Anzob Tunnel and Dushanbe

Day 16: Fan Mountains – Dushanbe: Back from our village stop, over the dirt road, we got back to the "main" road. And for a glorious hour or so enjoyed a fabulous new road up into the mountains. At the top, the asphalt ran ahead into the mouth of a tunnel. However..... the money apparently ran out and although the tunnel was bored for 5 kms through the mountain, it was never finished. We enter the Anzob Tunnel or, as I discovered later, "The Tunnel of Death", as it is locally known, is a five km long tunnel located 80 km northwest of Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe. It has become a legend in its own lunchtime among travellers. I have not been able to substantiate how many have died in the tunnel - Tajik deaths are not reported in the Western press. That being said, Tajikistan is a very mountainous country, and this road is the only way to get from one part to another - if we wanted to get to Samarkand then we would have to use this road and this tunnel.

The tunnel floor is a maze of deep, seriously deep, potholes hidden under a constant stream of water, the tunnel is strewn with abandoned construction machines and filled with the noxious black smoke of clapped out lorries. The poisonous air in the tunnel is barely shifted by one solitary fan somewhere in the middle of the tunnel, which gives some, but not sufficient movement to the air. Lurching through this hell hole with the uncertainty of what lies below the surface water is bad enough, but at least one is making progress. Then one meets the clincher - traffic confined to one lane, not one lane in either direction, but one lane - period. This being as they say a "relaxed" country, there are no traffic lights to regulate traffic through this section, nor is there an ordered tidal flow of traffic being allowed to enter the tunnel, instead anarchy prevails in the darkness. When we got to this section, two juggernauts were facing each other off in the narrow section - one lane being blocked by abandoned construction traffic. Traffic was backed up tight behind each lorry, making backing by anyone impossible, even if anyone had contemplated it. There was nobody to regulate the impasse. Eventually the blockage cleared, I know not how. But in truth I did have qualms about the Carbon Monoxide levels, perhaps 100 vehicles in the jam, each spewing out fumes laden with CO. It was not helped by Amanda saying that it would be fine with air-con in the car - she had no idea of CO poisoning, nor how it occurs. We were in the tunnel for - I am told, because I did not note the times - 58 minutes to cover the 5kms in the tunnel. The light at the end of the tunnel was the metaphor that sprung to everyone's minds when we saw it - a cliche come to be true.

That is my account. The other accounts I found on the web. The writers were lucky getting through in 15 to 20 minutes.

Memories of the invigorating mountain air were all we carried the next morning when the road to Dushanbe plunged us into the Tunnel of Death. The wet floor of the Anzob tunnel conceals potholes that threaten to swallow the Kangoo. Giant fans roar ineffectually in the dark and I cover mouth and nose to combat the smell of car fumes. Our headlights illuminate the worried figure of a man peering under his hood. This is not a good place to breakdown. When the snow melts in spring the tunnel is at its most treacherous and every year several people die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Alistair closely follows the 4WD ahead to gauge how deep the potholes are. At one point we sink about a foot into a black puddle but bounce our way out and into the light, having taken eighteen minutes to cover five kilometers.

On Anzob pass, at 3370 m altitude we were met by the inhospitable tunnel of 5,5 km, without illumination and ventilation, filled in knee deep with water. In spite of the fact that it has been opened rather recently - in 2006, contractors-Iranians goofed off, and therefore these 5 km of the way are considered to be one of the most dangerous road sites of Tajikistan. Cars go slowly inside as there might be holes on a surface and what a terrible gassed condition! If the motor dies out there it's a real bad job. You will have to get out for a very long time … But here infinite 15 minutes ended and … yes there is light in the end of the tunnel! However, the role of this tunnel is great as it provides all-the-year-round automobile communication between northern and southern areas of Tajikistan. After all earlier, during the winter period, northern areas were cut off from the basic territory of the country for 6 months. The tunnel has reduced road between Khojend and Dushanbe to 60 km, and the way on a new route takes 5 hours less now.

