The Tajiks speak a form of Farsi but it sounds a bit different from what we heard in Iran: Tajikistan becomes Tojikiston. Another difference from the Iranian Farsi is the fact that they use the cyrillic script, which is nice because now we can read the street signs. Russian is widely spoken but outside Dushanbe there are many local dialects.
When we were thinking or dreaming about Tajikistan we would always imagine the Pamirs, our skin crawling with fear and excitement. Pictures on blogs and instagram accounts of other cyclists showed desolate mountain peaks in crystal clear thin air, cyclists camping on endless high plains of barren earth, villagers in remote valleys. The Pamir Highway is not really a highway. It is a potholed gravel road which runs from Khorog on the Tajik-Afghan border to Osh in Kyrgystan, scaling several passes and reaching 4562m at its highest point on the Pamir plateau. It is the second highest road in the world, after the Karakoram Highway which runs from China into Northern Pakistan (not an option at the moment due to political unrest and kidnappings). I had never heard of the Pamir highway until we hosted Taneli through Warmshowers, and he put the idea of cycling this route East into our head.
I don’t think we ever thought of Tajikstans capital Dushanbe when were dreaming about the Pamirs. That is, any thoughts beyond the need to do our food shopping and some other practical errands there before heading into the Pamirs. As we have found out before, discovering a place that we had zero expectations about is a really nice experience. The weather is lovely, warm and sunny during the day and cool at night but not yet cold. There are shops and bazaars that sell everything we could possibly need. There is beer! Very nice after our dry month in Iran. Dushanbe is small for a capital city and not too busy traffic-wise, with wide tree-lined avenues. The main drag Rudaki Avenue is lined with pretty and mostly well-maintained buildings, an eclectic mix of Asian, Soviet and Muslim influences. An airy open summer chaykhana (teahouse) overlooking a Persian style garden with a small pond in the middle, with a colourful cassette ceiling and almost muqarna-like capitals topping the high pillars. A modernist Soviet theatre that wouldn’t be out of place on Berlins Karl Marx Allee. A few Brutalist Soviet housing blocks, small enough to be actually quite charming. There is a cluster of neo-classicist university buildings plastered in the most brilliant shade of swimming pool blue with white hammer and sickle reliefs. There are also modern buildings going up, but fortunately they are well proportioned, not too outrageously kitsch and even despite the use of the ubiquitous horrible dark blue glass not too much of an eyesore. Because of the upcoming 25th indepence day celebrations there are Tajik flags and banners everywhere, depicting president Rahmon who appears to be (somewhat constipatedly) contemplating grain fields, stroking kids’ heads, inspecting the industry… you get the picture.
The Tajik people look decidedly different from the Iranians. Finer and slightly more Asian features, slender people with thick black or dark brown hair. The man mostly sport lego style bowl cuts, the women have long hair. Some still have uni-brows, once considered a sign of beauty. The school boys wear smart black trousers and slim black ties on pristine white shirts (prohibited in Iran!). Many women wear traditional garb: loose trousers, tight at the ankles, under a long loose tunic in the same fabric, with short puffy sleeves. The womens garments have very colourful prints, either in traditional ikat weaving or new synthetic designs embroidered with little pearls. They wear equally colourful headscarves tied around their hair but leaving the neck free. To me they look more decorative than restricting. We meet up with our friends Steven and Saule from Caravanistan, and from Saule I understand that not long ago modern Western dress was more prevalent on the streets of Dushanbe. But as many educated people leave the country more traditional (village) people are left to dominate the dresscode in the city. Traditional dress is further encouraged by the government in an effort to forge a strong and clear national Tajik identity. Not an easy task in such an ethnically mixed country and I don’t really like the idea of an imposed reactionary traditionalist nationalist dresscode. However I do like the clothes, so I have a set made by a tailor in the bazar.
