Saturday, September 18, 2010

National Tajikistan Day

National Tajikistan Day

After Uzbek Customs I was afraid that the Tajikistan side would be a hassle, considering that TJ is considered the most corrupt of the Stans. But it was another breeze. For the first time on my trip the soldier at the last gate didn't even ask to see my passport for that final redundant check. I walked through and was officially in Tajikistan. Which meant that I now had been to all fifteen former Soviet Republics. Including Transdniester.

Not that I'm bragging or anything.

Things were slow here in Tajikistan at around 4:30 in the afternoon. After all, it was National Tajikistan Day, and everything was shut down. I had been aware of that when I had started out today, and had even been unsure whether the border would be open. Now that it was and I was through it, it was clear that I had been about their only customer. Which meant that there was no one else around to share a share taxi with.

There were a few drivers. But if they didn't get a fare they would just sleep in their cars tonight. So I had to pay a young guy $20 to go into Dushanbe. At least I got a 65 km drive out of it. And he dropped me off at the door of the Dushanbe Hotel.

Ex-Soviet hotels are renowned for their shabby exteriors, even shabbier interiors, surly clerks, long, long hallways, and large rooms with awfully painted walls, uncomfortable beds, and nothing that works. The surly desk clerk lady sent me upstairs to the much surlier floor lady who took me down a long, long corridor and showed me the room. The good news was that it was only $25. The bad news was that I would have to share it with whoever else showed up that night.

I went back downstairs. The desk clerk proved to be kind of friendly, actually, and I got the feeling that she would try to steer the other customers away. I paid her the money. Which I got from the first actual working ATM machine (owned by 'Responsible Bank') since the Bishkek airport. I went up to my room.

But I couldn't relax. Because I hadn't eaten all day, it was 6:30, and I had the feeling that Dushanbe was going to prove an even bigger dump than Bishkek. I went back downstairs, crossed the street, and found a cab to take me up to the Delhi Durbar, written up in the LP as having really good Indian food.

Usually in these fourth world capitals, the few 'exotic' restaurants that exist cater to the few people who can afford them, and they endeavor to have at least a touch of class. Not here. This would have been a crappy restaurant even in a small Indian city, and you can imagine how low their standards are. I ordered a bunch of standard Indian items and waited, watching the incessant Indian music videos and TV ads from the satellite TV .

The food was overpriced and barely edible. When I finished the last greasy bite it was now around 8. I looked at my map. It was only a couple of miles back to the hotel along the main drag. Maybe I could walk off a little of this grease.

The street was barely lit. All the stores were shut tight. Should I have my guard up? The Tajiks seemed to be notably small people. But there might be a lot of them. Desperately poor Tajiks with knives. There seemed to be a large police presence. But they might look the other way... I continued walking.

While driving up I was confused as to why the taxi guy would be taking all kinds of back alleys instead of the main drag. After a mile of walking I found out why. Blocking the road was a barricade of giant old buses, with heavily armed police every five feet. Pedestrians were being shunted off to the side. What was going on here? I got shunted off with the rest.

Down a dark little back alley and then a return to the now traffic-less wide, main street. Many more heavily armed police. Great. I was finally in a real police state! I walked along with the others through the gauntlet of cops.

In the distance I heard loud noise. As I got closer there was a final line of police. They patted me down. Then I was past them and at the edge of a medium sized crowd of people. Up in the front there was a stage. Behind the stage was a huge Orwellian kitsch statue. And behind that was an even more Orwellian kitsch arch. It was as if the crowd was taking part in some strange totalitarian science fiction ritual.

But it wasn't really. What it really was was a popular Tajik musical act performing at the National Tajikistan Day festival. Oh. And up there on the fuzzy jumbotron it wasn't a thundering speech by some Big Brother but a group of Tajik dancers on stage. Oh again. As I relaxed a bit I realized that these were just a bunch of Tajiks out for some fun on their national holiday. And I recalled being in Indianapolis on the 4th of July a few years ago, and how much far scarier the police presence had been then.

So I hung out for a while and grooved on the music. Persian music. And I remembered from the last time I was in Iran, in 1970, how much better Persian pop music is than Arabic pop music or Indian pop music. Still quite discordant to our ears. But much more complex.

After about a half hour I realized I had to get back to the hotel. The next stage of my journey, getting from Dushanbe to Khorog some 550 km away, had been hanging on me ever since I started planning the trip. The choice was between going to the airport and trying to get on a flight that usually didn't leave, or taking a seat on an overstuffed vehicle for a 20 hour journey on a terrible road. This afternoon as I was nearing Dushanbe I had pretty much decided to just go for it the next day and get it over with. Now that I had seen the best that Dushanbe had to offer, my resolve strengthened.

