October 15, 2012
Another early morning wake up and we were off to Tajikistan. When we arrived at the border, it was completely deserted with the exception of a few locals just hanging around. The strange thing about this particular border crossing is that Uzbek and Tajik citizens can’t use it – it is only open to foreigners. As you can imagine, this particular area of the world doesn’t have many tourists passing through, so we were the only travelers that morning. Now, with the lack of people passing through you would think that the process would go rather quickly, but you would wrong. Our passports and customs forms (and for God’s sake don’t lost it; you don’t want to find out the consequences!) were checked by three different officers, and our bags were inspected by an extremely bored looking guard. Also unusual about this border crossing, aside from the complete lack of travelers, was that I received not one, but two marriage proposals – one from the Uzbek customs officer who went through my luggage and another from the Kalashnikov toting soldier who escorted us out of Uzbekistan. Nice enough guys, but I declined. I can’t cook plov worth a damn so wouldn’t make a very good Uzbek wife. Also, I like living in Seattle.
The process on the Tajik side of the border was much quicker, and we were finally off to Khujand. Immediately crossing the border, you could tell that the Tajik villages were much poorer than their Uzbek counterparts across the border. There were no brand new, appliance filled tract homes being built by the government, as was happening in Uzbekistan.
The fall of the Soviet Union has not been kind to Tajikistan. After the disintegration of the Soviet empire, Tajikistan descended into a civil war that lasted five years and left the country politically, economically, and socially devastated. Relationships with its neighboring countries have also soured. Despite being lumped into the USSR together for over sixty years, the ‘Stans don’t play well with each other, and relations have become so fraught that over the years borders have been sown with landmines and skirmishes have erupted between border guards who only decades earlier, as schoolchildren, had sung the same Soviet anthem.
(From Lonely Planet)
One of the main reasons these countries spend so much time fighting each other is the same reason why countries around the world do so: natural resources. Not oil in this case, but water, which is even more valuable in this landlocked part of the world, and something that Tajikistan has in abundance. Tajikistan, energy poor and plagued by electricity shortages, wants to build more dams in order to harness hydroelectric power and become independent from its neighbors, who cut off the electricity and oil and gas supplies to Tajikistan at will. The government in Dushanbe sees hydroelectric power as the key to economic development; not only would domestic industry be assured a constant supply of cheap energy, but any extra could be sold to neighboring countries. Uzbekistan objects to the dam construction, however, because this would allow Tajikistan control over the water supply that feeds the irrigation canals lining Uzbekistan’s water hungry and wasteful cotton fields.
So Uzbekistan will block rail transit, cut off energy supplies, and close borders, which makes Tajikistan even more determined to dam these rivers and make for reasons of economic self sufficiency and security. And so it just becomes this downward spiral of economic warfare between these countries.
But enough of politics.
On the way to Khujand, we made a quick stop and unintentionally found ourselves outside the gates of an army base. A curious young soldier boarded our bus and politely asked if he could take a picture of us. Again, not many tourists in this part of the world.
The picture I took of a Tajik soldier taking a picture of us.
Two hours after departing the border, we finally arrived in Khujand, formerly known as Leninabad. With a population of 165,000, it is the second largest city in the country. Khujand has ancient roots going as far back as the 6th/5th century BC and during its history has been conquered by the forces of Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan and served as a major staging point on the northern Silk Road.
Our first stop in Khujand was the Panjshanbe market located in the city center. Not many tourists come through there, so all the locals kept asking us where we were from (“Otkuda vy?” or the simpler “Otkuda?”). When I told them the USA, they would reply “I love America!” or “George Washington!” One guy showed us the almonds he was selling and proudly told us they came from California. Of our short time in Tajikistan, this is the experience that stands out in my memory the most. I loved interacting with the locals at this market. Throughout all my travels, they were some of the friendliest and most genuine people I have ever met.
Showing his appreciation for California almonds 🙂
Giant mounds of cream cheese!
We later visited the Sughd Historical Museum, which was an excellent museum and well worth a visit if you find yourself in this part of the country.
We ended the day with an excellent Shashlik dinner (because meat on giant skewers = awesome) and headed back to our rooms to prepare for the early morning departure back to Uzbekistan.