(31) Penjikent, Tajikistan: A glimpse of what is to come

The trip from Tashkent was remarkably unremarkable. Taxi to the train station. Train left on time. First class actually had air conditioning this time. Buses through Samarkand to the minibus station. Minibus to the border (passing Tobi on his bike, agreeing to meet up in Penjikent). Cross the border. Minibus to Penjikent (I see mountains!!).

I suppose the remarkable thing was how unremarkable it was. I had heard rumours of horror stories of leaving Uzbekistan – confiscating money, searching every nook and cranny of your luggage – but all I got was a nice conversation with an Uzbek officer who had done an English degree back in 1984 and was eager to practice.

Unremarkable other than the diarrhea. I guess that was a bit of an annoyance. Thankfully it stays at bay when I’m not moving (ie sitting on the train) but when I have to walk (ie across the border) it acts up. Having had the privilege of using the toilet on both the Uzbek and Tajik sides of the border, I’d have to say the Tajik one is nicer, if only for having fewer flies. The kind of diarrhea I have sucks (I suppose diarrhea sucks in general though). I feel completely healthy, then BAM!, I have go to the washroom NOW OR ELSE! If this is anything like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I have a new appreciation for what life for those with it is like.

In Penjikent I settled into the guesthouse, convinced the local convenience store to take my Uzbek som for and hung out by the road so I could wave Tobi over. And I was no longer linguistically incompetent! Tajikistan has a language very similar to Farsi in Iran – 1,2,3 is Yak, Du, Se instead of Yek, Do, Se – so I could get by. Tajik e cam cam medonam – I speak a little bit of Tajik – is my new oft repeated phrase. It seems most people think that I might speak Russian (most travellers use it as it is common among all the Central Asia countries) so when I throw out some Tajik, they are pleasantly surprised. It just means I’ll be screwed again when/if I reach Kyrgyzstan, but I’m having fun for now.

I hung out by the road with a 15 year old boy who ran an ice cream machine. He treated me to an ice cream and turned on Snoop Dog when I asked if he liked any American music. Surprisingly (and I say this honestly) he didn’t like Enrique Iglesias.

I had asked the boy to be on the lookout for a tourist on a bike named Tobi, and to tell him to stop. This didn’t go so well, as when Tobi passed I was (once again) on the toilet, and apparently people asking you to stop is pretty common when you are a tourist on a bike. He passed by.

When I got out of the toilet, the boy was standing outside the guest house, frantically motioning to me that Tobi had passed and he didn’t stop! We tracked down Tobi soon enough.

Tobi and I took a wander through Penjikent. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a nondescript town. All through Uzbekistan, I only went to the main stops. It was nice to just wander down the main street, see people going at their usual lives which don’t involve selling trinkets to tourists.

Unfortunately, earlier in the day my camera lens (18-125mm) got locked in the 125mm position. I’m going to have to get this checked out in Dushanbe (hopefully), because it means that all my shots are going to be zoomed until then.

That evening at the guesthouse, I was chilly for the first time since Van, Turkey. I actually pulled out my microfleece. It was incredibly refreshing.

The next morning I headed out on my way to Dushanbe to meet my CouchSurfing host. I caught a shared taxi for the 5-6 hour drive. Once again I pulled out my limited Tajik with the driver. He shared pictures of his 3 children with me. One picture was of toddler twins, but he made a sleeping motion and it soon became clear that one of the twins had died. My heart sank.

The mountains heading out of Penjikent were spectacular. My first real mountains since Iran, and even then those mountains didn’t speak to me quite like these as they weren’t snow capped. I’m so happy to be in Tajikistan. The whole basis of this trip started with images of mountains in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and I’m finally here.

I soon settled into a comfortable state of wonder. I felt like I had never left the mountains, and that this where I was always meant to be.

The road shifted between potholed dirt roads, potholed paved roads, and smooth paved roads. The most interesting part was the “Tunnel” I had heard so much about when talking with cyclists in Samarkand. It’s a 5km tunnel (though it seemed like longer as we were going about 10-20km/h) with no ventilation, no lighting, and little evidence of road maintenance. Perhaps some of it was paved at one point, but it is filled with ridges and holes, and almost a foot of water in parts. I can’t imaging cycling through it. The shared taxi, with barely functioning headlights, made it through unscathed.

As we neared Dushanbe, we got pulled over and it seems the driver had to pay a “fine” for some reson.

