Currently traveling

Central Asia

Landing in Kyrgyzstan, and hoping to make my way through Tajikistan via the Pamir Highway.
Currently traveling
  • Day23

    Tajikistan, an Overview

    August 15, 2018 in Tajikistan ⋅ ☀️ 36 °C

    Seeing the wifi was close to non existent in this country, blogs were mostly kept for myself. But I have some general thoughts to share, so here goes :

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    Tajikistan. The name alone sounds intimidating to me. For half my life, Americans have been at war with a "stan", and I've been taught to beware - big words like Taliban and ISIS come up with mention of the "stans" when in North America. And despite being somewhat well traveled, countries of more conservative Islamic culture and Muslim faith are mostly unknown to me.

    Central Asia has never been on my list of top destinations. Truth be told - I didn't even know there was a country called Tajikistan until my partner announced she was going. But Tajikistan it was. In my mind, I started shaping it to be this big intimidating monster of the unknown. One that I thought my gender ambiguity, tattoos and gauged ears would make of me a target of some kind. Or at the very least, invite negative reactions.

    Because I hyped this trip up so much in my mind as something I should be intimidated by, it took me a few days to really open up and fully enjoy this adventure.

    In all honestly - I've never crossed more generous, polite, genuinely nice people. My partner, who is not new to conservative Islamic countries, had told me stories of the generosity that is part of the muslim faith and culture, but it took me being here physically to really understand it.

    Everyone I cross, everyone, says "Salam" while placing their hand over their heart. A genuine hello, not the usual yelling of "hello" in a mocking tone by children I'm so used to hearing in many other counties. Everyday we are invited at least once into someone's home for tea, if not multiple times. But a tea invitation isn't just that - within minutes of sitting in someone's home, a buffet of plates are served with candies, nuts, dried fruits, whatever foods they have to offer you. And if you happen to be passing around meal time, they will gladly serve you a plate of whatever they've cooked without you asking for anything. And the bread. Boy do they like bread here, breaking of these huge pieces of bread and placing them in front of you, expecting you to finish it all. And they insist that you keep eating - as if hunger has no end. Being full just isn't an option.

    Their generosity is seen in so many other ways - our transport van (taxi-ish) from Khurog to Qurgonteppa (which ended up being 14.5 hours long) had to change a flat/deflated tire five times while on the road - and every single time another car passed by, it stopped and their driver would come out to help change the tire. And the people in this other car, usually also paying customers of a transport van, quietly waited while their driver helped our driver with the tire. Every single time.

    We were invited to a wedding celebration and the 2 men who spoke decent English (out of likely over 100 guests) came by to introduce themselves, explain the festivities around us, and make sure we had enough tea and food around us to enjoy this wedding.

    We were toured around Istaravshan by car by two bankers, showing us their favorite sites, walking around the newly constructed citadel, all with the soul purpose of encouraging tourism for their city.

    I've never felt more welcomed as a tourist. It's sad to say that my instinct when someone invites me into their home, or wants to lead me somewhere, is to be guarded, and assume there will be some kind of catch. A charge at the end? A scheme? Something. This instinct comes from the many countries that I've traveled and that do, unfortunately, see tourist as an opportunity for their own personal benefit. Tajik people have changed that for me. I don't have to be on my toes when I'm being offered something, they see me as a guest in their country and want to be the best hosts (as someone has explained to me along the way). And this has been the exact impression left on me - I was hosted throughout my stay in Tajikistan, and it was lovely.

    And yes - my look does attract the usual longer stares... Stares that are often filled with confusion. But these stares end up being more from curiosity - at first trying to figure out my gender, often followed by conversations amongst themselves about what they've concluded on my gender, quickly followed by "how can a women have such short hair? Or tattoos? Or ears like that?". None of which actually made me feel judge. Most people would end their starring with pointing to their ears and giving a thumbs up, as if to say they like my gauges.

