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Central Asian travel diary -- Part 2


May 13, 2005

Travel diary to Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) and Central Asia >>> Photos

Part 2 Part 1 Part 3
Thursday April 7

Mr S is a good travel companion. He keeps talking about his industrial exploits in post-revolutionary Iran, the factories he set up and people he employed. He tells me that he's doing all this now not for the money but for the pleasure of keeping busy and helping others. I kind of believe him. He is the type of guy who can't keep still and needs to be busy at all times.

When it's time to serve food, the stewardess skips me and Mr S, leaving us high and dry. The agile industrialist springs out of his seat and immediately secures two trays of food for himself and I.

He tells me that 90% of Tajikistan is mountainous and uninhabitable and its population of 6 million live in the remaining 10% of the land. That Tajikistan supplies water to Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The flight takes about 3 hours and we land in Dushanbe at around 3:30 local time. The passengers get out of their seats as soon as the plane starts to taxi. A shouting match erupts in Tajik and Russian between the crew and the passengers. Reminds me of Iran Air flights of yesteryears to New York, where the flight attendant would resort to shouting "haaj aaghaa beshin!"

As we disembark onto the tarmac, some passengers, oblivious to the jet fuel all around us, light up their cigarettes. I distance myself from the potential explosions.

They bus us to the terminal but nobody is allowed into the building. The situation is chaotic. We all crowd up in front of the closed entrance door. Closest to the door are several Tajik women in traditional attire making a lot of noise. The door finally opens and the guard only allows the women in. He refers to them as "zanakaan"! Then a guy wearing Iran Air uniform appears at the door. He knows Mr S and drags him in. Mr S pulls me in with him.

The terminal is old and rundown. It looks something like an Iranian provincial airport in the 1950's, with plaster chipping off the walls and dirty floors. The place looks neglected.

I don't have a visa. I bought a 'Letter of Invitation' over the internet for $65 and I'm supposed to present the letter and get a visa at the airport. It so happens, the Airport Consulate Office is closed today! The guy at Passport Control stamps my Letter of Invitation and gives it back to me asking me to come back tomorrow morning. Just like that, they allow me to enter the country without a visa. What if I don't come back tomorrow?

It takes about 45 minutes for the luggage to make it onto the vintage carrousel. As I exit the baggage claim area, at least 10 people approach me offering taxi services. I randomly pick one and go with him to the parking lot. He takes me to his friend's car parked quite a ways from the building. The car is a 1960's Zhigooli, a Russian economy car. The driver's name is Hekmatollah. The guy who brought me is Abdul-Jalil.

I want to talk price with them but they evade. Instead, they offer to be my guides during my stay and I agree. They are both 39-years old and buddies from childhood. I choose my words carefully to make sure they understand me when I speak. I'm speaking formal Farsi with them, without the Tehrani contractions and slang.

Tajikistan time is 3 hours behind China's and the local time now is 4:30 PM. The weather here is also cold and the sky's overcast. Dushanbe is a pretty little city with lots of greenery and wide tree-lined streets. The traffic is very light and there aren't that many people to be seen. Tajiks use the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet. Reading street and store signs takes time, but once you decipher them, a familiar sounding word always emerges; words like aash-khaane, daaru-khaane, Haafez Shiraazi, Nastaran, etc.

My guides take me to Hotel Avesta on Rudaki Street. This is the best hotel in town and from the outside, reminds me of Hotel Ramsar in the old days. Hekmatollah accompanies me to the registration counter. The Russian lady at the counter doesn't speak Tajik or doesn't want to. (This theme is repeated throughout my stay in Tajikistan). I get a single room for $55 a night. Hekmat and Jalil help take my stuff to the room and then take leave with a promise to pick me up tomorrow at 8:30.

Hotel Avesta is a typical communist era luxury hotel, probably built during the Stalin years. Everything about it is old and out of style. The elevator probably dates back to the early 20th century. All the maids are Russian and don't speak a word of Tajik. My room is clean and comfortable. The long spout in the shower basin rotates and doubles as a fawcett over the adjacent bathroom sink.

Most of the TV channels are in Russian. There is BBC International and 2 Tajik channels that start broadcast after 6:00 PM.

After a brief rest I head out of the hotel and start strolling on Rudaki Street. It's a beautiful, wide street with very little traffic. Police are everywhere, randomly stopping passing cars for inspection. From what I hear, there's been a shooting a couple of days back and the security is tight.

A light sprinkle has started. I'm beginning to think that I bring precipitation with me wherever I go. My raincoat protects me from the light rain as I get further from my hotel.

