Tunnel of Death – Tajikistan

Filed in De Bruyn Joubert by on November 10, 2014 • views: 5474

I tried looking at my hands, but could not see them, my eyes were burning, it was difficult to breath, I was standing in a pothole about the size of the bike and at that very moment thought on what I can do just to get out of this tunnel.

I’m exploring the world and saying this, I don’t do much or any research on where I’m heading. I like the element of being surprised or to find something beautiful on the roads taken, which I did not know existed.

The long de-route in Uzbekistan came to an end and made it into Tajikistan, heading down south towards the city of Dushanbe. The flat roads in the last 2000 km finally came to an end and the climbs started. The road were ok and was still making good ground. My body started to warn me to eat more, as I did not have nearly enough energy I had a month or two ago.

After many climbs, beautiful nature and lots of smoking trucks, I made it to the first big tunnel through one of the mountains. It was 7km long and was a breeze. Beautiful paved road, good ventilation, lights and the road was flat after climbing 100km toward the tunnel. The tunnel was brilliant and after seeing daylight again, there was a 20km steep downhill towards a small town between all the intimidating mountains. I filled my food bag in the town and continued towards Dushanbe. The climbs started again, but the views made it such a nice cycle. My body struggled and I tried to eat as much as possible and staying hydrated to boost my strength, but it did not work that good at all.

The nice tunnel

After a 25 km steep mountain pass climb I reached some sort of a checkpoint with long queues of battled-up trucks and corrupt policeman taking bribes from the truck drivers they pull over. I spoke to some truck drivers and the corrupt police is part of the drives through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. They have a bride budget to give money towards the police.

I cycled past the checkpoint, up another 3 km and got to another tunnel. At this point I was exhausted and was glad that the big climb was over. The first long tunnel was perfect and was expecting the same from this one, but it turned out a nightmare.


The tunnel started with a reasonable cycle-able road, with not too many potholes, a few dim lights and still some ventilation from the opening of the tunnel. I got a bad feeling as I was about 1 km into the tunnel. The lights started to get less and the lightbulbs was now hanging on an electricity wire that is hanged on the side of the walls. The lightbulbs were not covered with anything and the distances between them kept getting longer. Out of nowhere they just stop and I was in total darkness.

At this point I was not sure what to do, so waited for a truck to come past, that I can use his lights to keep cycling. My headlight was packed away deep and there was no way of getting it in the darkness. The truck was old and basically falling apart, but the two red brake lights were working. this is what I used to cycle. I kept on his tail, first behind in the middle of the truck, but this failed as I was constantly hitting potholes and this was not the usual small potholes… they were enormous! The truck was going slow, not just because it was about to fall apart at any given moment, but because of the bad road. I kept on his tail, cycling 1m from the very dimm break light at around speeds I think of 5 – 10 km/h.

The best photo I could take in the tunnel.  You can see the fumes floating around in the air

The next big problem started… Ventilation! I was struggling to breathe, as there was NO sort of ventilation in the tunnel. The trucks in general on this road are in bad shape and was pumping the black clouds of fumes out on the passes just before the tunnel. Thinking of the pass, I knew this was exactly what happened in the tunnel, except there was no way for all this fumes to go. It gets caught up in the tunnel.

I was hitting one pothole after another as I had no view of where to go… I just followed the small red light in front of me. I covered my month and nose with one of my Buffs, but was not enough, so I got another one when the truck stopped in the middle of nowhere. Both Buff’s were folded double and it was still hard to breathe. I was not in the right place, especially with a bicycle. The road was getting worse as the little traffic is trying to squeeze past each other around the potholes, roadworks (not in process) and massive holes. Most areas the road was so bad that only one car can drive on a given moment. The truck stood still, not moving at all. Another car was now behind me waiting for the truck to move. Out of nowhere the truck started to reverse. I was still on the bike and trying to run back with this overloaded bike. The car behind me was hooting, but the truck kept moving back. I then hit the car and could not go back anymore as it was still hooting like crazy for the truck. I was about the get smashed…


The truck which I followed and almost reversed over me

I jumped of the bike and then the truck stopped about 30cm from my bike. This tunnel crossing was now at a point that was so bad, that I knew I had to get out quick. I was now about 4km into the tunnel!

The truck broke down, so I cycled past it. I tried to cycle in front of the car, to use its lights, but he squeezed past me and drove off. I stood there on the side and could not see anything! I put my hands right in front of my eyes, but saw nothing! My eyes were burning and chest was starting to pain as I was struggling to breathe. Standing there waiting for another car, truck or anything with a light.


5minutes in total darkness, a car approached and this was my chance. When he came close to me I took off, cycling in front of him. He tried to get past, but I did not allow it. He would hoot like crazy going to the right, to the left and then trying to pass again on the right. I had no choice… he was not going to pass me now. He kept hooting, but I ignored it as I cycled to the left, right, left and to the right. Sorry man, this is my only chance of getting out of this tunnel, cycling as fast as possible, still dodging the massive potholes. The car stopped hooting after a few minutes and think he knew I was using his lights.

After 8 km, about 45 minutes, I finally saw a small white light, slowly getting bigger as I approached. It was the end of the tunnel!!

As I came out of the tunnel, the weather changed dramatically. It was now pouring with rain and the temp dropped at least 10 degrees Celsius. I pulled over, put my head on my handlebar and thought… what the f**k just happened!!

My eyes were burning and was looking to find some access to the river beside the road. I looked in my mirror and was not surprised when I was black! It looked like I just came out of a coal mine. My cream trousers, shirt, Buff’s, feet.. well everything was black. I managed to wash my face and pushed on the final 100 km to Dushanbe. For the next few days I was struggling with my chest. That fumes were extremely bad and could feel it. Cycling through that tunnel was not smart, but I had no idea it would have been that bad. You could cycle over the mountain, so there was another option.

Photo I took after I washed my face... still black from the fumes in the tunnel

I named the tunnel, The Tunnel of Death!

Cheers for now
De Bruyn

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