The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

We came down through the Salang Pass from Mazar, and then drove up a surprisingly good road to the Panjshir valley.  The entry to the valley is an extremely defensible narrow gorge between steep cliffs.

The Panjshir Valley was the great stronghold of the mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets, and there are frequent remains of wrecked Soviet APCs and the occasional tank in the lower valley.  This is a Tajik area, vibrantly loyal to the memory of their beloved commander Moussad, the Lion of Panjshir, and deeply hostile to Pashtuns (and thus to Taliban).  It’s probably as safe a place as you can get in Afghanistan right now.

We supposedly had permission to stay at the elegant new Government Guesthouse.  However there was a lengthy dispute over whether we would be allowed in or not.  After some toing and froing between our guide and the police post and the security service post, and a long altercation with the guesthouse staff we were finally, reluctantly, admitted.   (This did mean we got to enjoy the fine views of the valley from up at the Security Service command post.)  The guesthouse is generally very comfortable, but electricity was erratic and the showers healthy and cold.

Next morning, we drove up the valley using the new road.  This is still under active construction and while the lower part is tarmac, the upper part is still a dirt road.  Eventually this road will be extended through the Wakhan corridor all the way to China. (Wow!)  Due to a detour, we had to splashily ford the Panjshir river at one point.  We drove to the current road-head in the Parian (upper valley) and stopped for a picnic lunch.

The valley is extremely scenic, a green ribbon caught between the stark Hindu Kush mountains, sometimes only a narrow canyon, but sometimes broadening out to green fertile farmland, sometimes with rice fields, but always still squeezed between the dark barren hills.

At lunch, several Afghans from the road building team came over and chatted with us.  They were very convivial, joking and laughing, with our guide as interpreter.  As part of the conversation, people asked about our families, discussed how many children they themselves had, etc.  One man, with a fine bushy black beard was introduced to us as having five wives and 14 children.  He looked rather sheepish.  His co-workers were nodding and chuckling.  Eventually it was revealed that they were in fact teasing him, as he was about to take the slightly unusual step of marrying a second wife (and not a fifth!).

Improvised ghaychak

The road workers occasionally hold impromptu night time concerts, where they use their trucks to provide light; play music and dance.  They brought over their home-made ghaychak instrument and demonstrated it for a little.  Alas, with my croaky tone-deaf voice I dared not reciprocate!

As we returned down the valley, we hit an unexpected snag.  A team was dynamiting the rock above the road to widen it and men were then crowbarring free the loosened rock onto the road.  However, the excavator that was supposed to remove the fallen rock had developed a flat tire, so broken rock had accumulated, blocking the road.  Fortunately there was only a short pause while they replaced a wheel and then cleared the road.

The following morning we visited Massouds’s Tomb.  The tomb building itself is quite elegant, on a striking location, with a fine view over one of the most fertile sections of the valley.  A large culture centre is being built around the tomb.  There is also a wrecked tank and several APCs as a kind of informal additional memorial.

A little further down the valley, we stopped at a well preserved Soviet tank.  It had a small gash in the turret, running all the way through, which is presumably from the rocket that killed it.  I was able to clamber around inside – it was actually more spacious than I had expected for Soviet gear.

Note: This trip was part of a private tour arranged through Great Game Travel of Kabul.  Afghanistan isn’t always a safe destination at the moment, and I’m grateful to Great Game for their good sense and continual kind guidance throughout.

Tajiki-Uzbek border I crossed from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan at the Tursanzade-Denau crossing, on the road from Dushanbe to Termez.

The Tajik exit formalities were straightforward, taking only about 25 minutes.  On the Uzbek side, the immigration formalities were easy, but customs was a little ugly.

Uzbekistan has tight currency controls.  If you are carrying undeclared currency, the customs officers are entitled to confiscate it.  Which no doubt provides the officers with a significant incentive.

As I approached the customer area, a customs officer was shouting angrily at people and forcing them back.  I think too many people had been trying to push into the customs hall proper, so we had to queue outside in the sun.   I was eventually spotted as a foreigner and pulled in and given English forms.  After filling those out, I joined the actual customs queue.  There were separate lines for men and women, with matching male or female customs officers.

Oh my.  I had carefully listed all my dollars and electronic gadgets.  The initial paper shuffling went fine.  Then came the command “dollars!” and I was required to show my cash.  So I hauled out my wallet, my money belt and my backup envelope.  This was all carefully counted, with two Uzbek customs officers getting involved and me trying to keep an eye on it all.  They eventually reluctantly agreed that I had listed exactly the right amount.  They asked if I had any Sterling or Euros and seemed dubious when I claimed I didn’t.  Then they rummaged vigorously through my day-bag and pack.  Then I got directed to a partly curtained-off search room, made to turn out my pockets, and was vigorously frisked.  I had my groin prodded a couple of times, but no, I only had the standard items.   (To be fair, it was done reasonably professionally.   He was checking if I had a stash of money in my underwear.) By now various Uzbeks and Tajiks in the queue behind me were becoming quite impatient and exchanging angry noises with the customs officers.

Then I was given the thumbs up, a reasonably friendly smile, and allowed to gather my stuff and exit.  Before going more than a few steps, I stopped and re-counted my money.  Rather to my surprise it was all still there.  And all my gadgets made it through OK.

Now, I’ve been through Uzbek customs a couple of times before, in the North, with only a cursory scan of my paperwork and no search.  So why the extra vigor this time?

