Saturday 19 October 2019: Sylvia
I was sad this morning to leave Kazakhstan and the stunning Ritz Carlton hotel. I feel there is so much more to explore in this vast land with its steppes, mountains and friendly people. We enjoyed one last delicious breakfast, savouring the food, the views and the impeccable service, before heading to the airport for our one-hour-thirty flight to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Flying initially over Kazakhstan it was obvious once we crossed the border into Tajikistan. The majestic, towering, snow-capped mountains that cover roughly 93% of this country stretched on as far as I could see. I was glued to the window but unfortunately it was so filthy it was impossible to take photographs.
We landed smoothly and were met by our guide, Alfred. After a quick check in at the Hyatt Regency we headed out to explore this city of roughly 2 million inhabitants, one-fifth of the total population of the country. Tajikistan until 1924 was two separate regions. In 1924 it became an autonomous region of Uzbekistan, then in 1927 became a separate state under the USSR. It has strong connections with Afghanistan and Iran, sharing the same base language. After independence in 1991 there was a period of civil war with the government ultimately winning over the religious extremists who wanted to make this a Muslim country. Despite having a massive majority Muslim population (about 90%) it remains a secular country. Still we saw many more women in traditional dresses with head scarves than we did in Kazakhstan.
Our first stop was the museum of antiquities, showcasing many different exhibits that have been unearthed in the country, dating back to about the 5th century BC. One of the most well-known exhibits is the 14m long sleeping Buddha, the largest Buddha in Central Asia.
We next visited Rudaki Park, which was known as Lenin Park under the Soviets. Rudaki was a famous poet, who lived from 858-951 AD, and whose statue now features prominently in the park, where once Lenin’s stood. The park is huge, with beautiful gardens and some rather interesting light features as well as many fountains that seem to be ubiquitous in these countries. To one side of the park is the Presidential Palace. At one end is a memorial to the first Tajik king, Sonoma from the 10th century. There is also a very tall monument called the ‘Signs of Tajikistan’ and featuring representations of cotton, wheat, the sun, knowledge and mountains. The last major feature is a giant flagpole, currently the tallest in Central Asia.
There are many interesting buildings in the city, which is a mix of Soviet architecture and more modern buildings, many painted in bright, warm colours. The Tajik flag, red, white and green, features frequently as do massive photographs of the president on many buildings. Given the number of photographs, in different locations and poses, on display he must spend a lot of his time posing for the camera.
Our last stop was the central market. Like the markets in the other countries we have visited this was a hive of activity, even fairly late on a Saturday afternoon. They are all same, same but different with their piles of fruit, nuts, dried fruits etc. This one stands out for the massive building it is housed in and for the unique way the spices are displayed.
Sunday 20 October 2019: Roger
Alfred picked us up at 10am and we headed north through the town, passing brightly coloured buildings, which were mainly universities and other institutions. Still in the city we struck a large cement works. Large amounts of earthworks were taking place along the river banks to try and stem the effects of spring flooding.
As we departed the city boundaries heading up highway P501, which is a road squeezed into a narrow valley beside the river, narrow bridges often with locked gates led to the houses on the other side. Up the valley only about 20km was a large structure being built which turned out to be the summer palace for the president, who incidentally has been the president pretty much since independence. What intrigues me about this part of the world is the money that the presidents of this, and the last three Stans we’ve visited, seem to spend on big grandiose type structures.
As we pushed further north up the valley the hills became mountains with really impressive rock faces, rising at this point over 2000m. We then started periodically going through avalanche tunnels designed to protect the road from rock and snow avalanches as the land on each side of the valley became steeper and more aggressive looking. We reached a point where the guide pointed out the old road that headed northeast that used to go over a pass some 3,200m high and was often closed for 3 months of the year. At this point we struck a large flock of sheep being guided along the roadside by shepherds, horsemen and dogs. Incidentally here, with the threat of wolves and bears, man is the sheep’s best friend, despite the fact that more sheep get eaten by man than ever by wolves and bears.
We pushed north up the new road that climbed steeply up the right hand side of a valley through more avalanche shelters, numbering 20 in total, with a new one under construction near the top of the hill. We entered a 6km tunnel built by the Iranians in 2004. This tunnel with virtually no lighting rose from 2,600m where we entered to 2,750 where we exited.
All along the journey we had ben passing big, orange Shacman trucks. These we discovered are government trucks that transport coal from the open-cast mine we were approaching to Dushanbe to supply fuel for both heating and power generation. There was also a large stockpile of coal at the bottom of the pass as the trucks can’t access the tunnel and the pass in the middle of winter. We lost count of how many of these trucks we passed. As we headed out of the tunnel and down the hill to about 2,000m there were lots of trucks (not just orange ones) parked waiting to load coal from the mine high above the road. The non-orange trucks were from villages and small towns and owned by private operators taking coal to sell to get the villages through the winter.
