Off the Beaten Track – Tajikistan

Another auspicious entry to a country!  I was met at the border by my 20 year old guide and promptly asked him to get the driver to stop 200 metres down the road so I could pee behind a tree.   He was a bit bewildered as to why I hadn’t even approached the public conveniences at the border……, honestly my nose wouldn’t let me get within a 100 metres of the border loo!  Sewage cooked in Central Asian sun does not smell good!
Thus began 48 hours of what I hope was some reprogramming of my lovely guides ‘interesting views’ on women and what they could and should do.  In fairness, he was lovely, very friendly, had terrific english, eager to please and to make sure I had the very best experience that I could in Tajikistan. However, I was his first female tourist – tourism not being a huge thing in these parts.  And he spent a lot our time together trying to reconcile being nice to me, with his view that most women should be like his wife  (who he had recently wed in an arranged marriage) i.e shouldn’t work, should cover herself from neck to toes, and should wear a headscarf.  It was fun!
There really isn’t much to do in Tajikistan unless you have time, companions and money to go and hike in the high Pamirs.   I will do that at some point, but I didn’t have the time or companions on this visit.    So, I went to Khujand – the cultural capital of Tajikistan for a look around.  It is no Uzbekistan, but there were a few things to see, and I didn’t see a single tourist when I was there.  I couldn’t honestly recommend anyone go for the scintillating tourist sites, but I managed to find a couple of things to do
I visited the museum in Khujand in the Fortress.  There is a lot of sadness in the Tajiks, as most of their treasured cultural monuments are actually in Uzbekistan – particularly the tomb of Ismael Samani, the founder of the Tajik society (see the post on Bukhara).  When the Soviets broke up the Stans, many of the boundary lines were drawn without care or reference to the historical tribal lands.   Listening to the old ladies in the museum lament the ‘loss’ of their treasures was powerful, they aren’t easily able to cross the borders and they feel like whole parts of their lives have been stolen.    Honestly, it wasn’t the V&A, but they did have a much loved mosaic tile recreation of the life of Alexander the great (who says I don’t appreciate the arts ;-))
go shopping in Payshanbe
After the museum we went to Payshanba the biggest bazaar in Asia.  Great fresh produce, nuts, meats and the usual plastic rubbish that everyone imports from China.   The watermelons were amazing.  The clientele and the stall owners were fascinating – loved the dresses.  And every now and then I would see an incongruous Russian lady in a mini skirt – not sure what they were doing there.  Next to the bazaar is the Shikh Muslihiddin mosque and mausoleum, sadly no women allowed!  Apparently it is a bit cultural highlight, so if you are a bloke it might be worth checking out.  My most entrenched memory from visiting the market was a deep and abiding gratitude for time and place of birth.  I am not sure I would have coped well as a Tajik woman
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Competitive trading
Why I don't eat much meat when travelling
Why I don’t eat much meat when travelling
Go see some weddings at the arbob palace
We also popped out the Arbob palace, which is actually a bonkers modern building which used to be the home of a Soviet collective farm, and was the place were Emomalii Rahmon came into the public domain.  Rahman is the mad dictator who has been ‘president’ for 24 years.  He’s not popular but has just changed the constitution so he can stay in power indefinitely.   Technically you are not allowed go into the palace, but a small donation to the doorman sorted that out.   The gardens were a hot Khujand wedding venue and we saw 8 weddings within the space of an hour.  Not one of the brides was over 20!!!!
Arbob Palace
Arbob Palace
Go for a run, avoiding the drunk locals
Had an interesting 10k run one evening in the searing heat around the botanic gardens and along the river.  I had unwisely gone out in shorts and a tank top, so did have to extricate myself from an over-friendly group of half drunk Tajik blokes who wanted to get to know me better.
Check out Mug Tepa and the Shah Mausoleum in Istaravshan
Mug Tepa is one of the ancient settlements in Tajikistan, which is to say it is a few old walls and a dome which are well guarded by policemen.  So, while we tried to visit, we got kicked out.  Apparently they were worried about us being political demonstrators….., which I think loosely translates from Tajik as ‘you didn’t offer a big enough bribe’    We also popped by the Khazrati Shoh mausoleum.
Guide and Driver at Mug Tepa
Guide and Driver at Mug Tepa
Additional tips
  • The food is good – simple and fresh.  Delicious salads with tomato, cucumber and tonnes of herbs and good cheese.  Lots of grilled meats.   I probably shouldn’t have eaten the salads given they were washed in tap water, but my stomach survived
  • I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Khujand – very nice, probably nicer than I needed.
  • The border crossing is a total pain in the butt.  Both the Uzbek and Tajik side were rude, unhelpful and unnecessarily pervy at looking through my underwear.  Ladies, be warned.