Thursday 29 June 2023

2023 Tajikistan: Dushanbe, Khujand, Panjakent

8.6.23 Dushanbe

It’s Thursday in Dushanbe, which is strange, because “Dushanbe” comes from the Tajik word for Monday, the day the market was held in what 100 years ago was an unremarkable village.  Now, I sit in Rudaki Park as a dozen fountains plash on stone.  All along Rudaki Avenue there are huge buildings going up, the Chinese banners on them revealing who is building them – probably for a knockdown price.  But there’s no denying the ambition of the place, or its emerging wealth.  Lots of new cars here, and people generally look comfortable.

Up this morning to Megafon to get my Tajik SIM - £15 for 8 Gbytes and minutes.  Not exactly eager to help in the store, the two young ladies typically Tajik – false eyelashes seem de rigueur.  But the phone works.  Before that, to the bank to get somoni.  Straightforward, but a sting in the tail: they don’t take pounds sterling.

Breakfast late – around 9am.  Not the best I've had, nor the worst.  Up late because I finally got to Rohat Hotel at 3am local time.  That’s 11pm UK time.  I got up today at 8.30am local time – 4.30am UK.  I could have been here much earlier, but my driver, sent by the hotel, was waiting for someone else on the same flight.  Who never turned up.
Turkish Airlines as efficient as ever, my case going straight through from London Gatwick to Dushanbe.  No problem with my visa, although the border lady looked even more severe with her huge false eyelashes.  Many people got visas on arrival, but it was easy enough to do online.  The usual cheerful chaos outside in the warm (23°C) night air.  Driving in from the airport was like all the other journeys I've made in this part of the world.  Driving past lots of half-finished buildings, gaudy shops, a few pedestrians.  It’s good to be here.

Even though the temperature was in the mid 30s and climbing, I walked back, down Rudaki Avenue.  Past the Monument of Ismoil Somoni on Dousti Square, into the welcome shade of the trees lining the avenue, then to the room, picking up a bottle of water on the way. 
Sitting now in the nearby Tiflis restaurant – rather dark and subterranean.  Not very busy – heard one bloke speaking Georgian, but the waitress looks Chinese.  I’m sitting in one of the small rooms where two blokes eat – and smoke.  At least there’s aircon.

Yesterday was long.  I got up at 4.30am, to the airport for the flight at 10.55.  Arrived in Istanbul, in what is one of my favourite airports, because it is a hub that lies at the centre of things.  The departures board is full of tantalising possibilities.  This huge airport is one useful thing that Erdoğan did.  Pity he won again.  Just a short stopover, then on to the second plane – much bigger, and surprisingly full of Tajiks. I wonder what they did in Istanbul.

Although I was in the 4 of the 2+4+2 seating, I had no one next to me and so was able to stretch out slightly and sleep (slightly).  The meal was pretty much like all meals I’ve had with Turkish Airlines, which is fine by me.  

Talking to the driver on the way to the hotel was challenging: his Russian was strongly accented.  Interesting that it is generally used here if necessary, but there’s a strong push for Tajik, which is fair.  All new signage seems only in Tajik. [Bloke has just lit another fag.]  Now eating khachapuri – rather good, and piping hot.  Turns out the young lady is from Turkmenistan.

After a much-needed sleep – heat and jetlag is a bad combination – out to the Ayni Opera to meet a Tajik journalist I know from Twitter, Nigora Fazliddin.  I hope we go somewhere cool.  The opera square, with its fountains, has that late afternoon feeling to it, even if the temperature has not dropped.  Must be the lengthening shadows.  It’s clear to me that I will have to scale back my (as usual) insanely ambitious plans to see stuff.  In this heat, it just isn’t on.  More generally, this journey – which is forecast to hover around 40°C for all its duration – is a warning of how the world will be in many places in the coming years…

When looking for somewhere to eat, noticed lots of pizza places, plus a few fast-food chains.  Also Turkish restaurants, which are apparently quite popular.  Not much street food. Also no street dogs, which is strange, and probably a bad sign… Not much evidence of Chinese people other than the mega building projects.  Sitting here in the shade of the yew (?) trees in front of the opera house is quite pleasant.  It’s the sun that is the killer.  
[A few people wearing masks.]  Interesting chat about Tajik linguistics, journalism, travel, religion – the usual stuff.  We went to the Coffee Moose nearby – vaguely international feel to it.  Nice cheesecake.

Afterwards, I considered my options for supper.  I couldn’t face trekking out to find a new restaurant and didn’t really feel like going back to Tiflis.  Fortunately, the latter had given me a doggy bag with my khachapuri.  So I decided to top up with other food from a supermarket.  There’s a great chain here call Paykar.  I passed one this morning when I got my SIM.  Very big, modern.  I went to the one on Ayni Street, bought bits and pieces.  

But when I got back to the hotel, I couldn’t find my keycard.  I thought I might have lost it as I took out my wallet to pay.  So back to Paykar, hoping it had been found.  It hadn’t.  They even looked at the video footage of the tills – nothing.  I have no idea where else it could be.  Back at the hotel they heard the bad news – and said they had no spare keycard.  But instead, they could open the door of my room with a knife, and did.  Totally embarrassing all this, since I have never done something this stupid before...


