Khujand and Istaravshan

Leaving Dushanbe, I was surprised to find that the highway linking the centre of Tajikistan with the north was a toll road. The company managing it is called Innovative Road Solutions, whose pseudo-English slogan Your imagination gets real is widely displayed around their toll booths. In a country as corrupt as Tajikistan, it’s no surprise that the toll road is in the hands of the president’s family.

Khujand was a pleasant, if unexciting city. Along with the rest of the north, it escaped the civil war, so economic development here seems to exceed even Dushanbe. There were a lot of ethnic Russians, which I didn’t expect. On the way back towards Dushanbe I stopped for a night in Istaravshan. I couldn’t find the famous old buildings, but there was a recent reconstruction of an ancient hilltop gate.


Tajikistan’s status as the poorest country in Central Asia is not visible in the Dushanbe so much by actual human misery as the lack of grand development. The few construction projects downtown are more similar to those in Russian provincial centres than the futuristic designs of other Asian capitals.

There’s not much history to see either, as Dushanbe grew from a tiny market town to Soviet capital and ex-Soviet metropolis only over the last century. Travelers often have to spend a few days here, registering at OVIR and getting visas for onward travel, and initially Dushanbe might seem a dull place.

Still, the people here are nearly as open and friendly as elsewhere in Tajikistan, and wandering through the markets can be a lot of fun. I spent two days just walking through the large Shâhmansur Bazaar and talking with the traders.

The dull conversations of Tajikistan

I’ve been travelling in Tajikistan for a few days now and I’m not liking it much as a linguist. It’s not because the people aren’t friendly; for not a single night have I lacked invitations for a place to dine and sleep comfortably. But conversations here tend to all be the same. The first repetitive response happens all over the former Soviet Union: Your name is Christopher, eh? Like Christopher Columbus/Christopher Lambert! I guess I’m used to that one, and I just laugh and pretend I haven’t heard it myriad times before.

But essentially all conversations devolve into this very quickly:

Tajik: Are you married?

Me: No, I am not married yet.

Tajik: How old are you?

Me: I am 29 years old.

Tajik: You need to get married! [The more good-humoured locals will at this point indicate the closest unmarried woman and propose I marry her]

Me: I don’t wish to get married yet.

Tajik: Why?

Me: Because I wish to travel and study and remain a free man.

After this they tend to grumble a fair bit — it does seem that some are appalled by what I said — and the conversation returns to marriage constantly. It would be nice to talk about something else and to perceive some element of culture. What happened to even fairly poor, rural locals knowing something about shashmaqâm or Persian classical poetry as travelers in Transoxania reported less than 20 years ago? It’s especially frustrating since I came hear to learn Tajik, but there’s not enough of a variety of conversational topics to really expand my vocabulary.


The purpose of this journey was to improve my Tajik language skills, but Dushanbe was a frustrating place since its cosmopolitan residents simply answered me all the time in Russian. I noticed the southern city of Qurgonteppa was missing from the Lonely Planet guide and therefore I presumed it would be a fairly isolated place where I could speak only Tajik.

Originally I planned to walk the full 90 kilometres from Dushanbe, but that plan was abandoned on day two when, suffering in the 30-degree heat (in April no less), I just decided to hitchhike. I immediately got a lift to a village near Qurgonteppa. It didn’t bode well when my driver answered me, I don’t speak Tajik so well, I’m Uzbek. Yes, it’s all Uzbeks where we’re going. The city of Qurgonteppa proved to have only a minority of Uzbeks, but there were still enough non-Tajik residents to make the language immersion I hoped for impossible.

Nor did Qurgonteppa prove to be especially isolated, as it has several Americans and Brits teaching English at at least three language centres, one of which had some of the best English-language libraries and multimedia resources I’ve seen in Central Asia.

There wasn’t much to see here of touristic interest, aside from a former minaret that now houses the city museum.

I was invited to stay at the home of one student of English. His family was half-Uzbek and had a Tatar grandmother, so we spoke a curious mix of Turkic languages and Russian, but I managed to get at least some Tajik practice and therefore should count this day a success.

In Tajikistan

I arrived in Dushanbe this morning on an Air Baltic flight from Riga (for which I paid somewhere around 120€). The plane landed at 0330, but it took two hours to get through the queue at the visa office, of which half an hour was just waiting for someone to come and open the office.

I was issued a 45-day double-entry visa for US$77. The official explained that visas longer than 30 days were no longer in the “tourist visa” class but the “private visa” class, which explains the higher price and the need to register at OVIR. Other people in the queue paid a variety of prices for tourist visas, of which the lowest I heard was $33.

The official issuing visas spoke excellent English and the passport control staff were very friendly and smiling. This isn’t the usual Central Asian border crossing.