Tajikistan celebrates 26 years of independence from the Soviet Union on 9th September. Perhaps best known for its civil war and economic collapse of the early 90s, it has come a long way since then, however it remains one of the poorest countries in the world
There is a large population of Tajiks in northern Afghanistan and also in the Uzbekistan cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.
It was talking to the Tajik owner of the guest house we stayed at in Bukhara (Uzbekistan) last year that really piqued our interest in Tajikistan and the rest of the Stans.
Tajikistan has strong cultural and military ties with Russia. It’s economy is also heavily reliant on the paychecks of Tajik men who work away in Russia. It also has growing ties with China on its Eastern border with Chinese companies helping to build transport and energy infrastructure, and investing in oil, gas and gold mining. It manages to balance its close cultural ties with Iran while also receiving assistance from the US, thanks to sharing a border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan is also one of the busiest heroin corridors in the world, as opium from Afghanistan makes its way north to Russia and beyond.
For centuries Dushanbe was a village. Its name literally means ‘Monday’ and originates from the day it held it’s weekly bazaar. In soviet times Dushanbe was known as the ‘Paris of Central Asia’ although that was widely recognised to be something of an over statement.
It was as late as 1997 that gunmen openly strolled up and down Rudaki Avenue, the main street.
Dushanbe airport was heaving despite the early hour, and we were pleased our hostel did cheap airport transfers so we didn’t have to hustle a taxi and get someone up when we arrived. They threw breakfast into the transfer price too which was awesome. We could have our room from noon and were offered for US$10 each a dorm bed if we wanted to sleep before then. We weren’t feeling too bad so declined. Instead we hung out in one of the two common areas. Filtered water, tea and coffee was also all free. We quietly got ourselves a bit more organised and wrote some of the blog while we waited for breakfast to start.
Over breakfast we met a retired kiwi couple from the Bay of Plenty (thanks to Marie’s t-shirt that had a kiwi on it) they were 10 weeks into a 4 month trip through Central Asia and we were the first (honorary) kiwis they had met. They were going the other way to us and had a few days earlier come off the Pamir Highway, so over breakfast gave us their tips.
We had 2 important tasks for the day, firstly to find a driver for our Pamir trip and secondly to get some local currency. We kicked the first off by asking at the hostel if they knew anyone. They were sure their boss could sort us out, after clarifying where we were wanting to go (they approved of the itinerary we’d developed) and that we weren’t fussed about having a driver that speaks English (apparently some people have this as a strict requirement and drivers that speak English sometimes charge more) we were clear we just want a good experienced driver, as long as he understood where we wanted to go then we could manage the rest of the communication. We headed out to explore before it got hotter, with the understanding we’d see what could be sorted out for us by the afternoon.
We love the wheeler dealer attitudes that seem to be ingrained in the culture. If the person you speak to can’t sort you out they usually have a friend that can and are happy to be a broker so their friend gets whatever business is going down. You don’t study these business skills they’re taught from father to son as soon as they are old enough to be involved in the wheeling and dealing.
Initial impressions of Dushanbe are that it is a lot like Uzbekistan, which is what we’d expected given their shared ancestry and close proximity. It’s a pleasant city, the perfect landing pad or rest stop, but there is nothing super exciting here, its just quite nice.
Many houses near our hostel are growing grapevines to provide shade to car ports, so frequently you have bunches of grapes hanging over your head.
We found Dushanbe’s infamous Green Market easily as it is not far from our hostel. When we popped out after meandering through it aimlessly we didn’t really know where we were, so headed off in vaguely, aiming for Rudaki Avenue. We got completely lost, sign posts are few and are in Cyrillic so don’t match the English names on our maps which makes navigating when you don’t know where you are hard. We asked several locals and it was clear people don’t really walk that far as much scratching of heads went on as they pointed us in roughly the right direction.
It took us over an hour plus a tea stop before we found it. We explored the central park, which has a big statue of Rudaki, a new government palace (the guard told us no photos), and a heap of fountains. What was once the world’s tallest flagpole (165m) overlooks the park. We looped through and then crossed the road to visit the statute of Somoni (the currency is named after him). Apparently, the crown is made from 10 kilograms of Tajik gold. The friendly police man there took us up the steps and showed us the view looking down towards the Parchan (column) with the National Library to the left and palace and flagpole to the right. He then asked us for money. We declined.
We took a much more direct route back to the hostel and the third ATM we tried coughed out a bit of local cash (we knew ATMs are next to useless in Tajikistan but change places aren’t open on a Sunday, though we’re sure our hostel would have sorted us out).
We settled into our room and then went to find out the score with finding us a driver. Turns out that one of the guys that had been at breakfast was a driver from Kyrgyzstan who had come to take 2 European guys over the Pamirs but they hadn’t shown up so he was looking for another gig. So as easy as that we’d found ourselves an experienced driver who is a good mechanic (apparently he often stops to help others too, which is fine by us as we can take more photos). He a pretty quiet unassuming guy that doesn’t speak English and he’s Kyrgyz so Emma’s bit of Tajik won’t help. We survived 16 days bouncing round Mongolia in a Russian jeep with a driver that spoke no English, our international sign language is pretty good, so we’re not concerned about making ourselves understood.
