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.
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.
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.
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.
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.