The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Stans

We came down through the Salang Pass from Mazar, and then drove up a surprisingly good road to the Panjshir valley.  The entry to the valley is an extremely defensible narrow gorge between steep cliffs.

The Panjshir Valley was the great stronghold of the mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets, and there are frequent remains of wrecked Soviet APCs and the occasional tank in the lower valley.  This is a Tajik area, vibrantly loyal to the memory of their beloved commander Moussad, the Lion of Panjshir, and deeply hostile to Pashtuns (and thus to Taliban).  It’s probably as safe a place as you can get in Afghanistan right now.

We supposedly had permission to stay at the elegant new Government Guesthouse.  However there was a lengthy dispute over whether we would be allowed in or not.  After some toing and froing between our guide and the police post and the security service post, and a long altercation with the guesthouse staff we were finally, reluctantly, admitted.   (This did mean we got to enjoy the fine views of the valley from up at the Security Service command post.)  The guesthouse is generally very comfortable, but electricity was erratic and the showers healthy and cold.

Next morning, we drove up the valley using the new road.  This is still under active construction and while the lower part is tarmac, the upper part is still a dirt road.  Eventually this road will be extended through the Wakhan corridor all the way to China. (Wow!)  Due to a detour, we had to splashily ford the Panjshir river at one point.  We drove to the current road-head in the Parian (upper valley) and stopped for a picnic lunch.

The valley is extremely scenic, a green ribbon caught between the stark Hindu Kush mountains, sometimes only a narrow canyon, but sometimes broadening out to green fertile farmland, sometimes with rice fields, but always still squeezed between the dark barren hills.

At lunch, several Afghans from the road building team came over and chatted with us.  They were very convivial, joking and laughing, with our guide as interpreter.  As part of the conversation, people asked about our families, discussed how many children they themselves had, etc.  One man, with a fine bushy black beard was introduced to us as having five wives and 14 children.  He looked rather sheepish.  His co-workers were nodding and chuckling.  Eventually it was revealed that they were in fact teasing him, as he was about to take the slightly unusual step of marrying a second wife (and not a fifth!).

Improvised ghaychak

The road workers occasionally hold impromptu night time concerts, where they use their trucks to provide light; play music and dance.  They brought over their home-made ghaychak instrument and demonstrated it for a little.  Alas, with my croaky tone-deaf voice I dared not reciprocate!

As we returned down the valley, we hit an unexpected snag.  A team was dynamiting the rock above the road to widen it and men were then crowbarring free the loosened rock onto the road.  However, the excavator that was supposed to remove the fallen rock had developed a flat tire, so broken rock had accumulated, blocking the road.  Fortunately there was only a short pause while they replaced a wheel and then cleared the road.

The following morning we visited Massouds’s Tomb.  The tomb building itself is quite elegant, on a striking location, with a fine view over one of the most fertile sections of the valley.  A large culture centre is being built around the tomb.  There is also a wrecked tank and several APCs as a kind of informal additional memorial.

A little further down the valley, we stopped at a well preserved Soviet tank.  It had a small gash in the turret, running all the way through, which is presumably from the rocket that killed it.  I was able to clamber around inside – it was actually more spacious than I had expected for Soviet gear.

Note: This trip was part of a private tour arranged through Great Game Travel of Kabul.  Afghanistan isn’t always a safe destination at the moment, and I’m grateful to Great Game for their good sense and continual kind guidance throughout.

Tajiki-Uzbek border I crossed from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan at the Tursanzade-Denau crossing, on the road from Dushanbe to Termez.

The Tajik exit formalities were straightforward, taking only about 25 minutes.  On the Uzbek side, the immigration formalities were easy, but customs was a little ugly.

Uzbekistan has tight currency controls.  If you are carrying undeclared currency, the customs officers are entitled to confiscate it.  Which no doubt provides the officers with a significant incentive.

