Finally here! Our journey through Istanbul went fairly well and on the connecting flight we already got a glimpse at what was expecting us once we’d get out of the well protected universe of planes and airports.
All the Tajiks returning home, stacked up with precious goods locally not available, had so much carry-on luggage that many of us “westerners” had to check their bags down to the cargo trunk. The locals were happy to get rid of the packages they were hiding underneath their seats (mostly ladies in lose and colourful costumes, flattery headscarves and golden grills) and the others, the stereotype american businessman in jeans and much too big dress shirt, could not cope with the unforeseen challenge and have their laptop or agenda stored away for a few hours. Threats and insults of these very important men that were to make a change in the country of destination. It’s questionable what the benefit to the tajik people will be once they’re in the country….
I hate waiting for bags, especially if they‘re crucial for the success or failure of what you‘re up to. With every piece that passed on the baggage roll and didn’t have one of the bright colours of the duffles or the strange shape of a ski bag we got more and more nervous. It has happened too many times before – and also this time a ski bag and two other ones with gear didn’t make it through. Luckily one of the passengers could get ahold of a contact number for the local office, as nobody from the airline was present. At this point all of our language skills were obsolete and I knew we shouldn’t approach any of the authorities form customs or security as this would make or problems even bigger and our wallets short of some green bills. Surprisingly enough immigration was easier than getting a ride downtown at a reasonable price. A big group of men was just outside the exit door crying for attention and the best price. Making a distinction between dollars and tajik somonis is the most important thing as if they get you on the wrong currency the price payed is not only a dollar too high but 30$ instead of 5$. It for sure also helped that we held the trolly with the bags hidden from the crowd and reviled the few ones left after the deal was made. Arriving at the car it was also a good thing only having half the gear as we had to fit three passengers, a ski bag, three big backpacks, a duffle bag and two pairs of ski boots in a standard two door coupé…. By now it was 4am and we were not sure if the guy driving the unofficial taxi could be trusted and if he was dropping us off at the right building. Everything was so dark and the city deep asleep. But my gut was right and the fact that the people here can generally be trusted was right and we were at the designated place. Having to wake up the lady on the couch in the entrance hall was four sure an awkward feeling and we found ourselves straight away in a cold and unheated room. The dampness has left its traces on the chapped walls and thorough the old mattresses we could feel the metal structure of the frame. It reminded me a lot of an interesting hospice I stayed in Bishkek a couple of years ago. The only thing missing were the hookers and the shady squat toilets… Soon the sunlight slowly brought the city and its traffic to life and we felt as in the middle of the street. No wonder as only a few meters and some single glass windows with huge cracks separated us from main street. Welcome to Tajikistan!!!
Not having your skiing gear is not not that bad a thing as facts get established and one is forced to familiarize himself with the new surrounding. Lots of walking through bazars, the gardens of huge hospitals, seemingly never ending representative parkways, bus rides where young students ask the permission to talk to you to socialize and get in touch with a dream (i’d say an illusion) that they will never reach, trying out the delicious food and crapy instant coffee….. Going with the flow and settling in. In other words, we could not escape to the place where we all feel the most comfortable and confident: the mountains.
Also with the help of our friends we managed to get our bags and moved to a swiss/belgium house that we would call our home for the time in the city. It was a nice residence of a young family where we occupied the billiards-room, bigger than my apartment back in Switzerland, and the cosy kitchen where we were warmly welcomed by the hosts, their little son and his nanny. It for sure made life in the city feel like home!
