Kam Air offers a quick 50 minute flight once a week from Kabul to Dushanbe. Since Tajikistan is our northerly neighbor and we had heard great things about the country, we felt it would be foolish for us not to take advantage of the “visa upon arrival” offered to US citizens while visiting one of the ‘Stans that was still on our to do list. Since we only had a week to spare, we reluctantly decided to forego traversing the legendary Pamir Highway (aka “Roof of the World”, one of the most spectacular road trips), and focused our efforts instead on the northern section of the country, planning an aggressive itinerary to include Khujand, Istaravshan, Penjikent, Marguzor Lakes (Seven Lakes), Iskanderkul, and Dushanbe. We are happy to report that Tajikistan exceeded our expectations! From super friendly, welcoming (and strikingly handsome) people to a myriad of pristine natural sights (gorgeous mountains and glacial lakes), to ancient cities and a rocking capital, we eagerly experienced as much as we could squeeze in during our short stay here. Since neither of us speaks any Russian, Tajik or Persian, we opted to coordinate our trip with a local travel agency (Pamir Highway Adventure), who took care of the Dushanbe and domestic flight portion of our trip. They also linked us up with Orient Adventure for our northern adventures. Travel to this unique destination is not for those who expect everything to run like clockwork…there were delays, misunderstandings and cancellations, but that is all part of adventure travel. We had a great time and would not hesitate for another in-depth trip.
24 July 2013: Surprisingly, Kam Air had an on-time departure and we left Kabul at 6 pm sharp for a 7:20 pm arrival to Dushanbe. The flight itself was a scenic 50 minute hop, and combined with the time change (forward by 30 minutes), we were happy to have arrived at a decent hour. Tajikistan currently offers visa upon arrival for citizens of approximately 80 countries. Becky had researched that having an LOI would result in being able to obtain a tourist visa (marked by a T – TYPUCTU or Турист or ‘сайёҳи’). Otherwise, without an LOI, the other option is to get a “private” visa which would result in having to go through the OVIR registration process, which could be more costly and time consuming. Since we had pre-filled out the visa applications, had 2 passport photos in hand and a spare copy of our passports, the consular official bumped us to the front of the line where we were given a one month tourist visa for USD $33 each. Bargain compared to applying back in the US which would have set us back at least $220 each (for a one month tourist visa and service fee). Since our arrival process had been expedited, it was no huge surprise when we reached the arrival hall and could not find our Pamir Highway Adventures (PHA) guide/driver even though we had been promised that he would be waiting there with a sign. After all, we were a bit early. However, when the cell phone number to the owner of the company (Ubaidullah) went unanswered, we got a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs that perhaps we had been scammed out of the funds we had sent in advance for full payment of our tour. A very persistent taxi driver kept trying to get us to take a ride with him, but since we had prepaid for everything, we were reluctant. After waiting fruitlessly to see if our driver would show up, we finally took the taxi driver’s offer on using his cell phone to once again call PHA and thankfully, this time Ubaidullah answered. He directed the driver to bring us to the Poytakht Hotel but not before we talked to him to find out what was going on. Apparently, he figured it would be easiest to have this random taxi driver drop us off at the hotel where his son, Jalal, would be waiting for us. Thankfully it was a short ride and our guide, Jalal, was waiting by the curb as promised. He took care of paying for the ride and checked us into our hotel room which was on the 5th floor of the old Soviet style hotel. Our room was massive, with a living room, separate toilet and a hallway leading to the bedroom and bathroom. The Russian housekeeper immediately pumped up the AC and we settled in after coordinating our itinerary for tomorrow. We had originally requested a morning flight to Khujand but found that our flight was scheduled for the afternoon, so we decided to adjust our schedule and see Hisor (Hissar) Fort tomorrow instead of on our last free day in Dushanbe. A few minutes after we settled in, the hotel room attendant dropped off shampoo and toilet paper, which honestly had the look, feel and consistency of soft tree bark! Roughest toilet paper ever. Anyone who has used the local Tajik toilet paper knows what we are talking about. A few minutes later, the housekeeper came by again, this time with a TV remote, which she kept calling the “poot”. She showed us how to change channels and how to insert and remove the key from the door before finally taking off and wishing us a good night. Neither one of us was ravenously hungry so we opted for a quick shower (the water heater was broken), which resulted in taking a freezing cold birdbath before crashing for the night.
