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Tajikistan - 2017


Of course a journey to a remote mountainous country in Central Asia is not supposed to be quick or easy.  I landed in Tajikistan’s capital city, Dushanbe, at a little after 9am this morning, having begun my journey in the pre-dawn glow of Sydney two days ago, on Tuesday morning.  The trip may not have been fast, but it fairly painless.

The only airline that flies into both Sydney and Dushanbe, so as the only airline that could handle the whole trip without partnering with another airline, it made sense that the fare with China Southern Airlines would be the cheapest option.  In fact, it was only about 40% of the cost of flying via Dubai, the next most practical option.

The downside of flying with China Southern was that it involved two overnight stopovers, one in Guangzhou on Tuesday night and one in Urumqi on Wednesday.  However, China Southern is one of those all-too-rare airlines that still offers free hotel accommodation for extended stopovers.  That factor was the decider for me – China Southern was to be my airline.

The flights were fabulous; China Southern has really lifted its game since its immediate post-CAAC days.  The hotel in Guangzhou was great ( a new Holiday Inn), and while the one in Urumqi was more basic, it was located in a sufficiently interesting part of the city that I was able to complete a great walkabout, even though the temperature was -8°C.  And to cap it off, the flight from Urumqi to Dushanbe this morning was one of the most spectacular I have ever done in terms of scenery from the window – superb snow-covered mountain landscapes in crystal clear morning sunlight almost the whole way.

Dushanbe’s weather was better than forecast, with a temperature of 10°C and fairly clear skies.  I was met at the airport by Jamshed, our local guide, and together with another member of our group who happened on the same flight, we proceeded to our hotel.  Theoretically, we were staying at the Hotel Vatan, not far from the city centre.  In practice, we were next door of the 13th floor of the Sunshine Hotel, a new wing of the Hotel Vatan.  The room was so new that it still had all the new building smells, and the rooms for our group were arranged around a common lounge area that had its own kitchen and washing facilities – quite impressive!

We met at 11:30am for a briefing, and to meet each other.  I was part of a group of 12 people from a range of countries, some of whom I had travelled with previously, either in Turkmenistan or in the Russian Far East.  We were soon on our way for lunch, our first experience of Tajik food.  And what great food it was.  I think you can summarise Tajik food as wonderful crusty bread baked flat with rolled edges, salads, soup with meat (lamb or beef), and meat – lots of meat, cooked beautifully.

We had three stops for the afternoon to serve as our introduction to Tajikistan.  To get to the first stop, we had to drive through Dushanbe, which struck me as a well-laid out city with a relaxed feel to it, few high rise buildings, a continuing Soviet legacy, and some elegant buildings that lacked the brashness that is increasingly evident in many cities around the world.  What little monumental architecture Dushanbe possesses still has the intimacy of a human scale to it.

Our first stop was to the west of Dushanbe where, seemingly stuck beside a road lined with portraits of the President, in the middle of farming fields, was a building known as the world’s biggest watermelon.  By the standards of buildings shaped like watermelons, this was an impressive building.  The downstairs area that was, I understand, a fairly poor restaurant a year ago is now an large empty room that had a mosque-like feel to it.  Upstairs, the cavernous room of the inside of the watermelon appeared to me to be like the interior of a zeppelin must appear.  As someone who enjoys new experiences, seeing the interior of the world’s largest watermelon qualified for the list.

A short drive south from the watermelon took us through the town of Hissor to a large complex surrounding a high artificial hill that is known as Hissor Fortress.  In ancient times, Hissor occupied a strategic position at a cross-roads of various trading routes, which probably explains why it has been attacked and destroyed 21 times by an impressive array of conquerors that has included Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan,
Tamerlane and the Red Army.  Not surprisingly, there aren’t many pieces of the original fortress remaining, but there are certainly enough to make it an interesting site.

There is a museum in the former madrassa (qur’anic school), and we had a detailed introduction to Hissor there from a local guide with very good English.  Following our introduction, we had about 45 minutes to explore the hill and fortress area.  This week everyone is on holidays for the Persian New Year, so even though it was Thursday, the whole place was bustling with activity with music, games, horse riding, jumping castles, food stalls – all a very impressive example of how to make an ancient relic a vibrant part of people’s everyday lives.

Our third stop was on the way back to Dushanbe, a short stop at a high school that still had a statue of Lenin out the front.  The statue was noteworthy for the fact it still existed rather than its condition, which was deteriorating to such as extent that Lenin’s right arm seemed to be supported by some plastic wrapping.  The condition of the statue would have been blasphemous in the 1970s, but despite its poor condition it was still good to see it.

We returned to the hotel at 5:45pm for a short break before setting out to dinner at 6:30.  This was a group dinner to welcome us to Tajikistan, and worked well as our group of 12 could sit comfortably abound a large square table, making conversation across the table interesting and stimulating.  Dinner was Tajik bread, salad, soup with meat, followed by shashlik cooked to perfection.  The food was excellent for anyone other than a vegetarian or someone who likes a large serving of vegetables – this country seems to specialise more on large servings of meat.

This half-day of travels has been an excellent introduction to Tajikistan – I think we are all ready to see more of this country, which will begin in earnest tomorrow.


Day 1 - Arrival in Dushanbe

Thursday 23 March 2017