Fixed up tomorrow’s car to Khujand.  Rather salty $150, but it is an eight-hour trip, including a visit to Iskanderkul.  Then by taxi up Rudaki to an ATM I used yesterday.  Since I know it works with my UK card, I decided it was worth the 10 somoni – about 60p – to go back.  Then by taxi to here, the National Museum of Antiquities.  Before I enter, a babushka asks me to put on plastic overshoes – quite right.  Also right that we foreigners should pay 50 somoni – around £4 – rather than then the 10 somoni the locals pay.  Inside I seem to be the only person here.

Lots of bones and broken pots, interesting maps showing Alexander the  Great’s empire, stuttering to a halt at Khujand, or “Alexandria Eschate” – the last of his many cities of that name.  Interesting info about Takht-i-Sangin, a Greek influenced “Temple of Oxus”.  Around 4th century BC.  Some impressive finds from Panjakent, including murals like those in Samarkand, and a huge Shiva and Parvati sculpture.  A room with items from Bunjikat – near Shahriston.  More striking wall paintings.  Palace destroyed by fire, so many exhibits black and charred, but preserved as a result.  

The highlight here, of course, is the huge sleeping Buddha – the largest remaining in Central Asia.  Found in Ajina tepe, cut into 92 pieces – made of clay.  The museum is a great reminder of all the cultures that have flowed here, often following the armies.  Confirms how “central” Central Asia is.

Back to the hotel to upload my pix to the cloud – then back to the Moose.  Seemed pretty good, and I’ve already got some of their bugs, so makes sense to return.  Fairly busy, but space for me.  It’s too hot to wander looking for other restaurants, and the heat also means I’m not that hungry.

Not many Westerners around – hardly seen any so far.  A few Russians came to my hotel yesterday – at least I think they were Russians.  Could have been Tajiks that only spoke Russian, of which there are some, apparently.  But there seems a clear drive to move all to Tajik.  Interesting the mix of some women dressed in Western and others in Islamic garb.  Seems a personal thing.  

Had a chicken burger – I hope this is not tempting fate in view of what happened in Varanasi…  Very cosmopolitan bunch here, some using laptops, everyone on their phones.  Here feels much more modern than Tashkent or Samarkand, say, even though the latter is far more developed in terms of tourism.  Police low profile, no guns…

After lunch, out along Rudaki Avenue to aid digestion.  Hot, mitigated by the slight but welcome breeze, plus the tall shading trees that make the avenue pleasant.  Up north, to the crazy twin buildings at right angles, like some sci-fi construction.  Then down south, past the Dushanbe Serena hotel.  Saw again, even at the height of the sun, women sweeping the road – as elsewhere always women.  And I do mean sweeping the roads – in this case, the three-lane dual carriageway of Rudaki.  The women stand in the road, the traffic careering around them.  I recall that in the UK road maintenance is regarded as so dangerous that it is not possible to get accident insurance for the workers: the UK government has to act as an insurer directly…

Just before I left the UK, I (re-)bought “The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk – this time for the Kindle, since I already have the paperback.  It was a good choice, since the narrative is constantly darting around Central Asian locations I know, and am close to now.  And the suffering of those first explorers – only 200 years ago – puts long-haul flights in context.  

Weird weather now – still hot, but a haze covering the sky, a strange light…


Up early – 6.45am here, 2.45am body time.  Hazy.  Off to Khujand, via Iskanderkul.  Long day… (now in the car – hence difficult writing).

Definite smell of fumes – pretty polluted today – glad I’m moving north.  Rudaki Avenue is very long… Lots of grand buildings, and not so grand… Still heading due north, still hazy.  My taxi not too bad – at least it has seat belts – though the drivers never use them...

Just been through a toll.  Five somoni.  Exhaust fumes pretty bad… So many flags everywhere – and pix of Rahmon, who looks like Brezhnev…  Already amazing landscapes – rocky gorges, pretty high hills.  Everything folded in on itself.  The sun – finally – breaks through the pollution.

Stopped by police on the road – checking documents perhaps.  Only for a minute.  Driving along a river, fair amount of water.  Staggering scenery… 

And that was the (formerly known as) Tunnel of Death.  A little worrying – even had a broken down lorry in it…  Passing river Yaghnob.

At Iskanderkul.  Wonderful jade colour, as are all the rivers around here.  Long, long road here,and practically devoid of tourists.  Usual problem with these places – you expend a huge effort to get here, then have to try to look as intensely as possible for the short time you are there.  But how?

The hills here look like Chinese scroll paintings – rounded forms, with scrubby vegetation.  But here there is the added beauty of snow and ice on the mountains behind.  Sun strong, but air cool – we are at 2,190 metres.  Sitting by the small café here – doesn’t look too inviting, and certainly risky.  I’ve brought my own food to be sure.  A motor boat flying a big Tajik flag comes in to moor, destroying the tranquillity.  A butterfly, green and yellow, flits awkwardly by.  Seen very little wildlife here, no animals, no birds.  Quite a few houses nearby, perhaps guesthouses?  Also, there is mobile signal here – for tourists, I suppose, but welcome.  Behind me, a huge wall of scree – wouldn’t fancy running down that, as I did in the Lake District all those years ago.

