Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Road to Tajikistan.


My eyes opened at 6:15a.  For whatever reason, I've not yet been able to get in a good night's rest since I've arrived into Tashkent. Somehow, I still feel a bit jet lagged which is surprising since I don't ordinarily suffer from it. In any case, Pat and I had agreed to wake up at 6:30a so the moment I opened my eyes, I decided I might as well get ready for the day.


We were told the restaurant would open for breakfast starting at 7a but we wanted to go ahead and check out so we headed downstairs a few minutes early. Our timing was perfect because the restaurant was already open.

I will not miss the breakfast here. It fills the belly but most certainly, the taste buds are not fully satisfied.

After breakfast, we headed back up to the room. We had a few minutes to kill before we had to head back down to the lobby to wait for Mavlon to come and pick us up at 8a. Of course, he arrived exactly on time. With our luggage safely stowed away in the trunk, Pat and I got in the car. We settled for the hour and half long drive it would take to get from Tashkent to the border with Tajikistan.

The first part of our drive took us through the city.  Despite the fact that we were traveling at the height of rush hour, traffic was light.  I think cars are still an expensive item in Uzbekistan.

It was another overcast day.  Everything around us looked so drab and dreary - even the white stone buildings.


It wasn't long before we reached the suburbs of Tashkent. Soon, Soviet era apartment buildings yielded to small adobe homes in various stages of crumbling.  Everything is a bit run down, a reminder that Uzbekistan is a poor country, still developing. 


As is a sight I have seen in so many other developing countries, there are countless buildings that are in under construction.  When money is available, construction takes place otherwise, work comes to a standstill. 


The road had its share of potholes and unpaved sections but overall, it wasn't bad.  We moved along easily.

At some point, we crossed a security checkpoint. Mavlon said we had reached the city border.



On the other side, the landscape was a completely different Uzbekistan than we had known so far - it was all agricultural land - some plots planted and others waiting for seed to be sown.  The thing that struck me first was just how flat the landscape was.


There were patches of verdant land - the color of spring or in this case, the color of winter wheat that is resuming growth following few months of dormancy. 


The other thing I noticed was how Uzbeks treat their trees and we saw this pretty much the entire drive to Tajikistan.  First off, the bottom part of the tree trunks is painted.  I think this is to prevent the bark from cracking and thereby, being susceptible to disease.  Secondly, Uzbeks love to top their trees - it's the pruning style they prefer.  Apparently, they want to see new growth each year.


We passed by a lot of villages, filled with crumbling homes.  But no matter how decrepit the homes looked, the mosque seemed to be the best looking building in town!


We also past a reservoir which Mavlon said not only provides water for Tashkent but is also a popular resort area.  We zoomed by too fast to really get a good look at the place.

After a while, the landscape got pretty boring to look at - just one field after another and one village after another.  Thankfully, it wasn't a long ride.


We arrived at the border crossing just around 9:40a. Mavlon parked the car and Pat and I got out. He got our luggage out of the trunk and pulled my suitcase while Pat wheeled hers along. We trudged along an unpaved path, up a slight incline to reach the road which was so pitted with potholes we might as well have been walking on gravel. We followed Mavlon to a small building. There, he bid us farewell. We thanked him for his services and as I shook his hand I slipped him his tip. Pat and I had agreed to give him $10 which came to 25,000 som. Mavlon looked surprised to feel the bills passing from me to him. Somehow, I got the sense that he did not expect it. It did make me wonder whether or not tipping for drivers and guides is something that's done in this part of the world. I made a note to try and find more information on the web before we face the same situation with our Tajik guide and driver.

Uzbek customs declaration form we filled in on arrival to Tashkent.
Pat and I braced ourselves for the crossing to Tajikistan.  We had no idea what to expect.  We took our passports and our two customs declarations forms - one that we had filled in on arrival to Tashkent and the other that we filled out last night.  Last night's form included the additional Uzbek som that we had converted over from US dollars.

Pat and I entered the building and strangely, there were no rooms open. It was just a hallway with an open door at the other end. We exited the building and walked to the next building. Inside, there was a pair of Uzbek military guards sitting at a desk. Pat went first.

They wanted her passport and declaration form. The looked at her passport, at her, at her two declaration forms and while two guards processed her paperwork, another asked her to put her suitcase, backpack and handbag on the security scanner belt. I went ahead and did the same. Pat eventually got her passport back but the guards kept the declaration forms. Then it was my turn. I patiently waited for my passport to come back to me and soon enough it did. My suitcase went through the scanner with no issue but the guard did ask to see my camera. Have no idea why but I went ahead and showed it to him. He took a quick look and handed it back to me.

At the other end of the building were two men seated behind a glass faced booth. We had noticed that the people who were *ahead of us* went to that counter so we did the same. We assumed this was immigration for Tajikistan. As we waited our turn, I asked Pat if she had an Uzbekistan exit stamp in her passport and she couldn't find one. Hmmm...odd. Again, Pat went before me. She handed her passport over and a few minutes later got it back. This time, the exit stamp was there. So, what we had presumed was Tajikistan immigration was actually Uzbekistan immgration. Duh.....the first set of guards was customs control, the guys in the booth were passport control. When I got my passport back, I checked to make sure the exit stamp was there and indeed it was!

