I always knew that visiting a totalitarian state carried a small degree of risk, but after an amazing few days I thought luck was on my side...
Monday was Navrus, the Persian new year. It became, bizarrely, the fourth new year I've celebrated in three months (following the Western, Chinese and Tibetan new year's). Myself and three friends spent much of the day wandering Dushanbe's vast Hippodrome amongst a mob of infinitely generous locals who otherwise swarmed around great vats of plov (local rice dish), erupted in spontaneous dance and jostled beside fiery wrestling matches. It was an awesome festival!
I'd been in Dushanbe for a few days, needing to arrange an outstanding visa, while holding off from the mountains because of heavy snow and widespread avalanches. Tuesday brought good weather though, and a chance to head back into the wilds. My destination was a mountain village named Shirkent, about which I'd read a vague but intriguing whisper. A 1963 research paper documented the discovery of some dinosaur footprints in a nearby valley. There was barely any more information online, but I was determined to somehow set my eyes on this curious prehistoric relic.
While in Dushanbe, I'd met a local translator named Zarrina, who by chance had some relatives in Shirkent. She was keen to join me, and I was eager for a guide, so we journeyed to Shirkent together. I arrived to the most celebratory greeting by Zarrina's relatives, who told me they had never seen a foreigner in their village. They took me on a tour of Shirkent, which turned into a festival of food and hospitality, as we were invited into countless houses for tea, bread, soup, plov, cakes, homemade jam and juice, fruits, nuts and more. As we met more of Zarrina's relatives, I gained two less than complementary nicknames: Freckle and Mr Bean.
Next day, we awoke at 6am to heavier skies than expected, joined by three local guys keen for an adventure. It's worth noting that nobody we had spoken to so far had seen - or knew the location of - the footprints. Some even doubted their existence. Nonetheless, we headed north into the mountains, and villagers along the way gradually nudged us in a particular direction. Our best clue came from a tough looking man from the last house in the village. He drew a simple map in the ground and sent us on our way.
The further we walked, the more it felt like a lost world. There were millennia old seabeds frozen in time on the mountainside, and fossilised shells in almost every rock. Finally, after some 6 hours walking, we reached the base of steep cliff which marked the end of the valley we had pursued. For a while, we thought the footprints had eluded us, until we looked a little closer and spotted the first print in the cliff face. Eventually, we saw around fifty more, each the size of a human torso and quite clearly defined. After the journey we'd had, it was one of the most astounding things I've ever seen. As the others rested after lunch, I completed a two hour climb of the nearest mountain (unnamed, as this area hasn't been mapped) to bag my Tajik peak. At only 2010m, it isn't the highest of my journey, but was one of the most satisfying - and was safely below the unstable snow line.
This brings me to Thursday, and the day I was detained as I crossed the Uzbek border. It seems co-codamol, a readily available painkiller in the UK, is classed as a narcotic in this country. This revelation made me conceive the following: narcotics x totalitarian country = goodbye life, hello prison. Fortunately though, after hours of questioning, rucksack and body searches, laptop, hard drive and camera file checks, and a blood and urine test, I will be 'let off' with a fairly large fine, and allowed to continue with my journey. I can only pay the fine on Monday due to the prolonged legal process, so for now I'm being held in very relaxed and comfortable conditions in the city of Termez, by the Afghan border. Well, I can't say that it was in my plans, but it's all part of the fun I guess. Plus, I've some rare time to reflect, relax and plan for the weeks ahead. Happy Easter all!