Passed through Ayni – civilisation.  We’ve stopped briefly, so that my driver can pray…

Along the road, boys selling oranges.  Another police check along the way, but didn’t seem too heavy.  The road reminds me of Georgia, only hotter and larger.  We have another tunnel (Shahriston) to get through the mountains, then down to Khujand.  More butterflies here, though just white ones.  Just as no one puts on seat belts, so no one obeys speed limits – unless there are cops.  Interesting that the driver, who has few words of English, uses his phone to translate from Russian – as he did when telling me he was stopping to pray.

Through the tunnel at Shahriston – turns out to be quite long – and unlit – as well.  Glad to be out of it.  Then immediately the landscape is different – greener, lusher.  Presumably this side gets the rainfall.  Lots of tolls along the way.  The road descends and then straightens out on the plain.  The heat rises noticeably.  The driver floors it most of the way, except where he spots the Militsia.  

So we enter Khujand, which looks brighter, more varied – more lively – than Dushanbe.  I like it immediately.  After asking around we find my Hotel Sugdion.  It’s a huge relic from Soviet times, but, like Khujand, looks full of surprising energy.  I ask for a river view – and of the mountains too – and also get a mini suite, with living room, for around £50 a night.  Lovely design, great facilities except for one respect: wifi is useless.  To upload my 200+ photos of the day’s drive I had to stand in the corridor where I found a reasonable signal.  Ah well.

11.6.23  Khujand

In the great Panjshanbe bazaar. Fabulous.  The main hall itself is huge, but there are dozens of further side alleys, packed with stuff.  In the main hall, there are nons – hundreds of them – plus many melons (it’s the season).  The spices cast their magic smell/spell as you approach.  In the tea section I saw Vietnamese tea – and Georgian tea, which I recently bought online.  Lots of carts, motorcycles and small lorries in here.  One of which was carrying seven or eight sheep – which I hope were unaware of what awaited them…

Outside, the great square is wonderfully alive.  The mosque opposite the market, nothing special.  I’m increasingly hot – forecast to go up to 30°C today.

Walking a little way from the hotel, I passed the ancient fort – not much to see – and the cable car station, just starting up.  The attached museum is about the only thing to visit in that respect, so I will take a look.  But the main thing here is the town itself – and its splendid location on the Syr Darya river.  Surging past on its long, 2,000km journey.

As I stand in the balcony at the end of the main hall of the 
bazaar, I hear a bird singing.  I look down and see some chaffinch-like bird flitting endlessly between its two perches, then to the wire cage.  Still seeking freedom, poor thing.

Inevitably, this bazaar makes me think of Tashkent’s, with its superb circular dome.  This is very different – more lively perhaps.  I love both, and fear a day may come when they are replaced with our boring shopping centres…

To the historical museum.  In the basement, a Tajik guide explains in Chinese to a small group.  Pretty well.  First Chinese nationals I have seen in Tajikistan.

Also called in a supermarket on the way back – rather lacking.  Bought non and yoghurt, but cheese limited.  Will try the other main supermarket.  Now in Café Ravshan, one of the few decent restaurants it seems.  Struggled to order (only in Russian), but got there.  Opposite me the city’s theatre, rather attractive.  In the historical museum managed to buy some gifts to take back.  Only moderate haggling, since prices were already low.  Main task this afternoon is to fix up a taxi for my trip to Panjakent tomorrow…

On the TV screen, interesting videos of Tajik music.  Current one uses a mixture of eastern and western instruments.  Melody the usual repetition and variation, harmonically very static.  But nice, not least in this context.  Amazing – even in the music videos, nobody wears a seat belt…

The view from my room (911) of Hotel Sugdion really is splendid.  Unlike the views on the other side, which give on to yet more blocks of flats shooting up, as in Dushanbe.  Here, there is a wonderful rumpled wall of hills, rising to 800m maximum.  They seem absolutely barren, just rocks and dusty soil.  As the sun begins to swing around to the West, setting behind the leftmost part, the shadows lengthen and reveal the intricate folds.

In front lies the northern side of the city, quite built up now, with blocks of flats by the hills.  Down by the river lots of trees, making the city feel green compared with Dushanbe.  The river slightly narrower than the Thames, but swift-flowing, with currents churning its surface.  Amazing that it rises in the Tian Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, and flows 2,000km through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, only for its to die before it reaches its natural endpoint, the doomed and disappeared Aral Sea.

Quite a lot of traffic going north across the bridge here – to Tashkent perhaps.  It’s crazy how close I am here to so many of my favourites places – Samarkand, even Srinagar.  Pity all those tiresome boundaries block easy passage…

I find it hard to grasp that it was only yesterday that I was standing on the shore of Iskanderkul…

Just by the hotel, the ground is splattered with black stains – mulberries.  Reminds me of similar stains by the pool in Bokhara

In the park by the fort.  One nice feature: Tajik music is playing on speakers throughout… Clouds/hazy but still very hot.  Wind rising.  The garden itself is laid out almost exactly the same as the one in Bokhara with the amazing mausoleum – even down to the curved bridges over the (empty) irrigation channels.  The cable cars pass nearby: one curiosity is that deluxe cabins have a sofa in them, not seats.  The fountain next to me has exploded in loud gushing jets…

Afterwards, to the best supermarket here – Amid.  I sit on a bench with the theatre behind me, and a rather splendid fountain in front.  It shows a woman playing a lyre-like instrument.  Reminds me of Kutaisi.  Behind her, the mountains are swathed in haze that softens their rough features.  A smartly-dressed young lady takes her dog for a walk – the first one I’ve seen here.  They are clearly not common as pets.  

