Before October of last year, we had enjoyed over 4 years on the road with only very minor theft issues. Then, while we were travelling on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, we had $1,500 US stolen from us. That’s no small sum for a couple of English teachers / travel bloggers trying to travel the world. The worst part is that it was likely stolen by a person who we had considered to be a good friend.
It all started in the small city of Murghab which is along the Pamir Highway just inside of the Tajik Border. We were travelling with 2 other backpackers whom we had only known for a few days. The four of us weren’t having the best experience with our driver at the time so, instead of continuing with him for another 2 weeks, we decided to head to META Travel Agency to find a new driver / guide to take us the rest of the way along the Highway.
That is where me met our new driver, a young, friendly, English speaking Kyrgyz man who lived in Murghab. He knew the mountains inside and out and his excellent English meant that we would have a driver and a guide all in one. We all liked him instantly and we were excited to have such a great guy with us for the trip.
Over the next two weeks, the 5 of us became great friends. We were in the car for about 5 hours / day together, but never had any arguments. Our driver turned out to be the best guide we could have asked for. He went everywhere we did, showing us mountain passes, natural hot springs, stone carvings and secret lakes. We were all enjoying the trip so much that even after 2 weeks of driving, we didn’t want it to end.
Dariece, myself and the two other travellers were together the entire time. Sometimes, our driver would stay back at the car and watch our stuff while we went for a hike or a walk around the local villages. We fully trusted him with our gear and he assured us that the mountains were safe, as long as we kept our things close.
Because there are no ATMs on the Pamir Highway, Dariece and I were carrying about $2,000 in US currency so that we could afford to pay our guide for his services, pay for rooms along the way and have USD left over for our future travels into Uzbekistan and Iran, where our ATM cards wouldn’t work. We always locked our bags and made sure that the money was tucked away somewhere that it couldn’t be found…. except for one time.
It was the second to last day of our trip and we had decided to stop at one last hot spring. We had to soak quickly because the airport was closing in Khorog, and we still needed to book our flights back to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe.
Our guide said he would stay back at the car to watch our things and although he had always come into hot springs with us in the past, we thought nothing of his decision. We were happy that someone would be watching our gear.
Men and women soak in different areas at the Garam Chashma Hot Springs, so the girls headed one way, while us guys headed the other. We stripped down and hopped in the springs and we were only soaking for a couple of minutes when our driver appeared. We told him to hop in for a soak, so he did, but he only stayed in for about 1 minute before rushing to put his clothes back on and heading for the car.
We all soaked for about 10 more minutes before getting dressed and ready to go. The girls got to the car first and Dariece noticed that our driver was in the back seat rummaging around. When he saw them, he quickly got out and hopped in the driver seat. After spending 2 weeks with him, Dariece thought nothing of it. He was probably just looking for something in his own bag, which was piled up next to ours in the back of the car.
Jason and I came out a couple of minutes later, got into the car and the five of us started driving towards Khorog to book our flights. It was on that ride that things got a little suspicious, and we should have probably clued into it then.
Our driver stopped at his friend’s house on the way, ran up the driveway, spent about 5 minutes there, and then ran back down to the car. We then carried on to Khorog where we all decided to take our driver out for a big farewell dinner and tip him generously for his amazing guiding and driving skills.
The next day, we boarded the helicopter and bid our farewells to our driver before taking off to Dushanbe.
It wasn’t until we woke up the next morning that we realized we were missing $1,500 US. We looked in our money belt and there were only $20’s and $10’s. I asked Dariece if she had moved the money and when she replied “no”, we both began to panic. We tore apart are backpacks again and again looking for the stack of 15 crisp 100 dollar bills, but they were nowhere to be found.
At that point, we were in such denial that we didn’t dare blame our driver, and now good friend. We asked the hotel if anyone had been in our room, which was pointless because our bags were locked and nobody could have gotten into them without the combinations.
We even called our driver and his calming voice assured us that he had no idea what had happened to our money.
