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!Read more