As with our time in Bishkek, it’s really unfair to characterize our visit to Dushanbe as being “purgatorial.” Both capital cities were actually very pleasant places, where we had many great experiences. But I suppose I used the title in Bishkek, and we actually spent even longer in Dushanbe, so I ought to use it for this entry too.
The capital and largest city of Tajikistan, Dushanbe is a curious place. The city was more or less “invented” by the Soviet Union to function as the capital. It is, thus, rather short on splendid ancient monuments, but has lots of well cared for early Soviet era architecture. And though Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet republics, Dushanbe doesn’t reflect this, its wealth raised above the rest of the country by the wealth of drug smugglers bringing opiates through the country from Afghanistan, and the recent influx of foreign NGO, embassy, military and UN workers (serving both Tajikistan itself and Afghanistan.)
While this may not sound like a recipe for a pleasant place to collect visas and to rest up while on the road, that’s exactly what Dushanbe was.
The Rudaki sculpture in the concrete/garden/fountain filled main square in the centre of Dushanbe. Proof that Tajikistan shared the Persian speaking world’s reverence of literature. Where else would the main street in the capital city be named after a poet!?
We arrived in Dushanbe by taxi, our Pamirs driver Saghan having dropped us off on the outskirts of the city. And although Kev and Nat (our Pamirs travel companions) spent most of the trip asking our driver to slow down and watch the road rather than fiddle with the stereo or his phone, it was probably best to have learned about the nature of Dushanbe drivers as a passenger rather than as an unwitting pedestrian. Traffic wasn’t quite so erratic as in China, but everything it did, it did at an unnecessarily fast pace… No one hurried through yellow/red lights, but often cars would be halfway through the intersection before their green appeared. And I’ve never heard so much unnecessary squealing of tires anywhere!
Once in town we were dropped off at Kev and Nat’s hostel. We, meanwhile, called Mehri, a friend of our couchsurfing host Raj, and arranged to meet her for dinner. The six of us (Sarah, myself, Nat, Kev, Mehri and her boyfriend) met up at the main city park. Mehri spoke great English, and was the perfect person to introduce us to Dushanbe. She gave us a bit of a tour of the main street and the central city as we dropped our bags off at Raj’s place and went out for dinner at a typical Tajik cafe. Which was our introduction to Kurutob. Kurutob, for the 99% of the world that is unaware, is the most popular food in southern Tajikistan, and the best dish we’d yet tried (and I’ll go out on a limb here and say the best dish we WILL try) in central Asia.
Kev, Nat, Mehri’s boyfriend (I can’t recall his name, sadly), Mehri, Sarah and I at dinner
Kurutob is centred around ripped up hunks of a Tajik bread called Fettiye, which is a little like a cross between Indian Nan and pie pastry. It’s put in a wooden bowl and mixed up with cucumber, tomato, herbs, oil, lots of onion, and salty/sour yogurt. Kurutob one of those dishes where everyone has their own precise way of making it. Which, of course, gave us all the excuse we needed (which wasn’t much) to spend much of our time in Dushanbe touring around and trying to find the city’s best version of Kurutob.
Kurutobs of Dushanbe!
After dinner, Mehri took us back to Raj’s place, showed us around and gave us a set of keys. Raj himself was away in Kyrgyzstan for another five days, but had, in a great display of faith and generosity, happily agreed to let two complete strangers live in his home in his absence.
The next few days we fell into a bit of a pattern:
Step 1: Go to an embassy in the morning. The Iranian embassy was a short walk from Raj’s place, and, once we found the Turkmen embassy (it had moved sometime in the past few years) it was an easy bus ride or a long walk back. Staff at both embassies displayed a strict adherence to the rules, which meant that our visa processing took a while (a few days for our Iranian Letter of Invitation to FINALLY arrive, two more days to obtain our Iranian visa, one more week to obtain our Turkmen transit visa [for which we needed to have our Iranian visa before we could apply.) But the staff at both embassies were also remarkably friendly, which meant that it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as it could have been.
