The Bukhara-Dushanbe Relay

Denov Travel Blog

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Me & Ali at the rock gap, Surkhondaryo Province
My mantra has been "experience for the sake of experiencing," and I had to repeat that many times during one of the longest day's I've experienced in awhile. In order to get to Dushanbe, I wanted to leave early from Bukhara, anticipating a long day with potential delays. I got more than I bargained for, but overall it was worth the experience, especially now that it's over. I strapped on my backpack and walked to the main road from Rahima's, in hopes I would catch a marshrutka to the "Sharq" bus station where the eastbound taxis supposedly originated. Instead I opted for a taxi when several marshrutkas passed me by, full of locals heading to work or the bazaar. I agreed to pay 3000 sums and soon the driver, named Islom just like the Uzbekistan president, was asking me where I was going. He was very friendly and became instantly concerned when I told him I was heading east. In a thick accent, he warned me not to trust anyone from Qarshi, where the taxi would surely pass through. He promised to negotiate with the taxi drivers to make sure I wouldn't get ripped off, ambushed or otherwise taken advantage of. He quickly found the father of one of his former classmates and we negotiated a price, slightly higher than I wanted to pay but within the range that I had been assured was the going rate. Islom gave me his number and invited me to give him a call the next time I was in town.

The taxi pulled around and I ended up being the magic #4 to fill the seats, which meant I got the middle hump in the back seat. It wasn't long before I was feeling the numbness that occurs with a long ride. The drive to Qarshi was about an hour and a half, and for the most part resembled rural New Mexico fairly soon after we left Bukhara. I tried to doze off, but there wasn't much luck in napping. On the outskirts of Qarshi, the taxi driver dropped off the two backseat passengers and I could at least stretch out, but I knew I would not have the back seat to myself for long.

We drove to an obscure mini bazaar somewhere near downtown Qarshi where, to my surprise, the driver said that I would pay him the money and he would find me another taxi to drive me to the border. I didn't like the sound of that, but something told me to trust Islom's recommendation and I reticently handed over the money, which was 100 sum short of the 50,000 I had agreed to...I was completely out of Uzbek money even after changing the $20 the previous night. But that was not a problem, and I just hoped I didn't need anymore sum for the rest of the journey, which was only a small fraction completed.

I got into another taxi, this time scoring the front seat, but feeling a little guilty after seeing two adults, including an 82-year old woman, and two children crammed in the back seat and my huge backpack hip belts sticking out over the back seat. The hatchback "trunk" in the little car provided only about 10-15 inches of space but the driver managed to make everything fit enough to close it. We did a U-turn in the middle of the road and waited for a few minutes on the other side when one more person showed up and squeezed in the back. They were all related. The taxi driver was another friendly sort, and introduced himself as Ali. Throughout the long drive he kept up conversation, which proved to be a little more stimulating than typical discussions. We talked about family, the failing economy, world politics, cultural differences and most surprisingly how they felt it was time for Mr. Karimov to step down as president. Both agreed that "17 years is long enough to be president," and is certainly not democratic.

The landscape from Qarshi eastward grew increasingly hilly until we were amidst barren and dusty low mountains, resembling pictures I'd seen of Afghanistan. We passed through a few villages and towns, such as Dehqonobod, Darband and Boysun. The latter city was a true oasis springing up out of nothing and looking quite verdant and clean. The roads were rough, as Ali was wont to comment on frequently, which slowed us down considerably as we reduced speed to avoid bumps, potholes and broken pavement as well as oncoming traffic doing the same. In the mountains the road curved, then dipped to ford a nonexistant stream, and the rock formations in all directions were spectacularly jagged. We pulled over and took several pictures to commemorate the marathon drive and amazing geology. Layers of rock, known as geosynclines, revealed the various centuries of development of the land. On past the rock gap, we spotted few people, mostly children walking for several miles from school back home, neither of which were visible from the road. Mud and straw houses were occasionally wedged on a precipice or into a cliffside.

The sun was hot, so we placed towels over the side windows and closed the doors to seal out the sunlight. Still, it was hot and the air was stagnant. The long drive was getting to everyone. We made a stop atop a small hill where a boy was selling apples. Ali handed me one, and it was crunchy and delicious, a welcome treat after not having lunch and trying to avoid drinking much water so as to avoid bathroom stops. The apple stop then became the bathroom stop which eased the remainder of the drive to the largest city nearest the border, Denov.

Denov, also seen spelled "Denau," but pronounced like "Dino," was a wild, bustling town. The guy from the back seat even said there weren't many people there, but I'd never seen so many people in a town of that size, with traffic congestion to boot. We dropped the guy off at the chaotic bazaar and tried for awhile to find where to drop off the other people, who were heading to some village nearby. By then it was 4:30 and getting late for village-bound minibuses. Ali had struck a deal with me earlier that when we got to Denov I would be his guest for some tea, and since he'd been so nice and wasn't paying him directly, how could I refuse. So we went to a small cafe on a side street away from the cacophony where he greeted his comrades with big hugs and handshakes. We were taken to the back, where the dining room portion of the cafe was under construction so we sat down at a little table under the makeshift roof.