Buying bread and bargaining the ride to the mountains in full skiing gear for the first time was quite a thing. Gateway to this initial and all the following adventures was the bazar. So many puzzled looks but nevertheless friendly and with welcoming smiles! I’m pretty glad that after a while this ritual became routine – for us as well for the locals on the way there and the car stands. The ladies at the baking house got to know our preferences (i.e. no oil on the crust of the bread) and the drivers knew these crazy alpinists were looking for „bolshoi snieg“. I guess we gave a rather ridiculous performance and nobody could understand our intension and motivation going to the mountains covered in snow, showing up with our large packs, skis, ice axes and many other things. But it definitely was a good thing as the few drivers with 4x4s that headed to the remote locations instantly knew us and sometimes even waited for us to breach as they could earn a few extra bucks. With the time our strategy changed and we would show up leaving the stuff at home to collect it later and negotiate hard with the correct price in mind to get as close as possible….
Our first mission led us the only ski resort of the country. At the end of a sketchy ride up on a snowy and in black ice covered mountain road a 180 vertical meter t-bar awaited us. Only operating on weekends as there is no power during the other days, the soviet style hotel and a tiny village provided for the rest we needed: Safedorak, skiing eldorado for expats, rich tajiks with Lexus SUV’s and cheap sunglasses and most importantly the local kids that are a first generation of skiers!
After settling in our room on the top floor of the hotel block and following a quick tour around the area to encounter the canteen/disco, the outhouse some 50m away from the building in the snow (no joke! there is just one wooden shack for everyone) and the fountain another 20m we were all set to explore. We knew it was late so we tried to hurry but as it was bitter cold the exposure of the sun was of no concern.
In mind we had the highest and furthest point of a long ridge and so we went on following the eroding infrastructure that‘s telling stories of more prosperous times. Once up on the last saddle underneath the summit I had been fired up and spotted this beautiful face across a relatively long plain. Only divided by a couple of little streams covered with deep snow and ever so small rolling hills to distinct the riverbeds. In the high spirits of excitement my prognosis was 45 minutes at most to cross and then another two hours to summit. The others had a more realistic, as we had to find out still too optimistic, view on the matter but still agreed we should give it a try. After a short descent we were in the middle of this beautiful crisscross of smooth rolling hills and laying tracks in 30cm of pristine and cold powder at a place only traces of a snow leopard and its cub showed signs of life. No one has been here for years and maybe we are the first to lay foot in winter, who knows?!
This question would often bother and at the same time also push us further as we know what has been done in the last 20 years but have no clue what the soviet pioneers of the mountains had accomplished before the collapse of the union. In the end it really doesn‘t matter. Living the moment we felt like in another universe and with every step in the powder we were getting closer to the face on the other side. Just as the guys talking to us on the bus absorbing all the impressions and with every word said coming closer. Except that we were living our dream, an illusion in the mountains, being sure to accomplish everything we want, instead of being stuck in a place everyone wants to go away form.
Going fast at a steady pace I soon was alone leaving a deep trench for the others to follow. At times in complete solitude hidden just behind a hill or around a little obstacle of the terrain I knew that this was the place we were supposed to be. It became obvious to us all that the group was not moving fast enough and we got caught up by yet another riverbed and the climb over the next hill but still wanted to continue as far as possible into the face. Point of return was set for 5pm, no matter what. The snow we encountered here might have been the fluffiest and most stable on the whole trip and we got only a fracture what could be possible. Was it the right decision to head over there, unprepared and without any maps? I truly believe so. The calmness and peace we encountered, the beautiful forms of terrain and all the change in light from full afternoon sun, later on more soft skies to alpenglow then different tones of blue and finally the darkness of night are the moments we all won‘t ever forget. If only temperatures had not dropped to -16°C as soon the light was gone… It was a good start and the bar set high.
With this in mind we could take her easy on the next day and head for the close by couloirs with shorter hikes just a bit further up the resort. Interesting and quite demanding terrain with lots of hidden elevations and extra bowls within are lined up over here and after a few pleasure full laps on sometimes wind affected slopes we contently returned to touch base.
Even the ride home worked out perfect as our hosts came up for the day and six of us plus a child squeezed into their truck. Homebound the weather seamed to turn and arriving in Dushanbe it already rained a few drops.
And the very special excursion to the hermit Yvan in Sioma-Valley.