Welcome to the podcast show notes and transcript for Episode 4: Why Visit Tajikistan (A Lesser Known ’Stan)? In this episode Rachel Heller and I speak with journalist and travel writer, Ernest White II, who just completed updating a guide book on Tajikistan. Why visit Tajikistan? For that matter, where exactly is Tajikistan? What were the highs and lows of this epic adventure? Listen and find out.

Podcast Show Notes: Why Visit Tajikistan (A Lesser Known ‘Stan)?

Podcast Shown Notes for Episode 4: Why Visit Tajikistan?

Time Stamped Show Notes

00:45 Why visit Tajikistan?

  • 2:18 Tajikistan’s Spectacular Landscapes
  • 3:55 Tajikistan’s Position At The Crossroads Of History
  • 6:49 Tajikistan’s Friendly Population
  • 8:30 Tajikistan’s Persian Influenced Food

9:35 Tajikistan is Best for Seasoned Adventure Travelers

11:00 Visiting Tajikistan is Easy To Organise

14:05 Driving in Tajikistan is An Adventure In Itself

15:20 Tips For First Time Visitors to Tajikistan

16:34 Meeting Tajik Locals

18:28 Tajik Hospitality

21:09 A Country at The Crossroads Yet Still Isolated

23:00 Next Stop: South Africa

24:18 And, Then Onto Egypt

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Transcript

This is a transcript of 1001 Travel Tales Podcast: Episode 4: Why Visit Tajikistan (A Lesser Known ’Stan)? The text has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

A conversation with Shobha George (Just Go Places Blog), Rachel Heller (Rachel’s Ruminations) and Ernest White (Fly Brother).

SG: So I’m here with Ernest White who is a journalist and occasional blogger at Flybrother.net and he has just returned from Tajikistan For an entire month. We want to talk to him about it because let’s face it most of us don’t even know where Tajikistan is. This is one of the ‘stans that is somewhere in Asia.

EW:  Very true, it’s a ‘stan and it’s surrounded by ‘stans and Iran.

Why visit Tajikistan?

Tajikistan is a land-locked country in central Asia.

Why Visit Tajikistan?

SG: Oh yes, exactly. Exactly. How did you find yourself in Tajikistan for a month?

EW: Well I know a few people in the journalism industry obviously and the travel industry, someone who works in it and they were looking for someone to update the Bradt guidebook to the country. They needed someone who could go for an entire month because that was what it would take to cover the parts of the book that they were updating  and also who could go before October and who had guidebook experience. I had previously worked as a researcher on the National Geographic Travelers Guide to Brazil so that kind of qualified me with all of those 3 different you know points.

SG: That’s a very specific resume you needed.

EW: It is very specific. However, there were some people who were disappointed just because you know oh, he doesn’t speak Russian, he doesn’t speak Tajik. I think that actually was better because it allowed me to have a more authentic experience as most travelers who go there don’t speak Russian or Tajik.

And there were parts of the book that were written originally by people who did speak Russian and Tajik and had a car and all these other things. So they had an experience that was different than the one that I had trying to update the book.

So I think it  it worked in our favor just because then you had these 2 experiences coming together. Someone who is familiar with the language who can you know start the book off, someone who also has a mode of transportation that allows them to get to certain places that someone who does not have that similar mode of transportation can get to…

RH: So that now that you’ve seen Tajikistan…why go there?

Why visit Tajikistan?

Tajikistan is a perfect introduction to the countries in Central Asia.

Tajikistan’s Spectacular Landscapes

EW: I will say this, Tajikistan has some of the most spectacular landscapes that I have ever seen in my life.

SG: And you are well-traveled.

EW: I’m kind of well-traveled. I’m kind of well-traveled. You know, I haven’t been to Greenland you know I haven’t been to Antarctica, I haven’t been to Kazakhstan which I’ve heard was even more beautiful than Tajikistan.

It’s right next door. But I’ll say that through every mountain pass, through every tunnel you come out the other side seeing some of the most beautiful, strange you know, moun, it’s mostly mountainous so obviously, it’s a mountainous landscape but like I never knew there were so many different varieties of browns. Rich colors you know that were within a similar palette.

RH: So it’s a very sort of dry landscape.

