(This article features improved use of capitals to make Rachel happy!)
We are out of the mountains and into the capital of Tajikistan, a pleasant and peaceful city of 600,000 called Dushanbe. It's probably one of the more pleasant big cities I have ever been in and it reminds me a lot of Oaxaca Mexico in terms of the overall feel (although there is really no other resemblence whatsoever).
We are staying at Hotel Vaksh, which at $35.00 a night is ludicrously overpriced. It's another run-down soviet monstrosity which has seen just the minimal amount of maintenance to allow it to keep customers. The carpets are worn, the lights flickers, the doors don't close properly, and there is no sink in the room so you have to brush your teeth in the standup showers. We actually moved out of our first room because the bed looked like somebody had butchered an animal on the mattress and the toilet didn't flush. Our new room is slightly better except the hot water tap has an annoying habit of coming off in your hands. Lara has an OK bed, but mine is roughly banana shaped so I'm sleeping on the floor on my thermarest.
The good part is that the hotel is brilliantly located across from a beautiful square which is full of life and fountains and surrounded by big trees and nice historical buildings. Five minutes down the road is a wonderful market where we can get grapes that were picked just hours ago and bread that is still warm to the touch. In the other direction is the main street in Dushanbe which has some high end shops and lots of parks and beautiful buildings. The street is broad and has a big pedestrian walkway down the middle. There are four sets of mature trees lining the whole street, two on the central walkway, and one on each sidewalk.
There are basically no tourists and a lot of people ask as where we are from or stop us to chat if they know a bit of english. Everyone is extremely friendly and laid back. Cars even stop for pedestrians which we first though was a trap based on our experiences with drivers elsewhere in central asia.
The parks are all pretty sparkling and all the lawns are freshly cut around the government buildings. We heard that this is mainly because there was a big conference between the central asian countries, Russia, and China that was held here in August. Apparently the paint was still drying in many areas when the leaders arrived, but for us the results are great and we love seeing all the lovely green spaces.
The biggest problem is probably the infrastructure, which is nearly medieval. Internet here is little better than dialup speed, and often stops completely for many minutes at a time. Uploading photos is simply not possible. The electricity goes out randomly in parts of the city and apparently last winter the whole country was without power for several months. The government claims things will be bad again this winter and is predicting that people will only have 2 hours of electricity a day. This in a country where temperatures regularly drop to -40 in the mountains.
People we talked to in the Pamirs said that the situation was so grim last winter in the country that many people died. The government kicked out several NGOs that might have been able to provide statistics (MSF is no longer welcome for example) so nobody really knows the true extent of the problem. We did hear that the Murghab hospital was without power for months and they had no heating in the wards to they had to send people home.
Burning a CD with our photos has also turned out to be a challenge. CD burners seem to be an amazing new technology here and most of the internet places we've tried haven't got one. It's like walking around Calgary trying to find a particle accelerator. We've finally found a cafe that has one and we will mail our picture back in several redudant envelopes as we also don't trust the postal system.
Dushanbe is a wonderful city and if you ever get a chance to visit it is a very pleasant place to hang out. Come in September when the days are warm, the nights are cool, and the markets are full to the brim with delicious fresh fruits.