Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dushanbe Diaries Day 3

Three is a number that is used almost all over the world to depict some special connotations; like: three musketeers, three idiots (I love this one), etc so I knew right at the moment my eyes opened to the third day in Dushanbe that this day would be different. Soon enough I got embroiled in a seductive encounter with a sizzling woman from a far off land, of which I cannot elaborate here any further since my blog has wide readership below ‘adult’. And don’t you men with dirty minds snigger and wink; it’s nothing like what it sounds like.

Being the third day I decided that I couldn’t continue playing the fool any longer, so I gave the LP Tajik Phrase book its long overdue glance and inserted page-marks at strategic pages with strategic sentences that one could push not so strategically towards strategically placed strategic sirens, of which streets of Dushanbe abound. Thus armed and fully loaded, and feeling no less invincible than Rambo and Terminator 3 combined armed with Bazookas, I stride out into the bright sun with a brighter smile on my countenance.

My first stop is to meet my friend from yesterday and exchange my GBAO permit so that at the end of the transaction I am holding the right permit for the right individual. The guy meets me with an embarrassing smile and apologies galore. I check the only thing that I can read on the permit, which I didn’t yesterday and that is my passport number. Thus satisfied I thank my friend and hop into bus no 3 heading up Rudaki in search of the elusive shop of yesterday, Rudaki Street 148. The bus is full as always and I am being laughed at and with by everyone, to which I smile back as usual. The Chinese Embassy zips by and I crane my neck out like a dehydrated crow on the banks of Sahara to catch the number 148. The bus reached the place up to where I had ventured yesterday, thereafter it started climbing a small hill path. As the bus climbed up, crossing fountains and the university block, I start seeing 146 and then Lo and behold, my 148 as it flashed like a bank thief on the run outside. I had no idea what one should do to stop the bus so I just shout in Hindi, ‘Rukna Bhaiya’ (stop brother) and the bus screeches to a halt. May be I should start talking in Hindi rather than in English. I hop off, or rather am pushed out by a group of gaggling ladies.

And as I land on ground with my legs bent for perfect balance and poise and dignity (of whatever is left) I realize that yesterday I should have followed one of my own fundamental principals that I follow in the mountains and preach to everyone. Which is, to take one more step when you think that this is your last step, since the summit may be only one more step away. If only I had ventured forth few more steps yesterday I would have found 148 since it was less than a minute’s walk from the point where I had decided to turn around.
The signboard with 148 Rudaki Avenue is written in Tajik and Russian, but then the Salewa Climbing boot picture along with crampons need no other introduction. This is Tourism Academy Shop, which Gulja had claimed to be the best outdoor and climbing gear shop in Dushanbe since it was the only one. It is run by an ace Russian climber Anatoly, with whom Gulja has hiked several times in the Fan Mountains. I am looking for Gas canisters for our expedition. Gulja had told me that the shop is by rotation run by Anatoly (very rarely as he is always out climbing), his wife and pretty daughter and his son. They all took turns and only the son spoke some hint of English. So I hoped that today would be the son’s shop day. And it is. I just knew it that today is special. So I enter and find a young fellow playing monopoly on computer. The shop is tiny but has the right kind of gear for a moderate hike. Ice axes, crampons, belay devices, snap links, pitons, tents, foam mat, ropes, helmets, headlamps, shovels, etc. Though the brands are not so reputable but then they have the stuff. These are expensive equipment and I am sure they mostly cater to foreigners climbing or hiking in the Pamirs. And they have gas too, though Chinese make, but gas it is. The price hit me like a sledgehammer, right below the belt. One canister goes for 60 TJS which is nearly 15 US $ and that is far too expensive. Even the MSR original canister doesn't cost more than 5 – 6 US $. We needed 7 and that would cost us a fortune, while we were cutting all corners to keep the expedition cost to minimum. So I bargain and fret but the boy doesn’t budge. I hint at future business but he is adamant. He knows he has monopoly and wants to make a kill. I tell him to keep 7 for us and then leave. Let Pat decide when she arrives, after all she is doing the finances.

