(33) Khorog, Tajikistan: Tajikistan = mountain love

Wow. What a drive. Both in length and vistas.

The guesthouse manager had said the drive would be about 12-13 hours. That if I left about 9:30 (which I did) I would arrive by 10 (which I did not).

The drive probably is more like 18 hours, but when you figure in 1) waiting for a 10m section of road to be paved (literally waiting for the asphalt to be poured, raked flat, and rolled over) 2) a legitimately tired driver wanting to nap for 4 or 5 hours, 3) running out of gas in the middle of nowhere and waiting for one of the passengers to hitch to the next village and back with gas, the whole trip ended up taking 25 hours.

But, what a drive.

The first 6 hours were fairly boring. It started with, well not starting. It seems inevitable that when a vehicle is full and all passengers are set that it’s not actually time to depart. First gas. In this case, gas taken by glass jars from open barrels, poured into the vehicle through a funnel. We also were stopped by multiple traffic police, at which point our driver soon realized that the starter wasn’t working, and that in order to get going we were going to have to find a way to get a rolling start (which remained true for the rest of the 25 hours).

On a side note, while I didn’t see any money change hands when we were stopped repeatedly at the beginning of this trip, traffic police apparently squeeze a few somanis out of many stopped cars. Next to the president’s inner circle, I suspect traffic police are the next richest group of citizens in Tajikistan. They’re everywhere, and always out in full force.

But back to the actual drive. Again, the beginning was fairly unremarkable. Rolling hills and incredibly hazy sky. We stopped for lunch, where I ordered the only word I recognized – borsht – and the ladies were treated by the men. This is the first shared taxi that I’ve taken where a majority of passengers are women. The four of us were treated for dinner that evening too.

After lunch before we start our climb over a pass, we stop for fruit and get accosted. Little children asking for money. Little children trying to pull the windows down and open the doors to ask for money. An old man who really wants a ride, and won’t take “sorry, we’re full” as an answer. Those not buying fruit lock ourselves inside. One man comes back, sets his grapes down on the seat, and I soon find myself sitting in water. I spend the rest of the trip sitting on a towel. We take off, and one of the packages on the roof falls off. A comedy of errors.

Eventually, we crested the pass, and descended into an increasingly remarkable canyon. In the far distance through the canyon I could see snow-capped peaks. Was this Afghanistan?

Soon enough the canyon emptied into a broad river valley, were we met up with the Panj river, separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan. My first glimpse of an Afghan village was very exciting. I couldn’t believe that right there, across the river, was Afghanistan. Where as the Tajik side was serviced by road, the Afghan side wasn’t even serviced by electricity. Villages were few and far between, with narrow footpaths as their sole connections.

As the river valley narrowed to have steep rock faces line each side, my new pasttime became following the footpath on the Afghan side. The path was carved haphazardly yet thoughtfully into the most forgiving part of the sheer walls. Sometimes the paths dipped below the water line – the river was higher than usual. What happens in that case – are the villages completely cut off? At one point I spotted three men walking along the path. As we continued driving, it seemed like hours before we spotted any civilization. Where were the men coming from? Sometimes the rock wall became too vertical, and the path would have to climb high about the river. Sometimes I would lose the path, and find it again only to be dumbfounded as to how it would be possible to climb and descend it without falling.

At first I thought this would be a great place to come for a hiking trip. But as the paths got more and more extreme, I thought it would be a bit of a death wish.

At dinner I sat with the women. I asked the youngest one (20 years old) the usual third question after “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” and “Are you married?”

“No,” she responded with a smile. “I’m studying medicine.” Right on! I thought.

After dinner the ladies went to find a toilet. The public toilet was the first truly public toilet on this trip. No stalls. Just a huge line of holes with two foot high dividers between them. The only private one is the last one, as no one can walk by you.

About half an hour after dinner, the driver decided to stop for a rest. Completely reasonable considering he had been driving for over 12 hours and he still had at least another six to go.

The women lie out on a large platform bed outdoors. We’re there for 4 hours, but I swear I only sleep for less than 30 minutes. One problem is the bugs, or at least my imagination. They keep flying into me or crawling on me. And the cold that I developed in Dushanbe is in full swing. My nose won’t stop running. My head aches. I sneeze. And sneeze. And sneeze.

Once we’re back in the car I manage to nod off for a bit while it’s still dark, and skip breakfast for more napping.

And then it was light, and I noticed the valley had opened up. Still stunning. I was offered to go to the homes of two of the passengers, but seeing as I was sick and was arriving in Khorog at a decent hour, I wanted some privacy.

Khorog is a nice little town, set in a valley just up from the main valley that borders on Afghanistan. The streets are tree-lined, the air is fresh, and the mountain views are lovely.

I ended up at the main backpacker haunt in Khorog. Mainly because I was hoping to meet some other people interested in sharing a jeep up the Wakhan Valley over a few days. I did meet some interesting people. Lots of cyclists. A group of motorbikers heading over into Afghanistan, including a Calgarian. An English woman doing research with the local Ismailis. Had a good laugh when a German cyclist very seriously told a group of us that he was a warm doucher. It sounded funnier than it looks in print.

