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 😂😂😂

Touring Tajikistan

We will blame COVID 19 for the last writing hiatus! Working from home does not seem to give me any extra time and certainly does not give me any more motivation, but reliving my wonderful trips from last year is always a great way to reignite my wanderlust – even if I can not go anywhere or really even plan a trip at the moment.

Back to Tajikistan, Penjikent was a bustling little town in the morning with many people out and about in traditional dress doing their morning shopping or drinking tea.  Lots of car horns honking and barrow boys waiting for people in the market. 

Today’s destination was the “Seven Lakes” in the Fann mountains not far from Penjikent. Unfortunately most of the journey was on some pretty bad roads (more about that later) so the journey took most of the day.  We drove out of the town through small communities and into the mountains – nature amazed me again today!

Although some take the opportunity to hike the full distance (and avoid the worst of the roads when travelling by vehicle) we were short on time so drove most of the way, stopping for photo opportunities along the road.

Each lake was a slightly different colour as we climbed higher into the mountains.  Passing by wildlife including a committee of vultures (yes, that is the collective noun for a group of vultures) and goats eating on the side of the rocks.

As we continued to drive further into the mountains and around lake number 4, the roads got narrower and we were all grateful to be having a break for lunch at a local home stay.  The tour company we were travelling with through Tajikistan were working in conjunction with the Government to help local people set up home stays in the region and were teaching them how to manage tourism.  It is a great initiative and was nice to be able to be part of the training. 

Unfortunately, there was a power cut just as we arrived so a cooked lunch turned in to luncheon meat sandwiches followed by hot chips (when they finally got the fire going to cook them lol).  We were supposed to be having “bush legs” – in 1990, President Bush (USA) signed a trade agreement with Gorbachev (USSR) for the delivery of frozen chicken quarters to the USSR who were experiencing food shortages at the time.  These began referred to as “bush legs” and the phrase is still used to this day.

We were all happy to wait as the 13-year-old daughter of the family was glad to have the opportunity to show us the braclets and other things she had made for sale and it meant we had time to walk around the lovely gardens.  As we got to the 5th lake, we were approached by some other ladies who came out to sell their wares so they are clearly getting used to tourists come up in to the mountains.

The road to the 6th lake was nothing like I had seen before – barely wide enough for 1 car as it winds around the edge of the lake with a drop of about 10m into the lake on one side and a sheer cliff side going up on the other side!!  Not too bad until we came across another vehicle coming in the other direction!  At first there was a bit of an argument between the drivers – which our driver appeared to  win as the other vehicle started to reverse to a small area where you could just squeeze 2 cars passed each other right on the edge!!  Sometimes it was better just to close your eyes and hold on! 🤢

Unfortunately by the time we got to the end of the 6th lake we were running late and there was no time to walk up to the 7th lake. I was disappointed as I had been looking forward to the walk after such a long drive.  Instead we drove up to the final lake which was beautiful and we meet a lovely local family out for a walk and made friends with some local wildlife (cows and donkeys)  before walking back down to the 6th lake (obviously taking much less time that walking up!). 👍

We stopped at a small village on the way back down the mountain and walked through it for a short time  – it is always so interesting to see the locals way of life, people going about their everyday business – doing washing things in the river, herding livestock, kids playing in the streets.

Back in town and I decided to take a night off from the group dinner and just watch Netflix and chill with a snickers and a Diet Coke – just what I needed as although group tours are a great way to see as much as possible in a short space of time, spending 16 hours a day with the group can get a bit much!

Next morning I had time to visit the local market before we set off to our next destination. Another great opportunity to see the local people going about their normal morning routines.   Walking around I was often greeted with the Arabic greeting Salaam Alaikum, said with a bow of the head and your right hand in your heart.  It makes sense here as Tajik is a Persian language but the greeting  was also used in the other stans we have already visited but I guess more because of the Muslim connection.

Today was another long driving day – approximately 6-7 hours which started off through the mountains and through another 5km long tunnel – this time built by China (and it was much better than the Iranian built one we had driven through a couple of days before.)   We had a couple of road side stops for toilets and snacks,. First in a small town, where water running off the mountain side was used to keep drinks cool and then another stop on the side of the mountain where small stalls were set up selling local snacks stop – lots of dried apricots, almonds, apricot kernels etc.

If we were lucky enough to have Farhodbek in our vehicle (our Tajik guide), we would be entertained with local stories and fun facts e.g. Tajik weddings used to be huge and last a full week but to keep costs down, the Government took it upon themselves to put a law in place to cut this down to only one wedding party which can last only 3 hours with a maximum of 150 guests! 

