Chapter 1: The Tunnel of Death

Our van chugged up the mountainside, seeming to struggle for breath as the air grew thinner and we ascended into the realm of alpine birds and not much else. The snow-capped peaks towered all around us.

Francine had wanted to take this trip to see Uzbekistan. The rest of the ‘stans were just gravy for her. Though Uzbekistan had ended up surprising me in a lot of ways, I had signed up specifically to see the mountains in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A week of eating prison rations was suddenly worth it as we climbed higher up into the heavens.

We pulled over for a minute to let the mountains fry our eyeballs.

Photo by Kinga Iwaniuk
Photo by Francine Amat-Shapiro

Our Tajik guide was an erudite fellow who had previously been a lawyer. I was afraid to ask how badly you have to fuck up as a lawyer to end up as a tour guide in Tajikistan.

He had seemed annoyed when, looking at a diorama of Tajikistan, our first question was to ask where the death tunnel was. His eyes practically pleaded “But we have so much more to offer than some miserable tunnel!”

Look dude, you call something the Tunnel of Death and the kind of people who travel to Tajikistan for fun are going to want to see what this death tunnel is all about. That’s how this works.

We piled into our caravan of vans (cara- van? Wait.) and flogged them to climb further up the mountain so we could make our date with this death-filled tunnel.

Tajikistan is an almost absurdly mountainous country, to the point where until relatively recently, to get from the north of Tajikistan to the south, or vice versa, everyone had to cross over into Uzbekistan and go the long way around the mountains. Seeing as how the Tajiks and Uzbeks don’t always get along, this was less than ideal.

In steps Iran.

“We’ll build you a tunnel!” announced Iran, with a huckster-like twirl of the mustache and I imagine a really nice top hat.

“Golly,” said Tajikistan.

“Worry not, young friend! What a marvelous time this will be!” Iran said, taking Tajikistan under its wing as they walked arm in arm up the alleyway.

Nobody ever told Tajikistan not to accept candy from strangers or tunnels from Iran. They don’t have Pinocchio in Tajikistan so they had no idea that the fox is an asshole and if you follow him you’re gonna end up on an island full of donkeys.

Iran built a tunnel through the Pamir mountains, at last connecting the north and south of Tajikistan. Hooray!

The 5 kilometer tunnel had no lights and no ventilation whatsoever. Ho… ray?

By the time the third car went through, the tunnel was filled with a deadly cloud of automobile exhaust that has never cleared since. Ho… oh no.

The roadway soon degraded until it was riddled with feet-deep potholes that filled with water, turning the tunnel into a dark smoky maze where cars continually zagged into oncoming traffic to avoid breaking an axle in one of those massive potholes. Breaking an axle or even suffering a flat tire was more than an inconvenience since it was a coin flip if you’d make it out of the tunnel on foot before succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Also, large rocks fall onto the roadway with regularity, so yeah.

We passed through several not particularly deadly tunnels on our way up the mountain. Several were, oddly, out in the wide open air, in locations not exactly screaming for a tunnel. We mused that this must be a play to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the country with the most tunnels.

But eventually the Anzob Tunnel of Death made its appearance, looming ominously before us for a brief moment before swallowing us up, as we disappeared silently into the mountain.

Inside was everything you’d expect. It was a bit like driving through a forest fire at night, the dark smoke inside the tunnel limiting visibility to the blurry 18-wheeler headlights thundering past us on the left and the vague blur of red taillights in front of us. Our driver weaved rapidly in and out of peril and I suddenly realized I didn’t know the name of the man with whom we’d entrusted all our lives.

From the back row of the van I got a video of Pete taking a video of the back of Erik’s head. I looked around at Francine, Pete, Kinga and Erik’s heads illuminated by the sickly cast of the oncoming headlights.

About halfway through the murky tunnel, it became difficult to breathe. I actually hadn’t fully expected this. It made sense, but I guess I hadn’t believed the air could really be that bad, inside a car speeding along and air filters and all that.

It was. My lungs began to hurt.

The feeling of being there was a strange mix of excitement at being there in person to see something so unusual and crazy, and a growing awareness that we can’t survive in here. Drive on, whatever your name is!

After a long five kilometers, we were birthed out into the sunlight again with a gasp of relief.

Our driver pulled over immediately after exiting the tunnel and the other vans in our cara-vans did the same. One of our vans had apparently limped out of the tunnel with a flat tire. Whew.

I got out and approached the exit of the tunnel, marveling at the highly visible cloud of brown exhaust pouring out of the tunnel.

I hiked over to the side of the tunnel exit to try and get a photo of the exhaust plume from the side, but before I was particularly close I realized I couldn’t breathe at all.

“Just gonna- KAFF- get a photo- KAFF KAFF- photo of- WHEEZE GASP- okay no fuck this.”

