Wednesday, September 16, 2015

On the Road: Tajikistan

Last Stop

Of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia, Tajikistan is the smallest and poorest. It also served as the Russian invasion ground for Afghanistan in 1979. A large number of Tajik men subsequently died in the failed, drawn out war. The lingering effects of the fighting combined with the problem of the country's ethnically diverse population led to instability following independence in 1991. Civil war erupted, and after two years, a new president elect named Emomali Rahmon ended the fighting. He later succeeded in maintaining peace and is now seen as a national hero. Ubiquitous posters of the man emblazon the entrances of schools and other public buildings. In them Rahmon has his hand raised high, while at the bottom, boldly written words promise progress and growth.

During my time in the region, Tajikistan was the third and final country I visited. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan which I'd traveled to first seemed quite similar to one another in terms of the people and culture. Tajikistan differed in that its history was shaped more by Persian than Turkic influence. This became most evident in the languages spoken. Tajik was mutually intelligible with Farsi, while Kazakh and Kyrgyz had more in common with Turkish. The people in Tajikistan also acted with greater Islamic conservatism. The women covered their hair and a larger percentage of the men grew beards. Moreover, I got the impression that they did not identify much with Russian culture and the younger generation preferred to speak English over Russian. I could understand why. The legacy of the Soviet years was not a good one with the memory of the Soviet-Afghan War still fresh on their minds. But I digress. Let's see how my time in the country went.

National Flag
Border Crossing

Tajikistan lies south of Kyrgyzstan, the country from which Calvin and I entered. There were two access points. We chose the eastern one that crossed via the Pamir Highway. The road led past a range of mountains including Peak Lenin, a 7135m monstrosity split between the two countries. From there we needed to deal with the immigration checkpoints. Oddly a tract of 20km separated the Kyrgyz checkpoint from the Tajik one. Since we'd gotten proper visas at an embassy beforehand the immigration officers let us through without hassle and the other passengers in our taxi were locals. From the border the unpaved Pamir Highway wound up a 4282m pass and altitude sickness became a factor. It subsided as we came down the opposite side, and an hour or so later we stopped at Kara-Kul, a deep blue lake surrounded by high mountain peaks.

Kara-Kul village, on the eastern side of the lake, was a place that seemed to exist at the edge of the world. The village had one of the raunchiest public toilets I have ever used. It was a little hut with three holes lined up on a cement floor. The glaring problem was the lack of partitions. The toilet also reeked of ammonia from the piss, a stench so strong my eyes watered over. When I came out the stop provided time enough to size up the small village. White mud structures fed down to the shore with a single mosque sticking out from the bunch. The only sign that the village was somewhat connected to the rest of civilization was the line of electricity poles that ran in and out along the highway. The Soviets had built the road in the 1930's for military purposes and it had since become the lifeblood of the mountainous land. Large commercial trucks now plied its entire length, many of which came from Kashgar in western China. Otherwise vehicle traffic was scant and limited largely to 4WD vehicles that could handle the dirt and mud. Our taxi, a Toyota Landcruiser, took us as far as Murgab.

Murgab was essentially a larger version of Kara-Kul village. There were more buildings, more people, a small bazaar, and even two gas stations. But Murgab still had that dusty, worn down look of an Old West town. The whole Pamir region was as remote and desolate a place as I'd visited. It covered about half the country of Tajikistan with less than 5% the population living there. Murgab was one of its few real towns. After we arrived, Calvin and I checked into its one hotel. The interesting thing was, we didn't get a room. Instead we pitched our tent out front for two dollars and could still use the hotel's amenities such as toilet and shower. A surprising amount of other tourists had also made a stop in Murgab. They were cyclists pedaling down the Pamir highway, simple backpackers like myself, motorcyclists, groups on a rushed tour, and perhaps most interesting, men participating in the Mongol Rally--a charity event that had participants drive 10,000 miles from London, across Asia, through Mongolia, and finally to Ulan Ude in Russia. These participants had roughly a month and a half to do it and they didn't linger long in town. The men crammed back inside their vehicles and sped north leaving a swirl of dust behind.
Shared Taxi
Mosque in Kara-Kul
Near the Lake
Passanger Gives a Kiss
Northbound Road Sign
Murgab Mosque
Kids Fooling Around
Shared Taxi