Our next stop was in the town of Istaravshan, allegedly founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century.  As far back as the 14th century the city was renown in Central Asia for its artisans and was a regular stop on the Silk Road caravan route.  Even today it is still famous for its blacksmiths and in particular it’s hand-crafted knives.   Another claim to fame is that Alexander the Great (allegedly) married a girl from Istaravshan.

Different crafts were in different neighbourhoods and we visited the blacksmith neighbourhood where they were making knives and sickles etc.

As is now common when we stop in small towns, people come up to us wanting to practice their English and it is a nice way to interact with them.  On this stop we met an older gentleman, who, after a brief conversation, revealed a couple of cloth bags over this shoulder and under his arm … in these bags he had quails – fighting quails 🤔🤔.  Apparently, there is a long tradition of quail fighting in the city but I had never heard of it!!  Even Aijan, our guide from Kyrgyz had never seen such a thing. 

As we got back on the road, we were now out of the mountains and back to the wide open plains and it was not too much longer before we arrived in Khujand, our final destination for the day. 

Our hotel in Khujand was right on the water front of the Kayrakkum Reservoir, otherwise known as the ‘Tajik Sea’ as it is the largest body of water they have! It had a real resort feel to it and it was extremely peaceful – I actually felt like I was on holiday for our two nights there 😂 .

Tajikistan … you had me at assalomu alaykum (hello)

After a significant writing hiatus and a move back across the world to New Zealand, I have finally got back in to writing about my trips and have to go way back to September and my wonderful trip to Central Asia … welcome to Stan No. 3 – Tajikistan

  • Currency:  Somoni (TJS)  US$1 = TJS 9.7
  • Language: Tajik, Russian
  • Size: 143,100km2
  • Population:

Accordingly to our guide, ‘a drunk Russian divided up the countries as random shapes” and that’s why the central Asian countries have sure odd shapes – believe it or not??

We arrived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan to a bit of an immigration queue – people pushing in, immigration offices just up and leaving their desks.  Once through that it was on to the customs area where they were scanning everyone’s bags – unfortunately people were not picking them up fast enough and the bags were backing up on the machine and then falling all over the floor  🤦🏻‍♀️ Finally through the formalities and we met our local guide Farhodbek – or Farhod for short. 

Farhod explained to us that the Tajik language and culture are based on Persian rather than Turkic that we see in the other Central Asian countries and they are very proud of their Persian heritage.

Despite its population of 9 million people, Tajikistan is the smallest of the Central Asia countries by landmass and the capital Dushanbe (interesting Dushanbe means Monday which is the day the bazaar used to be held)  has a population of around 1 million.  It was appointed the capital in 1924 by the Russian Tzar (when it was named Stalinabad), but the area has been settled as far back as 5000BC.

Farhod starting weaving his magic early on in my Tajikistan visit as he had arranged for the Museum of Antiquities to stay open beyond it’s normal closing time just for our group so we were the only people there.  It was a great introduction to the incredible history of the country.  From Alexander the Great, through the Hellenistic period and the land of Bactria (where the two humped Bactrian camels originated from).

The country (or it is probably more accurate to say region) has been ruled by Oxus, Andronovo, Buddists (the museum houses the largest surviving clay Buddha in Central Asia), Nestorian Christains, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Islam.  On top of that it has been part of the Achaemenid Empire, Sasanian Empire, Hephthalite, Empire, Samind Empire, Mongol Empire (and I sure we have all heard of the mighty Genghis Khan who killed all the people in his way, destroying animals and crops so any survivors of his marauding could not survive), Timurid dynasty, Khanate of Bukhara, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union before it finally gained independence in 1991.

It was also in the museum, where we met Somoni (or Ismail Samani) for the first time.  This is the man the money is named after and the same one who stands on large plinths around the country (he has replaced Lenin who once stood on the same plinths) and he is considered the father of the Tajik nation. 

Somoni ruled in the region between 892 – 907 and was the first ruler in the region to embrace Islam.  Science and literature also flourished under his rule.  A local scholar wrote he “was extremely just, and his good qualities were many.  He had pure faith in God (to Him be power and glory) and he was generous to the poor – to name only one of his notable virtues”.

I am not sure quite how to describe out next stop but let me start with wow – the over the top opulence of the Navruz Palace would not have been out of place in Dubai or somewhere similar!!!

The ‘palace’ was privately funded by local business people (at the ‘suggestion’ of the president).  As with the museum, it was closed today but our guide had worked his magic for us to be allowed in.

