Silk Road Day 9: Border crossing into Khujand, Tajikistan

Day 9: Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

We ate breakfast at our Tashkent hotel and said goodbye to Johnson who was leaving the group this morning. We hopped in the bus and drove to the Uzbekistan/Tajikistan border. Eilidh informed us that Uzbekistan rarely gets Western tourists, so they are extra curious and nosey about our travels. If they’re in a certain mood, they can make the border crossing hellish. She informed us that we needed to stick together and go through each step as a group, because the border crossing would take 2-4 hours depending on multiple factors.

When we arrived at the border, Bek (our local guide) said his final farewell before dropping us off. We got off the bus and took all our luggage in hand...we were crossing the border on foot.

We lugged our bags down a long road lined with semi-trucks and arrived at a border crossing building to fill out a customs form. It was identical to the form we filled when we arrived, but the changes on this were how much money we were carrying (it needed to be less than when we arrived) and now it said “departure” instead of “arrival.” On the wall near the forms was a TV which was oddly playing some movie about a man and his horse. While waiting in line, I tried to figure out what movie it was. Just as I thought I recognized an actor, the border crossing guard shut the TV off. I guess it was time to get down to business.

We put our luggage through a security scanner as we handed in our forms. The two security officers stamped them, we retrieved our bags, and we moved to another counter where a happy security man rapped on the counter to indicate the next person could step up. It was overall very quiet as we were the only people seemingly crossing the border at this time. No one else was there except a random man and woman, who tried to cut us in line at the passport control, to which Eilidh stood her ground with a firm “NO. NO. WE ARE NEXT.”

The group of course didn’t stick together, as each part of the process took some time and our group was clearly too impatient to wait. I was toward the end of the line, but I was with Eilidh so I was fine. We got through the Uzbekistan checkpoint, and when we arrived at the Tajikistan border, Firuz, our new local Tajik guide, met us. He had the group visa in his possession, so all we needed to do was sign a form to move forward. We got our passports stamped, and he led us through an area where a woman in a dress (clearly non-uniform) was sitting behind a short desk with a white tablecloth. After Firuz talked with her, she just let us through, not asking to see any paperwork. Her whole setup seemed pretty casual compared to the uniformed staff we already encountered.

And that was it. Ben and Eilidh were super surprised at how easy and smooth things went. No one’s bags were checked, and overall it took less than an hour for our group of about fifteen people to get through. We were now in Khujand, Tajikistan.

Since we left our bus in Uzbekistan, it was time to switch vehicles. For the next couple of days, our transportation would now consist of three minivans that hold a small handful of people each. It was very road-trip-like.

We checked into our hotel which was the biggest one we’ve had on the entire trip. Anne and I each got a queen bed and there was enough room to throw another bed in there, or even just do some cartwheels. The chandelier on the ceiling had the option of cool or warm lighting, or BOTH. My favorite part of this hotel room, however, was the “please cleen my room” sign, spelled just like that.

We went to exchange money as we’d be in Tajikistan for a couple more days. While waiting outside the busy exchange, we got to observe the people and environment of this new country. Just like Uzbekistan, some women wore headscarves. However, in Uzbekistan, the scarves were more “girl with a pearl earring” and here they were more like hijabs. The Tajik language is written in Cyrillic letters, which makes it hard to distinguish from Russian. In Tajikistan there was more color. There were cars in different colors (instead of 99% white ones) and even the people had more variety in color of clothing. There were more people in a variety of coat colors and clothing styles instead of black puffy coats everywhere. While outside the exchange, there was a little girl tugging at Tan’s coat begging for money. We saw some beggars in Uzbekistan, but none as aggressive, or as young.

We ate lunch across the street at the smallest table ever for our group of fifteen. I'm pretty sure it was booth seating meant for 6 people. Firuz got us free beers, which everyone gladly accepted. They had a fun little pop top that made them easy to open without a bottle opener. We enjoyed Russian potato salad while watching Russian music videos on the restaurant TVs. Helen ate an absurd amount of potato salad to the point of regret, but who can blame her? Potato salad is the best. We also got vegetable soup and some meat on a stick. We didn’t finish/open all the beers, so I stuffed them in a bag to bring with us.

We walked to the nearby Historical Museum of the Sughd Region, which was a decidedly boring experience. The museum kindly offered us an English-speaking guide, but that didn’t help. The museum focuses on how this area was the farthest that Alexander the Great reached in Central Asia. Eilidh pointed out that this area didn’t have much history and that Alexander the Great didn’t do much here, so the museum is really grabbing for straws.

So the museum did one thing okay, and that’s the big murals in the basement of Alexander’s life. The things they did poorly, however, far outweigh that. The mural isn’t accompanied by any placard or sign, other than one that simply defines what a mural is. No, not what the mural depicts, just that it is in fact a mural. The floor tiles in the entire museum are all shaky and loose, so there were several occasions when it sounded like someone broke something, but it was simply the sound of them walking on one of the tiles that popped out of place. There were many artifacts that had no descriptions, no locations, no dates. Perfect example: a glass case of rocks with a placard that read, simply “Stones.” We started the tour with our entire group and ended with only about 5 people. Tan and Helen were pretty interested but I think the rest of us that stayed with the guide only did so out of obligation.

We went to the Panjshanbe bazaar, another local outdoor market. We were received more as foreigners than we’ve experienced so far on this entire trip. Clearly Tajikistan doesn't get a big tourist demographic. Vendors beg us to take pictures of their stalls. They ask us where we are from. They stare at us just to see what these foreign creatures will do when they encounter chocolate butter (buy it and eat it for breakfast, duh) One vendor had a massive pile of wool which a curious and amazed Remi reached out to touch, causing the vendor to crack a smile.

A creepy dude in tattered clothing followed us around and it becomes clear he’s following Anne. He never does anything, but he lingers around and when she drifts from the group to take pictures, he quietly follows her. It’s super obvious to all of us, and Calvin even makes a point to act as a buffer between him and Anne. When we leave, he practically knocks on Anne’s car window as the vehicle departs.

We next drove to a massive 22-meter-tall statue of Lenin to take some pictures before heading back to the hotel to refresh before heading out to dinner. A friend of Siavash invited us to dinner before the trip, and tonight was when we made it happen. He took us to a nice restaurant and since he works for a vodka distillery, he offered us lots of vodka. Lots and lots of vodka. So much vodka that people started to fill their glasses with water so as not to seem rude when he came around trying to refill cups every 20 minutes. It was a bit hard to down so much straight vodka, so I got creative and offered people fresh OJ from the sliced oranges in the centerpiece fruit basket.

Our dinner host was an excellent one who catered to our every whim, whether we wanted him to or not. He heard Calvin mention shisha and boom, shisha is served. He heard someone dislike the fried meat so boom, he requested it steamed. We hear music and he beckons over the house accordion player to entertain us. He was very kind and it was cool to have that local hospitality.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel because guess what? Tomorrow we we’re on the move yet again.