THE TOUR LEADER’S TALE
On April Saturday 21st, 2018, Koryo Tours entered a group of runners into the Dushanbe international Half Marathon in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. This is a wonderful country, full of the warmest-hearted people you could possibly meet – anyone whom visits will find this out right away. As well as its people it does have a lot more to offer in the way of snow-capped mountains, rugged scenery, lakes, ancient history and its more recent Soviet past through to its modern independent emergence. However, it does have a certain way of doing things which can be confusing to people used to everything being 100% reliable and predictable! Our Tour Leader and Tajikistan Tours section boss Rich Beal recounts the experience of this particular trip below!
Tajikistan – The Dushanbe International Half Marathon: We had a great mix of 18 people from across the spectrum of ages and nationalities – all traveled primarily for the Dushanbe International Half Marathon and so everything else this beautiful country offered seemed like a bonus – including the very wonderful Jamshed, our Tajik guide, who can magically create order out of disorder! Also known as the King of the Selfies.
The Intourist Hotel Tajikistan – for connoisseurs: We were supposed to stay at our usual group hotel, but with an influx of officials into Dushanbe for City Day this meant we had to choose other accommodation. I headed off to Dushanbe in advance to spend a feverous day checking alternate hotels, in the end, I opted for the ‘Hotel Tajikistan’; often billed as a 5-star option but rated in western terms as a good 3 star. In the times of the Soviet Union it was one of the ‘Intourist’ chain for foreigners only- still with its uber-cool socialist interior, wide corridors, and high ceilings it makes for an interesting stay.
Don’t Panic, Stay Calm; Jamshed will carry on: All started a bit hectically: explaining to the hotel that we wanted to stay more than one night, picking up those who had missed their flights… And on the day of the Marathon working out what was going on as we were lead through the city under police escort.
The Marathon course and the Cement Factory: The half marathon begins by following the river and semi tree-lined street. Frankly, the next part is a bit uninspiring as the course runs towards the countryside, switching back past a cement factory which added an interesting dusty 200 metres, up to a series of hills then down into the city again past the Soviet-style university and apartment buildings. Although we were moved from our minibuses to the professional athletes’ bus and led around the course under police escort, thus making everyone feel very important and at the same time total frauds!
Race day manoeuvres: The marathon started at 9 AM and we were requested to be there at 8 AM. Once again we were being led through the streets by a police escort to the start line. It was very chaotic, but good fun with lots of police and locals with banners. A small stand housed government officials who delivered speeches naming each participating country whilst local students formed a ring around the group with celebratory banners.
False Start: When the marathon began it was clear 50% of the local population were only going to run the first 500 meters – unsustainably fast starts, people clearly unprepared, with many admittedly about to cheat – but in a friendly way! At the start, there were hundreds of students and families cheering the runners along whilst the end seemed to have a few spectators whose numbers grew eager to see those crazy visitors finish. At the finish the numbers of runners swelled – with some of whom who had started, clearly skipping ahead to the end of the track! This fooled nobody and the local police and marathon officials rightly told them to get lost when it was clear who hadn’t really run the race at all!
The run finished in front of the statue of the Ismail Somoni (an ancient Emir) with the Grand National Library behind and an even more spectacular back-drop of snow-capped mountains. A nice setting made better by the crystal clear weather. From the finish line don’t run on too far or you’ll end up in the former KGB offices!
As expected all was not perfectly smooth – later runners complained at the lack of water on the course although our tour group was great at understanding the local conditions; explaining that local spectators had decided to also help themselves! The uphill section was tough, especially past the cement works although they did have the Wall of History to view as they went past. But overall it was a wild and wonderful event. After 2.5 hours the finish line was immediately dismantled with no ceremony and slower runners still attempting to cross the line. Next year they promise a 3-hour time limit. We’ll see! Although we will be supplying our own water, just in case.
Illegal betting on the race (Horse Race): The day didn’t end there as at 2 pm we went to watch horse racing at the Hippodrome, a great way to mix with the locals and see people out enjoying city day. Although gambling is illegal, amongst the group we may have had a little flutter to see who would be buying the drinks in the evening.
Red Carpet treatment: That evening we put our glad rags on as we were invited to attend an event with the professional runners, officials, and VIPs of Dushanbe. Earlier in the day, I had been asked to give a speech – the original draft being rewritten 4 to 5 times and my nerves were showing! Awards were given to the winners for 1st, 2nd, 3rd and even 4th place – they won medals, certificates, diplomas, large marble vases, and prize money up to $4,000 USD. Singing and dancing followed and at one point I was instructed to stand to make my speech… But then immediately told to sit down again which was rather embarrassing, but at the same time I was grateful to have avoided my 15 minutes of fame.
The Oscar-winning speech is delivered: After the show, we were whisked to the next destination – a meal at a bar owned by a rather important person. We had an open bar (local Simsim beer and vodka) and all you can eat pizza, as well as Tajik dishes thrown in for good measure. Later that evening I was asked to meet some of the city officials and deliver a summary of my speech. I delivered it with gusto, but it was undermined by the fact that there was a full-scale disco underway, deafening music blaring out and the qualifiers for the European Cup played on a giant TV in the background. The officials smiled politely whilst the Ukrainian women’s professional runners celebrated their winning day to sounds of central Asian pop music. During all of this commotion, we were all presented rather fine gift bags from the mayor’s office.
The following day – Medal Ceremony: Medals are not allowed to be officially handed out in Tajikistan, apparently as it is not fair to those who do not win them. (for a similar reason it’s not allowed to publicly celebrate one’s birthday!). However, in the village of Varzob, we had our presentation at a mountaintop just before a lunch made by a local family we have got to know very well over the years.
And summing up…Overall the marathon went very well – at times it was chaotic but this is central Asia and I’d be disappointed and concerned if everything ran perfectly! We are now looking forward to next year’s event as it’s not only the 10th anniversary of City Day, but also the Dushanbe half marathon itself. We’ve been promised bigger celebrations & bigger prizes in a country that can not be any friendlier.
Join us in Tajikistan on one of our amazing unique tours – or come to the next Dushanbe Half Marathon!