As I approached the customer area, a customs officer was shouting angrily at people and forcing them back.  I think too many people had been trying to push into the customs hall proper, so we had to queue outside in the sun.   I was eventually spotted as a foreigner and pulled in and given English forms.  After filling those out, I joined the actual customs queue.  There were separate lines for men and women, with matching male or female customs officers.

Oh my.  I had carefully listed all my dollars and electronic gadgets.  The initial paper shuffling went fine.  Then came the command “dollars!” and I was required to show my cash.  So I hauled out my wallet, my money belt and my backup envelope.  This was all carefully counted, with two Uzbek customs officers getting involved and me trying to keep an eye on it all.  They eventually reluctantly agreed that I had listed exactly the right amount.  They asked if I had any Sterling or Euros and seemed dubious when I claimed I didn’t.  Then they rummaged vigorously through my day-bag and pack.  Then I got directed to a partly curtained-off search room, made to turn out my pockets, and was vigorously frisked.  I had my groin prodded a couple of times, but no, I only had the standard items.   (To be fair, it was done reasonably professionally.   He was checking if I had a stash of money in my underwear.) By now various Uzbeks and Tajiks in the queue behind me were becoming quite impatient and exchanging angry noises with the customs officers.

Then I was given the thumbs up, a reasonably friendly smile, and allowed to gather my stuff and exit.  Before going more than a few steps, I stopped and re-counted my money.  Rather to my surprise it was all still there.  And all my gadgets made it through OK.

Now, I’ve been through Uzbek customs a couple of times before, in the North, with only a cursory scan of my paperwork and no search.  So why the extra vigor this time?

Well, this is a much quieter border post, probably with much less supervision.   In the North they get a lot of tourists and I suspect they are under orders to keep foreigners happy.  Down in the South, they probably don’t see many foreigners and the possibility of undeclared cash-on-the-hoof was probably too good an opportunity to pass up.

Also, I was traveling on a UK passport, but I hadn’t declared any UK currency.  Aha!  Clearly I must have some juicy undeclared pounds hidden on me somewhere.  But no!

Now, I’ve enjoyed my trips through Uzbekistan, so don’t let this tale put you off visiting.  This level of scrutiny is unusual and even so it was only 10-20 minutes of nonsense.  Just make sure you declare all the money you want to keep.

Khojand (aka Khujand) is a sleepy industrial town in Northern Tajikistan. In an earlier age it was Leninabad. And in an even earlier one, it was Alexandria-the-Furthest.

Yes, Big Alex was here, pursuing a Scythian army. In 329 b.c. he re-founded the existing city as Alexandria Eschate (“Alexandria the Farthest”) on the Jaxartes River. Unfortunately there isn’t much surviving from his visit.

There are the remains of a medieval mudbrick fortress, which is probably the latest descendent of fortresses on the same site from Alexander’s time. Nowadays there is a small Tajikistan army post on top, presumably a leftover from the Tajik civil war.
The Soviets left a giant polished metal statue of Lenin, which LonelyPlanet assures us is “the largest Lenin statue in all of Central Asia”. It’s on the North bank of the river and is a suitably impressive sight against the Tien Shan mountains.

Another Soviet relic

The Regional Museum is housed in a splendid building, modeled on a Medieval Castle. The basement rooms are beautifully decorated with heroic classical scenes in inlaid marble showing Alexander and other Gods. Unfortunately, the actual exhibits are relatively prosaic.

The following day I took a long-distance taxi over the long bumpy road from Khojand to Dushanbe. This is slowly being rebuilt by a Chinese construction team, but right now many sections are in extremely bad shape, especially on the Northern half. The section over the 11,500ft Shakhristan pass is basically a dirt track with many pot holes, cut into the side of steep slopes. The taxi driver, who appeared to know the road well, was veering from side to side to avoid the worst of them, while driving quite briskly, on the edge of long sheer drops. After some good road, we then took another long windy pot holed dirt road over the Anzob pass. I had been expecting us to use the Anzob tunnel, but I guess that is closed right now. We did see about a dozen short avalanche shelters being built over the main road. (We needed to detour around them.)