Step 2: Go for a stroll along Rudaki. Rudaki is the main street in Dushanbe, and almost its whole length is shaded by 100+ year old plane trees on either side and in the central boulevard. Rudaki is also absolutely packed with beautiful buildings in the sturdy neo-classical style that was popular in Russian in the early 20th century. Almost all of them were well preserved, and painted in clear, clean pastel colours. Alone they might have looked a bit odd, but all together they made for a wonderful place for a pleasant, shady stroll.
The Tajik Parliament Buildings (it was interesting to observe the difference in security between the presidential palace (lots) and the parliament (none obvious.) This suggested where the real power in the country lies…
The beautiful opera and ballet theatre (which, sadly was on summer holidays the whole time we were in town.)
Tajikistan Agricultural University
Step 3: Go to the bazaar and buy a watermelon for dinner. We were in Dushanbe at the height of the season. Watermelons were inexpensive and when we managed to get a good one they were amongst the best I’d ever had. (I’m still not 100% certain if I’m just incompetent at picking good ones, or if we were somehow being taken advantage of…)
Piles and piles of watermelons at the Varzob Bazaar
Step 4: Go out for a sit and a drink in a beer garden somewhere. This was easily accomplished, as they were all over town, and the best (or at least best known) were a stone’s throw from our Dushanbe home, surrounding a fountain in the square in front of the opera/ballet theatre. Tajik beer was pretty good. Most of it anyway… The more popular of the two local beers, Sim Sim, was a decent pilsner-style, the less popular, Dushanbe was so bad that I have no idea what style it was trying to be, and the house beer at our favourite haunt, Keller’s near the presidental palace, was a Pils still better than Sim Sim, and wouldn’t have disappointed German biergarten consumers. Add to the quality and accessibility the fact that 500ml glasses ran between NZ$0.60 and NZ$0.75 (Intriguingly, tap beer in the beer gardens cost about the same, or more frequently LESS than bottle beer from the shops) and you can understand why we spent a lot of hot afternoons in these places.
Sarah and I playing Citadels at Kellers. It seemed as though we were always the only customers in the place, which meant that we got to know the owner a bit. He happily filled up our water bottles with draft beer for takeaways when we asked
Sarah and Roma at the Opera theatre beer garden. We’d originally met Roma in Bishkek, but we ran into her again outside the Turkmen embassy. The smaller number of tourists, and the more limited number of places to go meant that this sort of thing happened a lot in central Asia
We didn’t do every step on every day, and sometimes the order was reversed, or a Kurutob was thrown in somewhere, but this was our general pattern until Raj arrived back in Dushanbe, five days after we had. We greeted him at the door when he arrived, and warmly welcomed him home.
Raj was a doctor, working on maternal and neonatal health planning and policy in central Asia, and had already lived in the region for several years. As suggested by his willingness to open the doors to his empty home to us, he was a tremendously friendly and generous host, as well as being a pleasure to spend time with. We ate dinner together almost every night thereafter, taking turns cooking (I think I doubled my knowledge about preparing Indian food by watching Raj!) We spent the evenings talking, or watching intriguing TV programs on his Indian satellite system (Masterchef Australia and a fascinating Al Jazeera English documentary series about obstetric and neonatal care around the world.)
The fact that Raj had received his medical education in St Petersburg meant that he spoke fluent Russian. And the fact that he’d already spent quite a while in the region meant that he knew a lot (or at least far more than us) about Dushanbe. So while we continued to do all of the above list, his arrival changed our pattern a bit. Dushanbe is fairly limited in terms of its obvious tourist attractions, so Raj’s coming home improved our situation in that he both gave us suggestions for things to do and places to go, AND he was often happy to drive us there himself (I had originally thought that a non-Tajik would have to be insane to try driving in Dushanbe, but as Raj was from India and used to wild road conditions, this didn’t apply to him.) With Raj’s advice and transportation help, we managed to actually do a fair bit of sightseeing and even some souvenir shopping.
The view over Dushanbe from the Victory Park where we went with Raj for an after work (for him) beer and some Kasitchka, tasty strings of smoked cheese arranged in a braid shape
In addition to all the lovely old Russian architecture, Haji Yakoub mosque in the centre of the city gave us our first taste of “central Asian Timurid monument” style architecture. We saw the minarets in the distance and wandered over to this mosque, where everyone seemed surprised but happy to see a pair of foreign tourists.
