Seven-star service

They found a Tajik hotel where a lofty 'rating' only signaled its aspirations.

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My traveling companion Sergey nudged me as the aircraft began its slow descent from the Pamir Mountains to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.

"We'll be staying at the only seven-star hotel in Central Asia," he said, with almost a straight face.

I was doubtful. If there's a seven-star hotel anywhere in the world, I was pretty sure it wasn't in Tajikistan, a ruggedly beautiful but poor former Soviet republic, sandwiched between China and Afghanistan. In any case, our travel budget wouldn't cover such extravagance. I forgot Sergey's remark and returned to my struggle with Tajik Air in-flight catering. The tray contained an array of small and hard-to-open items including meat paste, a slice of brown bread, impregnably shrink-wrapped Russian cheese, a cookie, and at least six condiments.

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If I'd known about the $7 breakfast at the seven-star hotel, I'd have eaten it all.

The Poytaht (Tajik for capital) Hotel, a massive, concrete, Soviet-era building in Dushanbe's central square, does indeed have seven stars in the crown atop its roof. And so do many other establishments in this pleasant city with tree-lined boulevards, parks, and public buildings painted in shades of pink and blue.

In traditional Tajik culture, seven is a magic number. According to legend, paradise consists of seven beautiful orchards separated by seven mountains, each with a bright star at its summit. Tajikistan adopted a new national flag in 1992, ditching the hammer and sickle for the more ethereal crown with seven stars.

The country didn't need a Western-style national branding campaign to adopt the emblem. In short order, the seven stars popped up on public buildings, restaurants, stores, and karaoke bars. Dushanbe has no shortage of seven-star establishments.

The Poytaht once had star quality. In Communist times, when it was called the Hotel Dushanbe, it was the social and political center of the capital. Party bigwigs from Moscow stayed there while they checked on the affairs of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic or cooked the books on agricultural production quotas. They threw banquets in the ballroom and lavishly entertained local officials.

The Soviets built their hotels large. The Poytaht has at least 200 rooms (though no one seemed to know exactly how many). We saw only a handful of other guests. An occupancy rate of 10 percent (or less) would be disastrous for a commercial establishment. Not for the Poytaht; because it's government-owned, it does not have to pay its way.

For $50 a night, I got a suite, with a lock that had been jimmied a few times. No stars for the furnishings or plumbing, but enough room to sleep seven people, which is apparently what the locals do to stretch their budgets.

As in most Soviet-era hotels, the most helpful staff members are the dezhurnayas, the floor ladies, who keep the room keys, rustle up late-night cups of tea, and retrieve linens and toilet supplies from secret hiding places. The rest of the staff seemed to spend their time dozing in the cavernous, dimly lit lobby, or hanging out in the karaoke bar waiting for customers.

We had turned down the Poytaht's offer of full board with dinner, opting only for the rooms and a $7 breakfast. The only moving bodies in the breakfast room the first morning were a few hungry flies. Sergey woke up the waiter, who was fast asleep despite the pounding sound of Tajik techno-pop from the DVD player.

He came over to our table. Could he buy us SIM cards for our cellphones? The latest Harry Potter movie with Chinese subtitles? Cheap plane tickets to Novosibirsk?

"How about some food?" Sergey asked. The waiter looked disappointed, but ambled off to the kitchen. After some shouting, he reappeared with cold, slightly stale lipioshki (flat bread), green tea, jam, and four small slices of cheese. Sergey complained and the waiter returned to the kitchen. After more shouting, he showed up with two-egg omelets.

"Bon app├ętit," said Sergey. "Remember that if this was really a seven-star hotel, we'd be paying a lot more than $7 for breakfast." I was already nostalgic for Tajik Air in-flight catering.

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