One who wants to get to know Tajikistan is well served to take a Tajik Air flight between Dushanbe and Khujand. It's a short flight, about 45 minutes in reasonable weather, a scenic hop over high mountains of stunning beauty, almost close enough below (!) to touch, and bubbling with air pockets providing the passenger with the opportunity to gain some unexpected thrills and lose the remains of lunch. The small jet - a YAK-40 - holds somewhere around 50 people, although it was designed for far fewer and seats have been added where convenient things like emergency aisles used to be. The seats themselves were clearly designed to be sat upon by 84-year-old Japanese grandmothers or other people the approximate width of vaulting poles, and not by the Tajiks, who are not to be confused with small people. Carryon regulations, of course, are very strict, given the tight space: I have yet to see anyone bring aboard a backhoe or a head of cattle, for example. Short of that, though, one gets the impression that one has wandered into the midst of some massive smuggling ring, as passengers stuff themselves in along with numerous shopping bags full of indiscernable goods; suitcases of wildly varying age and condition and size; boxes; crates; gigantic handbags and briefcases large enough to house the entire home office of, say, Microsoft. Finding an aisle seat (and depriving oneself of the ability to meditate on the beauty of the mountains and thereby to ignore the searing pain of one's seatmate's elbow grinding into one's ribs) permits the passenger a closer inspection of the passing baggage as it is slammed, bumped, grazed, shoved and ground into one's face and other upper regions. Taking the window seat, of course, allows one truly to enjoy the design of this marvellous aeronautical achievement, whose creators obviously realized that window-seat passengers would be overjoyed to have the curvature of the floor require that passenger to insert said passenger's knee into his or her nostril for the entire flight.
Appropriately, one enters the YAK-40 through what would be, were it a living creature, its anus, up a rough ramp wide enough only for one person at a time, which is to the good, as upon entering the plane one finds oneself squeezed between an attendant (who has nothing else to do but stand in the way) and the overflowing stowed luggage racks in an aisle no wider than a human foot. One looks in desperation for the opportunity to sit down and perhaps take another breath and there, up ahead, it is, an empty seat to sqeeze into, just past the potted plant and just below the birdcage shoved into the overhead compartment and just behind the screaming baby, there it is, a seat, in the aisle. And, of course, directly next to the evilly-grinning winner of the Largest Man In Tajikistan contest.
However, civility is preserved. As one attempts to climb up into the nether regions of the plane, one is politely informed by the flight attendant that women and children must board first. Pity them: they spend more time in the plane.