We had one more youngster, a girl, drool on M's pants as she rested on her lap and napped during the final shared taxi ride from Dushanbe to Jirgatol (300 km) which is the last town near the Kyrgyz border. But we never managed to break a smile out of her. The kindly faced taxi driver stopped for an early meal at a village on the scenic route along the Surkhob river. Compared to the earlier trips (Khojand-Penjikent, Penjikent-Dushanbe), the route through the vast Rasht Valley did not feature high mountain passes, but meandered gently by the river with the occasional ups and downs. The family that rode with us, a mother with 3 young children including the girl mentioned above, needed to be dropped off in a village that was a good 15 minutes away from the highway, giving us the opportunity to see yet another slice of Tajik country life. The family invited us for tea, but we had to get a move on.
We had originally planned to stop for the night at Jirgatol (about 50 kms from the border) and then arrange for transportation to the border (or even across if available) the next morning. Since we managed to reach Jirgatol early in the afternoon (2:30ish), we felt that we could carry on. Interestingly, our driver was keen on dropping us at the border but the incremental fare he demanded for the 60 km drive from Jirgatol to the border was disproportionate to the overall fare. From his point of view, he probably considered this last leg to be a private taxi ride since we would be the only passengers. We declined his offer and got off at Jirgatol.
The town of Jirgatol was quite deserted and did not seem to have much by the way of board or transport. Our driver was good enough to walk around making inquiries. By a strange chain of events and conversations (peppered with handshakes, hugs and salaams) which we could not comprehend, a private car materialized out of nowhere and our taxi driver had managed to bargain with them for a ride to the border at a price that was acceptable to us! This was just unspeakably good. How often does it happen that the person whose services are deemed too costly for you goes around finding someone else to provide the same service at a cheaper rate?
Apart from the driver, there was a man in the front seat and a woman at the back. As we approached the border, the road started climbing and snow covered mountains appeared to our right (south). We were in the midst of the Alay range (the Pamirs were further south). We were not sure where the other occupants were headed but we made the usual small talk about Hindi movies. The trio (the driver and the woman behind was Tajik, the passenger was Kyrgyz) kept up a brisk conversation peppered with raucous laughter and back slapping. We stopped briefly at guard posts on the way only for the driver to exchange greetings with the uniformed guards. They must have noticed our curious expressions and only offered the explanation "Director" gesturing toward the driver. So, was the driver actually the Director of some official department that oversaw the whole region? He certainly paid no mind to the speed limits!
When we got to the Tajik border post, we realized that the car was turning back towards Tajikistan. We paid the driver the agreed amount and wondered why they had come the 60 km from Jirgatol just to drop us off for a small sum of money. Especially if the driver was a high ranking official. Anyway, we were now on our own with our packs and had to negotiate a Tajik Exit and a Kyrgyz Entry with 10 km between them. What we did not know was the nature of the terrain and we found out very soon.
Since the Karamyk border post was open on a temporary basis due to the closure of the Pamir Highway route (which goes through a different border crossing), there wasn't much activity. It wasn't even clear where we had to go. A uniformed guard gestured for us to put down our large packs. A dog came by and started sniffing at the bags, presumably for drugs. We waited a few minutes for some kind of signal before the guard gestured for us to walk with our bags into one of the nearby buildings which were more like sheds. After much pointing and walking around, we managed to get inside a shed where a few uniformed staff took our passports for our exit stamps. As we were waiting, we noticed a red truck pull up at the post and stop just outside our building. We gestured to the driver who nodded back. We took this to mean that he will give us a ride to the Kyrgyz post on the other side. The official who stamped our passports made small talk about India and our US passports. He then walked out with us and spoke to the driver of the truck requesting him to take us to the other side! He then told us that it was 20 km (it was actually only 10 km) to the other side and it was not a good idea to walk that with our packs.
