14th July, day 2 in Dushanbe: when the day dawned it hadn’t looked any more or less exciting than day 1 and I was eager to discover if I could discover some more fine corners of this city without corners and even more dazzling girls than before and if familiarity would indeed rob my senses the much coveted hint of adventure. I didn’t have much as an agenda. But then the morning rolled and things started to happen of their own accord.
Gulja called and said she wanted to meet up over lunch to discuss more about her India trip that she was now considering seriously. Considering that she wanted to visit Armenia and Iran before India, and to a country that actually doesn’t officially exist, with a trip in between to Berlin to drop her stuff there and then perhaps dip into West Africa somewhere, was making her all stressed and dizzy so she wanted my help to sort it out. Gulja’s confusion and distress was well justified though not necessarily well defined and as I specialize on such travel travails, I had to help her to get even more confused. Then came the call from my local support agency guy who would meet up to hand me the much awaited and priceless piece of paper called border permits or GBAO permit. This permit is imperative if you wish to go to the Pamir Mountains and Wakhan.
But my morning quest begins with a wild goose chase for the two supposedly shops selling camping gas. It is very easy to find an address on Rudaki since they are all numbered perfectly, with all even numbers on one side of the street and the odd ones on the other. And they are written in English script too and in rather large bold letterings. One was 148 Rudaki the other being 56 Rudaki. Now for some insane reason I thought the latter was 48 Rudaki. So I walk on and on and on and on eyeing the Rudaki numbers, finally reaching 144 on one side and 155 on the other and then there’s nothing. I go around in circles, ask people who obviously don’t understand a syllable of what I am uttering and vice versa. So I give up finally for the day and hop into bus no 1 to get my first public transport experience.
As expected and hoped, the bus is filled with beautiful girls and plumpish elderly women, all very decked up in simple rustic manner. I pay the fare of 1 TJS and clamp down next to a young girl with braces. The bus, though filled up by Tajik standards, is nearly empty by Indian scale. I am not touching any of my fellow travelers and no one is falling on me either. There’s enough room for me to flex my shoulders and arms akimbo if I so desire. At 1 TJS or 60 dhirams, one can almost go anywhere and this is really cheap mode of transport. As the bus, which is clean and well kept, bounces and jostles forward I begin my love affair with the buses of Dushanbe. Each bus is colored in Green and white and is normally managed by a driver, who is obviously driving and two boys collecting money in return of passage. There’s no concept of a ticket or such things. You hop in, hand over the money and stay put and shut till your alighting point arrives. Easy and simple and really quick too. And with excellent shock absorbers and suspension they are really a joy ride. The seat in front of the girl with braces gets empty and amazingly she offers it to me with a smile. To which I nod my head and gesture her to take it. Which she does with another sparkling smile. I am not sure why she offered me the seat, due to my being a visitor to her country or did she think I was a super old guy or she was just being nice and courteous to an elder (she couldn’t be over 16 or 17). Whatever may be the case, it is unthinkable that a young girl would offer seat to a man in India.
I arrive outside the pedagogy institute to meet up with the guy from my support agency, Pamir Silk Travels. He takes my documents and we start walking on Rudaki towards my RV point with Gulja. We cross the Parliament and part company, deciding to meet in front of opera later in the evening when he would get my permits for the Pamir. I walk down slowly under the tree canopies along the central pathway that divides a street into two. These can be called poor Central Asian cousins of such pathways in London or NYC. One can find sleeping or amorous couples on benches along these paths.
With my LP guide (which is really not good for Central Asia) held like a hornet bee, I reach the Square in front of the famous Ayni Opera and Ballet Theatre. The square is really a square with Parisian cafes and eating tables around a large pool of water sprouts in the centre. The impressive Opera building forms an interesting background to the square. People hang around this square for hours drinking or eating or just day dreaming. The water sprouts through water jets above that falls like drizzle later. This makes the area rather cool and bit wet and a place to relax in this heat. I take few pictures of the Opera and the fountains and then Gulja arrives all hustled and bustled.
