Tajikistan's wildest ride

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.

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.

Historically, the only men venturing this high were individualists by definition: outlaws, bandits, smugglers and spies engaged in a pursuit of personal or national profit that justified unseemly risks. The same games continue today, judging from the trucks rumbling past filled, Turquoise and Purple said, with kilos and kilos of heroin. Tajikistan borders Afghanistan and regularly seizes the largest heroin hauls of any of the Central Asian republics.

A top-of-the-range Mercedes drives along the Pass's rutted road, one of several out-of-place vehicles plying the route between northern and southern Tajikistan. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

“This is a mafia country, full of drug dealers and warlords, that is no different from Afghanistan aside from its Soviet-era facade of Westernisation,” a Dushanbeh-based analyst said on condition of anonymity.

As if to drive home the point that this was an unregulated gray area, a black van with red diplomatic plates and blacked-out windows bounced past us from the opposite direction, its driver fixedly staring ahead instead of casting upon us the customary inquisitive glance and comradely honk shared by travelers caught in these mountains.

We reached the Pass.

Warning: road tightening ahead reads the roadsign at the entrance to the Shahreston Pass. If only we had known. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

A glacier had obliterated a two kilometer stretch of road. Trains of trucks and vehicles flashed their headlights to communicate priority before negotiating the narrow ribbon of mud between the snow and a free plummet into the valley.

Two-meter-high ice walls block off the highest part of the pass, forcing vehicles to take it in turns to make the several-kilometer-long crossing. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

Crumpled car-wrecks littered the hillsides in an eloquent caution. Slowly, cautiously, Turquoise inched the car forward, preferring to scrape the chassis against the glacier than spin its wheels loosely over nothingness.

Several wrecked vehicles litter the Pass's steep slopes. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

We eased into the long descent with relief. Penetrating the fog, we emerged again into the world of the living. Late afternoon light painted the mountainsides yellow and pink. Birdsong resumed. We passed the spot where the Chinese pay-tunnel is due to emerge from the mountain. Once open, it will consign the crossing we had just made to the discreet fraternity that avoids the scrutiny of pay-tolls and CCTV cameras.

We were still cheerfully giddy over our crossing when the police stopped our car at a checkpoint. A few minutes of checking documents stretched into half an hour. Purple got out and joined Turquoise in the police officers' metal cabin. Surely it was all just a matter of a bribe? No, the police had decided to play hardball. Returning with Turquoise, they roughly asked Purple to explain whose car this was. He maintained a judicious silence.

“Who is Abdurrahman Qadirov?” one policeman asked, reading from the car’s ownership papers. Purple shrugged eloquently.

The policemen pulled Turquoise roughly back into the cabin. I began contemplating a night in a cell. But Purple jumped to the rescue. Wielding his cellphone, he handed it to the senior officer with a perfunctory, almost contemptuous “Talk to him.”

A brief conversation later, the only snatch of which I caught was the repeated intonation of “Republikanski,” we were sitting once more in the white BMW, free to continue.

“Who did you call?” I asked Purple.

“KGB,” he grinned as he called the number again. “A classmate from university.”

“Saadat jon, hezar rahmot [a thousand thank yous],” Purple said into his phone. “After your call, they gave us the correct answer.”

Twenty kilometers later, I got off at the entrance of the bazaar in the ancient mosque city of Istaravshan. Turquoise and Purple had invited me to stay with them but something told me to quit while my luck still held.

“Don’t go to Istaravshan,” they said. “It’s full of louts and hooligans who will beat you for your laptop and camera.”

I checked into a farmer’s inn run by a golden-toothed Tajik grannie, its crusty walls displaying evidence of where advancing armies of insects had been violently stopped. Having survived the Shahreston Pass, I decided to take my chances with the rabble.