During my April trip to Central Asia, I drove to the city of Khudjand in northern Tajikistan for a short two-day stop. Sharon and I frequently visited here, Tajikistan’s second largest city, in the late 1990′s.
Khudjand was already an ancient city when Alexander the Great conquered it and married the local king’s daughter Roxanne in the 4th century BC.
The city was finally gerrymandered by Stalin into Tajikistan in the 1930′s; today it remains the northern-most province, separated from the rest of the country by a high mountain range that is impassable in winter.
The Bad Old Days: When I last visited Khudjand in 2001, it was still in sad shape after the civil war of the mid-1990′s. Because Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have never been on friendly terms, there have never been air links between the two neighboring former Soviet States. In those old days, one had to drive on a deteriorating highway from the Uzbek border down a sad valley lined with abandoned uranium mines–the sorce of materiel for the USSR’s nuclear weapons.
Back then, Khudjand was a poor city with bullet holes from earlier gunfights pockmarking the only hotel. Then, we were the only foreigners in town. We usually drove straight past the city and the tallest Lenin statue still existing in the former Soviet Union, to the airport to catch a ragged Soviet Yak-40 flight over the mountains to the capital, Dushanbe, where our embassy was located.
The Good New Days: We knew, from talking to some young Americans working in Tajikistan who had visited our shop on Whidbey Island, that the past decade had resulted in huge changes in the country. Not only was mountain tourism flourishing, but the capital city had been transformed with bright new modern hotels and the tallest flagpole in the world.
Had Khudjand shared in the general prosperity? Yes! The road down “Uranium valley” had been totally redone, and was as smooth as any freeway in America. Actually, it is a tollroad now–Central Asia’s first–built by the latest invaders of mineral-rich Tajikistan, the Chinese.
In the city, the tall Lenin statue has been removed from its pedestal and replaced by a local Tajik hero. All the bullet holes have been plastered over. New hotels abound, and the old battered Soviet aircraft have been replaced by Boeing 737′s at the modern airport. Most Tajik youth now speak some English, and we had dinner with two young American English teachers who were working in Khudjand for the year.
The Future: The province has recently been renamed Sugd, after the Sugdian people who fought Alexander and his Greeks. A modern museum built along the wall of the ancient citadel now tells the proud story of the history of the area. From the stone age, when horses were first domesticated in this area, through the various epochs of Tajik heroes resisting invaders from Alexander…through Genghis Khan…to the Bolsheviks of the 20th century…the museum tells the story of this city the Greeks named Alexandria the Farthest. One whole floor shows the history of Alexander, including his marriage to the beautiful Roxanne, in exquisite mosaic panels.
The oddest thing in the new museum is a glass case containing a mannequin wearing the uniform of the latest in a long line of invaders–a Chinese road-worker.