So, astonishingly, here I am on a totally unplanned (in advance) trip to Tajikistan, with Shane and Farida from the Golden Eagle train. Shane is in charge of logistics and Farida checks to make sure we haven’t missed any of the sights. This involved her leaving at seven this morning to see a tomb near Samarkand before the rest of the day’s sightseeing and our trip over the border from Uzbekistan.
The border crossing is a long bumpy walk through no man’s land in the dark, but the Tajiks are extraordinarily friendly. The officer on duty jokes about taking my photograph for his memories and the customs officer declares ‘Tourist? Come on through.’ Our guide, Shahbos (‘Not Shah-bus, as that’s a goat’, he requests) is highly organised and speaks good English. Why haven’t I come here before?
The only problem seems to be finding a toilet. ‘It’s up there’, everyone in each of the offices in immigration says, peering round their doors and extending their arms. But it isn’t. Eventually, we set off in our minibus, stop at a garage and are directed through some locked gates into a field. There’s no toilet here either, just some bushes and a shed. I shuffle across to the far side of the shed and promptly fall in a hole. There is some bad language and three fat sheep amble over to watch. I expect they think I’m marking my territory.
I haven’t seen a single other tourist yet, which is perhaps why the Tajiks are so friendly. Khujand, right in the northern finger of the country, where we overnight, is spaciously laid out with avenues of trees, colonnaded parks, a Lenin statue (removed from its central location to a more deserted spot) and a heavily restored fortress that's now a museum. In the central bazaar, swarms of stallholders shove to have their pictures taken and demand to know here we’re from. The word Anglia has been added to my very limited Tajik/Uzbek vocabulary of salaam alaikum and rahmat (thank you).
Then we set off into the Pamir Mountains. We began at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. as Farida has insisted that Iskanderkul (Alexander’s Lake, he of the Great fame) be added to the menu, so there will be two mountain passes to cross to the capital, Dushanbe, with a long diversion to the lake after lunch.
The peaks are gorgeous, like fruit cake dusted with icing sugar. This is reassuring, as we’ve been firmly told, by astonished guides when we planned to leave the tour, that there is nothing to see in Tajikistan.
Indian summer has continued and the glacial water of the rivers and the lake (definitely worth the detour) is icy green, stunningly complemented by the deep orange hues of the trees (surpassing the Caucasian countries with their yellow tinges by a mile) There are a few dabs of crimson too.
Today, I’m followed to my bush toilet by a curious child. We can't use the one at the riverside restaurant as the key is broken in the lock.
We continue to Dushanbe, down a long scenic gorge and via a sequence of tunnels, on a road contracted by three Chinese. Ventilation isn’t always a strong point in the tunnels and I’m not sure the driver can always see where he’s going. I’m trying to hold my breath.
As is sadly common in many countries the bus is stopped by the police and the driver raids his cache of notes, inexpertly hidden under the dashboard blanket, to speed us on our way. A final stop at a car wash. The other passengers jump out to stretch their legs but I am feeling lethargic. Until there’s a fountain of water through the roof. There’s also a bit of a surprise later when the driver’s lighter explodes.
It’s a good day to arrive. Dushanbe means Monday; as a small village it held a renowned Monday market. And we can already see that this is a city of parks. There are fountains and friendly soldiers. The trees are lit up at night, and illuminations also suspended over all the main thoroughfares. They are in the national colours, so I assume it’s not very early Christmas lights. In any case, this is another, Muslim (but officially secular) country).
I have a huge chunk of yak calf for dinner.
Ashgabat may be winning in the outlandish stakes, but my enormous steak has signalled Dushanbe's intentions. They are sticking with gargantuan. They have built (or are building) the biggest library, the biggest parliament complex, the biggest banqueting hall and the biggest mosque in Central Asia, as well as the biggest flagpole in the world (until surpassed by Jeddah recently, they will have to try again). This is all despite no oil or gas revenue. The country is 93 % mountainous and has some agriculture (mainly cotton) and hydroelectric power.
Shahbos was a student to master’s level and now has two children. This is the route to evading military service. One child is not enough, which is odd in a country that is trying to discourage population growth. Shahbos’s brother has a second child on the way but he is staying out of sight in Russia, until the second is safely born. Reception parties at the airport and press-ganging are apparently common
Shahbos tells us that there are two must–sees in Dushanbe and we have can choose which one we want to see before we leave. Well, talk about waving red rags in front of bulls. We get a private and rapid tour of a hugely elaborate gilded ‘Palace of Nations’ used for official events and banquets,that we reckon cost about a billion dollars to build. No-one is owning up to the actual figure of course. They're rehearsing some dancing for an upcoming celebration and not overly keen on an audience for this bit.
And then we visit the history museum. The highlight there is a 13 metre partially reconstructed reclining Buddha. ‘I think you preferred the palace’, Shahbos guesses correctly as we progress to the airport.
Tajikistan was well worth visiting, even for such a short time. Next, rejoin the train trip at Kazakhstan.
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