I cross the street and hop into the next bus going my way. I enter and meet the same young girl with braces from yesterday and we both recognize each other and exchange smiles. She gets off at her stop and I continue. I eye the roads and the cars outside and realize that in Dushanbe the cars have number plates in three colours; red, green and white. The green depict that of any aid giving, NGO or related organization, the white being normal individuals and red are the diplomatic ones. And the number 007 is repeated with alarming frequency most on the number plates. In Alanna’s alleyway alone I have seen two vehicles with 007 somewhere within the number. Now this could mean that most Tajiks think of themselves as the spy with license to kill or consider 7 a lucky number like my brother does.

I get off near the Opera stop and amble down the silent roads towards the Museum of Antiquities. I cross National Bank of Tajikistan who seemed in much need for cash and the tall regal building of Ministry of Finance, who seemed to be the cause why the National Bank looks bankrupt. The museum looked deserted as yesterday. I open the swivel gate and enter. No sooner had I reached the carpet adorned verandah and read that I must wear plastic shoe covers before entering, a lovely girl walks out (I swear it was a lovely girl and not some ugly man) and tells me politely with a smile curling around her almond eyes that I must put on the shoe covers and then follow her. I am delighted and my ears grin happily. I fumble to show her that I am a gentle hearted and well-bred nincompoop foreigner of whom she must take good care. She is wearing a Capri and a brown top and is barefeet till her knees.

I enter the main door and pay the fee of 15 TJS. For Tajik nationals it is 5 and for students it is 1. And only after paying did I wonder I should have claimed the 1 TJS ticket since I study life and will be a student till my dying day. But by then the girl has preceded me into the museum and switching on a light is waiting anxiously to lead me into the mysterious chambers. Needless to say, I am the only visitor. And thus united in secret conundrums we begin our journey. We walk through rooms and chambers full of glass covered boxes and statues, ancient relics of mankind, dug up from various sites around Tajikistan, though most came out from the Southern Province of Panjikant for some reason. The clay potteries are potty while the ivory carvings are iconic. I eye all with equal curiosity as my guide keeps me up to date with her commentary. I observe that she switches on the lights as we progress and switches them off once we exit a room or a passageway and I am impressed. If she is doing this with all visitors then I can well explain her svelte figure. We finally reach the room containing the museum’s most famous exhibit, the reclining Buddha. It is made of hard clay,13 mtrs long weighing around 5 tons and was found in 92 pieces which has now been joined. She told me a little about its discovery and excavation. I took few pictures from different angles as picture without flash is allowed here. Then we see the wall paintings and murals, the bronze and brass works and the headless statue of Shiva and his consort Parvati.

Finally we end our tour and the girl sees me off till the gate. Assuming that she is a guide, I offer her some money that she refuses with a smile, saying that it is her job to show people around; yet I felt that she did this only for me. I walk out into the sun and click few pictures of the busts sitting around the lawn. And then, I just sit around in a nearby park doing nothing more than munching few grasses and conversing with the birds pecking for insects nearby. Into the lazy afternoon I feel drowsy and wish to shut my eyes and drift away with the sizzling woman at dawn. And then I feel a whisper in my ears from a nearby bloom and think that I am far from everywhere but within the distance of the one I wish to touch.

Dushanbe is one of those places on Earth of which it can safely be said, ‘if you have nothing to do, don’t do it here’. Since there indeed is nothing much to do in Dushanbe (even though there is this obscure book of allegory, yet unpublished and authored by an author yet to be found; titled ‘Let’s Do Dushanbe’) and that suits me perfectly since I generally never do anything when I have nothing to do, and that is saying a lot. I take few pictures of the opera square, walk past it and meet my cigarette seller friend and his younger brother and then went in search of a public phone from where I could all up my mother. Now this proved to be an adventure beyond my wildest dreams.