I drove once before through the Anzob tunnel and I still feel the sheer horror of the experience makes it worthy of another mention. Albeit without the flames licking up around your ankles, the Anzob tunnel is the 5km mouth of hell. Semi built by the Iranians, the tunnel has been open for several years but it is still a very long way from completion. One narrow tunnel carries traffic in both directions and is also used to remove rubble generated by boring the second tunnel hat will ultimately run in parallel. Those piles of rubble extracted but not yet taken away are simply left as unlit obstacles in the obstacle course that is the carriageway. The surface of the road is unmade and huge stretches are flooded with water,masking the pot holes beneath. We crept along at a limp, still bumpong against the rock more often than I'd like. We narrowly avoided the unmarked drill rig and another heavy plant that appeared suddenly in the gloom, and held our collective breath each time a homicidal vehicle lurched from the darkness to swerve or overtake.  Two thirds of the way through the tunnel we realised why completion is taking so long. Indeed, since my previous visit over a year ago it scarcely seemed to have advanced at all. The construction crew has no equipment - at least not any that is fit for the job. We passes half a dozen men digging with shovels; a second team was breaking up rocks with pick axes. The icing on the cake, however, was the small group of men attempting to change one of the tunnel's new but desperately needed lightbulbs. In the absence of a step ladder they had parked a Chinese-made digger across the road, completely blocking the traffic. We switched off the engine so as to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and watched transfixed as they used the digger's bucket to lift two men the 10ft or so to the ceiling, enabling them to reach the bare wires.

The Anzob Tunnel is known by many nicknames, all of them accurately describing it: “The Dangerous Tunnel”, “The Tunnel of Death”, “The Evil Tunnel”, “The Scary Tunnel”. It’s only a mere 5 km in length, but in our broken car and not knowing what lay ahead in the darkness, those were the longest 5 km I’ve ever driven. The tunnel is dark, very dark. There are, obviously, no lights in the tunnel itself and a thick smoke of engine exhausts, dust and water vapour severely limits the power of vehicle headlights. Despite being under construction for years on end, the tunnel is still far from finished and only parts of it have a ceiling to seal off the naked rock and prevent water from dripping through the mountain above. This rain from the naked rock above, together with the smoke and the incredible noise bouncing between the rock walls is what mostly makes the tunnel so scary.Most of the tunnel has pavement, which legions of Kamaz trucks and freezing winter upon even more freezing winter has beaten and broken into black ragged ridges which would have served well for the land of Mordor. The water raining down from above fills the deeper rifts and the potholes with water, making it impossible to judge how deep they are. In many places, the underlying concrete has been broken so that its steel rods now poke out of it, threatening to puncture tyres or get stuck somewhere where it can tear your vehicle apart. In two areas of the tunnel, the bottom is deep enough to have amassed small lakes of water which are necessary to drive through without being able to see what’s below the surface, trying to guess a passable way across by observing the vehicle in front of you. (Piece of advice: If you find yourself alone in front of such a body of water, wait for a Kamaz truck to come and drive before you, and then the way it sinks and rises out of the water and the waves created by its wake will give a usable idea about what hides below the surface.) There were loads of men working with heavy machinery to repair and improve the tunnel, making the already narrow tunnel even more crowded, but they were hopelessly outnumbered against the upcoming winter and the number of heavy trucks, breaking the tunnel apart again faster than they could ever repair it. Eventually, we cleared the tunnel without incidents and on the way downhill on the other side we could stop at small roadside автомойка (”car wash”) to get rid of the filth of the tunnel (which easily had doubled the filth already amassed during nearly 10,000 km of driving). The автомойка man made a living off the vehicles coming out of the tunnel and had serious experience with filthy vehicles and liberal amounts of clean water flowing down from the mountain. He still had to work hard for a long time, while we enjoyed the break in the beautiful mountains with cute kids playing around and “helping” to wash the car. The result was spectacular, and we paid the man a handsome tip for he had asked for far too little money for his work.

Further downhill and close to Dushanbe, we drove through Varzob, where the luxury villas of the rich and powerful, paid for with riches from the drug trade, line both banks of the river as it thunders down into the valley.

The recent history of the area is violent. Following the Red Army victory in Central Asia the village of Dushanbe was upgraded to town in 1925 and made the capital of the newly created Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The Soviets transformed the area into a centre for cotton and silk production, and relocated tens of thousands of people to the city from around the Soviet Union. The population also increased with thousands of ethnic Tajiks migrating to Tajikistan following the transfer of Bukhara and Samarkand to the Uzbek SSR. Severe rioting occurred in February 1990, after it was rumoured that Moscow planned to relocate tens of thousands of Armenian refugees to Tajikistan. Dushanbe riots were primarily fuelled by concerns about housing shortages for the Tajik population, but they coincided with a wave of nationalist unrest that swept Transcaucasia and other Central Asian states during the twilight of Gorbachev's era. The city was badly damaged as a result of the Civil War in Tajikistan (1992–1997) that occurred shortly after its independence. The civil war was concentrated in areas south of the capital and included the murder of prominent individuals, mass killings, the burning of villages, and the expulsion of the Pamiri and Garmi population into Afghanistan. In response to the violence the United Nations Mission of Observers in Tajikistan was deployed. By 1996 the rebels were combating Russian troops in Dushanbe. A UN-sponsored armistice finally ended the war in 1997. By the end of the war Tajikistan was in a state of complete devastation. The estimated dead numbered from 50,000 to as many as 100,000. Around 1.2 million people were refugees inside and outside of the country. Tajikistan's physical infrastructure, government services, and economy were in disarray and much of the population was surviving on subsistence handouts from international aid organizations.

