Scraping the mountains in Pamir

Going from Dushanbe to Khorog and back by plane is not for the faint of heart. During the 50 minute flight Tajik Air’s experienced(?) pilots are only meters away from crashing into the sides of the steep mountains several times.

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The Pamirs are known as the roof of the world. And not without reason. Peaks of up to 24.500 feet are scattered around the area. Squeezed in between Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan the area offers unequaled beauty. The hospitality and friendliness of the inhabitants are also like nothing I have experienced before.

Over 50% of Tajikistan lies over 3000 meters above sea level. The capital of Gorno-Badakhshan, Khorog, lies at about 2.200 meters, and is surrounded by much higher mountains. This makes for one of the most difficult airplane approaches of the world, as you literally have to fly “through” the mountains. The Yak-40’s and Antonov-24’s which operate the route, normally stays below 14.000 feet, while the surrounding mountains go up to 18.000 ft.

You can see a short clip I filmed going back to Dushanbe. Unfortunately I was holding on to my seat so hard that I forgot to take up my camera before we had already passed the most scary parts. But I assure you, bad quality of the YouTube video aside, if I could have lent out of the plane I would have touched the mountain.

To get to the Pamirs, you can either fly to Khorog or drive. But the drive is 20 hours, and the road isn’t exactly in prime condition (if you can call it a road), and I suspect the brakes of the cars traveling might not be so good either. So it was tempting to fly in less than an hour.

Unfortunately the route is only operated in visual flying conditions (VFR), which means it is canceled at the first sign of bad weather. And that happens not infrequently in the high mountains. We first tried to buy tickets at the offices of Tajik Air in Dushanbe. Alas, we were informed that tickets were only on the sale at the airport. At the airport we were informed to come back at 05.30 the next day to buy tickets for the 07.00 flight. No internet sales here…

The next morning, about 100 people had showed up to buy one of the 32 seats on the Yak 40. Apparently flights had been canceled the last four or five days before due to bad weather. Needless to say, the frustration and competition among the ticket-buyers were high. There was no chances for tickets on the first flight, so we hoped for tickets on the next. Unfortunately they didn’t start selling tickets before the last plane has returned (so they know that they actually have a plane to sell tickets on). So we waited in front of the closed kassa (ticket booth) together with at least two or three full plane loads of Tajik families and their luggage.

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Hope was wearing thin, and frustration high when I finally got the cashier to talk with me. While she could assure me there was no way to buy a ticket for the next flight, except for coming back next morning, she took pity on the foreigners. “You are guest in our country, and should be helped. Why don’t you go speak with ******** at our stab headquarters?”

The headquarters were hidden at the other side of the airport. I snuck past the security guards and started wandering down the long corridors with only numbers on the doors. Asking around I finally found the right office. The office of the general director of Tajik Air. And guess what: We got tickets on the flight the day after! The hospitality of the Tajik people is unparalleled.

But now we now know why this route is the only route for which Aeroflot used to give its pilots danger pay during Soviet times. The views to the mountains tops of Tajikistan and Afghanistan were wonderful, but the mountains were uncomfortably close sometimes. But apparently only two planes have gone down in newer times. One failed to take off from Khorog, because there were about 67 people in the 32-seat plane. The other one fell down because of hostile fire from Afghanistan. But everybody proudly informed us that security standards were much higher now. So why were there still lots of seats occupied by two people, and lots of luggage in the aisle?

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Modern Khorog is one of the poorest areas of Tajikistan, with the charitable organization Aga Khan Foundation providing almost the only source of cash income. The good Aga Khan has also built a Serena Inn hotel in Khorog. A lonesome oasis of relaxation, quality and Western food. We however, stayed privately with some friends of a friend. The area is incredible for hiking, even though the air requires some acclimatisation. Thoroughly recommended!

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