Four bemused British kayakers are alternately fleeced by police and smothered in Tajik hospitality. In between, they even manage to paddle some rivers . . .
Story and photography by Dave Burne
Another police checkpoint, our fifth involuntary stop within 30 kilometres of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan and the starting point of our trip. The kayaks strapped onto the roof were brashly coloured beacons that highlighted we were foreign, and in the eyes of a policeman after a quick buck, that was making us all-too-easy targets.
But we knew the drill well by now. Also, our translator-turned-trusted friend Umed was equally disillusioned by the level of corruptness of the transport police in his country. In a culture so different from our own, he was quickly proving to be almost literally worth his weight in gold. Once again, he didn’t let us down and after some tense discussions, he talked our way out of another ‘fine’.
We four Brits – Danny Young, Hugh Thomas, Ben Bedingham and myself – were on an expedition to the largely unknown rivers of the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan. A country made of mountains, its 700 square kilometres of glaciers and 7,000-metre peaks mean masses of water and heaps of gradient. All in all, a mouthwatering recipe for any ambitious whitewater kayaker.
There is very little precise information to be had on the country’s rivers though. No books, few photos, just a blog which gave some general indications. We called its author to squeeze out a little more info, and to give us the best chance of locating that ultimate descent we were armed with the best maps we could find through a contact in the army, a good GPS with altimeter, and a load of images and data from Google Earth. We felt we were as prepared as we could be. As it turned out, we didn’t know the half of it.
If it’s Monday, this must be . . . Monday?
Flying long distance and overnight into a country caught between the millennia like Tajikistan is often bewildering but it doesn’t help any when whatever day of the week your flight took off, you always land in Monday. That’s because the capital Dushanbe is named for the day of the weekly market in the village from which the city grew. And you think you have problems with jet lag . . .
While our bodies struggled to separate time and place, we met our guide Umed who assured us he had hired a good driver. “Complete with roofrack,” he said, presumably meaning the vehicle.
The system here at least was refreshingly simple. If you want to go east, go to the east taxi park, to go north, the north taxi park, and so on. Umed therefore led us to the west where we met a stocky man we quickly dubbed ‘T-Unit’, his name being completely incomprehensible to us.
We then encountered another oddity, a bureaucratic hangover from Soviet times: the need to register our presence in the country. This involved getting a small stamp on our passports which can be done in three ways. The first is to go through official channels using government offices. This can take anywhere from three to 10 days: not ideal if you are on a four-week expedition. Alternatively you can spend a night at an expensive hotel which can then provide the stamp. Finally there’s the ‘Tajik way’: simply go to one of these hotels, pay a token bribe, and you are done. This was Umed’s suggestion, his first chance to shine and he duly obliged. Just 30 minutes later we were on our way out of Monday.
We were aiming for a small range of mountains not far from the capital where lay the Sarey Miyonna, our first Tajik river. The local bureaucracy was not done with us though and we soon hit a series of checkpoints where we rapidly learnt that the best way forward was to stay cool in all senses of the word – not so easy in 40˚C heat – be polite when addressed and let Umed do all the rest of the talking.
It was therefore a blessed relief to feel the first spray of icy cold water on our faces as we hit the river that afternoon. Jagged nerves were soothed, cramped muscles stretched and smiles broke out. We’d made sure it was not too challenging, a river with a fairly shallow gradient. After all, we had plenty of time to push ourselves later. Still, the clear blue meltwater rapids threw our small kayaks around with ease and we had to pay attention to guide them around the biggest features on the river. Nobody wanted a swim at this point. Not only would that have been embarrassing, but you’d also be consigning the rest of the team to chase you and your boat down rapids that we hadn’t inspected beforehand. It might have been a smallish river but it was still a committing task when we didn’t know what lurked downstream! Fortunately such complications were avoided and, celebrating our first run down a Tajik river, we set off in fine spirits for more serious challenges.
The Pamir Mountains were the first mountain range on our hit list, but to get there it required a 20-hour drive along some of the sketchiest and most terrifying roads I had ever come across. It was roughly 600 kilometres, and barely 30 of them were on actual tarmac. The rest was gravel, at best, and some seemed to be just plain scree slope. Umed though had hired well and T-Unit passed this test with flying colours.
The Pamirs offer many rivers ideal for a whitewater fanatic and we threw ourselves into a maelstrom of exploration. The Shakdarya, the Gunt, the Vanch ticked all the boxes. Big waves, deep gorges, a continuous fast flow. One thing became apparent though. The rivers were at much higher levels than we had expected. The high water meant rapids merged into one another and kilometres of river had to be inspected at a time. The fitness training we’d done before the expedition really started to pay off – it was just the odd stomach bug that was hindering progress.
