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Getting caught up in Civil War, but don’t worry, we’re OK!

“The good news is that today Tajikistan is safe, stable and scenically spectacular.”
Lonely Planet, July 2007

Armed helicopter passes over the hostel just before unleashing heavy gunfire into the surrounding mountains.

Press play to listen to a short section of the recording we made of the gunfire throughout and surrounding the town of Khorog.

Khorog, Tajikistan. Sunday 21nd July
Rumours float around the hostel that someone had been stabbed to death on the road into the town.

4.30am. Sunrise. Monday 22nd July
Woke to the sound of nearby gunshotscoming from the town.

Approached by a guy in the street who, pointing up into the surrounding mountains, warned us “Hey man. Hey man. The town is not safe”. On returning to our hostel, which overlooks the centre of town, we’re surprised to learn that some of the other tourists had been given similar warnings. Including an American woman who was overheard talking on her mobile “Shouldn’t we warn the other foreigners?”.

Several NGO vehicles seen leaving town.

Cycling around town, I notice the three ATMS are all out of order. I head back to the Internet café I was recently sat in, to be told I need to be quick as they have to close. On my way back to the hostel, apart from a large gathering of people in the town square, the rest of the town seems deserted.

An American woman heard talking on her mobile phone saying “… shouldn’t we let the other tourists know?”.

At the hostel several people report that they have seen large amounts of military arriving in town.

4.30am. Sunrise. Tuesday 23rd July
We are woken by the jarring and unsettling sound of machine gun fire.

Everyone in the hostel is awake and nervously hypothesizing about the situation.

Mary and I are sat in our room, nervously searching through the Lonely Planet for the British Embassy’s phone number in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. We debate whether or not the situation is serious enough to contact our families. What can they do? Could they inform the embassies? Is it worth creating the panic? We try Mary’s brother along with both numbers given for the British Embassy. The mobile network has been turned off.

In the late morning military helicopters are seen flying over town. At first we wonder if these could be the *press documenting the situation, but then we see a large white helicopter, apparently Russian made, unloading troops onto the mountaintop opposite. It becomes clear that the military are fighting someone. A second helicopter, armed with guns, flies over and is followed by the sound of heavy gunfire pounding the mountains around the city.

The family that run our hostel give us the obvious news that it’s too dangerous to leave. We have to wait. We are told that up to six hundred military troops have been brought into Khorog to kill the five peoplelinked with the recent stabbing. The owner seems to think the hunted five are now being supported by up to two hundred local opposition fighters. This doesn’t seem to be a spontaneous fight. Both sides seem very heavily armed, with enough ammunition to fight for days.

Isolated cracks and pops of individual gunshots echo around the surrounding streets of our hostel. Torrential machine-gun fire in the town below. Heavy anti-tankartilleryexplodes in the mountains. This continues until dusk. At times we hear the surreal whizz of bullets as they pierce through the hostel garden.

Everyone in the hostel is very nervous. Some people try and provide reassurance with their imagined hypothesis of the situation, whilst others dare to mention the possibility of a hostage situation.Some of the girls go up to the family kitchen and make soup for all twenty-five guests. Characters seem exaggerated as peopleestablish their roles within the group. It reminds me of the characters developmentthe TV series Lost.

Impossible to tell which side is creating the dominant sound of gunfire, we are told that the opposition two hundredis maintaining a strong position in the town.

It becomes difficult not to indulge the futile thoughts of why we didn’t leave town yesterday… or why are we even doing this bloody trip?

The hostel owners tell us that they have heard on a neighbour’s television that Russian media has reported that two hundred people have been killed while Tajik TV reports only twenty-five dead.

As the shooting more or less stops over night, we sit around on the veranda outside our hostel rooms, and try to rationalise what is and what might happen. Has the army left town. Will it continue in the morning? Do other countries know what is going on? Will they get involved? Do our embassies know we are hear?

Somehow there is a strange mixture of getting on with the day, making food, washing clothes, talking… with a very uneasy background noise of war.

4.30am. Sunrise. Wednesday 24rd July
Gunfire begins. How long will this go on for?

The gunfire becomes more intermittent and eventually seems to come to a halt. With our heads down, a few of us run out of the gate of the hostel to the homestay our friends are staying at. They don’t know much more than us. They’ve had a similar twenty-four hours. They could even see tracer bullets being fired from the neighbour’s window.

