Eleven in a Jeep

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Panjakent, Tajikistan
Thursday, September 6, 2012

The town of Penjikent is located in the Zerafshan valley and serves as the base for trekking trips to the Fan Mountains. The rugged mountains are studded with picturesque lakes and are very popular with travelers. Until a few years ago, travelers from Samarkhand (a major Silk Road destination) in Uzbekistan could hop across the border to Tajikistan and cover the 60 km distance to Penjikent easily. At the time of this writing, this particular border has been closed and this has resulted in the closure of all Samarkhand based tour business to the Fan Mountains. WIth the closure of the border, Penjikent is now a remote location locked in a corner in Western Tajikistan.

Penjikent had several surprises in store for us. As we were walking down the mostly deserted main street looking for an ATM, we were surprised to hear one of a group of girls asking M, "Tumhara Naam Kya Hai?" (What is your name? in Hindi). The interrogator had learnt a little bit of Hindi purely by watching films. After a brief exchange, we moved on a little farther, when we heard the blaring of a car horn. It turned out to be Yokub  who had just dropped us off at our hotel an hour ago. He had his entire family with him (including Azizjon). He had earlier invited us to his home for dinner but we had declined due to our plans for the evening. It was quite a coincidence to run into him again unexpectedly, even though Penjikent is a small enough town allowing this sort of thing to happen regularly.

The next morning, we visited the offices of ZTB (Zerafshan Tourist Board) with the intention of researching options to tour the Fan Mountains ourselves. We were showered with attention by 3 of their staff members, one of whom turned out to be from India. He was serving a long stint as advisor to the ZTB to improve tourism potential in this part of the world. We got the requisite information that we were looking for and decided to tour the Seven Lakes area in the Fan Mountains. Also known as Mazugor Lakes, these are a chain of lakes fed by the same river that flows down from the 7th lake (Azor Chasma) and then down through the remaining six lakes to the valley below. Shared taxis operate to the area on an irregular schedule. They leave Penjikent around noon for one or more destinations by the lakes. The return journey is a bit difficult to arrange but a pre-dawn departure to coincide with the villagers heading to Penjikent market is usually good enough to find a ride in one of these taxis. We were recommended a homestay run by one Juma in the village of Nofin (which lies just outside the 4th lake). 

We had a couple of hours to kill before our departure which we used to explore the main bazaar in Penjikent. Our presence ignited the curiosity of several shopkeepers and bystanders and our answer to the obligatory first question was always "Hindustan" as this seemed to evoke the best responses. We would be bombarded with the names of Hindi film superstars from the distant past to the current crop as if the name droppers knew these stars personally. Raj Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan were the ones mentioned frequently. But we were surprised to learn that Mithun Chakravarti had a huge following in Tajikistan. Just how big he was we would learn soon later that day.

We heard a voice calling out to us outside the bazaar and it turned out to be Afredjon, the guide who had spoken to us the previous day. We gave him an update on our plans and told him we had decided to go on our own. He graciously wished us well for the trip and offered us dinner on our return.

The shared taxi ride from Penjikent to Nofin turned out to be quite an adventure. With some help from our friend from ZTB, we managed to get on one that was expected to leave at around 1:30. It eventually left at 2:30 after several re-arrangements of the cargo which we watched with great interest (what else could we do?). Apart from the cargo at the back and on top, the jeep was filled with 11 humans. A senior citizen dressed in traditional Tajik garb and sporting a flowing white beard occupied one corner of the back set. Next to him was a young man and the two of us. Squeezed in the middle was a small girl who spoke not a word through the entire journey despite being subjected to the worst of the ride. Her father sat next the driver but facing us. Her mother sat in the passenger seat with a babe in arms. The father held a small boy in his arms. The 11th member of the party was a young boy who had to ride in the back with the sacks. On hearing that we were from Hindustan, the senior citizen muttered "Tajikiston, Uzbekifston, Hindston, Paxton"  and found much satisfaction in this recital.