Well, this is a much quieter border post, probably with much less supervision.   In the North they get a lot of tourists and I suspect they are under orders to keep foreigners happy.  Down in the South, they probably don’t see many foreigners and the possibility of undeclared cash-on-the-hoof was probably too good an opportunity to pass up.

Also, I was traveling on a UK passport, but I hadn’t declared any UK currency.  Aha!  Clearly I must have some juicy undeclared pounds hidden on me somewhere.  But no!

Now, I’ve enjoyed my trips through Uzbekistan, so don’t let this tale put you off visiting.  This level of scrutiny is unusual and even so it was only 10-20 minutes of nonsense.  Just make sure you declare all the money you want to keep.

Khojand (aka Khujand) is a sleepy industrial town in Northern Tajikistan. In an earlier age it was Leninabad. And in an even earlier one, it was Alexandria-the-Furthest.

Yes, Big Alex was here, pursuing a Scythian army. In 329 b.c. he re-founded the existing city as Alexandria Eschate (“Alexandria the Farthest”) on the Jaxartes River. Unfortunately there isn’t much surviving from his visit.

There are the remains of a medieval mudbrick fortress, which is probably the latest descendent of fortresses on the same site from Alexander’s time. Nowadays there is a small Tajikistan army post on top, presumably a leftover from the Tajik civil war.
The Soviets left a giant polished metal statue of Lenin, which LonelyPlanet assures us is “the largest Lenin statue in all of Central Asia”. It’s on the North bank of the river and is a suitably impressive sight against the Tien Shan mountains.

Another Soviet relic

The Regional Museum is housed in a splendid building, modeled on a Medieval Castle. The basement rooms are beautifully decorated with heroic classical scenes in inlaid marble showing Alexander and other Gods. Unfortunately, the actual exhibits are relatively prosaic.

The following day I took a long-distance taxi over the long bumpy road from Khojand to Dushanbe. This is slowly being rebuilt by a Chinese construction team, but right now many sections are in extremely bad shape, especially on the Northern half. The section over the 11,500ft Shakhristan pass is basically a dirt track with many pot holes, cut into the side of steep slopes. The taxi driver, who appeared to know the road well, was veering from side to side to avoid the worst of them, while driving quite briskly, on the edge of long sheer drops. After some good road, we then took another long windy pot holed dirt road over the Anzob pass. I had been expecting us to use the Anzob tunnel, but I guess that is closed right now. We did see about a dozen short avalanche shelters being built over the main road. (We needed to detour around them.)

This disaster of a road is the only link between the (relatively) industrialized North of Tajikistan and the more agrarian South. Seeing the road helped me understand why the Northern factions were unable to intervene effectively in the civil war, which was mainly fought in the South around Dushanbe.

Of course, Big Alex led an army over that same route, long before there was any kind of paved road. Those Macedonians were a tough bunch.

I took a trolleybus out to the delightful Riga Motor Museum.  This hosts a fine collection of historic vehicles, but most famous is their exhibit of classic Kremlin cars, acquired back when Latvia was still an SSR.

Their finest piece is probably the preserved wreckage of Leonid Brezhnev’s beloved Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.   (Apparently there was a sad lack of Rolls Royce repair shops in Soviet Moscow.)  Brezhnev had a passion for  high end cars, typically gifts from foreign governments, and for driving them at speed.  In 1980 he disastrously pranged the Rolls Royce.  The exhibit has a touching reconstruction, including an authentically equipped Soviet motorcycle cop and an authentically wooden-looking Brezhnev.

But my own favourite is Stalin’s pristine 1950 armoured ZiS-115S.  Complete with an inscrutable back seat passenger.

Stalin in ZiS-115S

Backseat Stalin

And isn’t that Andrei Gromyko exiting a ZIL?

Moscow’s Tretyakov Sculpture Garden (aka the Art Muzeon Sculpture Park) hosts a wide variety of modern sculptures, including a number of abandoned Soviet statues.  These statues appear to be consciously presented as debris from a past life – this doesn’t seem like an attempt to glorify the Soviet past, but merely to record it.  It is at GPS 55.7361,37.6090 outside the New Tretyakov gallery, just South of the giant Peter the Great statue. It’s well worth a visit if you care about Moscow’s Soviet past.

 Felix Dzerzhinsky StatueA striking and dramatic statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (later the NKVD, then the KGB) on a high plinth with the KGB emblem at the front. This is the very statue that used to stand in front of the KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square and which was dramatically toppled in August 1991.
A rare Brezhnev bust, looking characteristically blank.

A sad and defaced Stalin statue.

Stalin and Lenin busts, guarding giant Soviet insignia.

 

New Tretyakov Gallery

The New Tretyakov hosts many Soviet era paintings. A couple that caught my eye were:

“”Defence of Petrograd””, A. Deineka (1927).

The workers’ militia marches to the front. The injured return.

“A People’s Court”, S. B. Nikritin (1934).

A grim view of Soviet Power, showing a strange mixture of threat and fear. A very brave painting for 1934.

Astana’s Cosmonauts

Astana takes pride in being Kazakhstan’s visionary new capital. But in the older parts of town there are also many traces of the Soviet past.

Astana Cosmonauts

My favorite of these is a fine Soviet era mosaic outside the train station, showing a spectacled engineer and a waving cosmonaut.  A nice reminder of Kazakstan’s broader role in the USSR.

Welcome to the Land of the Cosmonauts!

For the Scots among you: Yes that does look like a Saltire on the foreground figure. I’m not quite sure what’s intended there: The Russian navy also uses a St Andrew’s cross, but they normally use a blue cross on a white background. Hmm.