Dariece cried, and I could barely contain my frustration. The worst part was that we yelled at each other, fully knowing that this disaster was both of our faults.
Later that night we went over the entire trip together and it became painfully obvious where the money had disappeared. We had literally locked our bags every time that we were away from them except for that one trip to the hot springs. There was never a time when our other travel companions were not at our side, and it was only our driver who was ever around our bags without us.
Note: As we didn’t physically see anyone take our money, the following is based completely on logical analysis. our driver could be innocent, but given the circumstances, we believe that he is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.
How it went down…
That day we had stopped at the hot springs, he decided to stay back when he saw that the bag was unlocked. He watched us all enter the enclosed area where the hot springs were. Nervous, he came to check on me and my friend to make sure that we were soaking in the springs and couldn’t possibly get to the car and catch him in the act. When we told him to come in for a soak, he did so as to not seem too suspicious, but he left with such haste that I should’ve known something was up.
He then rushed to the car, unzipped our money belt, which was stupidly left unlocked in Dariece’s purse, took out all of the 100’s, but left the 20’s and 10’s to ensure that if we had looked inside, we wouldn’t notice the theft right away. Dariece came back to the car early and almost caught him in the act, but he got out of the back seat before anyone could fully see what he was doing.
The kicker was the stop at his friend’s house. Our driver was on the phone speaking Kyrgyz to a friend for a few minutes before pulling over and telling us he had to go in for a quick visit. He went inside, gave his friend the money so that he could retrieve it later, then came back and drove us the rest of the way to Khorog. Had he kept the money on him and we realized we were missing it, he would risk getting caught if we had decided to search him. Smart move…
That night he seemed uneasy, quiet and distant, but he managed to keep his composure through our farewell dinner and gratuity, right until our goodbyes the next day.
You may be thinking that it was the other two travellers who stole from us, and for a brief moment, we did too. We’re always the first to say that it’s usually travellers who will steal from other travellers, not the locals. But in this case there was simply no way that our backpacking companions could’ve committed the crime. They were always with us and the only time the bags were left behind was when our driver was staying to watch them.
On top of that, we’re still in touch with those backpackers and we’ve since become great friends.
Dariece and I had a hard time getting over this incident, but I think we managed better than most people would. Instead of beating ourselves up over it, we looked at our behaviour and tried to figure out why something like this would happen to us. Had we been too flashy? Too careless? Were we not appreciating enough of what we had?
We strongly believe that the universe tells us things from time to time and in this case, the universe decided to take our money and kick us in the junk. There’s always a reason for everything and although it still pains us to think about losing that money, by far the hardest part was that we had to accept that a friend had stolen it from us.
After the incident, we eased our thoughts by thinking things like “our driver needed the money more than we did”, and “We learnt a lot from the experience”, but the fact is that stealing is never justifiable and no matter where you’re from or how you live your life, you should never take advantage of people who trust you.
Our two weeks with our driver were undoubtably some of the best times we’ve ever had while travelling. We had felt so lucky to not only experience the wonder of the Pamir Highway, but to have also made a new local friend along the way. Unfortunately that was not the case and while we still look back at our trip fondly, it will forever be tainted by the theft of both funds and friendship, as well as our subsequent revelation that some people just can’t be trusted.
Because we didn’t actually see our driver take our money, we have no right to tell you not to hire him as your driver. He was a great driver and a great guide, but there is little chance of his innocence in our minds. No matter who your driver is, and no matter who you travel with, always make sure to keep your valuables locked away.
Have you ever been stolen from? Did you ever get over it? Please share with us below and help prevent other travellers from making the same mistakes.
Note: We wrote about our journeys in Tajikistan on this blog, but decided to omit this very personal incident. After receiving many emails asking us who our driver was and how to get a hold of him, we decided that it was our duty to write this post. We hope that some of your read this post and it reminds you to be careful with your things when travelling. Even when you feel 100% secure.