Tales from KZ

Kazakhstan. Perry. A New Community.

A Very Delayed Day 1 (Dushanbe, Tajikistan)

The last 28 days I have been traveling around two countries in Central Asia: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  The trip has been amazing in many ways and very cold at parts.  Winter is beautiful here, but tourists are not common.  The first response to meeting anyone – in a taxi, at the bazaar, in a guest house, while riding hourses – is “Come back in the summer, it’s beautiful then.”  I’m sure it’s true, but it’s been very nice being the only tourists in a city and mountain roads, being practically alone on mountain trails, and having lakeside gazebos to ourselves.
Tomorrow, we cross the border into Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan to enter my third post-Peace Corps country.  Appropriately, below is the first update on my travels.  I’m only 28 days behind.  At some point I’ll catch-up to the present.  I anticipate minimal Internet access the next few weeks, but please send e-mails and I’ll reply when I can.
Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Years.

Tuesday, December 1 2009

Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Prior to arriving in Tajikistan, I had very little idea about the country, outside of the general impression of poverty that sticks to its name whenever you hear its name in Central Asia.  We flew into Dushanbe from Almaty on Friday, November 20 on SCAT Airlines.  I flew with this company once before, when my family visited Kazakhstan in July 2008.  The quality has not changed in this time.  The flight still felt like the name sounds.  Fortunately, registration and boarding was much calmer than the pushing that categorized the Kazakhstani boarding process.

In the airport, we were joined by a large collection of what appeared to be Afghan migrant workers flying home.  There was nothing abnormal about this, except the Kazakh men standing in front of the group, giving directions to the clearly confused and non-Russian and Kazakh speaking group.  This group, however, did not fly to Tajikistan with us but likely left on the flight to Kabul soon after.

Although we were assigned seats on our flights, these numbers and letters are more loose suggestions that are completely ignored.  It was a 30-person propellor plane where passengers took their seats on a first-come, first-serve basis.  We flew over the mountains, left the cold of Almaty and arrived in what seemed like the Tajik tropics.  The weather was much too hot for our heavy winter jackets, providing a nice first impression of Tajikistan, at least until we reached the door of the airport and customs processing.

Our arrival coincided with at least one other international flight.  There were no Customs lines, simply Customs globs.  People surged forward, moved a few meters, surged again, stopped, then pushed up in tiny steps.  Fortunately, the daughter of my former Russian tutor’s good friend (from her Russian teaching time in Angola) works at the Dushanbe airport, met us and expedited our Customs process.  Three minutes later, on the other side of the globs, we were waiting for our luggage.  The international terminal has two luggage carrousels, neither of which are labeled with their flight.  The four of us jumped between carrousels, eventually found our luggage, dragged it past the always-present Central Asian baggage check men, and searched for our acquaintance whom we had arranged to meet us at the airport.

There had been a miscommunication about AM and PM.  Since this acquaintance had the keys to the apartment we planned to stay in, we took a taxi to a guest house where an Almaty friend works with the owner.  The taxi driver, however, initially took us to another hotel as we were deciding where to go, at which point we directed him to the new location.  He didn’t know where the guest house was, so we called.  He misunderstood the directions.  After about 10 minutes in the car, we arrive at the big gates of the guest house, about a ten minute walk from the Dushanbe Tsum (The Former Soviet Union everything store). The taxi driver, flummoxed that he stopped for 10 seconds at the first hotel and then drove an extra two kilometers, insisted on raising his price.  In the end, we split the difference, paying a little extra but not close to the additional 30 somoni he demanded.

This first taxi experience was not representative of Tajikistan taxis overall.  Dushanbe has multiple public transportation options.  Since central Dushanbe is walkable, within the center, transportation is rarely an issue.  As we found when we went to the JDC office, however, when you go to the microregions, the city expands.  Fortunately, in a city of only 80,000 people, even the furthest microregion is not that far.

Option 1: the bus – specific routes, lots of space for people, standing and sitting, runs from the morning through evening, 1 somoni.

Option 2: numbered Chinese marshutkas – fits around 10 passengers, set routes (although somewhat confusing as to go outside the Center, the same number seems to lead to different destinations), also morning to evening, 1 or 2 somoni.

Option 3: numbered shared taxis – set routes (same as the marshutkas), less people so greater comfort, quicker, morning to evening, 2 somoni.

Option 4: official taxi – call ahead, arrange pick-up and destination, anytime, at least 10 somoni.

Option 5: freelance street taxi – pick-up a taxi on the street (often with the “Taxi” sign, no implication that it’s a registered taxi, only that they want people to know they’ll take passengers), negotiate up-front, short trips, 5 somoni, longer trips minimum 10 somoni, to the microregions 15 somoni.  You pay by trip, not by the number of people.  Trips to/from the airport from the Center should cost between 10 and 15 somoni.

Tajikistan is much less expensive than Kazakhstan.  Our last night in Tajikistan, we went to a nice Steak House in central Dushanbe.  My juicy, properly cooked steak cost $10.  At a comparable restaurant in Almaty, the steak would be at least $30.  The cost differential is even more pronounced outside of Dushanbe.  In Khojand, the second largest city in the country and the capital of the most prosperous region, our dinners cost around $3 for a substantial meal of rabbit.

In addition to requiring less money, people in Tajikistan have change.  Kazakhstan is still working on this aspect of the open market.  Taxi drivers, kiosks, and proper stores all often have a small bills deficit in Kazakhstan.  Fortunately, this problem has not migrated south.  We paid for 5 somoni items with a 100 somoni bill – there was change with no argument.


We shed our winter clothes and headed to meet our intended airport acquaintance, Patrick.  Joining me in Tajikistan have been two friends, Steffen – who teaches English in Aktobe and is doing research on Central Asia – and Meghan, who works at the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia in Almaty.  Both Steffen and Meghan found a contact in Dushanbe independent of the other – Kim.  Kim is on the same fellowship on which Steffen previously held in another country.  Kim also works at the Eurasia Foundation in Dushanbe.  None of us knew that this Kim was the same person and Kim did not know that she was in touch with two people of the same travel group.  Fortunately for us, Kim was a wonderful hostess and let us crash at her apartment in the center of Dushanbe when we first arrived and throughout our time in Dushanbe.

Dushanbe’s buildings are beautiful.  The hulking Soviet buildings still occupy a number of blocks, but your focus invariably falls onto the more numerous three to four story brightly colored buildings.  These are also Soviet era, but in a much more relaxed style.

Compared to Almaty, the city feels and looks like a provincial regional capital.  The buildings are all low, there are no glass megaliths, and I have not seen one traffic jam.  There are very few hulking Soviet-era buildings (although a number of apartment buildings line Rudaki, the main street).  Rather, the city has a large collection of bright structures that look to be out of a colonial period.

All three of us arrived left Kazakhstan horribly sick.  Swine flu is not funny, but most of our jokes revolved around our possible fevers, painful coughs, and the need to look healthy until we cleared Customs.  My going away party the Thursday night before may have contributed to this feeling, as well.  In Dushanbe, the warm weather cleared my head, but the cough and weariness persisted.  We thought an elixir could be the Ecuadorian/Mexican restaurant for lunch.  Particularly as Kazakhstan has no good Mexican food, as soon as we dropped our luggage at the apartment, we dashed to the best Latin American food in Central Asia.  Surprisingly, we were not disappointed.  Unfortunately, we were all still worn out.


December 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment