Tajikistan is maybe not the first place you'd think of heading to for a spot of ski touring. Mention it to most people and they'll say most probably something along the line of: "Doesn't Borat come from there?" or "Isn't that the country with the oil and gas?" Well, I'm pretty sure they all wish it was the land of oil and gas. In fact the Tajiks got a pretty raw deal when it came to dividing the spoils after the break-up of the Soviet Union, which didn't make the lack of natural resources any easier. Left without any meaningful infrastructure, the country is also largely bereft of any minerals, save a little coal and the odd bit of uranium (and there's not so much interest in the uranium these days now the Cold War's over).
Still, the country's not lacking in one thing… mountains. I arrived late January in the capital, Dushanbe, in an unusually mild winter to work with an NGO for a 6-month stint. It was pretty warm in town and I felt a little cheated that the mountains surrounding the city looked, well, pretty dire for any skiing. I'd imagined a harsh, bitter Central Asian climate delivering some light fluffy powder in the Fann Mountains nearby. Four days later it arrived. My impressions quickly morphed. Suddenly those peaks I could see from my office window seemed so incredibly alluring, and I began to wonder whether I'd find anyone remotely on the same wavelength who'd be eager for a 5am start on Saturday morning to head out for a ski tour. The daily grind is pretty soul destroying in Tajikistan working with bureaucracy, corruption, endless waits to get even the smallest thing done: I wondered whether anyone else might see getting up into the hills as the perfect remedy.
I soon discovered that Dushanbe is a small, small place. There's just a couple of hundred expats in the entire city. Actually I would later discover it was like living in a goldfish bowl: everyone seemed to knew what you were doing almost before you did. In fact it felt like a small town... with a lot of small town gossip: I soon realised that for those not into climbing and skiing Tajikistan wasn't your ideal staging post for a two or three year international mission. However, for those wanting adventure and wilderness the country offers these in abundance. Forty kilometres after leaving the city you're in a rural, mountainous setting that could see you spending 14 hours driving over cols and through narrow ravines just to get to anything resembling a town.
Nothing happens quickly in Tajikistan. Minor correction: attempts to solicit bribes by 'law enforcement' officers… happen pretty swiftly most days. Everything else occurs at a glacial pace. The realisation that risk is quantified somewhat differently then back in Europe, also, reveals itself rather rapidly… In theTajik macho culture forego the following: 1. Spectacles (sign of weakness amongst men); 2. Seat belts (suggests you're a little frail) and 3. Driving on just one particular side of the road - sticking to the correct side of the highway being an indication you're not man enough to intimidate other drivers. The two hour trips each way to our prime touring spot near an abandoned Soviet-era ski camp were always, by far, the scariest parts of any trip.
Much was 'Soviet-era' in this place. Sadly, much had also fallen into disrepair. The Takob ski area had once been a thriving place back in the 80s, but the five year civil war and economic gloom left Takob in a sorry state. The villagers nearby still clung onto their daily way of life which, in winter, was pretty grim. Often the houses went without electricity, and it was not uncommon to see kids playing in the snow without shoes or boots - this was a reality check. The bonhomie and kindness of the Tajik people, though, especially in the countryside, never ceased to amaze me. On every trip we'd meet people who, despite how little they had, would invite us in to their homes and make us welcome, to sit and share stories. I always left appreciating how fortunate I was to be up there in the Fann mountains skiing.
After driving the next most dangerous pursuit on a ski tour was traversing the village on skis. We ran the gauntlet ever time of the craziest dogs on the planet. I don't think I've ever been so single-mindedly focused on skis as while zig-zagging between the houses on the trail while clutching cans of pepper spray in both hands (having an embassy security officer on the trips was definitely a bonus)… Rabid dogs are, well, pretty unpredictable. And not too friendly. Meanwhile their owners, usually just a few yards away, would seem to grin inanely, captivated by the spectacle of people sliding through the village on skis - for fun! I learned that hiking, skiing, generally exploring the mountains - for pleasure alone - just wasn't part of their psyche. We appeared an odd bunch to them. I soon rationalised their thought process: they observe us driving up from the city in a nice Western 4x4 only to leave it at the village and depart for the ascent on skis made - clearly no sense! Why not try it in the 4x4… surely that's what a Toyota's for! I'd just assumed that every mountain culture had skiing as part of the equation; but there I was wrong.
On a usual day in the spring time we'd make 2 or 3 ascents, each giving us around 500m of vertical powder-filled descent. The views in the Fann Mountains, part of the western Pamir-Alay mountain system, were always mind-blowing. In every direction one looked the views were of pristine wilderness, beautiful snow covered 4,000-5,000m peaks. Once you'd travelled just a kilometre from the village all signs of human habitation faded… the wilds were unspoilt, pristine. After lunch and one final lap of ascent and descent we'd once again brave the fierce canines of Takob village and gingerly thread our way through the trails that snaked between the huts and gardens, trying to remember where we saw the particularly brutish looking dogs, and hoping that the fences were in better repair than the roads.
Back at the 4x4 it was time to pack up the gear and prepare for the kamikaze driving on the way home while reflecting too on what a magical place the mountains of Tajikistan were. Despite the awful roads and craziness of weaving in and out of cars seemingly aiming straight for us, the trip back to the city was a time to reflect on the everyday encounters with the locals in the mountain villages which, along with the experiences in the back country, would remind me why I had jumped at the chance to head out to Tajikistan in the first place.
IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV
The IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV symbol is the logo of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
The International Ski Instructors Association is the world body for professional ski instructors.
The ISIA was formed in 1971 and there are currently 39 member nations representing the very best in ski instruction around the world.