Day four: Dushanbe
Not knowing what the GBAO/OVIR permit office was going to throw at us today we arrived at 9am on the dot to be sent into a small office where nobody spoke English but a few people seemed to understand our purpose and our position in the queue. When 9:30am arrived Sarah was at the front of the line to hand over our passports for a guy to type a couple lines in Russian into his computer, print off a form then put our passports just out of reach until she handed over TJS$5(USD$0.65) each to get them back. Job done we hand in our forms at the back window, are given some terrible directions to the nearby bank (of which there are several) and we spend the next hour trying to decipher exactly which one we were supposed to be at (it’s here).Finally our money is paid we return to hand over the receipt and are told to return at 3pm that day to collect the permit.
The afternoon was spent first at the World’s Largest Teahouse, also the world’s largest ghost Teahouse. With not a door open the place stands empty towering on the edge of Komsomol Lake. For the cost of 1% of the entire countries GDP (or USD$60 million) the extravagant structure now seems to be used for the odd wedding shoot and for young lovers to steal a few private moments on the unused secluded stairways. Snooping through the various levels of external balconies we finally managed to find one door that was open and stuck our heads into a mostly deserted yet vast billiard hall. The only people occupying the space were two extremely bored looking employees who barely reacted to our intrusion.
What Dushanbe lacks in real historical sights it’s made up for in building the biggest of whatever the world lacks in all things big and it next on the list is the world’s largest flagpole. At 165meters high it’s big, if you’re into that kind thing, and the oversized Tajikistan flag (the worlds longest, obviously) fluttering slowly in the breeze is a little hypnotic. Unfortunately it’s now been upstaged by the newly completed (2014) Jeddah Flagpole which is 170m. Sorry Dushanbe, better luck next time. The surrounding park is a nice place to try and escape the summer heat and if you’re lucky like Sarah you might just find yourself a four leaf clover.
Across from the flagpole on Rudaki Avenue is the impressive Rohat Teahouse, set over two floors, open sided and packed with locals. Men in suits are enjoying vodka infused business lunches, young groups of teens lick ice creams, scantily dressed women arrive alone with more cleavage than we’ve seen in months, and then there’s us in our flip flops and travel worn gear eating the cheapest thing on the menu. Actually the second cheapest, the cheapest was sold out. The Tajik style food is good as is the tea but the people watching was even better. The Public Bar seems to be where the expats and wealthier locals hang out and the beer prices reflect this at a staggering TJS$13 (USD$1.65 each (ok it’s still cheap but nothing on the USD$0.30 we paid back in Isfara)! They brew a few different styles though we reckon the unfiltered is the choice of the lot.
Back at the hostel we spend our evenings in hilarious conversations with some of the others using Green House as a stopover on their overland journeys. Two of the best characters we meet are cyclists Aussie Callum and Swiss Antoine (who we nicknamed Tony in typical Aussie fashion). Heading in opposite directions they’d crossed paths only minutes before we arrived and we all waste no time hitting the beers and easily passing the time swapping our stories. Turns out Callum is in the class of what you’d call ‘slightly crazy yet massively inspiring’. He’s ridden his slightly modified BMX bike overland from Sydney to Darwin, flown it to Indonesia and somehow made it all the way here to Dushanbe. Massive kudos to this guy as he’s had some tough times but the smile on his face and his high spirits were contagious. Tony had opted for a slightly more sensible set of wheels yet hadn’t been without his own troubles, being torn apart by customs when leaving Uzbekistan. He had every photo on his memory cards, hard drives and cameras inspected and even had to pitch his tent in the customs hall to prove he wasn’t carrying contraband. They stopped short of pulling the tires off his bike though.
Day five: Dushanbe to Khostav
The morning of departure there’s one last chance to grab a photo of the Ismoil Somoni monument in the right light and it also seems the cops are out for one more chance to rinse our pockets clean. After they commandeer Matt’s camera, making him pose for some professional police shots, they then proceed to ask for money, first for lunch, then for beer. When this fails they try slapping old mate Arthur a fine for USD$100 for smoking in the square. Nice try boys, but you obviously haven’t met Matt and Arthur and with a quick seeya and a brush off we’re all back in the car with all our money firmly in wallets.