Pete and I ran across the road and stood in the snow to get photos of the tunnel from the other side.

Photo by Pete Cram

I marveled that Pete had pulled this off in shorts and flip flops while Pete loudly regretted doing this in shorts and flip flops.

Some kind of security guard blew a whistle at us repeatedly for having crossed the road and for being knuckleheads. He never got up or approached us in any way, but he made his displeasure known through his ongoing whistling.

I looked up at the flow of smoke out of the tunnel and then down into the tunnel itself, which disappeared into murk within a few feet.

This thing was built in 2006. How is it only 12 years old? It looks like something from the 1950s that’s lived hard and aged particularly poorly.

The pavement is from 2015. This boggles the mind.

Parallel to the main tunnel was a second tunnel that was completely closed for no apparent reason. I laughed thinking of how bad that fucking thing must be if they’d actually closed it. There’s probably yetis in there.

Further down the road we passed through the “Chinese Tunnel,” another tunnel through the mountains on the same road, this one having been built by, surprise, the Chinese. It was a completely normal and modern tunnel, well lit and full of air rather than death gas.

Today’s lesson: If you have a choice between having Iran or China build you a tunnel, choose Iran because the result will be hilarious and increase tourism.




Chapter 2: Sleeping Buddha Will See You Now

We carried on to Dushanbe. Being here at all made me giggle, since my imagination of this entire region had been formed by watching the 1985 John Landis film Spies Like Us approximately 4,000 times growing up. In the film, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd blunder all through the ‘stans, and a major plot point involves them meeting their contacts on the road to Dushanbe. And here we were! It was bizarre to think back to childhood and wonder if my nine year old self had any inkling that I’d get to visit these kinds of places one day. I don’t think I even considered it possible back then.

One funny side note, as we toured through the ‘stans it quickly became clear that the movie had not been filmed in any of these places at all. Which made sense, since this was all the Soviet Union back in 1985. I checked online and it was all filmed in Morocco and Norway. Way to lie to a 9-year-old, Hollywood.

We visited the National Museum of Antiquities, which was full of quasi-interesting artifacts, but I’m not here to talk about any of that at all. Upstairs there was a huge-ass Buddha.

Walking up to it, I was struck by the enormous feeling of presence emanating from the statue. As I stood close to the sleeping Buddha’s head, the head itself swelled and changed shape before my eyes. Wow, okay, I’m seeing something in the fifth dimension here. I watched the lines of the face curve and morph and felt the beingness within the statue.

After standing and taking this in for several minutes, I mentally greeted the presence and asked if there was anything I could gain from being there, any insights or activations available to me there in that moment.

There was a brief pause, then I heard the sound of a bell clearly over my head. Wow, what was- A bright light opened up over my head. Wow, okay, this is some kind of attainment opening up. I closed my eyes.

Before my closed eyes I saw a white glowing figure sitting in a lotus position. Who- is that me? It was me, but at the same time not me. It was more like a perfected version, my higher self. I saw balls of white light hovering around the figure, the light streaming off of them forming circular sacred geometric shapes that interconnected in the air around me. The light was more pure than any light I had ever seen before, as if it transcended what we can even take in through our physical eyes. I realized that to tune into this image was to hold a vision of my true self from the higher realms, and that by holding this image consistently in my mind I could increasingly, more and more, bring it forward into this reality.

Well okay then! Thanks sleepy Buddha.




Chapter 3: The Worst Fortress Ever

Driving through the mountain towns of Tajikistan, I was surprised at how nice the houses were. And the road was practically paved in gold compared to the loose rubble they called roads in neighboring Uzbekistan. But how is this? Tajikistan is supposed to be the second-poorest of the ‘stans.

“Uzbekistan has rich government, Tajikistan has rich people,” our guide explained. The implication was that the wealth in the neighboring countries was concentrated in their corrupt governments, whereas Tajikistan didn’t have much, but what they had was distributed much more equally.

This gave me a warm feeling about Tajikistan until we drove past a massive array of billboards glorifying their president, Emomali Rahmon.

“Here we have, as I call him, the handsomest man in Tajikistan. Recently he suspended elections and declared himself president for life. His son is the mayor.”

Holy shit, this place is Turkmenistan with mountains. I had no idea.

We stopped in Hisor to visit the famous Hisor Fortress.

“This amazing fortress has been conquered 21 times.”

None of us had the heart to point out that this might be a sign that it wasn’t a very good fortress.

Photo by Pete Cram

The area around the fortress was absolutely packed by couples getting married and a shit ton of people celebrating the fact that couples were getting married. Revelers blew comically long horns as drums thundered. This is possibly the most festive thing I’ve ever seen.

