(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.

(24) Ashgabat again: What do Mambo #5, Venus, I Feel Good, and Billie Jean have in common?

Why, I danced to them at a night club in Ashgabat.

An interesting evening upon my return to Ashgabat materialized. After returning to the hotel for a rest, I met up with Julica, Marta and Kuba to head for dinner. We exchanged stories (turns out Marta and Kuba have their passport under hostage and have been threatened to be deported by their tour agency) and then exchanged money before looking for food.

An unofficial taxi (read: a dude with a car) stopped near us, and Marta asked him to drive us to a traditional Turkmen restaurant, whatever that might look like. We headed about 5km through town and ended up at an overpriced and underwhelming place that rushed us to order as they were closing in 45 minutes at 10pm.

We ordered 3 dishes that we didn’t know what they were, plus a salad selected from a list of about 30 using the cover your eyes, swirl your finger, and point method.

Five minutes later our server returns to inform us that our 3 choices are not available. We reselect, using more blind pointing. And then are told that we must move inside and downstairs. So much for an evening in the relative cool. The inside reminds us a bit of a vampire den, plus there is the bottom of a boat with oars coming out of the ceiling.

The dinner finally arrives, and it is horrible (though I suppose we can only blame ourselves – we blind swirly finger picked the dishes).

  1. mayonnaise salad with potatoes, mushrooms, and pickled herring
  2. mayonnaise salad with chicken, mushrooms, corn and potatoes
  3. manty – like ground beef pot stickers – served with gobs of mayonnaise (we were expecting a usual topping of yogurt, until we started eating them)
  4. some sort of bird stewed in mushrooms and onions (we found about 4 grams of meat between the 4 of us)

Thankfully bread was served, as this made up the majority of what went into our stomachs.

As dinner ends, Kuba and Marta call the CouchSurfing host they have connected with here. Apparently he lives just around the block, and is shocked that we were taken to this restaurant. He picks us up in a shiny black SUV. He’s a young Turkish guy working here, selling apartment fixings (cabinets, etc) to new apartment buildings being built. The government is the builder, and they order mid-range stuff, but then the builders cancel the orders and take cheap stuff, pocketing the difference. Then, when the new, relatively wealthy owners move in, they rip everything out and order top of the line stuff. A great system. He’s been here 3 years, and says it’s getting better, more open. They’ve opened a movie theatre apparently.

We head to an outdoor cafe, where local yuppies come for a nightcap. Once we finally select drinks that are not only on the menu, but also in stock, the server disappears, only to come back 15min later to tell us that last call has already happened, and they are closing. It’s 10:45pm. Everything here has to shut down by 11pm.

We hang out for a while anyways. CouchSurfing dude has a girl with him. I ask him if it’s his wife. He laughs and shakes his head. It’s his girlfriend. When we are out of earshot, Marta tells me that he had his girlfriend with him last night too, except last night it was a different girl.

Finally, we head out to the nightclub. It’s a booming place, both in music and bodies. CouchSurfing dude’s girlfriend says she knows about 80% of the people there. And she says about the same percent of the women are “working”.

The music is a mix of shitty Russian techno, great oldies, and an eclectic series of Spanish songs. It’s world cup time and the club has soccer fever. The US – Ghana game is playing on the big screen.

Marta, Julica and I have a great time dancing when the songs are good. A lot of the time, the songs are not.

Eventually we are tired and want to go. It’s after 1am and we’re pooped. CouchSurfing dude has just started though. He apparently hops to 5 or so clubs each weekend night. We stay another hour until the US – Ghana games is over. I get dropped off at my hotel.

To find it locked. The front door to a large, seven story, three star hotel, is locked. I contemplate sitting down and lying my head back. I’m exhausted. I knock hard on the door. I look through the windows where I know the front desk is. Nothing. So I stand there. Thankfully, I spot a man on the other side. A guest? He tries the door but it’s locked from the inside too. A few minutes later, a sleep guard comes and opens the door for me. I feel like I’m trying to sneak in past my curfew and have been caught. I get to my room and fall to a deep slumber.

Next morning is bazaar time. The Sunday bazaar is supposed to be the best in Central Asia, so my expectations were high. Marta and Kuba came to meet me at my hotel, and we got a taxi together. My main hope at the market was to spot a carpet, but considering I had less than a hundred dollars with me, I obviously wasn’t going to be able to come back with much. Marta was interested in jewelry. We had also heard about the animal market, which sounded interesting.

