Exploring the ‘other side’ of Tajikistan

After an odd evening at my hotel – I had a large man in a suit sleeping outside my door – my guide arrived early to meet me. Rather than being dressed like a gym instructor, today she was wore a flowing traditional dress. Something was up.

I’d spent the night reading up on Tajikistan and found that most articles were focussed on the Presidents abuse of power and human rights. I soon discovered that Twitter was banned – in response to the Arab Spring. And when a video of the President drunk and performing bad Karaoke at a wedding was posted on YouTube, Rahmon did what any self respecting dictator would…he banned YouTube in the whole country.

I also though back to learning that all beards were banned – that inspired me to take action. By my reckoning if Tajikistan could claim to be the best in the world at XYZ then I, despite my rather patchy track record with facial hair, could claim to have the best beard in Tajikistan!!

As we drove out of Dushanbe the immaculate lawns and painted buildings gave way to the dusty sidewalks that were so familiar in the neighbouring Stans. While the roads remained in pristine condition the houses gave way to run down Soviet era apartment blocks, desolate children’s play grounds and drier less irrigated fields.

We soon reached the foothills of the Zaravshan Mountain Range, fields became towering rugged mountains and the exposed clay brick shacks were replaced by luxury mansions on the river side. I ask the simple question – did these all belong to Politicians and surprisingly got the honest answer that they did. I also got an acknowledgement that many politicians were corrupt but the President was winning the war on corruption.

The Presidents summer palace was of course the grandest on the river and was undergoing massive construction work to double it in size.

We soon passed the oasis of wealth and we’re back in amongst poor villages with locals sat on every roadside seemingly doing nothing. The Zaravshan Mountains sit at a junction of ranges that tower above the road and are prone to massive erosion and landslides. I soon learnt that the road infrastructure had all been recently redeveloped by the Chinese.

In several places the road was momentarily blocked by flocks of hundreds of sheep being brought down from the mountains for winter. As we gained altitude to over 3,000m so the road began to become more windy and the unbarricaded cliff edge fell several hundred metres to the bottom of the canyon.

To shorten the drive two large tunnels bad been built through the mountain a reducing the treacherous journey by four or five hours. The first tunnel was 5.5km long and contained almost no lighting, no air extraction and was filled with a thick choking pollution. Apparently it had only just reopened after renovations funded by the Iranians. Surprisingly it was now considered in good condition compared to a year earlier when it had the catchy name ‘the Death tunnel’ due to regular fatal accidents caused by flooding, poor surface quality and no ventilation that caused many drivers to suffocate during breakdowns.

The second newer 5km tunnel had been built by the Chinese – while desperately unsafe by European standards, at least you could see and breathe!

On the other side of the tunnel we entered the Turkistan Mountains and made our way to the city of Istaravshan.

Istaravshan, meaning ‘shining star’, is the fifth largest city but felt small, chaotic and deprived. Our first stop in the local bazaar saw the familiar selection of dried fruits and nuts, exotic spices and candy. At one point our guide stopped us at a vendor chopping carrots and declared that he had recently entered the national Plof chopping contest and had won a grant from the government for his skill – he was clearly a local celebrity for his accomplishments.

The piles of sugared candy and pure sugar cubes were scary given the obesity and diabetes epidemic and doubly so given all the women behind the stalls had gold teeth.

From the bazaar with drove down the main road – like every town in Tajikistan it was called Lenin Street. At the end of the road we pulled off a dodgy U-turn manoeuvre and parked up for lunch.

Lunch was once again a selection of fruits, salad, greasy soup and Plof. My stomach was clearly struggling again so I stuck mainly to the fruit and veg. I was however cornered int trying a local wine which was apparently world famous – I’ve never tried battery acid but I’d suggest it’s less acidic than the local vintage.

From lunch we headed to a local mosque with an ancient minaret before heading to a hill overlooking the town where and old fort on hill was being restored. Unfortunately, as with all of Tajikistan the ruins were being replaced with a brash modern reconstruction that largely had no historical accuracy and looked like a Disneyland castle.

From Istaravshan we drove through more fields, past a tuberculosis centre in the middle of nowhere and on to the nations second city, Khujand.

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