Coca-Cola, hot bread and spicy dipping sauce were served right away, followed by a plate of meat and onions. Ali was sprinkling salt on it when the lid fell off, spilling all the salt over a portion of the meat. His friend and I both couldn't contain our laughter, and I thought about making a joke that it needed more salt, but poor Ali looked tired enough and I didn't want to haze him any more than his friend was already doing. The meat was actually quite tasty, and we dipped the bread in the greasy drippings. It was a satisfying meal and I felt my strength regained enough to continue the journey.

I didn't want to assume we were going to head directly to the border, now that the cab was empty, but similar to the previous trade-off, Ali negotiated with a minivan driver to take me to the border. He was delivering two other people to nearby villages with their cargo of vegetables and supplies, and I thought I heard him strike the bargain of 3000 sums. I wondered how much he got for taking me from Qarshi to Denov, as I didn't see that transaction. He'd asked me once how much I paid the first driver, and uncomfortably I told him, but wished I hadn't. He didn't say anything further and never asked for more money, but I had a feeling he felt ripped off by the first driver. So we said goodbye and I was off on another taxi.

The sun was low in the sky and as we headed out of Denov, the horizon was lined with mountains of various heights, all illuminated by the setting sun in shades of pink, purple, yellow and brown. The snowcapped Fann mountains were clearly visible, and I later found out that was a rare treat. We had a small tussle at the last district border when the other two passengers didn't have their passports and the driver got in an argument with the checkpoint officer about the contents of the bags in the trunk. Eventually we were allowed to pass, but the driver would need to pass through the checkpoint again and I knew he would have to fight all over again.

By the time I got to the border, the sun was just setting. There was enough light for me to change some dollars into Tajik somoni on the Uzbek side, and although I think I was shortchanged a few dollars, it turned out to be worthwhile since there were no moneychangers after that point. I walked through two police checks, then to the actual customs house, where I filled out two forms identical to those I filled out upon entering the country. Despite my worries about getting hassled at the border and any potential discrepancies on my currency declaration, registration or other travel details, the border officer took my papers and without even looking at them started asking me questions similar to those you get when crossing the US-Canadian border. Once he discovered my Uzbek was good, his questions got more annoying. A female officer then came over and wondered why on earth I was traveling to Tajikistan. Eventually they let me go, and I received a light green departure stamp in my passport.

By that time it was completely dark and I had to rummage for my flashlight so I could navigate the road through the next series of checkpoints. The Tajik side was fairly painless, although I'm sure no one was expecting to see an American with a human-sized backpack strapped to his back and an infant-sized daypack on the front come waddling through the dark. I filled out the simple form, which was in Tajik, Russian and broken English, and was on my way to what appeared to be more pitch blackness, but about five minutes later was actually the final border control. My lack of Tajik and Russian language skills was immediately apparent here, where I had to resort to going through the lone shopkeeper as a translator in Uzbek. There were no taxis and pretty much no further hope of getting anywhere unless I was willing to pay for a full taxi. After realizing this was my only chance, I negotiated in Uzbek and Tajik, with the help of a phrasebook, and agreed to the price of USD 35, since I did not have enough somoni. I called my host, Symon, from the shopkeeper's son's cell phone and used up all his minutes, so I had to pay 5 somoni (about $1.65) and agreed to take the taxi to Dushanbe.

My taxi driver was actually a border patrol officer who closely resembled George Clooney but spoke only Tajik and Russian. He was able to speak with Symon on the phone to figure out where to drop me off, and we were on our way. Another passenger materialized out of nowhere--an elderly woman recovering from a cold, apparent by her repeated sniffles and phlegmatic cough. The 75-kilometer ride was fairly quick, and a nearly full moon accompanied us on the silent drive.

By 9:00 pm, I had finally arrived in Tajikistan's capital and met my host, Symon, an aid worker who had been here for a year and was now consulting. He had made plans to meet some friends at a bar at 9:30 and wondered if I wanted to go. Why not, what's a few beers after a long journey, so we headed to a place called simply Irish Bar, where empty cans of Guinness lined the wall teasing customers with a false hope that the tasty beer might actually be served. Instead we ordered Baltikas, which was all they had, and sat down outside in the nice cool evening. The crowd was mostly expats, and I soon met some of them, including someone from the embassy who assured me I could take care of voting on Monday.

It was an enjoyable evening, and a very strange transition from traveling and roughing it to the expat scene. We stayed out until 1 and then shared a beer and watched Russia Today when we got back. It's a good way to be welcomed to a new country, and as an added bonus I slept in a real bed and got a full night's sleep for once.
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Me & Ali at the rock gap, Surkhond…
Me & Ali at the rock gap, Surkhon…
photo by: sayohat