The policeman stated a condition of our freedom was that no one hears about what happened that fateful afternoon so ssshhhh, don’t tell anyone about this!
Green House Hostel was great but in order to keep to Jeremy’s schedule, the Pamir highway had to be started days ago. His flight on the 1st of September wasn’t going to wait for him. After heading out of the city the wrong way, we made a u-turn to get back on the planned route. This route takes us south towards Afghanistan then turns east before the border and follows alongside the river onto the Pamir highway. Since Maps.Me has failed us many time before, we opted to not go east from Qurgonteppa as the paper map didn’t even have the road on it. In hindsight, trusting a map which had dust on it in the shop arguably isn’t the best idea when travelling through developing areas which change so quickly. As we pushed south, nothing twigged for anyone that we could be wrong despite a lot of checkpoints, military and general lack of scenery (we were promised beautiful scenery). Everything went to plan accordingly, we were waved through police checkpoint after police checkpoint until we reached one where they wouldn’t allow us any further. It confused us as we were under the impression that all of our documents were in order. They kept talking about a permit which we believed to be the GBAO permit so kept explaining that we had it. There was a lot of back and forth trying to communicate that we wanted to continue to get to the Pamir highway and them not understanding until suddenly one of them gets into the Ladateers’ car forcing Jonas to sit in the back and then we are told to continue. Assuming that this was just a lift for the policeman at the end of his shift or something, we went along. Little did we know what awaited us.
On the walkie talkies, we were joking about how this policeman was probably joining us for the rest of the trip until he started giving directions… to the police station. When we arrived, there was a lot of attention with the cars so only the drivers went inside whilst passengers stood guard. The officer from the checkpoint swiftly disappeared as we were handed over to his superior officer. Trying to explain the situation over and over again did nothing to ease the situation so most of us just walked out back to the cars. We knew we couldn’t leave but at the same time, none of us wanted to stay. The light would disappear before camp could be set up if we didn’t hit the road soon. After they came outside to coerce us back in, we ended up handing our passports over to register as we had done at many other checkpoints before. The officer insisted this would take 5 minutes but this was never going to be the case. We weren’t registering, he simply had managed to obtain our passports. Everyone grew frustrated on both sides and now they had our passports so we were trapped here. There was little English spoken until two men dressed in suits as opposed to police uniforms arrived. They began to explain that we could not travel further on our journey but we contested that we should be allowed to continue using our maps as proof. They repeatedly said that we were going to Afghanistan. We repeatedly said that no, we were going to the Pamir mountains. It seemed like we just weren’t getting through. Everybody got more and more agitated with each other as time passed on. There were a few people trying to translate and help the situation but no-one could explain properly until someone with exquisite English turned up. He was the neighbour of the secretary of the police station who just so happened to be an English teacher. This became key to what happened next.
The English teacher explained that by entering the area beyond the checkpoint, we had broken the law and therefore a fine must be paid. This fine would be decided upon by a judge however due to the time, we could not attend court that day therefore we must stay a night in town and attend in the morning. The English teacher was friendly and offered us his house for the night, the police said we could stay at the station (presumably in a cell) and they also suggested a hotel but in order to check in we would need our passports. There was still refusal to hand these back. Torjus from the Ladateers asked who was paying for the hotel and suddenly the hotel was no longer an option. We kept saying that now we understood the situation, we could leave and not return but the officer repeatedly tapped his suspiciously small book of laws and said we need to pay. If the men at the checkpoint had done their jobs and turned us away then there would’ve have been no problem so no-one was willing to have to spend a day in court for something that was caused by the police themselves. By now, there was a disagreement between police officers about what to do with us. Some of them just said that we should be allowed to leave and head back north but others were less willing to allow this. Some were adamant that we would stay there. So much time had passed that we decided to play our trump card: calling our embassies.
Soon multiple embassies were on the phone. The British embassy in Tajikistan had closed and we were redirected through to an agent in London. Whilst, I wish I could sing praises of how they saved us and Lizzie flew out to the rescue, that wouldn’t be true. The man in London directly us to a list of English speaking lawyers in Tajikistan and said we should go to court tomorrow. That call was £10 well spent. Genghis Carn tried their luck with the Australian embassy in Moscow. With embassies involved, the police officers started to look uneasy. They hated the idea that we were getting outside assistance and were determined not to talk to the Australian embassy when requested to. This was the key and their grasp over us started to unravel. The Australian embassy spoke Russian and was therefore able to communicate with the policeman who had started sweating. Whilst the Australian embassy said there was little they could do, their chat with him seemed to change his mind about holding us hostage.
