I have just returned from a fascinating trip to Central Asia that saw me flit between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan and Tajikistan.
To my surprise, the part of the trip I enjoyed most was the final leg – the Tajikistani capital of Dushanbe; the poorest country in the former Soviet Union and place I had been widely told to avoid on account of it being a dusty, drab backwater. Indeed, even the Tajiks I had spoke to about my trip were not exactly effusive about their country’s capital.
I would be the first to admit that my visit to Tajikistan was a bit of an afterthought when it came to the rest of my trip to Central Asia. I’ve had an interest in Kyrgyzstan since the 2011 Tulip Revolution and was keen to see the rapid, futuristic developments I had heard so much about in Kazakhstan but had relatively little knowledge and comparatively little interest in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan, it just be said, doesn’t make it easy for itself in terms of attracting visitors. Indeed, if I had not have had experience of navigating the visa regimes of former Soviet states, I might have written the place off as too much of a hassle to bother with.
Unlike neighbouring Kyrgyzstan which has abolished visas for tourists, entering Tajikistan requires you to submit a ream of paperwork including letters of invitation (the requirement for which is waived for British tourists), photocopies of your passport and photographs.
Walking from the plane after landing in Dushanbe from Kazakhstan, it wasn’t immediately obvious to me where exactly I needed to go in order to gain my authorisation to enter. Eventually, I was shown into a dark room on the edge of the arrivals terminal where a gruff, bald man examined my documents. Upbraiding me on the poor handwriting I had exhibited on the visa application form (“you should have shown more respect for this document”), I was sternly told to take a seat and wait my turn to be seen.
Roughly half an hour later, I heard someone bark “Danh-hnell” through a window on the other side of the room. Approved for entry into Tajikistan, I was then handed a one-week visa at a cost of $33 – a rather pointless piece of bureaucracy, yet not a cripplingly expensive one.
I was now free to explore Dushanbe – and loved every moment of it.
As a starting point, I can only conclude the reason I enjoyed the city so much was that it felt authentic. By that, I mean that it actually feels like the capital city of a distinct and independent nation with its own culture and identity rather than just another identikit post-Soviet city like Bishkek or a soullessly futuristic symposium like Astana.
There is no doubt that, compared to the other Central Asian capitals I had visited, Dushanbe has a distinctly Asian and Islamic feel. For one, the Tajik language appears to be far more significant locally than Russian and local women are far more likely to wear traditional Tajik dress including, in many cases, headscarves. While the architecture of most buildings was reliably Soviet, occasional Turkic flares were clear on some buildings in the centre of town.
The type of Islam practiced in Dushanbe at least – and I can well believe matters are different in more rural areas closer to the border with Afghanistan – appeared to be extremely liberal with bars and restaurants serving alcohol existing in abundance sitting alongside boutiques selling western-style clothing. The combination of obvious Islamic influence and clear tolerance for secular values was very appealing to see.
The lifeblood of Dushanbe appears to revolve around the Rudaki Prospekt running through the centre of the city. To me, Rudaki had shades – and the cooling shade – of Rustaveli Avenue in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi (a comparison I do not use lightly). Dotted along the road are a number of pleasant cafes in which you can seek refuge from the blazing hot temperatures, neatly maintained public buildings reminiscent of an era of Soviet splendour and shady public parks they open out onto attractive plazas.
I spent a happy few hours relaxing in the international-friendly Public Pub at the northern end Rudaki supping iced tea and chomping on cheesy horse burgers (really). If you’re in town, it’s a great place to spend some time drinking local beer and chatting with English-speaking locals.
Not much further up Rudaki and just beyond a bizarre building that is known by locals as the “Twin Towers” one reaches the Somoni Statue. Arguably the best known tourist attraction in Dushanbe, the statue stands a proud thirty five metres high and is topped by a crown fashioned from kilograms of Tajik gold. Regrettably, the afternoon sun was so strong when I visited the statue that I was unable to capture any good quality photos.
Immediately next to the Somoni Statue, you can see the gargantuan Presidential Palace – Emomalii Rahmon’s seat of power. While the palace itself is fenced off and its perimeter closely guarded by police officers, the immaculately-groomed park in front of it is open to the public and is home to a pleasant range of fountains and monuments, one of which is decked out with a traditional Tajik mosaic – a refreshing chance from the predictable monuments drawn from central casting in many former USSR states.
Away from the upscale Rudaki Prospekt and area surrounding the Presidential Palace, there were a couple of other areas that I enjoyed spending time in.
The first was the Central Shopping Centre. While the building had as boring a name as it was possible to have, it was a fantastically-preserved piece of Soviet kitsch. Spread over three floors, the Shopping Centre is essentially an indoor market that houses a series of stalls selling different products from mobile phones to carpets, traditional daggers to office furniture.
