Although you might expect all sorts of adventures while travelling, nothing can prepare a tourist for a situation like this…
Late this summer I found myself in Khorog in the south-east of Tajikistan. Setting off from Dushanbe it took two days travel to reach Khorog.
Two roads connect Dushanbe to Khorog in the south. Both are primarily dirt tracks that hug the sides of steep mountain faces. The southern route, the road we had taken down to Khorog was having upgrade work, financed and undertaken by the Chinese government, which saw oversized lorries routinely making the journey from the north to the south while large rock breaking explosions could often be heard .
After only two days spent in Khorog, I was set to make the arduous 16-hour journey back to Dushanbe alone to catch a flight out. Unlike many other countries nowadays, Dushanbe sees only one cheap Europe bound airline departure every four days, to Istanbul.
Knowing this, I was pushed to find some sort of means of transport to reach Dushanbe to catch the Istanbul flight the following morning. Failing this, I would be forced to spend four extra days in the Tajik capital which was this year ranked 212th on the ‘Daily Mail’s best and worst cities to live in’…
Fearful of missing my flight out, and with no other means of transport at all available, I found myself in what can only be described as the local taxi share market where around 50 battered minivans were being crammed to bursting with holidaymakers and university students making their way back to the capital for the start of September.
For around £4, I was packed into the back row of a minivan between 3 Tajik women, all of us sharing one cushioned bench, while my left leg was being crushed under the weight of a mountain of suitcases. I would eventually look back on the journey with amused memories, but as we set off for Dushanbe I feared the worst as after a quarter of an hour a brake disc snapped off.
As we eventually left the outskirts and the civilisation of the city, progress slowed along the dirt road. To our right was the mountain face while to our left was a steep drop and a narrow river. The river itself represents the border of Tajikistan, and across it was Afghanistan soil. As we drove on, little could be seen across the river in Afghanistan, aside from the occasional small village or school. Mostly the adjacent Afghan mountain road was empty.
Little had changed in the scenery but as evening fell a loud metallic band rang out across the mountain pass and we quickly slammed to a stop. The noise seemed as if it had come from underneath us so I assumed that the brake disc must have fallen off again. Instantaneously, two more loud cracks pierced the air. Confused, I began to think that maybe around the bend was more Chinese road development work using dynamite to break pieces of mountain.
Leaning out the window, our driver started shouting something in Tajik towards the other side of the river. Extremely perplexed, and with little view out the window, I started to notice the equally puzzled and worried faces of my fellow passengers, also looking out the windows as best they could.
Another metallic crack rang out and I strained to lean forward to get a better view. Across the thin river, sitting on two bikes on the Afghanistan mountain track, were two young Afghans, no older than around 22. Still incredibly confused as to what was going on, the driver continued shouting angrily at them. As he continued to shout, suddenly I heard another loud bang and saw something hit the dirt track a meter in front of our driver and dust from below was sprayed up into his face.
I nervously took a longer view at our neighbours from across the border and noticed one of them holding something in one hand pointed towards our vehicle. No less confused, but at this point starting to panic, our driver quickly started to reverse back down the track as the passengers and I attempted to duck below the sight of the window.
Now understanding what the bangs were, another gunshot rang out. Trying to help in our drivers escape plan, in nervous judgment I swung round and glanced out the rear window. “You’re all clear mate, keep driving!” I shouted to him, forgetting that he didn’t speak a word of English.
After reversing no more than 25 metres, we quickly stopped and instead drove forward, following the example of another minivan 100 metres up the road. At this point, now consigning myself either to death by gunshot or tumbling down the steep drop next to us as we hastily sped on, I gripped the seat in front tightly.
After a few minutes of driving we came to a wider stretch of road and a shelter of trees and small Tajik houses. We stopped and I tried to confirm and discuss with the other passengers about what had just happened. No one spoke a word of English and when I would try and ask our driver, he would simply smile and, perhaps crudely, point across to the Afghanistan side and say “ISIS, ISIS!”
My extreme worry then turned into a weird mixture of relief and excitement as I realised that not only was I alive (even if the shooter had potentially just been shooting at and around the minivan for a game), I could also now return back to the UK with a great story to tell.
When I arrived at the airport I rang as many close friends as possible to tell them about the ordeal earlier in the day, excited and content that I had something that I could take back from my brief travels in Central Asia.
Although, when I phoned my parents to tell them that my bus had been shot at, they did not seem to share in my excitement…
Featured Image: Alexi Demetriadi