After supper (home made) out into the balmy night.  To the park, which is full of people – and children, even small ones, as is common in these countries.  Lovely relaxed atmosphere that you never get in the UK.  All kinds of electric transport for hire: ebikes, scooters, skateboards and an amazing device which consists of a seat suspended between two large wheels that move the seat along, but keep it more or less still.  Everything festooned with garish lights, which they love here, just as the women love dresses threaded with silver threads that glisten as they move.

Talking of garish, there is this crazy boat-shaped restaurant by my hotel, and it also is a deranged display of  Tron-like coloured lights.  More naturally, the flower beds here are glorious, full of bright colours.  These gardens are splendid.  

In the main square.  It has to be said, the Tajiks here are really good with their lighting.  The theatre looks great with uplit columns.  The arch by the park has just enough light to look like a magical portal.  And there are dozens of streetlights making this square almost as bright as day – and thus safe.  Standing by the fountain with the lady musician, the air is noticeably cooler.  Back on the bench I occupied earlier.  The view very different, but delightful still.


I stand in the middle of the great Syr Darya river – well, in the middle of the bridge crossing it.  As I suspected, the river is shallow – the bed is clearly visible.  Water weeds sway in the current.  The breeze surprisingly strong – I worry for my sun hat.

To the park beside the river behind the monument to Rudaki.  Full of flags – one big one, 14 little ones.  The small ones are just red, white and green, without the usual yellow crown and its seven stars – looking surprisingly like the flag of Italy.  Even the lamps are painted in these colours.  Lots of women carrying umbrellas as sunshades.  The local bird – a kind of myna? - chirrups away.

So, the taxi I fixed up yesterday hasn’t appeared.  The kind chap on the desk used the Maxim app to book another one.  On the plus side, it’s half the price of the original one – under 700 somoni (about £50).  

On the open road, passing what looks like paddy fields.  Very lush green here.  Driver has put on some tasteful Tajik pop – seems totally right.  A flock of sheep in the road.  Lots of poor donkeys being ridden hard.  A dog – one of them.  Big.  In Shakhriston tunnel a brave/foolish cyclist pedals through the gloom and fumes.

The road down is pretty scary.  Men painting the few stone barriers – just as in Kashmir.  Passing through Dar-Dar.  This valley is huge – towering peaks either side, very green along the river.  Raining now.  The river has cut so deeply.  Rocks in the road, some quite big.  Truck driver clearing them ahead of us to make the road passable.

Another incredible journey.  Tajikistan keeps failing to correspond to my imaginings – in good ways.  For example, I had visions of the Zarafshan valley being flat and broad.  Nope.  Especially near Ayni, it is very narrow, and twists between amazingly sculpted rocks.  Even near Panjakent it is not that wide.

The weather was rather miserable, and caused small rockfalls that my poor driver had to negotiate around to spare his tyres.  In fact, the weather reminded me of the Lake District, where it nearly always rains.  And the landscape had similarities too, and to the Georgian valleys leading to Gudauri – except that this valley was far, far grander.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  I find it hard to grasp that I am only a couple of hours from Samarkand by road, where I was almost exactly a year ago.  I love how the geographical jigsaw pieces fit together.  

At my Hotel Sugd & Guest House in Panjakent, long discussions in Russian about a trip to the Seven Lakes tomorrow, and back to Dushanbe the day after.  Tajiki accents as strong as ever – I can barely understand them.  Tomorrow probably OK, but visiting Yaghnob valley en route to Dushanbe not agreed yet – not clear if it’s price or difficulty.  We’ll see.

Along to Dusti restaurant, that looked fairly upmarket.  It’s practically empty (well, it’s early), and they don’t have plov/osh…  The only dish they offered seemed to be stewed beef and potatoes.  Beef was quite tasty, if chewy.  Very few people in the restaurant, or indeed outside it – unlike Khujand, which really comes to life in the evening.  But they have stray dogs – one of which I saw cross the road using the pedestrian crossing – which doesn’t really mean much here, it has to be said.

Evening chorus of birds loud.  Air is quite cool after the rain.  Outside my room, on the corner of the road opposite, is a huge teapot, with exactly the same patterning found throughout Uzbekistan (and here, presumably).  Seems to be selling ice cream…

As we were driving up to, and down from, the Shakhriston tunnel, I had a slight headache.  At first I put this down to fatigue, but it went away once down in the valley.  Seems like an odd touch of altitude sickness: the tunnel is at 2,500 metres… much higher than anything in the UK (Ben Nevis is only 1,345 metres tall).

13.6.23 Panjakent

Down to breakfast, which was generous – non, fruits, eggs, biscuits, tea etc.  Tried the delicious local melons – which deserve their fame.  Also tried the cherry jam, with my non.  The first bite produced a sickening crunch in my mouth – the tiny cherries had stones in them.  So far, my teeth seem to be holding up, but a broken tooth is the last thing I need so far from a good dentist…

Lovely sunny morning, but rain is threatened later on.  Off to the Seven Lakes – Haftkul – hoping to see them before the rain comes in…  In the car with Bezrukh, on the way to the lakes.  Panjakent buzzing with people – reminds me of India.  Interestingly, there was an Indian couple in the breakfast room: this will become more and more common I predict.

Lake #1 – bottle glass green – very clear and clean.