25 July: Up by 7 am in a quest to find breakfast. Armed with a breakfast coupon courtesy of the hotel, we were served a simple Tajik breakfast consisting of the obligatory hot tea, naan, cheese and goat sausage, and fried eggs served up with hotdogs. We had agreed to link up with Jalal at 8am but unsurprisingly, he was a no-show. Our first impressions of PHA were not very good as they did not seem organized at all. So another phone call to the head boss Ubaidullah, who promised that Jalal was on his way. By 8:30 am, we were still waiting and a second phone call to Ubaidullah promised that Jalal would show by 9 am. Talk about a complete breakdown in communication! It was a bit frustrating but we used the extra half an hour to check out Aini Square, which was directly in front of our hotel. Flanked by the Bekhzod National Museum on one side, the square has several Soviet-era figurines depicting various scenes written by national poet Sadriddin Ayni (after whom the square is named). Thankfully at 9 am, Jalal showed up and immediately began apologizing for the confusion, stating he thought we had agreed to link up later than agreed upon. Not wanting to start our tour on a bad note, we told him to forget about it and hopped into the waiting car for our drive out to Hisor Fort. The drive out to Hisor took us pass the Dushanbe train station and a Russian WWII tank monument before the scenery quickly turned into farmland. In less than an hour, we were at the Hisor Fort complex which today consists of the fort itself, a registan (central square), madrassas, and a caravanserai. An excellent local guide gave us a tour of the old madrassa which has now been converted into a museum. Next we climbed up to Hisor Fort and got a nice vantage point overlooking the entire area. Our last stop before leaving this pretty area was a brief glimpse of the Stone Mosque of Sangin. Some tourists have reported being underwhelmed by the Hisor Fort area, but we were glad that we took a detour out this way as it is such an easy (and scenic) day trip from Dushanbe. Since we had quite a few museums to squeeze in our visit to Dushanbe today, we decided to hop in to see the Antiquities Museum, whose claim to fame is the original 13 m sleeping Buddha, discovered in 1966 by Soviet archaeologists at the Buddhist monastery complex in Ajina Teppa (southern Tajikistan, right on the legendary Silk Road). The Soviets dismantled the 5.5 ton Buddha into manageable slices, which have since been put together on display in Dushanbe. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but later learned that an exact replica exists in the new National Museum. The only other interesting artifact at the Antiquities Musem was the Sarazm Princess, buried in fetal position with all her jewelry. Lunch was on our agenda after the museum, and we stopped by a popular local restaurant Lesnaya Skazka. Here, Robby enjoyed a massive Baltika beer (in the middle of Ramazan too…we love Tajikistan) along with lamb shashlik, salad, and naan for everyone else. The grilled lamb was cooked to perfection, and we really enjoyed our meal. After stuffing ourselves silly, we headed over to the National Museum, a recently opened (June 2013) museum showcasing 22 halls of artifacts dating back to the country’s Zoroastrian past. Again, we had an excellent local guide who walked us through the displays. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to see everything as there were still other Dushanbe sights to squeeze in before our afternoon flight to Khujand, so we reluctantly tore ourselves away and headed towards the nearby Ismoili Somoni Statue, passing by the world’s tallest flagpole (165 meters), Rudaki Statue (considered the “Shakespeare of Tajikistan”), and the majestic Tajikistan National Library. With little time to spare, we headed back to our hotel where we were able to take a quick refreshing shower to cool down and grab our bags before checking out and heading over to the airport. Jalal appeared a bit confused as to which terminal to take us to (the domestic is to the left of the international airport as you are facing it), but we eventually made our way to the domestic terminal where everyone else was patiently waiting for the staff to arrive and unlock the doors. After thanking Jalal and our driver, we checked in for the Somon Air flight from Dushanbe to Khujand, flight time of 50 minutes. With camera in hand, we took a few photos of the majestic mountains of Tajikistan, and enjoyed the brief flight. After retrieving our bags, we were happy to see the smiling face of our driver Kamolidin holding a Pamir Highway Adventure sign with Becky’s name. Surprisingly, he did not speak English, but he could speak fluent German, so we dug deep and tested our memory with German phrases and words from so long ago. Thankfully, we were able to carry on a basic conversation for the rest of the evening. After checking into our Khujand hotel, Batah Hotel, we dropped off our bags and were ready for dinner in 10 minutes flat. Kamol was starving (fasting during Ramazan), and he took us directly to a popular Khujand khana (restaurant) just opposite the opera house, which was swamped with people breaking the fast. In fact, we could barely get a table, much to Kamol’s consternation and angst. After finding and squeezing ourselves into a tiny table with restrictive chairs (there was literally maybe a half cm to spare on either side of us), we were served a delicious local Khujand soup, along with a tasty tomato & onion salad. Then there was a long wait before we were informed that they did not have Kamol’s first meal choice. We got to witness Kamol’s customer service skills in action as he grabbed us some fresh watermelon slices to snack on as we waited for the main dish to arrive. Our waiter finally brought out a massive lamb meatball (tasty) served up with decoratively cut veggies on the side of rice. During dinner we discussed our plans for the next few days and tried as best we could (in German) to describe our jobs, learn about Kamol’s family, and discover some tidbits about Tajikistan. After dinner, Kamol took us back to the hotel with strict instructions of a 7:30 am departure. We were very clear on the link up time as Kamol must have mentioned it about ten different times, apologetically explaining that since we arrived half a day later than expected, he was forced to consolidate our itinerary to squeeze in the “best of” sights of Khujand and Istaravshan along with a long drive to Penjikent tomorrow. That meant an early wake up and breakfast, so we nodded our approval and promised to meet him on time tomorrow. Our hotel room was perfect…spacious, clean and plenty of hot water, pure bliss.
