|Imagine my dismay when our Russian guide
said, “Tomorrow we’re going on a picnic.”
It was the last thing I wanted to do. I had traveled half
way around the world to tour the major Soviet cities of West and South
Central Asia. I had marveled at the unique history of Samarkand, that major
stop on the old silk route from Greece, Rome, Asia Minor, Egypt, India and
Persia to China. I had visited the blue-domed burial tomb of the great
Tamerlane. I had walked through modern, bustling, Tashkent, a city that had
been leveled by an earthquake only 10 years before.
Here, Alexander the Great once walked four hundred years
before Christ. I saw the ancient digs at Khiva and nearby Bukhara, which was
and still is famous for its hand woven rugs. Now I was in a modern city of
about 600,000 people who called themselves, not Russian, but Tadzhiks. The
women wore multi colored silk kurtas over shalvar pants. Their hats from far
off Bukhara were embroidered with precious stones. They carried babies,
walked in small groups and they smiled.
I was told that these people were great warriors but while
there was an occupying Russian presence in this place they once called
Stalinabad, today’s Dushanbe (Du-shawn-bey) was romantically different, the
locals were gentle and smiling. The city was a Soviet military fortress.
There was an army base here second to none. At that time nobody foresaw the
invasion from this city to Afghanistan to the south. I can’t say this
earthquake prone city, not far from Iran, was pretty although the hotel was
modern enough. But the dry winds coming in from the nearby desert made it an
unbearable place in the afternoon. And as hot as it was, I saw beards (aksakals)
on most desert men from the Kyzul Kum or Kara Kum deserts, blackened by the
sun, wearing great boots, long baggy pants, fur hats and great Islamic coats
and turbans. They chewed on a green leaf as westerners chewed on tobacco.
Their language was a form of Persian but many spoke Russian.
They told us that clothing kept away the heat. I chose not
to try to prove them wrong. But to them, we were a curiosity. They smiled
and agreed to have their pictures taken with us.
At that time the native culture was encouraged and while
there were over 300 schools of various levels, the state had established an
Academy of Sciences in this city. There were also interesting museums
exhibiting snow leopards and Marc Polo sheep of the region and the Firdowski
Library, displaying medieval Islamic manuscripts. I visited an Opera Ballet
Theatre and a Catholic church, a Russian church and a 19th century
But back to my story. I decided to go along with the
group. We were nine people doing research on west and south central Asia.
Little did I know that the picnic would be something I’d long remember.
Little did I know I’d be writing about the spectacular mountains just south
of this city, almost thirty years later.
We were nine Canadians in our group. The bus was waiting
when we came out after breakfast. Behind the bus was a small trailer. I
correctly assumed it was what we needed for the ‘picnic’. We headed south
towards Afghanistan and the city of Termez, just north of the big mountains
and the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, better known after 9-11.
The mountains grew steeper as we passed through fewer and
fewer settlements. I realized that if we went far enough we would be in the
fabled Hindu Kush. This place would become a battleground only a few years
The bus lumbered up the winding road and finally stopped
in a clearing near a copse of trees. Here, to my surprise seven men waited
to greet us. They wore knee-long jackets tied with colorful scarves and
traditional skullcaps (taqi). They had laid out a number of thick and
colorful carpets. There were elaborate folding chairs with silk covering,
low tables set out with plates of colorful delicacies and two large golden
samovars steaming and glistening in the hot sun.
We took our places in the shade while the men unhitched
the trailer. It turned out to be an enormous stove with a spit. They
proceeded to prepare a meal of the most delicious lamb shish kabobs I had
ever eaten. They served cold champagne of a local variety with salads,
cheeses, olives, and that special pita bread you find only in that area. We
ate a hearty meal while two of the men played tunes from the region on
I apologized to my guide for the fuss I caused about
participating in a picnic. It was not like any picnic I ever attended nor
were the vistas similar to home.
On the way back, I was making notes when, Lena, our guide
announced that we would be stopping for refreshments at a teahouse or
chaikhana. I knew that chai meant tea in this area but my curiosity was
As we approached the entrance we noticed that there was
some sort of celebration going on. We soon found out that it was a local
traditional wedding. The gusts invited us in and asked some of us to dance.
The bride and groom looked on, beaming. It seems that the wedding party
thought it a coup to have foreign visitors attend. After a while we were
offered candies and pastries, which we accepted and retired to the outside
where our tea would be served. This was where I got a lesson in teahouse
Scattered throughout the property were large wooden ‘Tachtas’.
I don’t know the English translation and I’ve never seen one since. It can
be described as a large square platform, looking somewhat like a bed, with a
wooden floor, covered with soft carpets. At both ends, like on a bed, was a
low spindle railing, not unlike the headboard of a real bed. But this device
was higher off the floor and not made for sleeping. The idea was that we
would remove our shoes and climb onto the surface. There, leaning against
the railing, we would sip our tea and chat, while the music from the
teahouse soothed us.
When we left, the entire assemblage came out onto the
balcony and waved goodbye. It was a sight I shall never forget. But I was
leaving for Sochi, on the Black sea, the next day and we still had a long
I am not suggesting this place as a vacation site but I
was lucky enough to visit the area and felt it was important enough to
record. There are many tourist hotels in the city and restaurants serving,
Russian, Polish, Tajik, European and Iranian food. I remember the Elite
Restaurant across from Radio House. It was a good place to eat but bring
along an interpreter. You’ll need one.
The day’s picnic turned out better than any form of city
sight seeing. I was taken by the joy of the occasion. I was taken with the
graciousness of our hosts and my guide who wanted to be Americanized. When I
asked where the washroom was at the airport, she simply said, “Go out this
door and hang a right.” So much for the aura of a foreign land. I left the
next day but I was taken with the Tadzhik people. I would think of them
often. Now, thirty odd years later I can see them dancing, singing and
enjoying their simple lives with their broad smiles and colorful dress.
Sochi too turned out to be filled with surprises. But
that’s a story for another time.
You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at:
Over the past few years, Professor
Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece,
Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of
Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the
globe including Italy and most of
China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters
from St.Petersburg to Moscow.
"He took a group to Greece and another to northern
Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour
groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They
winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico. His newly found spare time
is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His
current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders.. "So
You Want To Be A Tour Leader."
Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing
Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel
writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.
Keep reading his web for travel ideas. His next
novel HELLSTORM'S Folly,
will be available this fall. He now
lives in British Columbia.
www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at
(More about the writer.)