We spent a good part of the afternoon talking to Lil, the kiwi woman, while simultaneously escaping the worst of the heat (38-40C) it’s not humid though so we had coped with it in the morning much better than we’d expected. Lil and her husband have literally been everywhere in the world, most places twice.
After making a token gesture to get our bags a bit more organised we headed out to explore the streets around the hostel in the early evening. We’d been given directions to a Tajik restaurant nearby for dinner (dining options near the hostel being very limited). We had beef kebabs and bread – after Emma checked out the meat for freshness – the restaurant was doing a good trade. After eating tiredness kicked in so we headed back.
In the cooler air all the children were out playing on the street. Kids often practice their English on you so we got frequent hellos and how are you? We were fast asleep by 8:30pm which was a pretty good effort we thought.
The next morning we had a breakfast and got a plan to get ourselves organised for our trip. Marie crunched some numbers as we needed Tajik Somoni currency for accommodation (which is all homestays in the Pamirs) and shops on the way but it is also hard to change Somoni outside of Tajikistan so we don’t want to change more than we need. We’re hoping if we guess wrong we’ll be able to find someone to do a deal with and we figure our driver will take a tip in any currency. We came up with a number and our hostel said they could change it for us for a good rate so someone was dispatched with our US$ and came back 15 minutes later with Somoni.
We headed to the market to get some supplies. Fruit and veg is in short supply in the mountains so we bought plums, peaches, figs and grapes. We got biscuits from our local store. When we got back our driver took us to a big supermarket in the mall to get the rest of our essentials.
Lil had warned us to take lots of water as what is available is gassed and only in small bottles. We bought 3 cases of 1.5 litre bottles, some small cartons of juice and some cans of coke for special occasions. We also bought a flask, tea bags and sugar – chai stops are an essential for any road trip – together with lollies. We balanced it out by also getting some staples like jam and crisps as we’ve been warned that snacks and lunch during the day can be hard to find.
After we got back we had lunch with the kiwi couple and some German backpackers, before heading off to meet 2 Italian guys we’d been talking to through the Lonely Planet forum. They are also going to do the Pamir highway and our dates are close to matching, we just need to go a little quicker than them but we figured we’d see them each evening for the first couple of nights anyway since everyone stays in the same small places. They’d also made contact with an American guy to share their jeep with so we all met in a café.
They were really nice and it was a shame our dates don’t align. They have a German couple lined up to join them in Khorog and had a driver organised through an agency there. They hadn’t yet organised their driver to get there. The American guy’s hostel is round the corner from ours and his and ours are the 2 main ones that travellers stay at so they are used to arranging this. So we all headed to his place and left them inside to see what they could organise and chatted to an couple outside with a kitted out Land Rover. They are 4 months into 3 years of driving around the world. It was a very cool set up, the heat was giving them issues though and repairs were being doing to oil leaks from seals the heat has destroyed.
After getting hot we headed inside where negotiations were getting a bit more tense, a 4th German guy was keen to join them but they wanted more money for going the northern route that is the Pamir highway and then when we started to say the price we were paying suddenly their number started coming down and the Italian guys started not to trust the deal
We have 2 seats in our Land Cruiser we said they were welcome to have but one felt obliged to not leave the American guy in the lurch who in turn was putting pressure on them as he is price sensitive and the price they were now being offered was pretty cheap. We invited them back to our place for a chai 30 min time out so they could work out what they wanted to do. We confirmed with our place that it would be no issue to take them for the 2 day journey to Khorog and offered them a good price as its just a bonus to us. Our plan was always to hire the vehicle ourselves so we can set our own itinerary and then if we find people that need a ride on the way we’d pick them up.
The Italians had always wanted to come with us so the price gave them the reason to let the American guy down. As we negotiated that a Belgium guy got back. He is heading out tomorrow to join 3 British guys for the trip but they are heading directly up from Murghab to Osh at the end and skipping Karakul Lake and Sary Tash/Sary Moghol which he wants to see. He worked out he’d be arriving in Murghab the day before us so we made loose plans that if he bails in Murghab if he hadn’t got a ride out he’ll join us for our last 3 days.
After the Italians left we organised our bags, charged our tech and headed out to find dinner. Being in a city and with warnings the homesteads in the Pamirs all feed you plov for dinner we splashed out and headed for an Italian place in the guidebook. It was a 45 minute walk so we felt we had earned it.
The temperature in the evening is really nice and the streets were heaving with people still when we left at 9:30pm. We passed a fountain light and sound show on our way back which we weren’t expecting. It seemed to be part of the opera house. When we left the main drag the backstreets to our accommodation were quiet but it feels perfectly safe. We’re still looking forward to hitting the road though!
Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through