Next it was on to Tajikistan customs and immigration. We exited the building walked along a path that led us to a tall fenced wall at the gate. Standing at the gate was a young soldier who spoke just a few words more of English than we know of Tajik. He asked, "tourist"? We replied yes. He asked "Dushanbe? Khujand?" We replied yes. He instructed "passport" and so we handed them to him.  I had mine opened to the page where there was the Tajikistan tourist visa.  He thumbed through the pages and when he was satisfied, he then handed each of us a piece of paper for customs declaration. The paper was divided vertically in half. The exact same form was printed on each half and a perforated line ran down the division. I figured we had to fill in both sides of the forms - Tajik customs keeps one and we keep the other. The soldier pointed us to a makeshift counter area where we completed our paperwork.  As with the Uzbek customs declaration form, we had to indicate the amount of funds we were bringing into Tajikistan.  Luckily, this was exactly the same information we had provided on our Uzbek forms so we just had to put down the same amounts.  

After we filled in our forms, the soldier let us pass through and we walked on....having no clue of exactly where we were going. I figured someone would eventually point us in the right direction. A short distance later was another tall structure - it looked a car inspection station. Again, there was another soldier standing in our way. Again, we went through the same drill of questions. This time, he disappeared into a room. We had literally walked no more than 50 feet from the last soldier. We couldn't figure out why we had to again show our passport. But hey, the last thing you want to do is piss off someone who has an automatic weapon draped across the front of their body. So, we handed over our passports and patiently waited. Soon enough, the soldier returned and waved us on. We walked towards a structure that looked like a highway toll booth. A soldier who saw me walking towards the left side of the structure, waved for me to go to the right. I figured this must be immigration as no one had yet given us our entry stamps. We walked up to the booth and there was a Tajik immigration officer sitting at the desk. Pat went first and a few minutes got back her passport with the Tajik entry stamp on it. The officer stamped both copies of the customs declaration form - he kept one copy and handed the other one, along with the passport, back to Pat. He went through the same process for me. We were finally, officially in Tajikistan!!

We had been told that our Tajik guide and driver would be waiting for us *on the other side* and that they would be *holding up a sign* with my name on it. Leaving the so-called immigration area, we saw no such thing and no one approached us inquiring if we were their clients. Pat suspected we had to walk further and so we did. Our initial view was blocked by a few trucks which once we rounded them, we saw yet another tall, fenced wall. We could see cars parked in a lot. We figured our guide and driver would most likely be on the other side of the wall. We passed through the gate and sure enough, a young man approached us. He was indeed our Tajik guide. We quickly went through the intros. He told us his name is Kai which didn't sound like a Tajik name to me. Indeed it was short for Kai something else or other. I made a mental note to ask him to say his full name again for me later. Kai then introduced us to our driver, a tall, lanky fellow named Zarif who was dressed in traditional Tajik dress. Looking at Zarif, I truly felt like I was in Tajikstan.

We were going to be traveling in a minivan. Zarif put our luggage in the back and Pat and I got in the back passenger seats.  We were on our way to our first destination in Tajikistan - the northern city of Khujand!


We settled in for the hour long so ride to Khujand.  Pat and I were pretty quiet - just taking in the scenery.  Same flat landscape as what we had just left in Uzbekistan.  No surprise as country boundaries are not necessarily demarcated by changes in landscape.

On our drive, we asked Kai about getting Tajik somani.  He told us there were ATMs in town.  We then asked his advice on how much money he thought we would need for meals.  He replied that he was told that our meals were covered.  Pat and I were surprised since our itinerary from Advantour said otherwise but who are we to turn down paid meals?  I looked at Pat and happily acknowledged that if the meals were paid for, we didn't need to withdraw any money from the ATM unless we found something we wanted to buy.  We're only in Tajikistan for two and half days - I think we can refrain from making any purchases.  We're budget travelers so we have to be mindful of what we spend our cash on!

Our guide Kai, on the right.

Khujand looked like a smaller version of Tashkent except of course the signs were in Tajik and not Uzbek - we couldn't tell the difference in language as both use variations of the Cyrillic alphabet.  The dress here is different though - women are dressed more conservatively here, with their heads covered up with scarves.   The men's outfit seems to be dark pants, dark shirt and short leather jacket.  Okay, I'm generalizing but those are my first impressions.

By now, it was well past the lunch hour.  Kai suggested a nice restaurant.  We had no idea what that means in Tajikistan so we said okay.  Somehow, plov was suggested and well, we know that we can at least eat that.

Kai indeed took us to a nice restaurant, specializing in local Tajik cuisine.  For seating options, there was the traditional Tajik low table where you sit on the floor to eat.  We opted out of that because it's not comfortable for Pat to sit in that position. Instead, we got a regular table.

Zarif joined us for lunch.  I'm glad he did because I like sharing the meal with our guide and driver.

We let Kai do the ordering.  For drinks, we had glasses of freshly pressed carrot juice plus tea.  For our first course, Pat and I shared a traditional beef and barley soup which tasted very much like the beef barley soup we have in the US.  We had non to go with the soup.


For the main course, we each had a half portion of plov along with a salted yogurt salad.  Our plov came with two halves of hard boiled egg.  I noticed the white yolk - reminded of the eggs my brother and I had in Sri Lanka.  The plate of plov was HUGE and unbelievably, it was just a half portion!  Eating it with the yogurt salad made each bite of plov very delicious but this plov was not quite as delicious as the one I had yesterday in Tashkent.  Now, if I could have that plov with this yogurt salad....that would be good!


I was stuffed after lunch.  We had a full afternoon of sightseeing ahead of us so hopefully, I will burn off some calories.

At the moment, I am thrilled to be in Tajikistan!