But I still had the problem of getting some food for the road. Namely little processed cheese triangles. Like I had lived off of in West Africa. Which, once again in retrospect, seemed more together than here. So far I hadn't even seen an open market.

But a half block from the hotel one magically appeared. I stocked up on the triangles and some fruit juice and some sugar coated peanuts. Yum.

By now it was ten and I was so exhausted that I didn't know how I would get up in the morning. Just dead dog tired. But I awoke kind of refreshed before five, then lay there until six, then got up and did my stretching and slowly put all my stuff together. At seven thirty I was out of the hotel and headed up the road.

But uncertain. Both the airport and the share taxi lot were in the same direction, but I still hadn't decided which to try.. I finally walked up to a cab and told him to take me to the airport.

Dushanbe airport has to be the world's dinkiest international airport. I knew that people would be milling around waiting to see if the flight was going today, but I had expected that to be inside the terminal. But it didn't look like more than 25 could fit inside the terminal. Instead there were at least 100 milling around outside. For a plane that carries 17.

A nice Tajik girl told me that I could try and get a ticket at the ticket office, which was about a half a mile away. A taxi took me there, but the office wasn't open. Okay. I had the taxi take me to the share taxi lot. He dropped me off outside it.

I walked in. I had expected to see people milling around haggling about Khorog prices, but instead there was a big empty asphalt area fronted by little storage/warehouse rooms. What?? A single man finally materialized and pointed towards the back. When I got there it opened up on the right and there indeed were a few people milling around. And a lot of empty vehicles in various states of being. A driver immediately tried to talk me into being one of his last passengers in a beat up old van. I don't think so.

Then another guy approached. He had a Mitsubishi Pajero, a smaller, cheaper version of a Land Cruiser. And he was offering me the front seat. At a discounted price. Sold.

By now it was 8:15 and he still had a couple of places to fill. By 9:15 he had done it and we were on the road heading out of Dushanbe. Until the first police check. And the second police check. And the third police check. Usually in these situations all the police care about are the locals and I get a free pass. Here all they cared about was me and my passport. Further on they would have to enter all my details in a ledger. In all there would be 19 stops.

For now, though, we were out of the city and into the mountains. Except that we first had to stop to fill up. Which meant somebody dipping a bucket into a barrel of gasoline and then funneling into the fuel tank. Again and again.

Yesterday the flat irrigated area around Bukhara had changed back to flat desert. Then it had changed to light brown, rounded, dead hills. Then the hills had gotten higher. Then for a brief period it had started to get wild and woolly. Then it had changed to flat, lush agricultural land surrounding Denau. And it had basically stayed that way to Dushanbe. Now finally, and for the first time, we were headed up into real mountains. Dry light brown mountains. Usually with a frothily flowing river beside us.

Since today just happened to be Eid, the end of Ramadan, everything was going to be closed down until Monday, making it National Tajikistan Weekend. But this being the former Soviet Union, the only real manifestation of Eid would be a few small groups of country females wearing their nicest dresses going to or from the mosque.

As the day progressed we kept going up and around and up some more, the mountains getting more rugged as we rose. The road was mostly paved, sometimes gravel, but always at least as good as a half decent forestry road. Albeit a 550 km long forestry road. But having snagged shotgun, it wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as I had feared.

We stopped for lunch, where I had bread and little processed cheese triangles. Then up and up some more for about 200 km. Kind of like a dry Colorado, only bigger. We finally reached the summit near sunset, got out for the police check, and admired the wide, wide view. On the horizon were snow capped summits, which means that they were at least 16,500. Then it was steeply downhill on one of those roads where most people would get really nervous looking over the side. As the light was fading.

We stopped at 7 for dinner. Ten hours so far, and if the journey had ended then it would have been no big deal. And the road never got worse. It's just that it started to get cramped and tiring as each hour went past. I had kind of computed from when we passed all the vehicles that had started out from Khorog that morning that it would be about 15 hours total. It clocked in at just under 15 and a half.

Now it was 1 am and we were being disgorged by the tiny empty bus lot in Khorog. Where to stay??? The driver pointed out a hotel next to us, but it looked pretty funky. Fortunately an English speaking Khorog resident just happened to be standing around. He went with me up to the place, and we determined that a room without bath was $10. Problem was that it was one of those super thin mattresses, which would have destroyed my back far more than today's drive. What to do?

Fortunately the mattress was really wide, so that I could fold it in half. Then fold the super thick blanket on top of that. Then close the window to make sure the room stayed warm. Then put in my earplugs, put on my eyeshades, and hope I can sleep through the dawning.


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