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October 28, 2002

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Tajikistan challenges the independent traveler because the roads are poor and the public transport overflows with jostling, scarf-headed women and swarthy, mustachioed men in square caps. From Khojand we squeeze onto a bus for a one hour ride to Istaravshan that turns into two hours because we run out of gas after five minutes. We sweat it out with fifty other passengers who entertain themselves by staring at the foreigners. In Istaravshan, also called Urateppe to make things easier, we explore the bazaar and narrow streets of 'stary gorod.' We walk around, the center of attention, until we cram into a service taxi with three other people and a load of blankets. The driver is monosyllabic but we don't care because we want him to drive, not talk, and the way he drives would whiten a young Tajik's beard; he has an annoying habit of driving straight at trucks as if he owns the road even though his car weighs two tons less. The blanket salesman never smiles; he has a cheese wedge face, a Swiss cheese complexion, and he smells like goat cheese. The other passenger is a Russian Tajik, Svetlan, who teaches us 'chut-chut Ruskie.' We could have used the blankets as we went higher into the mountains, our Russian-made car jounced all over the unpaved road and the open windows let dust cover us deeper than snow on the peaks. The dirt track leads us over tight pass and through a few mud-brick villages, each house piled with hay on the roof like too much icing on a cake. After five hours the driver dumped us in Penjikent, a city that Alexander might have visited except he would have taken a bath in the river to clean off the dust. We're left in a hotel that's a house of horrors; there's no water to wash ourselves but the cockroaches and bed-bugs don't seem to mind.
When is the bus full? Bring your own seat cushion and sit in the aisle.
Mens club at the Istaravshan market. Walk in here and have turnips, corn, potatoes, and onions all thrust in your face at once, everyone vying for your attention and asking for just a few Tajik somani.
As close as we could get to any religious site in Istaravshan, our fundamentalist taxi driver refused to let a camera near any mosque or medressa.
Dust, fumes, and a driver who ignores simple laws of physics - bigger vehicles have right-or-way.
The Uzbekistan government claims guerrillas hide in these Tajik mountains. The guerrillas fight over territorial disputes between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan claims Samarqand and Bukhara belong to them (Stalin placed these ethnically Tajik towns in Uzbekistan because of his divide-and-rule policy)
Mountain village landmark: the sign that points the way out of town.