In Murgab, Calvin and I had one simple objective. We needed to find four other travelers so that we could hire a shared taxi to take us to Khorog at the other end of the Pamir Highway. Our search took an entire day and produced the following members--Stefan, a German investments auditor, age 32; Ada and Matilde, two French medical students, ages 24 and 25; and Aurelie, a Belgian school teacher, age 32. Once assembled we formulated a plan. We would travel a day down the Pamir and then take a side route to Khorog along the Wakan Valley, a distance of some 480km. Next we asked around for a vehicle and driver. The receptionist at the hotel put us in contact with a local guy named Musa. That same night we met with him and negotiated a price for the journey. Because we didn't want to rush we decided on 5 days with several stop offs along the way, a trip which came to $65 per person for the transport. This was the only choice we had because no public buses ran on the Pamir Highway. Then again, I suppose we might have tried hitchhiking, but that would've meant we'd have to pass up a lot of sites on the way, and the whole nature of it would've been unreliable, likely including long waits in an area known for sparse vehicle traffic. So it was settled. The next morning we gathered at 9:00AM in front of the hotel, loaded up the 4WD Mitsubishi Pajero, and soon embarked.

Day one took us through mostly a wide valley with peaks at every horizon. For lunch we stopped beside a clear pond full of fish. At the adjacent restaurant they served us the same type of fish, though the proprietor told us they were not from the pond, but rather a nearby river. The fish were the small bony type--deep fried and entirely edible. I still removed the bones. After that we made for Yashil-Kul, an iceberg colored lake that was not as cold as I'd imagined it might be. So I went for a swim. Normally, I would have splashed around like crazy, but this time I had to take it easy because the high altitude quickly had me short of breath. None of the others joined me. Their loss. We would not have a chance to wash off again until the following night. Our guesthouse, which we went to later, was as simple and barren as the surrounding village of Bulunkul. Like elsewhere in the northern Pamir, the people were ethnically Kyrgyz, and very Eurasian in appearance. Most striking were the eyes. The guesthouse owner's daughters had ones with greenish, grey irises highlighted by black edges. Not camera shy, the two gladly posed for pictures as I snapped away like a Hollywood paparazzo. I wondered if past visitors traveling the Pamir had done the same. If so, the girls were used to the attention. Later that night I took out my Nikon again to shoot the stars. The cold and moonless sky made for excellent photographic conditions as I captured the Milky Way overhead. The others tried as well, but their inferior cameras produced noisy, worthless images. In the end I gave them copies of mine.
Clear Pond
Fried Fish
Kyrgyz Girls
Starry Night
Musa Fixes the Pajero
Open Highway
The second day of the journey led us off the Pamir Highway and onto an even more rugged road along the Wakan Valley between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. At the last checkpoint before entering the area we took photos with the bored military men manning the post. One of them let Matilde hold his AK-47 rifle. Then we continued on through the remote and sparsely populated land, a river marking the border beside us. The people in the valley were Tajik, but spoke their own language, and moreover, followed the Ismaili Islamic faith. Elsewhere in the country the people were predominately Sunni. As a sign of their religious beliefs, the locals had a living room with a kind of sky light made of concentric squares and five pillars holding up the ceiling. Of the five pillars one represented the Prophet Muhammed, and another his first wife. As the days passed we went from one guesthouse to the next. The accommodation at these places included dinner, breakfast, and sometimes, a hot shower. We also went to the ruins of Yamchun Fort, a once mighty structure that had guarded an old Silk Road route into China. A kilometer from the fort was a hot spring called Bibi Fatima. The facility had a large building with separate indoor pools for men and women. On our side, Calvin, Stefan, Musa and I enjoyed a dip in the hot water. A Japanese tourist later popped his head in and started taking photos while we were sitting naked. He then left, just as fast as he'd entered. On the other side Ada, Aurelie and Matilde shared their pool with a dozen Tajik women of various ages. They later told me the local women had shaved their pubic hair. That was some real food for thought.