26 July: Kamolidin was happy to see us bright and early in the hotel lobby. He had a restaurant in mind for breakfast but it was closed due to Ramazan, so we went back to the same place where we had dinner. Breakfast consisted of cheese stuffed pancakes, bread, cheese, lamb sausage and green tea. Our guide Jamshed appeared towards the end of the meal and introduced himself. His English was excellent as he had spent a year on an exchange program studying at a college in the US. Lucky us! We quickly learned how Americanized Jamshed had become and enjoyed having him as our guide. We hadn’t realized that PHA had actually outsourced our tour to Orient Adventure, which was the company that both Kamol and Jamshed worked for. First stop on our busy day was a visit to the excellent Sughd Historical Museum where Jamshed gave us a tour. We think the visit was free as we didn’t pay anything to enter and never saw Jamshed or Kamol hand over any money. The Sughd Museum was definitely worth a detour with nice displays and a not to be missed Alexander the Great marble mural in the basement. From the museum we headed over to the Ismoil Somoni statue, which recently (May 2011) dislodged Central Asia’s biggest Lenin Statue. Lenin has since been relocated to Victory Park, which is a remote area located on the right bank of the Syrdarya River. Today, Somoni commands a nice view of Khujand (next to a brand new stadium and Olympic sized swimming pool), and Jamshed told us that every night, the park area is transformed into flowing fountains, lights and music. Since Victory Park was just down the street, our next stop was a visit to the recently deposed Vladimir Lenin Statue, a massive 24 meter tall monstrosity complete with a hammer & sickle emblem. Enroute, we passed by a Tajik war memorial commemorating the Afghan War. The Lenin Statue, which was built and erected in 1994 in the then named “Leninabad” (Khujand’s old name under Soviet rule from 1936 – 1991) is one of Khujand’s biggest draws, although since it has now been moved to a more obscure location gets few visitors these days. Rounding out our Khujand city tour was a visit to see the Jami Mosque, minaret and madrassa located on Khujand’s bazaar square (in front of the vibrantly colorful Panjshanbe Bazaar). It was impossible to resist the bazaar, which was full of naan, fruit, nuts and vegetable vendors…we were able to get quite a few candid shots of daily market activities. People were pleasantly curious about our cameras and quite a few smiled and asked us to take photos. Kamol was quite anxious to start the long drive to Penjikent, but not before we had a chance to stock up on some water. Istaravshan is a small city that warrants a visit on the drive from Khujand to Penjikent, so we made sure to include a quick stop here. Highlights of this city include the Mughtepa Fortress, an old citadel that offers fine panoramic views. Becky spotted a pack of newborn puppies in the corner of the citadel and just had to sneak the skinny mother some food so she could feed her pups. Istaravshan has its very own Lenin statue in the town square, and nearby is the city’s main mosque, Hazrat-I Shoh Mosque. We arrived in time for the midday Friday prayers, where throngs of men were flocking to pray. Jamshed didn’t 100% comfortable as he said if he was in his home town, he would have been yelled at already for not attending prayers. As it was, no one here knew him but they were still staring at him wondering why he wasn’t headed to the mosque. Before leaving Istaravshan, we stopped by the blacksmith bazaar, where we were able to pick up a unique souvenir of a decorative goat horn knife. Smiles all around as some curious children begged us to pose with them for a photo…they were very sweet and shy about it. It was a short drive to our next stop, a climb to the top of a massive Lenin statue that is located atop a dam that holds the drinking water for the entire Istaravshan area. It was fun climbing all over Lenin although a bit precarious! It had been a busy morning, and Kamol was dreading the long drive ahead of him so we finally started the journey towards Penjikent. Lucky for us, a new Chinese built tunnel cut down what would have been a 3 hour drive up and down a mountain into a nail-biting 10 minute drive. After about two hours we made a stop at a roadside shack for lunch which consisted of soup served with naan and a side dish of beef & onions. Everyone gulped down lunch quickly, so we could continue our long onward drive. As Kamol had forewarned, the “good” road eventually ran out and we were jostled on a dilapidated road for several long hours. Thankfully, the scenery surrounding us was very nice, and accompanied with our itunes, the drive to Penjikent didn’t suck as much as we thought it would. It was 8 pm and dark by the time we finally pulled up into Penjikent, so we told Kamol we could wait until after dinner to check into our homestay. He seemed relieved to hear that and took us to a local restaurant where he organized a quick meal of soup, naan, a Penjikent special consisting of a deep fried chicken ball wrapped around a chicken drumstick bone (it was pretty tasty for us hungry travelers). Watermelon rounded out the meal and stuffed silly, we finally were taken to our homestay for the night. Kamol hails originally from Penjikent, and he claimed our homestay was better than most hotels in the city. We have to agree…it was a private house that had a massive garden, around which several private rooms had been built. We selected the room next to the shower/toilet facilities. After washing off the grime from today’s activities, both of us slept soundly despite the neighborhood dog pack doing its best to keep us up by howling late into the night.