We order some food and I go little adventurous with local delicacies. The waitresses are all modern dressed unlike the ones we saw previous day at Rokhat Teahouse. While paying our bill and accepting the change the lady offered, I realize that here you don’t need to pay any tips since the waitress collects her own tips, as whatever she thinks she deserves, out of the monies paid by the customer and the balance is returned. So today when I paid my bill of 14.5 TJS with bills of 10 and 5 TJS, she returned me only 20 dirham, which makes her tips as 30 dirham.
We worked out to some sane semblance Gulja’s likely itinerary for India and then she left for the nearest internet café, where she had already spent like 5 hours on research as how to make her trips to Armenia, Iran and India fall exactly in that order.
I suggest that she should toss them all up in the air and then let them fall to the ground and form their own order aka chaos theory. After she leaves, I stroll down to the other side of the street and reach the famous (one of the must see and do in Dushanbe) Museum of National Antiquities. I see the timing and decide to return tomorrow as I wished to spend more time inside taking pictures. This museum is world famous for its exhibits and I didn’t wish to rush it. From there I ambled back to the opera for few shots and then I walked down the Chekov Street (Nissor Mohammed Street) reaching shortly the Zillioni Bazaar of Dushanbe.
This is Dushanbe’s largest bazaar and is now known as Shah Mansur Bazaar. I was thinking that maybe I would be pestered or persecuted by vendors like another Mediterranean or Asian bazaar in places such as Turkey, Syria, Egypt, etc (where your limbs would be pulled in opposite directions by opposite forces – of which I would write some day). So I entered the bustling but surprisingly not loud bazaar of Shah Mansur. Even before I had reached the bazaar, my nose had found the whiff of fresh nan (Tajik bread), roasted meat, spices and condiments. The pavement just outside had mountain heaps of watermelons, musk melons and bananas, and several other rather healthy looking fruits. There were people everywhere doing what people normally do in a bazaar anywhere. I tightened the strap of my knapsack and ventured forth right into the eye of the storm like Indiana Jones did to rescue Noah’s Ark.
The first few stalls are of onions and potatoes and the sellers just look at me or completely ignore me and my intentions. Only one melon seller, a young boy, poked at me jovially and I poked him back and we both laughed. All the pretty girls here wore traditional kurta and kameez. No pyt here with jeans or skirts, I guess the Tajik dress is more suited for the bazaar. I reached the arched entrance to the inner bazaar and found a group of gaggling women with heap loads of nan. It was a sight to satisfy my eyes but ignite my passion (for food). I just inquired the prices of the nan to the women, knowing fully well I had no intentions of buying and we would never understand each other, but then, one cannot just pass by a pretty nan seller and not talk.
So, much amusement and gesturing followed, finally they too understood I was having fun, and everyone laughed at my comic demeanor. It’s not a bad thing to get lost in a lost place where you are lost for words and expressions. Happens with me all the time. But smile is a great moment molder and it can get you far. After the nan-vendors I crossed few more vegetable sellers and few kiosks with all sorts of grocery and eggs. Then I entered the inner sanctum of spices and dry fruit and lollies and sweet sellers. This building has very high roof with sellers sitting in rows and columns, fanning themselves listless with mounds of the most delicious looking and tasting (I did get a free sampling; I am an Indian after all) nuts, raisins, apricots, dry peaches, almonds, etc that Central Asia is synonymous with. Here too I just couldn’t make myself understand to anyone. And then one vendor directed me to another, who pointed at another and then another and back to the earlier one, each claiming that the other can speak some English.
I understood it is a fun game for them since I went around like a bull terrier chasing it’s own tail and returning to the point where he started spinning from. It is imperative that to see the funnier side of the world and everything, you must first learn to laugh on your ownself and make yourself the last comic standing. So I burst out in loud guffaws along with all the vendors and enjoyed their game to the extent. I waved at them and left the place to venture even deeper. The bazaar seemed to grow as I went further, not seeing the end of it, though it looked tiny from the outside compared to such markets in India. It grew like the interiors of a clay water vessel, which has a narrow neck to enter but then bulges out like Hippo belly.
