Considering a visit to Dushanbe and wondering where to stay?
Dush-where, you ask?
A city of 800 000 people, and formerly named Stalinabad, Dushanbe is the capital of … I’ll wait while you display your superior geographical knowledge… or take a wild stab in the dark…
You got it: Tajikistan!
Wondering about the name? Dushanbe means Monday in Tajik; it’s named after a local Monday market in the village the city grew out from. (And if you’re from Boulder, and you have wondered about Dushanbe Tea House in your hometown, you may like to know that Boulder and Dushanbe are twin cities. The tea house was a gift from the mayor of the Tajik capital, and shipped piece by piece to Colorado. I think that’s taking the twin city relationship to a new, cool level.)
Back in Tajikistan, the capital is perhaps most famous as a stop before you hit the legendary Pamir Highway, or after. Don’t just rush through town though; spend a couple of days to relax and get your bearings before or after the road trip. Dushanbe is worth a look in its own right.
But where to stay for the best relaxation? Unless you insist on one of the international (non-descript) Dushanbe hotels, I recommend this urban refuge.
Marian’s Guesthouse: The vibe
Welcome to Marian’s Guesthouse, an oasis in the not all that hustling and bustling city of Dushanbe.
The guesthouse isn’t that easy to find. No big signs along the road, advertising accommodations. No name in neon letters above a door. But walk through the gates here, and you enter a green world of tranquility. (I’m reminded of early 1990s Poppie’s in Kuta Beach in Bali). Or, as Marian herself puts it:
This is my castle behind the gates here. My Disneyland.
We arrive at 4am – an ungodly hour. You might, too; that’s when most flights seem to get in. Even so, we’re picked up at the airport and brought quickly to our beds, not seeing much of the guesthouse, except Furball and her friendly fellow felines, who have a run of the place, as cats do.
In daylight, this is what awaits you inside the gates:
An old villa, lovingly restored through a period of 17 years, by the Australian owner, Marian Sheridan.
The garden has undergone a metamorphosis from the early days; and the timeline is photographically documented in a scrapbook available for guests to leaf through. Today, the extensive front garden is lush and leafy, with trees and bushes and surprises around every corner: fountains, ponds, birds, paths, stone porticos, and different seating areas.
Marian aims to provide employment and training for local staff. As a result, many Tajiks have moved on to successful careers in TV, airlines, international organisations and other fields. If you’re like us, you might wonder what brings an Aussie to Dushanbe – not only to visit, but to stay. And to stay for 17 years (so far). And to open a guesthouse. We catch up with the owner:
Marian, you are from Melbourne and Canberra. What brought you to Dushanbe?
I was a contractor for ADB (Asian Development Bank), and arrived for a 5-day-stay in January 2000, but ended up staying until September; 9 months! No one else wanted to cover Tajikistan, so I ended up managing 5 different projects here. Then I went home to Canberra and got reverse culture shock!
The supermarkets for one: too many choices! And I noticed how everything was so impersonal. Everyone is so nice here – they accept you as you are.
What made you decide to open a guest house?
Back then, Dushanbe only had three old Soviet-style hotels, so in 2003, I decided to set up a guest house for those working with me on the projects. People from ADB asked to stay here, as they didn’t like the hotels. Everyone knew each other back then.
Wow! You must have seen some changes during those years?
Oh yes, Dushanbe is unrecognisable. In 2000, there were potholes everywhere, and brown water in the tap. Almost all the old buildings have been demolished. Of course, they were all in very bad shape. When I drive around town these days, I’m thinking that this isn’t bad what they have done here.
What kind of bureaucracy have you had to deal with here?
- No much bureaucracy, really. The Tajiks couldn’t really understand the concept of a guesthouse. Still can’t. It is neither a hotel, nor a hostel, but somewhere in between.
When travelling in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, I’ve noticed there seems to be a longing for the past, for a time when everyone had jobs, and food on the table, and a predictable life. Ostalgie, they call it in Germany; nostalgia for the East. Do you notice any of that here in Dushanbe?
- Well, the older people sometimes long for the good, old days. Young people want new things.
We’re headed to the Pamir Highway in a few days. Before we came here, I read a book saying Pamiris are quite different from Tajiks in Dushanbe. Has that been your experience?
- The Pamiris are different, yes. They always wear sunglasses on their forehead. Even when it rains.
Is there anything you miss from Australia?
- Avocados, prawns, meat pies. And a real leg of lamb.
So, 17 years. You must really like it here.
- Oh yes! This is my castle behind the gates here. My Disneyland.
Marian Sheridan in her spacious and colourful apartment/office
After wandering around summery, hot Dushanbe, the back garden tempts with a beautifully blue tiled swimming pool –
– and a hammock that I insist is MINE. I even fell asleep in it one night, so by all rights…
… jeez… can’t leave it even for a minute…
Marian’s Guesthouse: the rooms
The 6 rooms vary in size and style and are all named after the first guest to sleep there. All rooms have a/c, internet, satellite TV, and a private bathroom. I stayed in Andreas, comfortable and spacious with a high ceiling, and with an equally spacious bathroom up a step. The room has a queen size bed and a large writing desk, as well as a book shelf with a selection of Scandi crime noir, some even in the original language, particularly pleasing to this Norwegian. And of course, the occasional kitty curled up next to Das Cafe der toten Philosophen. A wide selection of DVDs is available if you want to hang out in your room for a bit.
Of course, a guesthouse must provide breakfast, and Marian doesn’t disappoint: delicious local bread, cereals, jams, yoghurt, juice, pastries, fruit and eggs made to order. Coffee and tea is always available, and the coffee is particularly excellent.
What I especially liked about Marian’s Guesthouse
- Easy walking distance to the things you want to see in Dushanbe: the famous flagpole (world’s largest, until the one in Jeddah whizzed past a few years ago), Rudaki Park and the Somoni statue, National Museum of Tajikistan, the Presidential Palace, many restaurants, a supermarket, etc)
- The delightful front garden
- The equally delightful back garden, the swimming pool and hammock
- Quiet, comfortable bedrooms
- Lovely, colourful Tajik style common rooms, with interesting artwork
- The roomy second floor balcony, perfect for a tea break or drinks
- Complimentary laundry
- Good breakfast, and excellent coffee
- Peaceful setting behind tall gates
- Charming feel of a bygone era, as well as a feeling of home, very laid-back atmosphere
- Everything perfectly clean
- Friendly and flexible host and staff
- The overall subtle, sensory delights
Things to be aware of
- I like cats, so I enjoyed having them around. But something to keep in mind if you’re allergic, or if for some reason you don’t like those captivating creatures.
- Wifi can be a bit sketchy at times (though that could be said of most everywhere in Tajikistan).
- I struggled with water temperature in the shower, seemed to be a bit temperamental.
- Access to the upstairs rooms and balcony is by rather steep stairs.
As per November 2019, this quirky and interesting guest house seems to no longer be in operation.
All photos by Andrew Morland, Tom Brothwell and myself.