    North American culture has taught us that staring isn't polite, that we should avoid prolonged eye contact with strangers. I'm quick to look to the ground when around strangers. But one is quickly reminded that many cultures around the world do not see staring as a faux pas. It just isn't a thing. And lengthy, eye to eye contact, and head to toe scanning, is perfectly acceptable. Looking like me simply means you have to accept the staring and try to understand it as a study of the unknown, not a judgment. After all, I'm in their country to do the same - study an unknown culture.
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  • Day22

    Istaravshan

    August 14, 2018 in Tajikistan ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    Istaravshan. It only took 6 hours to travel 150kms to get here, but we made it! Our amazing ability to pick out vehicles for transport continues, as I sat on the middle console of an SUV facing backwards, Jack on the back seat with 3 other men, with 2 women and 3 children in the trunk. After 2 hours, Jack and I switched, her bum fitting a little easier between the two front seats - what a champ! Oddly enough, this felt pretty normal, I was back in East Africa for a moment. What wasn't so great - this vehicle's motor was over heating on just about any incline (remember - we are in a country 95% covered by mountains) and wouldn't start unless pushed forward. We were driving at around 15-20 km/hour for around 3 hours. We stopped about 5 times to open up the hood and poor water on the motor to cool it down, only to then play the game of pushing the car forward to start and having the four men pushing jump back in while not stopping the motor. Our shared taxi from Veshab to Ishtavarshan was 70tjs each, 30tjs for Veshab to Ayni and 40tjs for Ayni to Ishtavarshan. That was figured out with the other passengers after the driver wanted to charge us 200tjs of course. Taxi drivers have been the only people to over charge us - I guess I can give them points for trying. Minibuses, markets, shops - all seem to be charging us actual prices, but not taxis. Trick is - never ask the price, just get in like you know already, and ask the passengers next to you.

    Sadbarg Hotel offered us a double room for 100tjs total, no shower. Yes - hotel rooms come without showers and a shared toilet down the hall. Cheapy-cheapy! Location was perfect, right across from the main square which gets pretty lively at night with families and kids running around... You can see the citadel lit up from the square - quite the view.

    Walking through old town brought us to the first mosque; Hazreh-I-Shah. Jack being so well traveled had the great idea to bring along a head covering for mosque visiting - my trusty bluff! With my head sock on, we explored a beautiful mosque - mostly new extensions to an older, smaller mosque with a beautifully decorated minaret. All the ceilings had detailed colorful paintings, definitely worth a quick visit.

    We then ventured off further into old town towards the Havzi-Sangin mosque. We were greeted by a man (who seemed to be a random local, who first decided to face-time with his friend in Russia showing our faces on his call (quite common this filming of us from a foot away thing), then made another phone call to a lovely older man who showed up to unlock the doors to the mosque and lead us inside for a visit. Again - beautiful paintings on the ceilings, but rather bland walls and dusty cardboard boxes for a floor. I assumed they were renovating. The lovely man then took out a paper book and asked us to sign it - I always find these books funny. Who writes a negative comment in a book which is only seen by tourist who are already visiting the same mosque?

    Next step - Kok-Gumbez, or Sultan Medresa. Yards away from our destination a man (Aziz) pulled up in his car, asked where we were from (classic), following by asking if he could accompany us to the Medresa. He then parks his car and walks us over. We knew the way, not to worry, but it was clear he was excited to practice a bit of English. So off we went to visit the Medresa - it had a very impressive tiled fromt entrance which in my eyes showed a lot of character, but in Jack's eyes showed a bit of wear and tear... The best part of the Medresa : the older gentleman out front with his bird for "bird fighting" in a cloth bag, pined to his shirt, and close to his heart. He said having the bird against his heart made it stronger. He then explored my tattoos and gave me multiple thumbs up. I had never made the connection - but after seeing a bird tattoo on one arm, and an arrow on the other - he asked me if it was a bow and arrow to hunt the bird. I didn't realise I had a theme to my tattoos until today!

    Aziz, not being done practicing his English, offered us a tour of the city in his car. How can we say no? He seems lovely. Tajik people are lovely. All good! So into his car we go, drop by the bank he works in to pick up his friend who has a similar level of English and who was also keen on chatting, and off to another mosque we go! This one was closed and there was no magical bearded man to unlock it. Bust.