27 July: Per Kamol’s request, we were packed and ready to go by 7:30 am. Breakfast in town consisted of honey, yogurt, pancakes, eggs, hotdogs and tea. After breakfast we headed out to see the ancient ruins of Penjikent which are located just outside modern day Penjikent next to a flowing river. Very little of the ancient city remains today, but the area was abuzz with archeologists “working” in the area (overseeing the locals who had been hired to do the digging and excavating). We weren’t too keen on spending a lot of time here as the day was rapidly heating up, so we returned back to Penjikent to visit the Rudaki Museum which was laid out nicely and definitely worth a visit. The Penjikent bazaar was next on our list, and it was quite lively and very photogenic. Armed with our cameras, it was obvious we were tourists and the locals were quite happy to pose for pictures. Kamol bought several bottles of ice cold water for our journey from Penjikent to the Marguzor Lakes (more commonly referred to as “Seven Lakes”). The road was a bit rough and we were glad we had a sturdy 4×4 vehicle to tackle the 60km journey along the Shing Valley. The Marguzor Lakes are located in the western Fan Mountains (which are higher than the Alps and a popular alpine trekking option for tourists). Each of the Seven Lakes has its own unique hue of turquoise or blue, and trekking from the 6th to 7th lake (Hazor Chashma) is a popular activity for most visitors. We reached the base of Seven Lakes by lunch time, and marveled at the view of the first lake (Mijgon), especially as we drove higher and higher up the mountain. We stopped for a picnic lunch at Gushor Lake (3rd Lake), with ample time to hike back to Saya (2nd Lake) to dip our legs into its freezing cold waters. Gushor Lake is very popular with Tajiks, especially those on a weekend getaway from Dushanbe. Since today was Saturday, the entire area was packed with campers who were planning on spending the night at the lake before heading back to the capital tomorrow. We quickly befriended a judge from Dushanbe who offered us vodka, cushions to recline on, and tidbits of meat. The judge happened to own a resort near Dushanbe, and we promised that if we returned to the area and had time, we would stop by to check out his pad. After taking some photos with our new found friend, we bid his group adieu as we made our way further up the mountain, passing by the area’s biggest lake, Nofin (4th Lake). Between Nofin and Hurdak (5th Lake), Kamol checked out a guest house for us to overnight at, the homestay “Mijgon”. Here, we met some friendly village kids who shyly approached us, a bit timid in practicing their English but quite curious about us. We pointed out our guest house and told them we would be staying overnight before bidding them farewell as we continued to make our way up the mountain. From Hurdak Lake, we passed by Marguzor Lake (namesake of the village here) and then Kamol made the very precarious journey from 6th to 7th Lake, (Hazor Chashma) which was quite a feat! Very few vehicles tackle this treacherous path, and most visitors opt for the 2 hour hike instead. Once at Hazor Chashma, Kamol was a bit crestfallen, as he had anticipated a loud round of applause for transporting us safely to the 7th Lake. With Jamshed acting as our interpreter, Kamol told us we were the first group that had taken his driving skills for granted. We simply smiled, shrugged and told him that if he got us back down the mountain safe and sound, he would earn the applause. We were surprised to see other tourists here at Hazor Chashma and quickly learned that the group of 5 Americans was studying Persian in Dushanbe…very cool! They were busy taking photos of themselves braving a dip in the freezing cold water, lasting about a minute before retreating from the glacial cold. Robby and Jamshed followed suit, and their antics were captured on camera. After a quick dip, we decided to hike the length of the lake, following a narrow footpath. There were lots of load bearing donkeys so we quickly got out of their way since they were carrying a heavier load! A Tajik family on a donkey caravan made for a picturesque moment, and the father proudly displayed his newborn for us to see. We met an American-French couple who raved about this alpine treasure (and we would later find out that they were our neighbors at the homestay Mijgon) and urged us to walk around Lake Seven’s entire length. When we eventually returned back to where Kamol was patiently waiting for us, the Americans were gone but we soon caught up to them on our drive down. We only had room for 2 or maybe 3 of them but the group of 5 wanted to stick together so we wished them well and continued on our way. Our vehicle caused a bit of drama further down the path when we spooked a donkey transporting a Tajik woman with a small child strapped to her front and another small child strapped to her back. The donkey was freaked out by our car and threatened to buck its riders off. Thankfully a young boy came to the rescue and calmed the donkey down, allowing us to drive by without further incident. Back at the homestay, we were shown to our room where we quickly dropped off our stuff before heading to the shower for a quick warm rinse. The guesthouse is in a perfect position with a gushing river right next to it and cool breezes all around. We found out that we were the first guests to break in the brand new wooden upper deck where we relaxed with tea and snacks while waiting for dinner. Kamol and Jamshed told us they would sleep under the stars here tonight and it is truly a blissful spot…lucky guys! Dinner was a simple meal of soup and we chatted with the tourists we had met earlier at Lake Seven. Interestingly, they were both on holiday in Tajikistan on a break from working at the American University in northern Iraq. He was previously in the military and had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been a fascinating quest to find out what kind of tourists choose to vacation in Tajikistan…every single traveler has been quite intrepid and adventurous thus far! Kamol and Jamshed advised us that we would have a 6:30 breakfast followed by a 7 am departure so we prepared ourselves accordingly. An outside light that had been flipped on in the middle of the night kept us tossing and turning, making this the least comfortable guesthouse thus far.
