The final few days in Dushanbe were pretty calm, but I did finally find my way to some of the few standard tourist attractions in the city. All the photos below are from day 43 (July 12).
There’s a museum on the park plaza, which was almost as deserted as the park itself. It has four floors and a decent array of exhibits (from natural history to the glorification of Dear Leader [Rahmon]) but still feels a bit pathetic (for example, not all of the lights work). Admission is 25 somoni, 10 extra with a camera (total: $7), but many of the exhibits are no-photography anyway.
Courtesy of Anna and my other fast friends, I also went to my first (and last) “hash”, or meeting of the Hash House Harriers, the worldwide “drinking club with a running problem”. With only a moderate amount of offense intended to that group (and none to my friends), I won’t be joining them again because I enjoy the drinking rather less than the running. But the run (or in my case, walk) was spectacular:
Garm was a nice place to visit for a couple of days, but it turned out not to be a stop on the way to Kyrgyzstan. At one of Anna’s meetings there, with a UNDP official, it was discovered that the border crossing with Kyrgyzstan is in fact closed to foreigners. So, we spent a relaxing two nights in Garm before catching a taxi back the way we came to Dushanbe.
Having been foiled by two Kyrgyz border crossings so far (the Badakhshan region being closed and this) and with recent shootings reported at the sole remaining one (at Batken near Khujand) not to mention a long way to get there (including the “Tunnel of Death” and more scary driving) through more of Tajikistan than I had been planning on, I’m thinking - though it’s not final – of flying instead, to Almaty, Kazakhstan. I could go to Bishkek and/or more of Kyrgystan from there if I get bored. Anyway, it’s the Kyrgyz side’s fault that this border was closed, so if they don’t want me there…. (Just kidding. Closed borders are all part of the adventure, but at present there’s a limit to the miles of shared taxis over mountains that I want to stomach.)
You’d never guess the people you meet in places like Tajikistan. I talked (in both of our broken Russian) to an Egyptian marshrutka driver, me about where I was from and him about the beaches in Egypt and how Tajiks are stupid; he was surprised I didn’t speak Arabic based on my looks. (The taxi driver from Garm, meanwhile, like most people, had a hard time believing that I wasn’t Jewish, having brought it up out of nowhere.) Through one of my recently made expat friends, I met a 17-year-old extreme upper echelon Tajik guy, but the nature of his family’s enterprise can’t really be mentioned here… And then there’s the American military contingent, who are doing something along the lines of training the Tajiks to stop weapons- and people-smuggling into Afghanistan.
And lest I feel like my adventure is very grand, I just met a couple in my hostel who have more or less biked all the way here from Vietnam. I told them that was amazing. The modest response? “Lots of people are doing it.”
Garm (or Gharm, Ғарм) is a town – the biggest one, as far as I know – between Dushanbe and the border with Kyrgyzstan at Jirgitol, i.e., the only border besides the one on the Pamir Highway and the one(s) near Khujand. It lies along the road that leads to Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan, the crossroads on the way to Osh and points north. In a couple of days we are going to try to cross this border, having heard rumors that it might be open (it’s normally closed), unless the local drivers or other knowledgeable folk know otherwise. Besides the fact that I’m on my way north towards Kyrgyzstan anyway, Anna is hoping to interview some people here about their agriculture. Her contacts got us a place to stay in a guest house.
Garm was described to me as a “большой город” (big city) – the fact that this is true in even a relative sense indicates how remote the area is. I can’t imagine Garm has more than a couple thousand people. On the way to it, we passed only tiny settlements of a few houses, rarely more, but usually marked by official city-limit signs – sometimes nothing at all seemed to be between the signs. In one of the inhabited ones, a little girl came to try to sell us white mulberries. (No thanks.)
The drive was a bit under 200 km, but it took a lot longer than the 2.5 hours suggested by Google Maps, if anyone would be so silly as to use that for an indication in this part of the world. (Nor could they, very easily, because Gharm isn’t really on Google’s map [!]).
I got some amazing – and scary – mountain views from the extremely windy, narrow, usually unpaved road on the edge of a cliff (with no guardrail) that we drove along, way too fast, in a 1980s Mercedes with bald tires. Even with the dusty breeze from the open windows, it was hot. (Much of the way was actually a decent paved road, not that that made the Central Asian driving any less maniacal, but the mountains were the kind of ride you never forget.)
Backing up in the story, we shared a “taxi” with a young Tajik guy who asked to stop about five times along the way in search of the best tomatoes from the produce stands that dot the road near towns (mostly Dushanbe). He was curious about us, but eventually grew tired of my broken Russian.
GPS track: if you look at the street map of Garm, you’ll see there isn’t one. In some places you can see on the map the twists of the road along the mountain slope that weren’t recorded by the GPS due to only keeping a point every 30 seconds.