It was smooth going except for a brief interruption at a check post where the only two foreigners (us two) were obliged to show our passports. We submitted photocopies which were retained and off we continued. After an hour's ride on relatively smooth road, the climb started and the road soon transformed into a 4x4 track that was only wide enough to accommodate a vehicle the size of a jeep. As we ascended the path through the series of lakes counting 1, 2, 3 etc. we were subjected to the kind of experience normally felt by clothes in a washing machine. The father of the family sitting on the tiny bench between the driver and his wife, displayed astonishing heroism in the handling of the boy in his arms. The boy needed constant attention and would holler loudly at the slightest discomfort. When it got too hot, he had to be divested of his outer layers. When he got hungry he had to be fed from a bottle which had to be filled from another. The father was ably assisted in this exercise by the young girl who sat (if it can be called that) next to us. As he held the bottle between his thighs, his daughter would open the cap and he would fill it from another receptacle. These actions were being executed while the jeep was tossing about in wild turbulence. The father countered every jolt of the jeep with the appropriate counter force to ensure minimum impact on his toddler, who showed absolutely no appreciation and simply howled on. But it was the girl who sat next to us who had the worst of it. Sandwiched between 4 adults in the back bench meant only for 3, she was constantly unseated by every jolt and would find herself at the floor. She would accept our helping hand in trying to restore her sitting position but otherwise remained stoically silent or help her father deal with her younger brother's demands. All this while, the senior citizen sat impassively at the back unmoved by all the chaos around him. One can only presume that the 4 nation cadence kept him in a trance rendering the reality of the outside world a mere illusion. He could have been his own statue.

The boy at the back got off (mercifully) first and then it was our turn after the driver dropped us off at Juma's home stay. The remaining passengers gratefully occupied the seats vacated by us. It was late in the afternoon and we got a warm welcome from our host. Tea, fruit and bread were served. There was no need for a song and dance routine about vegetarianism as Juma was used to foreigners and their weird culinary habits. 

We had enough daylight for a brief walk by the 4th lake, when we were blasted by yet another car horn. It was Afredjon, laughing at the coincidence, behind the wheel of his Toyota, on his return back to Penjikent after dropping off customers at a nearby home stay. He asked to be photographed with us so he could show his family. But his next question took us by surprise. He had always wanted to visit India and one of his earnest ambitions was to meet Mithun Chakravarti in person. Would it be possible for us to help him in this endeavor? We had to be honest and told him that it would not be an easy task to meet an Indian film star in person, even one from yesteryears. We wonder if Mr. Charkravarti has any inkling of his stature in Tajikistan. Perhaps he should consider a tour of the country.


Ha ha. You should send this post to Mithun Chakraborty. He may have more fans in Tajikistan than in India.

Samarqand beckons I suppose, although not sure how you'll cross if the border is closed. Ahhh one of the great stops on the Silk Road. I am sorely tempted to drop everything and join you :):) From Ramesh, on Sep 19, 2012 at 10:53AM
@Ramesh - Samarkhand is only 60 kms from Penjikant but we are taking the long way around to get there. We will be checking out a couple of other 'stans' in the meantime. Samarkhand and Bukhara are ethnically Tajik towns but were located in the Uzbek SSR during Soviet times. The sensitivity still continues and is probably the reason for the border closure. From Malini and Venkatesh, on Sep 19, 2012 at 03:31PM

Pictures & Video

Penjikent Bozor Couple selling dry fruits at Penjikent Bozor
Couple selling dry fruits at Penjikent Bozor
Loading the jeep Cozy with 11 in a jeep
Cozy with 11 in a jeep
The second lake The third lake and the 4x4 path winding past
The third lake and the 4x4 path winding past
Welcome tea at Nofin Homestay
Welcome tea at Nofin Homestay
Apricots laden branches in Jumaboi's garden
Apricots laden branches in Jumaboi's garden
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