28 July: Not a creature was stirring when we woke up at 6 am. Jamshed and Kamol must have been tired! Breakfast was thirty minutes later than expected at 7 am, but Kamol felt that he could make up for the late start once we hit the road. After breakfast we drove towards Iskanderkul (Alexander Lake), which was listed as a must see in our guidebooks. We had to backtrack past the Marguzor Lakes heading north out of the Shing Valley. We were making great time until we hit Aini, where we got a flat tire. Kamol didn’t want to be charged extortionate prices when they saw that he was transporting tourists so he asked us to hang out in the village of Aini and we happily complied. Becky happened to run into a girl she had befriended a few days earlier when we had stopped in Aini to get some cold water and it was a joyous reunion. Progress on the flat tire was slow as Kamol didn’t want to rely on the spare in the event we blew out another tire. He cautioned that our journey was going to take us on some treacherous terrain, so better safe than sorry. While waiting for him by the roadside, an old Tajik farmer couple ran into us. The man gawked at us openly, trying to figure out where we were from. He correctly guessed that Becky was a mixture of either Chinese or Vietnamese or Thai, which was pretty remarkable considering she had massive dark sunglasses on and he couldn’t make out all her facial features. Before we knew it, we had been invited as guests of honor to the couple’s house, where our choice of a lamb or goat would be sacrificed and prepared for us. We politely declined several times but the couple was insistent. Jamshed had to explain we were on a tight schedule and eventually we were let off the hook with wishes of a good journey. Kamol finally appeared with his car back in tip top shape so we resumed our journey towards Iskanderkul. It was early afternoon when we had a brief lunch stop, crashing a bachelors’ picnic party at a roadside shack. Kamol noticed a lute lying nearby and one of the guys, a blind musician, played for our group. He was surprisingly good and we (on Kamol’s advice) rewarded him with a snickers bar afterwards for his efforts. Trying to make up for our late start and flat tire delay, Kamol was driving a bit crazy after lunch. We never felt that he was out of control but he was definitely pushing the limits of his car to get us over to Iskanderkul. The mountain range leading up to this scenic lake was quite picturesque, and we stopped for several photos along the way. Iskanderkul lived up to the hype, as it is a beautiful mirage in the middle of a mountain oasis. We hiked out to a nearby waterfall known locally at “Niagara”. It is a 40 meter tall waterfall that gushes loudly over a lookout point (which didn’t look too sturdy mind you!). The hike was easy and worth the detour, and as we backtracked and linked up with Kamol, he urged us to hike up a small hill to the rear of a Soviet-era holiday camp on one end of Iskanderkul. The hill has a fine view over “Snake’s Lake”, a murky lake at the base of the surrounding mountains. Back at Iskanderkul, we met a local entrepreneur that was charging outrageous amounts ($30 per person) for a motorboat ride across the 4km lake. A drunk and rowdy group of Russians hopped into the boat without negotiating the fare, and demanded a ride. When the boat owner tried to explain how much it would cost, they waved his concern away and demanded to be zipped across to see the President’s dacha. Stereotypical Russians! The Tajiks witnessing this behavior just shook their heads…perhaps it is a common occurrence? Despite the waning sunlight, Jamshed decided to be brave and take a plunge in the ice cold lake. We filmed him jumping into the freezing waters but declined to join him…no freaking way! Just wading across a tributary and submerging our feet into the glacial runoff was cold enough. Back at our car, Kamol explained we would overnight about 10km away at a homestay in the village of Sarotog (Sarytag). Just before we reached the base of the mountain leading towards Sarotog, Kamol pulled over near the Tajik President’s lake house where a full retinue of attendants was caring for the grounds. We learned that President Rahmon has similar villas in other spectacular locations throughout Tajikistan. Talk about a massive budget to care for those houses when supposedly, he only visits once a year, if that. We had stopped to visit a natural spring next to his house that has about 40 different sources. We were told that the water has been tested and is very pure and healthy, so we filled all our water bottles to the brink and gulped down the ice cold liquid…awesome! Since we had two nights in Sarotog Village, we wanted to make sure to stockpile our water as we weren’t sure how much we would consume tomorrow on our hike. Our guesthouse in Sarotog Village was the very pleasant Shohin Homestay, which was highly recommended by Kamol. It is rather basic but was very clean and spacious, and had the added bonus of a steam room / bath area, perfect for rejuvenating our tired bodies. Dinner was fantastic, with a massive spread of Tajik plov…yummy! Kamol brought out a bottle of vodka and toast after toast was made. Happily, we don’t have any set plans for tomorrow and can sleep in! After dinner, Kamol broke the bad news that his services were required in Dushanbe tomorrow morning, but only if we granted permission for another driver/vehicle to be substituted. His German speaking skills were needed, as one of Orient Adventure’s German guides fell ill and Kamol was the only backup. He was to escort a German group through the Pamir Highway as their guide and we could understand the predicament. For purely selfish reasons, we wanted to keep him as our driver as over the past few days together we had become quite attached, but we understood that the main part of our tour was over as we only had the drive from Iskanderkul to Dushanbe remaining. Since Kamol had an early start tomorrow morning, we said our goodbyes after taking a blissful steam bath. Jamshed wanted a bit of a lie in tomorrow so we agreed to have breakfast at 8. Our “beds” at the homestay consisted of blankets piled up together and surprisingly, it made for a comfortable night’s sleep. We heard a few mosquitoes buzzing around our ears but since we are out of the malaria zone, they didn’t bother us too much.
