Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Seven Lakes & Iskanderkul, Tajikistan

Breakfast was more toned down-selection compared to the excessive breakfasts that had been served up to us so far, but still had multiple small dishes.  Our driver for the next 2 days picked us up from outside the hotel.  Rohib spoke good English and had spent time in Germany and Russia.  

The lakes were each a slightly different colour and the people living along the way were certainly living basic lives.  At the 6th lake we stopped and walked to the 7th lake.  

The journey thus far had taken a couple of hours on gravel roads that became progressively narrower and rougher.  The 7th lake was lovely and worth the 150-250 flights of stairs our 2 phones told us we had climbed.  Along the way we had met multiple donkeys carrying firewood, working hard under heavy loads, and their owners encouraging them along.  

It was a bit dubious that the driver’s Opel Vectra was going to be able to handle the roads all the way to the 6th or 7th lake as we had read of other people switching to 4wd cars for the journey.  We made it, but there were a few places where the car struggled badly and we ended up rolling backwards down a hill to try again...not entirely confidence inspiring.

We did the long journey back to the main road.  On reaching the paved road our driver morphed into a racing-car driver.  Speeds were constantly high, and he was overtaking everything at every opportunity.  In one way it was good to turn off the main road and get back on gravel.  Because there, he was infinitely more cautious.  On the negative side it was another hour on gravel roads and the last part done in darkness.  The last portion from Iskanderkul to Sarytag was in pitch dark, on dirt roads that were not in good condition, climbing up highs hills and there was dust everywhere leaving next to zero visibility at times in the headlights of the car.  It was a real relief to get to our home stay, eat a simple meal and fall into bed.

The next morning, we had a got up early and had a brief walk near the property.  We watched groups of older people herding cows to different pasture.  Generally, there was not a lot of grazing, and where the cows ended up didn’t look much better. The stones buildings they were living in had no obvious electricity and smoke suggested open fire cooking

A quick breakfast of eggs and not-so-fresh bread, and we were back in the car jolting along a different road back to the Iskanderkul lake.  This was a newer, better road built because of the Chinese gold & antimony mining camp which we passed through on the drive.  I assume they also paid for the electricity pylons and all other new infrastructure we could see on the way.  Production from the mine was expected to be 2ton of gold per year and 16000 ton of antimony (used in batteries). Various conversations with people during the larger Stans trips had plenty of negative comment about these foreign investors. 

Iskanderkul lake was a beautiful sight.  We also walked alongside the river in order to see the roaring rapids/waterfall.  I was less keen on the cantilevered viewing platform...well anchored, but it had seen better days.

Back in the car and a 1 hour trip back to the main road, then racing car mode again.  We did go through the infamous Anzob tunnel – previously known as ‘the tunnel of death’.  These days, it has lights and a reasonable surface.  But the 5km tunnel (@ 2700m) was built by Iranian engineers and it was handed over unfinished for nearly 10 years with no lighting, there was water flowing through it and eventually major potholes.  Work started again in 2017 and it is dramatically better.  There is still no ventilation and Tajik vehicles have a tendency to have bad fumes, so visibility is still not great.  Everyone, including the driver , was very relieved to see light on the other side.  

The road had plenty of avalanche shelters and even at the end of summer there were patches of snow on the roadside due to the altitude we were at.  Our driver had to stop once after the tunnel because he was feeling tired after a broken night’s sleep in Sarytag.  He wasn’t totally unsafe but it was good to hit the outskirts of Dushanbe and we were not going to argue about transferring to a taxi for the drive into the city.  

The driver helped us arrange that new taxi journey.  The only problem was that the taxi driver he got for us - had no idea where the street of our hotel was (and it wasn’t a small street).  He asked us to put it on a map for him.  It was just lucky we had some internet and could do that otherwise it would have been a long journey with him stopping every 2 minutes to ask people for directions.  

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