On weekdays we checked out the city’s museums and monuments. The archaeological museum really only had a couple of real attractions, the first were some spectacularly preserved 11th century woodcarvings. The spectacle came not just from how well preserved the ornate carvings were, but from the METHOD of their preservation: they were all almost instantly carbonized by a very hot fire in the building that originally housed them. The other attraction was a huge 16m long reclining Buddha (the largest ever found in central Asia) which confounded me by being on the second floor of a two story building. If it was actually made of stone or earthenware sections as it appeared, I’ve no idea how the floor didn’t collapse under its weight, much less how they got it in to begin with.
The other museum we went to was small, but charming: a collection of Tajik instruments owned by a celebrated Tajik musician and displayed in an annex to his family home. The instruments ranged from modern back to hundreds of years old. The young man who showed us around the two rooms had obviously inherited the family talent: he was editing a music video when we walked in, and gave demonstrations of several of the instruments, plucking them off the wall and playing a few notes or bits of song on them as he explained their names and ages.
Part of the Gurminj museum’s cramped but lovely collection of instruments
The city wasn’t as big on parks as Bishkek, but those it did have were well used. The lovely, shaded park just outside our front door was constantly abuzz with activity, especially in the evening when the cool night air made it pleasant for families to head out for a stroll. It was wonderful to see public spaces being put to such good use! The botanical gardens weren’t quite so busy, but were great to visit. Not so much because of the gardens, but because of the architecture, which included a gorgeous central Asian/oriental style domed entrance arch, a huge glass greenhouse, a traditional Pamiri style house, and lots of ornately carved wedding pavilions, under one of which two government workers stopped for a chat and dug around to find a gift to leave Sarah with (a small bottle of Tajik perfume.)
The lovely dome at the centre to the Dushanbe botanical gardens enteance arch
The two of us inside the Pamiri house, where the caretaker sat us down, fed us tea, had us try on traditional clothes and shoes, and took loads of photos of us
One of the beautifully carved pavilions/gazebos used for weddings or other outdoor special occasions
Sarah trying out the public exercise equipment in the botanic gardens
As for monuments, Dushanbe had plenty of these. It seems a peculiarly central Asian trait that the region’s heads of state are fixated on grand and ostentatious displays of wealth and power, which are often (given the cost) to the detriment of the ACTUAL wealth, power and wellbeing of their nations. Tajikistan’s president Rahkmon is more restrained than some of the others, but we still saw more than our share of new gold-domed government buildings, massive statuary, concrete squares full of fountains, as well as the world’s tallest flagpole.
We also checked out the monumental-scale Korvon bazaar outside of town. I’m not sure if Dushanbe’s Korvon is actually the biggest bazaar in central Asia, but our first look around suggested that it was at least about the same size as the three other claimants to the title that we’d already visited. We wandered around the clothing market looking for a kurta (the Tajik national garment, very like a Salwar Kameez) for Sarah to wear in central Asia, and more importantly, in Iran later on in our trip. This was made a bit more difficult by the scale of the market and the fact that it contained relatively few ready-made kurtas, as most are home-sewn by the women who wear them or their friends/relatives. Further problems arose due to the style. Rather sensibly given the summer heat (it was around 40C most of our days in Dushanbe), the majority of Tajik kurtas we saw for sale had short sleeves. But this wouldn’t do for Iran. And most of the long sleeved ones looked kind of more like floral print bags than the stylish, tailored versions worn by younger Tajik women. Eventually we found one and headed back outside, only to realize that the MAIN portion of the market, comprising about 2/3 of its area was actually across the street, meaning that Korvon was clearly the biggest bazaar we’d yet seen.
