We dropped down over Taldyk Pass and the tiny town of Sary Tash lay spread out before us at the base of the mountain.
When my pre-arranged taxi ride from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Murghab, Tajikistan fell through (the driver decided he didn’t feel like driving on a holiday after all), I had a few minutes of panic. My Tajik visa was date specific, my permitted time in the GBAO area a measly five days. If I didn’t cross into Tajikistan on October 4th, it would make things very complicated for me. After researching flights, alternate routes, etc. I came to the conclusion that I had to attempt the border crossing by myself. I went to the local bazaar and negotiated a ride to Sary Tash, the town closest to the border.
Finding a guesthouse was easy, there were only two in town and they were both situated along the M41. Mine, the Hotel Aida, was tiny, colorful, and empty. It was perfect. The ancient proprietor led me around back, turning on a small space heater and showing me the location of the toilet. The price for dinner, breakfast, and a bed was 500 som.
Walking around town in the short amount of time before dinner, I couldn’t help staring at the mountains in either direction.Isolated by the mountains and situated on a high-altitude plain, Sary Tash would be nondescript were it not for its strategic location on the crossroads between both routes into Tajikistan and a key route into China.
The next day, I caught a ride to the border with a friend of the hotel owner. The border seemed conspicuously closed, something I noticed only after my ride left. After shouting to announce my presence, I opened the gate and let myself in, heading to the most official building.
I went inside and heard music coming from one of the doors. A knock brought the border guard out; he stamped my passport after giving it a quick look-over. Handing it back to me, his gaze fell on the ukulele protruding from my backpack. “Gun?” he asked, miming shooting an assault rifle. I snorted, shook my head, and mimed rocking out on a ukulele. He laughed and waved me on.
I walked past the second gate and looked back. There weren’t any cars on the horizon, but it was still relatively early. I had food, water, sunscreen, a tent, and a sleeping bag. It was just over 15 kilometers to the Tajik border post. Hitching a ride shouldn’t be a problem, but, if things didn’t pan out, I was confident I could trek the distance.
I should have known better. But, confident, I turned my back on Kyrgyzstan and started walking.
After several kilometers, I glanced back and spotted a large truck in the distance making its way towards me. Well, I thought to myself, that wasn’t so bad.
It drew closer and, hitching for the first time in my life, I stuck out my thumb and did my best to look helpless and cheerful.
The driver stopped and shouted a question in Russian over the roar of an ancient diesel engine. “Where are you going?”
“Tajikistan border,” I replied in Russ-lish.
The old man motioned for me to get in. Man, hitch-hiking is easy! He took me a few kilometers, the truck needing to stop several times to cool off along the way. After the third stop, he motioned for me to continue walking. I mimed a question, asking if the border was close. The driver nodded and gestured towards the door.
It seemed like an endless distance. Lugging about 15 kg of gear, I set a slow pace and tried to regulate my breathing. Even so, the trek was exhausting.
After some time, I saw a cluster of buildings. Finally! I drew closer, my elation dissolving into despair as I realized I was walking up to someone’s house and garage, not a border post. I took the liberty of using their toilet and, after, asked the owner how much further I had to go. “Five kilometers,” he said, gesturing at the road winding its way up the side of a mountain in the distance.
I pressed on, my energy level plummeting. Over the next few kilometers, my breath started coming in gasps and I grew tired after walking distances of less than 100 meters. By the time I came within sight of Kyzyl-Art pass, I was walking for one minute and resting for five. At the summit, I was at 4282 meters above sea level. That’s over 14,000 feet!
It didn’t occur to me at the time just how much danger I had placed myself in. Days later, after dealing with horrible chest pain, a lack of appetite, and vomiting both at the border and in Murghab (elevation 3618 meters) and Khorog (elevation 2,200 meters), I headed to Dushanbe and descended to a normal altitude (706 meters). I figured I’d had altitude sickness, but didn’t realize just how serious my symptoms were. After reading accounts of people who died or came close to it due to altitude sickness, I know better. I was very, very, very lucky.
After resting at the pass, I descended; walking downhill felt like heaven. The going was much easier, and it seemed only a matter of minutes before I came within sight of a second cluster of buildings. This time, my relief was justified. I’d made it. My next step–after clearing the border–would be to hitch a ride over 200 km south to Murghab. Little did I know just how difficult that would end up being.
The ancient Russian troop transport rumbled and creaked as it trundled up the Ak-Baital Pass, a breath-taking (literally) 4,655 meters above sea level. After several stops to let the engine cool, we crested the top and a cheer rose from the border guards in the back. The young soldier next to me gave me a thumbs up. “Okay?” I grinned and gave him a thumbs up in return.
Getting through customs was a breeze, a soldier waved me into a small building and an official in a tracksuit checked my passport before stamping it. “Machine?” he asked, pointing back at the way I’d come.
“No,” I replied, making the motion for walking.
His eyebrows shot up. “Murghab?!”
I laughed and shook my head, holding my thumb out like I was hitching.
He nodded his understanding. “Chai?” he asked, gesturing towards the back room.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied in Tajik, using up my repertoire of vocabulary in that language. A soldier brought us a pot of tea, then a full meal. As my unexpected host looked on and made conversation as best he could with sign language, I ate my fill. It was greasy, fatty, and delicious.
The official, Faro, made it clear that I could hang out until a ride came. The hours slid by. Eventually, Faro came in and told me that no cars would be coming that day and I could sleep in the room. Learning I didn’t have to camp outside was a weight off my shoulders, so I was able to relax a little as soldiers trickled in for dinner. Despite feeling very unwell due to a perfect storm of altitude sickness and two stomach ailments not normally experienced simultaneously, I was able to enjoy an evening filled with tasty food, ukulele, guitar, and even dancing.
The next morning, I resumed my vigil by the border, waiting for a car to cross into Tajikistan. Several crossed into Kyrgyzstan, but none seemed to be coming the way I needed. As the hours slipped by, my optimism started to fade.
Then, Faro motioned for me to get my bags. It was time. I threw everything together and went outside, only to see a huge group of soldiers grouped together. After a few minutes of confusion, I realized that they were my ride. It was time for the shift rotation and, just my luck, that meant a truck was going to Murghab.
I threw my bags in the vehicle and we set off.
We stopped at the border check (again), the customs office, and even the cook’s quarters. At each window, I saw a familiar face from the night before. Each gripped my hand and smiled. “Welcome to Tajikistan!”
Finally, I was on my way to Murghab. It would take about seven hours, the last of which in the dark. My concern about finding a place to stay proved to be unfounded, as the soldiers found a hotel and dropped me off in front of it. Stepping into the hotel almost felt like coming home. I’d made it.