Roads are, it’s fair to say, essential infrastructure to any country. They’re not merely to help people get from point A to point B, but a boost to the economy of a country, and Tajikistan is no exception. Researching Tajikistan before going, some of the travel times looked a bit daunting. Especially from Khujand in the north to Panjakent in the north-west, where Google Maps insisted the best way to get from one to the other was to take this ridiculously long route, principally through Uzbekistan. Which I guess would have meant I needed to get a multi-entry visa for Tajikistan.
This also put travel time well out into double figures at at least 12 hours, I think it could have been even 18. I found more reasonable estimates through more research but it seemed 7 hours was the minimum this trip could be done in. In fact, once there it took a lot less. And I didn’t have to go through Uzbekistan at all. It seemed to me Google Maps was unaware of a bridge over the Zeravshan River. In preparation for this post I tried Google Maps again, and it gives the simple route that I took, which took me (in a shared taxi) around four hours.
The development in the last five years in Tajikistan has been significant. It makes transporting goods much easier because roads have been sealed and upgraded, especially in the areas Dushanbe to the north and north-west. The forecasted travel times were not accurate (thankfully) in the slightest, which makes travelling the country a little bit easier. Transport is still principally in shared taxis, which you need to wait to fill (I only had one longish wait, generally they filled fast), but it’s not expensive and if you pay a few Somoni extra you can snaffle the front seat which gives you the views.
The prime reason for the improvement in roads has come from Tajikistan’s neighbour, no not Uzbekistan or Afghanistan, but the neighbour to the east. China. Okay, so that’s not going to surprise anyone I guess. Why are China investing in their neighbour? Well, firstly they are pretty much investing everywhere at the moment. But Tajikistan appears to have the potential to be quite widely mined.
In the region of Iskander-Kul people – locals – were basically digging into the side of hills and pulling coal out. Which no doubt is for their own personal use. But China is always looking for raw minerals. Tungsten, silver, lead and uranium are also found in plentiful demand. And near Panjikant I was shown a Chinese mine for Gold, which also is one of Tajikistan’s main minerals. Why have they not plundered these resources in the past? Well, to the observer’s eye it seems that lack of access, in one of the world’s most mountainous countries, is probably a chief reason.
But now China is on the grow and opportunities have been seized. I took a shared taxi from Dushanbe to a town near Iskandur-kul, Sarvoda. Well, it’s still a couple of hours by crappy, unsealed road from Sarvoda but to Sarvoda the road is in excellent condition. From there I went up to Khujand, again on excellent sealed road. This time the journey took us on toll-roads, at points three or four lanes across (seemingly unneeded – I can only presume they are built for the future) and then from Khujand to Panjakent, the Zaravshan Valley and to the border in that area with Uzbekistan. The main roads all sealed and in pretty good condition. I met a Chinese business man on my travels who proudly said that this was all ‘thanks to China’.
So, that’s why the roads in this area are as good as they are. But wait, why therefore was I ‘braving’ the roads? Well, simply, the roads go up and down mountains at will. The drive includes the ‘tunnel of death’ – the Anzob Tunnel, the weather moves in on you out of nowhere – ie snow, and the driving is, to say the least, somewhat ambitious for the conditions.
And that takes us directly to ‘public’ transport in Tajikistan, which seems to be devoid of buses (I saw two at the Uzbek border as I left, but no more for the entire time I spent in Tajikistan and those buses were for Chinese groups doing multiple countries) and the trains are generally not used and don’t go anywhere useful. The only passenger train I know for sure that operates is one to Moscow.
So what you generally do is hop in the front or back of a shared taxi. Most are the standard sedan that takes three in the back and one in the front. Pay a little extra for the front if you like – I did. Better views and more comfortable. You can really appreciate that sealing roads through the mountains was no easy feat at all. And also I don’t recall taking a taxi in Tajikistan which didn’t have a crack of some sort in the windscreen.
The drivers fill their cars up and drive to the pre-planned destination. From what I gather talking to a couple of them, they do the same route over and over again. On some routes you may find bigger cars – I took one to Panjakant I think that had an extra two seats in the back (it was a station wagon). In some cases there are vans. But that’s really the limit to the options. The drivers, especially of the sedans, drive as fast as they can pretty much.
On windy roads overlooking praecipes that’s not necessarily the best thing. I mean, get to your destination in good time, you can get back to Dushanbe (or wherever you left from) and make more money. But boy! It’s ‘seat of you pants’ stuff at times. Stunning views if you look up. Best not to look down. And the scariest thing is by far the passing! They will pass any vehicle any time, any place, no matter if it’s a long straight road with good visibility, or they are taking a hairpin bend in a fog.
And in the Anzob Tunnel? The so-called ‘Tunnel of Death’? Passing is still done without thought. There is no lighting in there, and I remember passing workers on the side of the road with tiny torches. Now THAT is taking your life into your own hands. But the Anzob Tunnel these days is apparently a lot better than it was. It’s around 5km long.
And I remember on the best stretch of road I was on in all of Tajikistan, the road within say 100km of Khujand, with four lanes, straight, not much traffic, we were whistling along at 150km per hour, when ZIP! We were passed in an instance by a black Mercedes. Did I need to mention it was black? Perhaps not…
On the flip side of all that, when I visited the Seven Lakes near Penjakant, and Iskander-Kul, both fairly remote destinations, we were onto roads in pretty bad shape which required four-wheel drives. To Iskanderkul the road had clearly been sealed once, but it must have been more than 50 years ago. From time to time we would go over a short section where half the road was sealed, and then return to the rocky adventure that feels like the real Tajikistan.
Getting your ride if you’re doing the shared taxi thing (another option is a tour I guess) means you need to get to a ‘bus station’ as I heard someone call it (oh the irony that there were no buses) and look for a guy calling out your destination. In fact, usually getting out of the taxi you took to get there or the bus (there are local buses around cities etc, I should have said) you will be approached as to where you are going. Locals are knowledgeable so if you do take a taxi to get to the departure point just let them know your ultimate destination and they will take you to the place to find a share taxi, and possibly hook you up with a vehicle and driver. That’s what happened to me in Dushanbe.
One thing is for sure, taking to the road in Tajikistan is an adventure and a half. It’s not very expensive though, $15 will get you half way across the country (USD), and it makes a change from, you know, scheduled services and the like. Some say travel is too easy these days. But in Tajikistan, there are still challenges. But honestly, it’s not all that hard either. Thanks for reading, and May the Journey Never End!