Sunday, May 08, 2011


Along my travels there are certain historical characters I keep bumping into, the most notable being Alexander the Great. I've seen traces of his conquering ways in northern Greece, Iran, Turkey and even in the Egyptian desert. And now, in the northern Tajik province of Soghd I've come across his furthest outpost, Alexandria Eschatae ("Alexandria the Furthest" - Alex wasn't particularly imaginative with the names he gave cities, naming at least 13 Alexandria), although now it is called Khojand (after a brief incarnation as Leninabad). There isn't really anything to show that Alex made his way through here, except for the unintentionally kitsch and funny local museum where 'authentic' marble mosaics depict Alexander's various exploits.

Getting there, however, proved to be quite an odd journey. I left Tashkent earlier than planned because the Kyrgyz embasssy had decided to go on holiday for a week and I wasn't waiting around for them; and to be quite honest, the city, despite being lauded as the metropolis of Central Asia, didn't interest me much (except perhaps its many pretty female inhabitants). Instead I headed for Kokand in the Fergana valley and erstwhile capital of a local khanate. I arrived to find a rather humdrum town with little left worth seeing (the palace being heavily reconstructed and the fabric of the old town long gone). Certainly not any hotels, as the main one in town was being refurbished, another didn't have its license to host foreigners anymore, and a third was still under construction. Not again, I thought. And since I didn't want the hassle of a protracted accommodation hunt I decided to head straight for the Tajikistan border. Unfortunately there is no direct transport to the border (the Uzbekistan government has an admirable track record of antagonising every one of its neighbours as well as a good deal of the rest of the international community) and so I got to a town that was suitably close, and then made my way to the main road to try and hitch.

I didn't have to go far before a young guy pulled up in his car and offered to drive me to the border even though it was way out of his way. But first Bahadur - as that was my new friend's name - had to see some friends, and then stop off to fill up at the petrol station, and then see some other friends, and then why don't we get something to eat? Each time he was the centre of attention, showing off his newly acquired friend. I didn't mind being used like that as I was using him too. And so the evening, despite my initial aspirations of border-crossing, descended into a party at a local chaikhana (literally tea-house) with lots of food, a few drinks, lots of curious questions (usually revolving around the incredible fact that I was 30 and not yet married, a concept that had everyone baffled) and more than a little gambling. Towards the end of the evening Bahadur realised that he had a foreigner on his hands that needed to be accommodated now that it was too late to cross the border. He tentatively asked if I had a place to stay and I said that I didn't. Ahh. Obviously his parents were not keen on the idea of a strange foreigner in their house and the potential problems it may cause with the authorities and so Bahadur suddenly remembered a hotel on the road to the border and drove me out there. At the hotel he told me to wait in the car whilst he found the watchman. After a bit of a discussion between the two I was motioned to come up whilst Bahadur quickly said his goodbyes and sped off. It turned out not to be a hotel but a sanatorium, but I didn't mind as all I wanted was to sleep somewhere dry and get going the next morning. But I did figure out why Bahadur was in such a hurry to be off, as the watchman wanted $20 from me just to bunk out in the foyer. Well, no way was that happening, so I left heading towards the border. I didn't go far though as the surrounding gardens had some lovely wooden platforms for relaxing which I thought were being under-utilised. So I spread out my mat, set my alarm for early (so as not to have to explain what I was doing there), and dozed off.

The next morning I walked the final 8km to the border only to find out that although it was indeed the Tajikistan border, it wasn't the international crossing and was only open to locals. And so I had to backtrack, getting a ride from a grandpa and his small truck along the way, to the real crossing. The place was deserted and lifeless, and although it was already 10am I was the first person to cross the border that day and so had to wake up the guards on the Tajik side. Obviously the Tajiks were expecting big things from this border, as the buildings were all brand spanking new with fresh coats of paint, much of the furniture still wrapped in plastic and innumerable boxes requiring unpacking. (The Uzbek side on the other hand was almost falling apart from neglect.) The officer on duty was so impressed with my Tajik skills that he gave me an exit rather than entry stamp and then spent half an hour trying to correct the 'out' arrow.

In Khojand I met up with a local couchsurfer (couchsurfing is a more realistic option in Tajikistan, with its less draconian registration laws, although that is offset by the very small number of people on the network in the country) Donish, who is, at 24, already a university lecturer (a fact more to do with the lack of skills in depth in the country rather than some supernatural talents). His English was a bit patchy, but luckily he studied Persian. As well as showing me around town he and another young lecturer were taking their students on a weekend R&R excursion to some nearby hills and allowed me to tag along. It was a nice change from my usual diet of old cities and museums and allowed me to interact with some local youths. The students were friendly and boisterous but not what I would call academic material, which is a shame as the country is in sore need of skills. Instead the standard career path for an average Tajik man is to get married by the age of 20 (24 at the latest), get the wife pregnant, and then head over to Russia to work illegally on a construction site so as to be able to feed the family (returning home every couple of years to knock up the missus). The lack of job opportunities is symptomatic of the country which is the poorest in Central Asia where there is also a penury of infrastructure, skills, industry and the basic rule of law, although it is made up for by an excess of corruption. Nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised when Donish confided in me that he was optimistic about his country's future. I hope he's right. 

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