Tajikistan 2010: Buzkasky and Mountains

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We arrived in Dushanbe at 5am after an uncomfortable overnight flight from Istanbul.  Herded into an ageing bus, passengers-in-the-know dashed towards a table and started filling out a form.  By the time I figured out what they were doing, all the entry forms were gone.  Mogadishu’s Catch 22 flashed before me.  Passengers could only get the entry form after passport control, but they needed the form to get there.  In other words, some quid-pro-quo was needed.  Dushanbe was not that bad.  An immigration officer handed me a form.  The process took a long time, however.  Facilitators, jumping the line for their clients, distracted officers who looked menacing in Russian military style uniforms topped with a large halo hat with a small peak.My impatience was misplaced because baggage took even longer to arrive.  Naturally, bags tagged as “priority” came out last.  Outside the rudimentary terminal, the driver found us and dragged our bags over crumbled tarmac in a drizzle.  Again, I expected the worst, but I was dead wrong.  As soon as we got on to a main road, I saw that it was broad, well maintained and lined with impressive buildings.  We reached the hotel in about 20 minutes.  The room was big, clean and furnished with new, but basic furniture.  All in all, my anxiety about spending 11 days in Tajikistan, considered one of the poorest countries in the world, was quelled.The country is quite large, about the size of Illinois.  It is bordered by China to the east, Kyrgyzstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and Afghanistan to the south and also close Pakistan.  Except for China, not the most politically stable countries and region in the world.  Tajikistan is in dispute with Uzbekistan over water rights and energy supply and facilitates heroin traffic from Afghanistan, but is not yet hospitable to the Taliban.  To reinforce its instability, the ground also shakes often.  Tectonic plate shifts push the Pamir and Alay range of mountains higher.  Not that they need a lift as they are among the highest and longest mountain range in the world.  Indeed, they are so massive that they cover about 93 percent of Tajikistan.  Lots of snow, canyons and gorges are ideal for hundreds of streams that flow into larger river valleys such as Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Most of the population lives along these valleys and cultivates the land, which is considered so precious that the state owns it all under the constitution.

Tajiks are descended from Iranians mixed with Uzbeks, Mongols, Tartars and Turkic peoples.  The native language is mostly Pharsi, but called Tajik-Pharsi.  Most people in Dushanbe speak Russian, however.  Tajiks have been ruled by just about everyone in the region starting with Darius I, Alexander and even the Kushans whose capital was all the way south in Mathura, India.  The country looks to the Samanids (875-999 AD) as its founding dynasty, naming its currency the Somoni after it.  Most recently, Tajikistan was part of the USSR, between 1929 until independence in 1991.  A civil war followed for six years, ending in a shaky quasi democracy dominated by Imomali Rakhmonov who has won all the presidential elections since the peace accords were signed with a coalition of largely Islamic groups.
Traditional Clothes
Tajikistan’s GDP per capita is about $500, making it among the poorest countries in the world.  After a period of stable high economic growth, it began to feel ripples from the American financial crisis in 2009.  You’d think this far-away isolated country would be immune from the greed and folly of Wall Street bankers, but you would be wrong.  Although the impact is mostly indirect, it is swirling into a perfect storm for the country.

About a million Tajiks, or about half the country’s workforce, labor as “gastarbeiters” seasonally, mostly in construction in Russia to replace locals who are too drunk to work.  These emigrants send back $2.5 billion per year in remittances, amounting to 50 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, to feed their families who are toiling in the fields at home.  The world-wide recession has sent oil and other commodity prices plummeting and with them the Russian economy, especially its construction sector.  The IMF estimates that remittances will fall by at least 30 percent and three to four hundred thousand workers may hang around in Tajikistan instead of making their annual trek north, with a devastating impact on poor families and creating the possibility of social unrest.  Lower commodity prices have also hit Tajikistan’s two main exports, halving the foreign exchange earnings from aluminum and cotton and putting pressure on its currency.  Moreover, lower trade flows have reduced trade taxes, leaving a yawning budget gap.  Finally, slowing economic activity, lower earnings from cotton and a potential devaluation could send the country’s tiny banking system reeling.

