Last Sunday, Saidbek (Corny’s old landlord and the guy who helped us find our current house) took Shane and I out on an excursion to the countryside north of Dushanbe. Countryside is a bit of a misnomer, for it recalls, to me, softly rolling hills or well-tended fields. As we took the road out of town, we headed instead up into the craggy mountains that surround the city.
I knew we were going to some sort of resort, but I became increasingly dubious as we drove through the resort town of Varzob, where the Tajik president has one of his many dachas, and continued on. Eventually, about an hour north of Dushanbe, we took a left. With my basic Cyrillic reading skills, I deciphered that the sign said we were several kilometers from “Khoja Obi-garm.” I had heard of the Obi-Garm to the east of Dushanbe, which is the playground, in a manner of speaking, for many of the governmental elite. And I knew that the phrase “obi garm” meant “hot water” in Tajik. But I had never heard of this place.
After we turned, the road headed up and the snow lay more and more thickly on the ground. After several sharp switchbacks and after barely outrunning a couple of riled-up chuponi dogs in Shane’s Niva, we turned the corner and we confronted with this:
Unexpected, to say the least.
Immediately I was reminded of the Soviet-era monstrosity that looms over the otherwise elegant spa town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, which I visited with both my schoolmates and my folks. Unlike that brutalist structure, however, the one in Khoja Obi-garm had telling Tajik touches: the lack of electricity, indents that showed where furniture had been pilfered, and, of course, the facade painted a vigorous yellow.
Perhaps the most telling touch is the last, as the yellow stops halfway across the front of the building. When you get close, you can see that, for no apparent reason, they just stopped painting; you can even see the individual brush strokes where they stopped. Maybe they ran out of paint, or money to pay the painters. Maybe they just got bored. Who knows? And who knows how long it is has been, or will be, like that.
While the tour of the hotel (600 somoni, or about $136, for a 12 night stay, three squares a day included) was somewhat amusing, and the lunch avoided catastrophe (which can sometimes be a minor miracle), the true highlight was when we took the waters at Khoja Obi-garm. People, apparently, have been coming to the spring there for years, even before a hotel was constructed for tired proletarians from the city, to bathe in radon-infused water and breath in radon-infused steam.
Shane shares his take on our experience in the steam bath on his blog. I enjoyed it a bit more than he, I think, buried under clouds of radon steam and dunked in radon water that seemed on the verge of boiling at any second. For someone who has heat regulation issues, I do like a schvitz. After a longish lay in the recuperation room, and fortified by several cups of mint tea, we headed back to Dushanbe calm and content. I managed to maintain the zen as I dozed in the back of the Niva; Shane had to drive.