#2 – opalescent – lovely stream to the south.

#3 – less spectacular, but the stand of trees on the shore is beautiful.  Air noticeably cooler – 27°C, sun still strong, clouds gathering.  But utterly amazing journey.  Villages remind me of Georgia, only more medieval.  Pity about the huge (Chinese) mines here.  Driver says they have killed all the fish in the streams.

#4 – village of Nofin, very green, with a school.

#5 – small, not so pretty… Another school here.

#6 – quite big, grey opal.  One or two other tourists here – hardly crowded…

#7 -  rain coming, so just a quick stop.  Beautiful, but no more than the others.  Road to here very dodgy, so we need to get going before the rain.  Cold here, as I expected...2,500 metres at least [more descriptions below].

Nearly out of the valley.  The Chinese trucks kick up so much blinding dust they become invisible – like something out of the Old Testament.

Back in Panjakent.  Along to Choykhona Muhiddin, which has osh/ plov. And jolly good it seems too -  apart from my second crunching crack from something hard – grit in the rice, perhaps.  But the view here is to die for: the northern mountains of the Zarafshan valley.  Superb. 
Meal cost 20 somoni – about £1.50.   

One of the problems with travelling in Tajikistan is that there are no trains of the kind in Uzbekistan – apparently, there is one that goes from Dushanbe to Khujand in 24 hours via Uzbekistan, and is supposedly disgusting.  This means lots of of taxi rides.  It’s hard enough writing in a car at the best of times.  On switchback roads thousands of metres high with few or no guardrails, it’s even harder, as some of my scrawls here – bad even for me – attest.  So it is almost impossible to capture the moment for a seven-hour drive there and back to the lakes – hence my scant comments.  Equally, it’s hard to recapture the unique experiences afterwards.  But I will try to retrace my steps and thoughts.

Leaving Panjakent at 9am this morning, the turning to the Seven Lakes came much quicker than I expected. And the first part of the journey was much less attractive than I’d hoped.  Turns out there are gold mines here – no surprise, perhaps, because “Zarafshan” means “spreader of gold”, referring to the gold-bearing sands.  Mining is always destructive, gold mining particularly so.  Things are not helped by the fact that the company is owned by Chinese firms, and they obviously don’t give a damn about the local environmental damage.

Interestingly, there was a checkpoint on the road, and my passport was inspected and approved.  Not quite sure why – fear of espionage? Past some settlements connected with the mining, there are some attractive villages, surrounded by plenty of crops and trees that contrast with the bare mountains enclosing the valley.  Ones I noticed were Rashna, Padrud and Nofin.  There were even a couple of schools, which indicates the population size.  The villages reminded me of Kashmir and other Himalayan regions.

The first lake was one of my favourites because of the unique transparency of the water.  It was so clear and still it seemed made of bottle glass.  You could see the bottom of the lake for some way in.
The second lake seemed less striking after the first.  A pleasant jade-coloured body of water.

The third, on the other hand, was enhanced by a group of trees at the northern end.  They provided perfect framing.

The fourth had a strikingly still surface, with mountains in the distance.  Clouds above lent a dramatic touch.  It was long and beautiful, whereas the fifth was tiny and rather negligible.  The fourth ended with a huge bed of gravel at the southern end, with streams meandering through it. 
The sixth was another majestic lake with high peaks ahead of it.  Looking north from the south saw two great beasts nosing into the water to dramatic effect.

To reach the seventh and final lake required steep climbing along paths that were rough and sodden.  At one point, the driver had to do a three-point turn because the road bent so sharply.  Since rain was threatened, he was unsure if it was safe to go on.  He said the roads became impassable as the water poured down the mountains.  We decided to go for a quick visit, then return ahead of the rain.

Although the seventh lake is supposed to be the most beautiful, I was unimpressed – perhaps the gloomy weather and threat of not being able to get back spoilt it for me.  Even though the main mountain at the southern end rises to 4,000 metres, it doesn’t look as impressive as the ones around the previous lakes because the lake itself is at 2,400 metres, so the differential is less.  It looked like a typical Lake District scene.  And now that I have viewed the other lakes here in the Fann mountains, that isn’t really a compliment.  These are so grand and magnificent that they make the Lake District ones look tiddly in comparison.  It is certainly a privilege to have seen them – and almost entirely alone: there were perhaps six other tourists that we saw in the entire journey.  I wonder if one day it will be swarming with  day trippers…

One thing that amazes – and delights – me is how it is possible to drive into the heart of the glorious rumpled landscape both here and at Iskanderkul.  Just looking at the Google maps with terrain turned on is a splendid way to get a tiny sense of just how much those journeys entail.


On the road.  To Dushanbe, but first up to Yaghnob valley.  Glorious morning, the mountains to the north an endless articulated chain of rock, now gradually softened by the heat haze.  Saw my first woman driver, and young.  Not common, it seems.

My own driver stops to give some of his tea to a road worker.  The car is full of the smell of fresh non, just bought on the road.  Towards Ayni, the valley narrows, and the river swirls deeper in its gorge.  Magnificent sight.  Just passed a mountain that is bright orange, in contrast to the general mustard colour – iron, I imagine.  We just got to the big T-junction: north to Khujand, south to Dushanbe.  

At the filling station, boys sell bags of what look like white testicles – the local cheese delicacy, qurut.  On the road to Khujand, there were stalls full of them.

