The shared taxi experience is guaranteed to be pretty much the same throughout the developing world. As soon as you arrive at the taxi stand, you are surrounded by a crowd of people eager to know where you are going. You offer the name of your destination, and immediately three-quarters of them look disappointed, while the remaining quarter – who may be drivers, or friends of a driver, or just people who have nothing better to do than hang around the taxi stand all day – start pulling at your arms and urging you towards a vehicle. If there is more than one taxi bound for your destination, you may be pulled in more than one direction. Fights may even break out between rival factions. Eventually, however, the question of precedence will be mysteriously resolved and you and your bags will be stowed in a vehicle to wait for the hour of departure.
And wait. And wait. No matter what assurances you may have been given by anyone present, the vehicle is not
‘leaving right now’. Unless the vehicle is already so heavily-loaded that the door sills are actually touching the ground, you have at least a two-hour wait ahead of you. No shared taxi driver on the planet will set off until he has squeezed as many paying passengers into the vehicle as possible. If no one else seems to want to go where you do, you will wait until someone shows up who does. This might take hours. It might even take days. Even if the car fills quickly, you’ll wait anyway. Perhaps someone will show up with some unaccompanied children who can be squeezed into the cracks. Or perhaps you’re waiting for the driver’s nephew to return from some mysterious errand. So you wait, and watch whatever is happening beyond the dusty windshield.
Quite often, this will be a fight. Spend enough time at a taxi stand and sooner or later a couple of drivers will start fighting. They may fight because they are mortal enemies, or they may fight because they are best friends and need to get in some sparring practice before the next fight. Or they may simply be bored.
The taxi drivers waiting at the Cement Factory stand outside Dushanbe didn’t seem inclined to fight. Mostly, they stood around in morose groups, talking and smoking, while a ragged band of small boys wandered among the parked taxis, carrying plastic cola bottles filled with something that could have been tea or gasoline.
It took about two hours for the taxi to fill up to the driver’s satisfaction, and perhaps half an hour more for the passengers who had wandered off in the meantime to be summoned back, and for luggage to be stowed, and for everyone to enjoy a final cup of tea (or gasoline). At last, we set off.
The M34 runs more or less due north from Dushanbe towards Ayni, climbing up into the Fan Mountains. The first part of the trip was a lengthy climb, followed by a pause at the top of one pass. It seemed that both of the small boys accompanying the stout woman in the back had contrived to vomit on her, so the driver conceded a break for her to clean herself up before the next round of switchbacks set them off again.
The road was unmade, gray-white grit that rose in a cloud behind every truck or car that passed. At one point, we found our path blocked by a large flock of sheep that bravely resisted the attempts of their herders (assisted by a solitary, rather apathetic black dog) to move them out of the road for a good ten minutes before finally yielding. Most of the sparse traffic consisted of trucks heading south towards Dushanbe, possibly coming from Kyrgyzstan.
In the early afternoon, we passed through a narrow valley that looked like one of the less desirable parts of Mordor, a wasteland of arid red-gray rock and occasional chunks of rusting metal. The next valley was only fractionally more attractive, with a dispirited river and a surprisingly large roadside teahouse. We pulled over and parked.
I had started to think we might reach Panjikent before dark, but I was overoptimistic. A group of men at the teahouse greeted the driver with a warmth that suggested that they were long-lost friends who had not seen each other for at least a decade. The driver settled down at their table, clearly preparing to fill them in on the events of the past ten years.
And so we waited. Late in the afternoon, the driver showed signs of wanting to move on, standing up and making his goodbyes, but then a car pulled in that proved to hold three or four more of his closest friends. There were more handshakes and embraces, and more tea was ordered, and the driver sat down again.
Eventually, even my patience was exhausted. I walked over to the driver’s table and said loudly
“It’s time for us to go.” The driver looked up with a startled expression. I doubted he understood the words, but evidently my meaning was clear. With evident bad grace, he slowly said goodbye to his dearest friends and shuffled back to the car.
We probably drove for no more than five minutes before we stopped again, this time at the tail end of a long line of cars and trucks. It turned out that major road construction was in progress. As I later learned,
“the Chinese are blowing up the pass”, and the road was closed from noon until six. I had taken the driver away from his friends and his tea for no reason.
I felt slightly guilty about this, but only slightly.
We stayed there for another forty-five minutes or so, watching gangs of Chinese road-builders drifting back up the valley towards their campsite, and listening to the last few blasts of the day echoing from the canyon walls. At last, whoever was managing things decided that they had blown up as much rock as they wanted to for the day, and the long line of trucks slowly rumbled into movement again. We climbed back into the taxi.
It was very late when we finally reached Panjikent. I gave up on the idea of trying to find the guesthouse I wanted in the dark, and checked into the Panjikent Intourist Hotel, a gloomy concrete mass wreathed in post-Soviet despair. As far as I could tell, I was the only guest. I bought some bags of potato chips and a box of apple juice at a nearby store and retired to my room to eat my supper in a heady ambience of peeling paint and decaying carpet.