We are told by the homestay owner’s husband that there is a temporary ceasefire as the military and opposition leaders meet in the town. He tells us that he will go into town and return with news at 1pm. When we return to our hostel, there is a guy talking with the owners, with blood on his trousers. Every now and then he pulls out a walkie-talkie from a plastic bag and speaks to someone. After ten minutes of nervous questioning and dodgy translating we are told that it would be a good idea to pack up and leave Khorog before the meeting finishes.

No-one needed to be told twice. Most people pack up immediately and leave the hotel. All ten cycle tourists left the hostel in convoy, safety in numbers. As we ride down the lane towards the main road we see three guys in cammo, definitely not military, holding massive machine guns, bullet shells cover the road. We hurriedly cycle past burnt out cars, smashed glass, blood on the road. It seems all the woman and children are fleeing the town. As we cyle we’re over taken by small buses flying make-shift white flags out of the window. Hopefully we’ll never be in a situation like this again.

Within twenty minutes we’ve left Khorog and are making our way into the Pamir Mountains.

Read more about the situation on the BBC website – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18965366

See photos that one of the guests in our hostel took on her way out of the town – http://www.bbc.co.uk/tajik/institutional/2012/07/120728_zkh_album_badakhshan_operation.shtml

*I realised how unlikley it is that the helicopter will contain press. Read this – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_journalists_killed_in_Tajikistan


25 Responses to “Getting caught up in Civil War, but don’t worry, we’re OK!”

  1. Talk about good timing, arriving as fights began. Glad you could get out of there safely. It must have been quite an experience.

    I hadn’t heard anything about the fighting, but then it’s not like I am paying attention to the news that much these days. I am mostly watching repeats of X-Factor and Doctors.

    What is next for you guys? Heading North-East or South-East. Is it going be Chinese takeaway, or Indian? Mayflower or Indian Cottage?

    Looking forward to seeing you both in one piece in a South East Asia. Warm seas beckon. A different world to where you are right now.

    Stay safe, but continue to have experiences that aren’t, so you can keep us all on the edge of our seats, but mostly stay safe.



    Posted by Anners | August 11, 2012, 10:06 am
  2. thank god you guys are ok. nothing like a bit of danger to spice up your adventure.. if you need me you know where i am.

    stay safe,



    Posted by Mum/Marian | August 11, 2012, 1:39 pm
  3. That last one was from Dad! Just glad you are both safe
    Love you xxx


    Posted by Mum/Marian | August 11, 2012, 2:06 pm
  4. WOW guys, take care and keep safe!

    sounds a bit dicey



    Posted by Calaline | August 11, 2012, 8:16 pm
  5. OMG Thank heavens you have escaped and are hopefully getting away as far and fast as you can! Love you, keep safe, Mum Jen xxx


    Posted by Mum - Jen | August 12, 2012, 10:41 am
  6. God, so glad you guys are OK! We were watching coverage of the Olympics opening ceremony and when the Tajikistan team entered the stadium the commentators said something like “our thoughts go out to the Tajikistan team following the violence back home in the Parmir region”. Mum went white as a sheet. Fingers crossed for less terrifying travels in future xx


    Posted by Ben | August 12, 2012, 10:49 am
  7. Watcher friends and family. That was actually pretty scary… we werern’t able to leave our hostel for neary two days… It was really odd looking through the photos the French lady took (published on the BBC link I put on the bottom of the post) as we were cycling around the town just the night before.


    Posted by pete | August 12, 2012, 11:49 am
  8. Oh my Goodness, I am so glad you are safe. Please be careful, look after each other. Lots of love, Lizzie, Spence, Freddie and Betty xxxxx


    mary Reply:

    Leaks we are fine! We only get into these situations so you guys at home get a good read! You know that! It just shows how dedicated to the blog we both are doesn’t it! Love to everyone in Brizzle, miss you guys heaps xxxx


    Posted by Lizzie | August 12, 2012, 1:03 pm
  9. Hi friends! Hope you are OK right now ! After your leaving there were some minor gunshots in the town, but apart of that next few days were QUITE peacefull. However, the border guards continue to kicking out people from Pamirs.

    I stayed there for 4 more days and finally catch taxi with two other people. Local drivers used the situation to increase the price to Dushanbe double :)

    Keep going and good luck to you!