At the market we wandered through food, kitchen supplies, automotive equipment. Nothing we were particularly interested in. The bazaar was huge, I’ll give it that. But nothing much more that a usual village market, times a thousand. Lots of people. Eventually we wound our way to the edge of the bazaar to the animal market. Camels, cows, sheep being bought and sold. The camels were most interesting. Mostly because camels are so foreign to me, but also because they have to use cranes to get them into the backs of trucks to transport them away. I checked out the cows. But I stopped short of the sheep. I knew I wouldn’t make it through there without getting incredibly uncomfortable. I first stopped eating mammal after my time on a sheep farm in NZ. Not that they were mistreated on the farm, but because when I helped get the sheep that were ready for slaughter onto the truck, I almost, but didn’t, cry (had to stay strong in front of the men, you know).  So I waited for the others by the cows.

We also ran into Julica here. A market with thousands of people, and you run into everyone you know.

We finally made it to the carpet and jewelry section too. The carpets were mostly underwhelming machine knotted pieces. A few nice silk ones, but I didn’t have a thousand dollars kicking around with me. Marta and Kuba left before me, and I continued to wander a bit further. Picked up a paring knife for about 30 cents to replace my Swiss Army knife, which I left behind at the hotel in Mary.

On the way back I picked up some fruit and veggies, and caught a cramped local bus back to the centre of town. When I got off the driver seemed frustrated when I tried to pay. Eventually I figured out he was asking me how many people I was paying for. Uh, me. The tourist. Is it not obvious I’m alone, with my khaki quick dry clothes and sunscreening safari hat?

Back at the hotel, I stayed in the rest of the day in air conditioned comfort. It was hot, and I was tired. Before I got to my room, the floor attendant tried to make sure I knew that I wasn’t supposed to eat in my room, and to not throw any of the stuff in the garbage here so that the crawly bugs stay away. I tried my best, using an extra bath towel as both my cutting board and my tupperware container for the fridge. I spent the evening listening to the original English underneath Russian-dubbed American movies.

The next morning was my last in Ashgabat, so I had to run a series of errands before we left. First was to finally get money from the only bank in town that does Visa cash advances. The unofficial taxi ride there was eye opening. So many white marble buildings surrounded by green grass. It was too over the top. The government here would be great at designing and maintaining golf resorts in Nevada, but I question the effectiveness of their economic development and social infrastructure.

The bank was, surprise surprise, a huge white marble building. Surprisingly little bureaucracy to get my USD. From there I walked to a monument nicknamed “The Plunger” by expats. It looks like, well, a huge white marble plunger. It was due east of the bank, about 2km I would guess. But to get there, I stumbled into a “real” neighbourhood. Surrounded in overgrown dried grass, were gravel streets of small homes, hanging laundry, small gardens. At first I thought I had stumbled onto a patch of poverty, hidden amongst the wealth on display on all sides surrounding area. But then I shook my head. This isn’t poverty. This is normalcy. Everything else is just so effusive, it can be easy to forget what normal is.

The Plunger did, in fact, live up to promises and look like a giant plunger. I ate icecream and took pictures, all the while expecting to be told by the many guards that pictures were not allowed. Seems like they were.

Caught a random bus that was heading in the direction of downtown, and I was pleasantly surprised to end up a block from my hotel. I ate some more towel-wrapped fruit and veggies, and checked out of the hotel after which I discretely disposed of my fruit and veggie waste in a bin on the street. Next up was internet, a snack, and mail. I was hoping to send a few things still to send home from Iran, but apparently 1/2 hour isn’t enough time to arrange that. I first filled out a form in quadruplicate (no carbon copies here, it was done by hand 4 times). They weighed my items. It was all looking good. And then they told me I couldn’t send home a few of the things. Then they wanted me to supply a bag. By this time I was supposed to be back at my hotel to meet the tour agency rep to pay for my tour. I gave up. And then they charged me 40 manat cents for the forms. About 15 Canadian cents, but I almost lost it.

It was my last interaction with Ashgabat . I tried to stay civil the post office staff. They were just doing their jobs, whatever their jobs were. But I stuffed my Iranian stuff back into my back in a very huffy way. So there.