EW: It is in many places but the thing is that you’ve got these rivers that kind of descend from these mountains glaciers… That are just ridiculously clear and where there’s any depth they are aqua marine and like neon turquoise.

It’s like, this is fake water or it’s like the water’s Photoshopped or it’s like the water is contaminated with some kind of toxic but beautiful chemical. That’s what it’s looking like.

And so when the water does run through certain parts you’ve got these tufts of beautiful verdant greenery, you’ve got trees that grow there naturally but you’ve also got trees that have been planted by the Russians from many different parts of the world. You’ve got magnolias, you’ve got fir trees, you’ve got you know just trees from the Mediterranean in the middle of these valleys.

A lot mountain ranges cross Tajikistan (Photo credit: Ernest White II)

Tajikistan’s Position At The Crossroads Of History

SG: This would have been part of the old Silk route wouldn’t it?

EW: Absolutely. It’s on the old Silk Road. I mean Alexander the Great went through there, Genghis Khan went through there, Tamerlane.  You’ve got like huge Buddhists and Hindu influence.

Yeah, so for the first like several thousands of years the people were incredibly mixed. So you do see people who look like they’re directly descended from Mongolians who are Tajik and who have been there for you know centuries. You’ve got people who are blond and blue-eyed but obviously very tanned because the sun is quite powerful in that part of the world who are also Tajik and have been there. You’ve got people who look vaguely like they may have Indian descent as well.

I’m a, you know, a Black American guy so of African descent, you don’t see very many people who look like me there. I was stared at quite a lot. 9 times out of 10 though it was kind of a pleasant curiosity. Meaning when I was able to break through the awkwardness of being stared at and actually smiled or spoke to people, they wanted to take pictures, they came up and tried out their English with me and it was actually really a fun, interesting activity.

RH: It’s an opening.

EW: It definitely is an opening to connect with people. And the assumption was not that I was from the States. The first assumption would be that I was like from Brazil or some other country with a lot of MMA fighters because that’s very popular. T hey watch a lot of it on TV, I’m a tall kind of large guy and so, yeah. The first thing people thought was I was some kind of  a prize-fighter. I took that as a compliment.

SG: And then you said, I’m just a journalist.

EW:  I’m just a journalist. But either way they still wanted their picture taken so and an autograph so it was kind of cool. I did enjoy it. But back to the whole thing like why…

RH: The landscapes sound like why…

EW: Oh yeah the landscapes yeah definitely. It’s the places between the places.

SG: Is it a high altitude?

EW: It is, I don’t know I think, I can’t remember what the lowest altitude is but 93 per cent of the country is mountainous. It’s landlocked and it is right in the middle of Central Asia.

The reason why I would have been afraid to drive is because a lot of the roads are mountainous, they’re on the sides of these you know 10,000ft drops.

I’m from Florida so it’s you know flat and like there’s no falling off the side of the road to your death.

So…I’d rather leave the driving to other people. And when I went, I went with a few tour companies. They kind of took me around and closed some of those gaps I wouldn’t have been able to close on my own. It meant having military drivers who knew about driving in rough terrain and it would be young guys who just had the training. They knew how to run up and down those mountains in a way that kind of…

RH: You don’t mean you needed to have military persons there?

EW: No, no.no I just meant someone who was trained in all-terrain driving… and discipline.

Tajikistan’s Friendly Population

SG: So the young guys did they speak English? Were you able to have a rapport?

EW: No, strangely you ended up having a rapport with people despite language barriers.

SG: Okay, that’s wonderful.

EW: Okay, I was actually going to say it’s actually quite powerful… To interact with people in a way where it’s like language doesn’t matter as much. So obviously nuance is difficult but some of the basics like you’re staying with me tonight and eating with my family…

You know and I hate to say it like this they only spoke quote on quote Russian and Tajik. You know what I mean like obviously I’m the one that’s coming with the you know the diminished language skills.

But to be in a situation where like, yeah I was going to a town in a shared taxi between 2 cities and I could tell I was being asked about. Some of the words I was picking up (like journalist is a similar word in Tajik). They were saying that you know I was a journalist and the driver of the taxi had been asked you know why I was going to this town. And he kind of like shrugged, it was like I don’t know. This is what I’m picking up from this conversation with an older guy in the back seat of this shared taxi.