The road continued along the Afghanistan border and the further west we went, the more villages we saw on both sides of the border. The Tajik side, however, was far more developed. Towards the end there were towns with multi-storied buildings, paved roads and traffic signals. Otherwise the people lived in scattered houses surrounded by greenish-yellow barely fields. Finally, on the fifth day we arrived in Khorog. It was the first proper city I saw in Tajikistan, and as was the case with the other Tajik cities I'd later visit, I took an immediate liking to the place. Not that Khorog had anything interesting to see or do. The city's charm came instead from its pleasant atmosphere and vibrant people. That and there were many restaurants that offered a wide variety of dishes on the menu. Since I'd entered the country, food had been so limited, and now I had access to real stuff like pizza and ice cream. Moreover, I could use the Internet for the first time in a week. Khorog, in short, was the perfect place to recharge and prepare for the journey ahead.

Matilde and AK-47
Out to Dry
Tajik Instruments
Yamchun Fort
Old Ladies
Meal at Guesthouse
Rahmon Poster
Khorog Bazaar
Travel Beard

I remember learning about Sigmund Freud in Psychology 101 at university. Now, over ten years later, the only knowledge that remains is his theory of penis envy. How could I forget such a thing? Freud postulated that women envied a man's penis, and boys likewise envied the size of their father's penis. This somehow influenced people's behavior. I suppose I too had a bit of the penis envy complex growing up, especially after I started watching pornography. But as time passed I started to care less that I didn't have a huge package, and worried more about other physical shortcomings. Most troubling was the size of my hands. The palms are fine, but the fingers are short and slender. This means I never had any hope at becoming a pianist (not that I ever harbored such aspirations). The real problem I experienced was in sports. I couldn't palm a basketball in high school gym class, and while wrestling I had a harder time grasping an opponents wrist.

I'm sure everyone has something they would physically change about themselves. Apart from my hands, maybe I could be a little taller. And I'd change my facial hair too. I can grow a mustache and a bushy goatee, but having a proper beard is another matter. When I go unshaved for a long while little patches of uneven hair still remain on the sides, and they detract from the symmetry and overall gravitas that a good beard should represent. So those parts I shaved. This was how it's always been and I was fine with it, at least until I started traveling. I met a lot of other tourists after leaving Japan, some of whom had big scruffy beards. This was because they'd chosen to forgo shaving as one month on the road led to another. When I saw these beards a pang of envy jittered in my gut. I too wanted a travel beard, and after 8 months of encountering them at every backpacker hostel I visited, I'd had enough. It came time to grow one of my own. I no longer cared how terrible it looked.

In total I needed about 60 days before the beard grew thick enough to cover the gaps. I was half way through Tajikistan at the time, and as I walked the high mountains, my beard quivered in the cool, invigorating wind. Never before had I maintained my facial hair for so long. In a primal way, I felt as if I'd finally become a complete man--the total package. The genuine article. Moreover, my beard was now more than simply an extension of my person. It'd taken on a life of its own. And I had no intention of shaving it. The beard will grow with me while I continue my world travels. The thought excites me. I want to know how long it can become, and if it'll give me the same air of manliness as say, Freud, Abe Lincoln or Chuck Norris. I look forward to finding out.
Hairy Face

Slowly but surely, my impression of Tajikistan became that of a country defined by one long road. At least in the eastern part. Two main roads were the only means to get to the capital of Dushanbe. After Khorog I opted to take the southern route. At first I was with Calvin, Matilde, Ada and Aurelie. Stefan had rushed ahead by shared taxi, leaving us behind. Then it was only two of us because the others wanted to do a hike in the Jizeu valley. I didn't feel up to it and instead headed to the capital with Aurelie. To save money we gave hitchhiking a go. We didn't have much luck at first. Perhaps we covered 70km after a day. This was not good. 650km still stood between us and Dushanbe. On the bright side we met a local woman who invited us to stay at her family's home. She cooked for us as well, serving up a soupy platter consisting of tomatoes and potato. The woman, Tajimisso, said she liked English, and hoped to one day study in London. A cousin of hers already lived there. It seemed many Tajiks relocated abroad, though most went to Russia where they could easily get a work visa.