    We head to the citadel instead - Mugtepe. I'm so glad we had a car - the walk uphill would have killed my already beaten legs - still paying the price of the Aloudin - Artush hike. On the drive over, we had fun comparing family traditions from Tajikistan to Canada's. Jack said she lived with her boyfriend and was not married - their first thought was how come she didn't live with her parents if she wasn't married? We explained how this was normal in Canada. We introduced the idea of unwed couples having children, and Rohman (Aziz's friend) couldn't fathom the idea of sex outside of marriage. He was 27 years old and single, poor guy. When I explained that I had one married brother without children, two married sisters with children and one unwed sister with a child - his world was rocked. Good thing I kept my life out of that conversation. They shared what we already knew from readings, they live with their parents until married, and usually the wife moves in with the husband and his family, or at least close to his family. The only way they can go on a date of sorts is if they've already declared their love for one another and are likely to marry. Yikes.

    Our guide book mentioned reconstructed gates of an old citadel, but it failed to mention the current massive reconstruction of a full circular citadel with an amphitheater inside. The building itself was beautiful - although likely no where near the look of the original. Carved wood all over the amphitheater, well kept gardens, and of course a cold drink vendor. We got to enjoy amazing views of the city before we were dropped back off at our hotel. Jack did her usual offering of her Facebook account, knowing full well that she would never accept their friend request, not wanting to out us as a couple while in this country. And I did my usual avoiding of the conversation or denying I had Facebook. I loved my afternoon with these two polite, genuinely nice men who simply wanted to improve the experience of these two travelers. My favorite quote of Aziz's : "Tajikistan... Tajiks... not much money, but big hearts".

    In truth - this town was actually a little hard for me. At the suggestion of the men, we walked over to the "big flag pole" where we were promised love music and a lively local croud, which there was. There was also a lot of teenage boys, who without wanting to generalize too much, have always been my toughest croud. It is the first time in 3 weeks I have truly felt judge. I could see and hear the people around me speak of me, laugh, point, tap their friend so they can join in the fun of looking at this odd creature. I've been asked my gender more often in this one night then the rest of my time in this country. And usually I can justify the stares as a curiosity, sensing no judgment from those who ask, but this was different. It didn't come from curiosity, it came from mockery. I was not welcomed here, and I knew it. Sorry, bitter paragraph for a difficult night.

    This evening left me feeling a little underwhelmed by Istaravshan. Yes, there's beautiful mosques, beautiful town squares, nice citadel, nice bankers... But my experience was tainted. Jack having the more objective opinion says it was a great city, with few tourists, that she would recommend. Also, even I will admit, it had a great and lively bazaar!
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  • Day20

    Veshab

    August 12, 2018 in Tajikistan ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Such a tiny little town you weren't even on our trusty Maps.me. Both our guide books (Central Asia Lonely Planet and Tajikistan Bradt) had a single little paragraph on Veshab, but just enough to entice us.

    These few lines in the guide book said Veshab was 47km away from Ayni, the central transport hub. Who knew 47km meant 2 hours! I guess we should have known, having seen the road conditions on the Pamir Highway, but silly us - we thought this would be a quick little jump over to a small town before finishing our journey in 2 larger cities. FYI - we paid 50 sumoni each for this ride, which I actually think was slightly over priced, which translate to roughly 6.90$CAD, for 2 hours of a ridiculously bumpy ride (confirmed by hotel owner - this ride should have cost 15-30 sumoni,ouch!).

    After we communicated to our taxi driver that we want to be dropped off at the tea house (using "chai" as the Tajik word for tea, followed by putting our hands together to form some kind of roof), we were brought to "downtown" Veshab - which consisted of one closed tea house, a single shop, and then houses. All along the mountains were these picturesque mud houses, surrounded by greenery, with the sounds of a spring making it's way through town. Green is always a welcomed sight in Tajikistan, considering how dry and rocky their mountains usually are.