Through the information centre I was able to hook up with a young Texan and two older French women who were also interested in sharing a jeep. It worked out pretty perfectly, though I could tell early on that the French women, one in particular, might be a bit too assertive for my liking. But Nick, the Texan, spoke Russian, so he was going to be a great help. That night I also found one more traveller, Nic from Switzerland, looking to go, so we were 5 in total. Perfect.

Before we left Khorog, I achieved two important things. First was finding a place to eat a better variety of food than the standard Tajik fare. I was able to try an Indian restaurant (though while run by an actual Indian, does not compare to India or Vancouver), a kind of fancy cafe overlooking the water (which served decent tasting food in small portions and at high prices), and finally, my favourite, the Russian restaurant. The place looked like a Russian love dungeon. It was dark and furnished in dark wood and red satin. Apparently it was a night club later in the evening. But it served good food. I settled on mashed potatoes (yum!), vegetable ragout (yum!), and a main dish called “Perfume of Love” (huh!?). I had enquired about the “Canadian Steak” but it was described to me as “chopped up meat”. Perfume of Love, on the other hand, was a chicken breast, covered in chopped up green peppers and onions in some sort of cream, topped with slices of tomatoes and melted cheese.

The second thing was to inquire into some volunteering possibilities. I popped into the Aga Khan Foundation office to see a woman I had met briefly on the way to the tourist information office earlier in the day. I wanted to find out if any project work was available in Kyrgyzstan or possibly Tajikistan. I have quite a bit of time to spend in this area, and with visa extensions being much easier in Kyrgyzstan, the former seems like a better option. I met with Nuria and her colleague Azicha, explaining my interests and experiences, inquiring about contacts or projects they may be able to direct me to. They offered to make some inquiries and get back to me. Which would be difficult seeing as I was leaving the next morning, and I didn’t have a cell phone. Azicha was a bit surprised I wouldn’t have a mobile.

“A man without a mobile is, is like, …. like a border guard without a gun.”

An odd choice of simile.

On our way out of the office, I met of friend of Nuria’s who was selling a phone. He didn’t have it with him, but said he would bring it by in the morning, all set with a SIM card and some credit. 8am. When I was meeting the others at the PECTA office to leave in the jeep.

Yeah, that never happened. I’m not sure what it is, but as firm as you think plans, are, plans never seem to be plans here. Ah well.

Instead, it was Nick, Nic, Francoise, Mary Florence and I ready to take off for four days through the Wakhan Valley and east Pamir Highway. An eclectic bunch.

(32) Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Sick, tired, and sick and tired

I’m sure Dushanbe is a lovely city, but for me it was the place where I was still sick with diarrhea from Tashkent, and then also had a sore throat I was worried would be strep, and then intestines healed, but then turned out to have a bad cold.

When I arrived in Dushanbe, not into the home of a fellow CouchSurfer as I had originally planned, I checked into a pretty standard soviet hotel. I think it would have been grand back in the day, but it’s time as home to rebel fighters during the civil war here in the 90s, plus way too many coats of bad paint, leave a bit to be desired. I was in a shared room, meaning there are two beds, and I would be placed with another woman. My first night the other bed was occupied by a nice woman/young daughter duo on their way to Iran to visit the girl’s father. I also tried the first afternoon to explore the city in the hopes of getting a detailed Tajikistan map, mailing some things home, seeing small city life, but I didn’t get too far before an intestinal attack came on, so I spent the evening with bread, cheese, and a banana in bed.

Day two was much of the same. CouchSurfing host turned out to be a bit of a dud. I’m really not going to end up leaving a hotel. During the day I got as far as mailing a package home, and losing my wallet. The postal experience was entertaining, if nothing else. The office I went to was the main one in the capital, therefore the epitome of postal service in Tajikistan. Firstly, I couldn’t mail some of the things I have bought just before I left Iran. Basically, anything the woman couldn’t recognize, I couldn’t send. Dried berries, saffron, and saffron sugar crystals were a no go. So was a special travel bottle with suncreen remnants (and a few shells from Moynak I had shoved inside).

Once the package I was actually sending was determined, each item was individually weighed. I filled out forms in triplicate, twice, as I had mad small errors, and scratched out letters were not allowed.

Then was the issue of a box. In Canada (and Turkey and Iran so far on this trip), one can go to the post office and buy special envelopes and boxes to pack things in. Not so here. The woman tracked down an old box which didn’t quite fit one of the larger items I wanted to send, so she deconstructed and reconstructed it to fit. Badly.

She shook her head at the result, so I offered to try. My result was better, but I would have felt much more comfortable if it had had ten layers of packing tape around it. I suggested I could go by some “scotch” but she shook her head disapprovingly; not sure if this was because it wasn’t allowed or she wasn’t a believer in tape. Instead the “box” was fastened with twine, the corners barely stable with bent cardboard stuck in the wide gaps.