On the second day, we awoke early and had tea and bread for breakfast. Afterwards, Tajimisso helped us flag down a truck. The driver was en route to Dushanbe. He said Aurelie and I could join him, so we climbed into his 12-wheeler. The Shacman truck, I quickly realized, did not have good suspension for the unpaved road, and as a result, it was slow going the entire way. After a while I felt as if seated on an old, rickety carnival ride. As for Aurelie, she'd become sick while on the Pamir Highway, and the motion of the truck didn't do her upset stomach any good. More than once she asked the driver to stop so that she could do her business on the side of the road. On another occasion we had to pull over because of a flat. The driver got out to remove the tire from the truck and replace its inner tube, a laborious task that took over an hour. Then, later in the evening we had a second flat. Because it was a bolt that had punctured the tire, the driver needed to patch the hole before putting everything back into place. It had become dark by then and I helped by holding a flashlight. While watching, I thought the task didn't look too different from the repair job on a bicycle tire, except for it being on a larger scale. In any event, the flats really slowed us down. By the time we stopped for the night we were no where close to Dushanbe.

Road to Dushanbe
Tajissimo and Aurelie
Flat Tire
At the Wheel Again
Another Truck
Lunch Time
On the third day our luck did not improve. Two other flat tires brought us to a halt. The driver couldn't believe it for the last one. He beat the steering wheel, cursed aloud and shook his head. I felt really bad for him. At the same time I wondered how we could get so many flats. It was then the driver said he was carrying a heavy load of statues from China which explained why the tires kept giving out. And our mechanical difficulties weren't the only thing keeping us from Dushanbe. We had to make additional stops at road checkpoints and came to about ten of them Each time the armed guards wanted to see our passports. The driver also handed over a 5 somoni bill (about a dollar) before passing through. Because he slipped it into their palm I'm pretty sure it was some kind of bribe. Then there were the stops for food. Aurelie who wasn't feeling good could hardly eat a thing. In the meantime I was trying to look after her, giving her medicine and what not. For a while the driver thought we were married. He then told us with a smile how he had two wives. Apparently, it was acceptable in Tajikistan to have up to four. I joked with Aurelie that if I had that many wives I'd probably kill myself. Hell, the stress from one relationship might be cause enough. Aurelie didn't find my comments funny. If anything, she pitied the women who became someone's second wife. I shrugged and drank my tea. Such was the Muslim world.

We arrived in Dushanbe late. Very late. It was past 2:30AM, and since the driver was not headed to the city center, he dropped us off where there were still taxis. It was an area with bars and nightclubs. A taxi driver approached us, asking for a lot of money to take us to a hotel. We had no idea of the distance and didn't see the point of paying for a room, not if for only a few hours. The alternative was to make use of my tent in a nearby park. Still close to the road, we heard drunk men coming out of the nightclubs. A few got into an argument which frightened Aurelie. I assured her everything would be alright. And it was. After a bit of sleep, we rolled up the tent, took a microbus to the center and found a hotel. Next, I used the Internet to contact Calvin. It turned out that following his hike in Jizeu he had taken a shared taxi and reached Dushanbe a day ahead of us. He was still with the French girls. They were about to leave for the north but Calvin stayed another day because of me. That night, over dinner, we made plans for the next part of our trip. We were determined to do a three-day hike in the lakes region of the Zerafshan Valley. Aurelie who didn't like strenuous activities decided to pass. So once again it was only Calvin and me, the open road ahead of us.