Further down the hill we passed what look like a little village with lots of shacks and stone buildings. Still above the 2,000m mark this is where the local farmers bring their stock to graze during the summer months before returning them to the valley for the winter.
As we headed further down the hill we passed a ruby mine with large holes in the hillside, with tailings running down the hill looking a bit like rabbit burrows. As we hit the bottom of the pass we met up with the other end of the old road, which in its day was 30km longer. A little further down the valley was a large, old ruby processing plant from the Soviet days – we couldn’t actually establish if it was still operating.
Further down the valley, high on the hill was another open-cast mine, and water gushed out of the hill apparently from a pipeline that was supposed to feed a hydro power plant that was never completed.
Eventually we reached the turn-off to Lake Iskanderkul and stopped for lunch at a cafe, where we were served some very high fat food including a dumpling soup and supposedly lamb chops that I think actually came from old sheep, coated with a thick layer of fat, something the locals look on as a delicacy.
I took a stroll down the track to the toilet – there is definitely no porcelain in this part of the world, just a hole in the concrete covering what I assume was a long drop but is now probably short!
At the intersection there was also, what had been, a huge truck maintenance plant back in the Soviet era and is now a derelict complex with its old boilers lying on the river bank. We crossed a steel suspension bridge heading onto what once was probably a sealed road but has deteriorated significantly over the years.
People smiled as we waved to them. We were really surprised by the intensity of housing and the size of the houses up this valley. Alfred explained to us that a lot of people from this area, and throughout Tajikistan, who have qualified as builders etc, head off to Russia to work and then return with a fair bit of cash in hand and the experience to build these big houses that often house 2-3 generations of families.
As we pushed further up the valley there were lots of stone shacks, often with hay stacked on top, used to house stock overnight and during the winter. The autumn colours were, in places, quite spectacular with a variety of deciduous trees clumped together in little oasis-type settlements. The mountains rising on each side were quite impressive with large patches of red earth interspersed with patches of grey clay that had been eroded over the years by the weather.
Maintenance on the road is obviously kept to a minimum as the higher we went the worse it got. In places concrete slabs had been put in to stop rock slides blocking the road, or in other places to stop the road tumbling into the valley. At one point a broken down car sat with a red rag tied onto the door and rocks placed around it as simulated marker cones.
We came over the hill and were looking down on Lake Iskanderkul, an impressive view. We wound our way down the switchback road, across a little bridge and up a rough shingle road where Alfred told Sylvia “free massage included” as she was being thrown from side to side in the back of the Rav 4. We stopped at a gravel carpark looking over both Lake Iskanderkul and the smaller Snake Lake nearby. Sylvia and I opted to walk back down the hill to the main lake and as we were walking along the road a large group of people approached us laughing and waving as we took photos. Some of the group had limited English and we made out that they were from somewhere in Tajikistan and were keen to have their photo taken with me. A large flag flew on a hill above the lake and near it was a rock painted in the colours of Tajikistan.
All too soon it was time for us to head back on our return journey. With the lake at 2,200m and the turn off at just over 1,000m we started our trip back down the rough, mainly gravel road. As we wound our way down the hill we spotted some workers maintaining one of the new pylons heading up the valley. It was through a discussion about the pylons we discovered that somewhere, we are not too sure how far from the lake, is a large, Chinese-owned gold mine, which these new-looking pylons feed.
Travelling back down and along the valley and up to the portal of the tunnel, we entered with a large truck in front of us. Even with the weak lights of the Rav 4 on it was pretty black inside. It appears the tunnel has no ventilation system but relies on the 150m elevation over the 6km to create enough airflow to get rid of the fumes from the large trucks and cars passing through it. The driver flashed his lights and we passed the large truck in front of us and then another and then another, our lungs filling with the fumes as they rushed towards the portal. As we exited the tunnel and stopped for some fresh air at the south end Alfred explained that it is only recently they have put lights in it. These lights are tiny and provide very little illumination but prior to them going in it used to be known as the tunnel of death.
As we headed back down the side of the valley I asked Alfred if any trucks have brake failures and end up going over the side. He said yes, one or two a year. It’s a long way to the bottom.
Arriving back in Dushanbe we headed to what was once a famous tea house and apparently people came from all over the country to try their lagman (noodle soup), edible but not something that I would travel very far to eat.
Alfred dropped us at the airport where we waited for quite a long time to enter the check in area while numerous ‘stand-around men’ and the odd ‘stand-around woman’ with badges of authority walked around not really knowing what they were doing but very willing to exert their authority. We eventually boarded the plane, which is probably one of the most chaotic boardings I’ve ever seen with people randomly swapping seats to the point that Sylvia said “some people should just not be allowed to fly”.
Landing in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan we had a pleasant surprise. As we descended the stairs to the tarmac a man was waiting with our names on a sign and whisked us away to a VIP lounge where we were processed through immigration, our bags collected, and then we were transferred to our hotel.