One of the people of Dushanbe is Vero, a French woman who works for the EU. She has a wonderful house, surrounded by a large walled garden. We arrive here after dark, emotionally and physically exhausted after a long an stressful day. Completely drained from the effort to get our enormous pile of luggage from Tehran to Tajikistan. We did make it, but not without the generous help of two cycling Iranian brothers and the lovely staff of Tajik Air. When Vero’s night guard opens the gate for us we think we have arrived in cyclist heaven. A small collection of rose bushes and fruit trees on a grass field, a hammock, a house with a kitchen and bathroom generously offered to the cyclists who are welcome to camp in the garden. There are some Koreans, a Catalan couple and two French guys who show us around. Two turtles and a speaking parrot live in the garden. In the next few days we share beers and nerdy bike travel conversation with more cyclists who arrive. Some have done the Pamirs already and they give us useful tips about hot springs and road conditions. Verena and Jean we have met before, Steffi and Adriano are a Swiss couple we meet a day later, and we make plans to cycle the Pamirs together. Crossing the high peaks we have dreamed about for so long seem a little bit less scary at the prospect of doing them together with friends.
We end up spending almost a week in Dushanbe. Not because we have things to do, but because we want to see the parades for the 25th independence day celebrations. The parade is a deception. No one knows when it will happen and in the end it transpires there are two parades; one military and one civilian. Rumours abound: the parade is delayed because Putin couldn’t make it on the actual indepence date! Putin never shows up, we would have known if he had as the presidents dacha is around the corner from our ‘home’ and there are no snipers on the roof. We find out when the parades are on because they are shown live on tv. We rush out to try and catch the second parade after we miss out on the 7am military parade. We miss the civilian as well and see its tail end disappear into the distance of Rudaki avenue. Later we find out that we wouldn’t have been able to get close to the parade despite several security checks we passed. Only a small number of vetted Tajik loyal supporters of the president got a certificate that allowed them to line the route of the parade. The whole operation (16.000 soldiers, 25.000 civilians) is put on to please president Rahmon and to look good on tv, and not an actual celebration for the people of Dushanbe. In fact, the involuntary participants of the parade have to fork out quite a bit of their own money to pay for their compulsory costumes.
After having missed out on the chance of seeing a totalitarian dictator display his charade we go on an interesting excursion. Khodja obi Garm is a former Soviet sanatorium some 50km North of Dushanbe, in use since 1935. The spa is a stunning Brutalist complex nestled in a gorge almost 2000m above sea level. The spring waters are hot and naturally suffused with the radioactive radon gas. This is supposedly curative, but radon is in fact poisonous in large doses and a fairly common health risk as it is everywhere around us. We go with our new Swiss friends and check in. First we get served lunch in a big communal dining hall by traditionally dressed Tajik women. Veggie soup with lots of fat floating on top, dumplings in sour cream, even the menu here is vintage. I then start with a rough Russian massage. Kneading, slapping, knuckle grinding, scalp scratching, hair pulling and some really good vertebrae cracking. Then, into the hot radon pool.
It is quiet in the resort so we have the pool to ourselves, apart from Moheddin. He is a jolly Pamiri mountain man who used to sail the big seas and proudly shows us his sailor tattoo. The treatments are very relaxing and in the afternoon we get lulled to sleep by president Rahmon who on tv, endlessly droning on in front of an audience that manages to stay awake.
We are greatly enjoying ourselves in the sanatorium, especially when we discover a basement bar with beer and a pingpong table. After a good nights sleep in the spartan little room and a simple breakfast of baby porridge, bread and tea we do one more treatment. Steffi and I pick the ‘tsirkulyarniy dush’. This is a circular shower contraption spouting needle sharp jets of water from all around and apparently good for the circulation. As a bonus there is a chair with a hole in the middle and a jet underneath, so all our bits get the circulatory treatment. Cyril and Adriano disappear into another room and get to torture eachother with a superstrong jet stream, managed with a cool looking 60’s control panel. According to Cyril it’s the weirdest thing he has ever done with another guy. There are more interesting looking rooms where for instance you can have your head pulled back by a torturous looking helmet and leather strap contraption, but we have to head back to Dushanbe. I can definitely recommend this place to cyclists who come back from the Pamirs and need some regeneration.
Dushanbe, a small capital city of a small and remote country. What a nice surprise.