In the Capital
Flowery Park
King Somoli Statue
Main Street
Palace of Nations

In the south of Tajikistan it was possible to cross into Afghanistan, and for most Westerners getting a visa wasn't difficult. Permits came at extra cost and they weren't available for many parts of the country. It goes without saying that in Afghanistan safety was an issue. For example, when we were in Tajikistan we heard that the Taliban had become active again opposite the border. While in Murgab we even saw someone who looked like a Taliban soldier. The dark faced, bearded man had on a checkered red and white turban, a loose vest, faded khakis and military boots. He came to our hotel restaurant late at night and sat in a corner with another shady figure, a Russian type dressed in military fatigues. The two spoke at length in hushed voices, and if any glance veered in their direction, they met it with angry eyes. Perhaps the men were talking about sports or women. Or they might've been discussing a drug deal. Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer and truck loads of heroin move outside the country via the Pamir Highway. Or it could be the men were up to something more sinister, maybe an assassination or terrorist plot. Whatever it was, I didn't stay around long enough to find out. That next morning I left in the shared taxi with Calvin and the others.

A ways south from Murgab the Afghan-Tajik border ran east-west for 1,300km. I covered around half that distance. The journey started in the shared taxi and continued later while I hitchhiked. Because the roads we took paralleled the river between the two countries, I was never more than 200m away. For seven days, to my left all I saw was Afghanistan. I could best describe the terrain as an endless line of mountains with villages in the places that arable land allowed for farming. In some areas the people had no vehicle access. The only way in or out was on narrow footpaths. Apart from being less developed it didn't look any different from the Tajik side. The people were the same too, and as I'd later learn, more ethnic Tajiks lived on that side of the border than in Tajikistan. But they weren't the dominant group in Afghanistan. That title belonged to the Pashtuns. A tribal people notoriously protective of their land, the Pashtuns had never submitted to a foreign power. They were also renowned for their hospitality and openness. A shame I didn't have the chance too meet any. The closest I came was an encounter with an Afghan man who ran a guesthouse in the Wakan Valley. Because his father had immigrated from Afghanistan, the son still retained some Afghan traditions. His wife also made one of the better home cooked meals I ate in Tajikistan. It was a kind of potato porridge with carrot and tomato. All the ingredients were fresh too, having come from the guesthouse garden.

As we continued onward, ever present Afghanistan became an obsession for me. I kept thinking at some point I might be able to set foot in the country. I simply needed to cross the river standing in the way. Eventually an opportunity presented itself. It began when Ada and Matilde wanted to take a dip in the River Pyanj. Our driver, Musa, obliged. He stopped the Pajero at a spot where the water appeared calm. After we went in, I noticed the river was also quite shallow. Without much hesitation I made my way towards the Afghan shore. Unfortunately, 20m from the other side, the river deepened and rose past my waist. Meanwhile a strong current pulled at my legs. I now had a decision to make. Across the river only rocks and little shrubs awaited me, yet I so badly wanted to keep going. However, if I advanced further the water might drag me under. In retrospect the right choice seems obvious. I should've turned back round and returned to the Tajik shore. And that's what I did. But I needed several minutes before I could give up on my dream of reaching Afghanistan. When I dried off and hopped back into the taxi, we left the spot. As I'd feared, I never got another chance to cross over. I guess some things aren't meant to be.
Stefan Poses Across from Border
Afghanistan on Left, Tajikistan on Right
Guesthouse Family
Only a River Away
Central Asian Cuisine

One of the greater joys of travel is trying new foods, and among the places I've visited, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea and China have had exceptional cuisine. Other countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia left much to be desired. There were also those countries with average food. India comes to mind. Some dishes were outright amazing, but half the time I feared I'd get sick. The sanitation was that poor. As for the central asian countries, they too fit more or less into the middle of the culinary scale. Almost everything had tomato, potato and onion. But a few dishes did stand out. The best was boso lagman. Consisting of fried noodles and vegetables, the dish came originally from the Uyghur region of western China. It was a favorite of Calvin's as well. And most foreigners I met expressed a liking for manti too, something similar to boiled Chinese dumplings, only larger.

