Kicking it around Khujand …

Khujand (or Khojand as it is also known and once called Leninabad) is situated in the Fergana Valley, in the north of Tajikistan and is the country’s second largest city. Before the 13th century, it was a grand city built by Komil Khojandi filled with palaces, mosques and citadels until those pesky Mongols destroyed almost all trace of the city. In more recent times, it remains the wealthiest part of the country and escaped the worst of the post-soviet civil war (more about that later).

There is still plenty of interest to see in the city, and we started our day at the Arbob Cultural Palace, showcasing the amazing Tajik artisans work.  Built in the 1950s as the headquarters of the Soviet collective farms it was modelled on the winter gardens of St Petersburg.  The Chairman of the collective at that time was a man called Urukhojaev (sometimes referred to as the Tajik gaint due to his size – 170kg!!) who was a personal friend of Stalin and therefore had no issues with money for funding the build!

The interior was stunning and the paint colours are all natural, dating back to the building’s construction!  Apparently, it has a 100 year guarantee 👍

Probably the most important claim to fame for the building is that it was the site where, in 1992, Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union and where the current Tajik flag was chosen.  It was also the location for the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1997.  For these reasons, it was the perfect place for a history lesson – a more recent history (before we dove back into the ancient history).  I do hope you are sitting comfortably! 😊

Towards the end of Soviet Union, there was a lot of corruption, many people got lazy and unmotivated as everyone got the same salary regards of their work ethics!   “People pretended to work and the Government pretended to pay them!” By this point Russia had also started stock piling goods from all the states to ensure for her own solo future, leaving the people of Tajikistan unprepared to be independent! 

Farhod also explained that  University students were forced to do 70 days work on farms each year, compromising their studies – this was actually still the case until 2009!

Fundamental Islamics saw Tajikistan as an easy place to take control and started giving weapons and funding to create an Islamic state. This lead to a devestating civil war.  The war paralysed the economy, there was no heath care or education and many Tajik’s were starving with little or no food.  This went on for 5 years, during which time, over 60,000 lives were lost and neighbours like Uzbekistan, stopped providing resources such as natural gas.

The northern part of the country (where Khujand is located), avoided the worst of the war as fighters did not want to cross the Fann mountains – given our journey the day before, I understand why as I can’t imagine what a journey it would have been without the modern roads and tunnels.  In the south, in the Pamir ranges, there was severe famine and the Aga Khan foundation provided much aid.

The current President, Emomali Rahmon, who has held that position since 1994 is considered by many outside of the country as a dictator. However within the country he is considered by many as a peace maker as he was instrumental in ending the civil war after negotiating peace with the opposition.  He was even given the title of “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” – though I am not sure how much he had to do with the gifting of this title 😂.  He was also ‘given’ lifelong immunity from prosecution, veto powers over all state decisions and the ability to be the President for as long as many terms he wants!

It is worth noting that his son, Rustam is the Mayor of Dushanbe and it is rumoured that this is the reason why so much money is being spent in the city. He is still in his 30s but it is expected that he will be succeed his father as president at some point.

We also learnt about the ‘lucky’ number 16 in the Tajik culture.  16th November is Presidents Day celebrating that on the 16th of November, 1991 in the Arbob Palace (where we were sitting), at the 16th session of the Supreme Council of Tajikistan, the constitutional order was put in place.  Apparently, that session lasted 16 days, and the President sat in seat 16, row 16 of the grand auditorium where we sat. 

The President comes from a peasant family and still tries to be a ‘man of the people’ but has not always made ‘friends’ amongst other leaders.  In particular there was a long time distrust and rivalry with the neighbouring Uzbek President (who was also in power since independence).  The animosity escalated to the point that borders were closed and the flow of gas, water and food suppliers were stopped – some called it an ‘undeclared cold war”.

That Uzbek President died in 2018 and the new President allegedly resolved the conflicts diplomatically in 2 days which opened up the border we would shortly be crossing in to Uzbekistan.

On the way out of the building we stopped to admire a large and intricately embroidered carpet, depicting some of the ‘hero’s of socialistic labour from the Soviet famers collective (see above). 

Our next stop was a silk factory which was established in the city in 1932.  After independence it became family owned and the same family continue to run it today.  We were given a tour of the factory and told about the incredible process off turning silk in to the fabrics – a process that can take up to 2 months with 80% of the work being done by hand!  We were all surprised about how much access we had to the factory and we could wander between the machines and the workers to take photos.

Not surprisingly, they had a small shop where they sold some of their wears and those ‘shoppers’ amongst us (and there were a few) went a little crazy 😂 with all the beautiful silks (though I found some of the patterns a little hard on the eye!).

