim now that night, was to get to Ayni which was through one pass rising up to some 3,000kms and down again.
The high point of the ascent was a 5 kilometre tunnel carved through the solid rock of the mountain by the Chinese and used by Chinese built trucks carrying aggregates. As Tajikistan was formerly part of the Soviet Union this really made us understand what the Chinese Belt and Road means on the ground.
Jim drove at this point in the late afternoon and we crept up at 20kms/hour to keep to engine temperature down. These mountains were stunning. A mixture of greenery being farmed and grazed by huge numbers of sheep and goats, with high jagged peaks and snowy ranges beyond.
The ‘very slow’ strategy appeared to be working and we made it to the top and it gave us plenty of time to gaze at the stunning scenery. However, coming down into Ayni, our brakes totally failed. Luckily we had just pulled over to swap drivers when Jim realised we had no brakes! Imagine another 30kms of downward hairpins and heavy trucks and no brakes.😳
Luckily we had had our driver training and knew what the H4 gear shift could do for us by way of braking power. We decided to plough on in H4 gears, at a snail’s pace, to Ayni to try and find a garage and we took some comfort in the multiple crash barriers and piles of rubble on the cliff edges to help drivers with failed brakes! It was a good call, as we are here to tell the tale. We got down without the brakes and a bit of help from the handbrake and my legs were like jelly. We pulled into a garage to get them checked out. After a bit of pumping on the brakes the pressure returned and they gave us funny looks as they had started working again!
Something new to learn with every experience. Note to selves, do not use brakes for long downhill stretches or they will actually just fail! If they fail, stop for an hour or so and they may come back.
The road out, beyond Ayni was along an amazing valley and up the last pass before Dushanbe, and in the dying light of the early evening, was blocked by a massive flock of sheep. So nearby we pulled over in a great spot to camp, surrounded by very high cliffs, green trees and streams full of water and a small cafe owner who permitted us to pull off into their tree lined car park. (This gave Jim the chance to eat a second tea).
By now the car windscreen wipers had also failed, so we went to sleep praying for a cool but dry day for the last climb before Dushanbe (126kms) and no rain for our wonky wipers! We were hopeful.
Well dear readers, we were well chuffed to arrive at the Hello Dushanbe Hostel, to discover that our Dushanbe garage man was only 100 metres away. Plus we had avoided the cost and fiasco of another low loader! By now the engine was playing up big time and a serious bit of mechanical help is on the cards. More on that another day.
Our first job following our arrival was to try and find a doctor as Sonia’s lingering cold and sore throat had now become bronchitis. Ah chronic bronchitis is what they surmised. That experience merits a short blog of its own!