Back in the Kyrgyzstani city of Osh a Westerner had told me a young woman, fluent in English, runs an excellent homestay in this town on the Afghanistan border. I leave my Pamir Highway companions while they’re trying desperately to get a SIM card for internet access on their phones. “I haven’t checked Instagram in days, isn’t that awful?!” one whines. I don’t have the patience for this bullshit, so I slip our driver my remaining Kyrgyz colorful banknotes as a tip and head out.
Afghanistan is just across the river a few hundred meters away, the tall craggy spires of the Hindu Kush rising up against the cloudless sky. Soviet and American-led coalition troops invaded Afghanistan from this small town. There’s no sign of life on the brown Afghan side, but in Tajikistan the town is bustling. I’d written down directions to the recommended homestay, and with my backpack on my shoulders I navigate the Cyrillic signs bearing Persian street names.
A young woman with an infant show me to my room, and she lights up when I tell her I’m from Ohio. “I did a year abroad studying in Akron!” $15 a night (“please pay in US dollars,” nobody in Central Asia wants their own currency) includes breakfast, prepared by a friendly Persian woman who doesn’t speak English. There are multiple generations living in this house, and it feels lively.
I’m unable to buy a ticket on the Tajik Air propeller plane through the Afghan Hindu Kush. It’s supposed to be a spectacular flight to the capital city Dushanbe, through the Hindu Kush rather than over them because of their height. But because of those hazards flights can only happen during perfect weather. With last week’s storms, there’s a backlog that even a bribe can’t overcome. So it’s a 13 hour shared taxi ride on bumpy unpaved Tajik highways, packed close with an assortment of extremely friendly Tajiks who have never met an Amerikansk before. An exhausted mother passes out in the front seat, and her baby is handed around and taken care of by strangers. I take a turn holding and passing around the newborn, which seems a lot of trust to put in some random foreigner you just met, but there seems to be a lot of trust in strangers.
Taxi drivers are the scum of the Earth, and they seem particularly bad in Central Asia. But it’s late, I’m in a foreign city, and some random guy on the street offers to take me to my Dushanbe hostel for $2. I take him up on it, and within 15 minutes I’m reading the notice on the hostel door from the Tajik government that “the terrorist threat has been eliminated.” A reference to an attack by fundamentalist Tajik separatists a couple weeks prior in which a car drove into a group of Western cyclists, killing four. The government retaliated by shooting a bunch of people that may or may not have been involved and then paraded their bodies on television. Authoritarian regimes in places that depend on foreign tourist dollars tend to quickly dispose of anyone who harms a tourist.
“What’s there to do in Dushanbe?” I ask an American-Israeli couple with whom I share the hostel bunk room. They started off on the trans-Siberian in Russia and have slowly been making their way through Central Asia.
“We’ve been here two days and we’re not really sure. The cafes are nice, though,” the American replies. After being on the road for most of seven days in the poorest and least developed of the former Soviet Union, I’m totally down for hanging out in European cafes and chatting with others in the hostel. Most of the hostel denizens in Central Asia are young locals from neighboring countries, here for work or study. This hostel in Dushanbe has some foreigners that speak English, along with comfortable common rooms to pass the hours chatting while my laundry dries in the sun. A couple of the backpackers have just come in from Uzbekistan, my next stop, and I trade information on the Pamir Highway and Kyrgyzstan for some help with my last and most anticipated Stan.
Uzbekistan, although not as bad as before, has restrictive currency controls with no ATMs connected to the international financial network. Usually I just use my Charles Schwab debit card to withdraw small amounts of cash as needed, since the card has zero foreign transaction costs and refunds all ATM fees (I got back $750 in ATM fees during my six months in South America). That won’t fly in Uzbekistan, where you need to bring in all money for your trip in hard currency. Dollars are by far the easiest to trade, but some exchange bureaus also take euros, pounds, and Japanese yen. I’ve been hearing horror stories of backpackers hoping to rely on using a debit card to withdraw cash and running out of foreign currency while their embassy can’t do anything to help.
Some of the ATMs in Dushanbe spit out $100 bills, which is what everyone here uses for their savings. I plan to splurge on luxury in Uzbekistan, so I bring with me about $600 to last two weeks. Which would normally be extreme overkill, but I’m tired of staying in hostels and want my own room for a while. And I want a break from plov, the bland local staple of rice with a bit of meat and vegetables. After some months in China I’ve become spoiled when it comes to food.