Police stop.

Down from Ayni, landscape dramatic – but not as dramatic as Zarafshan valley.  We have stopped at the gloriously green café near the turn off to Anzob.  A coach full of Tajiks, who pile out, then back.

At the last fork in the road for us: up to Margib, down to the Yaghnob valley.  Two huge peaks lower over the village here, green follows the river.  Just stunning.  The road here long, long, long, but worth it.  Not met anyone else along this stretch.  Before we got to Anzob, a few lorries, some carrying coal.  Turns out my driver has a water melon to deliver, so we follow the road to another part of Margib village.  Fine by me, but means we will get to Dushanbe late…

Long, long journey back to the main road.  Amazing that this route was the main way to get between Dushanbe and the north until they built That Tunnel.  Today, the old road is closed, probably in a state of disrepair.  The views are supposed to be spectacular.  But then they are on the new road too…

Strangely, I didn’t feel at all perturbed passing through the (formerly known as) Tunnel of Death.  The concern had worn off completely.  And the views the other side were particularly beautiful because the afternoon sun made the green vegetation glow with a colour that was astonishing.

I’m sitting in the car while a man sprays water all over it.  Not sure why, but my driver was keen to do this before entering Dushanbe.  Some weird by-law?  Anyway, nearly there, with the time at 16:18.  Seven hours driving so far…

The last problem (I hope) is finding an ATM with money in it that I can use to pay the driver.  [My head hurts slightly again, presumably due to the rapid ascent and descent.  The tunnel is at an altitude of around 2,600 metres.]  So, it seems that dirty cars do indeed get fined in Dushanbe.  
Strange trailers by the side of the road – they hold beehives.  Noticed several swimming pools in Varzob – an upmarket area, perhaps…

Driver doesn’t know where Rudaki Avenue is.  We take the wrong road.  Now trapped behind a lorry that blocks the entire street, and has an incompetent driver.  We are finally out of the cul-de-sac.  I am forced to do something I have only done once before, in Georgia: turn on GPS to find where we were.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  I found our position, and gave instructions (in Russian) to my driver.  But often my “turn left” was impossible because of the road rules.   At one point we had to go down a road heading in the wrong direction, planning to do a U-turn.  But as we began the manoeuvre, three other cars in front of us did the same thing, in an insane balletic movement blocking the oncoming lane.  Eventually I got us on to a road that led directly to Hotel Rohat.

But that still left the problem of payment.  I needed a (good) ATM.  My driver noticed one, and it seemed modern looking.  With some trepidation, I put in my card, banged in my PIN and request.  Waited...and it worked.  1100 somoni delivered.  Combined with the 500 I already had, they enabled me to give my driver not 1500 somoni (about £120) as agreed, but 1600 (£130), for being such a patient chap – I probably stopped the car to take pix 50 times – and a plucky driver, taking me today and yesterday on some pretty dodgy roads.  He and his Rav performed splendidly, and I was grateful for one of the most intense travel experiences of my life.  

The road from Panjakent to Dushanbe must rate as one of the most dramatic anywhere.  Even my Georgian trips pale somewhat in comparison.  It feels a privilege not only to have seen the wonderful sights of today, but to have seen them before they are made more accessible, more touristic, as I feel sure will happen.  And the Tajik people deserve the income and benefits this will bring. I’m just glad I saw it all before that happened.

15.6.23  Dushanbe

Good to be back in Dushanbe, which feels, if not like home, at least known.  Good, too, to be back in Rohat Hotel – another known.  My room (309) is smaller than my old one (204), but on the plus side, the wifi is much faster.  Just as well, as I uploaded a few hundreds pix yesterday.

Before going to bed at around 11pm, I was looking across to the Ayni opera house from my room, and I noticed one of those poor street cleaning ladies still working.  Incredible.  People seem very stoic here – there is none of the sullen resentment you see (not unjustifiably) in many other poor people around the world.

As I was falling asleep, images from the day’s journey passed before me, but in a remarkable form.  Since I had been in a moving car for nearly nine hours yesterday, my images were also moving, like a video.  It’s the first time I’ve experienced this kind of re-enactment, and it was rather wonderful.

The other things I am grateful for are the ease and low cost of acquiring a local SIM, and the relatively good speeds in towns.  Naturally, in places like Yaghnob valley, there is little or no signal.  But Iskanderkul did have a connection.  The quality of the signal means I can upload my pix to the cloud: one of my fears was that taking photos from a car window I would risk dropping/losing the phone as I was constantly jolted.  Cloud backups reduce that fear somewhat.

After the downpour last night the air is mercifully clean.  When I left Dushanbe on Saturday the pollution was sickening: the smell of fumes was giving me serious nausea.  Fleeing the city was well timed.  Let’s hope the glorious weather holds now: I want to walk around the city in the next two days, to get a better feel for it now that I am under no pressure to get/arrange stuff.  Just need to see if I can check in for my flight tomorrow, then book a taxi for around midnight on Friday.

To the Gurminj Museum of Musical Instruments.  Not the easiest to find – no sign anywhere.  A musician is practising a song with his rubab.  A room full of dozens of instruments.  One with four strings like a violin, but tuned in fourths and fifths – DADG – has skin for amplification, made in Iran.  There is also one with a metal body – a tin can. Tanbur, with and without frets.  A bayan from Russian, accordion instruments from all around the world.