I just wanted to accomplish two objectives: to ensure that the bazaar had everything that we need to buy for the expedition and to find out its opening days and timings. The first objective could be achieved simply by looking, which I did much to my satisfaction, but the latter took me ages and finally one guy, as perplexed as I, got out his calculator and tapped first the number 7 and nodded vigorously, to which I interpreted he means the bazaar is opened all 7 days, and then he tapped 6 – 9, to which I interpreted it opens from 6 am to 9 pm. So I thanked him profusely by placing my left palm over my heart to express my heartfelt gratitude (this is the traditional Tajik greeting gesture) and left. I could be completely wrong in my interpretation; but I think I am right. As I left the bazaar what I liked most was the clean precincts (which is impossible to find in Indian bazaars), the clearly laid out shops and vendors where you can’t get lost, the sellers who did not pester me at all, the haunting fragrance of spices, nuts, meat, eggs, sweets, fresh vegetables and the huge melons of all species. This is the best place to meet the locals and see the real culture of Dushanbe. I will return here with the LP Tajik phrases book in hand.
I loiter back and saunter slowly on the Chekov Street eyeing the shops and road side banana sellers. At a point I found a girl in early thirties with plaster on her feet and crutches under her arm, begging for alms. She must have been really poor to be begging, as I had barely seen any beggars in Dushanbe, which is a common sight anywhere in India. I stood rooted a little away from her for two reasons: first that she was again one of those drop dead gorgeous girls, though without any make up or fancy garb, and to know how she would beg.
Soon enough an old man loitered by, and from their body gestures I could make out that they didn’t know each other, even then they spoke for a while, I guess the old man was asking her how she got injured, etc and then he placed some money in her bowl and walked on. Another man came along and the same thing happened, some amount of talking and dropping of coins in her bowl. I was impressed. She did not really beg or pester the passerbys, did not throw pitiable looks to anyone, did not really seek anything. She had her pride intact on her person and face, the inner beauty radiated and glowed. She simply conversed with people who cared to talk and if they dropped some coin it was fine and if they didn’t even then it was fine. In India no one would dream of chatting with a beggar, they would simply drop some coins with a disgusted look on their faces and rush away.
I stayed at my hideout looking at her and so wished that I could speak her language and get to know her better. Why couldn’t the beggars in India be like that, dignified, silent and patient! Finally I came out and walked up to her, I sat down on the ground to be at her level and she could obviously see I was an outsider so she smiled and said something to which I could only mutter the standard Tajik greeting and that I am from Hindustan. She could see that I wanted to talk but didn’t know how to and I could see she wanted to converse but had no clue how to; I wanted to hear her story and to know where did she come from; but the language barrier proved a tough one to navigate. She muttered something in Tajik, I said something in Hindi (for it really didn’t matter) then I said ‘Shah Rukh Khan’ to which her pretty face immediately lit up and she smiled and seemed really happy. Then I placed one TJS in her bowl and left. I walked ahead quite a bit and looked back to find her looking at me and smiling. I smiled back and waved and walked away. The evening air once again full of people and cars and cats and trees.
I returned to the café square in front of the opera since I had to wait for the guy from the agency to deliver my GBAO permit and it was still an hour short of our appointed time. I sat down at a corner bench and soon started drawing attention. A little boy who was watering the square came to me first and greeted in broken English and then we talked about Bollywood, India, Delhi, Salman Khan, Dushanbe girls, etc. He was a fine fellow and then came his elder brother who knew better English and peddled cigarettes and gums to people in the square. So we chatted up a bit, then eyeing my camera and big lens, a photographer joined us who didn’t know a single word in English but then he was carrying Nikon D3000 so that was our point of communication. I showed him some of my shots and he showed his. Soon came along a family of a very fat couple with a very thin daughter. They sat by my side and ate icecreams, cones, and roasted meat. The girl shyly gave me few glances when her ice cream melted and dropped on her white skirt I smiled back and nodded assuringly that she need not be embarrassed, happens to me all the time. Then an old lady selling breads came and sat by, she smiled I smiled, she offered, I bought and sat munching the delicious bread that I am slowly but surely getting addicted to. There were two girls on the opposite side of the square selling icecreams and they did brisk business and I was getting tempted despite my curfew with desserts and everything sinful. But finally when the cigarette vendor boy got one for himself and sat right next to me, it seemed like Devil’s workshop and I just couldn't resist any longer and decided that I would pick up one on my way back home.
