Flying the friendly skies with Tajikistan Airlines

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

So I remember when I flew from Lima to Cuzco, Peru, and deciding that it was the most beautiful plane ride of my life.  Well, that has now been supplanted by the flight between Dushanbe and Khojand, Tajikistan.  I try not to think about the fact that the airplane should probably be in a museum somewhere.
The day I'm supposed to leave for Khojand, in the north of the country, Dushanbe is hit by a huge snowstorm, covering the entire city in about 6 inches of fluff.  My flight gets cancelled the first day, the next day it is postponed and when finally re-scheduled, I miss the flight.  I finally leave that night.  The plane is this little prop-propeller plane from what appears to be about 1957.  Passing thru security in the Tajik airport is a bit faster than what I'm used to, as there isn't an actual security check. We all load in the plane, which consists of about 40 seats which appear to be folding chairs.  An hour later we are in Khojand.
The Khojand base is much different than the KT base - much more organized, but no one in my department really speaks English.  I am constantly surrounded by about 5 Tajik engineers, all about 50 yrs old and wearing big fur hats, standing around me asking if I have any questions.  The manager is a very exciteable guy who resembles a Grizzly bear.   
I spend most of my time going to the field to inspect projects.  It is even colder in the north and I am constantly wearing about 6 layers of clothes to keep warm.  The project sites are located in beautiful areas - near Isfara, you have huge red-rock formations (like the southwestern US) to your left, and then you look to your right and there are jagged, snow-covered peaks looming overhead.    Joseph Stalin drew the country borders between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in this area, apparently after many bottles of vodka.  You are constantly driving in and out of all countries, and then in the middle of Tajikistan you have a little island of Kyrgyzstan, not at all connected to the rest of the country, and the entire population is Uzbek.  Gotta love those Soviets! 
On the weekend Lucien and I decide to take a road trip in the car which has recently begun to rent from a Tajik friend of his.  We start off for Isfara, but as the car is jumping and lurching more and more as we go on, we decide to cut it the trip short and instead stop in a small village along the way where we eat shashlek and drink tea.  We are heading back and the car dies completely in this little village, where some local men come out and try to help us with repairs.  As we fix each problem, another appears, until finally we realize we are out of our league.  We are also completely frozen at this point.  We have no choice but to push the car to a man's house and leave it there until later, and hop on a bus home.
The guesthouse is very nice, and I am the only one staying there.  The cook is a Russian woman, Valentina, who was once a nuclear chemist and cooks unbelievable amounts of food, standing over me and scolding me in Russian when I don't finish my 3rd breakfast of the day that she force feeds me.   
There are lots of problems here with drainage of the high water table, which is present due to years of bad irrigation practices.  There is potential for some really interesting, new kinds of drainage systems here, and luckily I still talk with my favorite university professor, who knows more about subsurface drainage than anybody that any of us will probably ever meet (thanks for the help Dr. Cooke!!).  The only problem is that these engineers, who are all very technically competent, are trained in the Soviet style of: there is only ONE way to do something, and we shall not think of new ideas or try new ideas at all costs.  Minor problem to get around.
My friend Muzaffar took me to the bazaar in the center of town, one of the largest in central Asia.  It is in a beautiful building, with a huge domed entrance that is decorated with intricate mosaics.  The inside has huge white pillars and is completely lit by natural light.  Muzaffar show me the whole bazaar and we bought dried apricots and a fur hat for my friend Erica (made from muskrat, so I don't consider it to be cruelty to animals). 
Across the square is a huge mosque, topped with two tiled domes covered with thousands of birds. 

The flight home we had perfectly clear skies and we flew right over the tops of the Fan Mountains, completely covered in snow.  The little airplane made loud popping and creaking noises the entire flight, but the view took my mind away from them.  Not bad for a morning commute. 
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