Day 16: The dodgy drive to Dushanbe

It had been quite a day!

We finally managed to withdraw USD 500 from a National Bank of Uzbekistan branch near the Registan that does cash advance against Visa cards. If you’re ever planning to travel through Central Asia but not carry thousands of dollars/euros in cash, take note of this location.

While we were in the vicinity, we also caught sight of the majestic Registan in broad daylight but got yelled at by the guards yet again when trying to take photos.

We finally set off around 10:30am. All along the way, we kept getting stopped at these random checkpoints. At one, we even had to register ourselves in a ledger. Not entirely sure if anyone ever checks these ledgers, but they are there nonetheless. No wonder, then, that it took three extra hours to get from Samarkand to Dushanbe.

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We were aware that the Penjikent border that Google Maps suggests had been closed for some time. As a result, we had to take a detour through the Denau/Tursunzoda crossing which adds 170 extra km to the route. Add all the checkpoints along the way and you’re easily looking at a 10-hour drive from Samarkand to Dushanbe.

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We got to the border region of Denau on the Uzbek side about 7pm. We feared that the border crossing had closed, but it turned out to be a 24-hour crossing. For some unfathomable reason, the guards took a really long time to let us in through the gates. We waited patiently. Once we were allowed in, Moritz and I had to go separately.

I waited for someone to stamp me through. A young, good-looking Uzbek border guard asked me a few questions: what my name was, where I was from, etc. He handed me a form to fill out, and told me that I had to wait. The only female officer who could check my things at customs was on a break. As a man, he couldn’t go through my stuff. He said this all very politely and hung around on the balcony to keep me company for a bit while I watched the sun set. He soon ran out of things to say and disappeared into the offices.

Once the female officer showed up, I crossed through immigration and customs quite easily. But Moritz wasn’t as lucky.

There was a bored, nasty Uzbek border guard who ransacked our car, in an effort to look for contraband. He kicked about our water canisters, tossed our sleeping mats to the ground, and went through every item of clothing. He dragged everything out of the car and laid it on the floor. I was fuming from a distance at his utter contempt for our belongings. But I decided to let Moritz handle it – I knew I’d probably end up telling him off, which would only just get us into trouble. Moritz, being the more patient one in the team, talked the guard through each item.

As I would find out later, the guard had discovered an ‘undeclared’ USD 50 note, and had wanted to confiscate it. We were supposed to declare the amount we bring into the country, no matter how small, and declare what we were leaving with. We had forgotten about this USD 50 stashed in a tiny pocket of one of our bags – yes, he was that thorough in his search – and wanted to take it away. I’m not sure how Moritz talked him out of that, but we were able to retain the cash.

While this took place, I waited patiently with my stamped passport in hand on the other side. Two more Uzbek border guards struck up a conversation with me. I got the impression that not many foreigners cross through this border check-point, and especially not a Bangladeshi woman. They had a thousand questions for me. One of them was mostly asking questions, while the other translated. They asked me all sorts of personal questions: Were we married? Did we have kids? Why not? How old was I? What was I doing in Germany? How much was rent in Germany? What did I do for a living? Who looks after my parents in Bangladesh since I live in Germany?

Their curiosity was endearing but having to explain my life choices was exhausting. Moritz eventually was let off by the other guard, and we were finally let through to the Tajik side at about 8pm.

Immigration on the Tajik side was easy and the guards were helpful. We found a French cyclist camped out in the no-man’s-land between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. He had arrived slightly ahead of schedule and didn’t have the visa to enter until the day after. While the Tajik immigration officials were understanding of his situation, they couldn’t let him in. So he had set up a tent in front of the office and was camping there until they let him through. We gave him some canned food in case he got hungry, but he insisted that he was well-covered.

We wished him luck, got our passports stamped and drove through the border gates. If we thought this was it, we were sorely mistaken.

We had to pay a fee of USD 25 as import tax, as the Tajik government assumes that you are temporarily importing the car into the country during your stay there. The appropriate papers needed to be stamped and the fee paid at a desolate looking office 200m further down from the immigration office.

Moritz left me in the car, while I researched accommodation options for the night, and went to pay the fee. By 9:15pm, he still hadn’t shown up. I was sitting in a dark parking lot and was starting to feel a bit uneasy. I took a walk around, went into the offices but couldn’t find him there. I walked around the office premises but couldn’t find a soul anywhere. I was sure he had been kidnapped. And soon, I’d be too.

I decided to stop being melodramatic and return to the car. But the uneasiness remained. Another 15 mins later, Moritz showed up. Apparently the big boss was on his dinner break and as a result, the whole thing was taking a bit of time.

He took me inside where I sat in one of the offices. The officials were excited to meet me. We were brothers afterall – both Bangladesh and Tajikistan being Muslim countries – and they treated me with respect. As I would soon learn, questions of whether I’m Muslim or not were always followed by whether I prayed or not: questions I find deeply uncomfortable. They were brothers with Moritz too, as the Tajik consider themselves Aryans, like ‘the Germans’. All very awkward.

We watched some Russian television channel while we waited. The big boss finally showed up, signed our papers and we were eventually on our way at about 10pm. We had spent a full 3 hours crossing out of Uzbekistan and crossing into Tajikistan.

When we did venture out into the Tajik countryside, boy were we in for a surprise!

Tajik motorists pretty much drive in the dark. No street lamps, no headlights and no taillights. There were random cars parked on the main highway and trucks driving without any lights. They were impossible to see from a distance in that thick darkness.

We very nearly crashed into both moving and stationary vehicles 5 or 6 times. To make matters worse, people would cross the street at random in the dark and you could never see where they came from. While we had been adamant about not driving in the dark if we could help it, long wait times at border checkpoints did not always make this possible.

It was past 11pm by the time we rolled into our accommodation for the night. Dushanbe isn’t really known for its B&B scene or budget hostels. We found Hotel Mercury, which resembled a fancy mansion but came highly recommend by the Lonely Planet.

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They didn’t have a double room, but the receptionist told us that a single room was available. He asked us to take a look. We were delighted – it was a double-room with a double-bed fit for two. Where on earth would this massive room be considered a single room?

We didn’t question it. We were too tired. We brought in our things, took a hot shower, ate some instant noodles and crashed into bed.

Before retiring for the night, Moritz spent some time researching the current situation in the Pamir Highway. We had to decide by then whether we wanted to go through it.

The famous M41, known informally and more commonly as the Pamir Highway is a high-altitude road traversing the Pamir Mountains through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. It is the only continuous route through the difficult terrain of the mountains and serves as the main supply route to Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. The route has been in use for millennia and formed one link of the ancient Silk Road trade route.

It would be the highlight of our trip, and we didn’t want to miss it. But we also were not keen on getting stuck in flood waters, or waiting for days having to be pulled out of tricky spots. We were not in some fancy four-wheel drive, but a silly Renault Kangoo.

But who would want to miss something like this?

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This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. anna says:

    What an amazing journey! Tiring, tricky, but awesome!

  2. thewordistry says:

    I always forget what a little hothead you are 😛

    Also, it’s time you just have a press release to answer all those typical questions!

    This was a great entry by the way

    1. Haha, I’m much calmer than I used to be! 😉 That press release idea is great! I’ll be sure to make one and carry with me during the next trip!

  3. mukul chand says:

    superb post. loved reading the border crossing

    1. Thank you! Yeah, these border crossings can be quite a hassle, but in hindsight, full of interesting stories. 🙂

      1. mukul chand says:

        you are brave indeed. have heard stories bordering on nightmares

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