Slippery Roads, Tunnels and Dust: The Anzob Pass to Panjakent

Penjikent Travel Blog

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Heading north

I woke up at 6am ready for another day’s adventure and more mountains.

Zeravshan Mountains
After surreptitiously exiting the hotel I walked to the nearest bus stop and caught what may have been one of the first morning buses. There wasn’t even a young boy at the door to take the fare, and only three or four other passengers. The bus I took only went as far as the Varzob Bazaar at the north end of Rudaki, but I was instructed to take another bus to the cement factory where I could find transportation to Panjakent. After seeing several buses, but not the one I wanted, I decided I should start walking. After only a few paces, I saw a looming tower belching out smoke and took it to be the cement factory, so with my turtle shell on I walked about a kilometer north, following what surely is one of the largest cement plants I’ve ever seen. Before I could reach the parking lot full of vans, taxis and 4WDs, a minivan pulled off to the side of the road and asked if I was going to Panjakent. I reluctantly said that I was and soon I was loading my pack into the back of the minivan and agreeing to go with this gold-toothed man for 100 somoni.

My first mistake was assuming he was casually on his way back from Dushanbe with his wife and that I might be the only other passenger, but we only drove about 100 meters before he pulled over and tried to solicit more riders.

Ice & snow on the road
A family of 6 approached with twice as many bags, but upon seeing the cramped conditions quickly agreed to abandon the minivan. A young boy was next and seeing that he was early on the scene, agreed to a seat. Several more people loaded up the back of the minivan only to turn around and unload it when they realized they would have to sit in the very back seat or the middle seat of the second row of seats. It was evident by then that the Opel minivan was not the desired mode of transportation. It took about two and a half hours before we were finally on the road at 10:30.

The journey began innocently enough on this cool, sunny November morning. The road north out of Dushanbe was relatively new and in good condition, and we were passing through the resort town of Varzob in no time. Eventually we started our ascent into gleaming white mountains.

The flat
Despite the sunshine, it had recently snowed and had accumulated along the shoulder of the road. Finally we reached a stretch of road with slush, which yielded to snow and ice. A few cars were stuck or parked at odd angles to the road, suggested a skidded stop. Our vehicle fared no better, and as we passed a man trying to put chains on his tires, the minivan’s tires sputtered and failed to get much further than a car length from the car we’d just passed. The boy and the driver got out and scooped buckets full of rocks from the side of the road and scattered them over the compacted snow in front of the van. As they were doing this, I had gotten out of the vehicle to take pictures of the glistening wonderland surrounding us. I turned around to assess the progress of the rocks-on-ice bailout method only to find that the van was just starting to roll backwards towards the edge of the road. Two of the ladies who had remained inside the van began to scream as the van continued downhill at a deathly angle. I quickly grabbed a nearby rock to wedge behind a back tire as the driver ran to secure the emergency brake.
Wintry landscape
A few minutes later, the driver got in and slowly accelerated over the rocks for a few feet until he punctured a tire on a sharp rock, and we were once again subdued.

The driver had to unload the back to get to his tools to fix the tire, so I was left with a choice of my backpack being thrown into the dirty snow on the side of the road or strapping it on my back and waiting for the next event. Angry and slightly shaken, an older woman and her daughter exited the van and started walking uphill towards the hairpin turn at the top, suggesting I follow them. Knowing that they weren’t bailing on the driver by leaving all their goods in the vehicle, I decided to follow them in case there was a café or potential restroom at the top. Of course there was neither, but I did find a relatively quiet place behind an abandoned cement building that allowed a minute of much-needed relief, and added to my repertoire of firsts (wearing a 15-kilogram backpack while peeing in the snow on a mountain pass, 5 feet from a 1,500-foot drop).

Hills near Urmatan

It didn’t take too long for the tire to be fixed and for us to see the van rounding the bend. We ran to catch up, and I awkwardly loaded my pack back into the rear of the van and we were off again. After passing two western bicyclists who were trying to huff it up the 15%-grade mountain, we approached an ominous looking tunnel, surely marking the beginning of the Anzob Pass. According to hearsay, this tunnel was an Iranian joint venture built to facilitate getting over the mountains, but was frequently closed due to flooding. Paula from the Khorog trip had told me that sometimes people are stuck in the tunnel for up to 8 hours, and when she passed through it they were delayed for about 2 hours but the fumes from all the exhaust pipes were causing some people, including tour buses full of septuagenarian French tourists, to panic. As luck would have it, we were not delayed, but the tunnel was definitely full of water and was scarier than going down a mine shaft. In fact, I was certain we were in a mine shaft. Between the uneven joists of concrete where icicles hung like daggers and the lack of proper lighting, it was enough to induce a little claustrophobia. Before the relief of seeing the light at the end of the seemingly endless tunnel had set in, I saw a car stuck in the rocks and hoped our driver would act appropriately and avoid getting stuck. We got stuck. Ten minutes later, we were able to back up enough to negotiate a better angle and this time made it over the rocks and on along a dry, dusty road through the Zeravshan river valley on the other side of the mountain.

At Takfon, we stopped for a decent and much-needed lunch and bathroom break. At some point during the lunch, it was discovered that I spoke Uzbek and from then on the questions came about my marital status, purpose in traveling and whether or not they had apples in America. After being well-fed and escaping death twice, the mood was light and somewhat festive when we regrouped in the van and ventured further toward our destination. The driver’s wife even started dancing in her seat to a song that was playing on the CD. It turns out the boy, named Khurshid, was Uzbek and from then on acted as translator as we wound through the curvy roads westward. We were momentarily delayed at one point where a crew of Chinese road workers and a cement truck blocked the road, but within 15 minutes were back on our way.

Khurshid invited me to come to his house and while I’d planned to stay at the guesthouse mentioned in my guidebook, I decided to take him up on his offer. What I didn’t realize was that he lived not in Panjakent, but in the village of Sarazm, about 15 kilometers west of the city, near the border with Uzbekistan. The taxi driver then tried to charge me 130 somoni, saying that I had accepted the boy’s offer to go to the village and therefore should pay more. I argued saying I had no idea where we were going and thought it was near Panjakent, but ended up giving him 10 somoni, since I felt awkward and sorry for the boy who was kind enough to invite me in.

We walked down a dark, muddy alley to an adobe house and were greeted by a couple flashlights aimed towards us. Evidently the electricity was out again, so I dismissed any notion of bathing or doing laundry. But it turned out to be a wonderful experience. The whole family was super friendly and attentive, and they all spoke Uzbek, which was a relief after not being able to communicate much in the Pamirs. They offered us cherry and peach kompot (stewed fruit juice), kefir, honey and bread before the main meal of chicken and potatoes in a gravy sauce. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to write down everyone’s names, but I had a genuinely nice time and although I had to share the sleeping quarters with Khurshid, it was fine and I slept warmly and comfortably.

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Heading north
Heading north
Zeravshan Mountains
Zeravshan Mountains
Ice & snow on the road
Ice & snow on the road
The flat
The flat
Wintry landscape
Wintry landscape
Hills near Urmatan
Hills near Urmatan
Penjikent
photo by: Biedjee