In the footsteps of Alexander the Great

From Istaravshan we headed two hours north to the second city, Khujand. Now a bustling city of 180,000 people, the 2,500 year old city of Khujand which during Soviet times was called Leninabad, is more famous as the site of the ancient site of Cyropolis – the most eastern city in Alexander the Greats empire.

He is believed to have built his city, near to the modern old city area and settled on its fertile lands – taking a local princess as his wife – the name Khujand meaning ‘bride’ in Tajik.

One peculiarity along the way was the number of western style petrol stations, new, old, disused and under construction there were hundreds and all appeared empty. According to my guide owning a petrol station was a good way to get rich but that you had to have your own customers and negotiate with them to only use your station – if you don’t get enough loyal exclusive customers signed up from day one you go bust…interesting business model.

While relatively clean Khujand was noticeably poorer than the southern city of Dushanbe and as anticipated all the infrastructure – houses, power plants and more dated from Soviet era. It was unsurprising to learn that the more modern infrastructure of roads, bridges and power lines had all been built by the Chinese.

Our first stop was the famed Lenin statue, one of only two in the CIS states, which had been moved from a prominent position in the city centre to an abandoned park which also housed a fallen-Soviet heroes monument and one to local scientists who had perished at Chernobyl. With the derelict children’s rides it made for one rather cheery place, with the aluminium Vlad Lenin statue looming above the overgrown gardens.

From Khujand we headed north to the Kayrkkum Reservoir, a seemingly endless manmade dam in the middle of the otherwise arid desert. In central Kayrkkum we turned on to Lenin St (every town has one) and visited a Soviet era relaxation camp – think Butlins without the entertainment and loud speakers whispering tranquil tuned to placate the masses.

After a quick tour of the gardens and some rather unhappy looking birds in the Avery we stopped for tea at an impressive, wood carved tea house where we sampled local teas.

Next stop was the Arbour palace, built between 1951-1957 it was a popular theatre and meeting place during the Soviet era – which was also used by local co-op leaders as an administrative building. More recently it was home to some of the most important meetings of the 1990s that would shape the new Tajikistan and its fledgling government.

The Theatre, mosaics and chandeliers remain an impressive spectacle, while the upper levels now feature an interesting museum detailing the history of the building.

Next up was the famed central mosque, Mausoleum of Sheik Muslekheddin and Panjshanbe market where locals buy everything from dried fruits and nuts to wedding flowers and toys.

Our final stop of our tour of Tajikistan was at the History Museum, a rather kitsch building designed to look like a traditional Fort. Inside is detailed the history of Alexander the Great, the story of the Silk Road and the many invaders and empires that conquered these lands.

I woke early the next morning to re-pack ahead of my much anticipated border crossing into Uzbekistan. After reading countless blogs detailing horror stories of customs guards dismantling cars, tipping out bags, confiscating books and counting every note of foreign currency you have – I was determined not to get caught out, especially when carrying the four lithium drone batteries which I couldn’t send with LARS.

After strategically repacking my whole bag, I met my driver and guide and made our way the two hours to the border crossing. En route I was told endless stories about how oppressive the Uzbeks are compared to the Tajiks – it simply reinforced what I’d heard and I was a little apprehensive to say the least.

Arriving at the border I said my goodbyes and passed quickly through the Tajik side as anticipated – no stamps or inspections. I carried my bag the 300m or so across the ‘demilitarised zone’ and joined the back of a long queue of mainly tourists waiting at the Uzbek border where I got talking to a Dutch tour guide.

I mentioned the Uzbeks poor reputation for overzealous searches and he enlightened me that just the previous week the President had passed a decree that officials had to be friendly to tourists and that the whole process was now painless.

Drones were still banned and foreign currency counted on departure but apart from that, the rubber glove examinations and nightmare of intrusive bag checks was over.

Thankfully he was totally right – I breezed across in under an hour.

I had arrived in Uzbekistan.

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