Travels in Tajikistan – Crossing Over from Uzbekistan
Around an hour drive from Tashkent, you’ll find the Oybek border control point in Uzbekistan. After passing relatively painlessly through the Uzbek side, I found myself walking through a dimly lit no man’s land. After a few minutes of walking, I had made it to Fotekhobod border control point on the Tajikistan side. The first stop was a gate that marked the start of my travels in Tajikistan. There, a friendly officer asked to see my passport. He thanked me and motioned for me to move forward.
Then after a breezy walk, I came to another gate where another friendly officer checked my passport. While he was doing so, his partner inside a little booth started talking to me in broken English. We were all laughing by the time I made my way to the building where I’d get my entry stamp.
Inside the building, the guy behind the desk was really friendly and smiley. He even asked how I was! After stamping me in, he said “Welcome to my country”. This is definitely one of the friendlier borders I’ve passed through. Although I was tired, given the late hour, I was feeling good after such a painless border crossing. I was also a little confused about where I should be going. There was no signage and I couldn’t see any buildings in front of me. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who was a little confused.
A local man behind me said, “I guess we go here”, pointing to a passage on the right. The nearby officers told us we had to use the walkway to the left. Then that was it, I was officially in Tajikistan! The man who had tried to lead me down the wrong path then started chatting to me. His name was Malik and he was a paediatric doctor from Dushanbe, the Tajikistan capital. He was returning from a conference and was eager to practice his English.
As there was very little chance of getting a car all the way to Dushanbe at that time of night, we decided to go to the northern Tajikistan town of Khujand, which was less than 2 hours away. Malik found us a taxi and we chatted all the way. Upon arrival in Khujand, he found a hotel for us to stay in and paid for my room. It wasn’t the best hotel I’d ever come across and it didn’t have WiFi, but it was somewhere to rest and have a cold shower.
Travels in Tajikistan – Khujand
In the morning, Malik informed me that a notorious part of the road to Dushanbe would be closed until 3pm. That meant we wouldn’t be able to get a car until then. I wondered if that was a regular occurrence in Tajikistan? I wouldn’t be surprised it was. It did give me a bit of time to explore Khujand though.
Malik took me to the local market, where it seemed most people were selling bread and seeds. We walked to a large section at the back of the market which looked like it’d be a great place to do some shady black market deals. Or buy seeds. Malik bought a huge amount of seeds. I figured he’d bought them for himself. It wasn’t until we got to the mosque across the square from the market that I found out they had a different purpose. The people of Khujand go to the grounds of this Mosque to feed the pigeons.
This is a tradition that has been followed for a very long time in Khujand. Locals mainly do it when they have health issues that are affecting their lives. It is believed that by giving something important, like food, to the birds, you put yourself in god’s favour. God will, in turn, heal your ailments and make you better.
Mosque and Motorised toys
Between the market and the Mosque was a huge square where locals seem to love hanging out and having fun. There were people there hiring out motorised toy cars. I guess it’s a nice way to keep the kids occupied while feeding the birds. There were also scooters available for the older kids.
Khujand is actually a pretty small place and fairly easy to walk around. Although, with the summer heat, most people opt to take taxis. I prefer to walk, so I walked the 3 kilometres to the shared taxi station. I wanted to continue my travels in Tajikistan by heading to the capital, Dushanbe. Drivers wanting to take me to Dushanbe had surrounded me before I knew it. Most initially wanted to charge me 120 Somoni/US$12, but after some hard negotiating, a driver agreed to take me for 70 Somoni/US$7.40.
To be honest, the treacherous mountains roads combined with crazy Tajikistan drivers meant the ride wasn’t all that enjoyable, despite the awesome scenery.
Travels in Tajikistan – Dushanbe
Owing to the fact that I’d left Khujand in the afternoon, I got into Dushanbe just after 10pm. The taxi dropped me about 8km from the town centre, where I needed to go. I noticed electric buses were still running and went to the nearest stop. When I checked the schedule at the stop, there was a bus due in a few minutes. That brought me great relief, until it didn’t show up. Neither did the next one.
Finally, after 20 minutes of waiting, a bus that wasn’t even on the timetable at the bus stop showed up. I figured it followed the road I was on, so I got on. The ticket man took money from all the people in front of me but when it was my turn to pay, he turned away before I could give him my money.
That free ride reduced the distance I need to walk by more than half. When walking the last little bit to my accommodation, I noticed that there were a lot of white red and green lights. Those are also the 3 colours on the Tajikistan flag. Coincidence? I think not!
The next morning, I decided to do some web surfing during breakfast, because I finally had internet in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, it was absolutely terrible. Every webpage took a ridiculously long time to load, so I gave up and went walking. On the way out I met an English guy and Scottish guy who were heading to the nearby Bazaar. I walked along with them for a bit, then headed off to get some food. It seems that the Tajik government is trying hard to make the Dushanbe city centre look very pretty.
There was also a lot of construction going on. Roads, bridges and buildings seemed to be in the process of construction in many areas. There was definitely an aesthetic difference between the city centre and the areas just outside of the city centre.
Travels in Tajikistan – Meeting Locals
As I was walking around, a local named Iso started walking and chatting with me. He was eager to practice his English and invited me to stay with him. I graciously accepted his offer, because I couldn’t think of a better way to see how locals live. He was also happy to share information about life in Tajikistan.
Iso’s house was quite simple, with no airconditioning. He told me about how he dreamed of upgrading his flat when he gets some money. He also dreams of travelling, but of course, needs money for that too! I would guess that the area he lived in was a poorer area of town, but it seemed like some locals had found interesting ways of having fun and making money. I noticed that several kids in the complex were sharing the same bicycle, so that everyone had a chance to have a ride. There were also some women in the complex cleaning things, including glass jars and cars, to make some extra cash.
I did get some curious looks from people, as I guess they don’t see foreigners walking around their complex too often. At many different times, one or two kids would come up to me and try to chat. They would be really confused when I replied to them in English, which they obviously didn’t understand. It was kinda cute watching them try to work out what was going on.
Iso was immensely helpful. He was always looking out for me. He was always worried if I had eaten enough. I offered to cook my own food due to my special dietary needs, but he wouldn’t have it. His sister would happily cook for me instead. If I wanted anything, he would go to the local market to buy whatever I wanted. Then he would refuse to take my money for it.
Aside from practicing his English, Iso was also keen to have a Shisha partner. Whenever I wanted to go somewhere, he would usually come with me to make sure that I didn’t get lost. If he was busy and unable to join me, he would take me to a Mashrutka (mini van) and explain to the driver where to drop me off. It was such a wonderful way to experience some Tajik culture and hospitality.
If you ever make it to Dushanbe in Tajikistan, you might want to visit MagDoner which is most definitely not a copy of a well known American fast food chain!