It was on the Vanch that we realised the dream of any expedition paddler: a first descent, becoming the first kayakers to paddle a river. It was also the first ‘first D’ that any of us had achieved so it was a truly special moment. Some of the country’s other rivers were rafted in the 1980s by an extreme group of Russians, high on national pride (or was the freedom that rafting brings some sort of escape?) in strange local craft called ‘Bublicks’. Some paid the ultimate price too, perhaps believing that losing your life in pursuit of any sort of freedom in those times was a glorious way to go.
Driving up the beautiful yet rarely visited valley of the Vanch we came across a narrow tributary flowing at quite a rate. A quick inspection revealed no awkward trees blocking progress so it was game on. Unnamed on the maps, local villagers told us the river was called the Bunai as they gathered on the banks to watch the action. The crowds, in this, a Muslim nation, made getting changed into our drysuits trickier than usual but soon Danny and I were on the water. Five minutes later, without seeing a single eddy, we spilled out onto the Vanch proper, exhausted but elated, first descent complete.
Having taken on the Pamirs, we had one major challenge left: to be the first British group to paddle the Yagnob river in the Fann mountains. Unfortunately, this required a two-day walk in so we stopped with Umed’s family for a night, stocked up on expedition food in Dushanbe and dumped our excess gear. It was going to be a long walk with heavy loads.
Today, only about 300 people live permanently in this remote valley, though in the summer numbers double as shepherds move there for work. At the top of the valley we left the dusty road in a small hamlet called Romit and ventured onto a narrow track. Walking for two days with kayaks and five days’ worth of expedition kit wasn’t an enticing prospect. Time to barter for donkey hire!
Here we discovered another oddity of Tajikistan: buying a donkey is much cheaper than hiring one. Umed told us that they are so vital that farmers can’t afford to part with them for even a few days. So, minutes later, each with a quarter of donkey to our name, we set off. Despite the beautiful scenery and with ‘Shakira’ taking a load off our backs, the 25-kilometre hike over a 3,600-metre pass was far from easy. Our donkey’s hips didn’t lie: she plainly enjoyed leading us on her own route variations, especially where it involved her favourite snack – thistles.
After previous experience of river levels, we were apprehensive as to what we’d find when we finally saw the Yagnob, but on our way in to Romit, we had driven past the Sarey Miyonna, our warm-up river, which had dropped substantially, so our hopes were high.
“If the first couple of k’s are pushy, you’re in for a rough ride,” had been the words of advice from Middy, the American who had written the blog about Tajik rivers we had consulted. The relief when we finally got to the river was therefore huge: the hike was over and the water level looked reasonable. After two days of exhausting effort and pain, we joked about roasting our donkey over the fire to fuel-up for the multi-day paddle ahead, but doing such a thing would be no way to repay our debt to such a sturdy reliable worker so we gave her to some local shepherds instead.
Sadly, our relief was short-lived. The first couple of kilometres were straightforward but after a tricky two-hour, scree-scrambling inspection of a long gorge without sighting an exit, there was only one option. We had to portage. This was followed by more boat-carrying around the rapids downstream: they looked lovely, but what we feared most had transpired – the river was too high. Perhaps on a roadside run back in the UK we would tackle them, but being so remote increases the consequences of a mistake tenfold. The reward just wasn’t worth the risk at these river levels.
Over the next day or so we went long: long inspections, long rapids, long portages. The group’s morale and fellowship were tested to the max. The Yagnob is a river with bipolar disorder. It would throw a few great lines in our direction, only to switch natures and offer us a sharp horizon line with a horrible chossy mess or completely unpassable boulder choke below.
It was one of these horizon lines early on the third day that led to our first encounter with fellow man since the shepherd who’d acquired our four-hooved friend. A troop of children were scrambling down a well-worn path from a cluster of wood huts high up on the hillside, while the opposite bank showed the scars of a fresh landslide. The kids’ route would have to be ours too – yet another portage. It wasn’t an easy line mind you, with more sketchy traverses across the bank, then Ben, complete with red helmet and buoyancy aid, faced off against an angry-looking bull. Acknowledging defeat, we followed Ben’s hastily plotted long detour to the nearest house.
In typical Tajik style the chi was being poured with a big smile and large nutty flat bread ripped apart and shared out before we even got close enough for them to smell us. Undoubtedly the best bit about our arrival though (perhaps because they then could smell us) was a bucket of hot water to dip our feet in. Our numerous blisters definitely appreciated that treat.
