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Originally published Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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High adventure: crossing Tajikistan

When the ululating cries broke through the night, I was seized with fear. I'd been warned against coming to Tajikistan, with its fuel and...

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Getting there: Turkish Air flies from Istanbul to Dushanbe.

Treks and tours: Five-day treks of the Fan Mountains through Goulya Petrova are about $1,500 for two people; e-mail goulya.petrova@gmail.com. For information on the Pamir region, including treks, see www.pamirs.org U.S. companies offering guided trips through Tajikistan, usually as part of multicountry Silk Road tours, include Geographic Expeditions, www.geoex.com

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When the ululating cries broke through the night, I was seized with fear. I'd been warned against coming to Tajikistan, with its fuel and food shortages, war-torn borders, terrorists and despotic leaders.

Three male voices played off one another like predators closing in on prey. A flashlight pierced my tent. I prepared to bolt from my sleeping bag — to where, in the remote mountain terrain a day's hike from the nearest road, I had no idea.

Then the smell of fresh sheep dung and the clomp of hoofs reached me. The men were nomadic shepherds, beginning their fall migration before dawn.

Tajikistan, the poorest of Central Asia's post-Soviet republics, is surprisingly safe, despite sharing a border with Afghanistan and suffering a 2007 bombing attributed to Islamic terrorists.

Still, this certainly isn't a luxury-travel destination. Outside the capital of Dushanbe, shelter is limited to tents and "homestays," or private residences. You need letters of invitation, visas and special permits for traveling in remote regions, and visas have to be vetted upon arrival in the country — we had a two-day wait. Few guidebooks give the country, bordered by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, much space, and official tourism is minimal.

The trade-off is unspoiled valleys, soaring peaks — some more than 20,000 feet tall — and ruins from Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Islamic cultures unmarred by tourist traffic or signs. The country affords a traveler the rare experience of being dwarfed by both history and nature, exploring the mountainous land known in Victorian times as "the roof of the world."

Low-budget trek

The capital city of Dushanbe, dusty and oppressive, can be seen in a day. We were blocked from photographing the presidential palace via warning whistles by plainclothes police standing every 10 meters along the main street. A phrase book of Tajik or Russian is essential, with Dushanbe's mix of Uzbeks, Russians and native Tajiks having little knowledge of English.

A Russian guide, with a porter and driver, agreed to take us for a five-day, all-inclusive trek of the Fan Mountains near the Uzbek border for $700 each. Not a bad price, considering most travel agencies that visit Tajikistan do so as part of "Silk Road Tours" costing $7,000 and up that follow the ancient trade route between China and Europe. A guide and a Jeep-type vehicle are essential for negotiating the country's unpaved roads — and the official checkpoints on the roads The Fans, though hard to get to, are worth the effort. Ascending the 11,909-foot Laudon Pass gave us views of towering mountains, topped with glaciers. Valleys of turquoise lakes shimmered below.

In the remote mountains, we lazed under a cabana of sticks and rags by the banks of Lake Kulikalon, at an elevation of 9,186 feet, with an 82-year-old woman, her daughter and two grandchildren, eating tea, bread and fried marinka, a local lake fish. The hospitality of people who have almost nothing is one of the great beauties of Tajikistan.

Flying between peaks

To reach the Pamir region in eastern Tajikistan, we caught the Dushanbe-Khorog flight, infamous for a tight passage between peaks that prevents it from flying in anything but cloudless skies. Some of the world's tallest mountains are in the Pamir range, including the 24,590-foot Ismoil Somoni peak, in what's called the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.

While the rest of Tajikistan is Sunni, in Pamir the Ismaili Shiites — many of whom are blue-eyed blonds who claim descent from Alexander the Great — revere the Aga Khan, spiritual leader to a branch of the Shia faith, hanging photos of him in every room. In Khorog, the region's capital, the luxurious Serena Inn, owned by an Aga Khan company, was hosting a music festival. Teenagers in jeans and trendy T-shirts danced and snapped photos of a Dushanbe rock group on their cellphones.

Our four-day Pamir tour, shared with two others, was $200 each, including home stays and meals in the Whakan Valley, a wide, high-altitude corridor. Mazars, or Islamic shrines, and Zoroastrian fire temples stacked with the weathered skulls of ibex and sheep edge the road.

It was here that Marco Polo and ancient traders traveled between China and Europe. And it's through here, across a loosely guarded border with only the narrow Panj River dividing it from Afghanistan, that much of the world's heroin passes.

Exit adventures

The journey back to Dushanbe was an adventure. After our Khorog-Dushanbe flight had been canceled three days running, we caught a $30-a-person ride in a Chinese minivan for the 30-hour trip, only to find our driver drinking vodka an hour into the trip.

Thinking it wise to disembark when army officials from an unmarked car started to rough up the driver, we found another ride the rest of the way to Dushanbe just in time for our flight. What's an adventure without a good scare, anyway?

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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