And eventually, the guy was like well where is he going to stay? And the guy shrugged again and so he was like you stay with me and my family, and I ended up staying with this you know kind of mullah looking guy, very learned and wizened at his farm,,,

With his family. They brought me food, we slept in you know kind of like a common area with very warm blankets because the house kind of, I wouldn’t say it was well insulated…

Why visit Tajikistan?

The Tajik locals are friendly and curious about foreigners. (Photo credit: Ernest White II)

Tajikistan’s Persian Influenced Food

SG: Well what was the food like then when you ate with the families?

EW: Fresh. You know there’s lots of like fresh yogurts.

SG: It’s a Persian influence.

EW: Yes, definitely lots of, bread is the centerpiece of the Tajik meal and soups with potatoes and beef and meat. Land animals definitely. Dill, strangely, there was lot’s of Dill…Used in the cooking.

EW: Which I like. You know it reminded me of Scandinavia some kind of way and then yeah, again like yogurt like Yak yogurt which I enjoyed. Kefir.

SG: I’ve never had Yak yogurt. Is it a thicker consistency?

EW: Kind of I mean but just kind of lumpy too. And you can leave it out.

RH: Oh, it keeps. Is that, oh now that explains a lot.  I wondered about that for example in where is it Mongolia…

EW: You need to be able to have foods without refrigeration.

RH: Where they use Yaks and traditionally never had refrigeration, okay. That’ makes sense.

EW: Yeah and it gets chilly at night, so.

Tajikistan is Best for Seasoned Adventure Travelers

RH: Let me give you a follow-up question.  I said why go there. Now my question is why shouldn’t you go there.

EW: Okay, well I will say that it is definitely for the more adventurous type of traveler. The infrastructure doesn’t make for an easy holiday. Yes, there’s some nice hotels. Yes, there are even one or two resorts. I wouldn’t say that Tajikistan is a place that you go to for like lounging.

People go there when they want to go trekking. It is an easy place to go trekking and hiking for the American audience through some beautiful natural areas and national parks up in the mountains. The Pamir Mountains are spectacular and breathtaking. The Fann Mountains and some of the other ranges run through Tajikistan. They’re really easy to get to especially from the capital Dushanbe. The other cities in the country are interesting from a cultural standpoint. It really is the outdoors that kind of just like slaps you in the face in terms of you know some beautiful breathtaking scenery.

Why visit Tajikistan?

Mountains and lakes feature prominently in the Tajik landscape (Photo credit: Ernest White II)

So a lot of people do Tajikistan as part of a Central Asia kind of a loop – where they come in through maybe Kazakhstan.They come through Tajikistan and then go into Uzbekistan.

For Americans, you have to get a special like letter of invitation to get an Uzbek visa. It’s not impossible it just means going with a tour company to give it to you. But it’s not something that you can just kind of like swing through Tajikistan on the way to Uzbekistan if you’re an American. If you’re from you know Europe or the UK it’s a bit easier.

Visiting Tajikistan is Easy To Organise

Tajikistan itself has a really staggeringly easy visa process. You can get it online for like $50.

EW: Yeah, so they’ve really made it easy for people to visit.

RH: Can Americans… do a sort of pre-arranged tour there?

EW: Most of the independent travelers that I interacted with were Europeans coming through because of the easiness of going to the other countries as well as Tajikistan.

EW: TJ is easy to get to by itself if you’re American.

EW: Because saying Tajikistan every single time gets…

RH: Do other people call it TJ or is this your name for it?

EW: Well I’ve never heard anybody actually say it but they write it a lot. And that’s like there internet (.tj) I mean I’m sure people say it maybe in Russian or Tajik.

SG: So in your opinion, it’s probably easier to go through with a tour group than to try and plan this on your own.

EW: I would say if you’re not used to independent travel and more challenging places. By challenging I mean a place where you may not find a native English speaker, or an English speaker easily. Or a place where you may not be able to use your credit cards easily, that kind of thing.

You know I don’t mean dangerous I just mean from a services point of view I would go with a tour company. And the tour companies are comprehensive they used to bringing people from outside of the region into Tajikistan. So it’s, it would be worth your while. It’s not a situation where you feel like oh I’m paying, I’m over-paying. You’re actually paying for the convenience and that can be priceless.

