Outside Terminal 2 at Dubai International Airport, ready to begin the journey to Tajikistan. I hadn't been to this side of the airport since my trip to Moldova in November last year.
Tajikistan was my last Central Asian country to visit. I had been holding off visiting the country as I wanted to do a ~8-9 day trip on the famous Pamir Highway which runs through the east of the country and along the border of Afghanistan. With the upcoming birth of our daughter however and probably a while since I could spare that much leave, I decided to go for a quick long weekend trip organised by a local tour group for $860 including flights to Dushanbe.
At the ground-side Costa Coffee for a pre-trip group meeting with Piotr, the tour organiser (left).
There was nine of us on the trip, all expats from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi with a range of nationalities including Polish, Indian, Czech, American and Saudi.
Our flight to Tajikistan was a simple direct flight on Somon Air (SZ), a private Tajikistan airline.
We then queued up to check-in to our flight to Dushanbe. Piotr had warned us that fellow passengers would ask us to help check some of their excess luggage. Sure enough we were approached several times but we politely declined.
Boarding the 737-900ER for our midnight departure.
The safety demonstration during push-back.
Sandwich, cake and orange juice served soon after take-off. I then put on my eye shades and put in some ear plugs for a few restless winks.
Disembarking in the early morning hours after arrival at Dushanbe International Airport.
My Tajikistan e-visa which I had gotten in advance online for $50.
And after a short queue at immigration I was quickly stamped into my 132nd country visited.
After collecting our luggage we were met by our local guide, Said, and then escorted to a pair of waiting vans outside at dawn.
We then made the short drive across town to the Asia Grand Hotel.
My roommate for the trip was Wael, an easy going guy from Saudi Arabia but living in Dubai. I then crashed into bed for a couple of hours to rest up before for a day of hiking.
An omelette and some much needed coffee for breakfast at the hotel restaurant.
After meeting up with everyone in the hotel lobby, we hit the road for the drive west to Shirkent National Park.
And heading north towards the mountains.
With our guide, Mona with Mohamed loading up his donkey with water bottles to lighten the load for us on the hike into the hills.
Today's hike would be approximately 10 kilometres round trip to see the fossilised footprints at the Shirkent dinosaur trails.
We then headed up into the hills.
Passing some beehives.
Mohamed offering us some fresh and juicy plums.
One of Mohamed's sons going ahead with the donkey and water bottles.
Apart from the ~30°C Tajik summer heat, the walk was relatively easy going and not too strenuous.
Stopping for a break to rehydrate in the shade.
Climbing up the parched brown mountain fields.
Mohamed's son on the donkey leading the way.
Just after 1pm we arrived at the site of the dinosaur trails, which were situated on a steep cliff face after millions of years of tectonic plate movement.
And scrambling up some scree and loose rocks for a closer look.
Mohamed posing with one of the footprints. They were quite impressive to see up close and I couldn't help but imagine the giant beast that created them many years ago.
Discovered by alpinists during the time of the Soviet Union, the footprints belonged to a new species of a two legged, carnivorous Theropod Macropodasaurus.
Some of the better sets of footprints were near the top of the cliff and quite inaccessible. I launched my drone and flew up the cliff face for a better view however.
Looking to the east with the distinctive sedimentary layers of rock visible.
And to the west, snow-covered mountains on the Uzbek-Tajik border and only ~10 kilometers away.
After the enlightening paleontology field trip we started the trek back.
Going downhill was alot easier and it didn't take so long to make our way down the valley.
And were rewarded with a healthy spread of fresh fruit, bread, honey and yogurt waiting for us.
And roast chicken and vegetable stew for lunch.
Mohamed's two daughters with matching dresses.
And marvelling at my drone buzzing them from above!
After thanking Mohamed for the excursion to see the dinosaur trails and the delicious lunch, we started the hike back to the main road.
A caravan of donkey's carrying firewood down from the hills. We then met up with the two vans again for the drive back.
And back in Dushanbe where the city was experiencing a bit of a late afternoon downpour.
In the evening we headed to a local restaurant situated on the banks of the Varzob river.
Beetroot salad to start. It was quite a diverse group, both in terms of nationalities, careers and travels and made for some interesting conversations.
Followed by the vegetable soup.
Plenty of protein with grilled beef, chicken and lamb kebab for the main. I chatted with Said on trips he helps organise to the west of the country and including a camping/hiking excursion over the border into Afghanistan.