    As our guide book only had two suggestions for sleep - either a home stay (usually organized from the tourist agencies in larger cities, which we obviously didn't do) or staying in the back of the tea room (which is apparently closed), we needed to improvise so we wandered into the shop and hoped for the best. We asked the man and young boy behind the counter "Mex-ma-hona?" (guesthouse) in our best Tajik with our hands in the air as if to say "where?". They both nod their heads no. We ask again. The nod no. We aimlessly point towards the town then laid our heads on our hands asking where in town can we sleep? And they point to the closed tea room across the street. We may have needed to organize this ahead of time. But low and behold! Another man pops in and says "hotel?" "Yes!" "yes, yes, here" he replies. Wait a minute - your two side kicks sent us away, and you're saying this is a hotel? Sure enough, he signals us over to a side gate, we follow in, he shows us 2 large rooms, one of which was mostly empty except for the usual pile of floor mattresses in the corner, and the other of which had a ridiculously elaborate buffet of food laid out. After we agreed on a price, which was 15$USD for both of us, for two nights, he invited us to sit at the buffet table.

    There were at least 20 plates laid out in front of us; fruits, nuts, candy, mini chocolate bars, even bottles of pop. He brought out bread and tea, and as we filled ourselves up with everything in front of us (big mistake), his wife brings in a potato and beef dish with a full bowl of their soured milk / yogourt thing. Do these people not know how little I usually eat!? Wanting to be polite, I forced myself to eat almost to the point of being sick, and when I signaled I was done - I was told to keep eating.

    The lovely wife of the hotel and shop keeper asked us if we wanted to go see some dancing (basically pointing to us, pointing to her eyes, then shaking her hands like dancers here do). We could hear some music from where we were sitting but didn't know why. So naturally, we followed, despite being exhausted from a long day of transport and hiking (2.5 hours of hiking in the morning, 6 hours of transport), likely not looking or smelling our best.

    A short walk brought us to a wedding celebration which seemed like the entire town was in attendence. We quickly saw the segration of men and women, and stuck with our hotel lady who stood in the crowd of women surrounding a grassy patch of land which I can only imagine will become the dance floor. That is until a women popped by and grabbed Jack and I by the arm and motioned to follow her. A quick look at our hotel lady for the approval to follow and we were whisked away to a table of seated women. A VIP table it seemed (which we were later told the tables were for out of town guests with invitations). Of course we were served bread and tea and later a full plate of food despite my many attempts to say we quite litteraly just ate at the hotel. So again, I make an effort to eat out of politeness, almost starting to resent this forceful eating.

    After a few speeches, the music starts, and dancers emerge from the crowds. Women at one end, men at the other. It's refreshing to see that not all men (seemingly heterosexual considering the strong Muslim beliefs) in the world act like it would be the death of them to show affection to one another, and dance together. Two men approached us with an introduction that sounded like "hello. How are you? I speak English if you need help". It was clear they both wanted to practice their English, which we welcomed. They helped us understand why the bride and groom, who were in a booth like elevated box, were continuously bowing up and down for what seemed like an hour - they were showing respect to their family members by doing so. They looked so incredibly bored compared to the rest of the crowd now either dancing or joyfully looking at the people dancing. One of the English speaking men, who runs a guesthouse in town through a tourist agency, even decided to take the microphone and say a speech on our behalf, in English, thanking the 2 Canadians for attending these festivities and welcoming us to their town. I both felt nauseous from the amount of people looking at me (social anxiety to the max at this point), and felt warmed that he would go to such lengths to make us feel welcomed. It was an amazing experience and one that, despite our dirty clothes, was memorable.

    The next day in Veshab consisted of walking through residential alleyways, constantly saying "Salam" with a hand on our heart to everyone who passed, we were guided around town at first by one of the shop keeper's boys - brought into his school, shown a poster with "English speaking countries" which included Canada (only 5 were displayed, which surprised me that Canada was part of it), he mostly would yell out English words that he remembered from school which we would then try to figure out considering the poor pronunciation.

    This being a relax day, we spent an hour in our room expecting to quietly read our books but I ended up spending this hour with this same boy, his friend, and their English learning school book reading English words, with me trying to show them correct pronunciations while miming the word so they know what it means. It was a tough game of charades and English class mixed together.

    All in all, small town with lots of character. A must stop in Tajikistan, if you ask me.
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