29 July: Jamshed was still sound asleep at our 8 am scheduled breakfast, so we tiptoed around as we got ready for the day. By 9, breakfast was served and we were ready for our hike around Sarotog Village by 9:30 am. We originally wanted an early start so we wouldn’t be stuck hiking about in the midday heat but the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The scenic mountains surrounding Sarotog Village are popular with hikers. We just wanted a casual jaunt about the area, as neither of us is quite as serious about climbing mountains or exerting ourselves too strenuously. Unlike the tourists who erected tents at the German campsite we encountered near the Karakul River. There, we ran into a Tajik/German translator who was left behind to mind the camp. He told us that the German entourage of a half dozen hikers had already set out for the day, with an aggressive plan to cover a great deal of distance. They had packed picnic lunches and were not expected back until just before nightfall. We were quite happy with our less aggressive plan of walking through Sarotog Village while hugging the Karakul River. In the distance, we could make out a small rock outcropping that would give us fine views of the surrounding area so we decided to head in that direction. At one point in our hike we came across a small “island” in the middle of the Karakul River and Jamshed recommended that we wade across to reach it. Talk about painful! The water was literally ice cold and our bare feet could barely stand the rocky river-bed crossing. Thankfully once our feet were out of the water, the sun warmed them back up again. Can’t imagine a river crossing on a dark or gloomy day! Jamshed proposed a “contest” to see who could withstand the pain the longest by submerging our bare feet into the icy waters. Crazily, we agreed. Robby barely lasted 20 seconds, with Becky holding out for 30 seconds and Jamshed taking the prize by keeping his feet submerged for 35 seconds. The water was bitterly cold so we were quite proud of ourselves for lasting as long as we did! We had to cross the river once more to continue our hike, and we did this with great reluctance. It was time for our hike up the mountain, which we could see would give us fantastic views of the scenery. It was just a matter of hiking at elevation. Climbing in the midday heat sapped all of our energy and we kept taking frequent rest stops. The view at the top was worth it though as the Karakul River now looked like a thin, turquoise ribbon in the background. A brief photo session ensued, and we opted to take a different path to go back down the mountain, passing by a small village of about ten stone huts built right by the river’s edge. Talk about peaceful living! Our water supply had long been consumed, so when we passed by the German camp, Jamshed asked if we could have some water which the translator happily gave us. What a lifesaver! Afterwards, we filled our empty bottles with river water but were a bit reluctant to drink it once we saw sediment floating about in our bottles. Thank goodness Robby had brought his LifeStraw on this trip so we could quench our thirst without fear of amoebic dysentery. Back at the homestay, a massive lunch feast had been prepared and we stuffed ourselves silly on roasted lamb, French fries and Tajik soup. Neither one of us was keen on hiking immediately after lunch so we opted for a leisurely nap, and got up later for an afternoon walk. We had considered climbing another mountain or returning to Lake Iskanderkul, but in the end were just too tired to exert that kind of energy, so we settled for a short walk up a small hill that wasn’t too challenging. As the sun was setting, we returned back to our homestay where we indulged in a cool and refreshing bath. Jamshed swapped some of his videos for a few of our photos and discussed the plan for tomorrow (an ungodly 5 am wakeup with a 5:30 am departure). We crashed immediately after dinner, packing all our gear so we could just wake up and go without messing about in the morning.
