Mahmoud picks me up at 3:30, an hour or two before dawn, for the regular Monday morning Dushanbe-Istanbul flight. With only two flights a week, the planes are always full and seats can be hard to come by unless one books far in advance or has special connections (many seemingly impossible things can be done in Tajikistan if and only if one has connections. For example, the director of my school wanted to help her Tajik nanny get an international passport but was told the wait would be at least 3 months, because the country had run out of passport covers. Luckily my director's Russian husband was able to get help from a minister and a slightly bent cover was procured in less than a week).
The airport has new check in counters, but they have done nothing to lessen the crowds. A seething knot of people swarm around the single door into the tiny area where passengers wait to have their baggage xrayed. A uniformed man lets a few passengers into the narrow space at a time. A large woman, hair hidden under a scarf, with a small boy and a large black bag on wheels pushes her way in front of me, turns and says "New York?" waving her printed eticket. I shake my head and wait. Once through the xray machine we wait to be checked in, a very slow process. But unlike Tajik Air flights to Bishkek or Almaty, we have assigned seats. I work on cultivating my patience as the woman in front of me, assited by the US embassy fixer, lugs 2 enormous purple cases and a suitcase on the scale and pays $350 for excess weight ("that's nothing" she said, coming out of Nairobi I had to pay $750). I'm very grateful that after years of traveling I've finally learned to travel light as I finally shoulder my little knap sack and pass through another xray machine to the waiting room.
Unfortunately I have a middle seat, but the people on either side are slim and friendly. The neat, rather delicate Ismaili man on my right had been in country to visit his Pamiri wife who was waiting for a Canadian passport. I learned after moving to Tajikistan that Badakshan, a mountainous region in the west of Tajikistan, along the river that forms the border with Afghanistan, is 99% Ismali muslim, a sect under the leadership of the Aga Khan who as part of his Golden Jubilee plans to visit Tajikistan later in the year.
The flight is uneventful and a little more than 4 hours later the plane flies low over the Sea of Marmara and lands at Atatürk Airport. I slip through the crowds, buy my $20 visa, change money, and quickly find my way to the train which for 1.4 lira whisks me past numerous apartment blocks and the enormous new Ikea building into town. Unsure if one can get change on the buses, I try to buy a small bottle of water from a pizza shop just opening for the day, but the smiling proprietor refuses to accept money, so I smile and accept the small gift and buy a Turkish coffee at a small outdoor cafe.
I'm pleased that the buses are both well marked and air conditioned (and do indeed provide change) and I'm soon standing in one headed for Taksim. Under the brick aquaduct and across the Galata bridge over the Golden Horn we go, up a steep hill offering grand views of the expanse of water and the Eminönü and Unkapani districts of Istanbul.
I arrive at Taksim Square with 30 minutes to spare before meeting John, so I wonder down a street I later learn is Istikal. It's throbbing with people. I stare hungrily at the coffee shops, gaze at deserts stacked in glass cases, wonder into some of the numerous clothes and bookshops shops, somewhat overwhelmed after the dearth of eating and shopping opportunities available in Dushanbe.
At exactly 12 noon I spot John at the Cumhuriyet Anıtı (Republic Monument), which, a quick search of Wikipedia tells me, commemorates the formation of the Turkish Republic. I hug him, smiling hugely, and we agree to a snack at a small cafe with tables on the narrow sidewalk before heading to the room in a flat he's rented for a month.