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A Unique Picnic in Dushanbe: Tadzhikistan
by

Arnie Greenberg

Imagine my dismay when our Russian guide said, “Tomorrow we’re going on a picnic.”

It was the last thing I wanted to do. I had traveled half way around the world to tour the major Soviet cities of West and South Central Asia. I had marveled at the unique history of Samarkand, that major stop on the old silk route from Greece, Rome, Asia Minor, Egypt, India and Persia to China. I had visited the blue-domed burial tomb of the great Tamerlane. I had walked through modern, bustling, Tashkent, a city that had been leveled by an earthquake only 10 years before.

Here, Alexander the Great once walked four hundred years before Christ. I saw the ancient digs at Khiva and nearby Bukhara, which was and still is famous for its hand woven rugs. Now I was in a modern city of about 600,000 people who called themselves, not Russian, but Tadzhiks. The women wore multi colored silk kurtas over shalvar pants. Their hats from far off Bukhara were embroidered with precious stones. They carried babies, walked in small groups and they smiled.

I was told that these people were great warriors but while there was an occupying Russian presence in this place they once called Stalinabad, today’s Dushanbe (Du-shawn-bey) was romantically different, the locals were gentle and smiling. The city was a Soviet military fortress. There was an army base here second to none. At that time nobody foresaw the invasion from this city to Afghanistan to the south. I can’t say this earthquake prone city, not far from Iran, was pretty although the hotel was modern enough. But the dry winds coming in from the nearby desert made it an unbearable place in the afternoon. And as hot as it was, I saw beards (aksakals) on most desert men from the Kyzul Kum or Kara Kum deserts, blackened by the sun, wearing great boots, long baggy pants, fur hats and great Islamic coats and turbans. They chewed on a green leaf as westerners chewed on tobacco. Their language was a form of Persian but many spoke Russian.

They told us that clothing kept away the heat. I chose not to try to prove them wrong. But to them, we were a curiosity. They smiled and agreed to have their pictures taken with us.

At that time the native culture was encouraged and while there were over 300 schools of various levels, the state had established an Academy of Sciences in this city. There were also interesting museums exhibiting snow leopards and Marc Polo sheep of the region and the Firdowski Library, displaying medieval Islamic manuscripts. I visited an Opera Ballet Theatre and a Catholic church, a Russian church and a 19th century synagogue.

But back to my story. I decided to go along with the group. We were nine people doing research on west and south central Asia. Little did I know that the picnic would be something I’d long remember. Little did I know I’d be writing about the spectacular mountains just south of this city, almost thirty years later.

We were nine Canadians in our group. The bus was waiting when we came out after breakfast. Behind the bus was a small trailer. I correctly assumed it was what we needed for the ‘picnic’. We headed south towards Afghanistan and the city of Termez, just north of the big mountains and the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, better known after 9-11.

The mountains grew steeper as we passed through fewer and fewer settlements. I realized that if we went far enough we would be in the fabled Hindu Kush. This place would become a battleground only a few years later.

The bus lumbered up the winding road and finally stopped in a clearing near a copse of trees. Here, to my surprise seven men waited to greet us. They wore knee-long jackets tied with colorful scarves and traditional skullcaps (taqi). They had laid out a number of thick and colorful carpets. There were elaborate folding chairs with silk covering, low tables set out with plates of colorful delicacies and two large golden samovars steaming and glistening in the hot sun.

We took our places in the shade while the men unhitched the trailer. It turned out to be an enormous stove with a spit. They proceeded to prepare a meal of the most delicious lamb shish kabobs I had ever eaten. They served cold champagne of a local variety with salads, cheeses, olives, and that special pita bread you find only in that area. We ate a hearty meal while two of the men played tunes from the region on gold-trimmed balalaikas.

I apologized to my guide for the fuss I caused about participating in a picnic. It was not like any picnic I ever attended nor were the vistas similar to home.

On the way back, I was making notes when, Lena, our guide announced that we would be stopping for refreshments at a teahouse or chaikhana. I knew that chai meant tea in this area but my curiosity was raised.

As we approached the entrance we noticed that there was some sort of celebration going on. We soon found out that it was a local traditional wedding. The gusts invited us in and asked some of us to dance. The bride and groom looked on, beaming. It seems that the wedding party thought it a coup to have foreign visitors attend. After a while we were offered candies and pastries, which we accepted and retired to the outside where our tea would be served. This was where I got a lesson in teahouse decorum.

Scattered throughout the property were large wooden ‘Tachtas’. I don’t know the English translation and I’ve never seen one since. It can be described as a large square platform, looking somewhat like a bed, with a wooden floor, covered with soft carpets. At both ends, like on a bed, was a low spindle railing, not unlike the headboard of a real bed. But this device was higher off the floor and not made for sleeping. The idea was that we would remove our shoes and climb onto the surface. There, leaning against the railing, we would sip our tea and chat, while the music from the teahouse soothed us.

When we left, the entire assemblage came out onto the balcony and waved goodbye. It was a sight I shall never forget. But I was leaving for Sochi, on the Black sea, the next day and we still had a long drive back.

I am not suggesting this place as a vacation site but I was lucky enough to visit the area and felt it was important enough to record. There are many tourist hotels in the city and restaurants serving, Russian, Polish, Tajik, European and Iranian food. I remember the Elite Restaurant across from Radio House. It was a good place to eat but bring along an interpreter. You’ll need one.

The day’s picnic turned out better than any form of city sight seeing. I was taken by the joy of the occasion. I was taken with the graciousness of our hosts and my guide who wanted to be Americanized. When I asked where the washroom was at the airport, she simply said, “Go out this door and hang a right.” So much for the aura of a foreign land. I left the next day but I was taken with the Tadzhik people. I would think of them often. Now, thirty odd years later I can see them dancing, singing and enjoying their simple lives with their broad smiles and colorful dress.

Sochi too turned out to be filled with surprises. But that’s a story for another time.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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