And certainly when you want to find someone to take you around to see these magnificent landscapes you don’t want to be haggling for a cheap price for you know a transport between 2 cities in a shared taxi. That is where you’ll get fleeced,

RH: Which is what you did?

EW: It is what I did and I…

RH: And did you get fleeced?

EW: actually, I had to stand there for 2 hours until I finally anti-upped and paid 3 times what I would have paid normally because that was the one and only time I took a shared taxi where I didn’t have an English speaker around to translate and negotiate for me.

I mean I was smart enough to get somebody and make a friend and be like can you get them to accept me for a local persons…Well, obviously you know you’re going to pay a little bit more.

EW: But it wasn’t me trying to be cheap, it was me trying to get by on the very limited budget that I had for a month in Tajikistan after paying for my rent in Miami, you know what I mean. So it’s not like oh, I’m trying to get over on the income differential or the currency differential no, I’m just trying to live till the next month. Exactly, and still have an amazing life as a travel writer.

EW: Why can’t we do everything? Barbie has everything, right.  I want to have it all too.

Driving in Tajikistan is An Adventure In Itself

RH: Now, now can you tell us is there a funny or scary story from Tajikistan?

EW: Well, I wouldn’t say there was one scary story. Well, okay.

RH: There were more?

EW: No, no, no. I mean like there wasn’t anything that was really scary it was just like constantly hoping that you did not run head-on into another SUV flying full-speed ahead on a mountain road…

RH: The driving again.

EW: Over a lake. Right, where it was like and it would not be instantaneous death. It would be death by rolling over 400 times down a 10,000ft tall hill.

Why visit Tajikistan?

The landscape of Tajikistan is spectacular (Photo credit: Ernest White II)

SG: Oh, and you wouldn’t be able to get a helicopter to lift you out.

EW: Oh, no helicopter. So, yeah, I mean that was like always an ever present danger.

RH: Driving was clearly an issue for him he’s brought it up several times here.

EW: Yeah, I mean because, well there was a lot of driving anyway just trying to get, trying to cover an entire country that…

RH: You had a list you had to go through.

EW: Exactly, so I needed to hit several points at a time and so there was a bit, there was a pressing need to get through these things which you won’t do if you’re going on like a tour of the place. You don’t have to do as intense a trip as I did. So the driving doesn’t have to be as scary but….

Tips For First Time Visitors to Tajikistan

SG: What would be a good introduction place and a couple of places to go to If you’re going to TJ?

EW: Okay, I would say Southern Tajikistan is a very good place to get started just because like it has gorgeous landscapes but it’s easier to get around. The people are very friendly. You can do it without the trekking necessarily. You can get there easily. It’s only a few hours drive from Dushanbe, the capital and main air hub.

Why visit Tajikistan?

Dushanbe is the capitol of Tajikistan (Photo credit: Ernest White II)

But then also going North from Tajikistan so Eastern Tajikistan the Eastern half which is not the part that has the Pamir Mountains that everybody kind of goes to. The Eastern half is where you can kind of go get mountain landscapes. You can see the 7 lakes that Alexander trekked through.  Iskanderkul [Lake Alexander] is what it’s called. And I mean they’re beautiful!

But it’s only like 2 hours, 3 hours drive from Dushanbe. They’ve re-built or kind of upgraded the main tunnel North, the Anzob Tunnel, which had kind of a reputation for being the tunnel of death. They’ve cleaned it up, they’ve gotten rid of a lot of  potholes and debris.  And of course the kind of crazy way people drive.

Meeting Tajik Locals

SG: What were the families like?

EW: Quiet.

SG: The women were behind the scenes.

EW: Yeah, you didn’t really see a lot of you know, the women kind of, I mean it’s a Muslim country. It is a Muslim country that has had obviously I mean they had been kind of a vassal state for the Russians for like 150 years which includes the Soviet period.

Which then kind of brought some, I hate even describing it this way. Some Western more ways in terms of you know women’s equality. Clearly, I’m coming from a country where women still don’t make the same amount of men. However, in Tajikistan you will see women taxi drivers screaming and using profanities outside of the windows even as they wear their hijabs which I thought was cool.

