8 police stops, 5 car break-downs, 1 flat tire, full-blown resurgence of Giardia, pregnant lady throwing-up 17 times, 2 mixed tapes, 3000 m pass, 16 hours of driving on a dusty dirt road with 8 other people + baggage = the first and last time for me thanks.

I’m traveling to Bishkek from Dushanbe today, but I had to take some time describe the adventure of driving from Khorog to Dushanbe. Saturday morning I went to the small airport to find out if I could get on the plane. However, after waiting an hour, nobody was sure whether or not a plane was actually coming, and since the previous days plane had not flown, there were a large group of people with dibbs waiting. So I decided to take the ‘sure-fire’ car route. After shopping around at the ‘car market’ for a few minutes, Askarsho found me a seat among 8 others in a land-cruiser type thing. So I was packed into the middle of the last row. Great, now I can’t see a thing with my backpack between my legs on the floor in front of my and my oversized purse/computer bag on top of me. I was open to the idea of driving since it would allow me to see much of the Tajik countryside. But alas, all I could see were my travel companions (all extremely lovely people) and occasionally the glimpse I stole out a window would reveal a bunch of dust. At the beginning of the trip, before it came to dark and dusty, I saw children in the villages, standing on the side of the road extending bowls full of plums. An image that particularly struck me (of course, I don’t actually have an image, because it was impossible to take photos from my position), was of a little boy, no older than 5, extending his little arm with all his might as high as he could, showcasing a fish from the nearby river. The young man sitting next to me, stopped in his home village to pick up 30 kilos of apples. Now I also have 30 kg of apples beside me, behind me, on top of me, and of course I ate a bunch too. This poor pregnant woman started being sick almost straight away, and the first few times the car stopped to let her do her thing. But the third time, the car didn’t start again. So after popping the lid, fiddling around for 15 minutes and finally taping two pieces together, the engine revved and the driver told her, no more stopping.
Lunch was deemed important enough for stop, so on a tapchan in Vanj, I got to know my companions a bit better. Two of the women were on their way to Dushanbe for a 6 month trainer of trainer nurse course. The other woman was a doctor, working with an AIDS organization, the young man of course, selling apples, and an older gentleman who worked with UNICEF (those are the only ones I figured out).
Mostly because I’m lazy, I’m not going to recount the entire story in painful detail. In brief, there were a few more car break downs, plenty of police-stops (they always wanted to see my passport and search the suspicious foreigners bags). We also drove over a broken metal-plank bridge and the front tire fell through and popped. That was fixed in a relative jiffy, after which we stopped for dinner.
One of the highlights was passing over the Sagirdasht pass. Incredible flora (and any of my bio friends will all know how much I love plants…), there was a shrub that looked like a skeleton of a tree, the colour of a late evening shadow with dried flowers on the end. The top of the pass was breathtaking, despite the police check, rolling pasture sprinkled in snow, sharp peaks and lush-ish valleys below. Also interesting and jarring to the landscape are the remnants of soviet tanks.
Ah yes, not to forget. The 16 hour trip was of course made more pleasant by the 2 mixed tapes the driver had, which skipped everytime we went over a large bump.
Well by the time we rolled into Dushanbe at 1 am, my bags and my body and hair were absolutely covered in dust. My hair actually looked grey, and thank goodness I had my scarf to breath through when the dust was really bad.
In the end, I survived. But I’m sore, tired, and giardia is ___well… look up the symptoms.
Thank you Ninoska for staying up and saving my wretched body with a place to crash!

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BMWs, Jags, Hummer limos, Mercedes…these aren’t your regular white SUVs in shining armor.

The white NGO SUV is omnipresent in developing metropolis’ all over the world. But Dushanbe is something else.  Other than in Geneva and increasingly in Vancouver, I have rarely seen the plethora of high-end luxury vehicles that roll around the broad avenues of Dushanbe.

