The tunnel of death

Dushanbe, 18.07.2019

When I first saw videos of the so called “tunnel of death”, officially the Anzob tunnel, I wondered why I didn’t go see it during Eurasia2013. At the time unfortunately there was no time, as the entry into China was on a set date and I had to hold a timeline. After the past few days worrying about the Mini, and flying in parts twice from Germany, driving out of Dushanbe there was dead silence in the car. My ears would have made any spy agency listening station pale. Every little noise made me worry. But in the end it was either a pothole, or a Lada I overtook, or the truck on the side of the road – but the Mini drove fine, very smooth. With the new dampers it felt so smooth to drive over the few potholes on an almost perfect road from Tashkent to the Chanak border crossing into Tajikistan. The border was 90 minutes from the hotel, it took another 90 minutes to cross it. Somehow I wasn’t into borders today, and got grumpy with the Uzbek guards that asked me to unload the entire car. It worked, I had to only pass three bags through an Xray that nobody checked. One of the border guards sat in the driving seat and started to play with switches and the radio. “Hey, what are you doing there? Leave the car alone!” That worked too, the customs check was over. New learning: treat border police at bigger crossings bad. I applied that learning a few minutes later at the Tajik station. As I had read in a few travel blogs, the officers try to squeeze money from tourists. First try: the “sanitation basin”, a hole with water I had to drive through. They wanted 3 USD for that puddle. I refused to pay, and told them that I everybody on the internet is writing about this scam. Few minutes later they let me go without paying. Next stop: customs, 25 USD “road tax”. They spoke Russian, I only English. They told me something, I replied that I had read online about border crossings and had been in Tajikistan already, but never had I paid this so-called tax. “I’m a customs official, I tell you this is a tax you have to pay.” “Sorry, I won’t.” In the end the oldest of the officers, that had been taking my data and handed me back my documents, went outside with me, walked up and down the customs check hall, gave me a piece of paper and said “Go!”. I got into the Mini and drove away, without any payment. On the parking lot in front of the customs building several black Mercedes and BMWs were parked neatly in the shade of a tarp.

A few hours over flat but perfect countryside roads later the landscape started to get hilly, before the ascent into the Turkestan range began. The valleys became deep canyons, the water changed from dark green to pale grey, The Mini kept climbing, we crossed the 2000m as temperatures outside hit 43C. I had the aircon on, and was still sweating continuously. The road kept climbing, and I tried to enjoy the mountain views. But my ears were on the car, and my eyes mostly on the road. At 2650m the first range peaked, and the road descended again. I passed a Swiss biker and honked, and he waved enthusiastically. The road got interrupted shortly before reaching the valley, as an avalanche had passed and some bulldozers were getting the rocks out of the way. The tar was gone, and as I was about to pass slowly, more rocks came down from the mountain, but stopped before reaching the road.

Next came the Zarafshan range, and now the serpentine roads started to become steeper, the curves narrower. The heat outside stayed brutal, and I kept the aircon on. As I overtook a jeep in a curve and started to push the gas up the hill, suddenly the temperature control maxed out and the warning light went on. Cold sweat! Aircon off, windows open, “speed” down (I was driving 50km/h only anyway. A few meters later I stopped on the left side of the road and opened the hood. Two minutes later the temperature control was back to normal, but I got nervous. Further up the mountain I reached a tunnel with no lights, no signs, but it was over fast. Was that it? Not yet. I recognized the Anzob tunnel from the two entries, of which only one was in use (the other used by cows to avoid the sunshine). I closed the windows, took out the phone to record the crossing, and turned on all lights of the Mini. The road was actually very good, paved, there were even stretches with light. A few construction workers were walking around in the dark, a car had broken down and stood in the tunnel with warning lights on. That was as bad as it got. The 5km were over very soon, and I drove out on the other side into a beautiful valley through the mountains. Nobody died, and I was a bit disappointed as I had imagined the road to be a lot rockier. Video here.

I reached Dushanbe a few hours later. Roads were surprisingly good today, the Mini drove perfectly. The overheating was over fast and probably due to steep ascent plus aircon. During dinner tonight I’ll have to decide if to drive back through Uzbekistan tomorrow, or try the Pamir highway for a few days’ detour.

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