Right. Like, get the hell out of the way. And then you also you know you do see women in Western dress especially in the Northern city of Khujand [second largest city in Tajikistan].  Panjakent is another town that has had a lot of tourism previously but they shut the border down with Uzbekistan. It’s really close to Samarkand. And that kind of sucks that people can’t go between the 2 cities because it really would only be like a couple hours drive.

Yeah, the families were very curious. They would ask questions about like what you do and they would look at the guide book. Sometimes the kids would try to sound out the English words because they were taking English in school.

You would also see kids being the runners between like the kitchen and  the dining room. You could tell they’d been tasked with a very specific activity. And so they would come in and like place the silverware right in the middle of the table and run back to the kitchen.

Yeah, it was cool, like I was aww. And I was told that it was because it was some little bit of shyness that some of the adults have about like guests.

Why visit Tajikistan?

A Tajik family. Locals are fascinated with foreign visitors who are still not a common site in Tajikistan.

Tajik Hospitality

RH: You wonder if they were bringing out special food for you or if it was their everyday normal food.

EW: Absolutely, I mean that’s the thing it’s like…Please don’t go to all this extra trouble… But it is cultural to treat your guests as if you would, as you treat yourself almost.

SG: Yeah, like the man you met in the taxi. He would have showed up with you and his wife would be like… You didn’t tell me you were bringing a foreigner for dinner?

EW: Exactly. Yeah, and think he texted home ahead of time though.  I mean it was, it was just a wonderful. It’s really sweet type of situation and obviously, I’m recognizing that I’m coming from a country that’s got this cache and you know American privilege and Western privilege and tall person privilege…

And rich person privilege and all these, you know rich comparatively speaking. And that’s the other thing, you know, oh they’re it’s a “poor country”. But you go there and you see that someone who’s living in a level of a standard of living that is obviously much less than what we have in the US but at the same time I mean there’s food. The house is clean, they’ve got electricity, they’ve got you know the necessities of life…

RH: They’ve got their phone. He texted her so she’s got a phone and he’s got a phone.

EW: Right, multiple phones in the house. Friends and family they’ve got.

SG: They’ve got everything we need.

EW: They’ve got more than what they need. That’s why they’re having a fulfilling life. You know he’s someone who, this guy in particular you know he lived in the Russian period or the Soviet period. As a soldier where he traveled to St Petersburg and Moscow and you know Warsaw. He’s seen part of the world in a way that he never would have I guess otherwise,

And so, like it’s just really easy to broad-brush a place and be like oh, it’s a poor country kind of thing but that doesn’t mean that it’s not, that it’s not rich and experienced. That it’s not rich in culture.

SG: And that the people are happy.

EW: And love and connection and all of the things you know you can’t buy with money. Certainly to not have to worry about bills is a blessing. At the same time he wasn’t worried about bills. He had his house taken care of and enough money to buy me, not only did they feed me when I got to their house but he took me to dinner before that.

SG: A pre-dinner dinner?

EW: A pre-dinner dinner. Oh, he was filling me up. We went to dinner after we got out of the shared taxi and before we continued onto his house.

SG: His wife must have texted him back – I need to make special stuff.

RH: Give me more time. Stall him.

EW: Which in that town the only thing I guess there was to do was eat.

SG: Yeah, it wouldn’t have a bar.

A Country at The Crossroads Yet Still Isolated

EW: Exactly. Which obviously again being a former Soviet Republic/Muslim country – here we do have this very interesting juxtapostion. I mean every house had some vodka. But I, and I’m not well-versed enough in the culture to know when it’s brought out. You know what exceptions are made and all that kind of stuff. But, certainly I mean it’s how do you live with this kind of cultural dichotomy going on here.

Why visit Tajikistan?

A mosque in the capitol of Dushanbe in Tajikistan

SG: It’s interesting mix of cultures.

EW: Absolutely, and it’s always been that way but you see now is over the last 100, 150 years in isolation that has come along with being a part of the former Soviet Union and then also kind of still being in that sphere. Whereas historically they had been one of the most mixed kind of connected cultures on the planet just because of it’s geographic location between Europe and Asia on the Silk Road.

SG: Yes, but they don’t have oil do they?

EW: They don’t have oil.

SG: And minerals.

EW: No.

SG: Because that’s what’s pushed some of the other ‘stans into the stratosphere in terms of money.

EW: They don’t. According to all the literature their biggest source of income is remittances.

