Yes sir, it’s time for another ‘City Rumble’, and it’s a battle of the big ‘Ds’. Yes it’s Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, a city with a bit of modernism about it, a bit of the ancient, and a bit of Russification courtesy of the years spent as a member state of the Soviet Union. The opponent? Well, it’s Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. A chaotic, cathartic city which despite its obvious downsides holds a place in my heart as a special destination, with amazingly friendly people and a unique life to it.
As usual, we need to go back on what I am retrospectively calling the ‘first round’. It was a few years ago that Dhaka went head to head with the closest Indian city to it, that of Kolkata, and came out victorious. You can read about that here – City Rumble – Kolkata Versus Dhaka.
Dushanbe was a city I visited as recently as October 2019, and in the same trip I also took in its first round opponent in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan. As weird and different as Ashgabat is, the win went to Dushanbe for although it does have its share of oversized and over glammed buildings, it balanced them a lot better with parks and leafy avenues. See City Rumble – Ashgabat Versus Dushanbe for more details on that battle!
So let’s get down to it. Dhaka is seriously one of the world’s craziest cities. With more auto-rickshaws than you can poke a stick at. It was, when I first visited in 2002, incredibly polluted with fumes that would knock a marathon runner out. Shortly after they banned auto-rickshaws with two-stroke motors, which had an enormously positive effect on the Dhaka air. It was a revelation when I returned in 2004. Not only that, they banned plastic bags. In the Sub-continent honestly, the plastic bag problem was horrific. Old, used plastic bags were everywhere. You couldn’t escape them lining the side of the road, or dumps outside cities. That Dhaka was pretty much the first city in the whole greater region to ban the plastic bag (shopping bag), says a lot about Dhaka as a surprisingly progressive city.
Dhaka’s population is a tick under 9 million, but the population of greater Dhaka is more like 21 million. The population of Bangladesh in total is 161 million. It’s a country half the size of Victoria. It is the mostly densely population non-city state in the world. For some comparison, Australia has 25 million, and Victoria has 6-7 million. Bangladesh is around half the size of the state of Victoria.
But it is the people who make Dhaka. The way they live to together, the way that despite logic saying a place like Dhaka can’t work, can’t function – it does. And not only that, you find some of the kindest, warmest people you can find anywhere living in Dhaka. I guess they have a shared experience like few others have living in cities. Taking an auto-rickshaw around town isn’t a way from getting from A to B, it is an experience and a half! There’s Independence Park, the Museum of the War of Independence, and the Ashan Manzil Museum, this amazing mansion on the Buriganga River built in the 19th century and the first place with electricity in Dhaka. But you can’t beat one particular experience in Bangladesh, and that’s going to a cricket match where you are sure to make loads of new local friends and have so much fun! Dhaka’s attractions are not always typical or expected, but they are always rewarding.
Let’s turn now to Tajikistan, where the capital Dushanbe is home to around 770,000 people – so a much smaller place than Dhaka. Which doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t get hectic from time to time. It’s a city very much based on the main avenue, Rudaki Avenue, where trams and trolleybuses go up and down.
The Tajik capital seems to be experiencing something of a ‘renaissance’ these days, with new buildings going up here, there and everywhere. It’s parks are well curated and maintained, Rudaki Park being the main one there. The avenue is lined with trees providing beautiful shade, it seems in some parts to be a well-planned city, and in others one that wasn’t well-planned, but is incorporating the more chaotic areas into a new, grand plan.
The people of Dushanbe I found kind and keen to help, although English was not widely spoken Nevertheless I did meet some chaps working in tourism who gave me tea and helped me plan out what I would do in Tajikistan. I also remember the lady at the desk in my guesthouse who did not care for communication and made no effort, just typing the money I owed on a calculator and pointing to it when I had to pay (which naturally was on arrival!)
For me, the Navruz Palace is the building, the THING that stood out for me in Dushanbe. The National Museum is worth a look, another interesting modern building, and there are others worth your time, but Navruz leaves a mark because it is so opulent, over the top, in some ways fantastic, in others a little horrific. It’s used for international conferences and has ballrooms and conference halls, and it blows your mind in a very surreal sort of way. It is a building which is actually more incredible on the inside.
Dushanbe has some decent dining with a few different cuisines on offer, which is a little surprisingly perhaps but also welcome for the visitor. Dhaka is more limited, but if you like curries and the food of the region, well, you won’t be disappointed. Neither city is blessed with an abundance of quality places to sleep, but you’ll get what you paid for. Speaking of which, neither city is particularly expensive, although Dhaka is probably slightly cheaper.
Dushanbe has a climate of hot in the summer and very cold, filled with snow in the winter. In contrast, Dhaka is hot all year round and is exposed to the monsoon season, dryer and slightly cooler in the Northern Hemisphere winter. Stiflingly hot and humid by April/May.
So, to choose a winner, and I am will be honest, I felt before sitting down to write that I would go the other way here, but I am giving the win to Dhaka. Is it the more beautiful, more pleasant city? No. But it is a city of experiences, of life, of exceptional people living together and making it work. It’s not a city with a million sights to see, but that doesn’t matter – not every city has to be. You will not forget a visit to Dhaka, I promise you, and despite the difficulties you might face there, you will be the better for facing them!
Thanks for joining me again today! Take care and come back for another match up next week! May the Journey Never End!