Northern Tajikistan, like the Eastern Pamirs, is almost another world from the rest of the country.
The north is wide, dry, rolling, fertile land, but is separated from Dushanbe by yet another range of mountains, the Fans.
While not the equals of the Pamirs or Hindu Kush in size, the Fan Mountains are more worn and rugged, presenting towering rock spires and jagged snow capped summits right next to the road. I’d hoped to spend some time trekking in the Fans, but the length of time it took to get our visas meant that we just had to admire them from the car as we wound our way though them. There were two mountain passes that must be negotiated in order to reach the plains of the north. The first was negotiated by a tunnel beneath it. And quite a tunnel it was. 8km in length, and positively Hadean in character. Bare rock walls and ceiling, and a road surface little better than dirt. Water sometimes dripping and occasionally pouring from the roof. No ventilation. And the only illumination provided by incandescent bulbs that lit the (many) locations where some poor souls were doing repair work in the middle of all this.
All in all it wasn’t a bad thing that the other tunnel was closed for maintenance. This meant that the journey took a bit longer, but that we got to enjoy the long, twisting climb up and the view from the top of Ayni pass. As it was only a temporary measure, this part of the road wasn’t paved, which left the car covered in a thick layer of dust that the driver stopped to wash off at an improvised car wash station near a chaikhana (tea house) on the far side.
Beyond these two sections, the road was actually the best in the country, as it connected Dushanbe with Tajikistan’s second city, Khujand. We were heading there ourselves, but on that day we turned off a bit early, making our first acquaintance with northern Tajikistan in the city of Istaravshan.
The Fan Mountains from near the top of 3378m Ayni Pass on our way north