Agriculture provides the most employment followed by services and industry.  Most of the Soviet era industries have folded except for aluminum and energy.  Indeed, with many rivers, hydro-power is potentially the big industry of the future.  Goods are generally available and the small “supermarkets” are well stocked.  Used cars of all major brands come into the country.  By chance I met a dealer who was an Afghani Canadian.  He purchased cars in Dubai, shipped them to Shanghai, where they were put on a train that came to Dushanbe through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan.  His recent shipment of 37 vehicles remained unsold because of the downturn.  Global trade works, but is also subject to economic vicissitudes.
Somini Monument
Dushanbe, named after a Monday Market, is situated in the Hisor valley, surrounded by snow capped Pamir mountains.  It is picturesque and a remarkably well-planned city with a population of a million people.  Walking on Avenue Rudaki, the main street, watching all the Mercedes, BMW and Lexuses pass by in orderly traffic, you wouldn’t for a moment believe it is a poor country.  Dushanbe would place comfortably among the capitals of East European cities.  Avenue Rudaki accommodates three lanes of cars in each direction and has clean wide pedestrian walkways to allow people easy access to shops, cafes and offices.  Many stately buildings are situated on the avenue including the Opera House and the President’s office.  At one point it is even wider to accommodate the Somini monument, a huge Soviet style statue of the country’s Samanid founder.  Behind the monument is a large park with a statue of Rudaki, a renowned poet.  Further back and behind a fence is the new Presidential residence known as the TajikMahal.  It’s a huge building with long pillars reminiscent of the White House and a gold dome reminiscent of the Taj Mahal.  It apparently cost about $200 million.
Tajik Mahal
Other main arteries of the city also had clean wide paved roads.  Soviet era concrete apartment blocks four to 10 stories high have seen better days.  Some of the outer concrete has crumbled off, the stairways have lost uprights in the railings along the stairwells and the elevators are rickety.  The one apartment I went into had small rooms and a tiny kitchen with aged appliances.  The walls were a gloomy dull white and floors made of grey stone.  Not a warm inviting home.  The street level of many of these apartments had shops and restaurants.  Dull, uniform, but convenient.  There is a fair amount of new construction strewn about all over the city.  The houses are actually huge villas with three of four stories.  They compete with each other in the number of turrets, angles, balconies and other odd shapes.  Near the US embassy there was a walled-off development of villas, the only large grouping that I noticed.  They were too huge to be financed by remittances and too many to belong to the President’s entourage.  Most people I questioned guessed that the money came from the drug trade.

Most Tajiks look like Iranians, medium height, lean with light skin.  Men wear western clothes and many sport a mustache.  Some wear a long coat, all the way down to the ankles, and an Islamic skull-cap and a long beard.  About a third of women wear traditional dress, which is either the familiar South Asian “salwar-kameez” (a tight fitting long shirt over pyjamas) or a “kurta-pyjama” (loose long shirt over pyjamas).  Most dresses were made with modern prints, but traditional embroidered clothes could be seen occasionally.  Younger women wore modern jeans and shirts and professional women dressed like their western counterparts.  Tajikistan does not restrict women’s education or employment, but except in aid agency offices, most professional we met were men.

Tajik food is similar to North Indian-Pakistani.  Nan, plov (pullow) and kebabs are the staples, although lightly spiced.  Alcohol is readily available, even locally made wine.  Dushanbe has many restaurants and cafes from all over the world.  Most attractive was a large two-level café designed in an Islamic style with high ceilings painted with Islamic patterns.  The upper level was open, allowing the air to flow freely.  It felt like a picnic, but with shelter from rain.  Even in cool spring weather, it felt good to have coffee or eat a meal there.  Our hotel had one of the better-known Tajik restaurants.  Dinner included a show, many dances and some singing.  Tajik dances look like traditional South Asian modified with ballet moves.   We also sampled the cuisines of Ukraine, the Middle East and South Asia.

Moving about Dushanbe in a car was quite easy.  Traffic flow was smooth and orderly. Drivers follow traffic rules.  Policemen along the main streets stop cars at random, more to extract a tithe than for any infraction.  One came up to me as I was taking pictures of the Somini Monument and asked for money, but I pretended not to understand.  Corruption is apparently rife, going all the way to the top where the diversion of funds is more than a tithe.  It flows from the main export items, through a family owned bank, into monumental projects such as the Tajikmahal and other uses.
Polo 1
In the eleven days I spent in Dushanbe, I met maybe three beggars.  Despite the low per capita income, there are few signs of poverty.  People look well-fed, healthy and clothed.  In our fairly extensive wandering through the city, I did not notice any slums.  Statistics do not accurately describe the country’s condition.  Tajikistan has been the recipient of aid since it became a Soviet Republic.  Every donor imaginable is active in the country, providing villa owners with a handsome rental income.  The multilaterals are still plying the Washington consensus even though it has recently been shot through with holes.  All the European bilaterals line up behind the multilaterals.  Islamic donors are also active, including the Ismailies.  The Chinese are building infrastructure in a big way, adding to the country’s debt considerably.  The Russians are funding a hydroelectric project, a university and still retain some influence over policy.
Polo 2
On Sunday, we got to do some tourism.  After breakfast we left Dushanbe and drove past Hisor about 20 miles away, up a hill and stopped where many cars were parked.  We walked towards an open field where a primitive form of polo, called something like “Buzkashy” was in progress.  Maybe a hundred or more horsemen were struggling with each other to catch a dead sheep and drag it to a circle in the center.  When one person won and was awarded the sheep, money and possibly a car, another dead animal was brought in.  There appeared to be no other rules whatsoever, a total free for all.

