Friday, May 02, 2008

Three Stans - On to Tajikstan

The last two days have been utterly remarkable. Up at the crack of dawn to the Bishkek airport to our waiting Soviet-made (circa 1955!) equivalent of the old F-27, that lovely plane to fly as the wings were over the main body and flight seeing was unlimited.....but they say that a plane's age should be multiplied by 5 or a person's age so that our sturdy craft was a flying great grandmother of 260-odd years.

The flight was beyond spectacular....the heavily snowcapped Tai Shan range just out of Bishkek was utterly spectacular except the flying Great Grandmother seemed awfully close to the peaks which rose Teton-like.....THEN the fertile Fergana valley shared by THREE stans...there were the highest peaks of all, the Pamirs way off to our east with Pik Lenin or whatever they have morphed the name into rising highest the tallest mountain in the old USSR, something like circa 22,000 feet. Just as a nice snack was served, chicken-tasting chicken with cucumber on a little baguette, homemade tasting gingerbread, a chocolate bar, coffee or tea (this mind you on a flight of Air Kyrghyz which doesn't appear in any computer nor airline guide) the FAN mountains (I love the name) appear and we manage to fly over them without getting a dusting of snow from their peaks. The 40+ seat plane was full, including the Tajik national basketball team among others, and since no one including the two pretty flight attendants seemed the least rattled by the mountains Ayseg├╝l and I affected a nonchalance.

Landing at Dushanbe gave a tiny portent or what might follow. We sat on the ground waiting for the airport bus.......a good 10 minutes....we have landed it seems in Insallah-stan......then it is into a glorified shed with one customs entry for all passengers (locals in these Stans do not quite understand the Queue) with landing papers to fill out (Tajikistan has the most complicated bureaucracy save the DPRK in the world) all in Russian and Tajik........when I finally ascertained what was what my form looked like chickens had attacked the page....but we managed.......bags WERE there.....and so was our guide Jamshed....a lovely guy about 40 with 2 children a wife.

It is a warm and sunny day....get into a rattletrap Moswitch (I think it is) and drive into one of the more remarkable cities on my travels. Why? there must be a million rose bushes in full bloom...great avenues of gorgeous trees....all of this nature sort of occluding the essentially Soviet architecture only infrequently interposed with some new or old buildings. Despite the architectural miasma the effect of all of these roses and all of these towering trees in great allees down almost every street lend an air of opulence. Nature has made a silk purse from a sow's ear. We go to the VEFA Apart-hotel as among their first guests. Aysegul and I each have a huge apartment with a completely furnished kitchens, a massive bathroom, a living room twice as large as mine in the flat, a bedroom with a sturdy bed...all done in not too hideous furnishings save the Day-Glo paintings on the walls. We could have 50 up to dance in both of our units. They are SOOOO kind at registration...everyone is all smiles....and then bits of reality set in: the bath and shower in my unit has been improperly installed and doesn't work........the kitchen is serviced with nescafe and tea but no salt or pepper or bottled water (the tap water of Dushanbe is said to have more gardia bacteria than that of St P's)...little things are awry. These units eventually will be lovely for a family of 6; there is plenty of space for kids.

Jamshed came up for a 2 hour briefing. He is almost the personification of an old INTOURIST type...the usual answer being "oh that's impossible".....but we like him. Jamshed WANTS to please. Here are some excerpts: "the road to Khorog has landslides and is impassable" (not true), the state theatre has closed for repairs (not true), I doubt if we can FLY to Khorog in the great Pamirs right on the border with Afghanistan (we will see)...you get the picture. As soon as Jamshed left Aysegul and I went out exploring (it was MAY DAY...no longer a festival day of parades...but a day as Labor Day should be, everything is closed up tight...a lovely time to see a city physically)...we walk to the old Tajikistan Hotel, Intourist's finest.....half of it is open, the other half under total renovation...the Turkish speaking manager shows us the new little suites (smashing) and we make arrangements to move this morning after one night at the Vefa Apart-hotel. I do not blame dear Jamshed for putting us there...it you were in Tajikistan you would think the place was the Bel Air.......with Aysegul in tow, we tell the nice people at the Vefa that we are moving....and they promise full refund to Jamsed (which he doubted this morning when he came to pick us up (never for a second doubt the ability of a Turkish lady of regal bearing to have any hotel penalties forgotten).

NOW we begin today to be a tourist in Dushanbe....the hit (and it is a biggie) is the National Museum of Ancient Art and Relics...which has on its second floor a reclining Buddha made of terra cotta) the same medium used in the destroyed-by-Taliban masterpieces at Bamian just over the border in Afghanistan....this Buddha is the largest reclining terra cotta Buddha in the world...easily 40 feet long.....but such claims of size may be dubious. My favorite was in the fine city of Billings "the home of the world's largest revolving clock>" The Buddha IS magnificent. If the largest reclining terra cotta Buddha can not exude serenity there is no hope on this earth for any of us. There were also many GREEK relics definitely from the days of Alexander the Great...plus lots of ancient Greek or Greekish statuary (look at Dushanbe on the map...it is a hell of a piece from Macedonia I tell you).

Rather a fabulous museum....then to an ultra secret place: Tajikistan was renowned in the old USSR for its gem mines and accomplished polishers. We went to the source. Nothing really PRECIOUS except in the realm of good taste: breathtakingly pretty jade, amethyst (including polish amethyst)....river seed pearls of great size and quality. Aysegul who would rather shop than breathe was in the land of nirvana. THEN we drove out of the city (after a stop at the locally soignee coffee house for some great lattes and odd sandwiches) to a town called HISSAR (which I know means FORT in Turkish) ....and it means FORT in Tajik, a language akin to Farsi and the only STAN not Turkic. It is a local must sight...the 18th century fort and I hope no Tadjik reads this missive for I would give the fort a C- most charitably. Still we saw the countryside with luxuriant fields just sprouting summer wheat, many vineyards, hundreds of acres in apricot orchards and so on.....it is Friday and Mosques are full: our driver Svengali (I love it!) and our Ismaili guide Shonal (a pretty lady from the Pamirs) are good company...the old rattle trap does us well.

The Stans turn out to be almost nothing alike one from the other. Kyrghyzstan exudes prospertiy and a positive air...Tajikistan is much poorer (though far form hungry)...the Kyrghyz are infinitely "with it" and the Tajiks are not....the pure Kyrghyz looks a bit like a slightly-westernized MAO....the pure Tajik could be someone's next-door neighbor in Cedar Rapids......some oriental types can be seen but so can Swedes (and these people are NOT Russian)...this is about as far as Alexander the Great got east and seemingly heredity shows it.

We are off by AIR or road to Khorog about 400 kms east...Aysegul says if we go by road that she is perfectly willing to sleep in someone's barn...she means it. GREAT travelers are a rare breed and I am blest with one to put up with your irascible correspondent.

Tajikistan says hi!

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