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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