We are treated to a short concert.  Pamiri wedding music on the accordion.  A woman in our small audience tried to get me to dance with the others.  Nope.  The oldest instrument is 500 years old, made from mulberry wood.  Nice demo from Shanbe (his name) and drummer in a variety of styles. As well as the dancing lady, there are three other visitors – two Brits and one Pakistani.  From Oxford University, studying “Persian” in Dushanbe for four months.  Lucky them.

Then a long, hot walk north, through the backstreets that look identical to Bokhara, past huge new blocks of flats being built – so many – to here, the new Mehrgon bazaar.  Big, nice colours, but still a little empty, and lacking the soul of Khujand’s bazaar.  No aircon either – all traders have little battery-powered fans.  I start sweating.  Take taxi – only 10 somoni (about 60p) to famous Choykhona Toki for osh.  Sit in covered part, not outside – it’s too hot.  Osh arrives quickly, but sadly is too salty, not enough meat or sultanas.  Ah well.  Lots of locals coming here...maybe not for the osh.

Getting into the swing of things, I try to grab a taxi.  In vain.  Finally one stops, and we are off to my favourite supermarket – Paykar – to buy some fruit.  Bought a honeydew melon, some cherries, and two apples for my journey home.  Cherries almost too sweet, and the melon so ripe that seeds fall off each slice that I cut.  Great taste.

On thing I forgot to mention was that the Gurminj Museum was on Shota Rustaveli Street...

Judging by the sounds coming from the park behind the Ayni opera house, there seems to be some kind of open-air concert.  Also noticeable as I look out of my windows are the street-spraying tankers that fill up from a big tap by the side of the road.  Spraying water from nozzles at the front of the tanker is nice; less nice are the genuine Soviet era fumes they discharge as they move off – sickening literally and metaphorically.  Other observations: only about one in five cars have occupants that use seat belts.  Even with a small child in the front passenger seat, still no belt.  That’s pretty much guaranteed serious injury in case of a collision.  Madness.

Another observation: most cars seem new – lots of Lexus, Toyota, etc.  Also striking how similar they are from my second floor windows (the hotel uses US floor nomenclature).  Others have noticed this.  It’s no surprise, really, since cars are all trying to do the same thing: minimise drag.  Since the laws of physics are the same for every manufacturer, they end up with almost identical designs…

Since my last stay a week ago, they have started demolishing a building nearby.  As a result, there is dust everywhere. I hope it’s just masonry dust, and not something more lethal…

Back in Coffee Moose – after the osh today, I need simpler fare.  Will try another choykhona tomorrow – Rohat.  A few things to see up by the flagpole and beyond.  Another scorching day forecast, so I will probably follow today’s plans, see stuff in the morning, eat, then retire to my room.  I have an odd day ahead of me: leaving the hotel at around midnight, plane leaving at 3am (I should check…).  My body clock will be all over the place, but that’s the price you pay for long-distance travel.

Joined the passeggiata up Rudaki Avenue.  Nice glow from the sunset makes an obvious background for pix of the Ismoil Somoni and Independence monuments, the latter being where I am now.  I rather like it for it pomposity and its trying too hard.  There’s a lot of that here, but also more signs of economic prosperity than I expected.  New cars, young people with wireless earbuds, lots of tee-shirts with (English) slogans and witticisms, lots of shops selling flash clothes, flash electronics.  There’s money around, at least here in Dushanbe.

There are also lots of young people: Tajikistan had one of the highest birth rates until recently.  Even now, three kids seems the norm for a family.  Maybe not good for the planet, but good for Tajikistan's future if they can educate them and give them decent jobs.  Not easy, which is why so many have gone to Russia, where they are poorly paid and abused.  Interestingly, I read the second article about Tajiks increasingly looking to the UK for jobs – filling the gaps left by Brexit.  The pay is better than in Russia, and they aren’t treated with such racism (well, yet).  Be nice if we had more Tajiks come to the UK, building bridges between these distant nations.  

As dusk falls, the buildings and monuments are lit up.  Very pleasant visual effect.


Up early, along to Navruz Palace.  Insane – that Tajik love of over-the-top modern architecture.  Festooned with columns, a waterfall.  It also seems still closed – bang goes my plan of getting and out early to avoid the thundering sun.

Taxi drivers seem very honest here – using the taximeter, pointing out when they give you too little change.  A good sign.  From here, a view of the nearby mountains – and of the infamous cement works, already belching smoke.  Lots of women cleaning the floors, stairs and balustrades, always working.  From the outer balcony, a view of the new Independence And Freedom Monument – a thick column with twisting bands, finishing up with a bowl (?), possibly on fire.

Although I was kept waiting to enter the 
Navruz Palace, it was worth it.  Incredible workmanship inside – wood carvings, marquetry, stone carving, metalwork.  The most beautiful room was a medium size hall with a Polo mint shaped table.  Then a small room, a bigger hall, and then a huge one.  Finally, a hall of shattered mirrors where the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation met.   

The guide was a charming middle-aged lady who spoke English well, but also spoke a beautifully clear Tajik to five others, from a Tajik-speaking part of Uzbekistan – Samarkand.  In fact, she told me she learnt her pure Tajik from her mother, a teacher in Samarkand.  I could hear words such as “Samarkand”, “Bokhara” in her speech.  Amazing visit.