The cafes of Dushanbe are nice, and one waiter tells me in halting English that my blue eyes are beautiful. I’m out of Persia and back in Turkish Asia, where everyone has brown eyes. I’m getting closer to Europe and the people are starting to look the part more than they did further east, with the facial features and skin color changing gradually as I progress farther on the Silk Road from Xi’an and get ever closer to Istanbul.
The Dushanbe hostel workers are all friendly and speak excellent English. They help me get a taxi to the “bus station.” Here the station is an open piece of land full of parked cars and drivers trying to get passengers to split the fuel costs of wherever they’re going. When they see me, an obvious foreigner, I get swarmed with offers. I already know the going rate for the five hour drive to Khujand, an old Persian Silk Road town by the Uzbek border, but I agree to pay $1 more to get a good seat in a car that’s about to leave (otherwise you might have to wait 45 minutes). I refuse to be one of those foreigners that haggles over 10 cents, especially here where everything is already dirt cheap.
One of the elderly women in the carpool to Khujand practically adopts me, calling up my hostel for directions and making sure I get to the door safely. Maybe I look particularly helpless, but whenever I travel off the beaten path the locals really go out of their way to make sure things go well for me. That’s been true in rural Montana, obscure corners of the Peruvian Andes, and especially Central Asia.
Sitting in cars on those bumpy old Soviet roads isn’t quite relaxing, and all I want to do in the Khujand hostel is lay on cushions and drink green tea. A Japanese backpacker, the only other foreigner, joins me. We pull out our notebooks and trade info on Kyrgyzstan, which I just visited and he’s heading to next, and I get info on Uzbekistan, which he just left. I also swap my leftover Kyrgyz cash for some Japanese yen, which I’ve heard I can trade for local currency at the Tashkent train station in Uzbekistan.
The central market in Khujand is interesting for an hour or so, but there’s not a ton else to do in town so I just wander around. A day and a half is plenty.
A Russian dude at my hostel uses sign language to tell me to accompany him, and I pick up that somehow I’ll get to Uzbekistan if I go with him. I’ve heard rumors of a direct bus to the capital city of Tashkent, and after a 12 cent minibus ride weaving through the morning traffic we reach the outskirts of the city and arrive at what looks like a bus terminal. I have enough basic Russian to know that the ticket office is selling seats for the 8am departure to Uzbekistan, so I buy a ticket and then go stand with the vendors outside until a crowd gathers around what I think is my bus.
Uzbekistan is an authoritarian police state which has a reputation for widespread corruption, economic dysfunction, and overzealous morality police. The latter can be bad at borders, and I’ve heard of officials going through foreigners’ phones looking for blasphemous material. I downloaded an app which helps me hide any files I think might offend the border guards, though I’ve heard that recently border formalities have gotten much easier.
Leaving Tajikistan is the worst border crossing I have yet to experience. It’s a mob of humanity crowding against a tiny window, everyone shoving their passport in the guard’s face to try to get out of that humid, overheated nightmare. A babushka tries to use her grandkids to push to the front, and in the process slams her granddaughter’s face into my elbow. I refuse to budge, and the child starts sobbing on the floor while her grandmother just pushes ahead to try to get an exit stamp.
Eventually I get my coveted stamp and vow never to return. Everyone gets back on the bus, exit control having taken an hour and a half, and we drive three minutes to the Uzbek entry building. It’s much more calm and organized here, with a real line. Two weeks ago Uzbekistan started allowing foreigners to acquire a visa online, which included a three day wait and $30 (previously $160!). The border guard seems surprised to see an American passport, and picks up his phone to make calls. Nobody seems to pick up so he just tells me that he loves American pro wrestling, stamps my passport, and tells me to love his country.
The bus drops me off in some random corner of Tashkent, the capital city. It’s horridly hot and I go looking without success for a bank to exchange dollars to local cash. The 25 minute taxi ride to my hostel should cost $2 to $3, but the smallest bill I have is $5. The driver’s face lights up when I give it to him, and he looks like he’s about to start crying. The whole spectacle is a little off putting, so I just grab my bag and head into the hostel. Beds are $4 each, and I’m so ready to have my own room that I just buy all four beds in a dorm room. The owner acts like I’m some super rich big spender and I start to get an idea of how cheap Uzbekistan is.