A conga line of jeans on display at Korvon
Sarah browsing for her Kurta
Korvon wasn’t at its busiest when we were there, and a fair few shops were actually closed for the day, which made some areas of the bazaar prettily (if slightly spookily) silent
Back in town we spent shorter but more regular spells at the Green Bazaar near home. This one specialized in foodstuffs, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, but also meat, pasta, rice, bread, pre-chopped carrots for plov, ready-made salads, even Korean Kimchi! The vendors were all very friendly, as were the 10-13 year old boys who pushed carts around the market, hauling shoppers purchases for them. A service made necessary by the fact that everyone bought their goods in LARGE quantities (presumably due to the large average size of Tajik families) It was actually problematic to buy anything less than 1kg of any good which made doing shopping for a single three person meal at a time quite difficult. It was at the Vayma bazaar that we probably met the most obviously friendly and chatty Dushanbe residents, including a shopkeeper who I had a 40 minute conversation with (before buying a substandard watermelon from his friend I’m sad to say) and a pair of young men who were students from Afghanistan and spoke remarkably good English. They lamented the fact that they didn’t have any relatives in developed countries to sponsor them, nor Tajik citizenship which would have at least allowed them to go to Russia to work.
A Tajik woman selling herbs (dill, coriander, parsley, basil…) at the Green Bazaar
Beyond shopping and sightseeing we actually joined Raj in lots of activities during our time together. It was a tough call as to what the best of these were. We had a lovely dinner with his friends in the local (non-diplomatic) Indian and Nepali community, spent lots more time at beer gardens, took a driving trip out into the countryside for a picnic… But our favourites were probably the Banya and the Hash.
The Banya was a trip to a Tajik Hamam (public bath… Interesting that though it’s a Persian not a Turkic language, the word is the same as in Turkish.) When Raj’s Tajik colleagues heard that he planned to bring us there they were horrified. “Couldn’t you give them a better representation of our country than that dirty old place?” they asked. But we loved it. We split up (the baths were segregated by sex.) Raj and I walked into the lobby, paid our $3 entrance fee, dropped off our valuables (including cash, which the attendant noted the quantity of) and headed in. The changing room had a tile floor, cedar panel walls and individual cubby holes with hooks for your clothes and space at the bottom for your shoes. We kept on our underwear (this place was a little more modest than the Pamiri hot springs) put on our sandals and entered the bath proper. These were different from both the Turkish Hamam and the Japanese Onsen. The Tajik Hamam was more like a traditional Russian Banya. We started with a quick shower in the main room, then moved quickly on to the Sauna. The room was, I’ll admit, a little dirty, but I can’t imagine many pathogens or pests living in that environment for long. I could actively feel the sweat being drawn out of my body then pouring down my skin. We sat in there baking and steaming for what felt like fifteen minutes but was probably more like five. Then we dashed (actually picked our way gingerly given the slippery state of the floor) to the cold pool where we dove in and swam for a few minutes, revelling in the bright, refreshing water. Upon emerging it felt like my body was actually EXUDING cool. We repeated this process four or five more times before taking a final shower and emerging again to meet Sarah out front. My squeaky clean skin, gelatinously relaxed muscles felt absolutely divine.
The Hash was also a sweating occasion, but in a slightly different way. The Hash House Harriers are an international running club. Or a “Drinking Club With a Running Problem,” as they themselves put it. We joined Raj for his first time out with the club. We met up with the fellow Hashers on Rudaki, where we had a quick explanation of the rules. They were fairly simple: follow the marks made on the ground with piles of embassy (or was it UN mission?) shredded paper. When you find a bullseye shaped one, you’ve reached an intersection (or “check.”) Stop and wait for four others to arrive, then head off to find the trail that’s NOT marked with an “X” of shred after a hundred metres or so.
There were about a dozen runners, Sarah and I both kind of dreaded finding out what kind of shape we were in, especially in 40 degree heat wearing sandals (for me) or slip on orange walking shoes (Sarah.) In the end it was great fun though. I ran much better than I’d feared, and we got to see some industrial and residential parts of Dushanbe that we most certainly never would have got to on our own. We dashed through narrow laneways, up winding concrete paths, back down a dirt road, then through an abandoned factory area, getting some very odd looks as we did so. Apparently the day before as one of the organizers was laying out the trail he’d been stopped by the police who explained that they’d received a report of a strange man running around in his underwear and throwing rubbish about the place. Shorts, especially short running shorts aren’t common men’s attire in Tajikistan.
After the run we retired to a club member’s home for dinner, as well as the songs and beer which make the club unique. I reckon Sarah and I will keep an eye out for other Hashes on our travels.
