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Published: October 30th 2016
And so we get to the end of the road - an all too brief visit to Tajikistan. Still I can't complain, as us two Aussies had our visit to this country doubled in length by the stuff-up over getting a re-entry visa back into Uzbekistan (refer that blog), meaning we could not return to Almaty (to pick up our return flights to Sydney) via Tashkent as scheduled and instead had to return to Almaty via Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. So the original plan had been just an overnight visit to Khujand, the second-biggest city and within a relatively easy drive from Tashkent, before driving back to Tashkent, but instead the two of us had to leave the organised tour a day early and instead spend an unplanned night in Dushanbe. To be honest, there wasn't a lot of interest in Khujand, and I suspect the main motivation for the trip there was to allow us all to tick off another country box and call the tour 'Five' Stans!
Tajikistan is in fact one of the most mountainous countries on the globe, and the Pamir range has some seriously high mountains, the tallest of which is around 7,500 metres,
well up with much of the Himalayas. However, the two cities we visited were not up in the mountains, although they did have attractive mountain backdrops. Of the 5 Stans, it seemed the least Soviet and perhaps had more of a Middle-Eastern feel to it. Khujand has a main square dominated by a domed mosque complex on one side and the well-designed Panshanbe Bazaar on the other side. The square was teeming with people, but none of them seemed to be tourists. We spent quite some time exploring the bazaar, and the fact that we were relative novelties gave us plenty of opportunity to interact with the locals. Away from this central area is an ancient Citadel, which has now been converted to a museum, and the usual range of statues. Amongst these is Central Asia's largest (of many) Lenin statues, which in 2011 was unceremoniously moved to the non-descript Victory Park and replaced by a statue of Ismail Somoni, King of Transoxiana, the historical name for this region.
We had one somewhat unusual experience early in our morning visit of Khujand. After taking in the President's Palace building (now converted to a museum), we were encouraged to come
inside and visit an adjoining 'tea room'. In this room, we found ourselves suddenly part of a function involving around 400 Tajik males, all there to celebrate a regular 'circumcision ceremony', which included a number of speeches and as always in these places, copious amounts of food (I understand the women-folk had attended an earlier, quite separate ceremony). Our group (including two women who each felt very conscious of 400 pairs of eyes focussed directly on them) were invited in, asked to sit down at a table and partake of a huge meal (see pic) - unfortunately for us, this was only an hour or so after having had our breakfast. So by the time we had eaten a polite amount of food, including a full plate of plov dumped in front of each of us, most of us didn't want to see any more food for another week!
From Khujand, it was just a short flight to Dushanbe for an overnight stop before flying back to Almaty. Since us two Aussies were now on our own, we booked a pretty nice hotel but it was a bit distant from the main shopping area. We enquired where we could
get a feed and were advised there were a number of eating options at the Dushanbe Mall, about a kilometre walk away. On arriving, sure enough, there were around a dozen 'fast-food' options, but to our horror, none of them would accept credit cards or US dollars and we had no Tajik currency. In desperation, I strolled around the eating area holding a nice crisp twenty US dollar note in front of me, asking out loud if anyone could help by swapping for Tajik somoni (US currency is usually well sought after in Central Asia), and a young guy almost pounced on me and advised it was illegal to change currency anywhere outside a bank in Tajikistan, but if I sit down and shut up, he would look after me. So we finally got our fried chicken meal!
Our flight next day was late in the morning and it seemed a pity to leave Dushanbe without seeing anything. So we enquired at the hotel whether they knew of a reliable taxi driver that could take us to the airport, but would allow us around a half hour stroll around the central city area without taking off with all our
luggage. To our delight, the receptionist was just coming off night-shift and offered to do this task himself. So not only did we see a bit of the central area, but we even had a English-speaking guide. The main feature of Dushanbe seems to be Rudaki Park, which contains the world's tallest flagpost (complete with Tajik flag, of course) and we also got the chance to take in Pamir Stadium, where a year ago the Aussie Socceroos played Tajikistan in a World Cup qualifier (and yes, we won!).
My final blog, to close out this particular trip, will be to reflect on my overall visit to this interesting part of the world.
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