We walked through the middle of the melee and drank it all in. This is like a Dr Seuss cartoon, everyone banging their tong-tinglers, blowing their foo-flounders, and crashing their jang-jinglers. You’re right Dr Dre, Hisar does know how to party.




Chapter 4: Khujand

We pulled up to the main square of Khujand, an ancient and major silk road city in northeastern Tajikistan

I immediately saw one of these weird orange boxes I needed to figure out.

We kept seeing these everywhere. What are they? ATMs? No one seems to be getting money out of them.

I walked up to it and hit random buttons until it started showing me things in English. A helpful local walked up and spent five minutes trying to switch it to English, which I had already switched it to. Thanks dude.

It turned out it’s an “Express Pay” terminal where you can pay your bills online, only using cash you feed into the terminal. Your cell phone bill, internet bill, power bill, etc. Huh, I guess this is how you deal with the information age in a place where not everyone has a computer?

As our guide explained life in Khujand to us, a prayer service let out of the mosque behind us. Hundreds of people streamed past us out the front door, and absolutely every one of them looked at us like we had kicked their grandmother in the kidneys.

After he finished his spiel, I pulled our guide aside and asked him why we were on the receiving end of these stares of death.

“Oh, they are fundamentalists, and they don’t like the way you’re all dressed. Actually I was glad the British couple wearing shorts isn’t here with us.”

Ha! Oh man I’ve got to tell Pete and Kinga that. Wow. This place is really, really isolated.

Randos swirled through the square.

Francine and I wandered into the bazaar.

A short Tajik man in his early 30s walked up to me and started talking at me in a language I didn’t understand at all.

“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah?”

“Sorry dude, I don’t speak Tajik. Or Russian.”

“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah?” he insisted.

“Yeah, I still don’t. Can’t help you. Sorry. English? Charades?”

“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah?”

Okay yeah we’re just walking away now.

Ten minutes later, inside the main produce building of the bazaar, Francine and I were negotiating the purchase of some mega-spicy little chilies that I hoped would help me survive my involuntary plain white rice with tomato & cucumber salad at every meal Tajikistan diet. It’s like the Mediterranean diet except you die at the end.

Suddenly that same dude caught up with us again out of nowhere.

“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah?”

Okay this is getting annoying. The most common question I was getting in the bazaar was “Where are you from?” so I said “Look, if you’re asking where I’m from, it’s the USA. American.”

“Blah blah blah blah American?”

“Yep. American.”

The short dude walked over to three of his friends who were standing nearby.

“American.”

“American?” one of his friends questioned.

“American.”

“Ahh. American?” another asked for clarification.

“American.”

“American,” the third guy repeated.

There was a long, thoughtful pause.

“Homo,” said the short guy.

“Ahhhhh,” all four said, and walked away.

I laughed out loud at having been profiled and in trying to imagine what bizarre cartoon concept of homosexuality they must be carrying around in their heads. I wasn’t sure if it was my long hair or the purple bag I was carrying that sealed the deal, but clearly these two anomalous details needed explaining and the dudes had found an answer that would allow them to sleep at night. I laughed even harder at the fact that I had Francine by my side this entire time, clearly having an apparent partner/failed beard wasn’t enough to counter the damning evidence of my long gay hair.

Deeper into the bazaar, these two loud women absolutely refused to let us not take a photo with them while wearing silly hats.




Chapter 5: 100% Cok

We visited some kind of presidential palace that wasn’t for the president. I wasn’t really paying attention beyond trying to figure out if this Fisher Price thing really was his phone.

Downstairs there was some huge child dance thing happening, I managed to blunder into a mass of costumed five year olds and then a swarm of teenagers who greeted me charmingly with a hand over their hearts.

We visited this statue of Lenin pulling his dress down over a subway grate like his childhood idol, Marilyn Monroe.

Another museum featured beautiful stone mosaic artwork of Alexander the Great trying to kill everyone in Tajikistan. This whole region seems to have a strange reverence for their conquerors. Outside, monstrous peacocks ran amok…

Only to be halted in their rampage by the sadness of this small porcelain dog.

Nearby, the babies of Tajikistan suckled at the teats of a gigantic wolf.

You guys want to buy some watermelon? Or… a blimp?

Okay I may or may not have dropped acid and somehow got photos of the whole experience.

One of the things that made me laugh the hardest in Tajikistan was this roadside bathroom stop.

Markings indicated men over here, women over there, but there were no actual facilities. I made sure I peed in the open gravel field designated specifically for men.

We managed to entertain ourselves thoroughly in Tajikistan via the fact that juice is spelled “cok” there.

“You’re hitting the cok kinda hard there, Pete.”

“You want my cok?”

“No thanks, I’m all cok-ed up.”

Thank you for reading my spiritual blog.


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