Badakhshani Express: Scraping the Pamir Mountains with Tajik Air

As the end of our Tajik visas rapidly approached (overstaying one’s visa in Tajikistan comes highly unrecommended), circumstances forced us to take a puddle-jumping lunch box with wings from Khorog, the main town in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, to the country’s capital Dushanbe.

Tajik Airplane - Khorog, Tajikistan
Tajik Air from Khorog to Dushanbe, Tajikistan

The following is a two minute video from the flight. The first 30 seconds are from the taxi and takeoff of the previous day’s flight. The next 90 seconds are mid-air. Keep in mind that the camera was not on zoom.

Video: Flight from Khorog to Dushanbe, Tajikistan

After boarding the flight through a drop-down staircase near the cargo hold at the rear of the plane and sitting down, Audrey noticed that her seat belt was broken. Do we tell someone about this? We decided to ignore it. We had waited three days for this flight and nothing was stopping us from getting to Dushanbe. Nothing. We reasoned that if we encountered turbulence that made seat belts really necessary, our needs would far exceed a functioning lap buckle.In a matter of a few short minutes, the plane powered up, the propellers started spinning, and we turned around for a slow taxi. Instead of taking advantage of the whole runway, however, the pilot cut it short by about half. “Why not use it all?” we silently pleaded. Before we could get up and knock on the cockpit door, which would swing open from time to time during the flight, we puttered down the runway. Rather than gently gliding into take-off, the plane suddenly seemed to pop off the ground.

Plane With a View - Khorog, Tajikistan
Close-Up View of the Mountains from the Airplane Window, Tajikistan

The flight, courtesy of the sadistic folks at Tajik Air, offers some of the most frightening and spectacular 45 minutes of air travel we’ve ever experienced. It cuts through Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains near the border with Afghanistan and features snaking river valleys and endless ranges of jagged and snow-covered peaks. Not only are mountains on either side of the aircraft, they are also below it – so close that you can feel the magnetic pull on the plane.

After landing and catching our breath, we buttonholed the co-pilot in Russian. How high were we? More importantly, how close were those rocks??

Though we inquired in Russian, he responded in remarkable English. The aircraft is only taken to a maximum altitude of 4,200 meters, probably because the cabin remains unpressurized. The elevation of some of the surrounding mountains is well in excess of 5,000 meters. And although we’d be willing to bet a generous few hundred feet separated us from some of those crags, he insisted that we only came within 300 meters (1000 feet) of them.

The flight goes only in perfect weather. Good thing. Even with crystal clear skies, air currents cause noticeable ripples in our path.

Tajik Air Plane Passengers - Khorog, Tajikistan
Tajik Air Pilots

We now understand why this route was the only one for which Aeroflot used to give its pilots danger pay during Soviet times. We’ve also read that the only crash in the flight’s history came courtesy of a surface to air missile from Afghanistan.

That said, our little Russian Antonov AN-28 aircraft and its crew did an admirable (heroic?) job and allowed us to stay on the better side of flight statistics.

Practical Details: Flying from Khorog to Dushanbe

Getting a ticket on the Khorog to Dushanbe flight can be the air travel administration equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest. Dozens of underemployed airline, airport, and government personnel will do their very best to provide heaps of ambiguous and contradictory information. There is no information in the town of Khorog itself.

Booking the ticket:

To book a ticket, you must go to Khorog airport at least one day before you hope to fly. Though nothing will guarantee you a ticket, increase your chances by arriving before 10AM and giving your passport to the man with the enormous wiry hairdo that hides in the back of the building behind a small opening outfitted with wrought iron bars and a pressed wood makeshift window cover. He will likely slam it shut without notice when he believes his day is finished.

On your day of departure, arrive early in the morning (i.e., 8:00AM for a 10:30 AM flight that, in our three days of experience hanging out at the airport for a ticket, manages to take off sometime around 11:30AM). After you attempt to make your presence known for 90 minutes, the man with the wiry hairdo will call out “inostrance” (foreigners, in Russian). That’s your cue to go up to the opening, pay your money ($80/ticket) and collect your prized air tickets.

Allowed weight:

You are only allowed 10 kilos per person total (carry on + check-in). Each additional kilo is 2.2 somoni ($0.75). To pay this, you must wade through another transaction with wiry hair guy. This is how we learned we are carrying 50 kilos (110 lbs) between the two of us. Heavy stuff.

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Comments

  1. Emma Sabzalieva says

    Lovely description! We were there recently (my husband’s from Khorog) and I managed to fly between Dushanbe and Khorog four times, so feel that I’ve done my bit to support old Soviet aircraft…

    I managed to get told off once for walking all the way out to the aircraft before we were allowed to go on the runway – and realised why when a private helicopter landed shortly after I got back to the building!

    (A note: you can often get away with some excess baggage by simply not checking it in. Best way to do this is to go to the airport with other people who aren’t travelling, and have them hold your bag until you go through the ‘departures lounge’.

  2. says

    Emma, glad that you enjoyed the description. You’ve taken the flight 4 times? That should earn you some frequent flier points…or perhaps a medal of honor.

    I’m laughing at your experience with the helicopter landing. It’s surprising that with all the calamity, there aren’t more accidents at that airport. Or, perhaps they are underreported?

    Thanks for the tip about excess baggage. I’m sure future intrepid travelers will find it useful. However, with the aircraft as fragile as it is, I’d feel a safety obligation to inform them regarding how much weight I’m adding to the load.