Back on the road we head out of town where we discover the outer limits of Dushanbe is crooked cop region too and we narrowly avoid being pulled over. However that was the least of our worries as we’re not even 20 kilometers down the road when the car starts to overheat when idling at a red light. No stranger to this kind of thing (if you’ve read our Porkchop adventures you’ll know what we mean…) we immediately pull over in the town of Vahdat, cut the engine and pop the hood. Lucky for us there’s a mechanic directly across the road who comes across to help out. Turns out it’s the thermostat and lucky for us we’ve had plenty of experience in California with this type of situation and know it’s easily fixed. Unfortunately for us the only place to get a part was back 20 kilometers in Dushanbe. Thanking every god we could think of that this didn’t happen in the middle of the Wakhan Valley or up some remote Pamir highway pass we turn around the head back through the police gauntlet.
This time we’re not so lucky and it’s barely 10 minutes before we’re pulled over. Refusing the get out of the car and handover cash like the locals Sarah sits firm in the driver’s seat as two boys in blue approach her window. Slightly bewildered to see such a little lady driving such a big car (we didn’t see any women driving the entire time we were in Tajikistan) they take her license while smilingly holding a radar gun in her face that reputedly caught her driving at 70km/h. Funny that as fully aware these guys were out for beer money we were doing below 60km/h. Sarah looks at the radar, laughs, points at the speedo and signals 60. The police insist, Sarah insists, then Arthur chimes in with
‘Car kaput, we can’t drive that fast’
Great idea, we agree, and Sarah fishes out the broken thermostat from the centre console, thrusting it into the cops hands and motioning that the car is kaput and can’t possibly drive faster than 60km/h. We all politely laugh as the boke with the radar tries to comprehend what the hell we’re talking about before he also cracks into laughter, hands back Sarah’s license and our thermostat and sends us merrily on our way. Back in town we manage to get the part we need, survive our third trip through the police gauntlet unscathed, have our friendly mechanic fit it for us watched over by an unnecessary group of 12 locals while we eat somsa and drive tea at a small stall across the road.
Back on the road a few hours later than planned we finally leave the city behind and reach the open road. Barely an hour later Sarah’s again pulled over approaching a small village and once again a radar gun is thrust in her face. The reading is once again a perfect score, this time exactly 80km/h and once again we were only doing 60km/h. The same trick is employed, she hands over her documents, bats her eyelids, smiles, laughs and gestures 60 while pointing at the speedo pretending not to understand a word they say. Turns out once again they’re more taken aback by a little girl driving a big car and with a shared laugh we’re again sent on our way. Watch out for these guys, their radar guns are mostly fake and don’t work as they have foam stuffed in the end where the radar should be.
Once again with all our money intact and still bribe free we turn our wheels south towards the alluring Pamir Highway, stopping to chat with a couple of cyclists we’d met in Dushanbe a few days ago.
Next up Sitting on Top of The World – Pamir Highway – Part 2, driving from Dushanbe to Osh via the Wakhan Valley and 4,655m Ak-Baital pass.
You can check out more of our Central Asia and round the world photos on our Flickr page here!
Where to Stay in Dushanbe
The Green House Hostel staff were fantastic. The spacious dorm rooms have comfortable beds and the rooms stay dark making it easy to have a good sleep in. The free breakfast is descent and tea and coffee are free all day. There’s a large fully equipped kitchen, free drinking water and showers that make a monsoon seem like a rain shower. The heated bathroom floor downstairs are an over the top luxury much appreciated by the weary camping cyclists who pass through here each day. The front courtyard is secure and a great place to swap travel tales with others over a few brews. Don’t miss staying here.
Tips for getting your GBAO permit in Dushanbe
It’s super easy to get the permit issued the same day in Dushanbe. We had our Tajikistan visa issued at the Tashkent embassy in Uzbekistan where they don’t issue the GBAO permit so rather than pay a USD$40 fee for one of the guesthouses in Osh to obtain it for us we opted to pick it up here for just TJS$20(USD$2.50) each.
The OVIR office (38°34’17.22”N 68°47’50.13”E) opens at 9am but nothing happens until after 9:30am. It wasn’t particularly busy when we arrived.
- The man at the first window to your left as you enter will fill in your details in Russian into his computer and print you a copy…for a TJS$5 fee (which even the locals have to pay).
- Take the form to the window at the back of the room. Knock on the window as it’s obvious to you that you’re there to get some form of permit though to them it’s a ‘see how long they’ll wait’ game. Give the lazy bastards the form, your best smile and a ‘Spacibo’. They’ll give you a bank slip that you need to deposit the fee into.
- Head around the corner to the Amonatbank (38°34’25.49”N 68°47’33.18”E)), line up, hand over your slip and pay your fee TJS$20.
- Return the bank receipt back to the same window at the back of the room and if you’re lucky you get the permit issued the same day at 3pm. Our was issued as a loose paper slip rather than a stamp/sticker in our passport like those who’d got it in their home country or an embassy other than Tashkent.