RH: I know they’re really eager to promote tourism.

EW: Absolutely,I would say it’s a good intro to the region. It’s a good introduction to Central Asia. One, because it’s easy to get to. Two because it’s easy to get around, Three because it is safe. Four because people are friendly enough, yeah you’ll get stared at but you get stared at in China, you know.

RH: Yeah, that’s true in a lot of places.

EW:  Right. I will say I wasn’t stared at more than in Tajikistan but at the same time, I get it. They’re so far removed from, they are very much off the beaten path.

Next Stop: South Africa

RH: Where are you going next?

EW: I am going to South Africa next, I’m going to Durban for the Essence festival but also to take a look at some of the architecture in the city to… you know the culture of Durban is just really dear to my heart. I have been there before. It’s got a wonderful mix of Zulu culture as well as Indian culture. It’s got the largest Indian population in any one place outside of India.

SG: Yeah the British brought Indians from the Continent to work on the mines and the farms. When I was talking to you about Bunny Chow.

EW: Yes, Bunny Chow which is very tasty.

SG: I love Bunny Chow, it came from Durban. It’s the curry in a bread bowl. It’s yum.

EW: Which is why I kind of stay away from it because of the bread bowl part. But the curry part I love and Durban curry’s are phenomenal.

But just also the atmosphere of the place. You know, it’s just a really, and as a Southerner from the US when I go to Durban I really do feel a connection to the region. Kwazulu Natal, KZN is what they call it. No, I’m not making that up, it’s not like TJ. KZN is just for me a welcoming place. South Africa in general, is a welcoming place to me but specifically KZN, it really does feel like home when I’m there.

And, Then Onto Egypt

And then after South Africa, I’ll be going to Egypt to do media for a tour company that’s promoting a Nile Cruise and.. An Egypt experience. So upper and lower Egypt.

Okay, so I’m looking forward to that. And this won’t be a press trip in the sense of going with other journalists. I’ll actually be accompanying their actual trip. Where they got like 60 mostly Americans kind of going, hanging out as a DJ kind of thing.

SG: Yes, it’s such a fascinating country and tourism is still down which means that you have these amazing monuments which are pretty much to yourself. I mean you could lose 60 people in the monument very easily. It’s really not that, I mean they’re just massive pieces.

EW: Wow, I’m excited about it because one of my first images of Egypt in my mind was from the movie Death on the Nile. Yeah, the Agatha Christie novel turned movie in 1978.

EW: Right. And I mean obviously, you know I was a very small child when this came out. Actually, I was born probably the same year the movie came out but I remember seeing it on television. And I remember seeing the scene where they’re walking amongst these huge pillars.

SG: Yeah, it’ is truly amazing. You realize how small you are and how long Egypt has been around in the world. That’s one of the best things about traveling in my opinion, is just realize that putting yourself in context in the world.

EW: Because it’s not just the place, it’s a story. It’s a time

SG: And a people.

EW: Absolutely, all of that together. Travel is time travel, really. And it’s interesting because Egypt is one of those places where you feel like you can access different eras. It doesn’t have to necessarily be ancient Egypt.  When I was in Alexandria just going into the Misr train station it was like, it was like going into this Agatha Christie novel because you’ve got like the steam and you see this you know the kind of steel girders in the train station area.

RH: So the Victorian Era.

EW: It’s something that you don’t see when you’re coming certainly from the US with our ridiculous train system.

SG: So those that are in the trains that they carted back up Egyptian artifacts back on.

RH: You mean when they stole the Egyptian artifacts for the British Museum.

SG: They stole artifacts and took it on the train to the…

EW: Mind you everyone, we’re saying this here in London. But no they’ve got the sphinxes looking at the wrong direction, at the obelisk near Waterloo Bridge. Wrong direction guys. See what happens when you steal stuff and don’t pay attention to the cultural context?

SG: You went there. Thank you, Ernest.

EW: Thank you ladies.

SG: Lovely talking to you and…

RH:  The website is, name your website.

EW: I have 2 – my personal website is Story Telling and Exploring:  Ernestwhite2.com.  Then my other website is Travel –  Flybrother.net. How’s that for my radio voice?

RH: You did a really good radio voice, yes.

EW: Thank you. Thanks ladies.

{End of Transcript}

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