Monday 21 October 2019: Sylvia
There is something different about this city and I cannot figure it out. Even at 1am in the morning when we were driving to the hotel from the airport there was a lot of traffic on the road and people out on the streets. Bishkek has a population of about 1.2 million, a significant chunk of the country’s 6 million inhabitants. It does not seem small in size and with the traffic it can take quite a long time to get anywhere but it seems remarkably busy. Apparently you can see the mountains from the city on a good day but today they were shrouded in cloud.
We headed out with Alberic, our guide at about 10:30. Kyrgyzstan, much more than the other countries we have visited this trip, seems to embrace its Soviet roots and has maintained many old Soviet era buildings, and even a statue of Lenin. Apparently under Tsarist Russia many Kyrgyz were killed and so they have more respect for the Soviets, who gave them more freedom. It is also apparent that Kyrgyzstan is less wealthy than many of its neighbours, not having the oil or gas reserves that the other countries enjoy. Apparently unemployment runs between 30 and 40% with many Kyrgyz heading to Russia to find work.
Our first stop was at a recently completed mosque, built by the Turkish government and currently the largest mosque in Central Asia, until the one currently being built in Tajikistan is completed anyway.
Next stop was Victory Square, commemorating the victory in WWII. Approximately 130,000 Kyrgyz lost their lives during the war, a significant impact in a country with less than 3 million at the time, but only a small portion of the 28 million USSR citizens killed.
We also stopped at a circus building, another vestige of the Soviet era, still operating shows during the weekends.
Heading towards the centre of the city we wandered past, and sometimes into, numerous Soviet era buildings including the Museum of Modern Art, the Opera House, the library and many others. There is also a large open park area, showcasing the autumn colours in its tree-lined pathways. This particular park is full of large sculptures
We headed past the parliament building and the Lenin statue to the main square, with its mandatory large flagpole and guards standing sentry. It is refreshing here that there seems to be much more freedom. Alberic is decidedly more forthcoming about the country and government than our previous guides and there doesn’t seem to be any issue with us taking photos of anything. This country is on to its fourth president since independence. There was an uprising in 2010 and about 100 people were killed. Since then the country has mandated a single term presidency only of six years to ensure democratic freedoms. This has been memorialised in a striking monument.
We then headed about 40km out of town to the Ala Atcha National Park. We had planned to have a picnic lunch and go for a walk in the park but as we arrived it started snowing quite heavily. Roger, as usual, was well-dressed for the weather. Luckily the local hotel allowed us to eat our picnic lunch, which had been prepared by Alberic’s wife, in their dining room and we were able to enjoy watching the snow settle outside while we ate. A few quick photos outside and we headed back down the hill.
Alberic had arranged a small local folk band to play for us – one of the members is apparently a very famous singer. They were incredibly skilful, playing a number of traditional instruments and we were mesmerised for the 20 minutes or so they performed. One piece that they played with small metal things they put in their mouths was particularly impressive.
Bishkek is a bit of a mix – we see many more people in European dress than in Dushanbe but fewer than in Almaty. I was particularly taken with the Kyrgyz style hats, which represent the mountains that cover 94% of this country and seem quite striking. Several of the older men wear them all the time here but they are worn by all the men for special occasions.
Tuesday 22 October 2019: Roger
Alberic picked us up at 9:30 and we headed off to have a look at the Philarmonic House, outside of which there was a statue of Manas, a hero of Kyrgyzstan, slaying a dragon. Because we were early it was closed so we could not go inside. Across the road was a University with a lot of Indian and Pakistani students. There were also a lot of other Soviet era buildings in the area.
Next stop was the Osh Bazaar. This is a kind of indoor-outdoor market. Although you wander into these places thinking ‘just another market’ they are all a little bit different with their own subtleties. We stopped in a little shop, stocked totally with locally made goods and purchased some small gifts to fit in our carry-on luggage, the first bit of shopping we’ve done since leaving Singapore nearly four weeks ago. Alberic led us through a maze of indoor and outdoor passageways till we ended up in the bulk food area. It always intrigues me in these places the amount of stock they carry – surely some of it must go off. Alberic explained that when people here have a wedding they invite 500 plus people so buy heaps of dried fruit and nuts. But I am sure there are enough sunflower seeds in this particular market to feed many, many weddings of 500 people. We wandered through some other parts with meat and bread and brooms on trolleys, finding all the people very friendly.
The next stop was the Museum of Modern Art. This Soviet style building, with its parquet floors, turned out to be even larger than it looked. We wandered from hall to hall looking at a large variety of paintings, all of which seemed to be dull in colours. There were also many sculptures of different types placed throughout the galleries. One painting that stood out was of a shepherd, his dog and a flock of sheep. Peeping out from under the lapel of his coat was a medal. Apparently during the Soviet era people used to get medals for doing their job well, be they farmer, cook or carpenter. Back in those days everybody effectively worked for the government and they were all provided an apartment. When independence came and the first civil war was over people got to keep their houses.
All of a sudden our holiday was over and we were heading along the wide highway to the airport for our flight to Istanbul and then on to Singapore.