Khorog to Dushanbe via Kulyab

Kulyab Travel Blog

 › entry 368 of 658 › view all entries
Scenery between Khorog and Kalaikhum

People i met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), Sasha (Tajikistan), Sigrid (Belgium), David (Canada)

The journey from Khorog to Dushanbe had been branded as a 20 hour nightmare, so i entered the back seat of our Opel Astra, with my eyes open to the possibility of exiting it a broken man. Our driver was a Sylvester Stallone lookalike called Sasha, who originated from a town near Kalaikhum, which was located about half way along the route. He had left his wife and four children in Tajikistan for the previous three years, whilst he had moved to Moscow to work on a building site.

Scenery between Khorog and Kalaikhum
As with so many Tajik families, it had presented the best formula for the family to be cared for, as he could send home money each month from his salary. Three months ago he had moved home, bought a car and was now trying his hand at been a taxi driver.

Our first dilemma of the trip came when we reached the only car bridge crossing the river in Khorog and found that it had been cordoned off by the police. As el presidente was still in town, no vehicles were allowed to go anywhere near the areas where he would be passing through. This meant that the main roads in town had all been blocked, until he got his lazy butt out of bed to be chauffeured down to the airport, from where he could then be whisked off in his helicopter for the day.

Whilst waiting at the bridge, we saw Wouter wandering through town on his way to the airport.
An Afghan village located on the opposite bank of the river
We told him of our great deal, but it still wasn't enough to convince someone who is nearing 200cm that 20 hours cooped up in a car is a wise move! After some time he made a move to the airport, to see if anyone knew what the possibilities of a domestic flight were. With such high security, i didn't really fancy his chances.

Helicopters flew overhead symbolising some kind of movement, but we knew that they had to check the neighbouring Afghan valley before letting the President's chopper take off. Only a few years ago a commercial flight had been shot down by a rocket from Afghanistan, so understandably, no security risks could be taken in this instance. At 07.30 there was some sudden movement from the policemen and a mad scramble of people trying to get back to their cars, as the bridge was reopened.
Afghan village


Sasha wasn't going to hang around and we were soon speeding our way out of Khorog. Before long we were soon stopping at any small shop at the roadside that was selling benzine, getting what little petrol was available for the 600km journey that lay ahead. Finally he seemed satisfied that we weren't going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere and thus the journey could continue uninterrupted for the next few hours, along a reasonable asphalt road.

At 10.00 we stopped for some brunch at a small roadside cafe, where we ate some shashlik and bread. It didn't taste great, but it temporarily filled a gap. When i say temporarily, i mean temporarily, as Julia saw all of hers again a few minutes down the road. I expected mine to reappear again too, but other than some nasty meaty burps, i managed to keep it down.
Afghan's walking their cattle


The road was incredibly windy, but for the best part it was tarmacked and in a fair condition. I was surprised how well the car handled the worst sections of road, as it felt by far and away the most comfortable ride that i had experienced in the whole of Tajikistan. A little after 14.00 we arrived into Kalaikhum, where Sasha seemed to know half of the population and thus we seemed to be stopping to make small talk every few metres!

As Sasha's village was on the Southern route, which followed the Pyanj River and continued to skirt the fascinating Afghanistan border along a beautiful valley, we agreed to take this route to Dushanbe, even though it was a little bit longer. His house was situated in the middle of an incredibly smooth new section of road, which he told us had been built by a Turkish construction crew.
The road is still heavily mined from the Afghanistan - Russia War
This was by far the best stretch of asphalt that i had seen since China and i can't describe how out of place it looked in such rugged terrain. God only knows what the poor Afghan's make of it on the opposite side of the river, as they trudge along their patchy donkey trails, which often seem to fade into into the cliffs.

Once we arrived at Sasha's sisters house, we were greeted by the whole family and shown into their living room. We made ourselves comfortable on the floor, and were soon served some tasty apples, apricots, raisins, bread and jam. Sasha left us for a couple of hours to go and see his kids, whilst his sister kept bringing us more food. The watermelon was fantastic, but the soup was made with a lot of mutton fat and i must admit that it smelt a bit like excrement! For a group of people who were all suffering with sporadic bursts of food poisoning, it was something that was hard to consume.
Views between Kalaikhum and Kulyab


It was after 17.00 before we hit the road again and having eaten, i felt more ready for bed than anything. If we had continued along the smooth new road surface for much longer, i could easily have nodded off, but what came after this segment finished would have kept a dead man awake! For four hours we traversed a track that would have given four wheel drives some difficulties and i couldn't figure out how the car was coping. Construction teams were working on widening and improving the road in sections and this complicated matters even further. Sasha skillfully maneuvered his way past lorries and diggers, whilst precariously skirting the cliff edge, hundreds of metres above the gushing river that split the valley below!