And one cannot but help notice the Mercedes, roughly half the cars, in Dushanbe are Mercedes. A 2012 article in The Economist reads

TAJIKISTAN is the poorest republic of the former Soviet Union, yet its capital, Dushanbe, is awash with cash, construction and flash cars. It is easy to guess where the money comes from. Tajikistan has little industry but, with a porous 1,300-km (800-mile) border with northern Afghanistan, it is at the heart of a multi-billion-dollar network smuggling heroin. Bizarrely though, unlike other transit countries such as Mexico, Tajikistan sees little drug-related violence. The heroin, instead, seems to help stabilise the place. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that some 30% of Afghan opiates—including 90 tonnes of heroin a year—pass through Central Asia on their way to Russia, most of them through Tajikistan. The trafficking route is the country's most valuable resource, and its anaemic economy is hooked. Researchers believe the industry is equivalent to 30-50% of Tajikistan's GDP. But officials from NATO, which is trying to extract itself from the region, say they have no intention of upsetting the status quo...

For most Tajiks, the alternative is so frightening that they are happy to look the other way. If senior officials clamped down on the trafficking of heroin, they would have to arrest powerful political figures, writes David Lewis of Britain's Bradford University; this could spark serious violence and possibly re-ignite civil war. Figures from Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency show an 80% drop in opiate seizures since 2001. During the same period the UN drugs office says production in Afghanistan almost doubled. This means only a tiny fraction of the heroin slipping through the region is stopped. Although there are regular busts, they usually involve low-level upstarts with no connections. In this way, diplomats say, officials protect their own trafficking networks, allowing no footholds for smaller players...

Foreign officials admit to having little incentive to challenge the authorities' hold on drug smuggling. Besides, taking a large amount of cash out of the economy could plunge the country into chaos. The real mission, says a Western diplomat, is keeping the government happy to assist the NATO war effort in Afghanistan. Every American soldier deploying to Afghanistan flies over Tajikistan, he says. “Are we going to jeopardise that? No way.” A European official says the people doing the trafficking are the same counter-narcotics people that Western countries are training. “We give them cars, and they use them to transit drugs—look at their houses,” he says of the mansions cropping up around town. With the economy so addicted to heroin, there is little incentive to build or produce other things. Meanwhile, Porsches continue to cruise around Dushanbe, often stolen in Europe and traded for drugs along the Silk Road.

We arrived in Tajikistan’s capital by mid-afternoon. Here we checked into a real Soviet era hotel the Avesto Hotel. It is a central location on the main drag through the city. We walked easily to most places from here. Dushanbe is probably not a place for a long stay, so you can see what you want and move on! The lift was quaint, but nearly killed my wife - there is not any mechanism to stop the doors trying to continue closing if you get caught in them. The lobby is interesting for its Soviet classic style. The air-con worked in our room, which was in a re-furbished wing. Friends in another room in "old" wing had to change twice to get a room with functioning air-con. The hotel had an old fashioned period charm, not a luxury hotel, but "interesting" enough to merit a visit

With much of the afternoon left, Chris and I walked along Rudaki, the main street, through the park and found a local cafe where we really enjoyed a glass of beer. And admired the Mercedes cruising the streets line with opulent buildings.

Click on any of the thumbnail images to get a larger photo

The approach to Anzob Tunnel was well made and asphalt. Then suddenly for the 5km inside the tunnel just a potholed construction
site. I got the tunnel photos from the web. The boys made it out. The Avesto was an "interesting" soviet era hotel, conveniently ..
..placed for walking round the city centre. Dushanbe is probably not somewhere you would want to spend much time, but none the less
was worth an overnight stop, and a glass of beer to slake the thirst.    

On to Samarkand

Back to Silk Road journey