The first thing I noticed as I waited in the departure lounge in Istanbul to board my flight to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was the fact that I was surrounded by people speaking English. Americans, British, Swiss – you name it, everywhere I turned were government and nonprofit workers headed to Tajikistan. Aside from an intrepid group of Canadians on a tour to visit both Tajikistan and Afghanistan, I may have been the only tourist. And really, I wasn’t even a tourist – I was heading to the country to spend a month volunteering with the Zerafshan Tourism Development Association, a community based tourism organization based in Penjikent.
We landed in Dushanbe at 4:45 a.m. and spent the next two hours waiting in line to go through immigration – two booths for foreigners manned by possibly the slowest typing border guards ever. Once I was through, I nervously headed to the next room to find my backpack – my flight from Istanbul had been delayed and a man on the plane told me the flight crew already informed him his bag didn’t make it. I breathed a sigh of relief to see that my bag was one of just a few still sitting there.
As I exited the airport, I kept my eyes peeled for an ATM or currency exchange to no avail. Finally, I asked one of the many taxi drivers swarming around and, since he wanted to get paid, he led me to a currency exchange where I changed just $20 in an attempt to prevent him from seeing how much money I had and trying to overcharge me (which he did anyway).
A short ride later and I was walking into the dark, empty lobby of the Hotel Vakhsh. It was not my first choice of a place to stay in Dushanbe, but it was the only place affordable and available.
Or so I thought.
As I told the girl behind a small glass window my name, she informed me in Russian that she had no reservation for me and that they had no rooms. I insisted she was wrong, but she showed me the reservation list – handwritten in pencil on an 8 x 5 piece of paper. At that point, I was so exhausted and so emotionally drained, I just lost it and started crying. I sat down on a nearby couch as the woman rambled something to me in Russian that I didn’t understand and just kept crying until finally another woman appeared and they explained to me there was one room and I could look at it and if I liked it I could take it.
We headed up to the second floor and the woman ushered me into a decent size room with a tiny twin bed and an even tinier TV, with décor that no one had updated since Soviet times. A rotating fan stood in the corner. The bathroom was missing one key component: a sink. But, I tried the water and it came out clear and hot, so I went with it.
After a five hour nap with the fan blowing directly on me, I freshened up and headed out to get a SIM card, withdraw cash and find food. I was relieved when just a few blocks along Rudaki Avenue (the main drag), I found an ATM that accepted Cirrus cards. I happily withdrew enough Tajikistan Somoni to last me entire trip and then withdrew US dollars with my other card to add to my backup stash for later travel in the ‘Stans.
Go figure that finding a good ATM was one of the easiest things I did in Tajikistan.
Next, I headed to the Tcell store to get a SIM card. This should have been easy enough, but the guy behind the counter insisted on seeing my registration form. Problem was, I didn’t have one because they are no longer required for people visiting on tourist visas and staying less than 30 days. So off I went in search of another option. Luckily, as I headed back toward my hotel, I saw a Beeline store (the same provider I used in Russia and Georgia), where they were not only willing to sell me a SIM card without registration, but the girl behind the counter spoke English, making the entire transaction much easier.
My final stop was a familiar one – a Southern Fried Chicken fast food restaurant. I discovered this chain in Armenia and assumed it was Armenian (maybe it is?), so I was shocked and thrilled to find one in Dushanbe – something familiar was exactly what I needed and my lunch of chicken shashlik, French fries and coleslaw totally hit the spot.
After another rest (it was probably close to 100 degrees outside), I headed back out to explore Dushanbe on the only day I had in the capital. The city seemed to center on Rudaki Avenue, which pretty much went on forever. It was a wide, tree-lined street that curved after passing a large monument and park on the left hand side. I recalled reading somewhere that Dushanbe was either the most attractive or most pleasant capital in Central Asia, which didn’t give me much hope for the rest. It wasn’t horrible by any means and it was at least clean, there just wasn’t much that stood out.
After a couple hours of exploring, I stopped at a cafeteria-style restaurant for dinner called Café Merve (featuring a menu in English!) and then spent some time at an internet café – just 5 somoni (around $1) for about an hour. Not bad.
And as I headed back to my hotel to crash for the night, I got to watch the sun set over Dushanbe, bringing a pleasant end to a long first day in Tajikistan.