While many of the goods available for sale are cheap tat, the building itself is more than worth a visit. The marble floors are decorated with ornate mosaics, the pillars painted with gold leaf and its sweeping staircases lend themselves more to a stately home than what is effectively a flea market.
I was very pleased to find a stall selling Soviet memorabilia and eyed up a couple of items I’d be interested in buying but first had to find a way of waking up the proprietor who was slumped snoozing in the corner under a desk fan. I purposefully generated some low-level clatter which roused him from his slumber and walked away with some original Soviet public information posters that will look great when framed back in the UK.
The second was the Shakhmansur Bazaar; a bustling fruit, veg, spice and household goods market not far from the town centre. Walking through the bazaar, it was impressive to see stalls piled high with melons and watermelons, traditional Tajik tea sets and the kaleidoscopic range of Islamic attire available for purchase. Indeed, the bazaar was the only part of the city where Tajikistan’s Islamic influence felt particularly pronounced with many of the men on the stalls having beards and wearing religious attire and women uniformly wearing headscarves.
In terms of purchases, I bought a few small bags of local spices, what purported to be a traditional Tajikistiani kettle (yet I suspect may have been manufactured in North Africa) and a sublimely tacky, gold-rimmed portrait of the country’s President Emonmalii Rahmon that will sit comfortably as part of my growing collection of dictatorship memorabilia.
On that note, it is clear that a low-level cult of personality exists surrounding the President.
Walking around the city, I spotted numerous murals of him engaged in various poses: behind his desk examining papers (to demonstrate thoughtfulness and decisive leadership), reading to a young girl while displaying a proud smile (to show concern for the Tajiks of tomorrow and regard for the value of education) and my personal favourite, standing fully suited and booted in a field of maize (to stress a virile Tajikistani agricultural sector that has no doubt thrived on his watch).
In each shot, President Rahmon sports an impressive, jet-black mane – a remarkable feat for a man who has held office for more than two decades, emerged victorious from a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 of his people and is now well into his sixties. What could be the secret behind his follicular success?
On a serious note, while Rahmon has been widely and it would appear rightly criticised by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for the poor human rights situation in Tajikistan, I was not the subject of any undue attention from the authorities during my time in the country. The police presence, too, was relatively light and only particularly noticeable in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace. Aside from blowing a whistle at me for walking further up the marble steps of the Somoni Statue than appeared to be allowed, I was left alone.
I do not think my time in Dushanbe would have been half as enjoyable without the excellent hotel I stayed out. I had received several suggestions of places to stay in the city yet opted for the rather strangely named ‘Twins Hotel’. At roughly £45 per night, the hotel provided outstanding value for money. Not only did I have an enormous, comfortable bedroom with air con (crucial if one wishes to get any sleep) but the hotel also had an excellent pool in the basement that provided a welcome reprieve from the blazing Tajik heat. I couldn’t recommend the place more.
Sitting in the hotel’s shady courtyard a few hours before departing, I only wished I could stay in Tajikistan longer. After a quick look on the internet, my interest in visiting again was more than piqued.
How easy would it be to try cross into Northern Afghanistan from the border town of Khorog? How would I go about arranging a few days of walking in the mountainous Gorno Badakhshan region? Where could I learn more about Tajik culture and traditions?
Nevertheless, it was time to leave.
Departing from Dushanbe Airport is a memorable experience. Like so many other things in Tajikistan, it is clearly a relic from the Soviet era combining elements of ineptitude and dilapidation with a certain charm and faded elegance. The Art Deco light fittings clinging to the roof of the departures hall would, for one, look right at home in a hipster bar in Hoxton while the queuing system is reminiscent of a hoard of twelve year old girls surging towards One Direction for autographs. Rather than bother with endless security gates, the doors from the departure hall were flung open onto the runway, allowing a warm breeze to circulate in amongst the whiff of deep-fried food coming from a ramshackle cafe in the corner.
It was an altogether friendly experience, though. In sharp contrast to the inquisitive and mildly aggressive tone I had been faced with when I entered the country, everyone was keen to check that I had enjoyed myself.
Approaching the baggage scanner, the guard glanced me up and down and clocked I wasn’t local. “American?”, he asked. Clarifying I was indeed “Anglitski” led to a series of quick-fire references to English football teams – “Wayne Rooney play good, da?”, “Manchester United!”, “David Beckham!”, “you like Tottenham Hotspurs, da?” etc.) before I was offered a firm handshake – and a further question: “Tajikistan good, da?”. Da.
I thought my luck may have run out when, clutching my framed portrait of President Rahmon in a thin plastic bag that barely masked its contents, I was turned away from the initial passport desk and sent to another for what appeared likely to be an interrogation. Instead, the guard happily stamped my passport before asking in a rather pained tone why I had spent such a short period of time in his country. In couldn’t help but ask myself the same question.
“Tajikistan very big and very beautiful”, he assured me.
Extending his arm to shake my hand, I promised him I would return. It’s a promise I intend to keep.