Over time I came to like the standard Central Asian dishes borcht and pilaf as well , though I can't say they were anything to rave about. Borcht was a soup made of beetroot and potato, and pilaf contained seasoned rice, diced vegetables and meat. I should add that the restaurants in bigger cities offered Western food too. For example, fast food type places had hamburgers and hotdogs. In Kyrgyzstan the meat inside the burgers was cut from a rotisserie spit, and oddly, the food didn't come with fries. Tajik restaurants had burgers with patties and fries, yet In spite of this, I didn't enjoy them. One in particular tasted so awful I managed only two bites. The meat smelled farty, the cheese was hard, and the bun stale. And I don't even know what the hell type of sauce they put in it. The pizzas I tried in Tajikistan didn't taste great either. But draw any conclusions based on only a few meals. Besides, not all the food was bad. The shawarmas (kebab meat wrap) in Dushanbe were the best I had in Central Asia. And the local fruit was delicious. The grapes and strawberries at one bazaar went for only about $0.35 a kilogram. I also bought apples, apricots, watermelon, cantaloupe, pears, peaches and nectarines. What I didn't get were bananas. Imported from abroad, they cost a fortune, selling at places for almost a dollar a piece.

Another interesting thing to eat was a Tajik dish called kurutob. The food came in a large clay bowl intended for more than one person. The contents were diced vegetables, a sour yogurt sauce, and chunks of bread. I found it delightful both times I tried it. But the taste aside, the dish was a bit unusual because the bread was mixed in with the food. With every other meal it came served separate. The most popular variety of bread in the region was a big circular type with elevated edges, kind of like a fat pizza crust. This bread often had a design of small interlocking circles on the surface made by poking small holes into the dough before baking it. At guesthouses, jam and butter came included. Tea too was brought out for every meal. The two main types were green and black. In Tajikistan local custom dictated that the first cup go back into the pot. As for sugar, people added heaps wherever I went. In some homes the sugar looked like orange quartz. The people broke off pieces and let it dissolve in their cups. I never used any. I prefer my tea straight, same as my coffee.

Boso Lagman
Pelimen Soup
Chicken Kebab
Cafeteria Style Food
Lakes Region

North of Dushanbe, towards Tajikistan's other large city of Khojand, lied the large Zerafshan Valley. It ran into neighboring Uzbekistan and was home to mountain lakes and peaks of over 5000m. Calvin and I went to the eastern entry point, a town called Sarvoda. By now the end of August had arrived. The hiking season too was over and the weather had become unpredictable. Rain could come at any time. Still determined to do our hike, Calvin and I hired a taxi to take us high into the mountains. A light drizzle and clouds shrouded the area in grey. After a bit of hiking we first arrived at the Alaudin Lakes. They were perhaps the clearest lakes I'd seen in my life. And more astounding were their colors. In the shallows algae formed a web of green while the centers had the deep blue of topaz. However, the poor weather prevented us from seeing the lakes at their best. We made camp on the shore and hoped by morning the sky would clear.

The hour was still early. To pass the time we watched videos inside the tent on Calvin's Samsung tablet. He'd gotten me into Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated series that takes place in a medieval fantasy world where people can control the elements. Years before I'd been a big fan of Japanese animation, and Avatar, though an American show, emulated the style very well. The series felt like an anime not only in style, but also tone and humor. Because Calvin and I had already spent many nights in the tent, we'd also watched other shows and films. It was quite odd. We'd done camping all over, often miles from any town, and instead of enjoying the silence of nature or engaging in thoughtful conversation, we preferred to zone out with our digital devices once inside the tent.

