The Tajik government places a formidable array of obstacles in the path of any westerner seeking to visit the country. These are stressful, time-consuming and expensive to overcome; and when you are in the country they furnish officials with pretexts for further vexations and exactions.
Travellers are often willing to put up with such things for the sake of gaining access to a little-visited place, but Tajikistan is now sufficiently on the tourist circuit to allow dispassionate consideration of whether it is worth the hassle.
Letters of Introduction
When we started the application process, the only way a British national could obtain a visa by post was through the Tajik embassy in Vienna, which required a supporting Letter of Introduction. We applied for one through Stantours, paying double for the fast service, and eventually received one in the time quoted for the slow service.
By the time we received the LOI, the Tajiks had opened an embassy in London which was willing to supply visas by post without it. We found their service courteous and efficient.
The price of the visas was £80 and of GBAO permits £50 per head: which may be viewed, no doubt, in differing lights depending on the use which is made of the revenue.
Vistors to the Pamirs need a GBAO permit, which can be obtained at the same time as the visa. The visa application form says To receive the GBAO permit underline the names of regions that you intend to visit and lists DARVOZ, VANJ, RUSHON, ISHKOSHIM, MURGAB, t. KHOROG.
The trick here is that there are seven, not six, regions in the GBAO, the one left out being Roshtkala (ie. the Shakhdara valley). So when you think you are applying for all regions you are not in fact doing so.
Since the procedure and the price are the same however many regions (rayons) you apply for, I cant see the point in being required to name them.
While we were on the road we met a Swiss cyclist Pieter who, like us, thought he had applied for all regions without actually having done so, and who following a change of plans had attempted to enter the Roshtkala region from Khorog. At the checkpoint hed been refused entry and told that hed have to pay again for a GBAO permit in order to visit the region. Needless to say he followed the Gunt valley instead.
We ourselves entered the Shakhdara valley from the east where there is no checkpoint. When we came to the checkpoint at the western end, the officials complained vigorously about the absence of a Roshtkala stamp in our passports (which we pretended not to understand), but they were unable to refuse us exit. Perhaps if theyd been in a less good mood wed have had to pay a $300 fine.
A consequence of the permit system is that you are frequently stopped to have your passport checked. This happens at rayon boundaries and at Khargush, and we were once stopped gratuitously on the road by bored soldiers.
The troops at the Khargush checkpoint are notorious for their attempts to separate tourists from their possessions. Mostly they just ask you to hand over your camera, CDs, batteries... You decline, but youd rather not be debating property rights with armed soldiers. Its best, when approaching Khargush, to ensure that your documents share a pannier with dirty clothes.
Belongings left outside tents there have been known to volatilise overnight.
Bill Weir reports that an attempt was made to extort a bribe from him at the Gunt valley checkpoint east of Khorog.
This is a time-consuming process we had to go through ourselves, but which has now been rescinded.