I come by a couple of restaurants and decide to go in one of them. Its name in Cyrillic is "POXAT", which is pronounced "raahat". It's a giant place with rows of tables. I take a seat and realize none of the servers speak Tajik! The place is Russian-owned. Fortunately they have English menus and I manage to order some food. Patrons are upper-class Tajiks. Men are in suits and ties and women in Western attire. There's vodka on every table and almost everybody smokes. The food is mediocre and the soda pop is room-temperature.

On the way back to the hotel, I stop by an internet café named "Plasma"! They charge 2 Saamaanis for 30 minutes (3 Saamaanis to a Dollar). The connection is slow but it serves the purpose.

Friday April 8
As promised, Jalil and Hekmat show up at my door at 8:30 and we drive to the airport. It's now raining and an umbrella is in order. Once there, I have a hard time finding the Consular Office which is located in a building adjacent to the terminal. The Consul and his aide are courteous and helpful. They give me a 3-day visa at a cost of $44. After that I go to the Tajik Air ticket office and buy a one-way ticket to Khujand for tomorrow for $60. The ticket agent, a Tajik girl in her 20's, refuses to speak Tajik with me and addresses me in Russian and broken English.

I haven't had breakfast, or 'Zaftra', as Hekmat calls it. It's now around 10:00 and we start looking for a place to eat. He stops at a restaurant and we go in. They give us our own room, away from the cold and the rain. Our waitress, Narges, is a young, pretty, Tajik woman. When she talks to my guides, I practically understand nothing. The dialect they use is very different from the Tajik you hear on Television and Radio. In general, when they speak to Iranians, they have to use formal speech, otherwise we can't understand them.

Abdul-Jalil wants to order vodka and I figure, what the heck, I've never had vodka for breakfast. Let's go for it. Narges comes back with a large tray of salads and we pick a few from among the selections. The first course is called 'Pelimin", mutton-filled dumplings floating in a soup with white foam on top. It's ok, but my guides seem to like it more than I do. After that comes the chicken shashlik with delicious naan. All the while, Jalil and I are downing shots of vodka, one after another.

Hekmat and Jalil have two wives each at home and yet, they're both coming on to Narges. She relents and exchanges phone numbers with Hekmatollah, the better-looking of the two.

Satiated and inebriated, we leave the aash-khaane and head out of town to a place called "hesaar ghale'h". It's an 18th century fort in a state of disrepair. Next to it is an old madrassa turned into a museum. We enter the museum and as the sole visitors on this rainy day, we get the full attention of the guide. She is dressed in traditional clothes and takes us from room to room describing the artifacts. When we get to the pottery room she starts reciting a well-known Rubayi by Khayyam and once she gets to the last verse, I start accompanying her. Hekmat and Jalil look at me with amazement.

We come upon a couple of wedding parties at hesaar ghale'h . I guess they use this location for taking photos. So with the permission of the party hosts, I get busy and start taking pictures of the bride and groom, the colorfully clad guests, and the musicians. The Tajik word for 'picture' is 'soorat'.

We drive back to Dushanbe. I run a couple of errands; call my wife and exchange some money. Then we go to visit the famous Saamaani Square in downtown . After that we drive to a mountainous area north of Dushanbe called 'Varzaab'. We are on a road that connects Dushanbe with Khujand in the north. As we go up, the rain turns into snow and finally we get to a road blockage and turn back.

My guides drop me at the hotel and leave to come back tomorrow morning to take me to the airport for my flight to Khujand. I wash up and again head out for a stroll on Rudaki Street.

This time I find a Turkish restaurant named "Mervy" just across the street from my hotel. They offer Donner Kabob and lots of other goodies like black tea in estekaan and many kinds of sweets, and as usual, room-temperature soda pop. I have myself a feast there.

Back in my hotel room, I watch some Tajik television. Their news program reminds me of Iran during the Shah's era. 90% of the news is about the activities of their beloved (!) president, Imamali Rahmanov. Where he went, what he did, what he said, etc, etc. From what I see and hear, this guy is amassing great wealth while the average Tajik is living in abject poverty. But let's not get into politics.

Saturday April 9
I check out of the hotel at around 9:30 and head to the airport with Jalil and Hekmat. On the way there, Jalil starts talking about how hard their life is and how they struggle to make ends meet. He is priming me for a good tip, I guess. At the airport, I give them $60 each and they aren't happy at all. Hekmat says that he expected to get at least $300 for his effort. I remind him that the average salary in Tajikistan is less than $50 a month, and for one and a half days of work, they're getting a good deal. Anyway, they leave disappointed >>> Part 3
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For letters section
To Shahriar Zahedi

Shahriar Zahedi


Book of the day

The Persian Garden
Echoes of Paradise
By Mehdi Khansari, M. Reza Moghtader, Minouch Yavari
>>> Excerpt

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