Each room was more wow then the next – massive ‘tea’ rooms, meeting rooms ending in a mirror room! All made my local artisans in traditional style and colours from natural products. I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite like it and the photos definitely do not do it justice!

The gardens were just as stunning, overlooking the lake and clearly a popular place for wedding photos as there were at least 3 couples getting their photos taken.

We had a quick break in the luxurious Hilton hotel (which had a bomb check of vehicles entering the gates!) before heading out again. Oddly I turned on the TV and ended up watching a Kiwi programme – no idea what it was but it was set in Wellington and had Julian Denison in it!!! How bizarre lol

To end the day we joined locals in a late afternoon stroll around a large park which housed a very tall flag pole – notable because it was the highest flagpole in the world until 2015!!   We then moved into another park where there was live local music and many people and families dancing.  (Apparently Dushanbe has 27 parks so is considered a ‘green’ city.)

As darkness fell, the lights came and again, wow!!  It was almost a little like Las Vegas and the grand National Library looked like a casino!  This city is insane 🥴🥴🥴

Already around the central city, there were a lot of people out for an Sunday evening walk, women in beautiful traditional outfits, walking along wonderful lit boulevards – it is like Christmas all year round it seems and I love it.

After an overwhelming buffet breakfast at the hotel we headed out of the city towards the Fan Mountains , which seemed to start right on the outskirts of the city.  It was Tajikistan’s Independence Day (September 9th) and therefore a public holiday so the streets were quiet and lined with flags.  Large pictures of the president also adorned the city  – oddly they all seemed to be the same photo, photoshopped on different backgrounds – one surrounded by children, one in a poppy field, one in front of one of their large hydro power plants lol

A few random but interesting facts about Tajikistan:

  • Tour guides pay no tax till 2021 to help promote tourism in the country
  • 100% of the countries power is hydro power (and on this day they were opening another huge turbine)
  • In Central Asia, Tajik roads are the best (that may be a matter of opinion)
  • It is illegal to take dirty cars in to the city and you can get fined for doing so! This means the road side on the out skirts of the city is lined with car washes

Tajik’s are very proud of their language, culture and heritage which they managed to keep alive during the Soviet period.  So much so, the wall around a large cement factory we passed on the way out of town was decorated with pictures of famous people and places around the country.  It went on and on and on and was really something quite special.

The roads in the mountains were pretty good and there were lots of snow tunnels, including one that is 5km long and worryingly has a reputation of being one of the world’s most dangerous tunnels (and is also referred as the Tunnel of Death)! Obviously I made it through alive despite the fact that is no drainage or ventilation and the road was full of pot holes!

It was a relief when we arrived at Iskander Kul (Alexander Lake – named after Alexander the Great) as this was definitely not my favourite travel day!!!  The views were amazing views through the mountains but the windy roads, stuck in the back of the small van with no air gave me a terrible headache 😟.

After a small issue at the entrance to the park (as the guard wanted our guide to pay in cash, but his company paid a by bank transfer so much ‘discussion’ was required both on the way in and out!!!) before we were able to head down to the lake. 

From the view point on the road,  the lake looked an incredible blue – from close up it not quite so blue but still beautiful with all the mountains surrounding it.  The blue tint is because it is feed from glaciers and ice in the mountains surrounding it.  Just a few minutes walk away, there was a spring feed lake (called Snake Lake) which was a completely different colour.  Such a contrast and equally as beautiful.

I managed to get a seat in the front of the vehicle for the next part of the journey and felt much better for it, so much so I managed to take a nap for some of the journey 👍🏻 before we had a toilet stop at a petrol station and sampling one of the local delacacies – a ‘Facebook’ ice cream 👍🏻👍🏻 (it was a local ice cream so no idea if facebook know anything about tit 🤔😂) – it was tasty enough though.

As we continued through the mountains it was really interesting to see the everyday life of the people living in the mountains.  Small towns with road side stalls keeping there drinks cool in the small water falls running down the rocks, people walking their cows or goats closer to town at the end of the day – some with just 1, other small children trying to rangel 2 or 3. Men riding donkeys or women carrying hay on their heads and other people tending to their fields.

Our stop for the night was in a lush valley and in the town of Penjikent – very different to the landscape we had driven through today and in stark contrast to Dushanbe yesterday.  We were staying in what was described as the nicest hotel in town, but being a small town, it was very ‘local’ in style but still comfortable enough.

Keeping it local, we had dinner in a very local spot where we had the most amazing lamb kebabs – thankfully it was actually the first day I was hungry for dinner!  Many of the local diners stopped by and were interested to know about us.  Not sure if they get many tourists there so it was lovely to be able to interact with them – albeit briefly. 👍