Firstly I couldn’t sight any shops with signs of a telephone or anything remotely resembling one. I entered several mobile phone and connection shops and gestured ‘hello’ with my left palm with the thumb and pinkie extended and rest of the fingers curled in between; now that’s how they show it in Hollywood, when someone wants someone to call. But no one here understands what I want. Much nodding, gesturing, smiling and of course offers to buy mobile phones, I finally enter a money exchange shop called ‘Aloo Express’ that has a red signboard. For Indian’s this is a funny name for a forex service agency, as Aloo in hindi means potato. There I meet a man who can understand what I need. He walks out with me on the street and points towards the statue of Samani and says only three syllables: 500 meters telefono. I am used to cryptic gestures and lingua franca, so I just followed the direction of his hand after thanking him profusely from the heart. By now I am rather saturated with the pretty senoritas, who are blooming and looming everywhere and how long can you just keep gaping at things that are commonplace in a place, even if it is the rarest of beauty. So I focus more on the road and my surroundings and instantly realization dawns of something that has been in my subconscious right from day 1.

Dushanbe streets and buildings, though derelict and falling apart in places, are clean and tidy to rival those in the west. No one throws plastics or papers on the roads or in the parks or any public places at all, no one spits, no one urinates (I am sure they do, but not on the streets like in India). The buildings are devoid of any graffiti, there are barely any walls with anything written on it or plastered with some garish posters. Only on one apartment block on Rudaki, I think it was 136 or 142, where someone had written, ‘I love you ____ <3’ of course there’s an arrow piercing the heart. It was written in English and the calligraphy was brilliant so it seemed more like a work of art from the heart than anything ugly. There are fountains and sprouts almost everywhere and streets are lined up with blooms of rose and rose wood. There are parks in almost every corner and square where people sit or sleep or read or eat. Blue colored dustbins with an ashtray on top and two separate containers for non-biodegradable and biodegradable stuff are found everywhere and seeing the condition of the roads it is obvious that people do use them, unlike India.

I walk down the distance and to my left find a big building with Telefon written on it. So I approach and enter but find one mousy looking lady who just couldn’t figure out what I was saying despite my reading out verbatim from the LP Tajik phrasebook. She nods in denial, I nod in appeasement, she nods with a smile, I nod with despair, she nods since she has nothing else to offer and I nod since I have nothing else to do as I have exhausted all my options. So with our final parting nod, I nod my sorry ass out of the place and back on the streets. I come out and sit beneath a bus shade, not to catch the bus, since I still have miles to go, but to rest my spinning head and to decide which way should I now head. And within minutes I realize that I had completely blended with the local gentry and the atmosphere when an old Tajik man, obviously from Dushanbe, approached me with something scrawled on a piece of paper that seemed like some address. His body language and mumbled words confirmed that he was indeed looking for something; aren’t we all? I heard some words resembling Urdu and English, and I instantly knew the place he was looking for (one of those halleluia (I know this is spelt wrong, but please indulge me) moments for me), which was rather near where we were. So while he spoke Tajik, I gestured and spoke in English and sent him away in the right direction. I am not sure, who out of the two of us should be credited for this cross boundary, trans language and meta cultural exchange that to my belief must have concluded successfully.

Though I don’t need to go to the OVIR office, which is a one stop solution shop for all foreign visitors, I plan to go there, since I should know where it is and I know from LP map that I am rather close to it. Moreover, Laura, the Italian girl from Kabul, who would travel with us till the Afghan border, would be at the office too to pick up her GBAO permit around 4 pm, as she had mailed me. So I thought I should also look her up. Laura’s story is a depiction of Afghan’s present state. She has been living and working for a NGO in Kabul for 3 years and has been to many places around Afghan but to enter the Wakhan corridor, where she wishes to hike for few days, she must enter via Tajikistan since there are no connectivity at all of this area with the rest of Afghan.