And managing to squeeze in a scoop of tasty ice cream for dessert.
Breakfast again at the hotel on the morning of day 2 after a good sleep.
After checking out and meeting up with the others, we headed for a short walk to get some Tajikistani somoni.
Today's plan was to head north and then east to the mountain village of Margib. We would then head west to Lake Iskanderkul to spend the night there.
Fuelling up before leaving city.
We then headed north on the M34 Highway.
Stopping to take in the awesome and amazing scenery.
A long queue of traffic at the southern entrance to the Anzob Tunnel.
The tunnel opened in March 2006 after construction by Iran for $4 billion and connects the Tajik capital to the country's second largest city, Khujand.
The 5 kilometer long tunnel saves drivers at least 4 hours when traveling between Dushanbe and Khujand and avoids the need to having to pass through Uzbekistan.
The queue of traffic wasn't moving at all so I grabbed the opportunity to explore some more of the amazing scenery of Anzob pass.
A panorama looking down the valley with the tunnel entrance to the left.
Snowmelt flowing below. We were at an elevation of 2,720 meters and it was quite a bit cooler than Dushanbe (706 meters).
It was great to take in the scale and beauty of the beautiful mountain landscape.
The majestic snowcapped mountains with the queue of traffic slowly growing below.
And a group photo from above!
Luckily we didn't have to wait too long until the traffic finally started moving again. We soon found out that some speeding trucks had managed to crash just inside the entrance of the tunnel and hence were partially blocking the way.
Finally making our way through the very smoggy tunnel.
Once dubbed the 'Tunnel Of Death' due to people dying from carbon monoxide poisoning while stuck in traffic jams that occurred inside the tunnel due to flooding and super-sized potholes.
Luckily the tunnel was repaved and repaired in 2015 and we just had the thrill/terror of speeding through the dark tunnel at high speed and didn't have to hold our breath too long!
About to start a winding descent.
We then traded the M34 highway for a single lane gravel road heading east. Looking across to an old abandoned Soviet-era mining complex.
Following along the Yaghnob River.
The 4,767 meter tall mountains in the distance at the end of Yaghnob Valley.
And the mountain village of Margib just beneath. The sheer craggy vertical mountain face is also popular for rock climbing.
A girl peeking out from her front door in the village just after we arrived.
We were then greeted at a village guesthouse and served a generous lunch.
Green tea, soup and bread.
And mutton with fried potatoes.
We then went for walk through the village with our guide, Mona.
The village is situated in the Yaghnob Valley, which is home to the Yaghnobi people, an ethnic minority in Tajikistan.
Yaghnobi are considered to be descendants of the Sogdian-speaking people from Sogdia, an ancient Persian civilization that inhabited territory in present-day Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
They speak the Yaghnobi language, a living Eastern Persian language and is considered to be a direct descendant of Sogdian.
During the winter months, frequent snowfall and avalanches ensure that the village is virtually inaccessible to the outside world.
As well as the village of Margib, the Yaghnob Valley is home to nine other settlements, each housing between three and eight families.
And the breathtaking view of the valley to the west.
After the pleasant and relaxing visit to Margib, we headed back on the road down the valley.
After reaching the M34 Highway again, we then turned off again to head west to Lake Iskanderkul.
Taking in the stunning and dramatic rocky red scenery.
The Iskander Darya river draining directly from Lake Iskanderkul.
The river is 20 kilometres long and merges with the Yaghnob River, forming the Fan Darya river.
Looking down on Lake Iskanderkul. The lake was formed after rock fall a millennia ago formed a natural dam of the Saratogh river.
Arriving at Turbaza Iskanderkul, situated just beside the lake and where we would be staying for our one night stay.
And our tastefully decorated room.
The lake is situated at an elevation of 2,195 metres and the temperature was a cool ~15°C despite it being June.
The tricolor Tajikistan flag fluttering in the breeze.
A friendly local with his daughter who asked for a photo after a bit of a chat in broken English.
Some of the guys taking a boat ride around the lake.
The mountain lake is of glacial origin and is named after Alexander the Great.
Posing for a group photo while going for a late-afternoon hike.
Zmeinoe (Snake) Lake, where snakes are common due to the higher water temperature.
