I thought of the name for this post a few days ago, high in the mountains of Tajikistan. Altitude is a measurement, first of all, but it’s also a feeling. I hope to talk about both the measurement and the feeling.
On saturday, I woke up at 8:55 A.M. for a 9 A.M. ride to the airport. I threw three days’ worth of clothes, my camera, and assorted comforts into a backpack and hustled downstairs to meet Dina and our waiting taxi. Tension began to build in me as we neared Manas International Airport at speeds that seemed much higher than the speedometer informed me. Maybe it was the car, but more likely it was the swelling fear of flying that stiffened my legs and moistened my palms. I’ve flown countless times over the course of my life, at first excitedly when I was young, but the anxiety has been building over the past few years. I’m sure I could say more about my fear of flying - Pteromerhanophobia, according to Wikipedia - but I think I’ll hold off. The point is that my trip started off with me afraid and a few miles above the Earth.
Upon landing in Dushanbe, we realized that our tourist visas to get into Tajikistan were valid beginning on the 29th of April, and it was the 28th. This, I was sure, would be a serious problem, and so when we were ushered into a side room in the airport by the uniformed customs officer, I was ready for the most severe consequences: immediate reboarding and another hour and a half in the air. As it turned out, the officer was jocular with Dina and the room he led us to was comfortable and contained in it only one young man, casually clad in a rain jacket and jeans. This was not the official repercussions I was expecting. The man joked with us for about fifteen minutes while he corrected - in pen on our visas - the error. This was to be a presage of our time in Tajikistan.
That day, in Dushanbe, we were chauffeured around by a duo employed by a local travel agency: Adeep and Murot. Murot was a seasoned driver, his sun stained skin and meaty hands belying the consummate skill he possessed (something that would be tested later on); Adeep, a young man in his mid- or late-twenties, was our tour guide. He led us around to a bazaar, an exchange kiosk where we traded our USD for Tajik somoni, and a museum of antiquities. In this museum, pottery and various artifacts depicted the complicated swirl of religions (Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam) that led Tajikistan to its modern (unofficially) Muslim state. There was a giant prone Buddha housed on the top floor, much to our photographic pleasure. We left the antiquities behind, and walked through the rainy present that aptly revealed the fecund beauty of Dushanbe. Many of the buildings were colored in pastels and all were surrounded by large trees and overgrowing grass. We checked into our hotel, which again showed us a beautiful view of the mountains and rain clouds that adorned the Dushanbe skyline. I donned the bathrobe the hotel provided and sat on the balcony, absorbing all that my eyes could. Little did I know, at this point, how much more my eyes would be shown over the next forty-eight hours.
After a generous meal of shashlik (kebab) of assorted meats, including lamb, beef (regular and rolled with fat), chicken, and kidney. I tried everything I was given, and decided the beef rolled with fat was my favorite. All this meat eating tired me out, and I slept well after a brief soirée in our room with everyone. In the morning, we set out for Iskanderkul, a glacial lake located some 150 km from Dushanbe - a drive that we were told would take four hours, due to the unending mountainous terrain. Four hours seemed like a simple jaunt to me after last summer’s ten-hour days on my way across the USA.
Tajikistan has one main north-south highway, and as such it is very well maintained. On the first leg of the drive, we followed a river on its twisting route through small mountains. We picked up a bunch of rhubarb from one of the many sellers that dotted the roadside. The beauty of this lowland scenery lulled me into a state of carefree beholding. Then, the bigger, snow-capped mountains reared their jagged faces, and the river began to slink off to our left as we commenced our climb. The first stage of the mountain drive was little bit switchbacks and short tunnels that protect the road against rockslides and glaciers. Oh, and roads without guardrails that performed hairpin curves with irreverent frequency, all the while at breathtaking heights. After about a half an hour of steady ascent, Adeep turned around a let us know that the next feature of this as yet unsettling journey was a 5km tunnel. I quickly did the conversion I learned from the few road races I’d run, and figured a 3.1-mile tunnel wouldn’t be the worst thing. As we came upon the tunnel’s entrance, I reconsidered.
The tunnel’s bore yawned open, revealing the blackness within: there were no lights in this tunnel. Beyond that, crossing the threshold brought the knowledge that the road was completely unpaved, and riddled with potholes filled with water. A few bouncy seconds into the tunnel, and the twinge in my gut began to crescendo with each dip and jostle into a clutch, and finally to a tug. It felt as though I were riding to the center of the Earth, and that I was among the first to do so on an untested road. Luckily, 5km is actually not a terribly long tunnel, and after twenty-five minutes we exited through the golden veil of exhaust into the sunlight. Whew. Or so I thought.
The road after the tunnel started off paved, and led us to a small town where we had lunch at a small café. Onward we pressed, now descending through terrain that called forth the images of Afghanistan that my mind created - a world of tan, dusty, and wrinkled mountains. This soon gave way to more grayish mountains, still dusty, and finally to the red clay that reminded me of Utah - another daring trip I took several years ago. By then, the roads had worsened steadily to the point where gravel and rocks were the only paving and the unevenness of the narrow road would often tilt our van, and me in the outside seat, at angles that seemed all to close to the verge of a many thousand-meter roll down the side of the mountain. All the while, though, we were subjected to views that are rivaled by nothing I’ve seen in the American West. The violence of the beauty made it sting, and it lit up the images in my memory with fear, thus impressing them deeper in my mind. The final descent - or so we thought - was down to Iskanderkul. We pulled over at a high curve that gave a unique and aerial perspective on the lake. It’s blue was not the same color as Issyk-Kul, but rather a blue-green that sung a song of mineral clarity. We descended the last little bit, and parked alongside the lake. It was time to hike.
I would love to continue tonight, but sleep is calling. More tomorrow, including waterfalls, bouldering, and an overnight in a nearby village. The first wave of pictures should be up by the time you read this.