The ancient Russian troop transport rumbled and creaked as it trundled up the Ak-Baital Pass, a breath-taking (literally) 4,655 meters above sea level. After several stops to let the engine cool, we crested the top and a cheer rose from the border guards in the back. The young soldier next to me gave me a thumbs up. “Okay?”
I grinned and gave him a thumbs up in return. “Okay!”
How the heck did I end up in a military transport in the middle of the desolate Pamirs in Tajikistan? Well, it’s a funny story…
The previous day, I’d managed to get from the border town of Sary Tash to the Kyrgyz border, then managed to get across the 15 k.m. no man’s land between the Kyrgyz and Tajik border posts. Getting through customs was a breeze, a soldier waved me into a small building and an official in a tracksuit checked my passport before stamping it.
“Machine?” he asked, pointing back at the way I’d come.
“No,” I replied, making the motion for walking. His eyebrows shot up.
I laughed and shook my head, holding my thumb out like I was hitching. He nodded his understanding.
“Chai?” he asked, gesturing towards the back room.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied in Tajik, using up my repertoire of vocabulary in that language.
A soldier brought us a pot of tea, then a full meal. As my unexpected host looked on and made conversation as best he could with sign language, I ate my fill. It was greasy, fatty, and delicious. The official, Faro, made it clear that I could hang out until a ride came.
The hours slid by. Eventually, Faro came in and told me that no cars would be coming that day and I could sleep in the room. Learning I didn’t have to camp outside was a weight off my shoulders, so I was able to relax a little as soldiers trickled in for dinner. Despite feeling very unwell due to a perfect storm of altitude sickness and two stomach ailments not normally experienced simultaneously, I was able to enjoy an evening filled with tasty food, ukulele, guitar, and even dancing.
The next morning, I resumed my vigil by the border, waiting for a car to cross into Tajikistan. Several crossed into Kyrgyzstan, but none seemed to be coming the way I needed. As the hours slipped by, my optimism started to fade. Then, Faro motioned for me to get my bags.
It was time.
I threw everything together and went outside, only to see a huge group of soldiers grouped together. After a few minutes of confusion, I realized that they were my ride. It was time for the shift rotation and, just my luck, that meant a truck was going to Murghab. I threw my bags in the vehicle and we set off. We stopped at the border check (again), the customs office, and even the cook’s quarters. At each window, I saw a familiar face from the night before. Each gripped my hand and smiled.
“Welcome to Tajikistan!”
Finally, I was on my way to Murghab. It would take about seven hours, the last of which in the dark. My concern about finding a place to stay proved to be unfounded, as the soldiers found a hotel and dropped me off in front of it. Stepping into the hotel almost felt like coming home. I’d made it.