30 July: Ever had one of those days where you felt like dying? Today, Becky felt like she was on her deathbed. High altitude sickness or dysentery like symptoms gradually built up in the morning and reached their peak by the time we reached Dushanbe, where thankfully there was a hotel room to crash at. But first we had to leave lovely Sarotog. Up by 5 am, the rest of the house was still sound asleep, so it didn’t look promising to get a bite to eat for breakfast today. A new car was parked at the entrance to our homestay, with our driver fast asleep. After stocking up on some candies for the road, we bid farewell to our homestay and woke up the driver for the ride to Dushanbe. Down at the spring next to the President’s dacha, we stopped to refill our water bottles. Becky felt progressively worse, lying down for the bumpy ride back to the capital. We had to ride through several tunnels, the worst being the 5km “Anzob Tunnel” more commonly known to the locals as the “Tunnel of Death”, which was built by the Iranians from 2003-2006. Despite the fact that the tunnel is only 7 years old, it is in horrendous condition! No exaggeration, a ride through it was quite the adventure with only one working light every few hundred meters, water running all over the road, equipment blocking one lane in several places, massive potholes hidden beneath the water at random intervals, and no ventilation. Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few cars broken down or stuck in potholes along the way. It was quite a relief to finally be through the tunnel after what felt like an excruciatingly long time for a mere 5km journey! About 11km north of Dushanbe, we passed by Varzob, where Tajikistan’s uber rich reside. No surprise to hear that the President has another of his many dachas here. Our driver was speeding along, trying to get Jamshed to the airport on time to pick up another tourist. His car was muddy from the Anzob Tunnel, so it was with bewilderment that he pulled over to a makeshift carwash to hire several guys to vigorously hand wash his car. Jamshed questioned him about the delay, and then explained that the vehicle was being washed because the driver was petrified of getting a fine. Apparently, the police will extort a hefty “fine” (bribe) from all drivers who have the audacity to drive their dirty cars on Rudaki Avenue, the main road in Dushanbe. Even after the wash job, we were surprised when our driver unceremoniously booted us out of his car just north of Dushanbe, hiring another car on the spot for the last few km of our journey. It was insane how scared our driver was to drive into the city! We arrived to Hotel Poytaht by 9 am where we expected our PHA guide, Jalal, to be waiting for us. Jamshed had even called him at 8 to let him know we would be arriving soon and he had promised to be there, but of course he was a no show. Thankfully, Jamshed didn’t just abandon us there on the spot but he irately called Jalal again to ask what was going on. Poor Jalal didn’t appear to understand him in either English or Tajik and asked if they could talk in Russian. Jamshed was most displeased! When he finally got Jalal to promise that someone would show up in the next hour, Jamshed finally took his leave after we thanked him for his fine guiding services. Jamshed sure was a lot of fun to be around and a really enthusiastic guide. We were sad to see him go. The hotel didn’t have any information on our check in so we sat miserably in the lobby while waiting for some representative from PHA to show up. Thankfully it wasn’t a long wait before the head director of PHA, Ubaidulla, showed up. He appeared to be a bit confused as to who we were and what we were doing there so we pulled out our itinerary and discussed our upcoming plans for the next two days. Inadvertently, we found out that Jalal is Ubaidulla’s son which helped clear up the mystery as to why Ubaidulla was now in the lobby talking to us. After reviewing our documents, it was determined that today’s itinerary would include lunch and a visit to the Botanical Gardens in the afternoon, followed by dinner at the popular Choikhona Rohat. Poor Becky was still at death’s door so she missed out on a whole afternoon in Dushanbe, feverishly sweating it out in our hotel room while making frantic sprints to the toilet. The summer temperature in Dushanbe was ridiculous, reaching well over 40 degrees Celsius so it was mid-afternoon before Robby ventured out into the gardens. There are several hand carved wooden gazebos in the Botanical Gardens, along with exercise equipment commonly seen in parks. Robby described the visit as worthwhile but nothing spectacular. A quick visit to a pharmacy brought Becky some over the counter relief, but she still didn’t feel as if she could venture out for dinner, so Robby headed out with Jalal. The Rudaki Park is fully lit at night with colorful water fountains and lovers holding hands. The Rohat Chaihana (tea house) is a hybrid of what a traditional tea house would look like built in the Soviet Style. The ceiling work is not to be missed, and Robby said the upper floor offered a nice vantage point overlooking Rudaki Ave. He was also impressed with the food and draft Dushanbe beer which he proclaimed to be quite tasty. It was a fairly early night with both of us in bed by 10 pm with a free day to explore Dushanbe on our own tomorrow.
