Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tales from Tajikistan

Tajikistan - you were a surprise! Although you were trying at times, in the end the beauty of your nature stole our hearts.  I could have stayed weeks taking in those beautiful mountains and crystal clear lakes.  Here is what we discovered in our time there.

Khujand

A relatively uninteresting city, but a nice place to stop if you don't want a whole day of traveling ahead of you when you leave Uzbekistan.  We enjoyed mountain views and walks along to the river and the luxury of the ''Khujand Deluxe Hotel''. In this part of the world the city really comes to life after the sun goes down, so we enjoyed walking in the parks, admiring the lit-up fountains which appeared to be choreographed to the music playing.  Some children who heard us speaking English even came up and talked to me. Well, they tried their best at least.  We only got as far as ''My name is'' and ''I am __ years old'' before the language barrier set in.  They were beaming with pride nonetheless.

Mountain view in Khujand
City view across the river

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Beautiful sunset
Panjakant

Home to the worst guest house we experienced while on our trip, but also our gateway to the most amazing trip into the mountains.  The 7 lakes region of Tajikistan is one of the most famous places in the country to go hiking, although getting up into and staying in the mountains is quite difficult if you haven't got a tent and your own set of wheels. Local tour providers know this, of course, and charge outrageous prices to arrange a mountain trip. But thanks to the friendly Tajik girl working at the guest house, we managed to get up into the mountains a bit more ''local style''.  She called around to some people she knows who regularly drive up into the mountains. Basically, they operate as a shared taxi, mostly bring people from the various mountain villages into the city to buy supplies.  On the way up the mountain there were 6 of us in the 5-seat car as well as a trunk full of everything from potatoes to panes of glass for windows and tied to the roof was a variety of lumber and door frames.  That was a light load compared to the 12 people who were inside that same car on the way back down the mountain. A little more than halfway to our destination we got a flat, but the driver assured us that this happened quite often (his 5th one in 2 months) and it was replaced in no time.  The driver took us to our home of teh family where we would be staying and we agreed on a time for him to pick us up and bring us back down to the city.  Honestly though, I could have stayed up in those beautiful mountains forever.



The very loaded car

Just a routine flat tire

Breathtaking!! 

Dushanbe and Lake Iskanderkul

We finished up our time in Tajikistan by visiting the capital city Dushanbe. One our way there we again took the shared taxi because again, no mini-buses. They of course wanted to give us the ''foreigners price'', but we sneakily asked the others how much they were paying for the journey and insisted that we pay the same price as everyone else.  It worked! Dushanbe is home to one of the world's tallest flagpoles.  The flag itself is 60 meters long!! Dushanbe was also our starting point for a day trip to the famous Lake Iskanderkul.  To get there we had to once again cross through what I came to call ''the tunnel of death''.  This mountain tunnel is nearly 1 kilometer long and has no lights or ventilation. Because most of the cars do not have filters on their exhaust pipes, it is so foggy from vehicle fumes that you can hardly see where you are going, yet people drive like mad, blindly and recklessly passing one another.  Although Lake Iskanderkul is one of Tajikistan's most famous natural wonders, the roads to get there are atrocious and the only transportation option is shared taxi. There is extremely basic Soviet-era accommodation at the lake, but a giant sign near the main roads proclaims plans to build a luxury hotel and resort.  We'll see if that happens or not.  At first glance there doesn't even seem to be a restaurant or cafe anywhere near the lake, but upon asking around we were directed over to a topchan and a little makeshift kitchen from which plov and tea magically appeared. Our game plan to get back to the main road and thus back to Dushanbe was to just stop a car heading away from the lake and ask to ride along.  It didn't take long before a jolly crew of three Tajik men offered to let us squeeze into the back of their small SUV. We quickly realized that this short journey would turn into one of the highlights of the entire trip.  They immediately popped open a beer and handed it to Mario and told him that he was a ''молодец'' for planning this trip around Central Asia. They also seemed to know/be related to the people in almost every car which we passed along the road, although one car load warranted a special stop.  Everyone got out of the car and meat, bread, and vodka magically appeared. Now, this may seem like your typical former Soviet scene, except that these friends/relatives that we met had long beards and traditional Muslim dress, yet they downed their teacup full of vodka nonetheless.  ''It's different here in Tajikistan,'' our new friends explained.  The men asked Mario if he would ''allow'' me to drink the vodka, but I told them I don't drink hard liqueur and luckily being a woman is a good enough excuse for that in Tajikistan. The bottle was emptied in record time and, a little bit wobbly, we were back on the road, only to be stopped by the police about 5 minutes later.  Being stopped by the police is quite a different ball game in Tajikistan to say the least and in this case the police didn't even talk to the driver, rather to the front passenger who seemed to be friends with the officer and just exchanged a few laughs and handshakes before sending us merrily on our way.  As we bid farewell to our new friends at the main road, I was once again reminded why we travel like we do, without the organized tours and fancy guides.  It's to meet completely average people like these men in the truck and to share, if even just for a short time, in a genuine piece of Tajik life. As we did yet again when our shared taxi back to Dushanbe stopped for a quick car wash from a simple family-run roadside car wash stand where they offered us tea and the littlest daughter just learning to walk entertained us all.

Our last day in Tajikistan we spent hanging out with a French guy from our hostel who was heading back home after a month in Afghanistan.  In fact, we met many travelers on our trip who had been traveling in Afghanistan and they all had amazing stories to tell.  We ended up all sharing a taxi to the airport together at 2 o'clock in the morning.  And of course it wouldn't be a trip in the former Soviet Union without a little bit of bribing, as the security officer wasn't going to let Mario bring our power bank on the flight otherwise.  We also met a very interesting Tajik-Australian at the airport who seemed more than happy to be headed back to Sydney after a few weeks of Tajik craziness.

Lake Iskanderkul


Topchan chillin

Lunch at the lake

The pride of Dushanbe


Kvas - Mario's favorite!

Tajikistan is a place where most people would never dream of going on vacation, but having been there, I would go back in a heartbeat.  Maybe once that Iskanderkul resort is finished, I'll head back ;)