I cross the opera house park and then walk on the street behind and at the next crossing, turn left, and few minutes later to my right looms a medium sized building with typical blank walls and façade that could be anything from within and has no signboard that I could see. It looked more like a prison but seeing few western faces running around like headless chicken, I knew this has to be the place. There was only one woman in the waiting hall and I had no difficulty in picking up Laura. From her I learnt that now getting a Tajik Visa on arrival is not a problem, at least not for EU and US passport holders (don’t know about Indian passports). She got her double entry tourist visa for 30 days by paying 33 US $ without any Letter of Introduction / Invitation at the airport. Tajik immigration rule says that for a continuous stay within Tajikistan for a duration of 30 days or less on a tourist visa, you don't have to register with OVIR, but on any other type of visa (business, student, work, etc) you have to register within 72 hrs of arrival. The OVIR office looked bland but efficient. Laura had applied for the GBAO in the morning and had been told to collect it at 4 pm and she got it around 4.15 pm. This is very good progress since so far I had heard contradictory things about GBAO. In all for the GBAO Laura had to shell out around 6 US $, which is way too less than what LP and other places claimed. Tajikistan is certainly progressing fast and opening its doors to the tourists. Besides Laura, I also met Mathew and his friend (whose name now I forget) from France working for a French consulting company named, ‘Altai Consultants’ in Kabul. They both speak Afghani, and little Tajik, and Wakhi and were young energetic fellows who wished to hike and trek in the Pamirs, beyond Khorog but had not clue how to go about it. So we chatted up and I gave them as much info I had, which I could have jotted down in capital bold letters on the tip of my thumbnail.

As I spoke to Laura, Mathew and his friend, I once again realized the benefits of travel. You meet fellow travelers from around the world and suddenly the world becomes a small place, you learn, you make new friends and doors open to you that you didn’t even know existed. Afghan has always been my dream destination and in my next trip I wanted to visit Kabul and much of the interiors in the west and north to see all the historic places, Taliban notwithstanding, and here right out of the blue I was talking like old friends with three people who have done just that and knew Afghanistan rather well. Laura would be out of Afghan in less than a month but Mathew would be there for another year for sure and now I had a roof and two friends in Afghanistan who would get me everywhere. I was smiling happily. Moreover, Mathew’s friend has a family chalet in the French Alps, to which he invited me any time. And boy, did I love the fact that I am a footloose carefree traveler. They promised to help me with my Afghan travel and planning, which now I would plan next year for sure. Laura went off into the park to sleep and daydream a bit and I and the two French fellows ambled towards Zillioni Bazaar as they too wanted to buy something. They were heading off to Khorog (one day 16 hr drive) in a jeep tomorrow, where they had paid 80 US $ per seat. As we walk, they tell me about their desire to hike in the Himalaya and learning real climbing, to which I invite them to India.

We reach the bazaar and immediately I see familiar faces. Our first stop is the nut and raisins and spice section. I buy raisins (50 TJS for a kg) and dried apricots (40 TJS a kg) and then we come out and pick up Tajik nan (1 TJS per nan). I click pictures and one of self in front of the bazaar gate, just for the heck of it. Outside the bazaar we part company with full forced handshakes and a promise that we shall meet soon, either in Afghan or in India on within the blue azure above Inshah Allah. In the bazaar during our commerce I realized what I had observed earlier. Here no one would refuse to accept a bill, no matter how torn, soiled or crumpled it is. In India people refuse to accept rupee notes if they are marginally spoiled or barely torn. I had a TJS 1 bill that was actually in two parts joined by a scotch tape in the middle but falling apart from everywhere else and the shopkeeper accepted it without a second glance, offering me brand new notes in exchange as well.

I start walking on the familiar sidewalk and suddenly find myself face to face with a face that once upon a time used to stare out of every corner of India (or may be I am speaking in hyperbole). The famous (now barely remembered) Bollywood diva, Preity Zinta stood outside an airline office in full airhostess regalia. I looked close and from far, from all directions and had to agree that it was indeed her. And she was wearing a Ural Air uniform and was smiling to every passerby with her right palm cocked at her eyebrows in a smart salutation. I am sure she had never posed for that shot or had ever endorsed Ural Air and had no clue that she now stands regally outside Zillioni Bazaar in Dushanbe, though I am sure this news would make her happy that at least one nation and one airlines hadn’t forgotten her glorious past. Actually I always fancied Preity Zinta’s cute smile and dimples and as she is an Army daughter, she and I (along with 1.4 million other armed forces personnel) belonged to the same clan; after all our ration and canteen supplies came from the same depot.

