Our Tajikistan Visa expired on September 29th so we had time for one last adventure before we left this wonderful country and headed to Uzbekistan. We decided to head north from Dushanbe to the Fan mountains which is a popular trekking destination according to the Lonely Planet.
The shared taxi from Dushanbe was relatively uneventful although after the mellowness of the Pamirs we weren't quite expecting the taxi driver frenzy that met us at the taxi station. We took a local taxi from out hotel and as we pulled up to the taxi stand drivers started converging at a full sprint from all directions. Drivers were literally trying to grab our bags out of our hands so that they could claim us for their taxis. Everyone was yelling at once; we were surrounded by a frenzied mob of taxi drivers all pushing and shoving and grabbing. Lara finally resorted to putting her hands over her ears and shouting at which point they quited down enough that we managed to pick a driver and depart almost immediately for a reasonable price.
The 200km drive to Panjikent took 12 hours mainly due to extensive construction delays. The Chinese government is apparently building roads in exchange for some trade concessions. Its quite the sight as all the crews are Chinese and they live in little tent villages along the roadway. Given the incredible infrastructure we saw in China I can see why the Chinese would use their own crews.
Our guest house in Panjikent was great. Neoskul, our helpful host gave us all the information we needed to do our trek. For the first time in our trip we could actually take public transport where we were going and the next morning we set off on an ancient bus and rattled up to Jakahoma (near Artush), the start of a 3 day trek into the Fan mountains. Neoskul had given us contact information for another guesthouse in Jakahoma and the owner met us as we got off the bus. He offered to rent us a donkey and donkey man for $25.00 a day to carry our packs, but we decided to do the hike unsupported. It can be a lot of work to have another person along as we feel we have to talk to them and it changes the experience.
From Jakahoma we hiked about 5 hours uphill (900m elevation gain) to an uneven rocky plateau studded with juniper trees. In the low spots of the plateau were a series of small lakes. On the south side rose a mountain the likes of which we have never seen. Although "only" 5500m high it had a 2km vertical cliff dotted with precariously perched hanging glaciers. The snowy top of the mountain was hidden in a seething cloud which occasionally parted to give us views of the most inaccessible looking summit I've seen. It was beautiful.
We camped by one of the lakes and got up early the next morning to do the next part of the hike. We had originally planned to backpack to Alauidin lakes and camp there but the distance was too great for us to complete the loop and return all the way to town the next day. Instead we decided to do the entire loop as a day trip without the packs so that we could travel more quickly.
We had been warned not to leave gear unattended so we decided to hide our packs as best we could. This was made a little bit more complicated because the local people were gathering firewood in the area, which meant they were randomly looking around under bushes for dead branches. I had just finished reading a spy novel though and in true Robert Ludlum style we hid our packs between some rocks, wrapped in a gray tarp, and covered with stones. Nobody was going to find them (including ourselves we feared) so we GPSed the location before we left.
The hike started as a brutal 900m ascent to a 3800m high pass. After a week in Dushanbe we had lost our tolerance for altitude and were exhausted by the time we hit the top of the pass. To make matters worse the weather was overcast and there was a howling wind. I was ready to turn back, my hands numb from the cold and my lungs aching from the altitude, but Lara had some enthusiasm and we spent a few minutes sheltered behind some rocks at the top of the pass deciding what to do. We decided we were there to hike, and we ventured out from our shelter into the howling wind and into a most amazing view of jagged peaks. The clouds had lifted for a minute to reveal a landscape of mountains so sharp and desolate that we really couldn't wrap our minds around them. I would describe them as snowy teeth, but no teeth are as sharp and jagged as these peaks. It was amazing.
Far below us lay the impossibly blue Alauidin lakes and we made a quick descent to the valley bottom where we were met by a dog of all things. There weren't any people around, but the dog was friendly and well fed so we assumed it belonged to someone. It decided to follow us and we went down the valley with the dog to find our return pass and complete our journey.
About 1km downhill from the lakes there was a serious of buildings that looked like an old climber's camp. A solitary old man was sitting outside in his robe and we asked him for directions and then hurried on our way. The dog seemed to know him, but continued with us as we did another brutal 900m ascent up a second pass. The clouds which had been spattering rain on us all day finally started to dissolve revealing another enormous peak behind us. We snapped several photos before the clouds broke even more to reveal that the impossibly sharp bit we thought was the summit actually had another pinnacle of rock on top of it. Wow!
We hit the top of our return pass at 5pm, by now thoroughly exhausted, only to find that instead of the lake we were expecting the trail skirted a wide alpine bowl to yet another pass. Across the valley the lower front ranges of the fan mountains were bathed in the evening light. They were not snowy like the center ranges, but their rocky desolation was no less beautiful. The dog didn't seem to care. It just wanted to follow us. I even threw stones towards it to scare it home, but I lacked the heart to do it properly and the dog only looked puzzled and then wagged it's tail.
At 5:30 we finally got to the top of the second pass. At this point we met two shepherds who were leading a large group of sheep out from the highlands for the winter. They had four dogs with them and our dog played with their dogs. That was the last we saw of it. We wondered if shepherd dogs simply move from flock to flock, themselves travelers in their little dog worlds.
The descent was bone jarring but the trail was excellent (as it had been all day). We got back to our tents about 30 minutes after dark by the light of our headlights, having covered 1900m of elevation and about 30km of distance. We felt pretty heroic but ate a handful of Ibuprofin each to head off pain!
The next day we had to return to town. We slept in and did a nice hike to the base of the big mountain before heading back down the way we came. The hike was pleasant and uneventful although our feet ached by the end of it. As we approached Jakahoma lots of local people came out of their fields to greet us. This may be a popular trekking destination but it hasn't affected the friendliness of the people. It was hard to make progress as every 100m another group of people would stop us to talk. One couple even sent their young daughter down with us to make sure we found the guest house. Lara had energy for it all however, and her Russian is also much better than mine since she talks to people more. I just collected the apples and walnuts that we were given.
We got to our guest house just before dark and enjoyed a cold shower, a warm soup, and smashed apples and peaches freshly fallen off the tree. It was one of the best hikes we have ever done.