After the phone calls took place, the mood lightened. A waiting game had begun. During this time, everyone was friendly learning the languages of each other, getting to know each other’s cultures and sharing cigarettes (this goes a long way). In this atmosphere, our understanding of what had happened was cleared up. As it happened, on the way, we had entered what is regarded as Taliban controlled Afghanistan twice despite what the map says. The area is incredibly volatile where gunshots are heard at night and the Taliban had kidnapped 4 police officers recently. They wanted us to spend a night here! Foreigners had not been seen in the area for a long time and the last were not tourists which explained why we had quickly become the talk of the town and why the FBI of Tajikistan had showed up. Oh yeah, the English teacher had told us that the guys who showed up in suits were the effective FBI. That’s when we knew that it was quite serious.
We considered how this looks from a suspicious, outside eye. There were six individuals with 5 different nationalities, two of us are bearded men and one blonde girl. It could be construed that we met online and agreed to go ‘fight the good fight’ dragging along a naive girl from England as a trophy. The Tajik FBI said that it was not considered okay for Caroline and I to be together in Tajikistan (although the photocopier still high fived me). On top of this, beards are illegal in Tajikistan due to the association with extremists. It all added up for a very dodgy image.
Hours passed until the final phase of negotiations took place.
The police chief decided Mitch to be our leader and whisked him away into the station. No-one except for the police officer with our passports, our translator and Mitch knew what was happening. Everybody else was outside eating watermelon with a relaxed atmosphere. Inside was tense. Mitch was across from the police officer with the English teacher translating in the middle discussing what was going to happen. He said that the fine in the morning would be around $1000 each however a fine could be paid now instead which would allow us to leave and backtrack away from the area. This so-called ‘fine’ was far less so of course we agreed. The officer was taking down all of our details now which is when Mitch opted to strategically recover the passports. In order to help the officer spell our names correctly, Mitch took each passport and spelt them out with the photo page but never returned them to the pile. Soon Mitch held all the passports. The officer left for a moment so after discussing how much the ‘fine’ would be with our translator, Mitch marched with passports in hand back to the car to get the money from the car. Nothing could’ve stopped him at this point. We tried to ask him what was happening behind closed doors but he put his hand up to us and kept walking. Whilst the deal went down, the police officer said that no-one could know what had happened and even looked around the room for cameras despite this being his own station. Mitch and the police officer shook hands sliding the money across in a fashion you’d expect with dodgy dealings. It was so smooth that it was evident that this wasn’t the first time he’d done it. Once complete, they reappeared outside and everyone was free to go. This whole saga had costed us over 4 hours of our lives so despite the offer to stay at the officer’s house and to have a share in the feast that we had just paid for, we swiftly departed.
That night we hightailed it back through Afghanistan another two times and onto the right road away from the border. We didn’t stop for anyone despite police officers attempting to pull us over 3 times as we had learnt they don’t give chase. A hotel was desperately needed now as everyone had faded from a long and stressful day. Unfortunately, the mountain lodge on the map (hence our lack of trust for Maps.Me) could not be found so in what can only be considered extremely dangerous due to tiredness, we pressed on to the next town hoping that the map was wrong again and there would be a hotel there. Luckily, there was a building with the words hotel written on the side. It looked nice with live music, fountains and food still being served. Caroline and I handed over $8 in local currency for the room and quickly passed out. The Ladateers were not so lucky. The first thing that hit them as they walked through the door was the smell then they noticed the unmade bed, the used ash tray and dirty toilet. As quickly as we left Afghanistan, they left the room. Genghis Carn’s room was not much better with small black hairs lining the carpet where the Ladateers now lay their air mattresses as well as the burnt cigarette in the bath tub, used condom on top of the bin and the lack of or broken locks on every door. We were used to squalor but this took it to a new level.
Morning came and the revelation that maybe this was not a hotel came to Mitch. As he started to head to bed the night before, a lady had offered to go to bed with him. This on top of the state of the rooms started to paint the picture that perhaps this was not the kind of place that the beds are used to sleep in…
Note to self: don’t visit Panj and avoid sleeping in brothels. It was a bad day.