Tajikistan’s eccentric Khoja Obi Garm Spa
It’s March in Tajikistan and winter is coming to an end in the Fan Mountains. Already there are snowmelt rapids along the Varzob River as we follow the adjacent road towards the source - those stone guardians to the northern approaches of the capital Dushanbe and the lowlands of the mighty Amu Darya – the River Oxus of antiquity.
Alexander the Great crossed these mountains on his way to conquer ancient Sogdia, where at present day Khujand he established Alexandria Ultima, or ‘Alexandria the Furthest’, at the ends of the known Greek World. Babur crossed the other way after the loss of his birthright, the mighty city of Samarkand, before abandoning it (although not without great effort) for an even greater prize: India. But ancient history can wait. After all it has waited all this time for you. Today we have a rendezvous with another giant of the past: the Soviet sanatorium at Khoja Obi Garm.
To get there we turn off the main valley following a small tributary which snakes backwards and forwards, all the while climbing past stunning geology and beyond the snow line. The pace is slow as the driver carefully navigates this alpine course. Never fear! Things have improved greatly since the days of Alexander and Babur:
In the narrows, precipitous roads, and treacherous defiles many horses and camels were lost. After stopping to camp three or four times we reached the Sary Tag defile. A defile, and what a defile! Never had such a high and narrow defile been seen. Never had such narrow and precipitous roads been met with. With much difficulty and hardship we got through the dangerous narrows and cliffs, passing through the mortal danger of the high and narrow defiles, and came to the Fan region. (Translation by W.M. Thackston)
Today there are paved roads, a modern luxury. So sit back and imagine yourself on an interwar expedition – the stuff of Robert Byron or Roy Chapman Andrews – or on assignment during the the Cold War. After all, what awaits you is of Soviet design, dating to between 1935-1983, no one is quite sure when!
We round one final corner and we’re met with our first views of the Khoja Obi Garm. It’s monstrosity does not disappoint. A massive terraced fortress of concrete is perched at the end of the valley amid patches of snow at the elevation of 2000 meters. Above it loom even higher eternally snowcapped peaks, which would make the complex seem minute in comparison if you were not already standing in the shadow of a colossus.
Imagine the secret mountain lair of Bond villain or the kind of place where humans might make their last stand in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Stop to take photos in its approaches because soon you find yourself driving between the concrete and the mountain to the hidden main entrance: ‘Welcome to my underground lair’ (or seemingly underground lair).
We enter into a long corridor, lined with doors affixed with the photos of doctors. It seems more like a hospital than hotel reception, although either way the fish tank and a perpetually running television seem out of place. Nevertheless, that’s where you pick up your keys and our rooms are ready. We are up on the 5th floor and are careful not to pack too many into the old elevator. It creaks on its way upward.
The rooms are old and basic with some offer a view looking back at the mountain, whilst others give a great view of the valley in front. It’s warm almost to warm, heated by a maze of pipe fed by thermal springs inside the mountain. The bed is hard (good for the back). In the bathroom there is a deep groan like some Minotaur as I turn the tap to wash my hands and the water escapes from the labyrinth.
It’s up to the top floor, the apex of the entire complex, for a banquet in a pink and cream colored room. The meal is pleasant: a tasty borsch for starters, a kebab style main and fruit for dessert. There is a doctor on hand, at least he looks like a doctor in his white coat, to inform us that the lunch is suited to our dietary needs. I am a little suspicious especially as the big bowl chocolates, toffees and boiled sweets accompany our meal and is readily topped up. Oh well, what is good for the soul is good for the body, right?
After lunch it is time to explore. We jump back in the elevator to take us into the bowels of the Soviet gargantuan. This is where the magic occurs in dozens of rooms devoted to a particular method of curing what ails you, although some look more like a laboratory or a dungeon. There are all manner of sinister looking devices: beds with harnesses, wires and tubing joined to old analog control panel, hoses, heating units, paraffin wax. A brochure tells us about the leaches, but we are told they are out of season. Here is a partial list of treatments provided: treatment by medical equipment and electricity, water rubbing, acupuncture, electrical hot chair, services of dentists, hot natural and mineral and treatment radon water, hot treatment radon water sprinkling method between legs.
I opt out of the radon water treatment for today feeling that a nice traditional massage will suffice. The group waits outside I go first. The masseuse is huge. If the spa is a Bond villain’s lair then I have just meet one of the head henchmen. He smiles a few gold teeth which glisten in the light. The small room is hot, pretty sparsely decorated with pictures of bones and human skeletons. A small white bed with a red leather pillow, I smile and make a joke ‘You expect me to talk?’ The tour group behind me giggles the masseuse looks unimpressed and asks me curtly to take of cloths and lie down. The massage is tough, nearing the point of pain occasionally, and I let out a whimper now and then. By the end I am convinced that this tough man knows his stuff. I walk out of the room to find the tour group gone, off to find their own adventures.
Later that evening we meet for dinner, laughing and joking about our spa experience. We decided more exploration is needed and we are not disappointed traveling through cold corridors, empty tea rooms and abandoned entrance areas. It is an exciting evening. We venture down into the lower reaches eventually coming across a surreal evening disco. With lights and blaring Tajik pop music we hear it before arriving using our torches to light the way. We spend the rest our evening drinking local beer and eating snacks, with the bravest in the group dancing on the stage along with the few locals checked into the Khoja Obi Garm Spa.
In the morning when we leave there are more locals queuing for their treatments as we bid farewell to this timeless retreat in the mountains of Tajikistan.
For more photos and information about Khoja Obi Garm, see the spa's website here.
Maryam Omidi features the spa in the much-acclaimed book Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums (FUEL Publishing, 2017). Check it out here!