    Posted by Lukasz | August 13, 2012, 9:57 am
  10. Hello, we wondered where you are. We’ve not had internet for a good couple of days. Currently in Mongolia and slowly heading back West towards the Kazak border. We were planning on heading for Tajikistan, and down the Pamir Highway but may change our route. We are likely to be around there late September. Which way are you heading now?


    pete Reply:

    Hi Andy. Yeh, not sure how long the Pamirs will be closed to tourists. We’re in Osh, South Kyrgyzstan at the moment. Will
    Be heading our way north to Bishkek in a couloir of weeks and then try to get China visas. We’re pretty sure we’ll then go into China via the bottom of Kazakhstan. Keep in touch


    Posted by Andy Smith | August 15, 2012, 1:57 am
  11. I am glad you are safe. Take care and keep enjoying (carefully).



    mary Reply:

    Safe and sound and heading to a walnut forest in the Kyrgyz mountains, now we are just battling the heat here, last nights camp was a dream though with a river to cool off in next to us (just don’t think too hard about the cows and god know what else that have also been ejoying the cool of the water!) xxx


    Posted by Lucy Buckley | August 15, 2012, 8:50 pm
  12. Cripes. Love you lots Xx


    Posted by Bean | August 16, 2012, 12:02 pm
  13. How mad! Glad you guys got away unscathed.
    Really impressed with your travels so far, stay safe – looking forward to some tamer posts from you in future…
    Drum x


    mary Reply:

    Good to hear from you Drum! Don’t know about tame but we’ll see! xx


    Posted by Drum | August 16, 2012, 1:11 pm
  14. Wow guys!
    Just had a read through your blogs. Amazing adventures! Stay safe
    Best wishes from Georgia


    mary Reply:

    Good to hear from you Rene:) hope Tiblisi is still treating you well, whenever we next make a long stop you will have to let us return your fab hospitality ok! Look after yourself x


    Posted by Rene Mark Lelong | August 23, 2012, 8:03 am
  15. You lucky buggers..! cant believe you were caught up in hostilities.. glad youre safe though.. once again youve reached the dizzying heights of the Guernsey press. My mum kept a copy, I’ll have a read tonight. Visit the Sunday Bazaar at Kashgar if you decide to head that way. All the best guys!
    P.s is that you in one of those photos leaving Pamir Pete?



    Tim Lee Reply:

    @Tim Lee, But seriously.. thats heavy stuff, glad you got out ok. Enjoy the rest of the trip.


    pete Reply:

    Oi! What happened to that mix tape you were going to send us aaaaagggggggessssss ago?

    Don’t think we’re actually going to Kashgar… if all goes to plan, we’re looking at crossing from Southern Kazakhstan into the north-west and heading to Urumqi. Wanna come meet us in SE Asia somewhere for a holiday sometime next year?


    Tim Lee Reply:

    @pete, Pete, worry not, I have conferred with a workmate and i shall use ‘YouSendit’to send the mix tape.
    I dont know if you know but Im a production artist at Healthspan now, just completed my first year. Im so busy as we have to do artwork for 6 different companies but its a dream job and im really enjoying the daily challenges.
    On the foraging side of things, I have recently been exploring the exciting world of shrimping and catching prawns! Yes we have shrimp like the morecombe bay shrimp hiding in the sand at low tide and they are very tasty. Im making potted shrimp for my dad at the moment and I will soon be netting some very nice prawns as big as your finger! and all from the shore. anyway I need to catch up on some more of your stories. Im looking forward to reading about your scorpion encounter. Anyway let me know your email address and i’ll send you a link. Say hi to Mary!!!!


    pete Reply:

    At last an interesting job! Are you working with JC?

    Haven’t had much seafood recently… been in landlocked countries for a while. I think Kyrgyzstan is double landlocked. Guess I’ll have to wait until we get nearer Laos… about 12,000kms to go.

    Looking forward to the mix!

    Cheerio leviathan


    Posted by Tim Lee | September 4, 2012, 3:11 pm
  16. Honestly, i havent a clue how to get that mix tape to you, I tried but I just didnt understand what to do.. then everyday life distracted me.. Can you guide me through the process please?
    I did a couple of overnight stop-overs in Urumqi.. I was kept up till the early hours with phone-calls from prostitutes.. Thats all i can say about Urumqi.
    Where are you heading after that?
    I’ll see what hols we already have planned, so far im supposed to be going to Norway and Capetown but nothings booked yet, would be very cool to meet up.


    Posted by Tim Lee | September 5, 2012, 8:25 am

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