Across the bridge, over the River Varzob - powerful and fast.  The second tallest flagpole in the world now flies its large flag, which ripples slowly in the welcome breeze.  Reminds me of the Zócalo and flag ceremony in Mexico City.

In the National Museum. Nice design, huge atrium.  Downstairs with the rocks and stuffed moosen.  Rather dull…  Generally, though, a very good museum, running the gamut of Tajik history.  At the top, a gallery of twentieth-century paintings.  Reminds me strongly of the museum in Tashkent.  This one is bigger, more complete.  Would need several visits – and probably a deeper interest in the minutiae of Tajik history than I can muster.  Quite a few school children here, on class visits I assume.

Too hot to walk, so I take a taxi to Choykhana Rohat.  Unfortunately, I went to the open air part – nice, but a bit hot.  Should have gone to the aircon room, perhaps.  Eating laghman – low on meat, but high on flavour.  Laghman = 拉面 = Lā miàn – pull noodles… Restaurants – and even public parks – are full of music.  I’m guessing they don’t pay much attention to copyright here…

Also striking how people everywhere use their mobiles as video phones – something that seemed unlikely a few years ago.  The new normal, even here.  Mobile network pretty good in general.

17.6.23  Istanbul

What a weird day.  To Dushanbe airport at 11.30pm, chaos everywhere.  Hundreds outside, scores inside.  A security scan to get in.  I waltz through to the check-ins, even though they haven’t announced the desk for my flight yet, but keen to get out of the moderate mayhem in the entrance hall.  When the desk  is set up, I am there, first in one queue.  Then through to security for more scans.

Dushanbe airport small but functional.  Pretty clear which will be our gate, since there a huge wide-body Airbus parked outside.  Again, I am one of the first through.  Sitting near the back – theoretically safer, since planes tend to crash from the front, seat G on the outside.  At first, quite empty, gradually filling.  Lots of children – school trips?  Visiting family?  About three-quarter full when we leave.  A space next to me, but not enough room to sleep horizontally.  Bloke in the same row watching some noisy police show – with no earphones.  So I have to ask him politely (in Russian) if he could possibly put them in.

Weird mealtime at 4am, which may be breakfast, but is indistinguishable from lunch in its offerings.  A five-hour flight, and I sleep for most of it.

Istanbul anything but romantic.  It’s bucketing down as we land.  But I don’t care, because I’m remaining in the insanely large airport.  For six hours.  I don’t mind too much, since I have Tajik apples and cherries to eat, and the ebook version of “The Great Game”.  Halfway through, and it’s about the Pamirs and Kashmir – the former only visited by Europeans for the first time 150 years ago.  This stuff is all so close.

To the gate, where we are subjected again to very rigorous security – even though we had our bags scanned when we went through international transfers.  Bloke there made me throw away my water – which I bought after security in Dushanbe.  But first, he made me drink some – to see if it was water, perhaps.  But good job I didn’t waste money on some wine in duty free, since that would have been chucked out too.  
This final security is the most thorough: look inside everything, swab everything – even shoes.  Can’t complain, but a reason to get to the gate early.  A good principle for life too, I think…


I’ve not written a postscript to my Black Book entries before, because I’ve never felt the need until now.  But as I transcribed my handwritten notes I have grown increasingly unhappy with the results that can be read above.  I really feel I have failed to capture much of what I experienced during these most recent travels.

In part that’s down to the fact that of the nine days I spent in Tajikistan, four were passed in constantly-moving vehicles for five to eight hours at a stretch, with only a few short breaks.  That made it hard, sometimes impossible, to jot down notes about what I was seeing and thinking.  Trying to recapture afterwards what I felt is unsatisfactory, as my attempt to do so for the trip to the Seven Lakes proves.  One of the things I am most interested in doing with these notes is to write down in real time what is happening and what I am feeling.  By definition, doing that afterwards is a poor substitute.

The other major factor in my failure is more interesting.  Most of what I saw in Tajikistan was mountain scenery – amazing, fantastic, unspoilt mountain scenery.  But how can you capture that in words?  Even though every mountain was unique, and the landscapes I saw constantly shifted in new and delightful ways, they were all basically the same: groups of mountains.  There are only a limited number of ways to describe mountains and aggregations of them.  In effect the very richness of Tajikistan in this respect – famously, 94% of the country is mountainous – meant that my attempts to describe it were doomed to failure.

Perhaps conscious of this problem, I took many, many photographs – over a thousand altogether.  That’s another important aspect of modern smartphones: you can just keep on taking pix, since the cost of doing so is effectively zero.  Moreover, the supercomputer-level power built into today’s mobiles means that the results are almost always stunning – no photographic skill is needed.  But photos are no substitute for words, even if they complement them.  They may convey what I saw (although human perception is very different from the captured digital image), but they certainly don’t capture what I felt.

I fear this is going to be a problem in the future, since I particularly like travelling in mountainous regions – witness my earlier posts about Kashmir, Nepal, Georgia, and Armenia on this blog.  The mountains in those countries are just an aspect of the larger landscape: they do not dominate as they do in Tajikistan.  But there are other countries where mountains are similarly pervasive and overpowering – places like Kyrgyzstan, for example - that I would like to visit.  I wonder if I am doomed to fail in my descriptions of these future mountainous destinations as I have failed with Tajikistan.  We shall see...

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