The views into Afghanistan were marvelous, with villages dotting the scenery at regular intervals.
Views between Kalaikhum and Kulyab
From time to time we would stop and look at the people going about their daily life on the opposite embankment. To be so close to a country that you hear so much about and to be stood gawking in at them felt surreal, like watching a TV documentary.

On the Tajik side we came across helicopter landing pads, a remnant of the Soviet Unions War with Afghanistan. Sasha recounted stories of how Afghan troops would cross the river at night and butcher the small battalion of Russian soldiers stationed there, before disappearing back into the mountains without making a sound. Listening to such a tale sends a shiver down your spine, i wonder whether the victims knew what was coming.

Further notice that we were in an area of the World that had suffered its fair share of bloodshed and horror could to be seen at regular intervals, with signs warning of land mines.
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
I had seen a few limbless people in this region and i think mines have to be one of the  cruelest ways to take out an opponent, as often the victim survives with horrific injuries.

As dusk was closing in around us, we came across a tractor in the road, but couldn't find the owner to move it. Shortly afterwards a car a pulled up containing three military men, who weren't going to idly sit around and waste what remained their day. Moments later they had pushed the vehicle off the gravel track so as we could proceed on our way.

During the day we had been frequently stopped by the police, who wanted to check Sasha's documents, but who had taken very little interest in us. At one small village, the police threatened to search all of our bags for drugs, but when Sasha didn't offer them a bribe in response, they just pleaded for 2 Somani ($0.
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
60) instead! On one hand its pretty disgusting behaviour for the police to be trying to bribe people, but on the other hand its saddening that they would ask for so little. I guess this highlighted the poverty within the region as much as anything.

As we neared the summit of the 2200m (7260ft) Shurabad Pass, we encountered the military officers once more, this time in their broken down car. Having stopped to try and help, we noticed that we had a fuel leak to contend with ourselves, but thankfully Sasha managed to plug it up. It was already dark and as there was nothing we could do for the other over heated car, we set off once again.

Just before the town of Kulyab, we came across a large check point, where the military took a keen interest in us.
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Having taken our passports inside their office to check, they soon re-emerged to tell us that we didn't have registration with the KGB, which meant that we had a problem. They were obviously looking for a bribe, but we knew that we had done nothing wrong, so why should we hand over any money!? Julia calmly explained that we knew our rights and all our documents were in order. The KGB in Murgab had told us in person that we didn't need further registration after we had registered with OVIR, so we sat and waited for them to back down. Ten minutes later they gave up and begrudgingly let us carry on with our journey.

We got to Kulyab at 22.30, completely shattered and ready for bed. Sasha took us to the only hotel he knew in town, which looked like a very swish establishment from the outside.
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Inside was also very nice and i was really surprised to find out that it only cost 35 Somani ($10) per person. When they saw that we were happy with the price, they immediately changed their mind and said that foreigners had to pay double. We picked up our bags to leave and they dropped their bluff first and returned to their original price.

I slept like a log until 06.45, enjoying my first comfortable bed for weeks, if not months! The air conditioning was a real treat and i could feel that it was hotter now that we had dropped down in altitude. The only negative was that there was no water at all, even though they had promised that there would be in the morning. It was an odd hotel, as it looked like it was just been finished, but Sasha assured us it had been there for years and this was how it was left.
A view of the town of Nurek


The road from Kulyab to Dushanbe was in good condition, and this leg of the journey only took four hours. On the way we passed the reconstructed Vose Khulbak and an impressive Lake, which was dotted with islands. The entire trip was less than 16 hours when you took out the stops, which was actually not too bad in the end. It had been a third of the price of a flight and i think the views along the way made all the bum ache worthwhile!

sylviandavid says:
wow.... what an adventure.... Sasha was a real find... Great blog...
Posted on: Aug 08, 2008
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Scenery between Khorog and Kalaikh…
Scenery between Khorog and Kalaik…
Scenery between Khorog and Kalaikh…
Scenery between Khorog and Kalaik…
An Afghan village located on the o…
An Afghan village located on the …
Afghan village
Afghan village
Afghans walking their cattle
Afghan's walking their cattle
The road is still heavily mined fr…
The road is still heavily mined f…
Views between Kalaikhum and Kulyab
Views between Kalaikhum and Kulyab
Views between Kalaikhum and Kulyab
Views between Kalaikhum and Kulyab
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
Lake between Kulyab and Dushanbe
A view of the town of Nurek
A view of the town of Nurek
A view of the town of Nurek
A view of the town of Nurek
Kulyab
photo by: Biedjee