31 July: Summer temperatures in Dushanbe are dreadful, so we decided to get up early for some sightseeing around the city before it got too hot. Breakfast at 7 am was a simple affair but Becky still wasn’t 100% so she barely touched her food. By 8 am we were ready to hit the city to catch all the sights we hadn’t been able to check out yet. We hopped into a shared taxi to cut down on the walk to Haji Jaqub Mosque, our first stop of the day. Shared taxis in Dushanbe are great value! Ours was a mere 3 Somoni each, with the driver dropping us off anywhere we wanted along Rudaki Ave. It took us a while to find the mosque as we had actually gone a bit too far north on Rudaki Ave and could not see the road leading directly to it. Instead, we walked around and some helpful locals showed us a shortcut path to reach one of Dushanbe’s few visible symbols of Islam (surprising for a muslim country). Since Becky did not bring a headscarf, she didn’t feel comfortable entering the courtyard but Robby was welcome. The exterior of the mosque is quite lovely with intricately carved wooden doors and simple tile-work. The mosque was funded by rich Saudis who built the mosque in 1990 (at the same site of an earlier mosque). Next on our morning walk was a quick visit to Hotel Avesto to check out this Soviet monstrosity. We had heard the stained glass mural here merited a visit but thought the one at our hotel, Hotel Poytaht, was far superior. However, it was worth a quick stop to check out the other hotel that so many of the travel agents we had contacted like to put their guests up in. The Writer’s Union Building was a short stroll away, as we had caught a glimpse of it our first day in Dushanbe but hadn’t had a chance to check it out. This interesting sight is a commemoration to the Persian writers that so many Tajiks hold in high esteem. From here we continued our walk through the Bag-i-Rudaki garden to revisit the statues of Rudaki and Somani in the morning sunlight for better photos (our afternoon visit was not conducive to taking photos of Somani). Tajik policemen in blue uniforms converged by the dozens on Rudaki Avenue near the Somani Statue and we knew that something must be going on for them to briskly split up into small groups to police the city. A policeman in his car started yelling at Dushanbe residents to vacate the streets on a blow horn, and we (as tourists) weren’t spared the wrath. In groups of 3 or 4, the police started bullying residents and visitors alike to vacate the city. We were ushered away from the Parliament building and then shooed away from Rudaki Ave. Later we found out that the President’s motorcade was about to pass through Dushanbe, hence the massive effort to clear the streets of both vehicles and pedestrians! Not feeling welcome on Rudaki Avenue, we cut through Ayni Park to check out a cable car that connects to Victory Park. It was a long hot walk and the cable car station was closed (and appeared to have been for some time now). Victory Park didn’t look too appealing either from a distance, so we didn’t bother exploring further. Instead, we backtracked and made our way to the Shah Mansur (Green) Bazaar. What a chaotic scene! This central market is a popular place for locals to do their shopping as there was a wide variety of products for sale (pots, pans and brooms to spices, nuts, cheese, fresh meat, bread and vegetables). We felt quite welcome here and although the locals are quite used to tourists, no one seemed to mind us taking photographs at all (many actually welcomed it). It had been a busy morning so we headed back to the Poytaht Hotel for a quick rest before Jalal picked us up for lunch. He brought us back to the same restaurant Robby had visited yesterday and since the lamb kebabs were so tasty, we both ordered them today. Delicious and cooked to perfection! Since we had the rest of the day at our leisure, we agreed to meet Jalal at 5:30 am tomorrow for a pickup to the airport. It was far too hot to do much of anything in the afternoon, so we enjoyed a siesta until dusk when we strolled out in the quest of dinner. Both of us were craving something different so we went in search of an expat favorite, Segafredo Restaurant. With free wifi, coffee, cocktails and Italian, the place was packed. We both enjoyed our pasta dishes, infused with walnuts. A bit pricey but a nice change from the Tajik food we had been eating nonstop since our arrival. At night, the residents of Dushanbe come out to represent, and tonight was no different. The park was full of locals enjoying the colorful water fountain display. Becky still wasn’t feeling well so we headed back to the hotel to pack and wash up.
1 Aug: When the alarm sounded at 5 am, it was way too early to get up! But Jalal had promised an early morning pick up even though we were both skeptical given his track record. With our bags in tow, we headed down to the lobby where a security guard told us Jalal was waiting for us outside on the main road. Checking out of a hotel was never so easy (it was too early for a receptionist and the front desk was abandoned) so we dropped off our key and headed out for the short ride to the airport. The Kam Air counter was open and very efficient. So efficient in fact that no one bothered to look at our passports! Not even once to ensure we had Afghan visas (we didn’t as we had the visa exemption forms)…pretty crazy! Jalal was quite anxious to leave us on our own, but we had heard nightmare stories about customs and wanted to have a translator on hand in the event we were given a hard time about not declaring our valuables upon entry. Despite relaying this to Jalal, he was pretty insistent that he had to get going and left us to fend for ourselves but not to fear…while others were pulled over and inspected thoroughly by customs, we were allowed to pass straight through. For some reason, we had to lug our check in luggage (with KBL tag already affixed) through the airport to drop it off with a baggage handler just after customs. Perhaps the customs inspectors were looking for anything out of the ordinary and our dirty clothes/shoes didn’t warrant any interest. Getting stamped out of Tajikistan was a breeze and soon we were waiting for our plane back to Kabul. Amazingly, it left on time although we were bum rushed by those trying to board a flight to Russia who mistook our flight for theirs.
Reflections on our short one week visit to Tajikistan are positive. We thought Dushanbe was a very pleasant capital city to spend some time in. The northern area of the country is beautiful with lots of alpine lakes, snow-capped mountains, colorful markets, and super friendly people. We are gutted we didn’t have time for a trip along the Pamir Highway but that just means we have to plan a return trip here sometime in the future! This lovely country definitely warrants a visit and it won’t be long before word gets out so visit before the hordes do.