Saturday 18 May. My friends and I have just arrived in what is the one hundredth country or territory I have had the privilege to visit.
We had read that the centrepiece of the town was a giant plastic apricot, the fruit that had given much wealth to this Tajik border community over the years. And the apricot was the first and most obvious thing we saw as we stepped out of the taxi, as it took pride of place in the middle of the high street. It was respectfully albeit rather functionally being treated by passing traffic as a roundabout.
As we walked towards the apricot to get a better look, a policeman approached us, purposefully swinging a baton in his right hand. Was the apricot holy ground, an icon that must not be approached or photographed with our shoes on? Our concern that we’d already done something worthy of arrest was quickly laid to rest. “Welcome, dear tourists!” he said with a flourishing wave of the hand and a big smile. “Is everything good for you?”
We walked through the wonderfully intense semi-covered lanes that made up the Saturday market. Money changers were eager for our custom, and our presence was noted by all. But where were we? Could this be Iran? Turkey even? The language was Farsi, yet the writing was Cyrillic. From the men’s faces and appearance we could be in the Middle East. From the way women dressed, in beautifully coloured and embroidered calf-length dresses over matching leggings, and colourful headscarves, this could only be Tajikistan.
We found one of the ancient mosques, under reconstruction, and right by the market. I was about to walk over the threshold when a man told us that this was the ladies entrance. I sincerely apologised and he was easy about it, and helped us to find a better access to it.
Then another man, responding to our request for directions to the museum, decided he would take us there. It wasn’t far away, down a narrow, dusty lane where tradespeople sold wheelbarrows, and where two car drivers faced up to one another when they could not pass at the same time. When we arrived at the museum, ladies were sweeping the concrete steps outside, and an old transistor radio blurted out some clangy music. “Yes, we are open!” Big smiles and excited hand-wringing went on as we paid the entrance fee. “Come in. Come in.”
All five women, plus the three month old baby who was strapped to one of the young women, spent the next 45 minutes excitedly showing us around every room. It was a typical old, tired, Soviet-styled museum, with some rooms explaining exhibits only in Tajik. We saw samples of the bank notes that the city’s lady mayor invented for trading locally when, during the devastating civil war (1992-1997), no other money was available.
“She kept us alive,” they said with great affection and admiration. “Is she still alive?” I asked. “Of course,” they replied, as though she were immortal. “She still lives in the town. She’s 84 now, and retired.” We asked our hosts to send her our greetings from the UK. Other rooms had the obligatory stuffed animals and prehistoric stones (we’re on the silk route here and they have up to 3,000 years of local history to find and exhibit). Stuff is still being discovered in local burial grounds and nearby hills. In another room there were, a little bizarrely, photos of the fifty or so Soviet soldiers from Isfara who were part of the clean-up team after the Chernobyl incident in 1986.
This was a wonderful visit. Not so much for the exhibits (which were old and tired but still very interesting), but for the sheer excitement of these women, and for the respect we were able quite genuinely show to them and their town. When Irina couldn’t understand their second-language Russian, they would shout even louder, which gave Paul the giggles and Irina a headache. They took as many photos of us as we did of the museum, including several group photos at the end of our visit. In fact, they took so many photos of us that we thought we’d probably have a room dedicated to our visit by the end of the day.
What made it even more special was that as we left they told us (the only visitors for the entire time we were there) that today was a special ‘Museum Open Day’. Hence the sweeping of the steps and the blaring of the transistor radio. We asked for directions to one of the few open cafes (because we are here during Ramadan) and, as we walked off down into town, they all waved us goodbye. When we were further down the hill I glanced round one more time. They were all still there, and gave me another big wave.
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...has visited 108 countries and territories around the world, and always jumps at the chance of adding to that list.