Jogging through the alleys of residential Dushanbe
Mike billowing his way through the ankle deep dust on one section near the end of the run
Awesome cake at the after run function
Unlike in Bishkek, we didn’t really venture too far out of Dushanbe during our stay. Other than our drive out of town with Raj, the only trip we took was up to the resort town (more of a region, or stretch of road really) of Varzob, in a river valley to the north of the city. The river is lined with chaikhanas (tea houses) where middle and upper class Dushanbeyians (I’ve no idea what the proper collective noun is, but I like Dushanbeyians) go on the weekend to lounge, eat and drink large quantities of tea, beer and vodka. We went during the week, so many of the chaikhanas were closed. But it also meant that the residents of the town of Varzob proper had a bit more time to chat and be intrigued with their non-Tajik tourist visitors. We had a tasty lunch of beef, veggie and chick pea soup with bread and salad. We wandered around the town, which was an intriguing mix of posh holiday homes, shepherds huts and modest but comfortable residences belonging to those in the tourist industry. And I took a walk up into the hills above the town, getting beautiful views of the valley as well as glimpses of the snow capped, 5000m+ Fan Mountains further to the north.
Blue thistles on the hillsides above Varzob
Looking back down into the river valley
Still higher peaks off to the north
From Varzob we caught a mashrutka (minibus) back into town and strolled down to a chaikhana that was open, the famed and lavishly decorates Rokhat Chaikhana, where we finished off our day with an ice cream and a dreadful Dushanbe beer (we’d actually avoided trying it up to this point) each.
The beautiful hand painted roof of Rokhat Chaikhana
This was actually our second last day in Dushanbe. Our final one began with a trip up to the Turkmen embassy where we were delighted to find that yes, this final piece of our visa puzzle was ready to be issued. We rushed down Rudaki to the embassy’s designated bank (not far from the OLD embassy location.) Once there it took a few questions and a few guided walks through the busy offices to find the person we wanted, then another twisting, turning trail to the cashier’s office to pay, then a run outside, a taxi back to the embassy (managed in our tiny bits of Russian and Tajik.) This got us back with 15 minutes to spare before the embassy shut for the day, which was time enough to get the stickers into our passports and to say a final goodbye and thank you to the Turkmen consular officer who (contrary to our expectations of Turkmen bureaucrats, was one of the most helpful and pleasant we’d ever dealt with.)
Raj, Sarah and I went out for lunch to celebrate receiving our Turkmen visa. In yet another illustration of what a great host Raj was he took us to the best Shashlik (kebab) place in town for lunch, despite being a vegetarian himself
I celebrated in my own way, with the last of the beers my mom had brought from Canada when we met my parents in China. After the first few I’d been carefully husbanding them, drinking them only in celebration of obtaining visas
The following morning, Raj continued his pattern of going far above and beyond the call as a host by driving us up to the northern (or “Cement Factory”) taxi stand, and helping us negotiate the fare for our ride north (doubtless helped by the fact that he was often mistaken by locals for a Tajik, or at least a fellow central Asian) himself.
Reading through this entry I’m not certain I’ve given a proper sense of the lovely, languid time we spent in Dushanbe while waiting for our final “problematic” visas to be issued. But I hope I’ve at least managed to give a sense of what a pleasant, relaxing place Dushanbe was, how friendly and helpful its residents were and, most importantly, what a wonderful host and home we had during our stay there.
Next up: Northern Tajikistan (practically a different country. They didn’t even eat Kurutob there!)
P.S. We just learned of the recent eruption of violence in Khorog, Gorno Badakshan. Everyone at home can rest assured that we’re nowhere near it (we actually left Tajikistan a couple of days ago.) But it’s still terribly sad to hear that the place where we found such warm, friendly and well educated people has descended into such misery so quickly.
Sunflowers turning their backs on us in the countryside around Dushanbe
Zulfiya (Mehri’s mom, a wonderfully kind and friendly lady), Sarah and Raj out for a Sunday afternoon picnic
Mmm… Pizza. We took advantage of having an oven (and an air conditioner in the house) to make this for dinner one night
The beautiful entrance to… well, we never really figured out what. But it was something important, as the police were stopping traffic to let a small convoy of cars out when we walked past once.
Tags: Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Travel, Varzob