Watching people at a square going about their work and eating or drinking or just sleeping, is a great way to while away the time. I love observing people since within them do I find my stories, my characters and my reason to be what I am. I do detest populated places and this ever increasing global population but in moderation human beings are not that bad after all. We are diverse, different and funny most of the times and we add colors and composition to the planet. On one hand we have or are in the process of destroying our own existence while on the other we are also the cause why Earth should and most places is, this beautiful and utterly worth fighting for.
Finally my contact arrives and hands me the much coveted, and worth it’s weight in gold, the GBAO permit that would let me travel to the Pamirs and beyond. It’s only when I get back home and show the permit to Alanna’s husband does he divulge that the permit is in someone else’s name and I am holding the right permit for the wrong person. Well, so much for my elated evening till then. Will need to get it changed tomorrow.
With the supposedly correct GBAO permit in my pocket, I get bold and get myself one ice cream cone from the girl where no words are needed. I raise one finger, she raises one too, I mean that I want one cone, and she means that it costs 1 TJS. We complete the exchange and then licking the cone I approach the bus shade. The ice cream is delicious, thick, creamy and sweet. I have had ice creams all over Russia and Central Asia and they are delightful everywhere. It can’t get any cheaper for such a large helping, cheaper than India even. So while my internal organs are getting cold, which I like very much, and my tongue can’t stop drooling and licking, my eyes eye my fellow ‘would be’ passengers. The bus arrives, as spick and span as ever, the boy jumps out and opens the door, we hop in, I hand over 60 dirham and off we go. I stand beside a girl, both looking out of the window at the Rudaki outside and I shying few glances at her pretty profile. I get off in front of the Pedagogy Institute, dumping my earlier intent of walking around taking pictures, since the sky has been grey all day and the light isn’t good at all.
As I enter the lane to Alanna’s abode, I meet my friend from last night, the portly old fellow watering the lanes in front of his house. This seems a ritual here, late evenings you would find boys and old men watering the ground outside their respective houses with long hoses. This not only cools the air and ground down but also helps in settling the dust. I smiled at him bowing a little and putting my palm on my heart, he bowed too and smiled. We have become wordless friends in the evening. I walk on and reach home.
On the second day I didn’t learn much over the previous one about the city or its people, only reaffirming my earlier impressions as revealed in Day 1 diaries. Just a note that my ‘single’ status has drawn considerable interest and dismay from most people as everyone here gets married early or soon enough. For a 47 supposedly handsome (even if it is only in my mind) young man to be single is something like finding a penguin in Tajikistan. And as I walked into my room, with Cricket jumping all over me like an excited bullfrog, I couldn’t help wondering that it seems highly unfair to the rest of the world that so many beautiful women should be concentrated within so small a region. But then inshah allah, I am here enjoying his creations.
This post too comes without pictures, though I have shot some, and for those of you who might be wondering if I might be actually hiding myself from the loan shark mafia from whom I have borrowed millions and lost all on horses and pretty girls, somewhere around Delhi but proclaiming to be in Dushanbe or Afghan (as the case may be) then let me confide that the lack of pictures is directly blamed to an abominable machine called Mac Notebook. I know it is the favorite of all things wonderful, beautiful and intelligent in the world but I am a complete alien to it and Alanna has kindly given me a Mac to do my work here. In the Mac I have no idea how to download pictures and resize them for posts or mails using the iphoto. I have seen it before, wherever, the letter ‘i’ depicts intelligence, I can’t seem to figure that entity out since to me ‘i’ always denotes incomprehensible.
Now I go forth into the third day, hoping for some more action, at least one for sure. And hope to see you people later if I am still alive and kicking in that order. Once again, just like before, KHAYR!