A reader wants to turn his fantasies of visiting Central Asia into reality.
Ask the Expert: how to visit Tajikistan
I have just finished reading The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk's gripping account of the 19th century skirmishes between Tsarist Russia and Victorian England for supremacy in Central Asia. Now I have a burning desire to go there but, as the book demonstrates, it has never been the most stable part of the world. What do you recommend?
It is true that Central Asia is not for the fainthearted but there are options for intrepid travellers, who'll find the effort to get there is more than rewarded.
Afghanistan is clearly not a good place to go to at present, even though the north is much safer than the Pashtun areas along the Pakistani border. The disputed Kashmir region split between Pakistan and India is also given do-not-travel status by almost every government.
But the Karakorum Highway is still open, linking northern Pakistan to Kashgar, the famous trading post in what is now far western China. The highway itself is often closed by rockfalls as it winds up a series of gorges on the Pakistani side, while on the Chinese side, a series of restrictions means you can't get very close to the border with Tajikistan.
For that reason, the Pamirs region of Tajikistan is possibly the best way to get up close to the area where the old empires of India, Russia and China used to meet. That's not because the Pamirs are deliberately open to tourists: more that it's too disorganised to do much to stop them.
Access is not simple. From the UAE, the best option is to fly to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. Tajik Air (Tajikair.tj) flies every Wednesday from Sharjah for €200 (Dh1,017). In Dushanbe, you'll need to get a permit to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, which covers the Pamirs. You'll need a letter of invitation to get the permit. Stantours (www.stantours.com) can arrange everything for a USD$40 (Dh147) fee.
You can then hire a 4x4 for the journey to Khorog, which can probably be done in one very long day. There's a daily flight but it's cancelled more often than it flies.
If that sounds like more trouble that it's worth, the rewards justify it. The road beside the Panj River separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan is spectacular and the people are absurdly friendly.
One of the nicest parts of the experience is the network of Community Based Tourism homestays in the Pamirs. Local Ismaili families host travellers in traditional Pamiri homes, which feature five pillars in the reception room, representing both the five main prophets and the five tenets of the faith, below a ceiling featuring four layers to represent earth, water, fire and air.
The Pamir Military Highway was built in the 1930s to allow quick access if the country was invaded. While it hasn't been maintained, it gets you close enough to what was an important Cold War boundary to see the observation towers, many some of which are still staffed by soldiers. The road reaches 4,600m high, and features stark but stunningly beautiful scenery.
And if you have a hankering to visit Afghanistan, there is a safe option to do so by attending the Ishkashim market, held at a village about three hours from Khorog. Every second Saturday, villagers from the Tajik side can meet their Afghan counterparts at an open-air market just on the Afghan side of the Panj. You can't go further into Afghanistan without a visa and there are heavily-armed soldiers to make sure everything stays peaceful.
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