I feel compelled to write more about my overland journey from the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, to Khujand, the city where I’ll be working. From start to finish, it was one of the craziest experiences I’ve had in a long time.
To give you some more context, Dushanbe and Khujand are the two largest cities in Tajikistan. Think of them as the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh of this country, or the Madrid and Barcelona, or the insert-your-own-geographic-analog-here. The cities are less than 200 miles apart by road, but the journey generally takes eight hours, for an average speed of 25 miles per hour – which gives you an idea of both the incredibly mountainous terrain it traverses and the alarming decay of Tajikistan’s Soviet-era infrastructure.
Amid all the rural villages and twisting roads and one-lane gravel hairpin turns, one stretch of the journey stands out. I speak, of course, of the tunnel beneath the Anzob Pass about 70 kilometers north of Dushanbe – affectionately known as the Tunnel of Death.
Let me describe this to you.
The Tunnel of Death is six kilometers long and two lanes wide, one in each direction. The bore is barely wide enough for two trucks to pass. It’s almost unlit, save for a dim incandescent bulb mounted on the wall every 10 or 20 meters or so – and then, only in those stretches where the electricity still happens to flow.
The pavement has been ravaged by who knows what: water damage, freezing cycles, erosion, initial shoddy construction, too many years of heavy trucks passing through. For six kilometers, the entire road surface has been methodically replaced with potholes and deep crevices capable of catching your wheel and wrenching it off.
Water pours from the ceiling everywhere. There is no drainage. At times, cars need to plow through a foot of standing water – standing water that, of course, happens to mask cracked pavement and axle-busting potholes. Consider what it must be like when the temperature drops below freezing.
Further complicating things is the fact that not every vehicle in this tunnel is moving. Abandoned backhoes and dump trucks sit serenely in the middle of the road, blocking whole lanes wherever they stand. Because the tunnel is only two lanes wide, this means that cars have to swerve blindly into oncoming traffic to get around them. No big deal.
Did I mention that some oncoming vehicles have two busted headlights and are driving this tunnel in the dark? Of course they are. At this point, why would you expect any less?
Now, all of this has been a cakewalk so far. But let’s talk about the cave-ins. Seven of them, by my count. Great heaps of broken concrete slabs and twisted rebars sitting beneath ragged holes in the ceiling, blocking entire lanes of the road. Don’t look up.
Occasionally, you will run into workers laboring in the smoky miasma. (Why smoky? Because, naturally, there’s almost no ventilation in this tunnel.) Each one wears a hard hat, a simple yellow rain slicker, and nothing else to protect them from the prevailing conditions. Sometimes they get a black rain slicker instead, just because they felt like yellow was too safe.
Lest we forget, this is all taking place in a six-kilometer-long tunnel, which means that any problem with your car can leave you stranded as far as three kilometers from the outside world. I sure hope you have a good mechanic in the passenger seat.
Throughout all this, my driver is clattering madly over the broken pavement at 30 miles an hour, divebombing straight into potholes, freely swerving between lanes to avoid cave-ins, stomping on the accelerator to pass people, TO PASS PEOPLE IN A TUNNEL, TO PASS FOUR ARMY TRUCKS AT ONCE, and I am cackling. Oh, Soviet Union! It’s so good to be back!
If this balls-to-the-wall insanity is a genuine element of the Tajik national character, I think Tajikistan and I will get along very well.