The direction of the flow of horses was unpredictable as they followed whoever had the animal.  I moved in closer to the field with some young spectators to get close-up photos and had to bolt when the horde came my way.  It was a bit dangerous, but fun.  Many of the older men were dressed in traditional clothes.  Several gave me permission to take their pictures.  We watched the match for a couple of hours and decided to leave.  On the other side of the field, and up a small hill, were hundreds of spectators.  It was clearly the way to spend a Sunday morning in Spring.
Polo 3

The drive through rural areas was interesting.  Village homes are mostly made of brick with a corrugated metal roof supported by wood joints.  They looked solid and well kept for the most part.  The roads were paved, except where the rain had washed away the pavement.  There the potholes, full of muddy water, were formidable–our SUV served its purpose.  The green fields looked lush and fertile and also well kept.  Villages looked prosperous with lots of cars and shops, but had open sewers running by the road.  All in all, quite impressive, and, like Dushanbe, the villages suggest a higher per capita income than the statistics show.

MarriageAfter the polo match, we drove further into the country to see a fort, which wasn’t up to much.  At the entrance, however, two marriages were being celebrated.  We got to hear music, see some dancing and took some pictures.  By Indian standards, the wedding parties were minute, maybe twenty strong.  The brides wore white western gowns and kept their heads bowed throughout, apparently for days according to our driver.

Two of us took leave from our party and drove up to the mountains, another 1000 meters up from Dushanbe, which sits at an elevation of 900 meters.  It took about an hour to get to the snow line.  The snow capped Pamir range was imposing and magnificent.  Again, the village where we stopped looked good and had a huge spa that looked more like a factory or water bottling plant.  En route, in a small town with many villas, we saw the President’s impressive Dhacha built over the river that was gushing with melted snow.
Tajikistan does not produce much handicrafts.  Some semi-precious stones are made into jewelry, plates, vases and suchlike.  They embroider cushion covers, scarves, etc, but the work is not sophisticated.  They produce plenty of art, Islamic, descriptive and abstract. We checked out every gallery in town.  Near the old Presidential Residence, now the President’s Office, two galleries were particularly well-stocked with good paintings.  One of them had been closed on an earlier visit.  This time, the artist-owner opened the door and let us see his work.  Most of them were more sophisticated than other art we had seen, but being a Master Artist from the Soviet period, his prices were high, beyond my reach anyway.  At the other gallery, I quickly decided to buy two paintings, haggled over the price a little, but came to an agreement.  A day before leaving I bought another painting that was hanging in the World Bank office, apparently on show by the father of one the employees.

Several people we met thought that Tajikistan had potential for tourism.  It is remote and entry and exit is not made easy by infrequent flights from only a few cities and difficult passport, baggage and customs arrangements.  Once in Dushanbe, things get easier.  It has hotels, but they would merit two or three stars at most.  A five star ultra-modern Hyatt opened recently, but it’s extremely expensive.  Getting around Dushanbe is fine if you rent a car and can communicate with the driver.  My colleague spoke Russian with him.  Otherwise, not many people speak Russian.  In a pinch, I tried Hindustani and managed to get understood most of the time.  Traveling to remote areas for hikes, the big attraction, might be difficult as facilities have not been established.  Most trekkers come into Tajikistan from Uzbekistan.

The night before I was scheduled to leave Delhi for Dushanbe, I was afflicted with the worst imaginable case of “Delhi Belly”.  In the morning I raced to nearby clinic where the doctor hooked me to an IV that dripped antibiotics and other stuff into my veins.  As the morning session did not work, I returned for an afternoon session, which also did not work.  I guess they saw an NRI with dollars that they needed.  By the evening, I delayed my departure for a day, hoping to improve.  I called around and was given all kinds of allopathic and homeopathic medicines known to mankind.  None of them worked.  Nevertheless, I foolishly took two overnight flights through Istanbul to Dushanbe.  As I couldn’t hold any food, I felt weak for the first few days.  Indeed, keeping work appointments with easy access to a clean toilet was a logistical nightmare.  Worse, paying attention to my interlocutors while my stomach was rumbling endlessly, proved an insurmountable challenge.  Luckily, my colleague was of sound mind and body.

After two awful days in Dushanbe I gave up and asked to see doctor.  My colleague interpreted for me.  We found the recommended clinic, which was clean and seemed well-managed.  The doctor, a man in his forties, prodded and poked and asked all the right questions.  At the end of he examination, he wrote down a bunch of medications that we purchased from an adjoining pharmacy.  They turned out to be herbal, the only medications I had not yet tried.  I strongly suspected the doctor was another quack, especially after we discovered that we were at the wrong clinic and saw the wrong doctor!  Anyway, his medicines worked within a day, although my appetite did not return for several more.  I left Dushanbe about 6 days after the treatment, feeling a lot better and looking forward to my two days of R&R in Munich in a hotel with a comfortable bed.  I also looked forward to eating a Wurst mit Kartoffel Salat und Saurkraut in the worst way (I’ve been dying to write that), the staple diet of my youthful visits to Germany.  I also looked forward to good Munich beer and Pfalz wine.  Well, I tasted all of that.  The wurst combination did not disappoint.  It was as good as I remembered it, but it was the mustard garnish and the potato salad rather than the sausage that tasted best.


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