  3. Kendell says

    I might never be able to fly again! Terrifying. But the video was also fun to watch… my stomach dropped, so I think it thought I was on the flight with you for a few seconds!

    Oh, and another thing … I have your latest headlines updated on my igoogle homepage so I can always see when you’ve posted a new article. Cool feature!

  4. says

    I’m normally pretty cool-headed about flights, but even this one got me nervous. Each time I thought we were in the clear, I’d look down and see another mountain rising up below us. The magnetic pull of the mountains was most scary. The video was accurate – no special effects!
    I’ll have to check out igoogle – we seem to be using every other google application under the sun, but haven’t tried that one yet. There should be more regular updates in the next few weeks!

  5. Jennie Tippit says

    Thanks for sharing pics and video of this experience! It reminds me of a helicopter ride Alan and I took in Kauai by the Na Pali coast. However, I cannot imagine being so close to the mountains in a PLANE! Glad you survived it.

  6. Imelda says

    Wow Audrey and Dan, what an experience! It seems that you will never run out of events. Great! I really enjoy your pictures in the Pamir area. They give a different dimension to me. It seems that Tajikistan is worth a visit. Thanks! Hope to hear more from China Land!

  7. says

    No shortage of experiences – amazing, terrifying and other – on this trip! Tajikistan, and especially the Pamirs, is definitely worth a visit the extra effort to get there. The people are incredibly warm and the region is amazingly beautiful. Unfortunately, our visit was short so we didn’t make it to the Fan Mountains, Penjikent and Khojand. So, we have more to visit next time : )

  8. e carter says

    Quite interesting, but I was left speechless by A comment made by EMMA telling all how to sneak on extra baggage by having your friends pass it to you after passing a check in . Am I to get this right, EMMA wants to prevent some hassle and a few extra dollars by sliping on extra weight in a plane that skims the top of solid rock peaks. People please dont do this! Or that mountain peat just ahead may be your,
    ( and the other folks unlucky enough traveling with you) tomb stone!

  9. Anajon says

    took the flight yesterday for the second time – last time a bit over a year ago… there were definitely 2 extra adults and rather big children on the flight squeezing in two to a seat – glad we made it over all the rocks and passed the summits near enough to touch sometimes …. since I work in Tajikistan – I’ll most likely do it again – still beats the minimum 15 hour road trip even so that i most spectacular as well – this time I drove up and flew bag.

    Anajon

  10. says

    @ e carter: I think I’m with you on the concern about extra weight.

    @ Anajon: Two to a seat in the flying lunchbox? That’s almost as frightening as the rumor we heard while in Tajikistan: that in Russia, it’s possible to actually *buy* a pilot’s license outright, without the requisite training. Flay (or drive) safely.

  11. Amy Cha says

    Did you know that ” moo ha vat” means love in Tajkik? A couple days ago, I discovered your website through facebook. As I was reading and looking pictures on the website, my heart started to beat! I just envy you guys so much for the courage and the adventure spirit. I lived in Tajikistan for two years and worked for NGO. so I knew what it is like over there. I totally validate your experiecne of tajik people and the culture. Tajikistan is one of the most unknown country to the world. Ten years ago, when I, ” I am going to Tajikistan, 10 out of 10 people say, What? “Tajik has a special place in my heart and it is so good to see valid information about ” Tajik” in the cyperworld.

  12. says

    @Amy: Thanks so much for your comment and kind words. It’s interesting: just last night during a talk, the subject of Tajikistan came up again amidst a group of very well traveled people, none of whom had been there. It really is a fascinating country and one that sees very little tourist traffic. I’m really glad that our information and stories stir your emotions and strike you as real. That’s important to us. In the end, we hope our photos and stories can do justice to the people and the places we visit.

  13. Murtaza Sattar says

    Thank you for a great video. I have flown through the mountains on the opposite side, the Pakistani side of the Himalayas on a PIA 737.
    I do really want to fly this route you flew on. Only $80 one way (probably a bit more now in 2010.
    Once again, thank you for the video.
    Murt

  14. says

    @Murt: Glad you liked it. Thanks for the comment. That was one terrific, memorable flight. I heartily recommend it to anyone. I suspect the cost from Khorog to Dushanbe is a bit more than $80 these days, but the challenge in getting the ticket is probably the same. If you take the flight, let us know how much it cost and how it went!

  15. Madina says

    Enjoyed the description… The seatbelt situation is classic, never fails. I am from Khorog but havn’t been there in 15 years. Planning to go next summer, I want to go and have similar experience , as a tourist, entering through back doors, and experince everything and every place. I can’t belive the same guy is still at the ticket booth( by description sounds like the same that I knew) lol… I used to grab whomever was beside me on the plane, I was very much in shock everytime. Now I know how beautiful were those moments. Can’t wait to go… Thank yo so much for this… Many good memories were brought to live..best of luck!!!

  16. says

    @Madina: Thank you for your comment. We really liked Khorog. Interesting place and story. The people were very friendly (although this was true throughout our time in Tajikistan) and so many of them spoke English.

    It’s both funny and incredible that the same guy is at the ticket booth at the Khorog airport. I guess some things never change…even in 15 years!

    That flight was truly beautiful and shocking. Good luck with your trip next summer. We’d love to hear your impressions returning after all these years.

  17. Val says

    We Pashtun Tajiks are the Master Race. Not like the smelly Hindus. But even Hindus have bigger penises than whites.

    • says

      This is a fascinating observation which has little or nothing to do with this article. But despite its racism and irrelevance, it made me chuckle. So I decided to approve it for others to puzzle and enjoy.

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