The next step is even more entertaining. She judges the size of the non-rectangular box, and goes into the back room to sew a cotton sack to fit over it. She comes out once to try the fit, and goes back to make alterations. The sack finally firmly over the box, she closes the end of the sack like wrapping paper and sews it shut with individual stitches by hand. She runs out of string at one point, and shakes her head as if she should be able to judge appropriate lengths of string needed by this point in her career. I agree.

Finally, the cotten sack firmly sewn shut, she dabs hot wax from a tin under the counter along the hand sewn seams, and seals each glob with a Tajik postal service stamp. I write the destination address in permanent marker on the cotton fabric.

I have no idea if this is going to get to Canada, but her and I high-five it anyway.

I then went a little bit further for a walk, before I decided my intestines couldn’t handle it. Then I realized my wallet was missing. Whether it had fallen out of my pocket/bag or someone helped it to fall, I don’t know. Luckily I was only out about $40 and a photocopy of my passport.

And then, my final bit of entertainment for the night was dinner with Sino, the alleged CouchSurfing host. He treated me to a traditional Central Asian dish of lagman (noodle soup) and a RC Cola, after I had waived away his interest in getting wine or beer. I think all my stomach could handle was broth. I apologized more than once for my lack of energy – it wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm, it was just that I wanted to curl up in a ball on a cool bathroom floor. He shared some opinions on the history of the Soviets in Tajikistan. How during Soviet occupation, Tajiks thought Russians were the hardest wokring people. The brought electricity to Tajikistan. Tajiks say that the Sun is the light from God. Electricity is the light from Lenin. Since Tajikistan reluctantly declared independence, apparently the Chinese are considered the hardest workers.

That night I shared a room with Russian business woman (I think). I only saw about 30 seconds of her, which probably suited us both.

The next morning I resolved to change hotels. It was pretty clear Sino wasn’t going to work out, I wanted to pamper myself and get better. I splurged on a bed and breakfast with a lovely room and private bath. It included wifi (yay!), laundry service, and even driver service. The manager freaked out as I accidentally unplugged her computer. This was obviously a tragedy for her, and she let me know over, and over. I got her back by asking to borrow paper scissors and using them to cut my toenails.

My first day there I only ventured outside once. I got as far as the main street before it was apparent that my intestines didn’t want me to do any exercise. Sino picked me up and drove me around the city in the late afternoon, showing me the main buildings and monuments. I retreated to the bed and breakfast, and ordered dinner in.

The next morning I resolved the day to be my last day in the city. I enjoyed breakfast with a US researcher staying in Dushanbe for a few weeks. When she found out I had been through Iran, she mentions she was originally from Iran and asked me how it was. She hadn’t been there since just before the revolution in 78. I asked why she hadn’t gone back. Her family is Jewish and is well known there, and her brother is still in Iran and is an active lawyer. Apparently going back isn’t an option. I answered her questions the best I could.

Sino had made plans to meet me at 11am, but he never materialized, and I gave up.

My final two tasks that I needed to complete before I left the city were to get some money out (while ATMs are common here, most are out of money, or only let you withdraw a paltry some of something like 300 somanis, or about $65. Not worth the $5 international transaction fee) AND get my camera lens fixed, as it was still stuck on full zoom. Sino had suggested going to a deparment store on the main street and asking around, which I was suprised to find actually worked. I was directed to a hole in the wall (literally, it was a 2 foot square hole in a wall to access the “fixer man”. We agreed I would pay him the equivalent of about $40 if he could fix it. For some reason I almost hesitated, then shook my head. Why would I pass on possibly my final chance to be able to take wide angle photos for a paultry $40? I watched him work for a while, then went to a hip cafe across the street and got iced tea and a raspberry cake that reminded me of summer in BC. When you imagine me in Central Asia, I’m sure you don’t have a picture of me sipping iced tea in an italian cafe with wifi, do you?

Later, back at the hole in the wall, I found that the zoom was now working, and he was slowly putting all the pieces back together. The camera reconstructed, he tested it and found the automatic focus was now not working. So I watched him take the whole thing apart again, and the back together. Success. I was thrilled, and took a photo of him and his friend, with a wide angle zoom. They kind of reminded me of a Tajik version of Flight of the Concords.

With my camera in tact, and happy that I had been out and about for a few hours with seemingly improved intestinal fortitude, I ventured out a bit longer and walked a bit around the main street before heading back to the guest house where I enjoyed my takeout leftovers, the BBC, and wifi until bed, at which point I knew my sore throat had turned into a full blown cold.

The next morning I took advantage of the guesthouse’s driver service, as the driver not only took me to the place where shared taxis to Khorog leave, but also found a vehicle and negotiated a price. Splurging for the guesthouse definitely paid off.

Overall Dushanbe seemed like a nice enough town, though I didn’t get to truly enjoy it. It is the last town for the next few weeks where the culinary options are plenty (Indian, Chinese, etc) so I’m sad to be sick and not be able to enjoy them. The abundance of treed streets were lovely after the barren scrub of most of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But the capital is not my reason for being in Tajikistan, the mountains are. I’m excited for what is to come.

(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.