From Batken (Kyrgyzstan) to Khojand (Tajikistan)
July 10, 2015
The marshrutka crossing the border was a museum-worthy minivan that can likely recall tales of the last world war if machines could talk. But peeling upholstery held together with duct tape and door handles tied with bits of twisted wire notwithstanding, it was packed. Most were women from the nearby villages compete with babies and toddlers, the oldest being no more than four. The babies seemed not to mind being passed from one woman to another like sacks of potatoes and stared wide-eyed from under caps crammed onto their heads. Most of the women knew each other and the animated chatter was filled with oohs and aahs and much clicking of tongues. Newsworthy gossip no doubt – there had to be plenty whose ears were burning!
At the border, we all filed out to get our passports stamped while the van drove up ahead to wait on us. There had been some words exchanged between the border guard and one of the women at the Kyrgyz exit and at the Tajik border there was clearly a problem. The woman apparently did not have a passport or an ID call card, just a folded piece of paper. While one of the guards was giving her the third degree, the other one motioned me over.
“Salaam”, I greeted him and he grinned in welcome. He has clearly seen other foreigners before and knew the GBAO permit stamped in my passport meant I was going to go on the Pamir Highway.
“Tajik midoni?” he asked.
“Na” I replied, “Farsi baladam, kyam, kyam”
“Khub, khub” he smiled with an appreciative side-ways shaking of his head, and filled in the form. Duly stamped, form in hand, I got back on the bus.
Some fifteen minutes later we arrived in Isfara and the kindly driver pointed out the marshrutkas heading to Khojand. Isfara remarkably more slick than its partner across the border. And already it felt different. Gone were the tall felt ak-kalpak hats of the men, to be replaced by the domed square ones similar to the Uzbek ones. Fewer women wore skirts, dressed instead in the loose calf-length tunic with loose trousers underneath. There were more headscarves in evidence. The facial features had changed as well. Instead of the broader faces here were longer faces, more Persian looking. And as in eastern Turkey and Iran the Tajiks too it seems have more than their share of good looks. Some of the women have a startling beauty. Changed too was the babble of language. I heard again that soft cadence of Farsi bringing with it my fond memories of Iran.
Barely ten minutes into the ride, the woman next to smiled and we exchanged salaams. Soon we were chatting in fits and starts, me trying to remember what little Farsi I knew from a couple of years ago. The two women in the seat behind joined in from time to time and another in front craned her neck to participate. By the time we reached Khojand, the we had exchanged emails. Unknown to me, when she got off, she had paid my fare as well. My sputters of protests were useless- she had already disappeared in the crowd and bus drove on.
Arriving in thetown center, I checked for rooms at the Ehson Hotel. The remaining rooms were too expensive and I asked for other hotels. While the receptionist was explaining using the translator on her phone, the manager walked in. He picked up my pack and proceeded out the door. I thought he was taking it downstairs but he motioned me towards a car. Not only did he drive me to another hotel, he ascertained that I got a room and then left after saying goodbye.
So this then is Tajikistan, I thought. And smiled in anticipation of the days and weeks ahead.