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Travel

Tajikistan Surprises
Text and photos Luc Jones

Ask most Russians what they associate with Tajikistan, and they will probably tell you, manual laborer gastarbeiters on building sites across the country. Oh, and there was a civil war there in the 1990s. Ask most foreigners in Russia about Tajikistan and theyre unlikely to have ever heard of the place, unless they confuse it with Borats supposed homeland.

Monument - Istaravshan

Despite having travelled to 13 former Soviet Republics before this trip, I have to say that even I was a little apprehensive about this one. Tajikistan would be the 70th country I had visited, but trying to find out any reliable information about the place in advance proved extremely difficult. The internet may have reached all corners of the globe, but tourists obviously havent, since if they did make it to Tajikistan, they didnt write much about it afterwards. Interestingly, Tajikistan didnt even exist until 1929 when Stalin lopped off a chunk of Uzbekistan and made Tajikistan a republic in its own right.

Hissar - just outside Dushanbe

Obtaining a tourist visa was surprisingly easy. My previous experiences with entry formalities in ex-socialist countries are that they are anything but formalities, with the amount of hassle of actually getting the visa being inversely proportional to the number of people actually wanting one! I turned up at the Tajik Embassy in Moscow in the morning, filled out a form, presented my passport and a photo, along with a brief letter from my employer stating where I work, then later that same day I picked up my passport complete with a lovely green sticker - all for the price of 780 rubles (about $30). I was the only person in the visa section and just ignored the throngs of Tajiks milling around outside if you go; they are there for consular issues and will let you through.

The Consul wished me a pleasant trip, and with my 5 fellow-expat travelling companions, off we went to board our Domodedovo Airlines flight to Dushanbe. Incidentally, Dushanbe means Monday in the Tajik language, but no one that we met could offer any kind of explanation as to why the capital had such a name although for part of the Soviet era the city was known as Stalinabad!

And how surprised we were to fi nd out how amazingly normal Dushanbe is; outdoor cafes, pleasant and clean streets in the center with well-dressed people talking into the latest mobile phones. Walking down Ulitsa Rudaki, the main thoroughfare, we were amazed to

Dushanbe main bazar

see western-style shops, foreign car showrooms and dozens of restaurants. A Hyatt is currently under construction and while it might be a while before a Golden Arches makes an appearance, this wasnt the hell-hole we had been warned about by Muscovites. The main bazaar was everything you would expect from a central Asian market, with ludicrously cheap fruit, vegetables and spices for sale. We even had dinner in an Ecuadorian restaurant, which made for a pleasant change of pace after four days of shashlik for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And the evening spent in Dushanbes main nightspot (strangely named Port Said) was extremely enjoyable, if you successfully ignore the drunken Turkish diplomat antagonizing the local police, and a group of American Marines on R&R from neighboring Afghanistan picking random fights with each other and the locals!

A pleasant half-hour drive from the capital brings you to Hissar, a centuries old fortress which was worth a visit before we began our journey north through the Fann mountains. The road is currently being remonted.

Main square - Khojand

Bizarrely we did not see any Tajik-looking construction workers on the job; all were Chinese! No tarmac and a bumpy ride for those of us cramped in the back of our trusty (mostly) UAZ, as we made our way towards Iskanderkul Lake. Beautiful views, but freezing water, although not really surprising at 2,500 meters, and three of managed a swim!

After another day on the dusty road with stops for kebabs or to fix our UAZ, we reached Istaravshan in the north of the country. Some may see this place as a smaller version of Samarkand minus the tourists, which is a little harsh. We found the people here, as everywhere else in the country to be extremely hospitable and genuinely impressed that we had bothered to visit their land. They may know that it may be a little while before Ryanair begins flights here!

The final leg of our journey took us on to Khojand, Tajikistans second city which was a pleasant place to spend the day, including a swim in the fast-flowing Syr-Darya River. The main market square and mosque were extremely impressive after our hours of bouncing along potholed roads. When the inferior road situation is sorted out, travelling will be considerably easier.

The message is, if you want to go somewhere safe and where few others have ever been, then Tajikistan is definitely worth the trip. Its a little rough around the edges, but the warmth of the people certainly made up for any physical discomforts.

Iskander-kul lake (in the Fann mountains)

Information:

Tajik Embassy in Moscow:
Granatny Pereulok 13 (metro Barrikadnaya)
tel: 290 61 74 (visa application forms can be downloaded from www.tajikistan.ru  - visas issued in a day (weekdays except Wednesdays) for around $30 in any currency.
Domodedovo and Tajikistan Airlines fly to Dushanbe, S7 (Sibir) fly to Khojand. Our tour was arranged by Elena Lourens who was very efficient (and the costs were low). E-mail her at: lem_camp@mail.ru
Despite the national language being Tajik, everyone we met in Tajikistan spoke excellent Russian, and in Dushanbe & Khojand, many spoke good English.







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