TWC'S Odyssey
Tan Wee Cheng's Travelsin the Central Asian Republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan andTajikistan

14 Jul   Penjikent

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Sogdiana and Sogdian Art

Rudaki and the Samanid Empire

We had earlier arranged with a floor manager at Hotel Samarkand fora trip to Penjikent, Tajikistan.  Initially we were quoted US$25 per person for "visa arrangements" and guide services, plus US$120 for a car and driver - probably standard Uzbektourism (successor to the notorious Intourist of Soviet era) rates.  After some discussion, the floor manager offered us a "special" rate of US$70 for the car (US$25 "visa arrangements"remained, though).  Apparently Hotel Afrasiob across the road offerssimilar services as well, and like that at Hotel Samarkand, requires one day's notice.

Why did we visit Penjikent ?  Two reasons: 1) This was an opportunityto visit a "safe" part of Tajikistan, whose civil war officially ended in 1993, but violence had not ended, particularly in the capital and the eastern part of the country.  Indeed, a week after our visit, four United Nations observers were killed in the south.  We felt it was safer to visit with an arranged group, given their local contacts. 2) Penjikent is an important archaeological site relating to the Sogdiana civilization.

200 Tajik Rouble (760 TRbl = US$1); Got 100 mint pieces from museum people.Flag of the former Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic20 Tajik Rouble showing Parliament building in Dushanbe, the war-torn capital of the republic.
Stamp with musical instrumentsLooking down on Penjikent from the Bunjikath archaeologicalsite.  Nearby is an airfield with scheduled flights to Dushanbe.Tajik stamp booklet commemorating 1000 years of Shahnama,the great Tajik/Persian epic - Book of Kings by Firdausi.

We drove for more than an hour through the fertile fields surrounding Samarkand before reaching the Uzbek border checkpoint, which was guarded by an armoured personnel carrier (we were warned not to take pictures here). Then, our Tajik contact appeared and went to the guardhouse with our passports. A Russian-like officer (in Uzbek uniform, but he could well be an Uzbek from Ferghana Valley where people have blue eyes and blond hair) approached us, asking about our purpose of the visit and wanted to examine our customs declaration form as well.  We showed him ours, which was issued in Almaty.  Looking (or pretending to be) confused, he asked for our Uzbek form, not the Kazak one.  We had to tell him that the whole of CIS uses a single form.  One would hold on to the form of the CIS entry point and surrender it only upon departure from the exit CIS port. He refused to accept the argument as first but eventually relented when we insisted that we were correct.  Obviously, if we had shown any self-doubt, he would not have hesitated to impose an immediate "fine". That, I suppose, would be equivalent to a few months of his income. Hence, it pays to be firm that one is right, even when one realizes that mistakes had been made.  The rules are fluid anyway, and it seems that most officers here are hardly sure of the rules themselves.

Next we crossed half a kilometer of tobacco fields (the border seems to cut a village into half) before reaching the Tajik checkpoint, which appeared to be manned entirely by blond hair soldiers, though in Tajik uniforms (are these Russian soldiers, or the blond Ferghana Uzbeks from Khojand region which controls the Dushanbe regime).  Again, Muhammad,our Tajik contact, brought our passports into the checkpoint for examination. This time, it was pretty quick and we were soon on our way to Penjikent town.  Nowhere were our passports stamped.  I supposed the US$25we paid included some fees to "oil" the system.

Penjikent - a city of 130,000 people.  Main industry: Tobacco,and according to various sources, one of the region's chief drug-producing areas as well.  Penjikent is one of Tajikistan's largest cities and according to Muhammed, it had been peaceful here throughout the civil war. I later asked someone if Penjikent was controlled by the Dushanbe government. No, he said, the "militia" was in control.  I supposed this must refer to the pro-Uzbek Khojand forces.

In front of the Rudaki Republican Museum with the guide, Farouz.  Note the Tajik banner written in Arabic script above. In 1989, the nationalistic government declared a switch from the Cyrillic script.  The latter was back again with the rise of the pro-Khojand government.The first Tajik stamp:the rare Marco Polo goat of the PamirsIranian ayatollah ?  No, it's the Tajik national poet Rudak's picture at the Museum.  Posing in front were some ladies working at the museum.
Ancient Sogdian wall fresco: The men in this fresco resembles officials of the Tang Dynasty, China, which was the contemporary of Bunjikath.Traders & officials:More ancient Sogdian frescoesScenes of conflict: The Sogdian Confederacy was finally wiped out by the invading Arabs.  The previously hegemonous Chinese were chased out of the region after the Battle of Talas in Kyrgyzstan.

Our first stop was the Rudaki Republican Museum in the city.  Farouz,a young Tajik, was our guide.  Named after the father of Tajik (read Persian) poetry, the museum was full of archaeological artifacts from the Penjikent region, as well as ethnographic and natural exhibits, including snow leopards and Marco Polo goats.  And the museum ladies were constantly trying to sell us souvenirs, stamps, handicrafts, etc throughout the visit. There was also much emphasis on the Samanid empire based in Bukhara, described as the "first Tajik state".  The Museum map shows the empire with territory stretching from Iran across large parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan. To the Tajiks, the incorporation of their two greatest cultural centres, Bukhara and Samarkand, into Uzbekistan by Stalin was a tragedy, and many hope for reunification.  However, given the state of affairs in Tajikistan,this is at best a dream.

Next, we went to the archaeological site of ancient Penjikent, or Bunjikath. Located on a high point overlooking the thin stretch of greenery along the Zeravshan River, it commands a fantastic view of the surrounding area. This was where a Sodgian city arose in the 5th century and was captured by the Arabs in the 8th century.  Its king fled the city which was then abandoned to flames.  King Divastich was then captured in his castle on Mount Mug, beheaded and his head sent to the Caliph in Arabia. Bunjikath was only rediscovered when ancient manuscripts with its locationwere found by a shepherd on Mount Mug in 1933.  The Museum at the site contained copies of frescoes found at the site but later sent to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Archaeologists from Hermitage, St Petersburg, at work at Bunjikath.Ruins of Bunjikath - Temples& Palaces - but what's left are mere dust and mud...Me at Bunjikath site
Penjikent city central:See the drawing of the Tajik flag on the wall.

Also went to the Post Office to send some postcards.  There was nobody at the counter and upon our making some noise, about nine staff emerged from the inner office.  We seemed to have disrupted them from their office hour siesta.  In any case, they were pretty excited by our arrival.  This was probably the most exciting event of their day-guests from Canada and an unknown country - Singapore.  I hadn't received my postcards yet.  Hoped they would eventually arrive.

Returned to Samarkand by the afternoon.  Spent the rest of the time chatting with a few Belgian tourists.  That night, I gave my friendly hosts some booklets about Singapore and received a china plate and a postcard in return.

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Heart of the Silk Road 
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