For the second day of our hike, we awoke to rain and discovered that a herd of cows had invaded our spot along the water. The animals had no shame. They tore up grass and shat where they stood. We packed up the tent and made for Alaudin Pass. The rain subsided on the way up, but by then I was too far from the lake to take nice pictures. The larger mountains also remained covered by clouds. So in spite of being in an incredibly picturesque setting I failed to get any good photos. Later we reached the 3860m pass and continued on the trail past Mt. Chimtarga and its glacier, both still hidden by clouds. The hike went okay for a while until heavy wind and rain set in. We'd planned to set up camp at another lake called Kulikalon which was still hours away. I didn't own waterproof gear like Calvin and had to endure the cold and wetness in only a wool sweater. Eventually we came to the lake's shore. The spot we chose for the tent was on a small rise surrounded by rocks, bushes and other natural scenery, but again, the weather ruined the atmosphere. Our tent wasn't entirely waterproof either. Rain leaked in from the sides and persisted well after dark.
Sarvoda Town

One Alaudin Lake
Green Algae
From a Distance
Sheep Grazing
The next morning the weather was still poor. We needed to hike out of the mountains to a village where we could find a guesthouse. Along the way we ran into a group of Tajik students on a trip to Kulikalon Lake. They asked to take group pictures and we posed for a few. Then on we walked until the trail linked up with a dirt road. A few simple homes now lined the river valley we passed through. At one, a woman waved us over. She gave us bread and fruit while her children looked on with curious eyes. The kids also each drank from my water bottle. Seeing them put their tongues in the opening made me not want to have anymore, this in spite of being very thirsty later. When the family dog came the kids mounted and choked it. I'd have have snapped them in the faces. Before departing we offered the woman some money for the food. She didn't seem to want it, but the children stepped forward and gladly took the cash.

Back at the road a guy stopped his car and said his family had a guesthouse in the village of Artush. He quoted a reasonable price and offered to give us a lift the rest of the way. Storm clouds were again brewing on the horizon, so we agreed, and off we went in his small, beat up vehicle. The patter of rain soon sounded as the man drove us past farms and donkeys en route to the house. It turned out to belong to his sister. We arrived early in the day and she served us lunch on top of the usual dinner included in a stay. At the table her son took an immediate interest in us. He kept coming into our room and later wanted to play checkers. I gave it a go. The rules were different than the American version and I figured them out too late to beat him. Calvin avenged me. The boy requested a rematch and won the second time. He didn't realize Calvin had lost on purpose.

From Artush we planned to return to Sarvoda to see another lake. Since it wouldn't take long we took a detour to Penjikent. The city had a bazaar, cheap fruit and little else. Several locals did talk to us though. Years before the nearby border crossing into Uzbekistan had closed and I reckoned they didn't see many Westerners anymore. As for the lake, we needed to go from Sarvoda in another shared taxi. The driver dropped us off at the eastern shore of turquoise blue Iskander-kul. The lake took its name from Alexander the Great who had conquered the area in the 4th century BC. Mountains loomed high and their reflections shone bright on the water. For a change the weather was sunny so a walk was in order. We'd heard President Rahmon had a private house on the west shore. A dirt road led the way, but the distance proved to be too far and we turned back. Next, Calvin and I had a dip in the lake. It was a bad idea. We came out of the freezing water faster than we'd entered. Down the shore a family went in as well. I chuckled as the men squealed in shock. Just like pigs at a slaughterhouse, I thought.
Boy and His Dog
Artush General Store
Playing Checkers
Lake Iskander-Kul
Calvin Skips a Rock
In Conclusion

Our last stop in Tajikistan was Khojand, the country's second largest city. We stayed one night in order to see the bazaar and mosque complex, then crossed into Kyrgyzstan. There ended our adventures in Tajikistan. In total we spent three weeks in the country, having made a loop south from the Kyrgyz city of Osh and then back. As for my final impressions of Tajikistan, I'd say it wasn't so easy a place to travel without spending a lot of money. Accommodation was pricey as was transport outside the main cities. I'd found this odd considering the low standard of living. But I should have expected it. Tourism was relatively new to the country and rural areas lacked infrastructure. So to go to remote places and get things done cost a fair amount. However, it was in the difficult to reach areas that the people showed the most kindness. Several times they invited me to stay at their home. Too bad the short notice made it difficult for me to change my plans. More often than not I had to decline.
Khojand Baazar