This disaster of a road is the only link between the (relatively) industrialized North of Tajikistan and the more agrarian South. Seeing the road helped me understand why the Northern factions were unable to intervene effectively in the civil war, which was mainly fought in the South around Dushanbe.

Of course, Big Alex led an army over that same route, long before there was any kind of paved road. Those Macedonians were a tough bunch.

Astana’s Cosmonauts

Astana takes pride in being Kazakhstan’s visionary new capital. But in the older parts of town there are also many traces of the Soviet past.

Astana Cosmonauts

My favorite of these is a fine Soviet era mosaic outside the train station, showing a spectacled engineer and a waving cosmonaut.  A nice reminder of Kazakstan’s broader role in the USSR.

Welcome to the Land of the Cosmonauts!

For the Scots among you: Yes that does look like a Saltire on the foreground figure. I’m not quite sure what’s intended there: The Russian navy also uses a St Andrew’s cross, but they normally use a blue cross on a white background. Hmm.

The Darvaza Gas Crater

The Darvaza Gas Crater is the debris from a disastrously failed Soviet gas well. After the failure, the escaping gas was left to burn itself out. It has been merrily burning for over 30 years now.  (More Davaza photos.)

Through StanTours, I had arranged a 4WD, driver and guide for the trip, about 150 miles North from Ashgabat across the Karakum desert. The Karakum desert is known as the “black sand” desert, but I’m afraid the sand looked regular sand colour to me. Most of the desert was scrubby desert, with occasional small shrubs, like the outer parts of the Taklamakan.  But there were occasional sections of pure sand.

We visited three craters. The first was a deep crater with a pool with green water at the bottom, with small bubbles of gas bubbling up.  The second was another deep crater with a pool of mud at the bottom, bubbling merrily and emitting gas. This was quite interesting.

The third and by far the largest, was the Darvaza gas crater itself, eight km east of the road. This was about 40 meters across and perhaps 20 meters deep. The sides and bottom were lined with flames from many fault lines in the rock. It was bright daylight, so it was all relatively subdued, but it was still very cool.

There was a dull roar of sound from the fires and much heat from the crater. I walked around it and when I was downwind, it was oven-like. I could see pipes leading into the top of the crater, so my suspicion is that this was a working gas hole, which blew, destroying the top section. But perhaps the deeper drill pipe hole is still open, which is making it easy for gas to get near the surface and it then percolates up through the loose rock in the crater?

Ashgabat: Much Strangeness

Turkmenistan is by far the strangest of the ex-soviet Republics.  The late President Niyazov (aka “Turkmenbashi”) ruled as an absolute monarch, with a personality cult that would have made Stalin blush.   Strange relics of his reign still dot Ashgabat.

Arch of Neutrality

The Arch of Neutrality is a 75 meter tripod tower, adorned with a 12 meter golden statue of the late God-King President Niyazov.  The golden statue rotates through the course of the day, so that the God-King President is always facing the Sun and so that he dispenses his blessings equally to all points of the compass.

Earthquake Memorial

Ashgabat suffered a devastating earthquake in 1948, killing perhaps as many as 100,000 people, including President Niyazov’s mother. But miraculously the infant Niyazov survived.

The earthquake memorial, in a rather nice piece of symbolism, shows a bull tossing the earth in its horns.  Writhing figures mark Ashgabat’s location.  However, fear not, all is not lost!  A dying mother lifts a golden infant, the future god-king President Niyazov to safety.  (Alas!)

Lenin

The local statue of Lenin is comparatively modest.  It is however distinguished in having an impressive tiled plinth, in a Central Asian style with Lenin’s name in flowing Turkmenistan letters.

Ashgabad’s new city area has broad avenues of tall white “marble” apartment buildings. It clearly aspires to be futuristic, but it looks like a 1950’s vision of a Soviet Model City. I much prefer Astana’s more daring vision.

“The World’s Tallest Flagpole”

“The Great Plunger”