Up in the snowy mountains
As I headed north in the jeep, I felt confident that we'd be able to clear the summit known as the Shakhristan Pass, a 3378-meter behemoth known for fouling up travel plans especially in the winter. We encountered snow but it wasn't until we had just rounded the bend at the peak that we were stopped in our tracks by a few cars lodged sideways in the snowdrifts on the road. As we headed towards them to pass, the jeep slid in the direction of the high rock walls and came to a stop before anything was broken. It probably wasn't too long before we managed to get through that portion of the road, but it was a very treacherous route. Most people got out of the vehicle and into the blistering cold winds and walked down the road, but partly because I wasn't sure what was being said and partly because I didn't want to move, I stayed put in the front seat.
The scariest valley I've been through
I was preparing to see my life flash before my eyes and I nearly did when the tires skidded and we stopped less than a couple inches from a drop of more than several thousand feet. I gripped the handlebar on the dash in front of me (and immediately understood what it was for) and with white knuckles, my heart in my throat and lots of prayers directed above, which was not very far away it seemed! Finally we glided down the steepest part and it seemed we were going to be safe as passengers returned and we proceeded a little further.
Around another bend we saw traffic had come to a standstill in a niche of mountain where the wind and snow were particularly rough. Across the ravine on the southbound side I saw an even longer line of cars, vans and trucks waiting. For about an hour and a half we sat inches from the edge of the cliff, waiting while the harsh winds rocked the jeep and blew snow in through cracks around the door.
After the pass
Then the snowplows must have finished and a few cars were let through, but others got stuck and we continued to wait for about 20 minutes. Once we got going, we snaked along the delicate strip of road between the lines of cars and the vertical drop, where I saw burned out carcasses of cars that were less fortunate. Within minutes of passing the last vehicle, the snow disappeared and we were quickly bumping down the mountain towards the flat, paved road at the bottom. It was such a relief to get through the pass and down the mountain, but I still was uncomfortable on the hard seat. The front windshield was cracked in several places, no doubt from falling or ricocheting rocks. When we reached the paved road, the driver continued to turn off his engine to save gas when we would coast downhill and rev it back up when we crossed a hill.
The view from my seat
We passed through a town where dozens of women with baskets of apples lined the shoulders of the road, shaking their fingers at us with scowls for not stopping. The territory by then was rolling hills and farmland dotted with summer huts where harvesters would undoubtedly rest in the shade, but were now abandoned. We pulled into Istaravshan
around 1:30 amidst a flurry of activity and I prepared to adust my adrenaline levels for a new kind of adventure.