I tried to reach my CouchSurfing host. No response. No response. No response. Finally, he called back. Turns out he’s in Penjikent, and is heading to Dushanbe tomorrow morning. Grr. He says if he had known I could have stayed with him in Penjikent and driven with him to Dushanbe.

I guess plans aren’t really plans. Hotel it is.

(1) Kelowna, Canada to Zagreb, Croatia via Munich: My first real couchsurf

I left Kelowna bright and early Sunday morning with my parents seeing me off at the airport. I had really been hoping to be able to take my pack as a carry-on, but it ended up being a bit too long. The upside of this was that I was able to pack my Swiss army knife. The downside was that I was now nervous about being able to catch my transfer in Munich. I only had 2.5 hrs between my flight’s arrival and catching a train from downtown Munich to Zagreb, Croatia.

I was also in the air for Game 6 of the Vancouver-LA series, and as would be expected on a Canadian flight, the attendant was able to ask the captain for me what the score was, which he then announced to the rest of the plane.

After stops in Calgary and Toronto, a few naps, 3 movies, and some tail wind later, I arrived 30 minutes early and caught the train with plenty of time to spare. Happy to not spend too much time in a country where my only familiarity with the language comes from 80s and 90s music (Achtung Baby, Bei Mir Bist Du Schon, 99 Luftballons). I was headed on a day train to Zagreb, Croatia, through the eastern end of the Alps as I passed through Austria and Slovenia.

The plan was for me to enjoy the lovely views of mountains from my assigned window seat, but the local family looking to spread themselves out in our compartment had other ideas. An older teenage son and young daughter sat across from each other in the window seats, playing card games. A grandmother sat in the middle, across from me. I was sandwiched between the daughter and her mother, who had a tendency to wheeze, cough, and eat loudly. For a while I played the passive-aggressive game of leaning over the daughter to snap pictures of the views and generally looking longingly at the mountains, but this tactic got me nowhere on this nine hour journey. I ended up sleeping on and off for much of the journey, waking intermittently to note the similarity of the landscape to that of Chilliwack and Hope.  The daughter ended up being a bit of a cutey. She liked offering me pretzel sticks and scratching my sleeves and giggling.

I arrived at night in Zagreb, with instruction from my first Couch Surfing host on how to get to her apartment my tram. I had made the decision to try couch surfing just a few days previous, and Marina thankfully responded to my request. (For those not familiar, Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.com) is an online network of people willing to share their spare beds or couches to fellow travellers. There are Couch Surfing hosts all over the world, even in Turkmenistan.)

I wasn’t able to change any money at the train station so late, and the kiosk at the tram stop wouldn’t take Euros, so I got on the tram without a ticket. And of course, my luck would have a ticket checker get on the tram halfway through my journey. I looked helpless, waived my 5 Euros to the Croatian-only ticketer, and after a few phrases that I shrugged at apologetically, he waved my Euros away dismissively with an air of “you-idiot-tourist-get-with-the-program”.

I arrived at Marina’s (+ roommates) apartment and knocked. No answer. Knocked again. No answer. Rang the bell. No answer. I paused to consider my options, but I didn’t know what my options were. After a phonecall from the bar around the corner, turned out Marina just didn’t hear me at the door. Marina is a journalist and also volunteers with a Croatian environmental organization; Marin is a documentary director and has an amazing collection of National Geographics; and Sandra is an engineer with the government’s power company. I learn much about the government’s tactics to develop the coastline by rezoning agricultural land as golf courses, of which 25% of each can be developed into residential and commercial space. Marina explained that 2 years ago, there we no golf courses in Croatia, but golf has since been named a national pastime/treasure, and something like 40 are under development.

Marina was a gracious host and offered some homemade vegan rice cookies and distilled pear alcohol, but we were in for a quiet night. She said one of the main reasons she accepted my Couch Surfing request was because I was 29. She wasn’t in the mood for 20 year olds that just want to party.  Not me.

I hope to Couch Surf a lot more on this trip, both to save money, and to meet local people. It was especially nice on the first night of my trip. I was looking back in a journal I kept for two past trips to Cuba and Peru, and my first nights were always bad – tended to involve crying of sorts. Not that I waned to go home, but more like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and I’m tired and cranky. Once I get some sleep and figure out how the transportation system works in a country, I’m pretty good. This first night: no tears, and I slept until 11am.