Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Three Stans - Over the Mountains to Dushanbe

May 7th 2008 - 75 degrees and sunny.

Again yesterday in Khorog the Tajik Airlines 40 passenger YAK jet was cancelled...this time because of "possible clouds".....time in Tajikistan, the poorest of the former SSRs, is somewhat illusory!...but it turned out to be a GREAT adventure to add to the many we have had (including the vodka party in the Afghan Customs Post in Iskhashim!). Aysegul and I had a very early dinner (wonderful homemade tomato soup with mountain herbs, a club sandwich and kefir...all very healthy) and we arose yesterday morning (Tuesday here) at 530 AM to meet our driver Hami...who it turns out is a miracle man with a car. He tells us the MOUNTAIN road back to Dushanbe has opened and off we go. It is again quite surreal. We go up up up from the Pyanj River 13,500 feet up into deep snowfields. It is ravishingly beautiful country though the road is rather like a slippery two lane track with 1000 feet drop-offs...but we trust Hami and are rewarded with our trust (after all I am writing these lines!). We see a Marco Polo sheep, an endangered critter with curlicue horns...gorgeous. We see a fox mother and 3 playful kits. We finally reach the summit and what has been slip/slide going up in our Toyota minivan turns out to be a modified slalom on the way down finally reaching reassuring lush valleys with the first fruit tree blooms of spring...and the first village which also seems reassuring!

At a huge road construction site being done by the Chinese we are told that the delay will be 6 hours. Aysegul takes over and somehow in Turkish explains that I am the American Consul and have an urgent flight to catch in Dushanbe a further 6 hours down the road. It works and we are let through! Hami is very impressed. Aysegul speaks Turkish to a Chinese guy who speaks only Chinese but it has worked. We now go down the worst road yet. My pervasive feeling that Chutzpah is utterly necessary in travel surges. The road now deteriorates one gigantic rock after the next. I am so happy though and the country is superb. High plains and lush valleys unfold in the first green of Spring.

This was a horribly hard winter for Tajikistan. There were threats of starvation in many villages and MUCH help from UN Agencies and the Aga Khan. Finally the road improves because we pass the president of the "Republic"'s country house. At 800 PM, 14 1/2 hours after we departed Khorog we are in Dushanbe and back to our relatively lush Hotel Tajikistan. We say goodbye to dear Hami (who along the way has reattached the muffler and also talked two village boys into washing down the car from a stream) and go to my absurd sitting room to drink Raki and thank whomever up-or-down-there that we are intact.....although jolted about rather like a smoothie.

Today is our last in Tajikistan...a country of gloriously friendly, good looking, proud but very poor people. They hide their poverty but one can feel it. I am sad to leave Central Asia. We await Chanal, our guide, who insists that we go to the Dushanbe's "famous musical instrument museum" which no doubt will rival the world's largest revolving clock in Billings in sheer spectacle. All is very well.

We had a strikingly unusual lunch today with our guide Chanal and our driver Sangalle at SALSA – what must be the only Ecuadorian restaurant in Central Asia. Lunch was a plantain salad with salsa and tortillas, arroz con pollo with fragments of mystery veggies, ice tea (outside the temperature approx 99F if my math is halfway extant) and then a brownie sundae mit schlag. It was delicious. I paid $40 for 4 people in what Chanal says is the most expensive restaurant in Tajikistan.

A truly insightful lunch dealing with lots of issues. After the breakup of the USSR Tajikistan got its independence and the troubles truly began. The Tajik language is based on Parsi (Persian) though the people are either SUNNI or Ismaili - a progressive sect of Islam. Probably inspired by Iran there was an attempt at an Islamic revolution where Taliban-like militia tried to take control. A civil war resulted and about 90,000 people died. The pseudo democrats WON about 6 years ago and order has been restored but the gross national product has been dreadfully reduced. NOW mosques are in very little evidence, it is forbidden for women to cover their heads or faces if they wish to go to school or university. I get a pervasive feeling that these lovely Tajikis, (by far the most "European" looking of the Central Asians), just want to get on with life. This might explain the horrendous roads the dire lack in the rural areas of some basic supplies and so on. I SO like these people...they are bright and I sense not very naive...I shall miss them.

Today we also went to the Modern History Museum which is a C- but has a brilliantly beautiful 14th century Mihrab. We had endless cups of tea at the local hot spot sidewalk cafe and watch the very decorative locals being observed and loving every moment of it. We went to a museum of Soviet Art.I do dig these often ghastly but ALWAYS fervid paintings. And now it is time to go to Istanbul.


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