24 Hours in Istaravshan

Istaravshan Travel Blog

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Main entrance to Istaravshan's bazaar

With my backpack on I weaved through the busy streets next to the bazaar looking for a hotel. My contact, Bahtiyor, had his phone off and I didn't want to waste more time waiting so I was going to just find a hotel and start looking around. The first hotel was on a side street from bazaar, but no one was at the reception desk. I tried to call another hotel but they didn't answer. Eventually I found a place directly next to the main entrance. A beefy bald guy showed me my room and explained I should pay 25 somoni up front and would have the room until 3pm. The room was a bit grotty but was private and even had its own toilet and sink not to mention a heater and television. Compared to some places, this was luxury, so I quickly dropped my stuff and headed out into the dusty streets.

The kids at Kok Gumbaz

I met some moneychangers at the entrance who were friendly and curious as to why I was in town. A juice salesman at the entrance to the bazaar gladly showed me to a good oshxona where I had the best laghman (noodle soup) I've ever had in Central Asia, along with a mug for instant coffee that I was allowed to make myself. After a filling lunch and relatively delicious coffee all for only 4 somoni, I wandered towards the old town, supposedly one of the better preserved ones in the country. I passed a choyxona where I was impatiently waved over to have tea with an old man. Then another authoritanian-looking man came over and spoke only Russian I didn't understand other than he was with "Komsomol," some kind of government affiliation. We went to his office where I sat down and was grilled in more Russian I didn't understand.

Sary Mazar and an 800-year old chinar tree
Even with the dictionary I couldn't figure out why I was being detained. After showing my passport and telling them I had a place to stay, I said I'm just a tourist. After that I think they were relieved and I was sent away with one of the men escorting me to the Hauz-i-Sangin mosque a few alleyways away. He then pointed me on and left in some kind of hurry, as I scratched my head still wondering about the strange encounter at the teahouse.

A few more streets away I discovered the large Abdullatif Sultan medressa, better known as Kok Gumbaz or "Blue Dome" for obvious reasons. A group of excited little boys followed me around, and inside the medressa one showed me a secret passageway that led to the top of the building where I could see over much of the city.

Get your ice cream and gasoline at the same shop...just don't complain about the smell
It was a little rickety as we stood on the tin roof, the thin metal buckling under my weight. When we climbed down I noticed the classrooms full of students, so I quietly exited the medressa and chatted with a few of the boys outside. I walked through the crooked streets, which were all renovated with drains and looked much newer than what I expected for an "old city," but the maze of streets is what was intact. At the main road, I found the Hazrat-i-Shah mosque next to a small memorial. Across the road was a neglected park with busts of famous Soviet leaders and a crying mother statue. Mount Mug in the background was the location of the famed raid by Alexander the Great.

After staying a little too late at the Internet cafe, I noticed the formerly busy town was quiet and everything was closed.

Istaravshan's main street and an old car
I eventually found a small cafe about 400 meters from my hotel room and settled in for some shashlyk and beer. While both tasted good after a long day, I wouldn't suggest the combination due to the thick, waxy layer of grease the shashlyk left on the roof of my mouth and crevices between my teeth. I met some friendly people there who asked me to come back in the morning for breakfast. One of the older men literally jumped in the air when I told him I wasn't married at age 35.

The next morning, the 7th, I returned to the cafe where I not only had breakfast but a fairly good conversation about computers and business. The city was just as bustling and dusty as it was the previous afternoon, but the sun was making more of an attempt to shine through the clouds.

Feel the energy at the bazaar
After breakfast and walking through the bazaar where I purchased some fragrant zira (cumin) and coriander, I hired a taxi to take me to the remaining sites in scattered parts of town. For 15 somoni, Rustam drove me to the Mazar-i-Chor Gumbaz, a mausoleum with a rather drab exterior hidden deep in the old city. The ceilings were quite impressed, as promised by the old guidebook, but my favorite site was the Sary Mazar, a complex consisting of a colorful mosque, two mausoleums and some ancient chinar trees that were marked with plaques. Sary Mazar means "yellow tomb" and although they weren't quite yellow, the brickwork was definitely more ochre in color and I could see where they got the name. It was in a remote part of town but very peaceful even with the small group of children that followed me and the taxi driver around the grounds like lemmings.

The trip didn't take very long, but I had the driver drop me off at the post office where I hope I was successful in sending a letter. I paid 2 somoni and handed my letter to a man who assured me it would be sent the next day. The actual lobby was under construction and appeared not to have the normal staffing. I decided it would be a test of the Tajik postal system and walked back towards town.

Istaravshan had an energy that I couldn't quite place but felt and truly enjoyed. It was extremely dusty, rough around the edges and busier than even Dushanbe, but it grew on me and I almost stayed another day to absorb the atmosphere. In a way it reminded me of the frenetic streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and was unlike any other city I'd visited in Tajikistan. After a rather disappointing laghman at the same oshxona I'd had lunch at the previous day, I decided to head north to Tajikistan's second city and hopped in a taxi just steps from the hotel and within 5 minutes we were leaving old Istaravshan behind in a trail of dust, bound for Khojand.

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Main entrance to Istaravshans baz…
Main entrance to Istaravshan's ba…
The kids at Kok Gumbaz
The kids at Kok Gumbaz
Sary Mazar and an 800-year old chi…
Sary Mazar and an 800-year old ch…
Get your ice cream and gasoline at…
Get your ice cream and gasoline a…
Istaravshans main street and an o…
Istaravshan's main street and an …
Feel the energy at the bazaar
Feel the energy at the bazaar
photo by: sayohat