Little did we know, but we were going to get to know this little room of a house and its inhabitants rather well. After lunch, we went back out into what was now a harsh wind and hail, to walk back to the river. Having survived narrow paths on near-vertical cliffs, loose scree traverses and steep rocky scrambles, Hugh somehow managed to trip over his feet on the smoothest, well-worn access path of the trip. With a heavy boat over his shoulder, his ankle came off badly and 20 minutes after saying our goodbyes, was Hugh hobbling back to the house propped up by us, ankle tightly bound in a splint. Was it broken or just sprained? We didn’t know, but that was anyway largely irrelevant to our immediate situation.
It was an ordinarily trivial incident that, because it had happened there, beyond road access, with 30 kilometres of gorge ahead and with Hugh unable to paddle or portage, put him (and therefore all of us) in a difficult spot.
On the plus side, the maternal instinct of the mother of the house took over and we were fondly looked after, even having a consultation with the local ‘doctor’ while hiding out from the oncoming storm. Talking with the villagers proved even trickier than normal though. Usually our Tajik phrase book came up with the goods (often helping us cause shock and amusement that we were over 20 and still unmarried!), but the Yagnobi ethnic group are the only remaining speakers of Sogdian – an 8th Century Eastern Iranian language and so making ourselves understood took plenty of face-pulling and drawing in the dirt.
After hours of frustrating satphone calls scoping out the likelihood of the insurance company coming up with an escape plan (from the ‘man on the ground’ in India: “Yes sir, an ambulance will be with you in the morning”), we ditched new age electronics for the ages-old international language of hand signs and animal noises.
The next morning Hugh was perched on a donkey preparing for an uncomfortable 30-kilometre ride out. Not feeling ready to deal with another Shakira, we took on the donkey’s owner to lead the way, with another donkey taking Hugh’s boat. With Plans A, B and C in place, we agreed to reunite with Hugh and hopefully Umed too, who was now driving round to meet us, at Bidef, where the path turned into road.
It was at this stage that the river gods seemed to feel they’d toyed with us enough, as if they were throwing an apology in our direction. The weather cleared up, the river eased and became more pool/drop in nature, with some fantastic rapids. We leapfrogged Hugh time and again, through incredible gorges. This is what we had hoped for from our big walk-in!
The only downside was for Hugh – having to loll about on a donkey, battling pain and frustration, then, having rendezvoused with Umed as planned, being relegated to expedition photographer for the next day or two on the small dusty road that sporadically met the river, driving past the clean rapids and deep gorges that we were ecstatically enjoying.
With the whitewater easing off, the end of the river, and our trip, was near. It had been a physically and mentally draining journey but as we drifted through the last gorge we reflected on the events good and bad that had led to us meeting some incredibly kind people in a village so remote that even the phrasebook was no use.
Soon we were aboard our jeep again, nodding off as we left the mountains behind and headed back to Dushanbe. We were woken by the stopping of the vehicle and the breeze of a window opening. The city lights were close now but our hearts sank. Another police checkpoint.
“You need to pay a fine,” said the officious policeman.
“Why?” asked Umed.
“There are too many boxes on the roof.”
“This is a jeep. A jeep can easily take the weight of four kayaks.”
“The boxes are not secure.”
“We just checked them, only a short time ago. The ‘boxes’ are secure.“
“There are too many people in the car.”
“There are seats for seven people; there’s only six of us. I‘m pretty sure that means there aren’t too many people in the car.”
“Let me check their passports . . . hmmm . . . they are British. They have lots of money. Just pay me a bribe then.”
Once again Umed diplomatically oiled the wheels that allowed our progress and before long we were back in the comforts of our Dushanbe homestay, cracking open some beers to celebrate our success. And getting the maps out. After all, this was Monday, a new week lay ahead! AA
When to go
April to September are the best months, though it can get to 40˚C in mid-summer. In spring, rivers can flood due to the snow melt and landslides are common, and when winter sets in, the mountains get shut off by snow.
How to get there
Aeroflot, Turkish Airlines and China Southern are among the bigger airlines that fly into Dushanbe.
Visas are easy enough to get from your nearest Tajikistan Embassy. It is cheaper to get the stamps needed to visit the autonomous area of the Pamirs in Dushanbe, but getting them before departure saves you spending a day out of your schedule in the city. Take multiple copies of your passport.
The currency is the Somoni with S1 equal to US$4.5. There are cash machines in Dushanbe but they are limited elsewhere.
A translator is pretty much essential. They will likely save you money, and certainly save you time and hassle.
Check out the blog at http://pamirs.wordpress.com for a brief description of the rivers and locations but don’t rely on them totally, as some have changed a lot and water levels make a huge difference.
There are three 1:500,000 maps covering the country, put together by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. They tend to be pretty accurate but some village and river names differ from those that the locals themselves use.