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Tajikistan's wildest ride

Our correspondent takes his chances with two strangers in a white BMW on one of the world’s most treacherous mountain roads.

Posing against the backdrop of a wrecked Jeep buried under a landslide, "Turquoise" is a frequent traveler on the Shahreston Pass, one of Tajikistan's and the world's highest and most-treacherous. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

SHAHRESTON PASS, Tajikistan — “Once this tunnel is built the trip will be cut down to three hours,” my traveling companion told me as we drove through a blasted landscape of trucks, construction equipment and derelict shacks rising out of blackened snow and past a tunnel entrance decorated in Chinese characters.

With the tunnel scheduled to open in 2011, we had no option but to gun the engine and join a line of four-wheel drives and stub-nosed Soviet vintage KAMAZ trucks toiling up the mountainside. That route would take us to 3,300 meters upward across one of the world’s most hazardous mountain passes.

I had made some dangerous journeys: a suicidal descent from the Syrian border into postwar Beirut’s bombed-out buildings in 1996 on rainslicked roads along which trucks and pink convertibles raced with careless abandon; three years of taking chances on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s casualty-strewn highways; and several crossings of the fabled Salang Pass north of Kabul that the Soviets built at 3,400 meters to transport their military equipment and which remains a freezing, rubble-piled death zone today.

But neither compared to crossing the extreme altitude of the Shahreston Pass on a road without asphalt and negotiating a stifling fog, hairpin bends and an absence of crash barriers. Often no wider than a single vehicle’s width, with a drop spinning down into valleys whose rocky bottom was obscured by swirling coils of mist, this was as unforgettable as it was dangerous.

A pilot's view of the pothole-riddled, iced road ahead. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

The locals had warned me that I should not try to negotiate the Shahreston Pass without a top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive and an experienced driver. The treacherous range connects northern to southern Tajikistan, a landlocked country north of Afghanistan boasting some of the world’s highest mountains. Instead, I tackled it in a battered white BMW driven by a 24-year-old chewing noos (Tajik tobacco).

A few hours of standing at a desolate police checkpoint watching a setting sun and the Tajikistan Highway Patrol’s finest extorting bribes from passing motorists, drove me into the BMW. Crossing the Shahreston Pass, whatever the transport, seemed more appealing than bedding down in an unheated cement block with the same men who had punctuated the wait for fresh motorists to shake down with probing questions about the contents of my backpack.

So, when a white BMW driven by two 20-somethings wearing purple and turquoise T-shirts zoomed up to the checkpoint, it seemed like nothing short of divine intervention. Momentary doubt over the wisdom of throwing my lot in with two kids driving a BMW in a country where civil servants’ monthly salaries average $60 were stifled by a haze of Iranian and Russian pop music and gangsta rap tunes as we roared off toward the Pass. True children of the post-Soviet world, Turquoise and Purple bantered between themselves in a Tajik-Russian patois, occasionally easing into what they referred to as “literary Persian” to explain something to me.

“We left last night at 10 p.m. from Leninabad,” Turquoise told me, using the old Soviet name for the historic city of Khujand, where Alexander of Macedon built his northernmost imperial outpost, Alexandria Eschate (The Furthest). “We crossed this pass after midnight in an Opel we were delivering to Dushanbeh, spent a few hours seeing friends, picked up this car and are now driving back without having slept a wink.”

“If our parents knew we were doing this, they wouldn’t believe it,” he added proudly.

The first pangs of doubt assailed me.