Surprise, surprise…we missed yet another hotel breakfast due to sleeping in! We were up and packed a good half hour before the driver was due to collect us so we managed to get a couple of coffees in us before hitting the road. Today’s plan was to taxi from Termiz to the Tajikistan border, walk across the border, get a taxi/marshrutka from the other side to Dushanbe, have some lunch and a few beers in Dushanbe then catch a flight to Khojand early evening (we had been planning on staying the night then taking a car over the beautiful and scary Pamir mountains but due to all of the mishaps we needed to make up some time). We’d booked the taxi for 10:30am and reasoned that that would give us plenty of time.
It ended up taking about an hour longer than it should have to get to the border as we were stuck in hideous roadworks/cows were crossing the road, but for the most part it was a nice drive with interesting scenery, our driver was a bit grumpy but he still accommodated our needs of regular beer and toilet stops.
The border itself was a complete nightmare – mainly on the Uzbekistan side. We’d had to fill out some customs forms on arrival from Turkmenistan (basically listing all your money and valuables) and as we’d had NO money then and did have money now (having been to the bank) – it blew their tiny minds!
“How do you have more money than you came in with?”
“We WENT TO THE BANK!!!”
We think they were convinced that we’d made it by flogging all those Turkmen carpets that they were convinced we’d brought with us on the way in, and made us fill in new forms giving the same amount of money as we’d entered with.
Yet again, we had to completely unpack our bags and repack them (which took ages as we both had space saving stuff sacks/vaccum bags with our clothes in!). Susan had wisely removed the photos of her weeing into the Gates of Hell from her camera in case the border guards decided to go through them like they had on the way over from Turkmenistan. The Tajikistan side seemed a bit more relaxed and the guards were surprisingly chatty and friendly – when they asked where in England we were from and we told them Newcastle (as no one tends to know where Sunderland is) they responded with a chorus of “ALAN SHEEEEAREEEER!!!!!”. We wonder if Alan Shearer knows how popular he is among Tajik border control? At the other side there was the usual gaggle of “TAXITAXITAXI!”s and we opted to go with a bloke who had been chatting with the border guards, had official looking taxi ID (although he also later showed us his police ID, so we suspect he had one for every profession in his glove box) and offered us quite a reasonable price to get to Dushanbe. He took a detour on the way, heading in the wrong direction down a bumpy mud road saying he was going to pick up some more people, we were getting quite indignant that we weren’t going to pay the full taxi fare if there were other people getting in with us and also worried about heading off into the middle of nowhere with a random Tajik bloke picking up more blokes! It turned out that he was just going to pick up his gorgeous teenage daughters (who were dressed to impress in lovely traditional gowns), so we couldn’t really complain about that, although it was about half an hour detour and we were already pushed for time. This, combined with the traffic on the way from Termiz and the delay at the border meant it was looking highly unlikely that we would have any time at all to spend in Dushanbe as we were just going to have to head straight to the airport! We were gutted, as we could have saved ourselves a load of time and money by just heading straight to Khojand from Tashkent on a marshrutka instead! We were even more gutted when we actually got to Dushanbe as it looks like a lovely and interesting place – full of leafy parks and streets lined with tables and chairs outside of bars – it was a gorgeous sunny day and we were dying to just have a little beer on a terrace and enjoy a nice cosmopolitan city after the last few days of dodgy Uzbek industrial towns, Our taxi driver saw how sad we were at having to leave immediately and not getting to see any of the city, so he kindly took us on a brief drive around before heading to the airport. Even the airport was lovely! It is surrounded by a lovely park, filled with little kiosks selling cold beers. We went straight to buy our tickets and when they told us we had about half an hour to wait, so as security was similarly lax to Uzbekistan and we could just walk straight in we decided to spend it sitting in the park with a street beer in the sun. We had heard the tragic news about Terry Pratchett dying a few days ago and there was a gorgeous statue that reminded us of great A’tuin so we had a drink for that fabulous man next to it.