I walked back to the bus stand near the opera square clicking pictures of frescoes. While I wait for my bus, I eye the pretty senorita next to me dressed in a peach coloured skirt so alluring that I gape at the skirt more than I gape at her and she sees my eyes and smiles at me, though a little consciously. She sees the LP in my hand and understands that I would understand nothing so we both hold our silence; I dreaming of another senorita I would love to see in the girl’s skirt and the girl perhaps dreaming of her date since she was impeccably dressed with an elaborate hairdo. I was certain she wasn’t waiting for the bus, such damsels deserve only a stretch limo and bottles of Dom Perignon as they are being driven around or they are driving someone around. After all beauty does deserve indulgence and haughtiness. But this girl was just simply beautiful without being aware of it. Sitting by her side I was with another who too is completely unaware of her beauty both from within and outside.

My bus no 3 arrives and it is packed like a can of sardines that has been packed with bottlenose sharks. So I squeeze in and find a place to place my toes. The bus starts and I like the money collecting boy right away due to his charming smile and general happiness. Soon he proved to be a real Samaritan.

At the next stop stood a little boy holding a red wheelchair containing a paraplegic man with horribly twisted torso and almost no lower limbs, instead only stumps. There was absolutely no space inside the bus, but the conductor opened the door, requested all the passengers to make room and then started lifting the wheelchair by himself that wouldn’t budge. The little boy, who seemed to be the son of the wheelchair bound fellow, pushed but to no avail, being closest to the door, I jumped out too and joined and so did two other passengers. We got the man inside the bus, managed to get the boy to hold the chair and then the bus started. Soon thereafter the little boy handed over the required money to the conductor, who, much to my surprise, did not accept it and allowed them free passage. It was obvious that the man and the boy were extremely poor, even then they did not expect or seek free ride or any favor from the conductor, yet the conductor did not take money from them. So they both retained their dignity and sense of self-pride. No one in the bus complained about the man or looked down upon his dirty and stinking clothes or his sorry state since he was drooling all the time and making guttering noises. Everyone made room for him and his son and accepted them as their own.

As I alight at my stop I am much impressed with this exchange of human brotherhood. Wish we could be like that in the rest of the world and certainly India needs a lesson in civility from the Tajik people.

I reached home to find that Alanna and Kevin would be out for the evening and I was the boss of the house. I cooked up a really smashing plate of tossed salad, and dry fruits and sauces and spices along with a glass of strawberry shake, topping everything up with a date chocolate and farm fresh cherries. Needless to say I needed a stroll thereafter beneath the full moon. Which I did with my invisible companion and then turned in for the night. Once again from the bottom of my heart to each one of you following my travel tales with bated breath hoping and wishing that I would not return, goodnight and Khayr.

Tomorrow is a day of promised fun as we are going out for a picnic to celebrate Kevin’s birthday (didn’t ask him which one though) and the house has been redolent with the smell of freshly baked cake and icing.

Day 3 as you can glean from above has been varied too and I would now conclude with some of the local phrases I used through the day, not necessarily they got me anywhere, and with some phrases that I should have or could have but didn’t for reasons you would know when you read them. But I leave it to you to decipher which of the following phrases I actually used from the ones I thought I should have. Have fun; and don’t get rattled, for what would life be without riddles and conundrums that come to you from the plains of Pamris, concocted by your madcap and utterly delightful storyteller!

Shukr (thank you)
Nakuned (never mind)
Khub (good)
Man na mef ahman (I don’t understand)
Hojat khona kujost (where,s the toilet)
Shumo ba zabani anglisi (you speak English?)
Man az Hindustan (I come from Hindustan)
Shumo zandor (are you married)
Man tanho hastam (I am single)
Mekhoham ba india telefon kunam
Chand ast (how much)

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