We boarded the truck and managed to settle in the limited cabin area. It took us 25 minutes to cross what turned out to be a spectacular canyon with a muddy red river running deep below. We spoke to the driver about our intended destination (Sary Moghul, about 90 km from the border) and he seemed to agree to take us there after the immigration formalities. The truck bounced violently as it moved through the rough unpaved path. Even the driver (an ethnic Uyghur from northwest China) was taken by surprise at a particular jolt and landed back on his seat with a jar. He also seemed to struggle to see the road through the dust. M lent him her sunglasses (bought in Dushanbe the previous day) and he gratefully put them on. We certainly did not want him (and us) to end up at the bottom of the canyon. We kept clicking away at our cameras trying not to let the excitement of the strange experience show as we were thrown up and down on our seats. After crossing the canyon, the road turned into asplalt and descended into a broad valley with a shed (Kyrgyz border post) and a red flag. An old Soviet era vehicle was being used as shelter.
We got off the truck with our packs and walked up to the shed and submitted our passports. Everyone around came up and curiously quizzed us on our personal histories. India, US, Hindi cinema, Mithun Chakraborty, the whole works. They asked to be photographed with the two of us while their boss inside was busy stamping our passports and manually writing our details onto a notebook. We nervously watched our truck driver pacing on the road while all this camaraderie was going on. It took 15 minutes for us to get our passports back. To our dismay, we noticed that the truck had disappeared into Kyrgyzstan. With M's new sunglasses! Of course, the driver was under no obligation to take us further, but we thought we had an agreement and felt let down.
Just as the Tajik officials had assisted us with onward transportation, the Kyrgyz officials tried to do the same. One very enterprising man spoke to a Lada taxi and got the driver to agree to a $40 fare to Sary Moghul. We were a trifle overconfident and turned this down in the hope of getting a free (or cheaper) ride in a truck. Soon enough another truck came by and we eagerly enquired about getting a ride on it. But the driver refused! It was a truck with China license plates and the driver (with a Chinese passport) seemed a bit wary of regulations. He indicated that did not want trouble with authorities down the road, even though it was an uniformed Kyrgyz official who made the request.
What followed was a long agonizing wait as we scanned the horizon for any transport that would magically come down the hill and take us to any town in Kyrgyzstan. A beaten up old minivan came but was already full of passengers. The sun went down behind the mountains, the wind kicked up the sand and it got colder. The officials in the shelter asked us to get inside to escape the wind. We could only sit inside for a few minutes before our anxiety got the better of us and forced us out to scan the horizon fruitlessly. At 5 pm, the Kyrgyz flag at the border post was lowered signifying the end of the day's business. The guards had tried their best to help us but had run out of ideas. We were just a problem that they had to ignore as they did not know what to do with us. All they could do was look at the empty road and shrug their shoulders at the non appearance of any more trucks for the evening.
While M watched the bags, V strolled past the post towards a small village and found that the road to the village was not too far and could be managed in 15 minutes on foot. But what would we do? Just walk into a house and ask for bed and board? With our non-existent Russian or Kyrgyz? But desperate times need desperate measures. We also knew that Kyrgyzstan was also famed for its hospitality and no householder that wears the tall white Kyrgyz hat will turn a needy foreigner down. At least, we have to find out if this was true.
Happily, we did not have to work that hard. We got a ride in a car that was hanging out by the post on some official work. The driver understood our situation and drove us to the first house inside the village and just spoke one word, "Hotel!". The place he had stopped outside did not look like the St. Francis, but it looked good enough to protect us from the cold winds. The gentleman and lady of the house welcomed us profusely and we were soon indoors in a room with a cot and a lot of carpets and blankets. Even the dreaded "vegetarian" word did not cause any raised eyebrow. We got bread, tea and some boiled barley, a perfect comfort food. But what we truly appreciated was a roof over our heads and some heavy blankets to roll over our tired bones as we let the darkness cover us gently.
What will tomorrow bring?
Google Maps Link
Some adventure. Hope the next day dawned sunny and bright.
Happy Birthday M - what a part of the world and what an adventure to celebrate in. Wishing you safe journey and much happiness, or as Genghis Khan would have said "A good horse and a wide plain to you" ! From , on Sep 26, 2012 at 09:32AM
@Ramesh - Thank you for the birthday wishes! Getting to Kyrgyz was indeed an adventure. We are way behind on our posts, thanks to partly to being in areas without (or poor) connectivity and also a lot of local travelling leaving us exhausted at the end of the day. We hope to catch up soon. From, on Sep 28, 2012 at 08:19AM