Day 91: The Afghan border

Vanj Travel Blog

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The spectacular road over the Shurabad pass

Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Tim & Wim (Belgium)

The next morning we felt a lot better after a good night's sleep. At least, Wim and I did. Tim, who started to suffer from his stomach the latest yesterday, was also the slowest to recover.
After breakfast we set off again. Over the Shurabad pass and into the Pyanj valley. The Pyanj river marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. With travel in Afghanistan pretty much off limits these days this will be the closest I will ever get to the country. At times the gorge was less than 100 metres wide.

The scenery became much more rugged here. The views of the wild river below us and the surrounding mountains were breathtaking. It surprised us how many people we saw.

Every time we passed a village kids would come running towards us with goods to sell
Even though there are only about 250,000 people living in the entire South-Eastern third of Tajikistan, all life seems to be  concentrated along the river and road - obviously. Everywhere people were smiling and waving at us. Kids came running towards us as soon as they spotted our car. Sometimes to sell fruit or drinks, but often just to look and wave at us. I guess for many kids living here we were the highlight of our day.

The contrast between the Tajik side and the Afghan side was striking. Tajikistan may be one of the poorest countries in the world, their former inclusion in the Soviet Union means that at least there was infrastructure. You can say what you want about the Russians, but at least they brought roads and electricity to all the villages here.
Crossing the river
Across the river in Afghanistan most of the villages we saw did not have electricity and there was no road to speak of. All there was was a small, steep donkey path clinging to the steep cliff face.

The road was mostly gravel road, with some patches of potholed tarmac in between. For about 40 kilometres there was a surreal smooth paved road, built by Turkish contractors, but other sections were so bad we could not go faster than a snail's pace. Sometimes we crossed rivers on rickety bridges, other times there were no bridges at all and we had to ford the river. (We only got stuck once).

With landslides and avalanches the order of the day in this region it must be nigh on impossible to maintain a road here. We saw several signs where NGOs had sponsored road maintenance.
Having dinner at a small restaurant near Vanj
With budgets of $ 1000 per sections you can't expect too much, really.

Progress was really slow. In 11 hours we had only driven 270 kilometres. We weren't going to reach Khorog before darkness at this speed, so instead we decided to stop somewhere along the way.
We found a nice idyllic spot just past the village of Deh. There was a little restaurant here, where we had some lovely Borsht (hearty Russian style soup with cabbage, potato and mutton). The lovely owners allowed us to park and camp next to the restaurant and use their facilities (read: pit toilet) for free.

As darkness fell we sat on a lovely patio next to the river, drinking tea (we didn't dare touching any alcohol yet with our still-upset stomachs). While we sat there a patrol of soldiers walked past.
Beautiful night sky
The Afghan-Tajik border is a major drug trafficking corridor and as a result the road on the Tajik side is heavily patrolled. There are checkpoints every 50-odd kilometres and group of three or four soldiers patrol the road day and night.

The soldiers saw our van and tried to look inside, but they didn't have any torches with them, so they couldn't see anything. Then they saw us. On the radio they asked their command centre what to do with us and the answer as simple and obvious: register. They still love this old remnant of Soviet times. Every 50 kilometres there's a police or army checkpoint on the road where you have to stop and get registered. It didn't matter that we had registered this afternoon at the checkpoint at Kalaikhum, less than 30 kilometres away.

The family where we stayed the night duly posing for us the next morning
They had orders to register us so they registered us.
Only... they didn't have a pen... or paper... or light to see what they were doing... So they borrowed pen and paper from us and wrote down our names and passport details while we provided some light with our torches.

They were not unfriendly or anything, but it was a bit of a nuisance. I mean, come on, we had been registered at least four times already since entering the country. How many records of tourist movement do you need?
The owner's wife seemed to think along the same lines and when she saw the soldiers harassing us she walked over and started shouting at them. We couldn't understand a word of what was being said, but the message was very clear. The words “Tourist” and “Terrorist” sounded a few times and from the tone in our voice it was clear that she meant to tell the guys we were one and not the other.

With the soldiers on their way again peace and quiet returned to our little spot and we decided it was time for bed. There were some daybeds underneath the trees next to the river and Tim and I decided they would be more comfortable than the van. So we dragged the mattresses out of the van and made our bed outside instead.

Hmm, sleeping outside, under the stars, right next to the Afghan border. I'm sure my mum mentioned something about this when she raised me...

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The spectacular road over the Shur…
The spectacular road over the Shu…
Every time we passed a village kid…
Every time we passed a village ki…
Crossing the river
Crossing the river
Having dinner at a small restauran…
Having dinner at a small restaura…
Beautiful night sky
Beautiful night sky
The family where we stayed the nig…
The family where we stayed the ni…
Shurabad pass
Shurabad pass
First view of Afghanistan
First view of Afghanistan
Strangely enough the road deterior…
Strangely enough the road deterio…
I think there was supposed to be a…
I think there was supposed to be …
The alternative road now that the …
The alternative road now that the…
Locals on the road to Vanj
Locals on the road to Vanj
Wonderful surroundings
Wonderful surroundings
Wonderful surroundings
Wonderful surroundings
Crossing another rickety bridge
Crossing another rickety bridge
Spectacular views on the Afghan si…
Spectacular views on the Afghan s…
Afghan village
Afghan village
A machine used for the constructio…
A machine used for the constructi…
The wonderful road along the Pyanj…
The wonderful road along the Pyan…
Buying petrol
Buying petrol
Remnant of the Soviet-Afghan war
Remnant of the Soviet-Afghan war
Stunning views of the Afghan border
Stunning views of the Afghan border
passengers
passengers
No idea what this sign is warning …
No idea what this sign is warning…
Local kids along the road
Local kids along the road
another remnant from the Afghan war
another remnant from the Afghan war
Stunning rocks  on the Afghan side…
Stunning rocks on the Afghan sid…
Mountains in the distance
Mountains in the distance
Vanj
photo by: Biedjee