April 17 2019
When my pre-arranged taxi ride from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Murghab, Tajikistan fell through, I had experienced a few minutes of panic. My Tajik visa was date-specific, and my permitted time in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Area was a measly five days. If I didn’t cross into Tajikistan on October 4th, I would probably have to scrap my entire visit to the country. After researching flights, alternate routes, etc. I’d decided that I had no choice but to attempt the border crossing on my own. Determined, I went to the local bazaar and arranged a ride to Sary Tash -- the town closest to the border -- bringing myself one step closer to getting into Tajikistan.
Walking around town in the short amount of time before dinner, I couldn’t help but stare at the mountains in either direction. Isolated by the peaks to the north and south and situated on a high-altitude plain, Sary Tash would be nondescript were it not for its strategic location on the crossroads between both routes from Kyrgyzstan into Tajikistan, as well as a key trade route into China.
The next day, I caught a ride to the border with a friend of the hotel owner. The border seemed conspicuously closed, something I noticed only after my ride was sending up a billowing cloud of dust that was getting smaller and smaller by the second. After shouting to announce my presence, I opened the gate and made my way to the most official-looking building.
Knocking on the door yielded no results, and I made the decision to open the door and step inside. There seemed to be no one there, but I could hear music coming from behind one of the connecting doors. Another knock brought the border guard out at last, and he stamped my passport after giving it a quick look-over. Handing it back to me, his gaze fell on the ukulele case protruding from my backpack.
“Gun?” he asked, miming shooting an assault rifle. I snorted, shook my head, and mimed rocking out on a ukulele. He laughed and waved me on.
I walked past the second gate and looked back. There weren’t any cars on the horizon, but it was still relatively early. Hitching a ride into Tajikistan shouldn’t be a problem, but -- if things didn’t pan out -- I was confident I could trek the distance. I had food, water, sunscreen, a tent, and a sleeping bag -- more than enough to cover the 15+ kilometer distance to the Tajik border post.
I stuck out my thumb while doing my best to look both helpless and cheerful as it drew near.
The driver stopped and shouted a question in Russian over the roar of an ancient diesel engine. “Where are you going?”
“Tajikistan granitsa,” I replied in my limited Russian. The Tajik border.
The old man motioned for me to get in.
He took me a few kilometers, the truck needing to stop several times to cool off along the way. After the third stop, he motioned for me to continue walking. I mimed a question, asking if the border was close. The driver nodded and gestured towards the door, seemingly eager to be rid of me. I took the hint and got out, taking him at his word that the border was a short walk away.
It seemed like an endless distance. Lugging over 15 kilos of gear, I set a slow pace and tried to regulate my breathing. Even so, the trek was exhausting.
It didn’t occur to me at the time just how much danger I had placed myself in. Almost a week later, after dealing with horrible chest pain, a lack of appetite, and vomiting during my time in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Area, I caught a van to Dushanbe and descended to a normal altitude. I knew I’d experienced altitude sickness, but didn’t realize just how serious my symptoms were. After reading more about the affliction, I know better. I was very, very lucky.
After resting at the pass, I descended. Going downhill felt like heaven. It seemed only a matter of minutes before I came within sight of a second cluster of buildings. This time, my relief was justified. I’d made it. My next step after clearing the border would be to hitch a ride over 200 kilometers south to Murghab. Little did I know just how difficult that would end up being.
I grinned and gave him a thumbs up in return. “Okay!”
“Nyet,” I replied, making the motion for walking.
His eyebrows shot up. “Murghab?!”
I laughed and shook my head, holding my thumb out like I was hitching.
He nodded his understanding. “Chai?” he asked, gesturing towards the back room.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied in Tajik, using up my repertoire of vocabulary in that language. A soldier brought us a pot of tea, then a plate full of meat. I took a piece and ate it, inquiring about its origin. It was horse. As my unexpected host looked on and made conversation as best he could with sign language, I ate my fill. It was greasy, fatty, and delicious.
The official, Faro, made it clear that I could hang out until a ride came.
Hours slid by.
Eventually, Faro came in and told me that no cars would be coming that day. Not to worry, he assured me, I could sleep in the barracks with the border guards. Learning I didn’t have to camp outside was a weight off my shoulders, and I was able to relax as soldiers trickled in for dinner. Despite the constant agony in my chest from the altitude sickness, I was able to enjoy an evening filled with tasty food, ukulele, guitar, and even dancing. Vodka may or may not have been involved…
Then, Faro motioned for me to get my bags. It was time. I grabbed my gear and went outside, only to see a huge group of soldiers jostling and milling around a huge transport. After a few minutes of confusion, I realized that they were my ride. The shift rotation was underway, and that meant a truck was going to Murghab.
We set off, and stopped at the border checkpoint (again), the customs office, and even the cook’s quarters. At each window, I saw a familiar face from the night before. Each reached out to grip my hand and smile.
“Welcome to Tajikistan!”
The journey to Murghab would take about seven hours, the last of which were in the dark. My concern about finding a place to stay proved to be unwarranted, as the soldiers found a hotel and dropped me off in front of it. As I stepped into my room and collapsed onto the mattress laid out on the floor, I could feel the knots of tension in my shoulders loosening.
I’d made it.
I was very lucky to make it through this experience. A lack of planning, rushed schedule, and some foolish decisions all combined to put me in a very dangerous situation. Here are some ways to prevent altitude sickness, as well as some signs that you’re experiencing it to watch out for.
Hydration: You need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated and healthy at high altitudes. Three to four quarts a day is a good amount.
Abstention: Stay away from things like tobacco, alcohol, and medications. These can make you more susceptible to the effects of altitude sickness and place you at increased risk.
Awareness: Finally, know the early warning signs of altitude sickness. These are:
Shortness of breath
Loss of appetite
The symptoms listed above are just the early warning signs. The ones which follow these -- some of which I experienced -- can be life-threatening. Following the prevention steps above and being careful should help you avoid altitude sickness, but it’s essential to know when it’s time to call it quits. If you begin to experience signs of altitude sickness, turn around and descend to a lower altitude immediately to allow your body time to acclimatize. Don’t make the same mistakes I did!
Nathan Anderson is a friend of Matador who’s been living on the road for eight years. Follow along his travels at www.openroadbeforeme.com and on Instagram @openroadb4me.