For dinner we headed to the lakeside restaurant. Only Russian and Czech beer and unfortunately no local options available.
Soup for the starter.
Followed by some filling but bland boiled vegetables, potatoes and beef.
After dinner we sat relaxed around the campfire by the lake and where I got introduced to Mafia, a social deduction game where we had to sleuth out the two mafioso hitmen.
And enjoying a rare glimpse of the stars which are all but invisible when living in the city.
The morning of day 3 with dark clouds rolling in with sporadic bursts of rain.
Fried eggs, sausage and toast for breakfast by the lake.
We then packed up and loaded into the vans.
After a short drive we put on our rain gear and went a hike down the side of the Iskander Darya river.
Marvelling up close at a 25m waterfall on the river as it descends down the gorge.
And braving the rusty steel viewing platform for a holiday snap!
We then headed south-west. With the steady rain the dirt roads had turned into a muddy slush. Only one of the vans had 4WD however and the other had to slip and skid its way up the mountain roads.
The village of Saritoq below a picturesque mist-shrouded mountain.
Stopping at a local guesthouse for lunch.
Warming ourselves up with a bowl of laghman soup.
Followed by a generous serving of tasty pilaf.
We then began the drive back.
Descending down the gravel road into the valley.
Back on the main road again.
And arriving back in Dushanbe just after 4pm.
We had a bit of time before heading to the airport so while some of the others did some souvenir shopping I bought an ice cream for 3 somoni ($0.30).
We arrived at the airport just after 5pm for our 7:30pm flight back to Dubai. One of the luggage porters said that the flight had been delayed though!
Said went inside to inquire about the flight status for us. Apparently our plane was having technical issues with the new departure time still to be determined.
Out of curiosity I had a quick look at alternative options for getting back to Dubai and there was nothing available until tomorrow.
While being late back to work in Dubai wasn't ideal, an extra day in Tajikistan wasn't the end of the world.
With the uncertainty over our return to Dubai, Said took us back into the city for drinks at a local pub while we waited for further information on our delayed flight.
At 7pm they confirmed that the flight was cancelled. Somon Air had only six planes in their fleet, of which only two were eligible to fly into UAE airspace. With our plane out of action, their other plane was on its way back from Frankfurt tonight and hence we would fly back to Dubai sometime tomorrow.
With our extra night in Dushanbe now confirmed we made the short walk to a local trendy gastropub called 28 Monkeys.
Inside each of the monkeys were represented as historical figures including a bust of a chimp-Einstein poking out his tongue and a painting of a monkey-Henry VIII of England looking very regal on the wall.
A cool mojito to quench the thirst.
Roast chicken for the main.
And a slice of layered carrot cake with ice cream for dessert.
It was also Anna's birthday and Said had organised a bit of a celebration.
After the unexpected evening out in the city, Said took us to the Meridian Hotel and where Somon Air had organised for us to sleep for our extra night in Tajikistan.
Pancake, eggs and sausage for breakfast at the beginning of day 4.
Said came to the hotel at 9am to give us an update for the flight back to Dubai. The bad news was that the flight was now not until this evening. The good news was that he had organised an excursion out of the city to Lake Nurek for us today.
The manmade lake was a ~77 kilometer drive south-east from Dushanbe.
Passing through Nurek Tunnel.
And arriving at a viewpoint to the lake 90 minutes after leaving Dushanbe. The lake was formed in 1980 after the damming of the Vakhsh River in 1972 and provides a significant portion of Tajikistan's power supply.
At the viewpoint was an open market .
With various foods and snacks for sale.
Noodle soup and sheep stew with everything including the eyeballs!
We decided to be abit less adventurous and just had some fresh watermelon to share however.
And a sesame biscuit I bought from a little kid for 1 somoni before we began the drive back to Dushanbe.
Back at the hotel in Dushanbe where Said was able to confirm that our flight was now rescheduled for 7:30pm.
In the afternoon we headed to a nearby Turkish restaurant for some tasty lamb kebab and Ayran.
On the walk back to the hotel I stopped at a local mall and where they had remote control tanks battling each other for territory.
About to check-in after a short drive back to the airport. Luckily there was no issues this time and the flight was ontime.
Airside with my boarding pass. I also used the last of my somoni to buy some local honey and an amethyst necklace for Rianda.
And about to board the Somon Air 737 after a great four days in Tajikistan!