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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.

As the BMW gripped the road, swirling around ever-tighter hairpin bends, I took a closer look at my traveling companions: Turquoise in the driver’s seat wore his bling with aplomb: brand new lace-up Adidas soccer boots complimented his turquoise Puma T-shirt while inside a signet ring a pale-green emerald sparkled hypnotically. His friend, Purple, seemed prematurely aged for his 28 years and his green eyes emanated a permanent wolf’s stare.

Posing against the backdrop of a wrecked Jeep semi-buried under a landslide, "Turquoise" shows off his emerald-studded ring. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

They were friends and “business associates” they said, delivering cars up and down Tajikistan for buyers when not attending “night university.” Turquoise’s father exported precious stones straight from their source in the fabled emerald mines of Badakhshan; Purple’s father was a Custom’s office on the Tajik-Kyrghyz border. A business marriage made in heaven.

“If you want emeralds I can get you ones this large,” Turquoise said, putting his palms together. “$800 a carat.”

My last memory of the Chinese tunnel’s entrance was of a delicate and frightened-looking Chinese woman hauling away her snarling dog as a Tajik man held his own mutt back by the scruff of its neck. Tunnels as imperial enterprises I mused, recalling the 5 kilometer-long Istiqlal Iranian tunnel I had traversed the previous day north of Dushanbeh: an engineering feat finished in 2006 whose water-flooded interior already showed the ravages of time.

The entrance to a tunnel under construction using Chinese labor that will bore through the Shahreston Pass and reduce travel time by two hours. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

The Iranians had backed and sheltered the Islamic opposition to the Tajik government during the five-year civil war here (1993-1997), but such unfortunate strategic choices are long since forgiven and forgotten. These days, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad frequently visits Dushanbeh, offers to help Tajikistan with electricity shortfalls, and makes sure never to complain about the secularist administration that arrests alleged Islamist fundamentalists and bans the wearing of hijab in Tajik schools.

I snapped out of my reverie as we plunged up a treacherous spaghetti-strip of mountain lanes, partly blocked by snowfalls or washed away by landslides. Conversation had died down, replaced by a focused silence. Turquoise steered the car over furrows, rock piles, loose gravel and a constantly flowing stream of ice-melt that widened into a river at times, audibly gushing past the car’s underside. Mist crawled up the mountainsides, trapping us in a murky gray world where time seemed suspended.

Storm clouds and fog roll over the ranges of the 3,300-meter Shahreston Pass obscuring visibility. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

Silhouettes of immobile snow-clearing bulldozers or wrecked jeeps trapped under snow-dressed rockfalls lurched out of the mist. Frozen rain pinged off the windscreen before graduating into snow flurries. The car’s exertions and the high-intensity hum from gigantic pylons carrying electricity over our heads into the valley punctuated our concentration. Occasionally, a roar would erupt from behind as rugged Kamaz trucks plastered in yellow FLAMMABLE hazard signs churned past.

We were traversing a historical no-man’s-land over which no bureaucracy had ever presided.