We landed in Khojand after dark and got in a taxi with a lad who insisted on picking up his friend who could speak good English so that he could help us. We were a bit suspicious as they were offering to take us to look at the river and the citadel and give us a tour of the town and we thought that they would maybe expect more money from us for being a “guide”, but it turned out they were just nice boys and the English speaking one helped us to find a hotel and recommended somewhere nice to go for dinner before wishing us a nice stay and heading off on their merry way, only asking for the taxi price we’d agreed. He even gave us his phone number in case we ran into any trouble or needed any help when we were there, bless! We were staying the night in the Hotel Khojand – fifty US dollars had got us an amazing shabby suite (after we nearly ended up in the cleaning cupboard while the hotel babushka laughed her head off at us) with two huge double bedrooms (complete with electric blankets and wonky chest of drawers, Susan was excited that her bedroom had huge windows on 3 of the walls and was thoroughly disappointed to pull back the curtains to reveal brick walls behind 2 of them ), a sitting room and a dressing room as well as the aforementioned babushka as security at the end of the corridor to keep the miscreants away.
We headed out to the recommended restaurant Visol just across the road (via an ATM – oh the luxury of readily available cash points that we can use! Nicely played Tajikistan!). There was no wine, but there was a full page of vodkas available by the bottle ranging from £2 to £20 (for Grey Goose or something like that). We went for a mid-range bottle at about £4 and some nice sock (juice in Russian – this sharp became a staple in our chut-chut Ruski vocabulary due to the amount of vodka and juice we consumed over the duration of the trip). The meal was delicious, Jill was excited to try her first proper kebab and Susan was so sick of having to eat cucumber and dill that she relented and had some fish, plus the now ubiquitous “try the various mushroom dishes” was a lush cheesy variety tonight. The restaurant had a great atmosphere and we were having a laugh with our waiter, Vlad, and entertaining the other customers when we invented a new way to do vodka shots like tequila – with cheese and rollmops replacing the salt and lime, and with our cackling as we recounted the past few days with each other, then ended up drinking ANOTHER bottle of vodka (at the start of the trip we wondered how we would get through 1 per meal but soon became like the locals and were onto 2 per meal). We nearly pooed ourselves when we got the bill as all the various dishes plus 2 bottles of vodka, several jugs of juice and a packet of Marlboro Lights only came to about £20! Nicely played Tajikistan!! We tipped Vlad about a fiver and he danced about the place like a madman and told us “I LOVE YOOOU!!!”.
We got talking to some lads outside the restaurant on the way out, who were mates with Vlad, and were probably waiting for him to finish (which wasn’t going to happen any time soon – by the looks of things it was a “stay open until the last customer leaves” place and a table of men had just arrived and were ordering foods) and they wanted us to go for a drink with them. We were umming and ah-ing as we were intending to be up quite early the next day to get the marshrutka to Osh, but they talked us round and we ended up agreeing to go just for the one so we got into a very swish looking Land Rover with DVD players in the seat backs with our new friends Max and Iskander. Their English was much better than our chut-chut Ruski and we managed to chat a bit while driving about and then Max decided to ring his friend who lived in Bishkek (when we told him we were headed there in a couple of day) who spoke good English. He handed the phone to Jill…
“Hello! You are friend of Max? Yes?”
“So…are you the one who is old, or the one who is fat?”
We were absolutely creased up laughing in the back of the car at this – obviously Max had been talking to his mate about the two English girls he had in his car and he had totally grassed him up for what he was saying! It was hilarious and we were interrogating the lads as to which one of us was the old one and which one the fat one and managed to get no definite answer out of them, so Susan consoled us with the pearl of wisdom “well look at it this way – at least one of us is young and one of us is thin!”.
We’d been driving around for a while and it was obvious we weren’t going to any bars, so we asked them if they could drop us back at the hotel via a shop for some sock for our vodka. They took us to this little kiosk hut and Jill dashed in and grabbed a couple of cartons of juice and some cigarettes, but Iskander wouldn’t let her pay for them! She tried slyly giving the money to the little babushka in the shop but she was having none of it either, so she had to relent and get back in the car with her free juice and tabs. The lads dropped us back at the hotel as promised with thankfully no funny business (although Max did try and have a little kiss with Susan but was headed off at the pass), and we had a few vodka-socks in sweet little china tea cups whilst sitting in our luxury sitting room before settling down to sleep in our luxury separate rooms with our luxury electric blankets. We had eventually caught up with our planned itinerary and the night was ours!