The road between Dushanbe and Panjikent is infamous. More than anything it is frightening. From Dushanbe the main road stretches north into the Varzob valley. From this point you feel like your life is close to an end.
My first trip to Panjikent from Dushanbe began with my driver picking me up an hour and forty-five minutes late. I expected half an hour or an hour, but at least he eventually showed up. Before collecting the three other passengers (shared taxis are ALWAYS filled to capacity and will really host guests in their homes until the next day if they need more passengers…) we made three long pitstops: washing the car in the trash-filled roadside canal, the auto mechanic (is the car alright!?), and lunch with friends (mind you, while I sat in the car…). Three and a half hours after our planned departure five people with bags were crammed in a tiny sedan blasting with Russian electronic music. The guy in shotgun appeared to be friends with the driver. However, after entering the Varzob valley I noticed that even he put on his seat belt. If a young male Tajik puts on a seatbelt without a police checkpoint in view, you know that there is a problem. I braced myself as we quickly ascended the hairpin turns up into the Fann mountains.
Just like in America or Germany, there is a left and right lane in Tajikistan. However, no one really uses those demarcations in Tajikistan. You pass with oncoming traffic because there is obviously an unmarked third lane floating between the two. One can get used to this until you realize that your driver is texting (how a signal gets up into the mountains is in itself mind-boggling). We are hugging the edges of mountains and there are not sturdy side railings like on roads in America or Germany. Instead, there are a few rickety fences that have holes shot through them. These should act as a constant reminder that someone did drive off that rocky cliff and fell 300 meters to their death, but apparently these don’t help in most cases. To push this multiple-near-death experience to the next level there are tunnels. These tunnel are long and do not have ventilation. They do not have lights. And like the normal road there are hypothetically only two lanes, but needless to say that imaginary third lane for passing with oncoming traffic still exists in tunnels. Not frightening enough? Look at the dashboard and make note that your driver is swinging through these twisting mountain roads at 120 kilometers per hour. When there is a straight stretch he will try to hit 150. I don’t even drive 150 kph on the flippin’ perfectly maintained German autobahn?! This high altitude panic now lasts for four continuous hours until you are finally on the plain along the Zeravshan River heading west. I obviously made it to Panjikent alive, but I barely survived countless heart attacks. Luckily the trip from Panjikent back to Dushanbe was better, more or less only because I was with Tajiks I knew and I could kindly remind the driver to lay off on the gas pedal…a lot.
On a lighter note, we made two quick stops on the drive back to Dushanbe to see Mt. Mug from a distance, the last Sogdian stronghold before the Arab conquest, and also the ninth century minaret in Ayni.