Friendly , greasy and beautiful–First impressions of Dushanbe

Finally in Tajikistan! Since my last post, I’ve spent some time visiting family in Austria, hiking and relaxing in the Gastein valley, presented my thesis at the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management conference in Vienna and spent a random day in Istanbul. On my way to Austria, my adventure already started with a missed flight–Note to all tired travelers: do not fall asleep at the gate!
My time in Austria made me realize how beautiful and versatile a country it is, and made me proud to be Austrian. I’m considering spending some time there after my fellowship in Tajikistan. The ISSRM conference was also an enriching and fun experience, and my presentation was very positively received. I’m nerd-ily already looking forward to delving back into the world of academia.
We had an 8 hour lay-over in Istanbul, so two of us went into Istanbul for the day. D, Allison and Rachel stayed at the airport because the Canadian visa cost $60, a lot more than the $20 visa for EU citizens and the free visa for Iranians. Supposedly the costly Canadian visa is because Canada recognizes the Armenian genocide…but that might just be a rumour! (Although we did a good yelling-at from the Visa officer in Turkish). Istanbul was awesome, took the train and tram into the city to visit the blue mosque and a bazaar.
Arriving in Dushanbe at 3 am, we waited in a VISA line for close to 2 hours and finally got to bed at 6 am. Driving through the city at dawn, I was struck by the cleanliness of the main street (many women were sweeping!), the imposing well-kept buildings and the extremely high presence of police on every street corner. The hotel we stayed in for the first two days was an experience in itself. The suite was decorated with over-imposing Russian furniture. The lazy-Susan turntable in the middle of our living room probably weighed 1 ton, we had up to 12 antique chairs to choose from and luscious, embroidered curtains.
Sitting on a patio with wireless on Rudaki Ave., it’s sometimes hard to remember that I’m in a developing country. The main drag here is hugely influenced by Soviet-style buildings, is extremely clean and the streets are relatively empty. From what I can tell so far, this isn’t exactly representative of the rest of Dushanbe. The mix of fashion here is also noteworthy. I would say that about 60 or 70 per cent of the women here wear a veil and the traditional long coulourful shapeless dress with matching pants. Interesting side note…only married women pluck their eyebrows, as a unibrow is an attribute associated with being a woman. The rest of the women are dressed anywhere from conservative business attire to mini skirts and tank tops (not the norm, but I’ve seen a few!) Most of the men are dressed in ‘Western’ fashion—the elders are easy to pick out through their beards and embroidered black caps.
Yesterday, July 11, we took a mini-bus to a children’s camp about one hour SE of Dushanbe. We figured it would be some kind of outdoors camp, but when we arrived, we were surprised to enter a large carpeted room full of children dressed in various traditional outfits, ready to give us a three hour long performance. July 11 is Imamat day, the celebration of the anniversary of the day the present, 49th Aga Khan, came to the throne of the Imam at. We were so lucky to have the opportunity to participate in the Ismaili celebrations. We were told poetic stories about his Highness’ greatness, such as when Asians were exiled from many African countries and his Highness the Aga Khan, in collaboration with Canada, provided refuge for many Ismaili’s in Canada. After, the many songs, dances and plays, the children were eager to show us some of the traditional artisan crafts they had made (such as Pamiri socks) and the food they had baked for us. We were quickly ushered to a Gazebo on a roaring river, where we were served greasy friend rice (everything I’ve had so far in Tajikistan has been saturated with grease) and for dessert, we had some delicious watermelon. It seems that Tajikistan is over-flowing with watermelon; Trucks full of watermelon, markets full of watermelon, watermelon floating in streams, tumbling on the streets, watermelon EVERYWHERE!
The camp itself was a large, dark, velvety-feel building, built during Soviet times. We were told that much of Tajikistan’s infrastructure was built during the Soviet rule. Our county-coordinator also said that the Soviet’s had done much for women and children, and that almost every village in Tajikistan has a hospital and a school, thanks to the Soviets.
In a few days, I’m flying to Khorog in a helicopter, which I’m pumped about. We’ll be flying over Afghanistan and weaving in and out of Pamiri mountain peaks. Armed with sea-bands, ginger chews and Bonamine, hopefully I can fight the motion sickness so that I can enjoy the flight. I will then at last begin my Tajik language lessons, which I desperately need. So far I’ve learned a few essential phrases and am slowly learning how to read Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve also been told to learn some Russian, as I supposedly look Russian, and might be able to pass as a local at the Bazaar.
Last interesting note: we ran into an expat working on drug-trafficking issues in Tajikistan (supposedly over 50% of Tajikistan’s economy is based on the opium trade coming from Afghanistan). The US government is obviously interested in stopping this drug flow, as it funds much of the Taliban’s armaments. The problem is, the incentive to grow opium is high, consequences for not growing opium are dire and alternatives are much less lucrative. The border is technically tightly controlled, but with border guards making $3 a month, they are vulnerable and susceptible to bribes. It seems the only solution would be to eliminate demand…an unrealistic option. Seems to be a fairly closed circle. Opium is arming the Taliban, the US is spending trillions on the war on terror, while at the same time acting as the world’s largest consumer of opium.
More from Khorog!

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