Sunday, July 21, 2013

To Salt City!

Sorry for the long delay in posts. Last week was a series of midterms (4 to be exact) and I really just didn't have time to post. Or for that matter, anything really interesting to post.

But it's all worth it! Because this weekend me and two friends (Nick and Eric) went south to a city called Shahrtus. It was super hot but totally worth it...

*Interesting note on the name of the city. Apparently Shahrtus has a big salt mine, and so it's name comes from this. 'Shahr' means city and 'tus' is one way to say salt. So. Salt City. Cool huh?

We had initially hoped to go to Takte Sangin, which is on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is a well known location and apparently really cool, but unfortunately we couldn't secure permission to travel there from the local military. One of the program's local contacts (who is AWESOME) recommended Shahrtus if we still wanted to go south. He also offered to negotiate our way down there.

Luckily for us, he has a friend who lives in Shartus. For a nominal fee, his friend drove 3-4 hours to pick us up to Dushanbe, drive back, let us stay at his house, provide us dinner and breakfast, then give us a guided tour of a number of sites in Shartus, and finally drive us back to the city. Worth. Every. Penny.

Here's a map of where we went- (the blue dot is me in Dushanbe and the red marker is where we went. Shahrtus is about 50km (30mi) north of the Afghan border. 

The drive to our final destination was around 170km (~105mi) but this is of course through the mountains and the desert. With no air conditioning. It wasn't as bad as it sounds but needless to say the ride back was a lot less captivating than the drive there.

Rahmat (not his actually name, but I did not ask for permission to use his) was a very great tour guide and host. He spoke Tajik, Dari, and Pashtu. Because of his Dari roots, we had a much easier time understand him (Dari is much closer in pronounciation to Iranian Persian than Tajik is) and his family/house was super nice. 

Anyways. After dinner, some cards, and a VERY SHORT sleep we woke up to go check out some places. Waking up early is definitely not my forte but it was totally worth it. It was already nearly 38C (100F)... at 7am. Yikes!

We first headed to Khojamaskhad. Initially we were pretty confused because we ended up in the middle of a neighborhood, and Rahmat told us to get out. As we got out of the car we could make out some Justin Bieber playing in the background and we were definitely curious as to where we were going. Little did we know that in the middle of this neighborhood was a 9th-10th century school and mosque.

The coolest part about this particular location was that it had been left almost untouched- some minor restoration work has been done to ensure structural integrity but that was it. This is a big contrast to some of the other historical sites in Tajikistan. Not only that but we were basically alone for about twenty minutes and were able to explore the site. 

One of the domes had an oculus in it that operated as both a solar calendar and clock. This is 9th century technology- isn't that kind of impressive?! 

As we walked back to the car we all enjoyed noting the crazy contrast that we were experiencing. Just behind us was a twelve-hundred year old structure, and just in front of us our Tajik friends playing Justin Bieber. Weird, right?

Onward we went the to Khojadurbod. Essentially this site is a relatively small tomb in the middle of the desert. There wasn't all that much to see, aside from a lot of bees and some scattered graves in Arabic/Cyrillic. 

We were completely alone out here, and although our tour guide laughed at us, we went out a bit into the desert around the tomb. He didn't join us for good reason... IT WAS HOT!

Finally our journey concluded at Chelochor Cheshm ("Forty-Four Springs"). Not sure if I've ever seen something quite as amazing or in contrast with its surroundings. After about a half-hour drive through desert mountains, we finally ended up at this relatively unmarked location. 

We got out of the car and headed down into a small valley. While the pictures I took really do not do this place justice, here's a bit of what we found.

I've never seen water so clear (and remember, I worked for a pool store). You could make out every detail of every fish, plant, and rock at the bottom of every spring. Eventually all the springs merge into a small river (the second picture) and people are allowed to swim there.

Despite the attention our very pale skin attracted, we opted to go for a swim in the river with the locals. Brr! The water was super cold but it felt really good after walking around. By this time is was probably close to 46-47C (115F) so the cold water was welcome. Did I mention every single Tajik stopped and stared at us while we got in? It was like the entire population at Chelochor Cheshm hadn't seen people so pale before! After ten minutes or so they lost interest, but we definitely had the limelight for that time.

After swimming for a bit we decided we should get out so that we didn't completely fry in the sun. I have to say after getting out we experienced probably the most comfortable 15 minutes we've had in Tajikistan- we were still pretty cold from the water so the hot wind felt pretty good. After 15 minutes, it was miserable again. But that's 15 minutes! 

(On another note, we didn't bring towels. As one might conclude, air drying in the desert is pretty effective). 

Once dry and dressed we headed up to the restaurant on premise. Despite the hundred flies (not exaggerating, there was easily 100) the food was tasty and cheap. 

Even though it was only 12:30 or so, we had accomplished a lot. It was also starting to get even hotter, so we called it 'a day' and headed back. 

Overall one of the coolest parts of the trip was how unique it was. A lot of travelers go North or West, and this particular city is not frequented by many Westerners. People were definitely curious to see us  (read: we were constantly stared at) and it certainly added to the allure. 

I'm honestly dying to go back to Chelochor Cheshm already, so this is definitely on my to-do list when I come back in September. 

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