On the way back in to town we stopped at Somoni Park – well known for it’s large Somoni statue (where Lenin once stood) and large fountains (which were not going as they are normally only turned on at night). It is also a favourite spot for visits due to the beautiful mosaics flanking the steps which tell the history of the region.

Back in town, one of the most popular places to visit is the Panchshanbe (Thursday) Bazaar and the nearby Shiekh Massal ad-Din Mosque complex.  The complex is fairly liberal and even some local women were not wearing head covers but we wore our scarfs out of respect as we wandered around the site.  The oldest mausoleum dates back to 1394 but there are also much more modern buildings in the site including one with a beautiful metallic emerald green dome and another much older one with a blue lapis dome. Part of the mosque was still under construction with women doing painstaking hand painting and applying gold leaf.  Our guide knew the ladies so we had to stop for a chat and a photo.

We continued to be ‘popular’ as we walked around with locals coming up to chat and wanting to take photos with us – others just wanting us to take photos of them 😂😂

The best view of the mosque complex is actually from the first floor of the market – apparently is it the largest market in Central Asia.  Built in 1964 it is overly elegant for a market and is very well stocked with dried fruit and nuts (as we have come to expect)!

Our final official stop for the day was the Historial Museum of Sughd Province which is built in to the reconstructed city walls.  It is the national museum of the northern province and has a whole room dedicated to Alexander the Great (356BC – 323BC).  Some fun facts about Alexander: by the age of 30 he had created one of the largest empires in the ancient world; there are apparently 20 cities in the world named after him (Alexandria), and as a young man, he was tutored by Aristotle So he really must have been pretty ‘great’, right? 🤔

In his funeral procession, his hands hung open and empty at his sides – symbolising that although he had conquered half of the world, he still went to the grave with nothing i.e. don’t be greedy!

We were also introduced to a number of other historic Central Asian/Silk Road movers and shakers – some of whom we would hear more of in the coming days:

Spitamenes (370BC-328BC)– a Sogdian warlord who lead the local uprising against Alexander the Great.  Sadly it did not end well as after losing to Alexander’s army (329BC), he was killed by his own wife and his head sent to Alexander as a peace offering.  His daughter then went on to marry one of Alexander’s key generals!

Timur Malik – A Tajik national hero who is known for his defense (though ultimately unsuccessful) of Khujand during attack from the Mongol invasions (1219-1220).  Apparently, the museum is on the site of his fort.

Timur (1336-1405) (also know as Amir Timur, Tamerlane or literally Timur the Lame due to an injury in his 20s) is generally known as a gruesome Turco-Mongol ruler and one of the most powerful rulers of  the 14th century Islamic world!  Despite being responsible for the deaths of 10s of 1000s of people, he is also responsible for building of the beautiful silk road city of Samarkand where he was buried.  It is also worth noting that his great great grandson founded the Mughal dynasty in India, the family responsible for Timurid inspired buildings like the Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Red Fort.

After an morning of information overload, most of the group wanted to go back to the hotel for a relaxing afternoon but I decided to stay in town and join Farhod and Rosemary (another member of the group) visting an orphanage.  Rosemary had brought a large bag of hand knitted baby hats with her and had been giving them out to guides and people we met with small children and she had asked if there was somewhere in the city to drop of some of the little hats.  They were happy to welcome us to the home and the manager took us around and introduced us to some of the staff and children.  The children were excited to receive the hats and chocolates that Farhod had bought and it was lovely to see their smiling faces. 

We also took the opportunity to take the funicular which runs almost a kilometre across the river (back to Somoni Park) where the fountains were now working before wandering through one of the other beautiful parks (which contained some of the original, not restored city walls) filled with a carcophony of myna birds coming in to roost for the evening.

Our final and perhaps most intriguing spot of our ‘exclusive’ tour was to see a large Lenin statue (24 metres high and believed to be the biggest in Central Asia) in a small, nondescript park on the outskirts of town. It had once stood in Somoni Park, where of course Somoni now stands and in fact was only moved in to this new location in 2011!  It was moved overnight and no one knew it was happening and either due to respect to mother Russia or due to a number of still loyal communists (who had protested about its removal) it was decided to move it rather than destroy it (a similar story to other Central Asian cities we had visited so far)! 

By this time the sun was setting and the lighting was lovely in his new setting, a small but beautiful park with stalls playing western music – Rita Ora I think was paying at the time 😂😂.  As we headed back to our lakeside hotel for our last night we were greeted by a large number of beautiful lights again – Tajikistan you’ve done it again 😂😂😂